Learning to Walk

By Joanna Chen 

Stand with your legs apart. The earth here demands a different way of walking, a more mindful one. Wear what your mother would call “sensible shoes,” and make sure the laces are tied tightly. It is crucial they do not dangle; tuck them in at the ends. Now put on the crampons — spiky, metal contraptions that should fit your shoes snugly. Now you’re two inches higher above the surface of the earth.

A glacier: a persistent body of dense ice that is constantly moving under its own weight; it forms where the accumulation of snow exceeds its ablation over many years, often centuries.

Put each foot down firmly and grip the ground underneath you before taking another step. Use the red-tipped axe you are already holding to balance if necessary. Begin walking, one foot after the other, as you climb. The snow crackles under your feet, giving a little under your weight.

You are about to walk along a glacier in Skaftafell, in the southeast of Iceland. You are a writer, here for a conference. But you are really here for the opportunity to explore. The view is stunning, you saw it from the window of the bus, the curves and peaks of the land stretching out before you in white and gray, like an arctic animal lying across the landscape. But now you see nothing more than the white of the snow beneath your feet because you are afraid that if you look up, for even a second, you’ll lose your balance and fall. You’re in a group, but you barely know these people and right now you do not care. So you put one foot in front of the other, press down into the thick ice and pray you do not fall flat on your face. You look down all the time. You are mindful. The pace is brisk. You hear yourself breathing heavily under the strain of it all. The wind is cold, sharp and relentless, hitting your exposed cheeks and nose. Your hair is in your eyes and your sunglasses do little to blur the glare of the sun against the steel sky. Voices fade, laughter diminishes, and silence falls on the group of 10. You scramble to keep up with the others. You feel old and clumsy and wish there was a friendly hand to steady you. You think of the forest near your home where you walk, heel toe, heel toe, summer leaves crunching under your feet, the layers of earth dry and warm.

Glaciers slowly deform and flow due to stresses induced by their weight, creating crevasses, seracs, and other distinguishing features.

After 10 minutes, the guide stops. You’re standing on a ledge of ice. There are cracks in the ice and through it you see deep blue shimmering in the sun. This is the blue of nothingness, of un-life, of a place so cold that nothing lives there. No animals, no insects or fish or minute organisms, only the blue of frozen sapphire, glinting through the white.

This color appears in the deepest layers of the ice that are under such high pressure that all of the air bubbles have been forced out of the ice. By contrast the surface layers of the iceberg are white because the air bubbles trapped in the snow layers reflect much of the incident light.

A bird whose name you do not know flies low over the peaks, hovers above you, wings flapping, then disappears into the white. There is nothing here for her. Behind you, emerald slopes rise up like a scene from another country. There are curves and undulating hills, but they are not gentle. Everything is harsh and unforgiving. The day goes on into the night: even when the sun sets, it is still bright outside, as if there is still work to be done.

The guide points to the glacier wall ahead of you. The glacier constantly moves in this area of land where nothing lives, the ice cracks and melts, forming and reforming into soft curves, jagged edges, harsh lines. The animal with the scruffy gray-flecked fur stretched across the glacier growls at night through the darkness. It lifts its head, looks around, shifts the contours of the glacier this way and that. You climb back down to the bus, the animal watching you all the time.

This is where Game of Thrones was filmed, A View to a Kill, Batman Begins, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, among others.

Later, you drive to the lagoon, passing by stretches of ground blackened by lava, interspersed by fields the color of parakeets where stocky horses graze languidly and sheep gambol. You count the waterfalls gushing down the mountains but lose track because there are so many. You think about stopping to photograph the lupine that grows along the roadside, bursting with purple, but you keep going. Your first glimpse of the lagoon, seen for a split second from the car window, reminds you of Disneyland, a turquoise wonderland that appears from nowhere, rising above a colorless incline along the road you are traveling. A car is parked by the side of a road and a single figure stands at the top of the incline, arms akimbo, gazing out at the lagoon you are about to meet. Meanwhile, you are on your own journey to the center of your own self, the one that wants a challenge and then is terrified by it. The animal begins to growl inside you.

That night, I dream it is snowing in the forest near my house and people are trapped under the ice. A troll strides toward me with a red-tipped pickaxe in his hands. He is talking but I can’t hear him above the sound of my own breathing as I fall backwards off the glacier.

Down in the lagoon, you stare at the icebergs floating in the water. You recall the so-called Hemingway theory of writing, the omission theory, in which only surface elements of the story are told, and the reader must think for herself what lies underneath. You consider the exposed iceberg, whose shape resembles a military truck with a long body and thick, square cab. Suddenly, the truck is no longer a truck but an animal rising up into the air with a fizz and a crack that echo across the lagoon. Within a split second, it comes crashing down again, shattering into a myriad of icy particles that float toward the lagoon mouth.

My father visits while I am sitting at the kitchen table back home, writing this essay. It’s 40 degrees centigrade outside and he’s sweating. Or perhaps my father is just flustered: his refrigerator is not working. The milk he buys in the corner store turns sour after two days, and he doesn’t understand why. The deep freeze, he says, is perfect, but the lowest tray of the fridge is flooded with water. Every two days, he says, ice forms at the back of the fridge and then melts. The vegetables are drowning.

Two days later, your head still spinning with dreams in which ice cracks under your bare feet, and you fall through to the center of the earth, you tumble out of bed at 5 a.m. and take a trek up Helgafell, a mountain formed late in the Ice Age, after a volcanic eruption. This time, the view from the window of the bus where you sit like a glum prisoner is a scene from hell: the ground is flat, black, scorched, and above it towers the mountain, known in English as The Holy Mountain.

To avoid the excessively steep and rocky face, it is recommended that you take the same route down the mountain. Note: In advance of your climb, be sure to check the weather for adverse conditions and be mindful of the sometimes-high winds on the mountaintop.

The mountain is just over 1000 feet high but the climb is a steep one. Walking up this dense sandstone and lava mound is a grim task in biting wind and intermittent rain. Your gloves are on the bus; your hat is on the bed back at the hotel. You climb, wondering how you will ever get down. The basaltic lava forms smooth figurines that morph into ropy masses of blackened earth, trolls that have fossilized, brandishing swords and pickaxes. The group of writers snakes up the mountain side. The guide invites us to stop for 10 minutes in order to write under the inspiration of the mountain. I obediently pull out the pen and paper I was handed earlier on the bus. HELP, I write in black letters, and then fold the sheet of paper into a neat square and place it back in the pocket of my jacket.

Folklore advises anyone climbing the mountain for the first time to walk straight up without looking back or speaking and three wishes will be granted. The wishes have to be of good intent and the wisher tells no one and faces east when making them.

You do not look back, you quit speaking as the climb progresses, and your only wish is that in three hours’ time you will make it safely down. At the top, you catch your breath and gaze down at the Reykjanes Peninsula, and an iridescent sea of pearls. The guide stretches out her arms and tells the shivering group that is the true living earth, and you feel it growling inside you again like an untamed animal with matted fur, wet with rain. There is nothing holy about this uncanny mountain.

Iceland’s landscape is wild and layered. It speaks not of the history of the people but of the land. Here a volcano erupted; here lava poured across the slopes like molten treacle; here the ground shuddered and exploded, was laid to rest. It’s primeval, harsh, polite, unyielding.

I enter my father’s apartment quietly. He’s sleeping in the other room. I open the refrigerator. It purrs softly and the light flickers and goes out. I reach my fingers into the back of the fridge, where they graze against the frost forming there. My fingers leave a thin line across the back of the fridge, like a trail through a mechanical glacier.

On the way down, you hesitate, and a woman hands you a metal walking stick with a spear-like tip. Use it like a third leg, for balance. Place each foot down firmly and use the stick to dig into the ground. Someone ahead of me slips and falls off the path. Black rocks and pebbles roll down after him. You grip your stick more tightly. Look only at the inches ahead of you, and keep going down. As you descend, notice the slithers of gold matter glinting through the dull black earth, the lichen growing between rocks and the occasional tufts of grass.

At 9 a.m. you arrive safely down at the bottom of the mountain. You’re laughing now, and you blend in with the crowd, brush the powdery dust off your shoes and agree that the climb wasn’t so hard. This is what you came for: not the conference, its numerous panels and incessant networking but the crackling of ice, the brittle earth, and what lies beneath it.

 

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