Coming Down the Mountain
He wanted me to smoke pot with him. Well, that’s an overstatement. He wanted someone to smoke pot with him and I was the only one there. For the sake of simplicity I will call him David because I don’t remember how he pronounced his name. He told me he woke up that morning and on a whim decided to hike because the sun had not been out much during the summer. He drove for a couple of hours, then stopped and took an excursion bus to a popular trail head in the south of Iceland. From there, he hiked between two glaciers and over a mountain pass before coming that evening to the Volcano Hut, a small campsite/restaurant nestled in Thórsmörk. My friends and I had just arrived there from the opposite direction.
When I first saw David he was approaching two women who were sitting and smoking. That had been in the late afternoon when many people were around, and he acted familiar enough with that group I thought he came with them. Then I realized they weren’t answering back. They nodded and politely killed every avenue of conversation. But they did light his cigarette.
After dinner my friend, Justus, went to his tent to sleep. I wandered for a bit and decided to go back to the hut where we had eaten for coffee or beer. Something to pass the time and enjoy the evening. I rounded the corner and there stood, alone and smoking a cigarette, David. Smiling, he nodded and said hello and I responded in turn. His eyebrows permanently raised, expectantly and sad, combined with a comical grin gave him a harmless and somewhat pathetic appearance. He beckoned me closer and started some idle chit chat. I approached and realized upon closer inspection insanity was beaming from his eyes. I felt like I had just fallen in to a trap. What I had gotten in to was the reason no one else was out there.
He laughed often and inappropriately inserted his laughter between random sentences. He asked what I do for a living and when I asked him the same he became cagey. “I don’t have what you would call a career,” David said. “I take…what would you call them? Jobs…when they come up.”
“What kind of jobs?” I asked.
He looked around suspiciously. “All kinds. Whatever. Construction, sometimes.”
Mafia. Right? Construction or waste management. That’s day one mafia stuff. I’ve seen The Sopranos. I let that subject go and the conversation moved on. To what, I couldn’t rightly say. He changed directions on a whim. We were talking about corporations, then boats (I think?), then about America. He picked up on my accent and asked where I was from. When I told him Kansas City, he put on his best cowboy impression. It was pretty horrible but he watched my face for recognition. “Yep, lots of people talk that way. Nailed it,” I said, and as if saying “nailed it” was the password, he asked me if I smoke weed.
I told him I do not smoke weed and his face lowered. “All I want, in this beautiful place,” he said, “is to smoke weed. Right now. But I want to share it with someone! And no one will smoke with me.”
He looked at me pleadingly and after a long pause for some reason I said “I’m sorry, I can’t. My friend maybe would.” His face lit up. “But he’s asleep,” I added quickly. His face lowered. I had just thrown my friend under the bus and pulled him back out again. It was not productive and I think I just wanted David to know I did not travel alone.
David told me in detail for the next fifteen minutes the history of marijuana in Iceland. He then detailed the exact steps he takes to get his weed and I started to get a sense for the “jobs” he spoke of before. He told me how great he felt and that for the last year his life had been very troublesome. Very dark. A little over a year ago, he had a major problem.
“I had what I think you would call a meltdown,” David said. “I did everything I was supposed to do. I saw a doctor, got help, started taking medication.”
“That’s good. You got help,” I said.
David shook his head. “I don’t know. It helps. But they don’t understand. It was so…beautiful.” His eyes were looking through me. I didn’t know what to say.
“I saw things. Fucking beautiful things. None of them believe me, and I understand that,” he said.
“What kind of things?”
“I saw, I don’t know but it was…like I was given a task. A purpose.”
David shook his head. “I don’t know. I thought I was crazy and I started to get help and now I think it’s lost. Like that was my chance and it’s gone.”
I didn’t say anything. I don’t think he needed me to say anything.
“I have done some things in my life,” he said. “Are you a good man?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Yeah, I try."
“Then I’m not going to tell you those things.” He smiled and looked away.
I realized I had stepped back three feet or so while he was talking. After a moment he looked at me sharply, with wild eyes.
“Today I said fuck it! I didn’t take my drugs.” I could see this was technically not true, but I took his meaning. “And doing something, actually doing something, felt fucking great. And now I’m here.”
I sincerely felt happy for him and I said so. He asked me to smoke weed again. Then entered Ben of Germany.
Ben worked at the Volcano Hut and was taking a break. He was very polite, with a thick beard and long hair slicked back in Chewbacca fashion. I nearly didn’t recognize him outside because he had a hoodie drawn up over his head. He lit a cigarette and sat down, having said very little, but David saw a new opportunity.
“You,” he said. “Do you smoke weed?”
A small smile played on Ben’s face. “Sometimes,” he said. “But not right now. I’m working.”
David, not to be defeated, insisted it did not appear Ben was working.
“I’m on break. I will have to clean up inside. But maybe later.”
“Later” was good enough for David and he beckoned Ben to join our conversation. I asked Ben how he came to work in Thórsmörk and he told me he was a summer volunteer from Berlin. David immediately brought up Nazi Germany.
“I just say things. I have a tendency to not…not….” David’s non-vocal ticks were becoming more manic. He slapped the side of his head. “…Think before I say things sometimes. Once, I was at a party and there were some Germans there.” He laughed so hard he could barely get the next part out. Ben and I looked at each other, amused. “And I walked to the center of the room and I went…” David stood at attention, kicked his heels together and raised his arm in salute. Possibly the most recognized salute of all time. “Sieg Heil!” Ben and I looked at each other, not amused.
David laughed and looked at us both pleadingly. “What do you think of that?” he said to Ben. “I didn’t mean anything by it, it just popped in my head. But they were angry. What do you think?”
Ben shook his head. “That is not our generation. It’s fine. We have to acknowledge our history, it happened, but that is not my generation.”
David nodded enthusiastically. “Yes! See? That’s how people should react to things like this. But others can get very angry with me.”
The conversation turned to music. David insisted Berlin is a new Mecca of music and Ben kind of agreed. I said I thought Iceland was a new Mecca for music and they both kind of agreed. They both said they liked American music a lot, and I agreed. We were all represented well at this conference. The real focus, though, was on Berlin’s live electronic music scene. David said he got in to a place run by Neo-Nazis one time only because a German friend got him in. Ben gave his story credibility. “There are intense places like that. I don’t go to those anymore, but there are scenes where you won’t find any foreigners. It’s too much for me.” He put out his cigarette. “I go to shows and clubs, but not those kinds.”
Ben bid us good evening and said he had to get back to work. David asked again if he wanted to smoke weed to which Ben replied “maybe” so unambiguously he could have just said “no.”
Alone again, I severely missed the presence of the humorless but good-natured German. David talked more and more, his head darting this way and that, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to extricate myself from the situation. I didn’t want him to see where I was sleeping because his ramblings were getting more and more unhinged. I was having trouble following him. Finally I was saved by two friends, Ali and Rowan, whom we had met on the trail. They were exiting the Volcano Hut and on the way to their tent. Certainly David asked them to smoke weed but they declined. As they walked away I attached myself to them and David asked if I was going. I told him I was and that I was going to bed. Ali and Rowan, if you are reading this, I owe you each a drink.
I looked around to make sure David wasn’t watching and got in my tent. The thought of him murdering me in a drug fueled haze entered my mind no less than three times, but I was fairly certain he didn’t know which tent I was in. It’s true I probably didn’t need to worry and that he was harmless, but it’s also true I didn’t have my throat slit. If he had been the throat-slitting type, my odds would have been the same as anyone’s.
The next day at breakfast, David came in and sat down with a plate and coffee. We looked at each other, and I noticed the crazy was gone from his eyes, which now blended naturally with his expressions. He smiled apologetically, nodded, and I waved back. He spoke to no one. On a full bus back to Reykjavik, I tried to find an open seat. The only one I could see was next to David near the back. The ride was supposed to take a few hours, and I felt sure that I could not handle that amount of time in his world. That it would be exhausting, and even though he seemed completely normal, I couldn’t separate him from the night before so I hesitated. He was on his phone and didn’t see me. There was a loud whistle and I turned around. The bus driver was pointing to a seat up front and I nodded, opting to sit by a well-behaved Frenchman. We didn’t talk at all, and I felt guilty for not sitting next to David. I still feel guilty for not sitting next to him. I was too worried about his weirdness to bother. Too unwilling to be uncomfortable. That says something about me, I guess.
At a stop in a small town, I saw David exit the bus. He made a phone call, got his pack, lit a cigarette, and walked toward a row of parked cars.