His Name Was Nicholas
My Icelandic companion
Photo by Tamas Tuzes Kata on Unsplash
His name was Nicholas, and he had a beautiful and copious blond mane. He was about my height, 5’1”, and I had just been introduced to him. I was on a cruise to Iceland, and in a moment of madness, I forgot I was 83 years old.
On cruises, there are excursions to choose from when one is in port. On this Icelandic cruise, I chose three: a visit to a herring factory where the “herring girls,” wearing yellow oilskin aprons and red bandanas, sang and danced and showed us how they did their job in the old days: lopping off the heads, gutting the bellies, and then throwing the poor herrings into barrels of salt. I went whale watching and saw a mother humpback and her two calves breaching in a thrilling display. And finally, my third choice, horseback riding.
I hadn’t been on a horse in over sixty-five years since my days at summer camp, where I learned to post while trotting and occasionally to gallop and to canter. To me then, horses were mysterious creatures who, I was convinced, could see into the depths of your soul the minute you looked them in the eye. But, when I signed up for the excursion in Iceland, I knew there would be no galloping or cantering and I hoped, no revelations concerning my soul. I pictured us ambling at a sedate pace along a gentle trail in a gentle landscape.
Iceland in June is not Toronto in June, and while I was there, the temperature hovered around 12 degrees Celsius. That day, luckily, there was no rain, and early in the morning, twenty-one of my intrepid shipmates and I gathered at the little bus that was to take us from the ship to the farm where the ride was to happen. I dressed warmly and wore comfortable shoes, as advised.
The ride to the farm took over an hour. On the bus, we were a mixture of mostly middle-aged and young people. I sat beside an 18-year-old American who told me that the next day he had signed up for an all-terrain vehicle adventure in a lava field. Of course!
At the farm, we gathered in a barn to choose our helmets. I finally found one to fit and was the last person to enter the paddock where little horses of all colours stood by, and the humans waited in a line to be paired with one of them. The internet had told me Icelandic horses are good-natured, beautiful and resilient and that they can be found in many, many distinct colours and various sizes, and I saw it was true.
The leader of our ride was a feisty middle-aged woman named Helga who instructed us to sit the horses in a relaxed manner, to hold the reins and the saddle with two hands and not to scream if something untoward should happen as it would lead to chaos among the horses and that would not be good.
Then she asked who among us was the oldest, and just as I was about to raise my hand a wizened 77-year-old German man said that he was. I decided not to argue. She found a stool for him to stand on as he was helped onto the back of his steed. I waited until almost all the others were matched with a horse, and at last, one was led from the barn for me.
“His name is Nicholas,” said Helga. “Stand by him, hold the reins, and talk to him.”
I wondered what Nicholas would like to talk about? I murmured that he was beautiful, and stroked his muzzle. When it came time to climb into the saddle, I needed a push on my bottom from Helga, but not a stool. I held the reins and grasped the saddle, nervous and relaxed at the same time.
“Follow in a line after me,” said Helga and we headed out.
The sky was steely grey. We crossed a field in single file, leaving the barn and the farm behind, into the vast emptiness ahead. Huge sea birds swooped and called around us as the line of horses followed the ruts made by previous groups.
Eventually, we came to the sea, where seals basked on the sand and swam. But by this time, I had had enough. My legs ached, my hands were cold, and my feet were numb. They are asleep, I thought, or frozen solid. The ride seemed endless, and I was ready to head back but as we meandered on, deeper into the landscape, I began to wonder if we ever would.
Nicholas had a mind of his own, not unique to him I suspect, and every time we stopped, he jerked his head down to chomp on some grass, pulling me forward as I clutched the reins and sometimes his mane with my frozen hands, trying not to slide off. “Isn’t this fun?” asked one of my fellow riders. I smiled through clenched teeth.
After what seemed like many hours, but was probably only one, I saw the farmhouse and barn come into view as we followed a small river back to the paddock. How will I get off this horse? I wasn’t sure I could stand up my feet were so numb. Helga spotted my distress. She helped me off and held me up for a few minutes once I’d dismounted.
“You did very well,” she said. “You can be proud.”
I patted the indifferent Nicholas goodbye on his bay-coloured flank, and as I staggered back to the van on my frozen feet, I tried to make sense of my emotions. Was I proud? Or merely relieved that the semi-enjoyable ordeal was over?
On board the ship, I made my way to the cabin and shivered under the covers until dinner time. The expression “chilled to the bone” was completely apt to describe the state I was in. At dinner, I slowly thawed out as I recounted my adventure. My 83-year-old self knows by now how to tell a story, and my table mates were appropriately amused and in awe.
They say that age is just a number. Who are they, and why do we believe them? My age is a number that must mean something when making decisions about how to live my life. I know, for example, that my arthritic shoulders have put an end to my downhill and water-skiing life. And I haven’t hopped on a bike in a long time. In that way, I see myself as a sensible person. But…
Something possessed me when I signed up for that excursion. I should never have done it, but if I hadn’t, I’d never have a story to tell you. Thank you, Nicholas.