Skewered at the end of the cocktail toothpick, topped with a miniature flag of Iceland, is an oily, pale chunk of shark meat -- rotten shark meat, that is. Called hákarl, it is an Icelandic delicacy. And it tastes awful.
Wind cured for four or five months to dry out the uric acid and trimethylamine oxide in the meat, which makes it poisonous, hákarl is Greenland or basking shark traditionally eaten during the midwinter celebration Þorrablót, or basically whenever someone wants to introduce foreigners to the local customs and see if they can swallow it.
A generous description of the taste is pungent and poisonous. A not-so-generous description would be to say the shark tastes like a gym sock with a baked-in stank that's been fermented then preserved in formaldehyde. And as bad as it tastes, the smell is worse.
Still, there is certainly an excitement to trying the dish, especially when it is chased with 80 proof Black Death, the nickname for Brennivín, a schnapps with a kick similar to Scandinavian akvavit. That bizarre excitement is also heightened when the hákarl experience is preceded by a little deep-sea fishing in a whale-watching vessel off the coast of Reykjavik -- and all part of Day One on an adventure trip to Iceland.
What was the last movie that inspired you to pursue adventure? Somewhere between excitedly popping the chunk of rotted meat into my maw and trying to chew, then swallow it, that question presented itself in my brain.
But it was indeed a movie that led to my current situation in Iceland.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, starring and directed by Ben Stiller, is a loose remake of the 1947 film starring Danny Kaye, which in turn was adapted from a short story by James Thurber. But it is a movie that inspires the viewer to not only pursue adventure, but to let life in. It challenges you to turn daydreams into reality.
The massive SUV crosses terrain that would devour most cars. The ride is bumpy on the way to Eyjafjallajökull volcano (which caused a lot of trouble for world travel when it laste erupted in 2010), and there isn't competition on the path that doubles as our "road." My driver tells me that about once a year a polar bear is discovered swimming from Greenland and makes its way on shore. His iPhone shuffles through Pink Floyd, then Joe Cocker, Metallica, American pop music and Icelandic indie rock. The rain we've been driving through lets up just enough; off to the left of the vehicle is the brightest rainbow I've ever seen. You can see the entire arch, and it looks close enough you could snatch a bowl of cereal marbits from a cartoon leprechaun. When we reach the volcano, the rain starts to pick up again. The landscape is a combination of blacks and whites. Untouched snow and frozen glacial water provide a stark contrast to the black lava rocks spewed from the eruption. I could easily be convinced I'd been transported to an alien planet.
Released last December and available now on DVD/Blu-ray/streaming video, this Mitty revolves around Walter, a negative asset manager who deals with the most precious photos of LIFE Magazine. Prone to extended "zoning out" fantasies where he imagines himself a hero, adventurer and romantic, Walter nurtures a crush on the sweet-natured, newly single mom Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). But when it is announced LIFE is shutting down print operations and the intended image for the final cover goes missing, Walter must embark on a globetrotting journey to find elusive photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) and locate the negative.
The character of Walter Mitty feels like something of a rarity in the movie world. He is kind-hearted, and has a good relationship with his aging mother (Shirley MacLaine) and aspiring actress sister (Kathryn Hahn); he seems to be pretty well liked at work as a boss and colleague, (except by the corporate ax-man played Adam Scott in an intentionally bad beard); and he is genuinely good at his job. Even O'Connell, considered a rockstar at LIFE, respects Walter as his man at HQ.
There are hints of the greatness Mitty could have achieved in his youth, and the wanderlust he felt. His heart has longed to explore the world, but a sense of responsibility keeps him in the office, until this white-collar knight sets out on a quest. And once he does, his daydreams give way to true experiences and he discovers the essence of life -- and the quintessence of LIFE.
Beyond the basic concept, I don't know how to drive an ATV. Of course, that doesn't stop me from barreling through volcanic rock, across heavy streams and up, down, all around pretty intense terrain. I am in awe of the surroundings: snow, then ice, and hills that turn into mountains. Taking in too much of the scenery may have been what led to me hitting a rather massive rock, which my vehicle did not take kindly to. They say a fool and his money soon part ways, and the same is true for a fool and his ATV. I hit the ground running, then rolling, and my ankle protests this part of the adventure. But I still love it. Icelanders say elves and trolls live in these parts, and my guide eventually leads our group to a cave with a natural chimney. We build a fire and the guide -- who I am told is a former World Strongman Champ -- shows carvings that he says pre-dates Viking explorers. He tells me this is elven country.
Walter's fantasies are absurdly funny, such as when he engages in an epic super-powered battle with Scott's character over a Stretch Armstrong figure, or when he envisions growing old with Wiig's character while suffering from "Benjamin Button Disease." Wiig is understatedly charming, and Patton Oswalt owns it as a hands-on eHarmony customer service rep.
As a filmmaker, Stiller has created a lovely tale about finding joy in life, and treating each day as a chance to start over. The movie inspires and strikes an emotional chord in a surreal way that reminded me of The Truman Show. And visually, Mitty is a stunning work.
The helicopter lifts off the black sand beach of Vik, and the expanse of land and sea presents itself through the window. I'm seated behind Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, the same guy who played the heli pilot in Mitty, but who is just another passenger here -- albeit one with the most distinctive beard. The distinct Tetris-like rock formations on the beach catch my eye, before I notice the massive pillars or stone jutting out of the water, especially the one that has a little keyhole that I ask my pilot to fly through. He wisely refuses. We go higher and in a moment are flying into a mountaintop basin with an enormous stretch of snow. I expect to see Luke Skywalker on a tauntaun down below. Later: It's amazing what a pair of crampons and pick-axe can do to elevate your status as an adventurer. It's a short walk across the glacier where my guides and team have to dig in with our spiked footwear. I use every opportunity to dig the axe into the frozen surface to give me leverage as needed. Although I probably look like a giddy little boy, I feel frigging cool. We reach a large opening in the icy ground, post in and I belay down with my guide positioned up top. The mini-spelunk drops me near a ice tunnel, bathed in the blue light of frozen glacial water. I emerge on the other side, tie a new climbing rope to my harness and use the crampons and pickaxe to climb back to the surface. The journey is short but unforgettable.
Which brings me back to Iceland. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty serves as an incredibly convincing piece of marketing for the country. In addition to being set here -- such as in the segment that has Walter traveling to Eyjafjallajökull -- the country serves as a stand-in for Greenland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas.
The country also provided locations for movies such as Prometheus and Thor: The Dark World, and has been seen in Game of Thrones. Icelandic production company Truenorth has been a major force in exposing Hollywood -- and by extension, much of the world -- to the beauty of this former Viking homestead. The production for the new Star Wars trilogy will additionally film plate shots here with Truenorth, which means it's a very good chance Iceland will soon be known as a "galaxy far, far away."
So, in a way, Stiller cheated by using gorgeous settings that do so much work for him. Walter travels on shaky helicopter with a drunken pilot (scene stealer Ólafsson); skateboards through rocky, winding terrain; hikes across glacial vistas; plunges into shark-infested waters.
Speaking of which: After not catching anything while fishing, I returned to the cabin of the Elding, Icelandic for "lightning," and consumed one of the more wretched foods I've ever had the opportunity to taste.
But I loved it. The shark bite was a pretty perfect experience on a journey that involved a volcano, glaciers, waterfalls, and near-death on an ATV.
What was the last movie that inspired you to pursue adventure? For me, it was the Mitty movie.
There is something special about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The comedic beats are solid, but it is a romantic movie that presents the notion that we needn't so easily relinquish our dreams and settle for the fantasy of what could have been.
It may not inspire a trip to Iceland for everyone, but it does inspire.