A chess club, two hitch-hikers and a mountain

I passed in and out of Iceland like a ghost, invisible but hearing and seeing everything. I passed sweeping vistas of prairie, crumbling volcanic rock covered in a carpet of grey-green moss, mesas and plateaus of sudden imperious height which by destiny called for assembly, and cascading waterfalls tumbling from the cliffs surrounding glaciers and walls of rock.  I was alone on the road much of the time, ensconced within my speeding vehicle, like an astronaut, piloting new territory, exploring some bizarre and beautiful planet.  In newness, in wonder, lost in the color and the landscape and the sounds of the language, yet I could not stay.  I could not stay.

Farm with waterfall in south Iceland
Farm with waterfall in south Iceland
In the small town of Selfoss, serendipity brought my passing glance to rest upon a small sign that read “The Bobby Fischer Center” and I swerved off the road in one quick moment of decision,  compelled by memory.  How strange that of all the places I could have passed, it would be this.

We had lingered long over the chessboard, he and I.  From the very beginning it had been so, because both of our fathers had nursed a sweet addiction to the little world of eight-by-eight  and its innumerable possibilities.  I had played as a child, and knew only the basics, but he and his father had spent as much time over the board as they had behind books, and the competition had always been ferocious.  Yet to me he had been a gentle teacher and carried me into the world of the grand-masters with again-and-again stories of the great matches, feats of brilliance, and those who played multiple opponents, who walked around a room of boards, taking only a few moments to make a move before striding along to the next table.  Also those who played blind, even against many opponents.  The names dropped off his tongue familiarly like so many uncles, older brothers and grandfathers: Capablanca the Cuban genius.  Alekhine, the Russian tragedy, the glorious, the obsessed, the drunken.  Karpov, the machine.  The winsome Polgar sisters, both beautiful and more clever than all the world.   Lasker the efficient, the writer, who fled the Nazis, lost his title, and then returned to the heights and fought for respect through the professionalization of the game.  Tal the aggressive, the challenging, resting his chin on his thumb and staring down his opponents, employing psychological tactics with his black, dominating glare.  And our own games, in which I learned new words:  Middle-game and end-game.  En passant.  Zugzwang.  Sortie.  Hyper-modern, King’s pawn and Queen’s pawn openings.  The Fool’s Mate.  How in my vanity and pride I struggled to show my quality, so many times quitting in frustration.    Game after game we played, and he told me about their strategies, their great victories, their struggles, their dramatic losses, and their power to draw again and again in iron stubbornness.  Such competitive, intelligent, driven men, and a scattered handful of women, who gathered around these sixty-four squares and from their crystalline structure drew out such a complicated series of worlds.  And Bobby Fischer, an American, one of the very best. Unbeatable.

I spent an hour browsing the room which the Selfoss chess club had dedicated to this mysterious and eccentric prodigy who had sought refuge among the Icelanders.   The small upstairs set of rooms was embellished with memorabilia commemorating his 1972 world championship against Boris Spassky.  Chess sets stood on tables awaiting the next contest. Chess books filled a small shelf.  A short film with a series of interview played continuously in another room filled with chess sets.

The Bobby Fischer Center in Selfoss, Iceland
The Bobby Fischer Center in Selfoss, Iceland
Upon observing how long I lingered over the various photographs, items, biographical texts and books, the host recommended to me a visit to the nearby farm where Fischer had requested to be buried. Taking a small map he offered me, I drove scarcely ten minutes before I had arrived at a small handful of farm buildings and a church where the grave was located.

An open landscape spread out towards a rising series of small rocky plateaus, and there were horses here.  Although Fischer had lived in Reykjavik, he had friends in Selfoss and frequently visited them.  There were photos in the museum of him taking long walks in the Icelandic countryside, and one in particular which showed him resting on the ground, with a white horse nuzzling his cheek, and his face expressed a gentle peacefulness rarely captured by the press which so often had hounded him.  There had been such a great pressure put upon him to beat the Soviets during the height of his abilities, and he was so sensitive.  In the isolated beauty and the disarming hospitality of this distant community, he had found rest.

Icelandic horses in Selfoss
Icelandic horses in Selfoss
In a mixture of memories and refelction,  I continued driving along the southwest arc of the Ring Road towards Grundarfjödur, intent on making my acquaintance with Kirkjufell, an iconic mountain which some say is shaped like the nave of a church, and which is easily recognizable by those familiar with it.

Not long after leaving Selfoss, I came across two young women hitchhiking, with a sign that read “Reykjavik.”  As I pulled over, I watched their faces light up, after we introduced ourselves to each other,  they helped me re-organize the space in the car to make room for my new passengers.  We chatted as I drove along, and within the hour I was able to drop them off at their desired location within the capital.  Then I left the capital with all its skyscrapers and advertisements and clamor and drove under the sea.

Undersea tunnel
Undersea tunnel to the Snaefelsnes peninsula
Two hours of driving through Icelandic wilderness along the Snaefelsnes peninsula brought me to Grundarfjödur.  I walked around a bit until the hostel reception opened at 3:00 pm. Bought some things for dinner.  Talked with a hitchhiker at the end of town hoping to get a ride to Olafsvik, the next village down the road.    Considered trying to find a place to go horseback riding.  Wondered if I had the time and the weather to climb Kirkjufell in the last fading hours of my last afternoon in Iceland.  Walked along the pebble-strewn beach, indecisive, thoughtful.

Eventually, after I checked in and spent an hour or so editing and uploading photos, I headed out to hike the mountain which had brought me out to this tiny seaside village in the first place.  It was drizzling and gray, and the tops of the surrounding mountains were tipped in cloud.  I met a couple of hikers just coming down and they said it was indeed slippery, but that they had made it to the top.  So I began my last small adventure.   There was a worn path in certain places, and I followed it, placing my footsteps meticulously as the land fell away beneath me and the angle became more vertical, the drop-off at the edges of the path more extreme.  It was a very high place, that mountain.

Near the top of Kirkjufell
Near the top of Kirkjufell

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