Change is sometimes difficult – even if it’s intoxicating. When I first encountered Iceland’s breathtaking views and volcanic terrain, it was the highlight of my first full year as a newspaper journalist. In 2016, I landed in the darkness of December and emerged from the airport in fog so thick that I couldn’t see more than 9 meters in front of me.
Six years later, a lasting impression of this trip sticks in my memory: Iceland, a 4 Â½ hour flight from Boston, is cold and unforgiving, but nevertheless hauntingly beautiful. The first time I traveled alone with a small backpack, I found a strange kind of solace in the wide streets and thundering waterfalls. Loneliness seemed permeated with fog. It was the kind of place where the mind could be unleashed and wandered into uncharted territory.
Last Friday I returned from Iceland for the second time and found clear skies and cold winds, this time with my wife Brianna. In June’s 24 hours of sunshine, we camped through South Iceland, visited hot springs and took in the incredible scenery. On the second day we hiked to the currently erupting Fagradalsjfall volcano, past molten lava that was so hot that it could burn uncovered skin at a distance of more than 3 meters.
It was another unforgettable experience.
A lot has changed since my first Iceland adventure. For one thing, I’m married now. I’ve grown up a lot since 2016, both as a writer and as a person. Iceland ended my growing up in many ways. When I first went there, I was a junior reporter and lived on North Main Street in South Deerfield above Gianni Fig’s Ristorante (greet Chef Gianni Calabrese who I think makes the best meatballs in the northeast). Brianna was a nursing student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst at the time and lived across the Connecticut River in Sunderland. Mount Sugarloaf directed our burgeoning relationship. On warmer evenings, we climb the steeper path to catch the sunset. And 2017, on the first day of autumn, I suggested above (spoiler, she said “yes”).
Now, having returned home for the second time, I’m writing a farewell column with Sugar Loaf and Iceland on my mind.
Today is my last day at The Greenfield Recorder. On Monday I’m starting a remote writer-editor job for a national publication. It’s a bittersweet goodbye as I will miss my wonderful colleagues and all of you who have supported my work in this vibrant community – just a stone’s throw from my childhood in Northampton – over the past six years.
From coverage of the 2016 presidential election to the 2017 tornado that ripped through Pumpkin Hollow in Conway, to coverage of the city government (the longest meeting I’ve ever seen was a six hour meeting of the Deerfield Selectboard on the fate of Sugarloaf Estates ) about fascinating locals like Robert Kearney, the first openly gay professional star (at the World Log Lift Championships 2019 Kearney set the American log lift record of 471 pounds), Darius Marder, director of the Oscar-winning film “Sound of Metal” , Author Jane Yolen, who has published 400 books, and illustrator Gayle Kabaker, whose work has featured on the cover of New York magazine several times. Not to mention the time I wore protective gear for a first-person article on what it’s like to be a living paintball target at Mike’s at Night Paintball Zombie Patrol in Sunderland.
My first day at work was literally a trial by fire. I went to the office at 9 a.m. and was immediately turned around and sent to cover a night fire on Wells Street in Greenfield. During my time, I’ve had the privilege of meeting as many interesting people as Helen Reed, then 100, of Conway, who was born before women got to vote and proudly cast her vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. This fall, I was encouraged as a reporter by my then feature editor, Anita Fritz, to attend National Novel Writing Month and write a first-person article about the process. I did that and wrote more than 50,000 words on paper in less than a month.
To cut a long story short: it was a lot of fun.
There is so much to say about my time here on Hope Street and not enough newspaper space. It was an honor to dive into the vibrant communities of Franklin County, which I believe are some of the most beautiful places I have ever been (and have been to many countries). But of all the fascinating characters I have met, the places I have been and the stories entrusted to me, I am very grateful for the support I have received from the recorder’s loyal readers, including mine Grandmother Irene Fariss, who lived in Erving for many decades (she is now in Northampton); she made a habit of cutting out my items and keeping them in a box for me.
Another unexpected blessing came when the pandemic was fully realized last year. Starving for content in the outdoor section on Monday, I started writing “Finding Beauty,” a column about small blessings that I began to write mostly for myself. The exuberant recognition I’ve received through phone calls and emails has been a constant source of encouragement. Thank you for your nice words; I will take them everywhere.
This last column marks the end of one sweet chapter and the beginning of another.
On our very first date in early 2015, Brianna (who had just been teaching English in Ecuador for a year) and I talked about what it would be like to live as a nomad. Less than two weeks after this interview, she enrolled in a nursing program with the intention of becoming a travel nurse at some point. I also followed a path that has led me to this day: Since then, I’ve been working hard in an office so that one day I can work without it, and in 2019 I even went back to school for a masterâs degree to make myself more marketable. In the coming months, Brianna and I intend to venture out on the road together – hopefully to California, then the West Coast, Utah during the ski season and Alaska during the warmer months; then who knows?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been plagued by the urge to adventure – that small voice some people hear on the street that makes them step out of their comfort zone and have new experiences. I am blessed to have a travel partner in Brianna. Creating a sustainable lifestyle like this is a dream for both of us.
But as I’m on the brink of whatever comes next, I can’t help but yearn for the “good old days” of bootstrap journalism – when retired editor George Forcecier ordered pizza during election nights and the gossip the City invited me to dinner to tell me their side of the story. Change is difficult.
Newsprint has been in my blood since I left the Daily Hampshire Gazette in middle school. I learned photography at Greenfield Community College, where I received the Gazette’s Journalism Fellowship, and writing while studying English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Forcier gave me my first ârealâ job after graduation (in another life I was with the Air Force and briefly worked as a cameraman and producer at WWLP 22News). Through the lens of time and history, in those early years as a beat reporter, I felt like I was living in a Charles Dickens novel, full of fascinating characters and intriguing storylines. It was then that I honed my writing skills and learned how important and fragile democracy is.
It has to be protected.
Fortunately, Franklin County has The Greenfield Recorder as its standard bearer. Since 1792, reporters like myself have sought interesting stories in the community and kept residents informed of what was going on in the local government. Over the past few years I’ve been down a beaten path in the footsteps of Journo legends like Richie Davis (a personal hero) who retired after four decades a few years ago. I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that someone else will come and pick up where I left off.
In search of the nostalgic vastness that I discovered in Iceland, I am traveling on an adventure that lies somewhere on the unknown horizon and I hope that you, readers, continue to support this wonderful little newspaper. Over the past six years I’ve learned that democracy depends on journalism. It needs to be appreciated and appreciated in every corner of the earth, especially in your garden.
Andy Castillo worked as a feature editor at Greenfield Recorder. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Bay Path University.