The Great Escape: Journey from the Center of the Earth

May 3, 2007 | 3 books mentioned 4 min read

Bob Seger, rock ‘n roll troubadour, once announced that he’s going to Katmandu – if, that is, he ever gets outta here.

I used to listen to that song quite a lot. I liked Seger’s escape fantasy, sung-shouted in a voice like a gravel crusher, the voice of a guy who’d had enough of being a lonely road warrior crisscrossing the U.S.A. Katmandu is about as far from New York, the “friendly old ghost” of a city that Seger seems to “pass right through,” as you can get.

America is the Rome of the modern world to which all roads lead, a confluence of cultures. People from all over are drawn to the waters of this glorious riverhead, from which springs a cultural empire unrivaled in history. But the waters here are turbulent, and individuals are so easily swept under. It is a peculiar hallmark of American life that our freedom so often comes at the price of our sanity. Katmandu, by contrast, is a place of satisfying enigma, ineffable and remote – at least in my mind – and this makes it a good place to escape to. The world is shrinking, warming, warring, trading, and in many corners slouching towards cultural homogeneity (witness the E.U., capitalist China, a casino on an Indian Reservation in Connecticut, or the numerous modern resorts in Phuket, Thailand). And so it seems that there are fewer and fewer mysterious places to explore, or disappear into.

Getting back to the song, the irony is obvious. Seger knows he will never make it to Katmandu, and it’s just as well: indulging in the fantasy is more sustaining than actually making the trip, which would be costly, time-consuming and impractical. And anyway, what would Bob Seger do in Katmandu? Meditate? Mister “like a rock” would probably do just as well squeezing water from a stone.

coverA piece of rock in the north Atlantic, a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle, is my personal Katmandu. I don’t know how Iceland came to hold such sway in my imagination, but it did, so much so that a friend gave me a copy of Lonely Planet Iceland, a travel guide by Paul Harding and Joe Bindloss, hoping, I believe, that it would lift some of the mystery off the place and so reduce the amount of time spent listening to me prate about going there. Instead, after some exploration of the book, I now bend ears with arcane facts about the rugged volcanic island.

Indulge me.

First colonized by Norse settlers in the 9th century A.D., Iceland is home to just 288,000 souls, most of whom live in or around the capitol, Reykjavik. This number does not include the unknown population of elves, gnomes, dwarves, and trolls said by some to inhabit the land. Isolation and a paucity of natural resources, with the notable exception of fish, have engendered in Icelanders a strong spirit of independence. In a world of nations ever more dependent upon trade, especially when it comes to energy, Iceland will probably be the least affected when the last drops of oil have been sucked away, and the last trees felled like fiddlesticks, that child’s game where the only rule is to make sure a mess is made. They never had trees in Iceland anyway. The country is a model for making use of what’s on hand, and so geothermal energy not only heats the pools where people soak away Iceland’s dark, frozen winters, but is harnessed for electricity as well.

Icelanders may be independent, but they are by no means backward. They speak English, having learned that welcoming foreign tourists to their strange and striking country is another way to sustain their existence upon it. At the same time, they have guarded their own unique language, said to be the most difficult in the world for a non-native speaker to learn. My little guidebook contains a long, complicated key for parsing out pronunciation of the various Germano-Norse letters and accents that appear in Icelandic. Even with its help, most words are pleasantly impenetrable. However, when spoken correctly Icelandic, like its Scandinavian counterparts, possesses a natural cadence very similar to that of English. Iceland’s linguistic and cultural history is encapsulated in its epic sagas, which date to the 12th and 13th centuries, and celebrate a traditional, if increasingly archaic, way of life.

covercoverToday, a new generation of Icelanders are driving something of a pop-culture explosion there. Though unabashedly inspired by Hollywood and Rock ‘n Roll, Iceland’s burgeoning film and music scenes remain distinctly Icelandic in tone. For the celluloid savvy, see Children of Nature from director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, and Robert I Douglas’s Icelandic Dream. For the melody minded, start with the oddly spiritual, pleasingly esoteric band Sigur Ros, and, of course, everyone’s favorite citizen of the world, the incomparable Bjork. As for writers, Nobel Laureate Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s most celebrated author, carries the torch. More recently, the novels 101 Reykjavik, by Hallgrimur Helgason and Angels of the Universe by Einar Mar Gudmundsson have received the most attention.

I hope that reading from Lonely Planet and maybe picking up one of the above titles is not the closest I ever get to Iceland. Iceland now rivals more popular destinations such as London when it comes to monetary expense, and that fact alone is prohibitive for me.

But like Seger’s Katmandu, Iceland is the nominal destination in my personal escape fantasy, which has perhaps served its purpose even if I never actually get outta here and head north. It would be a strange reverse commute for me, having a bit of ancestral Norwegian blood. Recall that Eric the Red left Iceland for Greenland in 987, from whence his son, Leif, became the first person of European descent to set eyes on mainland North America. Gazing upon such inviting shores must have been a powerful experience for him. Those shores were a far cry from the spartan landscape that Iceland still presents to the world. Isolated, insulated, it is a place possessed of a primordial indifference to the urgency of progress. Though its people have adapted to the demands of the land, and so thrive in a most inhospitable place, Iceland will continue to be a place where progress as it stands is measured not in Gross National Product, Olympic Medals, or 1,776 foot skyscrapers, but in the slow and inexorable march of its volcanic geology, truly growth from within.

is a writer, musician, and amateur sportsman in Manhattan, living on the Harlem side of Morningside Park near Columbia, where he recently picked up a degree from the Journalism School.

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