WELL, THAT HAPPENED: Europe’s Cowboy State

By on November 3, 2015

Cue the Icelandic dispatches.

Strokkur geyser in Iceland (left) and Old Faithful in Wyoming. (Photo: rafn sigurbjornsson/invisible.us)

Strokkur geyser in Iceland (left) and Old Faithful in Wyoming. (Photo: rafn sigurbjornsson/invisible.us)

Jackson, WY – Now that I’m tucked away in the Northern Atlantic, I can now officially report that I’ll be writing this column while living in Iceland. That doesn’t mean this column is going to pull a Madonna and reinvent itself. “Well, That Happened” will remain grounded in American pop culture and lifestyle topics, but now has a sprinkle of Icelandic spice added in. Odd combination, you say?

The truth is Iceland is the Wyoming of Europe.

Weirdly, the population density in the country of Iceland and the state of Wyoming is basically the same. In Iceland, there are roughly three people per square kilometer, while in Wyoming we have six people per square mile. Much of the miles are expansive grasslands with tree-less buttes breaking up the horizon. Horses hang out in fields, reindeer/elk run across the roads, tourists pull off on the side of the road to take pictures of random things. Wyoming has its buffalo jerky, and Iceland has its hard, dried cod jerky. To sweeten the pot even more, both places are ticking time bombs of geothermal activity.

When people ask me, “Why Iceland?” I tell them that it feels just like home, but that everyone talks funny. After three trips to Iceland in the past three years, coming here to stay doesn’t feel like I’ve completely uprooted myself and moved to a foreign land. But rather it feels like some strange alternate universe where outlaws and Vikings have swapped places and the tourists remain just as plentiful.

Having lived in a tourist town like Jackson, I feel like I’ve become a much better tourist. I would assume we all are. Jacksonites have been faced with so many bizarre tourist questions that we’re a bit savvier as to what’s an appropriate question and what’s an embarrassing one. Being surrounded by our own local landscapes, we know our boundaries and understand and respect personal space. We really want to pronounce things right, because we know how awful it is to hear someone say “Gross Ventray.” Ultimately, because Jackson Hole puts such a high value on being local, we can’t stand to feel like anything but. And, man, do we roll our eyes at other American tourists.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a hostel in Reykjavik, having just consumed a small, simple breakfast of bread, meat and plain Icelandic skyr (a thick yogurt-like dairy product that’s more like a cheese). It’s about 8:15 in the morning and there’s still no sign of a sunrise. Another American tourist was staring at the breakfast table bewildered by the spread: slices of cheese, salami, a bowl of hard-boiled eggs, mason jars of dried fruits and muesli.

“I’ve never seen any of this before,” he said. He looked at the loaf of bread next to a serrated knife. “How does this work, do I just…?”

I thought he was kidding at first but then I realized he was serious. Here was an American tourist, presumably traveling alone in a foreign country and had somehow made it through life without ever cutting a loaf of bread. I sliced a piece off for him like a loving parent teaching his socially challenged 25-year-old man-child some goddamn life skills.

“Thanks man,” he said. “This country, right?”

“Right?” I said with a laugh.

Baffled. Completely baffled.

And so, the Icelandic adventure begins, and I’m thankful that living in Jackson Hole has added a hefty amount of travel practicality to my arsenal. As far away as Iceland may feel, there’s the reassuring element that it’s only a seven-hour flight from Denver. It’s not often that you can find a place so similar to your own home that the comfort of familiarity trumps the anxiety of distance. PJH

About Andrew Munz

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