Manifesto for Travel

This morning I sat down to begin the long process of narrating the audio version of my new travel adventure book Out in the Cold. As I reread the preface (it has been a little while since I wrote it), I thought it stands alone as a pretty good manifesto for travel. So I thought I’d share:

OUT IN THE COLD
PREFACE

I’m pretty sure the discovery of America started with a bar fight and I believe I can persuade you that it is so. The chain of events that brought Norse ships to Newfoundland began when a court in Norway found Thorvald Erickson guilty of murder and tossed him out of the country.

The Saga of Eirik the Red, Thorvald’s son, doesn’t say exactly what his old man got up to that night, just that he was exiled “because of some killings,” so Thorvald and the clan loaded up the truck and they moved to northwest Iceland.

Eirik grew up and married a local girl. When Thorvald died they moved south where before long the local sheriff found Eirik guilty of murder just like his old man, and Eirik was banished from Iceland. Thorvald’s bar fight led to Iceland, Greenland and the New World. We will visit the settlement his grandson built in Newfoundland.

But this is not about the Vikings, although they are here. This is a collection of northern tales from the frozen-tight Svalbard archipelago, 800 miles from the North Pole, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Atlantic-facing Canada.

•••••

A daiquiri on your cruise ship balcony may imply that you are on vacation, but it does not mean that you are traveling. Crowding people together on “fun ships” to share viruses for several days holds up as well as socks from Wal-Mart.

Once, in the Himalayas, in a place called Sikkim, whose very geography required vocational derringdo, a mad driver told me “Man didn’t evolve from apes to act like sheep.” He meant that you must engage.

Your free time is as surely an asset as your home or your car. I say, get out there and put some of it to good use. If the unexamined life isn’t worth living (Socrates), get to examining. Compare and contrast your experiences to those of others.

In these pages we will meet an artisan carver of narwhal bones in Greenland. We’ll cruise the streets of Reykjavik with an ebullient Icelandic author, hike with a part-time tour guide in Labrador who cannot imagine why you’d want to be anywhere other than on the tundra, and spend time with others whose lives, objectively, are nothing like your own.

We will shake hands with the President of Iceland and stand naked and alone on the side of the glacier Vatnajokull (separately from the president). We will drop in on the last French outpost in North America, talk shop with a diplomat and eat wind dried sheep in the Faroe Islands, dine with strangers alongside icebergs at a lighthouse north of Newfoundland, and find Greenland so beguiling, we will visit twice.

•••••

Who ever thinks they are finally and fully grown up? Not me, not in my 20s, or 30s or even 40s. I still think people who wear adult clothes and enjoy it, skirt and blazer, suit and tie, selling investments or copiers or conjuring income from intangibles like air time or web space – those people are grown up, or at least grown up in a way I’m not, in the western businessy way.

I will never be a winning jockey in the Great American Corporate Advancement Derby. I don’t enjoy yard work or the NBA and I don’t know anything about grown-up stuff like the American Automobile Association or why you should be a member. Or what those ads for active traders are talking about, when you be honest.

I don’t buy clothing with the logo of its manufacturer or shop on Black Friday. That others do, that’s real nice. I just don’t have their motivation. But I think I’ve got one thing on them: I’m pretty sure the flame burns brighter in my magic adventure lamp.

Let us all think of a place that sounds exciting, take ourselves there and see what happens, minding Nelson Mandela’s words: May our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears.

•••••

Imagine a range of actions: At one extreme, you never leave your house, and at the other you drive into Somalia honking your horn and waving an American flag. I like it just inside the go-too-far side of that tent, poking on the fabric with a dull knife, trying not quite hard enough to cut through.

Within reason, mind you. Cut through the fabric and you end up kidnapped in Niamey, blasted in two in Helmand or beheaded in the new Caliphate. So let us stick with adventure reasonably achievable. In this case, starting 800 miles shy of the North Pole, chasing a total eclipse.

•••••

Preface from the book Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada. Buy it in paperback here. Read other excerpts here. Kindle version soon. The audiobook version, begun today, should hit in the fall.

Also published on Medium.

Saksun, Faroe Islands

An excerpt from my new book Out in the Cold, exploring the tiny northern Atlantic archipelago called the Faroe Islands:

Five people live in Saksun now, way up at the end of Streymoy, 44 kilometers from Tórshavn on the far end of the island, at the end of the world. It’s one of a kind, a real find, but around here there’s one of a kind around every bend.

The air fills your chest so fresh it stings. The bay, the mists, the waterfalls that fill the hillsides, the pop-up rills after rain, everything in sight glittering, utterly pristine.

When Lars Gunnar Dehl Olsen was born in the 1990s, Saksun was home to 33. Tow-headed, lanky with a free range beard, Lars Gunnar stands in benevolent welcome at the end of the road. Which is also his farm.

For a time he rented a big white house from Johan Jogvonsson, a man in the “village.” There are more than enough houses in the village for five or 33, because some are summer cottages. Now, out here on the point Lars Gunnar and his wife will endeavor to raise sheep and to do their part to keep Saksun alive, having just bought their own freehold in paradise.

Lars Gunnar calculates that 600 sheep is the minimum to make a farm viable and he has 700. Would more be better? If he had more he would need many more, enough to hire a farmhand. Seven hundred is about all he can handle by himself.

It’s part of the old farm Dùvugarðar. Now a National Heritage Museum, its outbuildings – with turf roofs – recreate life in the old times. Today the museum stands tiny and deserted, locked tight, beside a hjallur, or curing house, those wooden, slatted buildings for air-curing skerpikjøt.

We can only peer through the museum windows at cooking pots and an iron tea kettle, a lambskin rug and a grandfather clock. There is bedding on bunks reminiscent of the tiny sleeping quarters at the Hanseatic League museum in Bergen, bunks much shorter than a grown man today.

Perhaps the Olsens’ role is as much cordial host as lonely farmer. In the space of our visit, ours and two other cars call at their farm, for here at the end of the road is a fine panorama.

One thing for sure, the Olsens are safe from Viking raids. Sand has made the mouth of the bay so shallow that these days it is navigable only by small boats at high tide.

People may be a bit sparse out this way but the Olsens can rest content in their surroundings. Saksun is just utterly gorgeous.

Saksun

The ground never dries. The sheep squish-step about and drink from pools surrounded by moss. (How do they not get hoof rot?)

Forests of pine, birch and aspen covered Scotland, the Orkneys, Shetlands, Faroes and even Iceland up to around 5,000 years ago, when the northern climate grew cooler and wetter. Land waterlogged and trees died off, replaced by peat-forming mosses that sealed in rainwater, furthering the wetness. I have read that peat accumulates at the rate of perhaps a meter a millennium.

There are not many trees in the Faroes so settlers burned peat for heat and cooking. Like their ancestors, villagers make roofs of sod. Early inhabitants did it because sod was ubiquitous – and free. They still do it today because it works.

Here is how they do it: The earth is cut to manageable one-foot squares three or four inches thick and applied two-ply, with the first square grass/moss-down and the second upright so that they grow together into one impermeable unit.

While there are boards underneath (or birch bark where there are birch trees), the weight of the sod, about 500 pounds per square yard, helps to compress the logs in log homes and that helps to reduce the draft inside.

•••••

Life was hard for settlers and it still isn’t easy, even here in gorgeous, glittering, scrubbed-clean Saksun. In his book Harvest, Jim Crace suggests the tenuousness of living on the edge of the world: “We do not press too closely to His bosom; rather we are at His fingertips. He touches us, but only just.”

Look Inside Out in the Cold

After a title goes live on Amazon, as Out in the Cold did last week, it takes a few days for the “Look Inside” feature to appear. From this morning “Look Inside” is live on Amazon, giving you the chance to get a more extensive preview of what you’ll be buying. I am not sure whether “Look Inside” grabs more of a book’s text over time, but right now we have some of the beginning available and some of my reporting on Iceland. We’ll have to watch and find out. Still, I invite you to use the feature to see more of what’s inside Out in the Cold. Then, grab yourself a copy.

Photo Preview

My new book Out in the Cold should be live on Amazon next week so I thought I’d send us into the weekend with a photo from each of the countries in the book. All these are clickably linked to higher res, much larger and more enjoyable versions at EarthPhotos.com.

Meanwhile, between now and next week, here’s a little text from the book:

Saint-Pierre et Miquelon: France in North America
Svalbard by Snowmobile
Naked and Freezing in Iceland

The photos:

This is the tiny little idyllic town called Tjørnuvik, on the island of Streymoy, Faroe Islands.

Here is Iceland’s famous Gulfoss, looking good full of snowmelt in June.

Tasiilaq, the administrative hub of east Greenland.

The super friendly, perfectly-sized city of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

And the object of our quest to Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. A total solar eclipse.

Out in the Cold: Book Excerpt

outinthecoldcoverrightside I’m excited to say that at long last I have the product of a couple years of really enjoyable work just about ready to share. It’s my new book, called Out in the Cold (cover, left), and over the next few weeks I’ll share some photos and excerpts here on the blog. Out in the Cold is an exploration of points north: Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada, including a curious artifact, the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon.

Today I’d like to share an excerpt, about a tiny village on a tiny island in the tiny group of islands called the Faroes. Hope you enjoy it.

GÁSADALUR

They built a tunnel to Gásadalur to keep the village from dying. They blasted it right through the rock and under the Atlantic Ocean in 2004. Up to then, Dagfinnur confessed, he had never seen Gásadalur’s famous waterfall to the sea.

And Gásadalur is beguiling, a captivating wind carved plateau of ten houses beside the waterfall overlooking the Mykinesfjøröur, with views to five basalt peaks, watchmen in the sea off Mykines, the westernmost Faroe island.

Walk to the viewpoint. Slosh down the ruts in front of Dagfinnur’s taxi. Breath air that slices like daggers. Sleet stings your cheeks. Biting whips of wind, nettles against your chest. The sun shines at the same time.

Like phonetics and Gaelic, weather and the Faroes don’t play by everybody else’s rules.

Stand at the viewpoint. Wind stirs the waterfall to a broad gauze, an aurora dancing between the peaks dusted white and the roiling seacaps. Past Mykines out there on the sea, it’s next stop, Iceland. Stand right here and you can just grasp that you are – almost – still in Europe.

It’s just beyond reach, Mykines is, and you can sail over to see the puffins and the kittiwakes and the king of all the Faroese birds, the gannett, on the ferry that runs from May through August as long as the weather cooperates, but lots of times it doesn’t. You should never sail to Mykines the day before you leave the Faroes because you may not be able to sail back.

Only a scattered few live over there now. Between the world wars 170 people lived on Mykines but now it’s the same as Gásadalur. Young people won’t stay. Houses and a couple dozen turf-roof sheds make like a village but only a few people stay year round. There is just no way to earn a living.

Mountains fend off the world from Gásadalur, each with its own snow chapeau. Before the tunnel you had to climb the postman’s walk over them, and they are some of the tallest in the Faroes (Behind Gásadalur, Árnafjall reaches up 722 meters), or arrive by sea, and peering down at the landing brings a jolt like jarring awake from the edge of sleep. Way down where sea smashes rocks, a handrail, rusted and twisting, leads up water-slick stones, a forlorn legacy of British occupation.

Gásadalur had a population of 18 the last Dagfinnur knew. The tunnel was meant to save it, or at least stall its dying.

The postman died three years ago. Before the tunnel he walked over the mountain three times a week, winter and summer. A man who knew him told me the postman had no neck. The postman was short and compact and carried the mail in a sack strapped around his head that over his career made his neck disappear.

gasadalur

The Waterfall at Gásadalur

Dagfinnur leads us to the viewpoint and no one is there because it hasn’t occurred to anyone to go there on a day like today and on the way, in grass slick as whale oil, the three of us make a mess of our shoes. When the sun isn’t shining, sleet gouges our faces.

Dagfinnur points down at the old British stairs over the edge (careful there!), hovers a moment in his city shoes, petitions for retreat and I can see him there now in his proper taxi vest, pushing hair back from his face, shirtsleeves flapping, doing a little keep-warm dance, just not flouncy enough to squish mud on his shoes. He waits using the taxi as a windbreak, smoking.

It is worth musing on the economics of a tunnel through rock to serve eighteen, but what are they going to do? You simply can’t have every single person up and move to Torshavn.

There are three new houses since that they built that tunnel.

The waterfall to the sea is magnificent.

•••••

More excerpts: This one, naked and freezing, from Iceland and this from Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole.

•••••

Click the photo for a larger version on EarthPhotos.com. Out in the Cold will be ready for purchase this spring. My previous books are Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home, and Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide.

Far and Wide

Places perpendicularly opposed: As we leave for the equator this week, with posts from Kenya to follow, I’m working to put to bed my new book, Out in the Cold, about adventure travels in and around the Arctic. Hope to have it published in February, only four or five months late. Not bad for an author. I’ll run a few excerpts here next month. Here’s the cover:

outinthecoldcover