Jul 22, 2010 | Siglufjörður, Iceland
Jul 22, 2010

Lodged at the back of a narrow fjord, the town of Siglufjörður is basically one long street. There are a few side streets on either edge of it — down at the harbor and up the hill — but really there is one main street, which is where you walk and where you drive and where the people come and go.

When I first got here in May, it was still winter, and there was no one around. Now it is summer, and the campground is packed with fat German tourists, laid out in lawn chairs next to their campers and guzzling beer by their tents.

Now it feels crowded to me, because I still think of the place as I found it in May — cold, snowy, fishy, and filled with strange empty light. Back then, the town felt like a secret, and I felt lucky to know it. People looked at me because they did not know me, and because they wondered what could bring a person like me into a place like this. They did not seem to understand the power of the secret they had, which made the secret even more powerful, because there were so few who understood it. All of this made me love it more.

Now the town does not feel like a secret, but more like a theme park.

The streets and lawns are impeccably clean, sterilized by teenage fleets dispatched to beautify the town. The sidewalks are filled with foreigners who take pictures of my house and look in my windows. The cars drive slow, gawking at the quaint Icelandic scenery, and smiling whenever they see something strange, which reminds them why they paid so much to rent a 4WD car and why they came to Iceland. The grocery store is always out of chicken and arugula, because now there are people around who like to eat such things, and who are savvy enough to know which days such things come in and which days they don't. The sun is up all the time, except when incredible clouds cover the fjord. Everything is bright and electric and beautiful and I know that now is the time I should love it the most, but somehow I loved it more before, when it wasn't such a spectacle, and when I was the only one looking.

About 1,000 people live here now, but pretty much nobody between the ages of 23 and 35. There is nothing for young people to do here, so they move to Reykjavik or Akureyri to find work, get married, and have kids. It is strange to have a town of only very old and very young people. It is like the other ones are all off at war, and in a way they are.

In the 1950s, Siglufjörður had more than 15,000 people living here each summer, working in the Herring fishery. In those days, the Herring were so plentiful that scooping them out of the ocean was like scooping alphabet noodles out of a bowl of Spaghetti-O's.

People packed into bunk beds and dorm rooms and boats in the harbor, trying to make some money before the winter came.

Privacy was impossible and everyone was young, so people would hike up the mountain to a valley on the other side of the ridge, and in this valley they would find a little cranny in the grass, and there they would make out and have sex, because that was the only option.

Whenever you mention this valley to an old Siglufjörðurian, you will see a smirk come over his face, and if there is another old Siglufjörðurian nearby, they will look at each other and exchange a little smile, as if to say, "Remember how it was, up there in the valley?" And then he will look back at his child who asked him the question and quite often he will say to the child, "That valley — you know — that is where you were made."

On a typical Saturday night in the summer, there would be more than 200 couples up there in the valley, each in their own private cranny. There are no trees or bushes up there, and the sun stays up all night long, so the only kind of privacy you could hope to find was in the lay of the land, so you hoped to get there early, before all the good crannies were gone.

Now the valley is empty, and people tend to have rooms of their own, with sheets and beds and doors that close, in houses down in the town.

I asked a local girl if she knew about the valley.

"Yes, of course," she said. "We all do."

"And do people still go up there?" I said.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't think so. I mean, I haven't heard of it. But maybe they do, you know? Maybe they do."