People appoint their friends as “grill master” anytime meat is cooked outdoors. Usually the term is offered in a good-natured ribbing and the “grill master” is expected to beam at the recognition, offer a witty and deflecting response, and then go back to tending to fire and sipping beer. This interchange is always difficult for me because I actually consider myself a master griller.
I like to cook, but I love cooking outdoors — especially BBQ, the art of slow cooking with indirect heat. I love the time and space BBQ represents in my life. You cannot even begin the project if you don’t have multiple hours at hand. I love how it is both intrinsically extroverted and introverted: you are cooking for others, but for some unknown and treasured reason, nobody lingers too long at another’s pit. And, I’ll admit, I love to eat.
So when Selma, our guide through the Icelandic Mountains, asked for a volunteer to cook on the grill outside, I volunteered quickly.
Vox Peregrini had travelled to Thórsmörk National Park. We stayed at a campground of huts and walked multiple day hikes up the mountains, near the glaciers, across the river, beside Elfven Churches, and singing along the way.
Thórsmörk is near the base of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 with such ashen ferocity that planes were grounded across Europe. A glacier sits atop Eyjafjallajökull and the water than runs beneath the ice creates an ever-changing river route in the valley below. The valley is covered in a black glass of weathered obsidian and every few hundred yards there is a metal bridge on wheels that hikers use to chase the river route so they can cross safely. If you look up from the valley you see jagged, green and black mountains, a glacier in the distance, and to the West an exit way, leading towards the stark, barren landscape of the less photographed Iceland.
The walks themselves had been physically easy, though sometimes treacherous for novice hikers. The way would sometimes take us across narrow, 4-inch wide trails that had thick wire bolted here and there to steady your hands. Always lean towards the mountain. At times we scampered up and down on all fours, usually muttering about our own senility and imagining what our loved ones would say if they knew we were literally climbing across a mountain in Iceland.
The land stunned us silent, save for the random humming of a “Lord of the Rings” theme by one person or another. To me there was a spiritual newness to the place. Whether it was a lack of tall trees, the required cold weather gear, or the occasional thunder crack of the glacier settling, the place itself lacked the ancientness that I have sometimes felt in the Irish woods, the Grand Canyon, or in the Smoky Mountains. It seemed Adventure, rather than Wisdom, lay ahead.
My companions also added to the feeling of youth and vigor. All were former students from the Men’s Glee Club, so I was the oldest on the trip. William Blake said “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” Young men look at mountains as something to conquer, and I had been working for a few years to learn to befriend mountains rather than conquer them. We would get to the top of a mountain and Vox Peregrini, along with Selma, would break into snowball fights, no doubt reminding the mountain itself of our youth. But it fit. We met the mountain’s spirit with the audacity of the young.
We would return to our mountain hut, rest, eat, tell stories, sing songs, and pretend that we were characters penned by Tolkien.
The night Selma asked me to cook was our last night and I had been traveling with some of these people for more than two weeks. The introvert in me was aching to reach for the charcoal and sit near the fire. All that was missing was the beer (which was understandably difficult to get out here).
The grill was a large, 12-foot brick pit set between two huts that had multiple stalls for cooking. I, the grill master, walked around the grill knowingly, like a fool kicking the tires before purchasing a used car. I chose my stall not based upon any culinary reasons, but my ability to see when someone would be approaching — so I’d have a chance to gird my inner strength to interact with others in a friendly way.
The meat was prized, Icelandic lamb fillets.
I began to prepare my area, shuffling the matches, the charcoal, the accessories so it felt almost like cooking at home.
From the opposite hut, two older men began walking towards the grills. They took multiple trips in order to carry all of their supplies and food. Like me, they fiddled with their belongings before they were ready to start the fire. Unlike me, they were unafraid to employ all of their lighter fluid at once and they set their charcoal ablaze like a Beacon of Gondor.
They had entire legs of lamb, wrapped in foil. I lost count of how many they brought, but they used multiple grilling stalls. I began to wonder how they prepped the food — what spices? Marinade? How do you even grill something that size?
Eventually they caught me wondering about their food. We all made our way around the grill pit and introduced ourselves. As it happens, they were retired Icelandic fisherman and part of a large hiking group that met throughout the cold season to do winter hiking. Like me, they volunteered to cook.
They chatted excitedly about their lives on the sea, grinned with pride about the size and strengths of their former ships, and lamented the changes they witnessed to their industry. They let me admire and smell the prepped lamb and taught me how to cook it in the “Icelandic Way” (which apparently is to cover the meat with giant rocks while it’s cooking on the grill). I told them about my own adventures, which seemed much less daring when compared to a lifetime living as an Icelandic Fishingboat Captain.
They pointed towards their mountain hut, which was more of a lodge than a hut. It fit dozens of hikers and had a dining area. After dinner, it was decided, Vox Peregrini would go and sing for them. We were greeted warmly and without expectation. Our singing was ragged and tired, affected by adventure and wonderment. But for these hikers, each with their own lifetime, it was welcome indeed. We offered song, they offered applause as thunderous as a glacier settling upon a volcano.
After a time the concert was over and we returned to our cabin, trying to process what just happened. The best commentary at the time was, “that was cool,” to which everyone nodded in agreement.
I think I love singing with a community for the same reasons I love cooking. I love the time and space having a song to sing represents in my life. There is preparation involved that requires the gift of time. It is inherently extroverted and introverted — especially if you are willing to sing for others, whether in a cathedral or in a mountain hut.
What made our singing (and cooking) generative on that night, however, is the shared experience of life we have all embarked upon. There was a union of youth and age, adventure and wisdom, land and humanity. The song didn’t exist as a museum piece, but as a breathing addition to the world that changed routes within ourselves like glacier-fed river.
The hiking club wasn’t done with us. A moment later we received a knock on our door and members of their tribe glowed at us while holding a tub of cold beer. The songs had stopped, but the music continued until late in the night.