Shelf Life

From the Office to Iceland

An Excerpt from Wild Horses of the Summer Sun

By Katie Daniels | September 5, 2019
Gilad Lotan/Flickr
Gilad Lotan/Flickr

How many of us have idly conjured up alternate lives, distracting ourselves from workday worries by scrolling through the Internet? “In boredom begins adventure,” writes Tory Bilski, a self-described “mother, wife, worker bee, suburbanite,” who discovered the allure of Icelandic horses during a bout of idle office Googling. A lifelong horse-lover, Bilski gives in to her sudden impulse to travel. What starts as a road trip through Iceland with a group of women Bilski has never met before becomes the start of a tradition, with the women returning each year to ride horses together. “Our time in Iceland was not a vacation,” Bilski writes, “but our temporary vocation.”

I am known around my hometown as the woman who goes to Iceland to ride horses. At parties or at our local coffee shop, I get introduced as, “This is Tory. I told you about her. She goes to Iceland every year to ride horses.”

If this once-a-year gig is part of my identity, I’ll take it. I prefer identities that aren’t tethered to either DNA or to the happenstance of birth. I’m American, whatever that all means; my father’s Polish ancestry is written in my face, though the connection to the culture has long been lost; my mother’s side has contributed a jumbled concoction of Northern European from Scottish to Estonian.

And as far as identities we make ourselves, I check the usual boxes: mother, wife, worker bee, suburbanite. But being the woman who rides horses in Iceland—that gives me, at least in my own mind, a bit more panache than, say, being the president of the PTA (a title I once held). It at least makes me worthy of another glance. If someone is about to politely pass me by, taking in my looks (hey there! I say) or my age (hey again!), and can only muster a ho-hum interest, this sometimes give them pause … Huh? I mean it’s not polar bear tracking in Greenland (I wish) or reindeer herding in Lapland (oh please, oh please), but it pulls up a close third.

We are what we venture.

Why Iceland, why horses, why me? Because I was in my office, bored at my desk job—in boredom begins adventure—and had one of my first forays into “surfing the web” as it was so quaintly called those days, circa 1999, when Google was new and not yet a slouchy verb. I was only a few years out from my graduate degree thesis on Viking invasions of England, where I looked at the cultural influences those invasions may have had on Anglo Saxon life. I studied the Norse settlements in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, never thinking about the Norse settlements in Iceland. But the clicks down those new Google steppingstones finally led to the official page of the Icelandic horse. I stopped and stared at the page for a long time. I had found something I didn’t know I was looking for.

On my screen was a dark bay horse standing alone on a misty hill of green tussocks. It’s hard to say why certain topics, objects, or places resonate with certain people. Why some people may gravitate toward the African continent, or, say, all things Italian.

But with that first glance of the pixelated Icelandic horse, I was nothing short of obsessed, a girl again, smitten. It was a well-muscled horse with a noble head, a compact body, flaring nostrils, and a Fabian black mane swept back from the wind. I knew it was a stallion; he had that tough-guy look to him. It was a horse that I felt some past kinship with, a memory of, a familiarity of place and time (I know, I know …). Usually I don’t believe in past lives until my third glass of wine, but there I was, midday and procrastinating at work, staring at this dark horse that stared right back at me. We reconnected. It had been centuries.

So the dream began. This place: Iceland; that horse: Icelandic.

Once the North got in my psyche, it didn’t let go. Iceland was not on the tourist grid back then. It was hanging off the map of Europe. If people knew anything, they knew that Erik the Red had intentionally switched around the idea that Iceland was green and Greenland was covered in ice. Maybe people had heard of Björk. Or if they were really in the know, they knew of Sigur Rós and the burgeoning music scene of Reykjavík. Maybe they knew of the cheap flights to Europe with a pit stop at Keflavík. It was mostly known as a flyover country on the way to London or Paris.

I got laughed at by a cousin when I expressed my desire to go: “You want to go where? To do what? That sounds like hell.”

It wasn’t just her. I knew no one, neither family nor friend, at the turn of our last century, who had the slightest interest in Iceland. Or their national horse.

My husband discouraged it. Mishaps always happened when I was gone: the basement flooded, the roof leaked, the dog got sick, the kids missed school, as if I were the household lucky charm. He couldn’t get his work done. “Why can’t you fall in love with a horse around here?” he asked. “What’s the matter with Connecticut horses?” He was suspicious I was some kind of horse racist.

One friend did encourage me to go, wondering aloud if it was my version of a midlife crisis and instead of falling in love with someone else, I fell in love with something else, a horse, a particular kind of horse. On deeper reflection, she said, “Oh, Tory, you have to go,” settling all matter of conflicting discourse. She was a social worker with Jungian training, who dabbled in desert vision quests. She grabbed my arm with an urgency I could not dismiss: “This is your spirit animal calling. Your totem. You have no choice but to meet it, greet it.”

Excerpted from Wild Horses of the Summer Sun by Tory Bilski. Published by Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2019 by Tory Bilski. Reprinted by permission.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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