Published July 19, 2015
Prairie. Nothing but prairie as far as the eye can see. It must have been terrifying for the New Icelanders all those years ago to be able to see forever instead of being boxed in by mountains on three sides and the North Atlantic on the fourth. Or perhaps it gave them a sense of possibility. On a clear day, you really can see forever.
“When the neighbour comes to visit, you can see him arriving the day before,” they say around here. Maybe that is why everyone is so hospitable. “Manitobans don’t like mountains,” they also say. “They obstruct the view.”
Reading and driving
My hosts in Gimli have given me a car and sent me off in search of a farmer’s market in Arnes. The roads are under construction and so I am veered off course, like the Vikings were when they first discovered Canada by accident on the way to Greenland. No matter, I will go wherever the highway takes me.
The roads here are almost impossibly linear, like a mathematical equation, a Platonic ideal of a straight line. “You can even read while driving,” a priest tells me and then proceeds to inform me that sometimes, on his way to mass, he does just that, going through his sermon while behind the wheel. If you are going to drive while reading, you might as well be saying your prayers.
A Manitoban abroad
Yes, this is Neil Young country. Neil was born in Winnipeg, the biggest city for miles around but still something of a backwater in this endless expanse. He left as soon as he could, heading for the coffeeshops of Yorkville, Toronto to ply his trade and eventually to California, where he has lived ever since. But you can take the boy out of the prairie, not the prairie out of the boy, and in the same way that Bob Dylan has tried his best to forget Minnesota but never entirely been able too, there is always something of Manitoba in Neil Young.
We have tried to claim Neil Young as our own, an Icelandic skald in the New World, but without much luck. He came to Reykjavík for the first time last year, and inevitably the first question he was asked when he got off the plane was not “How do you like Iceland?” but “Are you Icelandic?” He didn’t seem to know or really care. We have tried to claim other Manitobans such as Lyle Lovett, especially at around the time when he was dating Julia Roberts, but the only one of the greats who is reliably of Icelandic linage is Guy Maddin, one of the best film directors here or anywhere. But we must, for now, concede Neil Young to the Prairies.
A prairie wind blows both ways
He returned to his roots, thematically at least, with the 2005 album ‘Prairie Wind’, dedicated to his then-recently deceased father and inspired by his own brush with death after brain surgery.
I myself would like to claim West-Icelandic roots, and in some ways I can. My great-grandfather was born in Winnipeg. His father was a journalist for Lögberg, which still exists as one half of Lögberg-Heimskringla, and is the only member of my family to hold that profession until I came along. Perhaps he brought some prairie wind back with him after all.
Most Icelanders who headed West stayed there, and can still be found here as subscribers of Lögberg-Heimskringla, as fishermen and filmmakers, as big city Winnipegians or small town Rivertonians, and are just about the nicest people you will ever meet.
My great-great-grandfather went back to Iceland, however. He said he missed the mountains.
Grapevine’s founding editor Valur Gunnarsson has been hanging out with some Western-Icelanders in North America lately. You should read about his attempts to celebrate June 17 in Toronto. And then you should read about that time he hung out in Gimli. And THEN you should read about his encounters with the Goolies.
Main photo: Herðubreið, a mountain. By Matthew Eisman.