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The Milk House: The call of the mountains

Contributed by Ryan Dennis Published on 24 February 2016

I can’t say no. Because of it I’ve ended up on top of a crane, on a tour bus with strangers and semi-kidnapped by a punk gang. It has led to some good stories. Many I use as party tricks. Someday, though, I suspect it might be the end of me.

Two German girls, Regina and Judith, wanted to camp in the West Fjords of Iceland. The West Fjords are mountainous and remote, perhaps the most beautiful part of an island already known for its picturesque landscape. I had been living in Iceland for two years but hadn’t seen the West Fjords yet.

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Regina and Judith worked on farms on the island and sometimes stayed with me in Reykjavík. We got along well. The lease on my accommodation was also ending, and I needed somewhere to stay for a week before visiting friends in Germany. It sounded like the perfect idea.

Except that it was May.

The end of May actually, but it had only been a month since the last snow fell in Reykjavík. In the north, especially the mountains, the weather was much more virulent and unpredictable. Not only could it snow while we were there, it was expected to.

In Iceland, the only deaths that tend to occur are foreigners who misjudge the impulsiveness of the climate, and there are always a few. Anyone with a little common sense would have known it was a bad idea.

“I’m in,” I said.

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The next day we took our rental car – with summer tires – through the mountains to a swimming pool at the end of the most northern road. Much to my relief, the paths were fine. In that part of the country, many of the swimming pools and hot pots are unattended and work on a donation system.

We enjoyed the outdoor pool by ourselves, surrounded by mountains and the crashing waves of the ocean only 50 feet away. It was one of those moments in which you’re glad you travel, even if you have to take chances to do it.

The mood of the day, however, changed as quickly as the weather. The roads that had been bare gravel only an hour ago were suddenly covered with snow. The wheels started spinning on the way up the first mountain – and then stopped completely.

There was no cellphone reception and likely no other person for 40 miles. It was snowing hard. I had never been in a situation where pushing actually got a car unstuck, but I pushed as hard as I could. It didn’t help. Regina got out and pushed, too. Either by grace or the sheer strength of German women, we got that car up the hill.

Unbeknownst to me, however, the real drama would occur when we pulled off to camp. We were putting up the tent among snow flurries when Regina stopped. She checked her pockets. Then a look of horror swept over her face: She had lost her phone.

We searched the car up and down, all of her clothing and through all of our gear. Nothing. It was a 400-euro phone and had many pictures of the girls’ time in Iceland. She was visibly upset.

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“It must have slipped out of my pocket when I pushed the car,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” Judith replied, taking her by the shoulders. “We’ll look for it tomorrow.”

“Are you guys crazy? It’s storming out there. The roads are covered in snow, and even if by some miracle we make it back to that spot, we’ll never find that phone. I mean, it’s just a phone. Not worth risking lives over.”

No one responded – probably because I only said these things in my head. Once again, I had not said no.

The next morning, it was storming harder. We decided that, to avoid getting the car stuck, we would park it where the snow started at the foot of the mountains and walk the rest of the way. We trudged through the snow, the wind in our faces. The mountains seemed to be sending a message clearer than any phone could. We didn’t say anything.

Regina walked the fastest, a determined look on her face that was both admirable and a little unnerving. Once I leaned over to Judith and quietly asked her if she was sure this was a good idea, but that was my only show of resistance.

At one point, a representative from Vegagerðin pulled up to us, the man responsible for reporting the conditions of the road. He was old and scowled when the girls tried to explain that we were all right, just looking for a phone. I was thankful he didn’t understand English, although I could tell what he thought our fate would be by the look on his face as he drove away.

The only other vehicle that passed us was a couple: tourists, probably looking for the swimming pool.

Icelanders are fond of saying that there is no bad weather, only people who are poorly dressed for it. Work shoes from Walmart are apparently not mountain-approved because both of my soles snapped in two.

After four hours of walking, my feet started to get cold, my socks now soaked. We still weren’t near the place where we were stuck. I was starting to worry about what shape my feet would be in after another four hours. Finally, I called it. I told them I had to go back to change my shoes.

They kept on.

Leaving two girls alone in a snowstorm in the middle of nowhere without a way to call did not set well with me, although neither did losing my feet. Luckily, the couple that had passed us had realized they couldn’t make it very far in their rental car and offered me a lift on their way back. “It’s brutal out there,” they said. “Only crazy people would be out there,” I replied. They dropped me off at our vehicle.

It had not stopped snowing, and the roads had not been plowed. I have never been a confident driver, and in fact, I had made the girls drive the entire trip so far. If the car got stuck, the final math would show us stranded hours apart from each other and no one else around to help.

Although there were plenty of opportunities before this point to say no and prevent this situation, I had one last chance to be assertive. I put the car into gear and bombed it through the snow.

The tracks behind me made a swerving path, and I came close enough to the cliff enough times to notice just how far down the ocean lay. Eventually, I came upon the girls, still plodding ahead with wind-burnt faces. “Hop in,” I said.

We sped up the slopes of the mountain, the back end fishtailing, us commanding – and then begging – the wheels to keep turning. It was tense, but finally, with a little luck (fate, we might have even thought at the time), we made it. We broke into wild cheers.

Until the snowplow passed us.

We were about to get out of the car and look for the phone when the big truck comes out of nowhere and scrapes the road clean with its blade. We were in shock. The phone was surely lost. After all it took to get there, the phone would have been buried under 3 feet of snow and indubitably ruined.

That seemed like the end of the story. We drove back in silence. Regina put on a brave face. Judith was probably glad we at least tried to recover the phone. I was thankful to be alive.

As my feet warmed and my mind became less numb, I even started to envision when I could tell the story and laugh. Still, it would be Regina who delivered the final punch line when unpacking the back of the car to set up the tent for the night.

She noticed there was a false bottom to the trunk where the spare tire was kept and that the end near the seats had a gap in it. She lifted it up.

“Hey guys, look what I found …” PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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