Made in Iceland

Bart Och


Part I

Maybe I was being naive to think that it is as easily done as it is said. Or maybe I was grasping at straws seeking some kind of revolution in a life that was beginning to feel static. I ached for something to make me feel alive, and I was desperate to find something to live for.

The last time I felt this way was in the 12th grade. I was counting the days till the end of the senior year not because I was dying to go to a university, but because I couldn’t wait to leave this town, this country. I wished for nothing more than I did then but to be as far away as possible from everything I became so familiar with over the years. I wished for nothing more but to get a hold of my life, to make my own choices and face the repercussions on my terms.

And this time too, abruptly, although foreseeably – don’t know when exactly – I was overcome by exhaustion, by my own failures, by anger at everyone who was living my dreams, by resentment of anyone who told me to suck it up. I fell apart. I fell short. I was humbled by the abiding realisation that other people my age had it all figured out while I was still working at the bar serving beer and coffee.

Sometimes, you spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you will escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going. But you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.

I have seen this happen to people before, and I was afraid it was happening to me too. Empty promises, mostly the ones we make to ourselves, become self-inflicted wounds stitched with some kind of cheap excuse. The wound eventually heals leaving a regret-shaped scar that won’t fade away to remind you of all the things that you did to yourself. Or, perhaps, the things you didn’t do.

We talk about desires, we make grand plans and mental notes, we infest our minds with ideas and invest so much hope just so we can merely taste the dream we are, in reality, too scared to wish for it to come true. Fear takes over your whole life and before you know, just before you run out of gas, you had driven yourself to a dead end.

I too am inherently and naturally an incredibly fearful person. I am afraid right now. I woke up afraid. I am going to go to bed afraid. I was born afraid. I have always sort of been tremulous with fear. But my only saving grace in my life is that I am one per cent more curious about the world than I am afraid of it, which is how and why I had booked myself on a flight to Iceland before I even knew how to pitch a tent. Yes, I was terrified, I was concerned, I was restless. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was an amateur. Above all, I was done hiding from the world forever in a darkened room with a damp cloth on my forehead. I needed to go. I did.


Part II

Acquainting a new chicken with the general flock is tricky. While some chickens will be tolerant of the newcomer, others will give the bird a hard time wary of the “intruder.” Instead, giving them a little time to familiarise themselves with their new living arrangements, your chickens should be settled and quietly roosting after sunset before you introduce any new members.

This is exactly how I arrive in Iceland.

I touch down in Reykjavik past 11 PM. I take no time to absorb the serendipity of the moment – I find my luggage and swiftly leave the oddly small airport in a shuttle bus that drops me off at the city’s only campsite where everyone seems to have retreated back into their tents already. Undercover of the night, quietly and completely unnoticed, I eventually pitch my own.

Though I only sleep for a few hours, the next day I get up early to catch the first light. Outside the air is thin, cold and crisp, and the sun has only just begun to rise. England feels ten thousand miles away from me now, and it is as if I have been here in this flock of experienced backpackers forever. The truth is, and I am shy to admit, that I don’t fit in here. In my never-worn-before shoes right out of the box and a backpack that is literally bursting at the seams, I stick out like a sore thumb.

With my left cheek pressing against the cold window, I watch the landscape in a blur as we drive by. Gently sloping hills tower above and alongside the road. On the other side, an empty diner, a small shop or an occasional petrol station obtrude the view of the rocky coast. I don’t know if I fall asleep or if I drop into some kind of spell or even how much time passes. Eventually, I arrive in Skógar – a small Icelandic village with a population of roughly 25 – at the foot of a 200-foot high waterfall.

As legend would have it, a Viking in the 10th century hid a chest filled with treasure behind these falls. Centuries later, someone found the chest and tried to retrieve it, but the ring on the side of it broke off and the chest with all of its treasure disappeared. However, the golden ring, which can be found in Skógar Museum, remained as proof of its existence.

As a child, I also hid little trinkets – mostly worthless coins and pebbles – in small boxes, which I then buried in various places. Convinced that someday I would desire to recover my treasures, I drew ornate maps like those in adventure movies.

And now, with a real map of a very real place; a narrow but well-trodden path along the river lined with short, colour-coded poles sticking out of the ground like wonky nails in a wood board, I take the first step. After that, the second, the third, and so on. Imprints of my shoes vanish quickly behind me until I lose count and the miles remain in my memory as a number that signifies all the effort I will have made not only to earn my place in this flock but to find the strength to carry on when I flee.


Part III

The road snakes its way over large glaciers and mottled peaks reminiscent of a marble cake. I walk for many hours, and, many times, I resist the temptation to stop in case I lose my pace and motivation to continue hiking. Through the eyes of my imagination, everything looked so simple – probably why it is easier for most of us to dream than to fulfil our dreams, to complain than to look for solutions, to stay than to leave.

Sometimes I wonder why instead of getting pampered in an elegant spa and participating in conventional social activities, I choose to ramble, getting cold and dirty, endure discomfort. I think this is just my highway to some form of happiness. Happiness which reveals itself only when on the verge of endurance I feel that I am beginning to live. In the fight against fatigue, cold and hunger, I find something that I wasn’t aware of – a power dormant in every human being, an unimaginable force that pushes us forward against body, mind and reason.

Currently, we can go through life without experiencing prostration. If I am tired at work, I take a coffee break. If I am tired of walking, I take a bus. If I am done, I quit. Easy. Out here, you can grind to the limits of endurance; there are no advance-to-go or skip-a-turn cards to play. In the wilderness, your choices are limited; you work with what you have. Ironically, this can be quite liberating.

It has been two weeks since I got out on the road. I find myself a small hut in the middle of nowhere to spend a couple of nights in. It doesn’t bother me that there is no electricity, hot shower, or even the internet. I toss my heavy backpack and filthy boots covered in mud and bits of green moss aside. In a small bucket, I finally get to wash my greasy hair and dirty clothes.

Sitting by the window, I am unable to peel my eyes off the view that accompanies me as the sun descends into the night. The dark halts at the glass between me and the rest of the world; candlelight illuminates the rustic interior of the desolate, wooden cabin. Inside, I feel safe, I feel warm.

I realise how little I need to be happy and learn to appreciate all of the things in life that most of us take for granted. I can’t move forward until I get rid of my excess baggage: not only my possessions but also my privileges, my ego and my unrealistic expectations.

How long has it been? How long since I have left the comforts of my life? It is hard to tell.

When I quit my job, my boss didn’t seem surprised. Maybe he saw it before I did. Maybe he didn’t really care. Neither did I.

It wasn’t long before I moved out of my flat and shut the door behind me for the last time. Eight years full of memories condensed within that small, two-bedroom box. Soon, someone else was going to call it home, as I did once. And maybe there is a place for me too. Maybe I belong nowhere. But, at this moment, I feel as if the world belongs to me.


Part IV

It happened suddenly. A looming realisation that the designs I have imagined for my life rest on blurred lines and intoxicated dreams. Disappointment. Heartbreak. On a cold, wet grass, surrounded by hills wrinkled with the cruel Icelandic weather, I put my clunky backpack on.

There is no going back now. I forget the pain in my feet, I forget the weight on my shoulders. I forget everything as I put another mile after depleting mile behind me. My eyes set ahead, on the horizon of the desolate, ever-changing landscape. The oblique sunlight flirts with the endless meadow, giving it hopes of warmth, giving me hopes of clarity.

I find that clarity, a few days later, somewhere in the valley of Landmannalaugar. The rain hasn’t stopped for hours. I sheltered in the deceptively sturdy confines of my tent. 

Fully clothed, a thick sleeping bag wrapped around me, I pour a small cup of hot chocolate from my thermos. The steam leaps out and curves around my fingers. I sit there in silence, listening to the storm lashing through the plateau. Focused, I slowly trail the tattered map with my index finger. I think of lonely roads and pristine glacial lakes. The smell of fresh air, the touch of the morning sun on my bruised skin. The feeling of dewy grass on my bare, blistered feet.

The rain stops as the night creeps in. I can’t tell how long it has been. Time feels irrelevant in the cosy interiors of the tent. In the early morning, I pack my things quickly, heedlessly – I have become very proficient at this everyday-task by now. My face curves into an honest, untainted smile as I lift my backpack off the ground. A smile that unties a knot and holds a promise of possibilities.

I decide as I walk away, to live for such moments – for silent conversations and unbridled smiles. To live for beginnings. To carry the weight of my choices with my head held high and my eyes wide open, keen and curious – to never look back.

A friend who is getting engaged, a friend who is getting married, a friend who is having a baby, a friend who just got a promotion. And me, bending over backwards trying to fit in, always building castles in the sky, consistently annihilating my dreams.

You should think about your future, a muffled voice whispers relentlessly in my head. I listen – patient, incredulous. You don’t have to quit now. Wait for another few months and do what you feel like then, it preaches. But I don’t want to wait. I can’t.

I can’t fathom this limbic aversion we have towards quitting. We treat it like a crime. They say it is an escape from responsibility. My patience begins to evaporate, my pacing becomes urgent. I want to make everyone see beyond fancy titles, company names and salary figures.

The London night eases into the quiet street outside my small, rented apartment. I feel an absolute disconnect with everything. It is time – I know it. The dread of going back to work. The inviting ebb-and-flow of life on the road: of cramped dorm beds and extended bus rides, of dirt on my shoes and salt in my hair. I am taken. Completely. Inescapably.

Bart Och

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Guest Contributor for Panorama.