Saturday, September 7, 2013

Week 3, tone. Travel essay: "Ice Cream Man"

Lysuholl is much too small and insignificant to be called a town or a village. Even styling it a hamlet gives it too much credit. The very narrow road to Lysuholl loops back to the minor road from which it starts. It goes nowhere else.

Lysuholl is a cluster of a few buildings on the Snaefellsness peninsula on the west coast of Iceland. Because hot springs come to the surface there, a community swimming pool and attached to it a school and a community center have been built. Three or four scattered farmhouses and outbuildings complete Lysuholl.

Lysuholl is tucked under an intimidating 1500 foot mountain ridge, sharp peaks, steep cliffs, gray lava scree slowly giving way to moss then grass, then pasture, then fields. The fields lie on a dead flat coastal plain sweeping off a few miles to the cold North Atlantic, and they support a few horses, sheep, and cows.

At the end of the peninsula Snaefellsjokull is an extinct volcanic crater topped with a glacier and on a clear day can be seen from hundreds of kilometers away. When Jules Verne wanted to send his fictional characters on a journey to the center of the earth, he had them start by descending into the Snaefellsjokull volcano. But the Snaefellsness peninsula feels more like the end of the earth than the beginning of anything. It has a few tiny fishing villages with a few dozen people in each, most of them retirement age. It has those inevitable sheep, horses, cows. It has the mountain ridge that car roads do not attempt. To go from the south side of the peninsula to the north side, one drives west and then east. It's hard to get there from here.

Lysuholl, even with its buildings, does little to reassure the visitor.

When my plans to visit Lysuholl were set last winter, a notion I knew was false nevertheless persisted in forcing itself into my mind. I imagined a rich and eccentric Icelander, a bit of a hermit, a bit of a joker, a bit of a dreamer. And his particular dream was to buy an ice cream truck. The kind that comes into town playing 'Pop Goes the Weasel' or 'Turkey in the Straw.' The kind with a big softserve dispenser, where chocolate and vanilla make a double swirl sticking up eight inches above the top of the cone. And then the ice cream man dips it in liquid chocolate without even asking.

And every day he would trundle around Snaefellsness in his truck stopping at the fishing villages, turning down the dead end to Lysuholl and the other places like it, even stopping at single farmhouses.

Most of rural Iceland's population is either very old or is abandoning fishing and farming to move to Reykjavik. But in my imaginings little kids would come pouring out of the farmhouses--think Pied Piper of Hamelin quantities of children--and would each get their giant swirly cone sheathed in chocolate for five kroner. (A thousand kroner is worth about $8 dollars, so you can do the math.)

But in the event, no such ice cream truck appeared at Lysuholl. Instead I found myself unhooking a barbed wire gate, walking across a dry stream bed (a hundred yards wide; a torrent in the spring melt) under a powerline, and climbing up through a very scrappy horse pasture of moss and lichen, to the end of the plants and the start of the lava scree.

But between the moss and the lava, there was a tiny threshold zone. In the zone were lowbush blueberries, exactly what you would see in Maine in thin soil over granite ledge on Mt Waldo. Even though it was ten pm, there was still plenty of light because this far north in July, sunset was at least an hour away and I could see for miles.

I sat down on a rock and picked a few blueberries, watched the horses below, looked at the sea, thought about my highbush blueberries back home in Swanville, if a vagrant image of a blueberry bush can be called thinking. My mind was deeply disengaged. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. So, I sat in the twilight on that rock beside a dry gully, not far from the entrance to the center of the world.

A motorcycle turned off the coastal road a mile away, and as it approached I could eventually tell from its profile that it was a BMW motorcycle with horizontally opposed cylinders, like mine.

It stopped in front of the community center. The rider put the kickstand down and dismounted. On back he had a luggage box, sort of an oversized milk crate. And immediately I wondered: is that box a freezer, is there ice cream in there, has the eccentric dreamer, joker, hermit arrived at Lysuholl at last with, if not double chocolate-covered swirlies, at least a few ice cream bars?

I'm writing this on August 13, 2010, and I've been back from Lysuholl for a few weeks. I don't want to write it! It's an assignment! I have to write it for ENG 262, so I sit myself down and write.

And I think that reluctance to write shows itself in the tone, at least in the beginning. I would call the tone in the first part of this piece flat and distant. I'm presenting you in a competent enough way with information, facts, observations, description, and all that stuff is necessary to get to the end of the piece, but my heart is only really in one part of the writing: the ice cream truck and the hermit.

At that point, the tone changes, lightens, engages more with the reader, offers the reader a bit of fantasy, and if that fantasy strikes a chord with the reader, the reader may too drift off into a bit of a dreamny state.

The tone shifts from flat and distant to dreamy and even a bit silly. If the reader reacts to the first part by feeling put off and to the last part by feeling amused or drawn in or even shakes his head at the last bit of nonsense, then the essay has rung a few tonal changes.

(It's hard for the writer sometimes to know what he has and has not accomplished. But the writing is the thing--once down it can be modified indefinitely and infinitely. The first version of this piece was, in fact, called 'I Love Iceland, I Hate Iceland,' but in the end, every single word of that has disappeared into cyberspace. I found the tone impossible to control when I was essentially offering the reader alternating likes and dislikes.)


  1. This is going to be a challenge.

  2. That's what they're paying, me...for!