The Roads Home

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There is no road in the world more important than the road home.

When I was young, I spent a lot of time in Winnipeg with my grandparents but I always knew that the day would come when my grandmother would take me to the bus station and put me on the bus. The bus would back out of its stall and there’d be the smell of exhaust and the soft, bristle feel of the blue bus seats.

In those days, WWII was still on or just finished and a military mentally had, over six years of war, seeped into every aspect of our lives. Bus drivers were like Sergeant Majors, making everyone line up in January cold outside the bus, taking our tickets at the bus door, letting us onto the bus one at a time. It didn’t matter how cold it was, how hard the wind blew, how little a kid was or how many kids a woman had with her.

Few people had cars in those days and we were packed into bus. Sometimes, the driver had to set up camp stools in the centre aisle.

I always tried to get a window seat. I sat there, my nose pressed to the cold glass, my breath frosting the glass, taking pictures in my head, memorizing the landmarks of the road home so that if, some day, I had to return home on my own, I’d know the way. In winter, the ride was scary, the bus wheels crunched over frozen ice and snow, the streets of Winnipeg were piled high with ploughed snow, even in early afternoon, the sky was dark, clouds pressed down, snow drifted before the wind.

We stopped, from time to time, to pick up passengers who were huddled against anything that would shelter them from the wind. The door would open with a whoosh, people would stamp their feet on the steps to break off the clinging snow, the driver would have gone outside so he could put their suitcases and boxes into the luggage compartment under the bus, then he’d get on and the door would swing shut with another great whoosh, the motor would rev up and we’d pull away from the curb.

There were city lights, house lights, commercial building windows, but then as we reached the edge of the city, we plunged into darkness. The snow drifted more heavily, the houses were further and further apart, the graveyards were filled with drifts with only the tops of the monuments showing, fences were barely visible, houses appeared in window lit clusters, the houses of strangers who might or might not, if you knocked on their door needing help, open them.

The road to Selkirk led through Lockport, a marker past, then Selkirk itself with its looming brick mental hospital. From there the farmer’s fields, the uncultivated forest, were swept by wind, covered by a frozen sea of drifting snow. The trees stood up like iron. We turned away from the highway to places like Dunnotor, stopping to let people off at Ponemah, Winnipeg Beach. Cold had shrunk the houses, snow had buried them. People took their suitcases and boxes and disappeared into the darkness over roads whose sides were piled high with ploughed snow.

Home was closer now. If anything terrible happened, if the bus broke down, if I got off at the wrong place, I was closer to home. It would be easier to find my way. We stopped at crossroads where people climbed down and disappeared. Seats now were empty. There was the sign for the Lutheran summer camp, then the sweep of marsh and beyond it, Lake Winnipeg. Then there was the hospital and the turn onto Centre, the wheels squealing on the dry snow and there, my head bobbing, my eyes searching, was my mother large in her winter coat, waiting.

I had to hold onto the safety bar climbing down the steps and had to jump from the last one onto the packed snow. “How was the trip?” she always asked. “Fine,” I always said but there, behind my eyes, was every landmark that would lead me home, just in case.

I traveled that road from Gimli to Winnipeg endless, countless times and when I turned sixteen and got a summer job in Winnipeg, on weekends, lonely in a city where I had no friends, I took the bus to the city’s edge and put out my thumb. I rode in cars, in trucks, in the back of trucks, on motorcycles, each ride taking me past landmarks I knew by heart. Sometimes two rides did the trick but other times, it might be six and
I might walk for long stretches as the sun fell toward the west.

In later years, I traveled new roads home, from Riverton, Snow Lake, Pinawa, and then, in a crazy grab at a dream, graduate school in Iowa and back, along Highway 75, roads through hills covered in corn as far as the eye could see, down into Minnesota, around Minneapolis, through a landscape full of silos, through small towns with church spires, past houses that seemed they should be on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post. Down to a border with rituals I had not known and through a southwestern Manitoba I’d only heard of in school lessons.

And then, and then, the impossibility of four years in southern Missouri, its magnolia, redbud, persimmon blooms, its soft accents and watermelon fields and each year when the nights remained stifling hot, we went north, north to home, away from cherry coke and pecan pie, toward a remembered dream. We watched the landscape go by, sorgum fields, the pecan groves, the small farms of intricate, decaying houses, and then through Iowa again, hills and corn, and the lakes and forests of Minnesota. We knew when we arrived in Winnipeg and I began to count the landmarks of my childhood that our trip was nearly done. And, once again, we watched intently, calling out the markers that led us home and turned finally into Gimli and stopped in front of my parents’ home first for we knew there people were waiting, watching out the window for when we would appear. My mother first, scooping up the grandkids, hugging all of us and my father, trailing right behind.

We finally settled in Victoria, not planned, a five minute phone call, a loaded trailer, crossing through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Washington State, a road never to be traveled again, and now the road home was stretched, the sixty miles from Winnipeg to Gimli, turned into two hundred times that, every year the ferry across the ocean, over the Rockies, through Banff, the slow progress through the centre of Calgary, the big sky, the rolling hills, sometimes the antelope, Medicine Hat, Swift Current, Moosejaw, Brandon, always pointing home. I know these markers now as well as I did the ones of childhood from Winnipeg to Gimli. After thirty-eight years of driving home from the great West Coast and driving back, I need no map.

What is home? Nowadays, no one waits to greet me as I arrive. My parents rest with my brother and grandparents in the graveyard north of town. No hugs or news. No pot of tea upon the kitchen table, butter tarts or vinarterta. In the house where I grew up someone else lives now. Many of my high school classmates have spread across the world or died. Home, I think, is a place, a history, a familiarity, but most of all, people, open doors, intense interest in each other’s lives, happiness in reconnecting, perhaps the life we shared when life was at its most intense. Perhaps it’s just a habit for some of us, this coming home from distant places but in Islendingadagurinn, in the Gimli Park, at the foot of the Viking statue, on the dock, along the beach, eating fresh pickerel fillets, visiting those who have stayed, or returned to live, or to visit, I find evidence of that thing called home.

The Persimmon Tree

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Interesting idea, culture.

We defend it, promote it, sometimes have riots over it, pass laws about, even go to war over it.

Our culture is, of course, superior to everyone else’s. Even though, in truth, most ethnic groups that have been in Canada any length of time usually know very little about the culture of the country they came from, often don’t speak the language except for a few pet words, know no more of their history than what they see in movies or see in travel brochures. That’s not to criticize anyone. It’s a normal process to become like the culture of the country in which you live. The past is past. And memories of the past are often not even accurate.

When I lived in Southern Missouri for four years, I lived in a world that had little connection to Gimli, Manitoba or Winnipeg or even Manitoba. It was for me and my family an exotic place filled with both pleasures and dangers.

There was no vinarterta but there were pecan pies. The pecans were grown locally and the pie makers usually shelled their own nuts.Pecans and pecan trees and pecan tree rustling were a big part of local lore.

We had watermelon picnics. Big watermelons. Huge watermelons. One cent a pound if I remember correctly. We stopped one afternoon at a zinc lined tank that held water, ice and watermelons and bought a watermelon that was sixty pounds. In Manitoba, my mother bought pieces of watermelon and divided it up amongst us. With sixty pounds of watermelon and four people there was no need to skimp and since the temperature was over a hundred and the humidity so high it felt like we were breathing water and sweat ran down our legs into our sandals, when we got home we dug right in. We knew it would be sweet because the farmer in overalls and a wide brimmed hat had a little device he had plunged into the watermelon and taken out a plug so we could taste it. No chance of getting a watermelon that tasted like a cucumber.

We were invited to parties where we all took turns cranking the handle to make home-made ice cream to eat with a variety of home baked cakes.

We arrived one hot, humid evening, having pulled a trailer all the way from Winnipeg. It took us three days and two nights and we were so tired we just threw blankets on the floor of our rented house and fell asleep.

We woke to the sound of a Manitoba blizzard racing through the hydro wires and the knocking of a lady neighbour with a apple pie she had made for us. Turned out there was no wind, it was as hot and humid as ever, with the heavy sweet smell of Rose of Sharon that grew as a hedge along the back lane. The intense humming were cicadas, millions of them in the grass, in the trees, hard bodied insects, the males of which were “singing” to attract a mate.

Mrs. Berry, she who brought us a pie, gave me a piece of local culture, immediately. She said that the caragana hedge that ran along the sidewalk needed to be cleaned out. The house had been empty for a number of months and paper and plastic and leaves had been caught at ground level. I’ll do that as soon as I can, I said and she replied, not with your hands, which was exactly what I would have done. Use a rake or a long stick. Rattle snakes like to lie in places like that. She also added that when we got up in the morning, I was to check that there were no snakes on the patio before I let the children out onto it. And to keep the screen door shut. Otherwise, we might have an unwelcome visitor. Snake lore. Sort of like knowing not to leave food on the picnic table at the fish camp on Lake Winnipeg. Otherwise, you might have a large, black unwelcome visitor. Lake Winnipeg bear lore.

We’d had to find Missouri on a map. We didn’t know anything about its history. Had to learn from the locals that it had been a border state in the civil war, that the city had been burned to the ground by union soldiers enraged by bushwhackers ambushing some of their compatriots. We had to learn that every family in town knew what side their great grandparents had supported, South or North.

We had to learn that even though it was the 1970s, this was a sundowner city. What’s that? I asked. “Blacks are okay in city limits during the day. Not after sundown,“ I was told. I was shocked but then I thought about how native people in Manitoba have often been treated.

There were small things. The most popular drink was Cherry Coke. I’d never heard of it. And I couldn’t ask for potato chips if I wanted French fries.

Although it sounds like stereotyping, there were dogs, coons, guns and mules. And coal towns where miners and their families lived until strip mining ripped out all the coal and left great gaping gashes in the land. Then, with no work, people moved and since most of the buildings were made of brick, the buildings sat in the Missouri heat until at least one town we regularly visited was bought by a single person who turned it into a furniture shopping mecca.

In the Icelandic Canadian community of Manitoba, poverty and the role of the fishing industry, the large American companies who exploited the fishermen, are all part of our culture. In Missouri it was the companies who came to strip away the coal, then leave wreckage behind.

There were, we found, talented musical instrument makers, local musicians and just as we often read and write about Riverton and the various groups who began there, there was local music.

There were revival meeting, especially in the spring. Hellfire and damnation preachers scaring the not-so-wicked into repenting and becoming reborn—at least for a few weeks.

There were the slow drawls and women in the local stores calling me “Honey”. There were wild persimmon trees. That’s what caused me to write this reminiscence. In Manitoba we searched out wild plums, raspberries, wild strawberries whose smell was the sweetest smell of summer, saskatoons and chokecherries.
persimmon tree Japan

In Missouri in the fall heat we saw trees covered in fruit that looked like small yellow tomatoes and when we asked were told these were persimmon trees. We did not know what to do with them so we left them on the trees. I regret not having asked because persimmons are eaten raw, are also cooked and used in baking. They are part of the local cooking and history and culture.

Today, these many years later, I ate a persimmon I’d bought at the local Chinese store. It was sweet, delicious and it made me think about my four years in a culture I loved but barely got to know. I canoed on one of the Ozark rivers, I taught for free in the basement of a bar in Kansas City, Mo., I saw a water moccasin on the road, I ate more pecan pie than is good for anyone’s blood sugar, I learned to shoot a pistol (badly) and I traveled through the night to a barn in the middle of nowhere to eat the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten.

Most of these are small things. They are only connected by place. But that is the way culture is. It is a way of life much of which is governed by the landscape, by local resources, by history. It contains with it the good and the bad created by time and circumstance. The locals live it from the day they are born and they know a thousand thousand things. Those of us who come to it later never fully know the complexities of local culture but we can still be intrigued, interested, and do our best to understand.

The Good Guest, Olive, 1929

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Olive Murray was welcomed everywhere she went in Iceland. That is partly because of the generosity and kindness of the Icelanders but it was also because she was a good guest.

When she stays at the parsonage at Setberg with Séra Jósef Jónsson and his wife, Hólmfridur Halldórsdóttir, she doesn’t just observe but participates.

She says, “before going to bed, I strolled out to watch the pastor and his children, who with some of the farm hands were busy sorting great piles of sheep’s wool, which had been spread out to dry in the sun. This work was going on together with haymaking in all the valleys where there were farms. The wool is washed, dried and afterwards collected in piles, packed in big sacks and sent off to be sold to merchants who, in their turn, ship it to England, Spain and America, mainly to America. On my return from Iceland in August in a freight steamer round the north and west coasts, we put in at eight little ports for the purpose of collecting this wool, and arrived at Leith with 3600 loaded sacks on board!”

“I stayed out till nearly 10 p.m. at Setberg, enjoying the warm evening sunshine, helping to sort the soft, clean wool and taking some photographs and sketches.”

Later, at Miklibær she spends most of the afternoon helping with the hay. “Haymaking time is very important in Iceland, for the number of ponies and sheep which a farmer is able to keep during the winter depends largely upon his stock of hay which he uses for their fodder.”

Her willingness to help pays off for this kindness is repaid in kind. She does not want to continue her trip in a car for the previous experience of the roads was not good. However, she has not been able to find available horses at haymaking time, nor a guide.

“The pastor’s wife and her brother-in-law had ridden off to a farm some miles away to take coffee with some friends. On their return we all had supper together and then, while the sun s hone upon a golden evening, bathing the lovely valley in glory, I energetically did some more haymaking. To my joy, a farmer, who was helping with the others, offered to supply three ponies for the rest of my journey, which he said would take a couple of days. A young man whose name I think was Magnússon, a native of Akureyri, and who had been at the farm at Miklibær on a visit, offered to be my guide.‘

“My spirits rose in leaps and bounds, for it looked as if I should be able to ride into Akureyri after all, and if my luck held I ought to reach it on July 17th, a day sooner than the date on which I had roughly calculated”

“We sat in a circle among the sweet smelling hay while the price of the ponies and the wages of the guide were discussed. Magnússon wished to know if I would be afraid of fording a rather difficult and swift river, to which question the pastor´s brother replied:
“Oh, no, she is not afraid: The farmer from Bólatadahlid told me that she rides the ponies not at all like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander!”

The next day when they reach the river, they “then plunged into the swirling water. My pony was splendid: stones were whirling past his sturdy little legs, but he bravely battled on and I found the best plan was to keep my eyes fixed steadily in front on the tails of the others and not to look down at the foaming torrent of icy water which was splashing over my legs. Had I slipped in, I should probably have been swept away by the current into the deep part of the river where rescue would not have been easy. However, we all got safely across and another little adventure was over.”

They travel all day and don’t arrive at a farmhouse until nine o’clock. “Haymaking was still in busy progress, but the farmer left it and came to greet us, asking what we wanted. To our anxious inquiries as to whether we could stay the night, he replied:

“Já!”

“Have you eggs?”

“Nay.”

“Fresh fish?”

“Nay.”

“Porridge and milk””

“Já Já!”

“I was so faint and tired, Magnússon had to lift me from my pony.”

The farmer’s wife feeds them the porridge and milk. Olive finally sleeps. At eight o’clock the next morning, the farmer’s wife brings “coffee and thick bread and butter…and at 10:30 she had ready a substantial meal of sandwiches, salted fish and a delicious Icelandic pudding, a sort of custard eaten with sugar, cream and nutmeg.”

After breakfast, they are on their way and eventually, Olive sees a sign “20 kils. to Akureyri.”, her destination.

Shortly, she “rode up to the little Godafoss hotel and was shown to the luxury of a real bedroom once more, with a comfortable bed, a hanging cupboard and—joy of joys!—I learned there was a bathroom!”

She has made a difficult journey, one that few foreigners had ever attempted and which even Icelanders seldom made. Instead, travelers usually traveled by boat. She’d made her way from farm to farm, her phrase book and her growing notes about how to say words and phrases in Icelandic allowing her to communicate enough to get by. From time to time she has been fortunate to meet Icelanders who speak English.

She is always greeted with courtesy. People cannot always do as she wishes, there is hay to make, wool to sort, animals to take care of but if they can’t help, they find someone who can.

Relationships are never one sided. If Olive had been arrogant, difficult, demanding, critical, all those things that make travelers ugly and unwelcome, she would not have found Icelanders so helpful. She may have had kronur in her purse but, as she says time and again, her offer to pay for her lodging and meals, is turned down. Icelanders, in 1929, are often poor but they are proud. She took nothing of that pride away from anyone. Respect gathers respect. It is obvious that her willingness to put up with hardship, to make the best of things, to not be afraid, to participate, earned her the respect that was evident when the pastor’s son says she doesn’t ride like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander.

Olive understands and appreciates that she has just had a great compliment.

1879: travel in Iceland

ponies fording a river from girl's guide

Photo courtesy of: http://blessiblog.blogspot.ca/2012/11/have-icelandic-will-travel.html

How hard was it for your ancestors to get from their farm to the harbour where they would meet the ship that would take them on the first leg of their journey to Amerika?

Rodwell was in Iceland, the summer of 1879. He describes his trip. He’s traveling at the same time as some of our ancestors were making their trip over the mountain passes, through the lava fields, past the glacier covered mountains, over the bogs. Unfortunately, I don’t have a diary from my Great Grandparents describing their journey. However, I have Rodwell’s report in Nature.

This is what he says:

Climate.—The presence of jokulls covered with perpetual snow; of the Gulf Stream, and of an arctic current, tend to make the climate of Iceland very variable and subject to sudden changes. On August 20, when we left Kalmanstunga, in the centre of the island, the sun was as hot as during an English mid-August day; later in the day as we passed the Geitlands jokull a piercing icy wind bore down upon us with great force, and again towards evening when we entered the northern end of the Thingvellir valley it was warm and summer-like. During the course of that day we experienced a difference of more than 100 degrees F. Again on August 30, at Eyrarbakki, on the south coast….a crust of ice had formed on all exposed water. At 10 A.M. a bright hot August sun was shining and the air was still. At 3 P.M. rain and violent wind occurred, and towards evening, again cleared up. Frequently the wind drops suddenly and a complete change of weather may take place in the course of a few hours. The summer has been unusually dry and warm, but on August 31 the weather began to break up. On that day we travelled from Eyrarbakki to Reykjavik by way of Rekir (in Olfusahreppr), and we shall never forget the difficulties of crossing the Helliskard, a low spur of the mountain Hengill. The whole tract is either the living palagonite rock, or detached fragments heaped together in confusion. Hence it is only possible to proceed at a slow (sic)space. A violent wind swept over the face of the mountain, driving the rain in almost horizontal sheets along the surface. From time to time mists floated over the mountain, and it was bitterly cold.”

Did you know that? Did you know that this was what your lang lang amma braved? To come to Amerika so that her children and children’s children could have a better life? That your lang lang afi endured?

What he describes is not winter. It is August. “Piercing icy wind with great force” a difference in temperature in one day of a hundred degrees. Rain and violent wind. The travelling from Eyrarbakki to Helliskard is so hard that he says he will never forget it. The wind drove rain in “almost horizontal sheets”. It “was bitterly cold.”

It wasn’t just adults that endured this type of trip to the harbour. It also was children. In my family there were daughters. Everyone would have been on horseback. Luggage on horseback. Riding into driving, horizontal rain. Battered by wind. Unable to go any faster.

Why do you celebrate Islendingadagurinn? Why do you go to Thorrablots? Why have you got a name plate in Icelandic in your yard? Why do you walk to the rock? Why do you eat vinarterta?

I hope you do them because you are proud of your Icelandic ancestors, because you enjoy the events and the food. I hope, though, you take time to think about a line of Icelandic horses with people hunched against wind and rain, following the tracks cut deep into the ground from centuries of use. Because that’s why you and I are here.

Report on Iceland: 1879, Nature

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When I am researching a subject, the strangest bits of debris turn up, sort of like driftwood on the beach, not surprisingly there but still a surprise. I stumbled across a copy of Nature Magazine, 1879 and lo and behold, there was a report on conditions in Iceland.

I was most pleased to see the report because 1879 is right in the thick of the emigration from Iceland to Amerika. To stay or to leave was not only a difficult choice for many because it would mean leaving everything they knew behind for an uncertain future, leaving family behind, leaving farms that may have been where their people had lived for centuries.

One of the arguments for not leaving was that conditions in Iceland were improving. However, I’ve never come across any precise description of these improving conditions. Until, that is, I discovered Nature, 1879. There are a number of parts to the report but the one I immediately was drawn to was the following:

“Improvements in Iceland.—During the year which has elapsed since we last visited Iceland, several very marked improvements have been set on foot. In no respect is this more conspicuous than in the case of the roads. A few years ago a writer made an assertion “there are no roads in Iceland.” At the present time road-making is making great progress, and many scores of miles of excellent roads exist. Of course we mean such roads as alone are possible, without great expenditure of money and labour, in a country which is one vast volcano. Driving roads are impossible, but excellent pony roads are being constructed, and will greatly facilitate despatch of business and intercommunication. The first bridge in Iceland is about to be commenced. It will cross the Olfusa, and materially help to establish a better communication between the east and the west. A second bridge is to be thrown across the Thjorsa. The first lighhouse in the island was erected a year ago, and the light-dues paid by ships at the port of Reykjavik have already almost paid for its construction. There is some talk of founding a school of farming at Modrudalr in the north- west, and a law school in Reykjavik, where a divinity school and a a medical school already exist. In Reykjavik new houses are being built; there is a proposition on foot to build an hotel, and a new house for the Althing, which now holds its biennial meetings in the Latin school. Hafnafjord and Eyrarbakki are flourishing little ports; Akureryri does a fair trade in shark liver oil, and in ponies; and the Krisuvik sulphur mines appear to be in good working order and to yield a rich product.
Reykjavik, September 2 G. F. RODWELL

My thanks, these many years later, to G.F. Rodwell for his report. Think of the importance of what he says. Travel, every writer says, is difficult and dangerous. People die because of the weather, they drown crossing rivers, they suffocate in bogs, they fall from their horses. There are no roads, just tracks made by horses over the centuries, tracks often cut so deep that they are often filled with water. Travel, even in summer, and Rodwell gives a detailed account of his summer travel, is often painfully slow and filled with hardship. Yet, there, right at the top of improvements is that the pony tracks are being improved. Not roads for wheeled vehicles. That will have to wait but in this land of lava and morass an improved pony track is a blessing.

Not only that but a bridge is going to be built. The first in Iceland and a second one is being planned. Imagine what that means. No more having to ride horses through rivers dangerous with unpredictable bottoms, glacial debris that can break a horse’s leg, knock it over, ice from glaciers, no getting soaking wet with no place to dry out.

Not only that but a lighthouse has been built the year before. It seems unimaginable in a country like Iceland that there have not been lighthouses for hundreds of years. Iceland is an island with a hostile coast. Safe travel by ship is critical and yet there have been no lighthouses. Now, a lighthouse has been built. As an aside, look at what Rodwell has to say about his visit to the lighthouse keeper. Rodwell is the first visitor during the entire year. How is that for living in isolation. It is, for us, with our highways and cars and buses and trains and planes nearly impossible to imagine living in such isolation.

In Reykjavik, new houses are being built. Not only that but there’s going to be a new building for the Althing. There’s talk of founding a school of agriculture. These are events as foundation shaking as an earthquake. Iceland has depended on agriculture for survival since its founding and, yet, there has been no school of agriculture. It seems impossible to believe but, now, in 1879, enough has changed in the way people think for such an idea to appear. Iceland is poor and that limits everything but poverty can often be overcome if you can just change the system. The proof of that is in Rodwell’s report. Only a year has passed and that first lighthouse has nearly been paid for by dues charged to ships. The money was there. The way of thinking had to be changed.

Yes, there are changes happening in Iceland in 1879 but the biggest change of all is that the way of thinking has begun to change. First you have to imagine something like roads, bridges, lighthouses, before you can build them. In Rodwell’s report we see the beginning of the possible, of what could be but those changes would be slow coming and would make little difference to our people who chose to emigrate. They needed change now, in 1872 and 1873 and, perhaps, it was their leaving forced those who stayed, especially the wealthy landowners, to grudgingly accept that change was necessary.