On an island, you can become one

In my mind’s eye I was the solitary inhabitant of Grímsey, as much a part of the island as the island and all its graces had become a part of me.

Courtesy of Thorsteinn Berghreinsson
The author leans on Orbis et Globis (Circle and Sphere), a 9-ton concrete sculpture marking the edge of the Arctic Circle on the island of Grímsey. It’s repositioned annually.

Isolation is not necessarily a bad thing. I have found that it can clear the mind, still the heart, and allow one to become reacquainted with non-electronic sounds.

In this vein, I recently pulled out a map and allowed my eyes to do the walking over the wide world laid out before me. Eventually, they settled on a tiny island off the northern coast of Iceland, the only place where that country touches the Arctic Circle. The place was called Grímsey, population 61, and it immediately seized my imagination. I was determined to be inhabitant No. 62, however briefly.

And so, on a brilliant summer day, I flew out over the North Atlantic, with no other objective than to visit Grímsey, enjoy the peace, and lay claim to straddling the Arctic Circle. Once in Iceland, it was a matter of getting to the north coast, and then boarding a ship for the three-hour journey.

There is something about being on the high seas and then, suddenly, spotting an island in the distance. It is akin to a hand reaching out, beckoning the way to terra firma and all the reassurances it offers. As soon as I set foot on Grímsey I felt at home. 

The thing about being on an island, especially a very small one, is that one’s presence never goes unnoticed. It’s not that anyone approached me for cross-examination or looked at me askance, but there was always a knowing look in the eyes of the islanders as I walked past them on the dirt road or encountered them in the general store. It struck me that this, in a way, made me an island myself. Just as I was regarding Grímsey as something to behold, so was I being examined as something like a strange new land that had come up over the horizon.

Once settled into my room in the guesthouse, I set out on foot, due north, always north, away from the solitary village and the sounds of the working harbor. My goal was a large concrete sphere that Iceland had placed on Grímsey as a marker for the Arctic Circle. 

Why a sphere? It’s a curious and fascinating reason: Due to eccentricities in Earth’s rotation, the Arctic Circle is shifting north about 48 feet per year, steadily toward the tip of the island. I was, in effect, in pursuit of a moving target. Year by year, the Icelanders roll the sphere to a position that corresponds with the latest Arctic latitude.

I followed the road up an extensive incline along Grímsey’s rocky western shore. If I had carried any concerns with me on this trip, they were steadily falling away, replaced by the caress of the sea breeze, the bluest sky, and the mournful call of legions of puffins on the wing. And then, as I descended the lee side of the incline – silence.

I was finally alone, at the end of the world. I owed it to myself to sit, just sit, on a cliff edge looking out over the ocean. Just as islands are self-contained, so was I self-contained. At that moment I wanted for nothing. In my mind’s eye I was the solitary inhabitant of Grímsey, as much a part of the island as the island and all its graces had become a part of me.

In due time I got back to my feet and finally reached the Arctic Circle sphere – taller than a man and looking otherworldly, resting in solitary fashion in a grassy field. I approached it and stretched my arms about it, one island to another. A moment’s embrace was all I required before turning for home. 

One could do worse than be a lover of islands, or, temporarily, become an island oneself.

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