We were two days into our trip, two hours into our hike in Iceland’s Skaftafell park, and there I was, 30 paces behind my Dutch travel companion, flipping him the bird behind his back after he’d turned to inform me that something up the trail was beautiful. I know, pathetic. Indefensible even. But by this point he’d unknowingly broken me.
I landed in Keflavik the previous week and was running out of money, so I put out a call online for someone looking to share a car and tour the island. The Dutchman sent a brief, affirmative response. After relearning to drive stick by doing a couple laps in a parking lot outside the rental place, then whipping out of Reykjavik—making sure not to come to a full-stop and, therefore, a stall—we were off to explore the magical island for a week.
I should have met with him before we jumped in the car together. It turns out, he wasn’t agreeable. Literally. He would challenge me on every single thing I said, bringing me to the point of exhaustion, making me question the validity of each statement I intended to make. And he was a huge music snob, exclusively into minimalist, avant-garde electronic. (“I don’t like music that regular people like.”) So that’s what we listened to. All day. Every day. He would load up on skyr, Iceland’s addictive yogurt-cheese, chugging cartons of the drinkable version cartoonishly—in loud gulps, Adam’s apple bobbing emphatically, sighing deeply afterwards—like he was alone in the car. After the first performance nearly made me physically ill, I would get out of the vehicle when the ritual was repeated every morning. And each one of the jokes I made to try to lighten the mood would either fall flat or elicit calls for further explanation or clarification from him.
He stood there, at the edge of the cliff. I looked around—it was just the two of us, for miles and miles.
Iceland’s beauty aggravated our incompatibility. We drove through green lava fields, dotted with steaming geothermic pools. He’d point and say, “That’s very beautiful,” (pronounced buh-ti-fuhl) in a manner I could only take as condescending—like he was telling me what the scenery was because I didn’t know better, like he was the ultimate arbiter of beauty. We climbed to the top of Skógafoss falls—higher than Niagara—and looked down. “That’s very buh-ti-fuhl.” We stopped at Gatklettur, an arch rock and cliffs, being battered at dusk by the Atlantic Ocean. “That’s very buh-ti-fuhl.” Every turn of the ring road around Iceland, there was something new—a black sand beach, fiords, sulfur pits, volcano calderas—and he sat alert, sure to be first to note such-and-such geologic feature. He’d point and I’d wait for it… “That’s very buh-ti-fuhl.”
After a while, I stopped talking, stopped acknowledging.
Even at Skaftafell, as we walked along a trail that passed Svartifoss falls—a stream that tumbles over a wall of eroded rocks that look like the keys on a giant organ—he’d pick up the pace to see things before me, to tell me how buh-ti-fuhl the view was.
We continued up a rocky hill that bordered the Skaftafellsjökull glacier—him ahead, me behind. He stopped and turned back to me at a cliff that provided a panoramic view of the devastation a glacial burst had wrought on the surrounding land just a decade earlier. “This is very buh-ti-fuhl.”
I stopped and sighed. Five more days of this. He returned to the view, satisfied, I imagined, with having so thoroughly summed up what we were seeing.
He stood there, at the edge of the cliff. I looked around—it was just the two of us, for miles and miles. No one had seen us together on the trail. The car was rented under my name. I stared at his back, 50 feet away. And then a thought entered my mind: If I were to walk over there and push him, nobody would know. I entertained it a split-second longer than I should have.
I shook the idea from my brain as he approached. I feigned a smile. “So buh-ti-fuhl,” he said, walking away.
I got to the edge of the cliff and thought about jumping.