Island Getaway

Island Getaway

When Hamdenite Tory Bilski first landed in Iceland in 2001, it seemed isolated, “hanging off the map of Europe”—at least, to an American. The capital city of Reykjavik, with a population of 120,000, was about the size of New Haven. Only 20,000 tourists visited the country each year. Bilski was among them. But she didn’t go to see Reykjavik. She didn’t go to soak in a natural hot spring or to see the Northern Lights. She went to ride Icelandic horses, an experience she documents in her recent book, Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: A Memoir of Iceland (2019).

Unlike most horses in the US, Icelandic horses are “small, quick, and hardy,” Bilski writes. “They are brought up under semi-feral conditions: the young and the mares are set free for many months, driven into the mountains to live off the land with no human care.” Icelandic horses are also known for their distinctive gaits, including the tölt, a “running walk” that is “key for comfortably riding long distances.”

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A self-described “horse-obsessed young girl,” Bilski found herself at 40 tapping back into a long lost desire to ride. When she met several American women with connections in Iceland who were putting together a group to travel to a horse farm there, “I kind of invited myself,” she says. “Their joke now is, ‘Oh, we picked up a hitchhiker.’” That journey was the beginning of more than a decade of travel with a fluid cast of women who would inspire her and frustrate her, befriend her and challenge her as they rode together in the land of fire and ice.

Wild Horses chronicles not only the thrill of riding Icelandic horses but also the sometimes complicated interplay of these women who met each year to ride together. They became, as Bilski describes them, a “herd.” Packed tightly into a minivan with an ample supply of snacks, a group of teenage girls and women bumped along the ring road that literally encircles the island to Thingeyrar, a coastal village in the northwest. They met newcomers and caught old friends up on their news. Then they left their lives behind and saddled up. “They were zany and silly and adventurous and ridiculous,” Bilski says of this motley crew. “I could just feel comfortable and let go.”

Things didn’t always go smoothly. There was a standoff with a herd of angry bulls, a run-in with an Icelandic movie star, a blinding light on a mountain road that just might have been the work of trolls. But ultimately, the friendships Bilski forged were a catalyst for growth and change. “So much of the time we are too wrapped up in our own narrative, the same old story in our head, that we need new people to break through the fog, and show us a new story of ourselves, one that is slightly different and one that we have to live up to,” she writes.

Readers of Wild Horses are also treated to bits of the Icelandic sagas, descriptions of meals eaten and landscapes discovered and humorous stories of the characteristically stoic Icelanders themselves. The place became such a touchstone of peace and sanity for Bilski and a friend that they took up the expression “going Iceland,” as in, “I’m sorry, Bob, I can’t take it anymore, I’m going Iceland on you.”

Wild Horses of the Summer Sun is more than a travelogue or a horse lover’s fantasy or even the story of women’s friendships. It’s also about stepping outside one’s everyday life into a place where you can see clearly. Bilski’s early middle age—mother to a struggling son, daughter to an aging mother—was dishing up weighty challenges. The Icelandic horses came at a time when she needed them most.

Her story runs in the vein of other women’s travel narratives that tap into life’s deeper questions. Think Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. But those women were able to drop all their responsibilities and “take a year off” to find their bliss, Bilski points out. “That’s not what most women can do,” she says. She’s lucky enough to be able to travel once a year to a place that lifts her out of her life and into a new realm.

And lift her out it does. Take Bilski’s story of riding across Lake Hóp, “a large tidal lagoon that empties into the Greenland Sea”:

My breathing and my mare’s breathing are matched. She plunges into the deep water, submerging everything but the saddle, her withers, and her head. The coldness of the water is irrelevant; I barely notice. My horse feels like she’s swimming in slow motion… She’s carrying me on her back, as if she is a kind of hybrid marine centaur. I think of the Celtic belief of a thin liminal place where the door between this world and another is cracked open for only a moment, and this feels like that place for me, or the closest I will ever get to that place. I have fallen into a crack of watery light, and for one icy moment I have been allowed a glimpse into the transparency of the other world.

By the time Bilski’s own Icelandic saga came to an end in 2016, the country had been through a financial collapse and recovery, and tourism had exploded, bringing 2 million annual visitors to the remote island in the North Atlantic. Bilski still travels there to ride when she can, but now she’s turned her authorial attention to a new project: a historical novel based on the stories of two daring women explorers who come from—where else?—the Icelandic sagas.

Wild Horses of the Summer Sun: A Memoir of Iceland
by Tory Bilski
RJ Julia | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image, provided courtesy of Tory Bilski, photographed by Stan Godlewski.

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