Author: Daryl Farmer

On Journeys and Journals

On Journeys and Journals

Tomorrow, my wife Joan and I will begin a slow drive south, to Anchorage and then the Kenai. Homer is the destination, though not really the point. I often create this way. In motion, my mind clears, and, as in sunlight after a storm, worlds both fictional and real reappear. At every stop, I pull my journal, or sometimes my laptop, from my bag and I write. On the drive, in between writing sessions, the stories have room to develop. Last year, as we travelled through Washington and Oregon, I worked on a story about an ex- quarterback. I finished the story, finally, in a brewpub in Astoria.  

It seems to me that there is a natural relationship between travel and writing, and, though I don’t know the etymology, it makes sense to me that the terms “journey” and “journal” sound so similar.

I first started writing in journals consistently during the summer of 1985 when I rode my bicycle 5000
miles through the western United States.  I rode through a mountain snowstorm and across the 100 degree desert.  Along the way I met a Hollywood stuntman who was mending a broken marriage by traveling through Montana, an elderly couple named Dick and Winifred who fed me a meal of freshly harvested clams and oysters and told me stories of  life lived near the sea. In Arizona, a Navajo man told me the names of nearby rock formations, and narrated the legends contained within them. I learned the joy of sleeping to the sound of rain against my tent and ocean waves lapping on the shore. I felt various velocities of wind against my skin.

Every day on that trip, I kept a journal. The writing in those old journals is bland, less than literary,
lacking in description and dialogue. But I still have them, and always will. I wrote daily not with the goal of publication, or even with a potential reader in mind, but to keep a record, to remember and to connect with the natural world, connect with my own experiences. To write of one’s journey is to live it twice and because of those journals, that journey remains vivid in my mind, even 28 years later.

Every semester, early — I’m partial to doing this on rainy days– I ask my students this: so what did you notice when you came to class today?  They shrug, look around at each other.  Was there an assignment they’d missed?  Forgotten to do.  They glance down at their notes.  Then I ask if they noticed the reflection of the leaves in the water, the way they create abstract streaks of red and orange in the puddle outside the building; the man outside collecting cans with the shirt that says “Math is Infinite.”  The
swoosh of traffic, how if you close your eyes at a street corner, you can tell when the lights change, just by the sound of those tires coming to a stop. I tell them about the conversation I overheard at the coffee house that morning. Writers, above all else, I tell them, pay attention, notice what others miss. Motion is
central to this. Even if only a daily walk.

My love for books mirrors my love for travel. The travel writer Bruce Chatwin, writes that the nomadic life is the most natural human instinct.  It’s no coincidence that many of the best novelists are also travel writers: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pam Houston, Jim Harrison, Jamaica Kincaid, Paul Theroux. The travel narrative is one of the most enduring forms in all of literature–from “The Odyssey” to “Canterbury Tales” to Dante‘s “Inferno.”  Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is, in part, a
travel narrative, as is Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”

Writing, like bicycling, is best when the destination falls away, and all that matters is the moment.  The ego drops away, and a connection is felt, and you enter that effortless dreamlike state, and the awareness is so profound that you are no longer peeking into the world, but have disappeared and folded into it.  It’s a lesson I have to keep re-teaching myself: you write a book the same way you bicycle 5000 miles. Steady progress.  Not a binge once in a while, but a little every day.  On a bicycle tour, you don’t take weeks off.  When it rains, you don’t stay inside–getting wet is the point.  You don’t quit when
there’s a head wind–you pedal.  The wind changes, the clouds clear. Writing is the same. You have to plow through the hardships. Good writing does not come about from brief moments of inspiration
any more than good health does.  It requires routine.               

And in routine, you discover that journals and journeys have something else in common:  a natural arc. By writing every day, you begin to see the escalating and falling actions of life–the obstacles, conflicts, resolutions, joy.

Our lives are our journeys. Let us write them as we go.

Skagaströnd, NES Residency

Skagaströnd, NES Residency


“Iceland AGAIN!!” exclaims my friend Kelly Grey Carlisle.*

Yep. I’m here again. Part of the reason I came to bicycle here this summer was to get my fill of it. Not to get tired of it, exactly, but to feel I knew the country enough to be able to settle into it. I struggle with residencies, because I’m generally a restless person, and when I go somewhere new all I want to do is explore rather than sit in a room and write. So I came here  in May in part to adequately get familiar with it. Now, I’m at the NES Residency, writing daily; the strategy seems to have worked.

The little square house near where I am staying. “Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to” advised residency cohort Meaghan Bissett. This house makes me inexplicably happy.

I arrived in Skagaströnd on Monday, and was promptly given a key to the research library which is on the third floor of a building. The library is open during the day, but has few visitors – a grad student working on studies in Icelandic folklore, an occasional librarian who works just a few hours a week, a handful of students who take distance courses in the adjoining room. But I have twenty-four hour access, and can write all day and night if I want. The library shelves are lined with books, all in Icelandic. Sometimes I open one of the books just to look at the words – and sometimes letters – I don’t understand. The language feels magical to me, a reminder of the many cultural riches of the world. I have been trying to learn – yesterday I ventured an attempt at good morning – Góðan daginn – (the ð makes a “th” sound, like “the”. I mean, I think that’s right). I felt like I’d made a great accomplishment when the store clerk repeated the phrase back to me. I love the Icelandic word for goodbye, which is “bless.”

I’m here with about 10 other artists – painters, filmmakers, musicians, photographers. They come from the Philippines, Poland, England, Canada. The vibe is casual, welcoming, a perfect balance so far between solitudinal creative space and community. On Friday, we had Artist Talks, where we all talked about our practices, philosophies, projects. It was very inspiring. My talk was about triptychs, and how the form generally applied to painting might be adopted in a literary structure.

Behind the house I share with two other artists, there is a trail that leads out of town and along some cliffs that overlook the ocean. The waves lap around sea rocks. The days have so far been gray, but not cold, and the light in the evening is magical.

I read with horror of the events in Las Vegas last week and thought about them as I walked early one morning. There was a slight mist, fog weaving around the top of the nearby mountain.Joan and I once stayed at the Mandalay Bay, where the shooter broke out those windows and I’ve walked where that concert must have been. It’s horrific but all too familiar, an old horror that feels like a recurring nightmare, which I guess it is. There have been 346 mass shootings in the United States this year. I want to write something here profound, helpful. New. But, it’s the same old political battles, and we all know what the sides are. I feel that I should do more, say more, but what? What I know is there will be another shooting soon, and another, and another. It’s not normal, not sane, and models in other parts of the world demonstrate that it doesn’t have to be inevitable, at least not to this extent.

Anyway. I write this from a town in a country that is not my own, where I am a stranger, and I have been given a key to a room full of books written in a language I hope to someday understand. Outside, children ride their bicycles freely, and women leave their babies to nap in strollers parked outside the local coffee shops. Unburdened, it seems, by any thoughts of what a madman might do.

Tonight there will be a waning gibbous moon, and tomorrow I will write. 

* Since I mention her, I have to put in a plug for Kelly’s new book WE ARE ALL SHIPWRECKS. It’s fantastic! It’s getting good buzz and great reviews – you should read it!

Laugur to Goðafoss to Akuyeri

Laugur to Goðafoss to Akuyeri

In Laugur, after a short ride on a very bumpy road, I found what has so far been my favorite campground in Iceland. It was un-crowded, surrounded by trees, giving a rare sense of privacy, and the grass where I pitched my tent had been recently mowed. “You’ve come to the right place,” said the teen who greeted me, and indeed I had. Perhaps I am biased here by the sun, which, still at 11 PM, shone bright in the sky. It was the first time I’d seen that sun for days. I fell asleep to the call of terns, the river flowing nearby.


In the morning, I rode to the local pool, and soaked in the heated thermal tub. While Laugur was on Route 1, it felt off the beaten track. I was the only tourist. Two elderly women spoke to each other in Icelandic and I closed my eyes and eavesdropped on a conversation I didn’t understand.

Statues of Norse goddess and god Freya and Odin at Goðafoss Visitor Center

It was a ten mile ride to the falls at Goðafoss, and I walked on the trail that ran along the river, the water aqua green and flowing fast. It was here that, in the year 1000, Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, the county chieftain and law speaker of Iceland, cast his statues of Nordic gods into these falls, and declared Iceland a Christian country. The falls themselves fall roughly 39 feet and are 100 feet wide.

Road to Akuyeri

I lingered, as I tend to do, and didn’t leave the falls until evening. No matter. It doesn’t get dark and you can pretty much ride all night. I pedaled 15 miles into the wind, and then 4 miles up a very steep climb. Three weeks ago, that climb would have discouraged me. But I knew what was on the other side-downhill, and because the road turned south, the wind behind me. I got to he top and let out a whoop, and then sang my way down down down, the ocean now in front of me, and I rode, Akuyeri in view, and then across the bridge over Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland, and into Akuyeri. It was just after 11 PM.


I have spent the day here in town. When Joan and I came here before, Akuyeri was our favorite town, and I still feel the same. Perhaps it is the coffee shop/bookstore on the corner, which Has a wonderful selection of contemporary Icelandic authors in translation, along with other books about the country.

Today is Sunday, June 11. In five days, Joan will leave Fairbanks to meet me in Reykjavik. Soon my journey here will be complete.

The Bus Ride to Vik

The Bus Ride to Vik

The bus driver drove like the proverbial hellbat, as if he was behind schedule, And perhaps he was. Perhaps he was behind schedule because of the bicyclist, and the bike that needed to be fit into a space in a bin beneath the bus, since the bike racks on the bus were already full. To fit the bike in the bin required removing a tire, the seat, a mirror. And to fit the bike meant to twist the handlebars just so, such that it just fit in the almost too small bin. And the gear, my god, the gear on that bike that needed to be stored, and because the bike filled the bin, the gear needed to be put in a different bin. And the bike and the gear and the bicyclist at last on the bus, the driver sped to make up the time.

Earlier the cyclist, had left the Hveragerdi camp, whistling into a strong but not yet unpleasant headwind, Just forty miles from Vik, he rode confident in his pace, the fields spread before him, filled with sheep and Icelandic horses, and he sang to the animals as he passed, making up words as he went. At one point, up on the hillside, he saw movement amongst the green grass, the black lava rocks. A fox, and he watched it move easily across the rugged hillside.

The cyclist rode into the town of Skogar, where he dined on fish and chips and lingered above his coffee, just 20 miles to go. But, when he turned back onto the roadway an hour later, the challenge had changed. In his lowest gear, he struggled against a wind that seemed unnecessarily fierce. I can do this, he thought for 50 yards or so. I can do this. And then, Okay, hey now. Don’t panic. The wind pushed like a playground bully, and he strained against it, determined to fight the lost cause. And then he said, no but kept pedaling, and then looked down and saw on his cyclometer that he had travelled just half a mile, and depleted he said aw hell naw, and turned back. Back at Skogar, he inquired about a bus, was told one would be by in just 10 minutes.

Now, he watched with lament the landscape that moved too fast out his window from the high perch of the bus seat. Lament that is, until they came to the steep hill with the wind howling, the bus shaking against its force. On the descent, down came the wind from the hillside, an avalanche current of air, threatening to push them all over the steep drop off at the road’s north edge, into the abyss, into the news, into the call to loved ones back home. So shook the bus did that wind-which was not a wind but a fiend with malevolent intentions-that the driver reduced his speed to a crawl.

As the driver muttered Icelandic words that were perhaps pleas to a deity, perhaps less than holy, the cyclist turned his thoughts away from what havoc such a wind might play with a man on a bicycle. For once he was grateful for the weight that he carried.

They arrived safely to  Vik. The cyclist unloaded his bike, set it by the curb. Then he moved to the other bin, and placed his gear by the curb there. Then he moved back to the bike and started to re-attach his tire.

“Is this your helmet?” said a voice from behind. It was. The cyclist turned to realize various of his gear was scattering away. He lay down his bike, and went to gather.

“Are these your gloves?” The same man, and they were.

The cyclist moved all his gear, trapped it between his bicycle and the curb to hold it.

He did a check. Tent, check. Sandals, check. Ground pad, check. Sleeping bag. Sleeping bag?

He looked around. Nothing. Oh no. Its light weight had been the selling point of that bag, and now he imagined it on its Oz-bound flight. He imagined shivering cold nights ahead without it. In a panic he searched, beneath the bus, in the parking lot, the small yard at its edge. Nothing.

He walked inside the bus stop/convenience store/cafe. Among the crowd standing, safe from the wind and waiting for the next bus stood a woman who held a bag by its cord. The cyclist recognized the color and pointed.

“It’s not mine,” said the woman. And at the relief on his face, she handed it to him. “It was blowing all over the place,” she said, and he thanked her.

Finally, his bike together, his gear secured, he rested the bike against a wall that blocked the wind. He looked around. This was Vik, where, as legend has it, three trolls tried but failed to drag a three masted ship to shore one night. When the sun rose, they turned to rock, formations that still stand at the edge of the black sand beach. Now, the cyclist could see them through the fog rising like ghosts from the sea. Between that beach and Antarctica there was no landmass, nothing but ocean for more than half the length of the planet. He went inside for coffee and lamb stew. Even in the stillness of the cafe, he still felt in motion. Then he crossed the street to procure a room for the night.


And that’s when he met the woman who roller skated across Iceland.

To be continued.



I’ve figured out how to work the video on my camera. So, this:


From Djupivogur, Southeast Iceland

From Djupivogur, Southeast Iceland

Langabud in Djupivogur




I write this from inside Langabud, the oldest building in Djúpavogi, a town on the southeast coast. Part coffee shop, part museum, it was built sometime between 1740 and 1790. It is full of surprises. The first floor displays work by the artist/sculptor Rikadur Jonsson. Part of the display is busts of some of Iceland’s most famed poets. Upstairs is treasure trove of historical artifacts:

The view.

It’s almost 4:00 PM and I haven’t left yet. Last night I pulled into the campground at 11. Of course, like Fairbanks, it doesn’t really get dark here this time of year. I find the evenings a good time to ride – less traffic, lower winds, birds are more active. Last night I moved through landscapes that included black volcano sand to green hillsides covered in sheep, bleating and baaing at me as I passed. Arctic terns screeched, their calls like laughter. Whooping swans, oystercatchers, godwits. A group of reindeer eyed me warily as I passed. I rode through fog and sun and mist. I filled my water bottles from a stream that flowed like a veil from a waterfall.


The road ahead

I have now ridden roughly 370 miles. Tomorrow, I will arrive in Egilsstaðir, which is my halfway point. This post is short. I have not told you about the treacherous 20 mile bus ride, the wind an avalanche flowing downhill so strong the bus driver crept to a crawl so as not to be toppled. (Why was I on a bus, you ask? Re-read that last sentence). I have not told you about the museum dedicated to the writer, mystic and naturalist Þórbergur Þórðarson; I have yet to tell you about Basha Horyn, the woman who roller skated across Iceland. There is so much to tell!


I may have to write a book!





Foggy Road


Why I’m Bicycling Iceland

Why I’m Bicycling Iceland

View from the plane

The flight from Anchorage to Reykjavik moves from afternoon to morning, skipping night altogether. The effect is deliciously disorienting. I arrived at my hotel just after 8 am, or what would be midnight back in Alaska. The hotel clerk was gracious enough to let me check in. I could have slept. Instead I walked outside and wandered in the disorientation of jet lag, found a coffee shop and then another. The menus all said breakfast while my brain registered last call.

i am in Iceland to ride my bicycle, potentially a foolhardy idea. I say so because as I am writing this, the wind outside howls. Earlier, I watched a woman struggle against the force as she bicycled downhill.

“I guess you know what you’re doing,” said the hotel clerk when I told him my plan. I do not. If I waited to know what I was doing, I’d never do anything.

A former student put it another way: “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said but don’t you have to be in pretty good shape to do that?”

You probably do, but I hope not.

(“I’m in better shape than I look,” I’d lied.).

Here’s the thing. When Joan and I were here in Iceland in 2013, and we drove the 800 plus miles around the ring road, all I wanted was to be on a bike. I used to get that way a lot, especially after my long tours around the West. Once you experience the world from a bike seat, it’s hard to not feel you’re missing too much zooming along in a car. I like to drive, it’s a little fast. I like to hike, it’s a little slow. Bicycling is about the right speed for me.

On that first trip, I knew Iceland would be beautiful, but the landscapes had surprised me, were more varied than I  expected, especially given the general lack of trees. It was a glorious trip, one that stays with me. But I wanted to melt into those landscapes in a way I know can only be done on a bicycle. I’m not looking for adventure; I’m just trying to slow down.

Iceland is perhaps a curious place for adventure, anyway. If, as Camus wrote, “What gives value to travel is fear,” Iceland has little value as a destination. There are no predators, nearly no crime, no snakes or venom of any kind, really. Traffic is light. There aren’t even pesky mosquitoes.

There is wind, yes. But wind is an annoyance, not a horror.

I would argue with Camus, though. Fear is fine, I guess, if you need the physical sensation of it. The daily news is more than enough fear for me, thank you. My previous experience with Iceland was pretty much the opposite of fear. At the end of a chaotic, stressful and long semester, what Iceland gave was a sense of tranquility, a calming of the restless sea of my mind, a post-storm calm, a parting that lead to an opening of a head space that had reminded me who I wanted to be, and why I wanted to be it in the first place.

Its been a long year. The waiter brings my coffee. The wind stills, then rises again, music I don’t recognize plays along. I’ve battled wind before, in Wyoming, Nevada. Probably I will curse it, but for now I mean to embrace it.

Stay tuned.