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Trip 36 — Eysturoy Walk

Day 6: Runavík to Oyrarbakki
Tuesday, 27 June 2023

Saturday: 61417 steps/46.28 km/28.76 mi/9h 38m
Grand total: 211133 steps/160.21 km/99.55 mi/32h 25m

The breakfast room at the Hotel Runavík may have been the quietest place in northern Europe on Saturday morning. No music was playing and there were no servers, just a buffet of deli meats, pancakes, bread, fruit, and yogurt. There was a liquid of an almost ocher color, and I was afraid it would be terrible orange juice, but it turned out to be fairly good mango juice.

The few diners spoke in hushed, nervous voices, as if they were afraid their plans for the day would land them in trouble. We all regarded each other cordially but at a distance.

"It's so quiet in here," I said to one woman, barely audibly.

She half-smiled and retreated to her seat.

The reception desk was just outside the restaurant. I had prepaid, so I laid my key on the counter and nodded a thank-you to the man standing there. He nodded back and returned to whatever he was doing on his phone.

For once, it wasn't foggy. When I awoke, I could almost see the top of the mountain across the fjord, the one whose opposite side I needed to reach. By the time I'd shuffled my way through breakfast, the entire mountain was visible. It was 8:22. Time to go.

Saturday blessed me with the most blue sky I'd seen all week: somewhere between partly cloudy and mostly cloudy, which is as good as it gets in the Faroes. It was warm enough to proceed with just a T-shirt on top, and I tied my sweater and my raincoat around my waist.

I started making my way along Skálafjørður, the Faroes' longest fjord. In a few hours, I would be opposite Runavík in Strendur, having passed Søldarfjørður, Skipanes, Skálafjørður (the fjord's innermost village, sharing a name with the fjord itself as often happens, and sometimes known as Skálabotnur), and Skála (a separate, more sizable town midway along the fjord on the other side). Then on to Selatrað up the western side of the opposite peninsula. Plenty of S's, including the shape of the path I'd be taking as I connected them all.

Because it was a Saturday morning, there wasn't much truck traffic, and the road up to the turnoff toward Norðragøta was pleasanter than it had been the day before. It may even have grown a wider shoulder for walking.

From this roundabout I forked left to follow the fjord around at Skálafjørður village. A black bird who wanted no more than to go about on the ground peacefully was being antagonized by a white bird, who kept rising swiftly to a high altitude and then diving onto the black bird. No means no! Eventually the black bird gave up and flew off, the white bird close behind.

Every few minutes, the highway crossed a stream trickling down from the massif. I took the side road through Skála. The town had a shipyard, a grocery store, some fine and orderly homes with lovely gardens, a pretty church, and a bakery, where I paused for a frosted gingerbread snack. A little farther along, a family was enjoying a picnic next to one of the waterfalls, and the spot was good for swimming.

The Skála road fed back into the highway, and I soon came to the turnoff to Strendur. The highway was fairly busy here, as there's another entrance to the interisland tunnels, but Strendur was much quieter up in the hills.

Now it was foggy again. People had told me how easy it was to find my way up over the mountains from Selatrað to Oyri, but now I thought I might take the coastal route, which meant walking along some steep slopes.

I'd been going for four and a half hours and thought I might stop for a quick lunch in Strendur. There were two places, Joe Pizza and a Thai restaurant, but neither would be open for a few hours. The best way to have a meal in Strendur, I realized, would have been to befriend one of the residents and get them to open up a hjallur, an outbuilding with slits in the walls for wind-drying sheep's legs. They could shave me off a bit of the fermented meat, a traditional Faroese delicacy called skerpikjøt.

The fleeting smiles that I exchanged with the villagers were insufficient to elicit such an invitation, so I continued through Strendur to the bend in the road toward the west at the southern end of the peninsula. A path led for a half-kilometer from the road to the tip itself, but the fog had come in so strongly that I couldn't even see that far. It was like a bridge from the earth to the heavens.

Around the bend, all was quiet. I still had almost ten kilometers before Selatrað, and then whichever route I attempted to Oyri. A car came by every few minutes. Some were headed toward Selatrað. I was reassued by their presence.

I passed the tiny villages of Kolbeinagjógv and Morskranes. The fog had dissipated somewhat and I could see the top of the crag on this side. I started looking for a way up the slope. From the topographic map — and I admit that "the topographic map" was nothing more than the relative colors on the "Terrain" setting in Google Maps — it looked as though the easiest way up would come just before Selatrað.

I thought back to the climb from Hellurnar. The mountain itself had been steep, but the zigzagging path up wasn't too bad. As long as there was a place wide enough to walk, I could pick my way back and forth to get to the top and then cross over to Oyri. And the grass provided pretty good traction. Of course, it might still be better to find the lower route along the coast. I hadn't yet committed to one or the other; now that the fog had gone, I was equally inclined (or disinclined) toward them both.

Then there was the matter of the fences, meant more for sheep than for people. About 20 minutes out of Selatrað, a stile led over a fence and up to the hills. I could check out the situation in Selatrað and then backtrack to here if I resorted to climbing.

It was decided, then. And I'd probably known it all along. I was going to try the lower route first.

Selatrað had a bus stop (served once per weekday from Runavík, and twice going back, but you have to call the day before). It also, like most towns on Eysturoy, had a village map posted with points of interest. I saw the hiking routes back up across the mountain to Skála and Skálafjørður. Then, at the far left of the map, squished between the legend and the overall map of the Faroes, were some dashes and the words "Til Oyrar." To Oyri. The white letters were as faded as the path might be, but at least they corroborated its existence.

Selatrað's church was down near the shore, its houses up by the main road. A grassy path led from the road through the center of the village. A woman was approaching the path from the other direction.

"I can go to Oyri?" I asked her, gesturing toward the west.

"I don't know," she said. "Let me check the map."

She got out her phone and found the same information I already knew. "The road ends here. I don't know if you can keep going."

So much for locals' knowledge; maybe I wasn't the only visitor to Selatrað on Saturday. "Thank you. I guess if I can't, I'll come back here!"

The road continued as gravel. A few minutes outside the village, it was obstructed by a gate. Unlike most sheep gates, this one was tied shut with rope and there was no obvious way to open it. The road continued on the other side. I hadn't come this far to be stopped by a pesky gate. I climbed over.

A short ways later, I came to a little house. I hoped there wouldn't be someone there. Or maybe I hoped there would be.

The road ended and I started along the grassy slope.

There was only one mention of this route that I could find on the Internet (https://whatson.fo/hiking/hike/selatrad-oyri). The page's author — I believe it's the guide I'd heard about in Gjógv who fell down a mountain last year — rated the hike "medium," with the description "Easy hike along distinctive basalt columns." But it also said that the 5.9 kilometers should take 30 minutes. Unless I was to swing Tarzan-like for half the distance, there was a mistake here somewhere.

The warnings also included: "It is pretty steep north of Veðranes, and at the same time, the path is relatively narrow and has loose gravel in areas....Be careful when walking across the three large rivers as this is where the bedrock is slippery." I wasn't sure how those details supported the idea of an "easy hike."

The page also mentioned that Selatrað dated from at least the year 900, was the site of Eysturoy's first parliament, and had a spot nearby for hanging criminals. This was a place for the hardy, and I didn't count myself among them.

I had walked 37 kilometers. It was almost 3:30 p.m. I needed to make the 6:55 bus from Oyrarbakki to Tórshavn, the last of the day. That's what I could make of the bus schedule, which showed an "x" to indicate weekday service and "6" and "7" to indicate Saturday and Sunday. So "x6" meant the bus ran on weekdays and Saturdays. In most other countries' timetables, "x" means "except," so "x6'" specifically excludes Saturday. I had to read the timetable several times before I was convinced the bus was coming

Three and a half hours to go 5.9 kilometers along the path and the half-hour from Oyri to Oyrarbakki. I should have plenty of time.

To my surprise, the narrow path was easy to find and follow: a thin strip that stood out from the green grass with its brownish or whitish color, well-trodden by sheep or humans. Veðranes was the bulge in the land where the path curled north. It was windy here, and at the point where the path turned, there was another gate to climb over. It had a kind of a door, but I couldn't figure out how to work it. Immediately left of the gate was a steep drop-off. I managed to shove a wooden pole out of the way in order to twirl myself over the mess of wire that otherwise constituted the barrier. Then I returned the pole to its original position.

From here, the path continued as before, gently up a little and down a little, always with a moderate slope to the left but never so steep or high up that I doubted myself. If it ever reached that point, my body wouldn't let me continue. My knees would wobble and I would freeze. In contrast, I felt pretty confident.

The first river was a bit of a challenge. The water was nothing more than a trickle, but I didn't know how slippery the rocks would be, and there was still the slope to consider. I found a relatively flat place to do the crossing and make sure every foot plant was secure for a couple of seconds before taking the next step.

After that, the only issue with the path was its length. It was almost always visible, and on the rare occasion when I lost it, I took a few steps forward and found it again. The grass was good for walking. I crossed a few more streams, all easier than the first. The bedrock turned out not to be slippery.

In one place I was dive-bombed by birds again. Unlike in Oyndarfjørður, there was no alternate path to take to avoid them. One was particularly persistent, and I couldn't figure out where the nest was or what they were protecting.

"Eee-aw! Eee-aw!" the bird cried, making for my head, coming within a couple of feet before looping back up at the last moment.

"Go away!" I yelled. What else was there to say?

"Eee-aw!" it cawed back.

For the only time on the path, I lost my footing. Fortunately it was not at a steep point. "Damn you!" I shouted.

I hastened as quickly as I felt comfortable doing. After a couple of minutes, the birds weren't interested in me anymore.

It was easy going from here on. I passed the abandoned sheds and quay associated with a fish farm that was in use as recently as the 1990s. Farther on was an old sheep house. And after a couple of hours, I saw in the distance the farmhouse that marked the beginning of Oyri. And I knew I was going to make it.

A few gates later and I walked past the chicken coops along the house and along the road to Oyri, and then Oyrarbakki about a half-hour later. I was walking slowly, but I reached the bus stop with 32 minutes to spare, enough to go to the Bonus supermarket to buy some celebratory berry juice.

The wine wouldn't come until much later. I took the bus to Tórshavn; it crossed the bridge into Streymoy and turned south. Sitting on the left, I looked out toward Eysturoy, and we proceeded opposite the route I had just followed, rewinding those two hours in just a few minutes, all the way to the bulge at Veðranes.

I checked in to the Hotel Djurhuus, where they confirmed that I could do my laundry for the ungodly sum of about $29. There was no discount for skipping the dryer cycle, which would take almost three hours (what is it about dryers outside of the United States?) and therefore wasn't much more convenient than leaving the clothes out in my room overnight.

I let the washer complete its job, started the dryer (I was determined to get as much of my money's worth as possible), and then set about finding dinner in Tórshavn. There was a music festival going on, which meant that the central streets down by the harbor would be closed until the early morning. It also meant that the streets were lively with people sporting painted faces and festive caps.

Restaurants in Tórshavn could be divided into four types. There were the fancy places with the tasting menus occupying centuries-old turf-covered wooden houses on the eastern side of the harbor, none of which could accommodate me. There were the places I couldn't get to in the closed-off area. There were places scattered around town whose signage promised opening hours until midnight or 1:00 but whose kitchens were already closed at 9:45. And there was everything else, none of which I wanted to eat: a Thai restaurant, an Irish pub, a steakhouse, pizza takeaways more suited to sopping up a night of drinking.

And drinking seemed to be the main activity on this first weekend after the summer solstice. People of all ages, but mostly under 30, were staggering around town, some with painted faces or sailor's caps for partaking of the music festival. I thought about buying a ticket, but I had missed about 90 percent of it, and all I wanted to do was dine and drink.

A French restaurant and art gallery called Víngarðurin filled my needs, offering me wine and the leftovers off their tasting menu: a fish soup with giant pieces of rare salmon and little shrimps. It came with a bag of baguette slices, which filled any void in my stomach remaining after the soup. I was grateful. The party opposite me was laughing up a storm.

Around the corner, I had a beer at Tórshall, where people were even more inveterately entrenched in and committed to their inebriation. They were walking vertically as much as horizontally. The group from Víngarðurin was playing darts, which sometimes landed on the floor, like the players themselves.

A woman in blue jeans, about 60 years old, had been making the rounds. She hadn't been so much talking to people as thrusting words at them. Eventually she found her way to my table and sat opposite me. We engaged in a staring contest for a few moments, tilting our heads. I stuck out my hand in greeting. She fondled it for a moment and then stood up and drew it to her crotch. We continued the staring match as I withdrew my hand, and then she moved on to someone else and I finished my beer.

My dryer cycle was due to finish at midnight, so I went back to collect the clothes. Then I headed out again.

There was one place where I had to have a drink in Tórshavn. The bar now called Essabarr, next to the cluster of upscale restaurants, used to be Café Natúr. It was here that Mattias had his first social interactions after days of cooping himself up in the house in Gjójv and, months later, had a particularly uplifting encounter — the night before he was scheduled to leave the Faroes, much like me.

I didn't go there with the expectation of a life-changing moment. There was a guitarist in a Doors T-shirt, playing sing-along favorites. Most people were drinking shots and beer, sometimes together; groups at tables were serving themselves out of four-liter beer towers. I had a gin and tonic made with gin from Einar's, a Faroese distillery.

It was hard to stand there and enjoy the music without being pressed up against. I checked out the attic-like upstairs, which was much quieter, and then I made my way outside.

There were heat lamps, so it wasn't cold. This was also the smoking lounge. I sat down and eventually spoke with Simon, one of Essabarr's employees, during his break.

He was a student of economics and had been to the United States for a while. He was quick to point out its shortcomings, and I agreed with everything he said.

"I'd much rather pay sixty-percent tax and have free health care," he said. "And right now, while I'm reading" — he kept using the word to mean studying — "the government pays me eight hundred dollars a month for living expenses. And the tuition is free."

"Every student in the Faroe Islands gets eight hundred dollars a month?"

"Yes. In all of Denmark. Because I've been given all that, I'm happy to give it back and pay more taxes later. And the country takes care of people, including the mentally ill. Did you notice that there are no homeless people here?"

I'd read about Finland's eliminating homelessness simply by giving everyone a home; evidently Denmark had similar compassion. Havstein had taken Mattias in and the government had supported him until he was on a healthier trajectory, and he wasn't even Danish. Of course, there are many more people in the United States, and the issues are more complex. But it had struck me how caring the Scandinavian society was. If the American government started helping people with housing, no doubt people would complain that they were paying for something that others had started getting free.

Simon had to go back to work. I finished my drink, had a beer somewhere else, and joined the crowd at a pizza takeaway. The sun had finished its flirtation with the horizon and was now on its way back up, around 2:30 a.m.

As I walked back to the Hotel Djurhuus, I surprised myself by finishing the entire pizza, and I tried to scrounge my brain for ways in which the United States lives up to its former cutting-edge rank. I could think of just five.

Our dryers work. We often get free soda refills in restaurants. We have a reasonable attitude toward crossing the street at an unauthorized time or in an unofficial place. There are around-the-clock transit options in New York and Chicago and a few other places, even if transit reliability around the nation is dismal. And the same greed that motivates corporations is the same greed that leads banks to offer lucrative credit-card memberships. Nowhere else on earth gives signup bonuses of a few hundred — sometimes over a thousand — dollars' worth of cash or travel with the regularity or abundance that American banks do. If they didn't, many of my flights and hotel stays would be much drearier or costlier.

But what else is there? Paying for things in the United States has become an exhausting scam: Almost every price is subject to a tax, and often a tip (now presumptuously requested at the time of ordering), and increasingly a credit-card fee, and hotels add bogus charges on top of everything else. I'm ashamed of my country for the lies visitors experience when they try to make purchases. Where else are you expected to pay the equivalent of $40 for something that's specifically listed as $30?

And of course that's not our biggest problem, not even close. The Faroes, Simon said, have had two murders in the past 30 years. It may be three or four, from what I can find online. In a population one-6000th the size of the United States'. How long does it take for 24,000 murders to happen in the USA? About a year.

If I weren't already settled in New York, with ties and family and friends and knowledge of English and reasonably good career connections — if I were a clean slate of a person, starting a life afresh, but as an adult, ready to pick a first language to learn and a career to engage in, where would I choose to live? Probably Scandinavia or Japan. Maybe Spain.

On Sunday, I visited the Faroese National Gallery. Its exhibits focused, hardly surprisingly, on various aspects of Faroese life: paintings of sheep, mountainous landscapes, fishing activities, folk dances, the pilot-whale capture. I learned that there are 75,000 sheep in the Faroes (compared with only about 54,000 people), that they are all owned, and that cameras were affixed to some of them so that Google Maps could develop its Street View. There were even sculptures suggesting the entrails of a sheep, and someone constructed a pilot whale out of 32,000 plastic toy soldiers, a protest against whale hunting.

But I came mainly for one painting: Sámal Joensen-Mikines's "Aftur av jarðarferð" ("Returning From a Funeral"). Upon seeing it, Mattias's housemate goes into such a psychological tailspin that thereafter she refuses to go anywhere near the museum.

The painting was in a display about the ocean, a room full of pretty swirls of blue, the departures of fishermen, turbulent seas. But this painting was unlike the others.

I've never seen a grimmer piece of art. Eight people are huddled together in a kind of pyramid layout. They are adrift on a boat in the middle of the ocean, their faces as black as the night sky and the sea, their eyes even blacker. They aren't even eyes; they're horizontal eye sockets, penetrating the hearts of whoever looks at them. The people have long, weary faces, with stocky features, leaving what's inside to the imagination.

The paint is cracked and weary, just like the subjects. The cracked paint of despair. Despair of past, present, and future. I cry the instant I see it, and I don't know why. Would the painting have made such an impact if I hadn't been aware of it? After making my rounds of the museum, I look at it again, and I want to tell the people that it gets better, that they'll be all right.

Rattled, I left the museum through the sculpture park to the south, past the pond with ducks. I had made a reservation for the Sunday roast at Katrina Christiansen: lamb slow-cooked for eight hours, with rhubarb jam, potatoes, peas, red cabbage, and gravy. A glass of Faroese whiskey, also from Einar's, got me in the mood.

The restaurant is in a house from the 1700s that used to contain a general store. An art studio was upstairs, in which Sámal Joensen-Mikines made some of his paintings. Did he work on "Returning From a Funeral" here?

There wasn't much to do in Tórshavn on a Sunday; I didn't have the energy for another museum. I walked around the harbor and had a beer at the Irish pub (Föroya Bjór is the main manufacturer, but newer breweries such as Oy have been making a name for themselves). I wandered through the area of red buildings that house the government offices, as they have done for centuries.

I was booked on the evening Smyril Line departure to Hirtshals in mainland Denmark, a two-night journey aboard the Norröna. This is the line Mattias took with his friends from Bergen, though the ship has been replaced a couple of times since then, and it no longer serves Norway, only Denmark, the Faroes, and, in summer, Iceland.

The best thing I could do for dinner was stock up at a supermarket. Here I found foods that had eluded me in the restaurants: dried whale meat, whale blubber, skinsakjøt (sliced boiled, salted lamb), halibut salad, and a kind of fish roll that the cashier and one customer, after some discussion, were fairly certain didn't need to be cooked before it was eaten. To drink, a couple of bottles of beer and a carton of berry juice. It proved to be extremely sweet, and I consumed a substantial amount before I realized it was concentrate and meant to be mixed with four parts of water.

The boat wasn't scheduled to leave until 11:30 p.m. On the 17th-century fort, at the lighthouse, I met a Czech couple bringing their dog home. They had lived for half a year on the island of Suðuroy. They would be taking the ferry as well.

The Norröna came in at 10:30, bringing passengers from Hirtshals. We boarded shortly after eleven. Every room was named after a sea creature; I was in cabin 6011, Floyfiskur, the common dragonet. Inside the room was a plaque describing the fish. I wanted to believe that they had matched people with their fishes deliberately, but about all it said was that "Males are colourful...yellow-brown with bluish spots and stripes dorsally and light yellow or white colouring ventrally."

Well, maybe. I got a bit of a sunburn on the way to Oyrarbakki and haven't fully examined its patterns.

The ferry was comfortable, similar to the one I took last year from Stockholm to Tallinn, with almost the same layout and positioning of the duty-free shop. I was hoping to find a wooden sheep as a souvenir — Mattias has a brief rudimentary job constructing them in Havstein's factory — but at some point I have to stop seeking connections between my life and Johan Harstad's novel and move on.

Next trip: Jeju & Xiamen Walks