Hiking to Siberia
Curious Tales of Travel and Travelers

nonfiction by Lawrence Millman

"An Icelandic Snake Story"

The roads in Iceland’s Westfjords are awful even for a country that seems to pride itself on the awfulness of its roads: they consist mostly of gravel, potholes, and corrugated ridges, with the odd boulder tossed in for good measure.

I was once hitchhiking in the Westfjords when I heard what I thought was a telltale crunching sound in the distance. Uh-oh, an avalanche, I thought. But the crunching got nearer, and then a battered old Volvo pulled up alongside me. Inside the car was a lean, almost cadaverous man whose hair stuck up from his head like lengths of 13-amp fuse wire. “Where are you going?” he asked me.

“To Latrabjorg,” I replied.

“Ah, you want to see the famous bird cliffs. Hop in, and I will take you there.”

I threw my rucksack into the back seat and climbed in beside him. As we drove along, he was silent. He seemed to be brooding over some dark, typically Nordic issue. At last he said: “I will tell you a story about my own travels.”

Ten years ago he had sailed down to Caracas, Venezuela, as a deck-hand on a Danish freighter. He’d planned to sail back to Copenhagen on the same freighter, but the man sitting next to him in a Caracas bar made him change his mind.

“Diamonds,” this man, a Venezuelan prospector, told him. “Diamonds as big as your eyeballs, señor. You will find them in a place called El Mundo Perdido.”

The prospector reached into his shirt pocket and brought out a huge diamond.

In a very short time, my driver was heading to the El Mundo Perdido district with some packhorses and a half-breed guide named Jorge. Once there, he set up camp, whereupon he and Jorge proceeded to jab their picks into likely looking rocks.

Meanwhile, he kept seeing a bushmaster. Wherever he went, around his camp or down by the river, the snake seemed to be watching him with its tiny pellet eyes. It always managed to elude the blade of his machete.

“It is no ordinary snake, señor,” Jorge told him, “but a shape-shifter or perhaps a demon.”

One evening when he went down to the river to collect some water, he stepped on the bushmaster. If his trousers had been loose, he would have been safe, but his trousers were clinging to his sweaty legs, and the snake’s fangs entered his thigh just above the knee. The pain was excruciating.

Jorge flung him over one of the packhorses and took him fifty miles to the clinic at Santa Elena. By the time they arrived, the poison had infected his whole leg.

“If the bone is black,” the clinic’s German doctor told him, “your leg will have to come off.”

He put in his drill. The bone was black.

“Tomorrow,” the doctor announced, “I will amputate.”

The next day there were some emergencies—an Indian girl’s appendectomy, an Indian who’d been knifed in the chest—that kept the doctor busy. The day after that, the drill came up white.

“You are a lucky man,” the doctor observed. “I have nine legs in my collection. Yours would have been the tenth…”

So, apparently, the story ended. My driver did not say another word until we reached Latrabjorg. I thanked him for the lift and started to get out of the car, but his fingers grasped the sleeve of my anorak.

“Wait,” he said, “you must hear the rest.”

Once his leg had healed, he told me, he’d flown back to Iceland. Shortly after he’d returned to the Westfjords, he was gathering driftwood when he noticed a large black snake coiled up on the beach. It was, in fact, a bushmaster. The same bushmaster that had bitten him.

“But there are no snakes in Iceland,” I protested.

“You are wrong, my friend,” he said. “There is at least one snake—the snake from El Mundo Perdido. I see it everywhere…”

Then he drove off.

A day or so later, I was hitchhiking between Latrabjorg and Patreksfjordur when I heard a familiar crunching noise, and the same Volvo pulled up alongside me. This time a more robust man was seated behind the wheel.

“Hop in,” the man said to me, opening the door.

As we rumbled along, I asked my driver if this car belonged to him. I told him that I’d seen it or an exact replica of it on the road not too long ago.

“It must have been another car,” he replied. “For this wreck is mine. I inherited it from my brother after he died in a South American hospital.”

“How did your brother die?” I inquired a bit uneasily.

“He was bitten by some kind of poisonous snake. They amputated his leg, but it was too late.”

A chill went up and down my spine, and I asked the man to stop the car.

“You want to enjoy the view?” he smiled, rolling to a halt.

“No,” I told him. “I’ve decided to walk for a while. Maybe get some fresh air. Thanks for the lift.”

After I got out of the car, I tried to think of some rational explanation for what had happened, but I kept coming back to the fact that I’d gotten a lift from a dead man. I bent over and vomited by the side of the road.

In Patreksfjordur, I learned the truth: that the two men who’d given me lifts were local farmers who—perhaps as a respite from long hours spent with sheep—made a practice of conning visitors. They would take a visitor to a pile of glacial debris, remove their hats, and solemnly say, “This is the grave of the Norse god Thor.” Or they would claim that many Icelanders had igloos inside their houses, and that they used those igloos as their bedrooms.

Sometimes, too, they would tell hitchhikers about their island’s solitary snake.

As I continued hitching, I kept looking for the battered Volvo, but I never saw it again. The drivers who now picked me up would talk about the weather or the news. Had I heard about the recent economic crisis in my country? one of them asked me.

“No, I haven’t heard about it,” I said, scarcely able to conceal my boredom.