I’ve Been to Hellnar and Back

A year ago I was in Iceland with a torn-but-healing (but still painful) Achilles tendon, the side-effect of taking the sinister and evil antibiotic, Cipro. The house where my friend and I were staying was nice, but, for me, problematic. It was in the town of Hellnar on the Snæfellsnes peninsula at the foot of the Snæfellsnesjokul, or Snæfellsnes glacier.

The only beds were up these sadistic and space-saving “Norwegian” stairs. Because of my tendon, I could not climb them.


Stairs from Hell

I slept on a makeshift bed I assembled from the lounge end of a sectional sofa and an easy chair.






The plan had been to stay in a comfy house in this national park and ride Icelandic horses and hike.

I pause for a moment of grim laughter.

I discovered I could not mount and dismount the horses and this was required if I were to ride them. I thought I’d just get on in the stable or paddock, ride around and get off when we returned. No. There was a moment when I was in the barn, standing more or less against the back wall, supposedly finding a helmet that fit, when the guide said, “We will be getting on and off the horses several times.” I looked across the crowd of Icelandic horses between me and the exit, wondering if they were as indifferent to the random movements of human beings as I had read. They were.

My friend had a nice ride. I think it was the high point of her journey.

Meanwhile, back at the house, I sat at the kitchen table, watched the sea birds and the wind, and worked on my novel.

My upbringing stood me in good stead in Hellnar. When I was a kid, if I complained, my mom usually answered me with, “You’re going to like it whether you like it or not.” 

All the while we were there, the weather was abysmal — four? Five? days of rain and sleet. The wind blew so hard that the rain “fell” at a 90 degree angle. In this midst of the gray and bleak — which I kind of liked, seeing it as an “authentic Icelandic experience,” I was inspired in a most Herzogian way and decided to make a documentary film. It’s only a minute and a half, but believe me, it seems a LOT longer…


I never saw this volcano or the glacier that covers it except from the airport in Rekjavik as we were leaving. Far, far away, glowing gold and white in the reflected sunlight, the glacier and its mountain laughed at us as we got on the plane to go home.



Lamont Tells Dude about Iceland’s Elysian Fields


“What, Lamont?”


“Ah. Now what?”

“Do you remember? No, you weren’t there. Strange times. Strange place, but I loved it. It had its downside, though. Not exactly ‘down’ side, come to think of it. More wool, though the ducks and geese were everywhere. Danger of wool gathering.”

“What are you talking about?”


“Oh god. How do you know it was Iceland and not some other remote tundraesque locale on the planet?”



“Finally had enough of the routine — always the same. Get thrown in the pen with a bunch of ewes in the fall, pulled out after I’ve sewn my seed and set on my own, grabbed in the spring, all my wool sheared off — you think it never snowed after that? You think it was never cold after that? Fuck no. It WAS cold and it DID snow and freezing rain could come blasting at my poor shorn self any time. Who knew? They SHOULD have known. It happened all the time, but NO. Then I got it. It was my wool they were after. And my sperm.”

“Could be a lot worse, Lamont. All the ewes you could, uh, service? And all you had to do was let them take your wool? I’m having a hard time seeing the dark side. It’s not like they were turning you into mutton.”

“It would come. It always came. I saw it hundreds of times. So, I left.”

“You LEFT?”

“Yep. Walked away one fall while they were busy assembling all the ewes. It was easy. They were distracted and we all pretty much look the same. The gate was open. I left. I just started walking. I’m not even sure they noticed I was gone.”

“Wow. So you were a maverick sheep in Iceland?”

“I had a couple of buddies. Sometimes we’d meet up, walk together for a while. It was good. It disguised us as a herd, not that anyone ever looked for us. We still got to service ewes, if we found one and she was willing — happened a lot. Long dark winters in Iceland. BUT all that wool WAS heavy, especially after a good rain, still, we were never cold again. And we became legends.”

“Yeah, a legend in your own mind. I think you’re telling me a yarn, Lamont.”

“Suit yourself, Dude.”


Lamont and Dude are characters I came up with a couple of years ago. They have the uncanny ability to remember many of their previous incarnations which gives them a unique perspective on life, the universe and everything.



Voyage to Hellnar

One of the greatest benefits to me of my travel this past spring was two days of horrible weather in Hellnar, Iceland, combined with seldom being able to get my iPad to go online.

I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I think it’s a bad idea to identify that, and worse to claim it, particularly as writing is (even for people who sell books) pretty much an elective activity, meaning people who don’t write for a living don’t have to write AT ALL and people who do, can go write something else if they find they’re stuck. Nonetheless, I’ve been stuck on the novel I started last year and didn’t know where to go. I didn’t “feel” the characters or like them very much. I wasn’t thrilled about the inevitable trajectory of their story and I couldn’t figure out who the protagonist is/was. I plugged along, but with no inspiration or interest. The only chapter I felt rang true at all was the last chapter, the chapter where their voyage to America… I’m not telling.

Yeah. I think it’s good to know where you’re going.

I had put my novel on my iPad thinking I might find inspiration during the week I spent in Switzerland. I was staying in the valley where the characters in my novels — all except Martin of Gfenn — lived. But, no…

I know some facts about the characters. They are based on my ancestors — loosely because no one really knows anything about them except the bare facts of their lives — name, birthplace, death. That’s really a lot to have already set out for you.

So, in Hellnar, while my friend realized her dream (it was mine, too, but there was no way it was going to happen then or there) of riding Icelandic Horses, I sat at a table beside one of the pretty windows in the pretty cottage on the dramatic peninsula with the fabulous (hidden by fog; see photo above) glacier covered volcanic cone, the very volcano Jules Verne had chosen as the entry point in his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. 

Looking out on the bleak landscape, at the wet and wind-blown clothespins and the futile clothesline, I thought of the widescreen TV up the sadistic stairs/ladder that I could not climb, and I found the whole situation hilariously funny. At that point I opened the file on my iPad and wrote.

There was nothing else to do. 


The thing about writing — art? is that sometimes it’s like a mad infatuation; sometimes it’s slogging through a boring Sunday with someone who (for the moment) sets your teeth on edge; sometimes you need couple’s counseling. I have thought a lot about being a writer and how that’s gone for me. If success means being commercially published and putting out one bestseller after another, I’m no success. If success means doing your best at what you do and not giving up and giving a few people pleasure when they read your novels, I’m a star. 🙂  I started very young — I couldn’t even read when I started writing stories. I scribbled and my dad read. I don’t know why I did that; I think because they read to me a lot and I enjoyed it, I got the idea early that writing a story was a very exciting thing to do.

I wrote a lot of things — poetry, editorials, articles, memoirs — some of it got published and some of it won prizes and one bit got me kicked out of school. In my late 20s, I spent happy snowy Saturdays working on a “novel” which now people would call “creative non-fiction.” I still plug away at that thing. I still love it. Then for a while I essentially transcribed my life; I wrote conversations I had had with people and cut out everything around them to bring the story out of the conversation, like a line drawing in which some of the lines are just implied. I recently found the notebook containing all those “stories” and there are 200 pages in there. I wrote my thoughts, my questions; I kept journals.

At one point in my life — in my 20s — my mom said, “You’re a good writer, but you don’t have a story yet.” It took a long time for me to find “my” story.

To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them. Rilke

I’m happy that now this story is coming along. It’s become fun to write.


Quiet Morning in Monte Vista, Colorado

Back home again and the lilacs are in full force. ❤  Like most trips, this one was long and strange. The flight was normal for a transatlantic flight; the big difference was that it was half as long as most I have experienced, but none the less grueling. Still, I think of the people about whom I’m writing with their three+ month voyages, death, disease and disaster and I think I don’t have any room to complain.

The dogs are fine. Mindy stayed with Lois’ husband and their three dogs. Dusty and Bear stayed in a nice kennel. Bear was definitely relieved when I picked her up from the kennel and Dusty was ecstatic and told me all his stories from the two weeks. Bear and Dusty are tired still this morning, but I know that by tomorrow they — and I — will be “normal” (for us!) again.

Summer arrived in the San Luis Valley while I was gone — not my favorite season since I hate yard work (I do like gardening) and I vastly prefer cold weather, but we’ll get used to it and be sorry to see it leave when fall comes.

Humans are strange that way.

Iceland was very good for me as a writer and artist. The weather was abysmal while we were in the Snaefellsjokul National Park — a park that circles a huge, sleeping volcano covered with a glacier. Because of the storm that settled on the peninsula while we were there, we didn’t see any of this until we were in the air flying away from Iceland on the one clear day we had during our adventure. It was magnificent. I loved both countries I visited and was sorry to leave both of them, Switzerland because it feels like home to me and Iceland because it remains a provocative mystery, even more tantalizing because of what I did see.


I love Icelandic sagas, so, for me, the fact that Icelanders seem to love them too and will talk about them was great. While they were digging a foundation for a building in downtown Reykjavik some years ago, they happened on the ruins of a Viking turf long house and so, instead of building THAT building, they built the most amazing museum to house the ruins. There I heard a docent — a young woman — telling another tourist about a funny saga and I wanted to know more. When, later, I asked her, she was so happy to talk about it and she and her assistant found a paper about this saga and printed it out for me. I cannot imagine such a conversation or experience here, but, then, I know that Americans generally don’t go around reading Icelandic sagas for fun. I find this strange because they are way more interesting that Game of Thrones.

Everywhere we went, in fact, the sagas were part of the landscape and I think it’s beautiful that 1) the sagas were written down, 2) they are still valued and loved. They are truly the story of Iceland’s settlement and make, for Iceland, a historical record that does not hide or gloss over or sugarcoat or pervert anything.


Almost Over… 

Four days of fog, heavy wind, cold rain and what happens to people on what was to have been their dream vacation of riding horses, hiking, driving through splendid vistas?

Add to this the lack of a proper bed, aching, brutalized joints and a ridiculous load of laundry and you have, “I wonder what the suicide rate is in Iceland.”

the lounge section of a sofa made long enough by the addition of sofa pillows and an arm chair — all the real beds were up stairs from hell that could only climg on all fours.

stairs from hell

Lois hit the wall yesterday; I hit it the day before when I couldn’t ride horses and had to go “home” in the sodden grey day. I had resources, but I still felt lousy because my body isn’t able to do everything I wish it could any more.

And it can’t be over soon enough.

Today the sky lifted some and as we drove from Hellnar to Rekjavik blue skies emerged, the wind died down some and it was altogether more pleasant. We went to Thingvellier — the site of Iceland’s government from Viking days. I learned of it from reading Njal’s Saga and it has fascinated me for more than fifteen years. It is in the geographical center of Iceland — which the Vikings knew — and it is, coincidentally an enormous rift along a fault line where the North American and European continents are pulling away from each other.


The Thingveller photo by Lois Maxwell

Travel is a great teacher, both of new lessons and reminders of those we have forgotten.


In Switzerland, when someone asked where we were going next, and answered, “Iceland,” the response, universally, was;


Now, in Iceland, all I can do is laugh at that.

We arrived at the airport in Rekjavik where we were to pick up a car we were renting from the same person whose vacation home we’re now staying in. The car is an older Grand Vitara with the clutch from hell. The vacation home — which is nice enough, and located on the dramatic and wild Snaefellsjokull Peninsula, has no bed down stairs, and horrific stairs to the top floor, so I am sleeping on a make-shift bed assembled from the lounge part of a sofa, sofa pillows and a chair… The weather is abysmal and makes sense of every bleak Icelandic film I have ever seen. The wifi doesn’t work except on my friend’s lap top which I am enjoying the use of now.

The landscape is beyond beautiful, exceedingly dramatic, and I like it very much. Icelandic horses are all around, including on the menu. This makes sense to me as there are at least as many horses per square mile here as there are cattle in the San Luis Valley — but I would find it difficult to knowingly eat horsemeat. The small Icelandic sheep wander everywhere. It’s lambing season and the tiny ones follow their mothers into the road.

Lois went to ride Icelandic horses yesterday. I went, too, but when I saw what I would have to do to get up on one (which isn’t far, mind you, these are small horses) I knew it wasn’t going to happen for me so I returned to our “haven” to watch the rain and further plan the feature film I’ve begun which will be called “Icelandic Clothesline.”

This trip has made me very, very aware of my physical limitations and the top of my list right now is finding out about joint surgery as soon as possible after I turn 65.

I love Icelandic sagas, and we went to Bogarnes to the Settlement Museum and saw museums of both the settlement of Iceland and Egil’s Saga (which I love). The museum was really a work of art, original and evocative and brave.

In the photo above — taken at the Settlement Center — Skallagrim, Egil’s father, is telling Egil (the little boy) that he cannot go to a party because he’s too difficult to deal with even when he’s sober and impossible when he’s drunk. Egil is three…

Not having internet and not being able to get around easily and comfortably, and having recently walked and stayed in the “ancestral valley” in Switzerland has renewed my interest in the novel I started writing last year and it might just happen that the Schneebelis make it to America after all.