“I BETTER TAKE MY PHONE,” the redheaded farm boy said. “In case we get stuck out there, to call someone to pull us out.” He had done this before. He searchingly patted the pants he’d hung up in the downstairs shed that smells faintly of sheep and dung and eventually found his small cell phone, the kind with a fuzzy green screen, then tossed it in the pocket of his bright thick yellow overalls and led me to the car.
It was a massive aluminium Land Rover that had seen better days. Red didn’t care for the vehicle much, but it wasn’t his decision; he’s only been on the Björg family farm three years, invited to this tiny white atlas speck by the farmer’s daughter. Are they married? He shrugged. Not really, but sort of. He met her in a small university town north of Reykjavik—he’d grown up working summers at farms; she was studying agriculture—and followed her back to the end of the country, the tip of a northern Icelandic peninsula. The end of the world.
We drove north, the rover’s massive tires crushing ice and snow and shooting it out behind us. The old family sheep-herding dog, wild and crazy with one blue eye and one brown eye and ratty black hair in need of trimming, ran ahead of the rover all the way, leaping and barking at the movement.
Björg is the northernmost farm in Kaldakinn, a county between the veiny river Skálfandafljót and an imposingly icy 700-metre-tall mountain with an equally imposing name. “It’s called Ogongufjall Mountain,” Red informed me as we passed by. “In English, I think it’s ‘You-Can’t-Climb-It-Mountain.'” Two streams flow down You-Can’t-Climb-It, which the family harnesses into hydroelectricity through a long black open-air pipe and coffin-sized brown box several hundred metres above sea level, siphoning it into a generator at the base of the mountain before releasing it back into the creek that fills a nearby lake. To reach the sea we had to cross both creeks. The first was thinly iced over and covered by three feet of snow, which is why Red cautiously drove the Rover over it, believing the vehicle strong enough to tackle and overcome the ankle-deep water it so often does in the summer.
It didn’t. The left front wheel got jammed hard in the depth. We stepped outside and Red lit a cigarette. The crazy-eyed dog barked and flailed wildly around the spectacle, jumping up on us for warmth against the freezing temperatures. Ignoring him, Red held his phone up against his left ear and muttered something in Icelandic.
Red’s girlfriend, the youngest of three daughters to Peter Björg who never had a son, was milking the cows with her middle sister when Red called. Milking cows is not what it was 14 years ago, before the family bought their weblike contraption of pumps and ropes and tanks; the sisters were in the barn, casually chatting while blue mechanised pumps squeezed out anywhere between one and nine litres of milk per cow in a sitting. All the girls had to do was herd the animals in, rub clean their udders of shit with hot soppy rags and attach the pumps, then lubricate them with vaseline afterwards to keep things smooth. It still takes two hours, but it’s easier than two hours of bending under a cow and clenching your fists until you can’t grip a fork.
Ten minutes after he called, the middle sister, whose glasses and frizzy ponytail might easily mislead one into thinking she were an academic, came rolling down the road in their lightweight tractor (not the old clunky John Deere; that’s saved for the summer) and attached golden snowplow. She helped Red rope together the Rover and the plow, then geared the vehicle in reverse and smoothly pulled us out of the creek. Then they switched places; Red dove down into the water and ploughed out a path of brown snow from the creek while Frizz sat and waited in the Rover’s driver’s seat.
Frizz is unnecessarily quick to emphasise that their father never pressured her and her sister to join the farm, but farming runs unavoidably deep in their blood. Peter’s own grandfather bought the land and has owned it since the early 1800s. His son famously drowned to death trying to save a sheep; his wife remarried the brother and economically gave birth to five more kids. But Peter and his wife are Twentieth Century farmers, and insisted their children attend university, which they did; both studied agriculture. (Frizz tried law for a year but didn’t care for it.) But their opportunity for escape was true. Their eldest sister is a bookish lesbian engineer teaching physics and math in Reykjavik—as stereotypical a city girl as anyone in Iceland.
Frizz is quickly gearing herself up to be the leader of the farm, since her father’s body is breaking down after unthinkable years of working the land alone. She, more than her younger sister, takes initiatives in explaining the job to me and handling the business, like calculating production statistics and checking their milk tests online. (Third-party quality assurance tests are conducted weekly.) She is also the chattiest of anyone in the family and, in quieter moments, can be the most reflective: she quit law school after only one year because of the “feeling of energy” she gets from the mountains outside her home. “We don’t have this righteous feeling of ownership of the land,” she continued. “We have to take great precaution in preserving it.”
When Red finished clearing the snow they switched seats again. “I’m still going there,” Red said with a grin, staring ahead. Frizz drove back to the animals and we towards the sea, now carrying Crazy Eyes who had leapt in the back. We triumphantly tumbled over the second creek and through two heaps of rockfall that Red had to dig out the previous summer.
We reached water maybe 10 minutes later. The earth suddenly looked polarised and smooth: baggage-sized blocks of transparent ice lay on soft grains of perfectly black sand, topped with blankets of untouched white snow and frost that felt rewarding to crunch with my salt-stained boots. A dozen or so massive icicles draped from the mountain cliff over the water, which I’d understood to be the farm’s biggest international attraction for ice climbers, an extreme subsection of already extreme rock climbers. (The story there is weird: a mélange of ice climbers spent one winter driving around Iceland in search of beautiful “virgin ice” to climb, and nearly orgasmed at the sight of Björg’s natural estate; apparently it is quite rare to find good climbing ice that overhangs open water. Ever since the family has run a guesthouse to cater to the word-of-mouth popularity of ice climbing in the winter, and has grown this business into the summer, though mostly for Icelandic road-trippers.)
Beneath the massive icicles sat a quiet cave entrance flooded with water. A few years ago, Red could herd the sheep through that entrance to the other side of the mountain, where they’d leave them all summer to graze. Then, probably because of global warming, the water level rose and the cave is virtually always half-submerged, meaning Red has to schlep the sheep 12 hours around the long side of You-Can’t-Climb-It, which he justifiably resents.
We stared straight out at the sea while he told me all this. There really was nothing else: not even nothing in the metaphorical abstract sense of existential loneliness, but nothing as in if you shot a laser pointer straight ahead the next plot of land it’d hit would be central Siberia. It felt apocalyptically lonely. Behind us the sun was neither rising nor setting, but hanging indecisively in between.
It occurred to me that this was the ultimate end in every way: the ultimate escape from touristy continental Europe, the ultimate point of taking A Long Way Back home. “Iceland in December” was the goal, and it was clear that this was, in part, the End of the World because it was actually the End of the Trip. Soon I would be home again, home again, overhearing chitchat in Tim Hortons and grumbling about bus tokens shooting up another nickel, surrounded by searing horns and hazy sunsets. Knowing this, I walked back to the Rover, and rode back to the farm house, closer to civilisation and the Real World.