Questions of Travel: On Kurt Caswell’s “Iceland Summer”

James Perrin Warren reviews Kurt Caswell’s “Iceland Summer: Travels Along the Ring Road.”

Questions of Travel: On Kurt Caswell’s “Iceland Summer”

Iceland Summer: Travels Along the Ring Road by Kurt Caswell. Trinity University Press. 190 pages.

LATELY, IT SEEMS, everyone is visiting Iceland. Half a million Americans are flying into Reykjavik every year, sometimes for a day or two, sometimes for a week. Maybe it’s the influence of Game of Thrones (2011–19), Vikings (2013–20), or The Northman (2022). More likely, it’s the pervasive presence of Nordic noir in books and TV series. There is even an annual literary festival, “Iceland Noir,” which celebrates “darkness in all its forms” and reassures us that the erupting volcano won’t deter readings and panels. Along with the volcanoes, there are glaciers, geysers, waterfalls, hot springs, mountains, rocky seacoasts, sheer cliffs. Your bus on the Ring Road may have to stop for sheep, your campsite may host a family of Arctic foxes, or a flock of nesting Arctic terns may take time out from their incredible migration flights to dive-bomb you and your party.

In Iceland Summer: Travels Along the Ring Road (2023), Kurt Caswell goes farther and deeper than the usual tour of this beautiful place. Like other Nordic countries, Iceland is expensive, and the average tourist can count on spending $100–$200 a day on food, lodging, and travel. Not Caswell, with his lifelong friend Scott Dewing. These two characters backpack their way from Reykjavik to the Westfjords, camping in designated campgrounds and walking, almost exclusively, into the wild lands of the Hornstrandir and beyond. They cook their own meals on a camp stove—oatmeal, pasta, and tuna, seasoned with the friendly flask of vodka, rum, or Brennivín. They visit cafés for coffee or beer, and are happy to indulge in the legendary pylsur (Icelandic hot dogs) or taste the occasional puffin. They get wet, a lot, and often downright drenched. These are grown-ups with real jobs, but they walk for kilometers every day, sleep in the wind and rain, and then dry out in bus stations and on long ferryboat and bus rides. They circumambulate the island along the Ring Road, visiting some celebrated wonders and many lesser-known villages and towns.

But this book is not simply a dirtbag adventure narrative. Instead, it is a literary journey and a wide-ranging meditation on questions of travel in the 21st century. When so much of the world is accessible, in person or online, what does it mean to walk across an unfamiliar landscape? “The walking,” writes Caswell, “never gets easier, but you get better.” Places like Iceland are becoming overtraveled, but Iceland Summer takes readers to places they have never been. Julia Oldham’s illustrations evoke contemporary graphic novels so that the beauty of the place, the imagery, and the narrative are rendered in casual, comic tones. Icelandic place names and family names cascade through the prose, which makes the journey both outlandish and hilarious.

One of Caswell’s pieces of sly wisdom is that “[i]t is best to let the journey map itself.” This means that the traveler must be flexible, open to unexpected encounters, and willing to change the route if need be. Above all, it means keeping a solid sense of humor and a perspective that invites possibilities more than certainties. One of the humorous threads running through the book is Caswell’s fascination with huldufólk (“hidden folk,” a.k.a. “elves, trolls, and whatnot”). The trolls appear regularly, killing horses and eating their meat in the night, or kidnapping shepherds to have sex with them until they, too, are killed and eaten. Or again, in the shape of the Sleeping Giant, a bus driver who thinks driving with his eyes closed is a good idea. Caswell is like Don Quixote in his constant search for a better version of reality and himself, while Scott, his Sancho Panza, is perfect at deadpan, wishing only for hot food, cold beer, and a dry spot to sleep.

Sometimes the outlandish becomes otherworldly. Idiotic campers lead to a bad night’s sleep for the protagonists, but the next evening, the pair of intrepid walkers make it to the rim of Dettifoss, the magnificent waterfall of a glacial river, a terrifying, beautiful force. The paradoxical dynamic stability of the water flowing into space leads Caswell to meditate on “dissipative structure” and to understand that “life is a dynamic flow of matter and energy, moment to moment, and disruptions, our wounds, help make what we are into what we will be.”

The edge of the great waterfall is emblematic of Caswell’s insightful encounters with Iceland. It echoes an earlier walk along an edge, the shoreline of the Hornstrandir. Walking becomes meditation, so that the place you are walking becomes “inseparable from your identity […] a part of who you are,” just as you become a part of the place you are walking. “The real journey,” Caswell writes, “is inward.”

Perhaps the real journey is both inward and outward, a joining of place and walker through the act of writing. In the final chapter, “That Day on Viðey,” Caswell is alone for a walk near Reykjavik before returning home. A chance encounter with a fellow spirit leads him to consider the walk and the journey of the Iceland summer “my own most crowded hour.” He is reminded of another edge, “the veil between this world and the next,” and ends by evoking the death of his friend, the writer Barry Lopez. The last words of the book once again raise questions of travel, though now they are the essential questions concerning the journey of our lives: “Who am I? What do I mean in the world? What am I going to do? And with whom am I going to do it?”

Questions to ask repeatedly. Questions by which to live.

LARB Contributor

James Perrin Warren is the author of Thoreau’s Botany: Thinking and Writing with Plants (2023), Other Country: Barry Lopez and the Community of Artists (2015), and other works of literary criticism. He is a professor emeritus of American literature at Washington and Lee University.


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