The Ólafsfjörður fog devours the small fishing town in a blanket of vapour. Clouds roll down the mountains, cutting off the horizon with an opaque wall of white – as if drawn by some lazy artist who found a new commission and dropped her hobby piece, the sky left featureless in her absence.
I’d imagine – if not for the town being accessible only by tunnels which themselves tumble out of the mountains – you’d be able to see cars punching through the fogbank; suddenly appearing out of thin air. Transported into the tiny bubble of Ólafsfjörður and captured. Made heavy with dampness, as the wet air slaps its spongy stroke onto any dry surface it can find. No car in Ólafsfjörður goes outside without a coat of water drops, whether it rains or not.
This weekend my family gathers there to mourn the passing of a brother, father, grandfather. I am invited for the reunion however, not to the funeral – nor should I be, I didn’t know the man. I am perhaps only family in the way everyone in Iceland is family – bound together under a legacy of our grandparents’ hardship against rough winters and volcanic fire. A shared sense of something like guilt, but not quite, just the feeling that others had to suffer before us to make our lamb-stuffed stomachs and drunken revelry possible. The only cure for this feeling might be more lamb and wine.
Tents are erected on wet valley grass, children scream and play football, adults turn to the bathhouse for release from a long week. The ever-present smell of Ólafsfjörður's fish factories doesn’t bother them the same way it does me – a punch in the gut and a muffled retch with each strong gust of wind from the sea. I’m saved only when evening arrives, and the mouth-watering aroma of roast lamb burns away everything else.
Death marks a calendar justification for the family reunion – but it doesn’t mar the tone of the occasion. There are maybe sixty of us in all, with enough food and drink for twice that.
“Are all these people related to us?” The flow of Icelandic chatter – between a pair of recently introduced cousins – is broken. I pick up a word or two occasionally, but never enough to know how serious the conversation I’ve interrupted is. This makes my questions short, anxious.
“Yes, in some way or another. It’s basically a big clan meeting, you see.”
I laugh, “Better make sure the chieftain knows what we want before his trip to Thingvellir.”
A drunken adult says almost the same sentence back at me – perhaps mistaking my own voice for that of her conscience – and adds; “That’s what it is though, really, except these days we don’t have to butcher Gudrun out back to solve a land dispute.”
Gudrun manages to smile warily, consulting her glass for some assistance in understanding why my new cousin finds butchering her so hilarious.
When the lamb, waffles and coffee run dry, the clan must return to their tents. Iceland’s summer sun is unrelenting though, and the frivolous fixations of intoxication make 3AM the perfect time for me to explore the fog-soaked mountains. While the others tuck into sleeping bags and begin the squeaky wiggle of trying to get comfortable on an air mattress, I fetch my camera and begin climbing.
Thick air and a light head make the hike harder than I’d like, but I set my sights on a lookout that pokes through the clouds. The silence is complete, save the wind and one lonely flagpole tapping out a quiet, erratic rhythm as wire brushes on steel. The lights of the city are on, but the town may as well be deserted. The streets are empty, houses are silent, windows are dark.
I take a photo. The shutter click is deafening. I keep hiking.
It’s hard to tell what’s fog and what’s cloud. I’ve never seen fog that hangs twenty meters above the ground, but I’ve never seen clouds that come down so close to earth either. The walk takes a decent while, the silence only broken by single, long bird calls from birds I can’t see. A little bit of isolation shock begins to set in, as I realise how far I am from the warm atmosphere of drunken family I occupied a few hours ago.
As the city below sinks away I try to take another photo, but find I can’t lift the camera to my eye.
I am terrified.
I can’t bring myself to give up the peripheral vision required to look through the viewfinder – animal hindbrain blazing with paranoia. I can’t see into the fog, so I don’t know what’s waiting in there. I’m alone, on a thin mountain path, exposed and vulnerable. The fog brings to light my most childish fears – images of being torn apart by blood crazed mountain cannibals. Nightmare fuel.
At the same time every reasonable thought in my head is attempting to find purchase on my mind. This is serene – I say to myself – meditative. But the feeling of loneliness is palpable. Just as the wall of fog whitewashed the horizon earlier, the whole mountain in front of me now looks like an unfinished painting – a strip of gravel path on a canvas of white abyss. The fear accompanying this feeling of blindness is so primal that I can’t uproot it.
My eyes are wet. I am terrified of the Ólafsfjörður fog.
But surely the lookout isn’t much further, so I break into a sprint. It comes soon enough, but it’s a hollow reward. The weather of Iceland is temperamental at the best of times. The lookout is no longer puncturing the fog. It’s now buried in it.
I sit at the peak; catch my breath and quick point the camera at myself, and more importantly at anything behind me. Children’s fears have children’s solutions. Ghosts can’t get you under blankets, and mountain cannibals won’t come out while they’re being watched, be it by camera or human eye.
It is beautiful up here, that’s undeniable. Like the moon, or at least some place otherworldly, because the world can’t be seen outside of my tiny bubble. It could not exist; I could relax in total peace. Alas, the mountain cannibals await just that very thing, I’m sure of it.
I wish I could say I calmed myself in meditation on the lookout – enjoying the peace that can only be found when occupying a hilltop in solitude. But no, eventually the wind picked up – and along with the smell of fish came the familiar sight of city lights.
I ran home, to my tent, to my clan, to the squeak of air mattresses.
Far away from the mountain cannibals of the Ólafsfjörður fog.