We rented a compact car from a small local outfit. The company rep was a young, energetic guy with a shaved head. He seemed relieved to see us and eager to get on with his day. When we arrived at the car, parked directly in front of the terminal, he motioned for me to get into the passenger seat so I could fill out the paperwork. When I was done, he handed me the keys and left on foot. Garam got in, and I sat in the driver’s seat, amazed at the ease with which I obtained a car in this exotic land—a couple of clicks, sign here, and off we go.
I followed the GPS navigation on Garam’s phone to the wedding venue. A friend of mine from college and his fiance, also from the same school, had reserved the Hotel Budir for their big day. The hotel was located in a part of the island called the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Every name in Iceland was a mouthful; when you thought it was over, they tacked on another syllable or two. The road to the venue was impossibly green. Grass-covered mountain peaks filled the window to my right. Narrow, gushing waterfalls appeared around each bend in the road, and emerald green fields gently sloped down to the ocean on my left.
The wedding was surreal, thanks in part to the sun’s refusal to set completely. There were also 5-hour energy drinks for the revelers, which I decided to try for the first time, further loosening my grip on the concept of time.
In the morning, I awoke to Garam prodding me in the shoulder. Next to the bed was a small trash can, strategically placed. There was a telephone call from a woman at the front desk. “If you please, sir, it is one hour past check-out time and we must prepare the room for the next guests.” It was the first time either Garam or I had received such a reprimand, so we quickly began throwing all of our things into our bags. I was disappointed to forego a shower in the vintage, black-and-white tile bathroom with sparkling chrome fixtures. But it was undeserved. I had misjudged my capacity for alcohol, 5-hour energy, and sleep deprivation the night before. I also had vague memories of a drinking game called “whiskey balls”, which was played in secret by male guests only, for obvious reasons. Garam offered to drive and I got into the passenger seat, nursing a hangover.
About a dozen revelers had signed up for a post-wedding adventure on the Ring Road, with a road trip itinerary designed by me. Most of the group wanted to do the circuit in three days, while a handful of us decided to do it in five. On the first day, I planned to cover a lot of ground to reach our first night’s destination: the Akureyri hostel. We set out in multiple cars, caravan-style, on an elevated dirt road. Garam followed at the rear of the caravan. The caravan leader had attached a big American flag horizontally to the roof of his car, like a Superman cape, and it flapped violently in the wind. As if our country wasn’t notorious enough… I looked out the passenger-side window at the rolling green hills, wishing I had restrained myself a little more at the wedding reception. Then I promptly fell asleep.
I awoke to Garam calling my name—a nervous edge in her voice—and shaking me with her free hand. The car was in a tail slide, snaking back and forth uncontrollably. When I came to my senses, I looked up expecting to see the car in front of us, but gently-sloping green pastures filled the windshield. We had begun sliding perpendicular to the road. Suddenly, the tires caught gravel, and we lurched forward. The car landed nose-first in a ditch, about a meter from an enormous boulder. A boulder that in all likelihood would have ended our Ring Road journey early, perhaps with an airlift to the nearest hospital.
As it happened, we were fine. Not only that, but by some miracle, the car survived unscathed, aside from it being thoroughly caked in mud. The rest of the caravan left us in their dust. I took over at the wheel and tried to reverse out of the ditch, but the car wouldn’t budge. Neither Garam nor I had much experience driving manual. We also had no cell phone service. I surveyed the area: beautiful green pastures in all directions, and a single white house about three kilometers off. Small, but pretty in the afternoon sunlight. “Well, I guess I’ll run over there and see if I can use their phone,” I said to Garam when it seemed like we had exhausted all other options.
As I was about to leave, a car came over the hill behind us, moving pretty fast and spewing brown dust in its wake. We stood next to the road waving for help, and the SUV began to slow. As it approached, I could make out two figures in the front seat: the bride and groom from the wedding. Thank God, we’re saved! I thought, although running to the farmhouse to ask for help might have made a better story. The newlyweds had signed up for the Ring Road trip, but they were busy cleaning up the venue so we weren’t expecting them for hours. In the back of their car were wedding cake trays, decorations, and clothes, loaded hurriedly.
“We’re so glad you guys found us,” I said, explaining the situation to the surprised couple. The groom had a special company phone with good international roaming service. He connected with one of the cars in the caravan and asked the driver to turn around to help us. The driver of this third car was a large man. He also had the most confidence in his manual driving skills, but he could barely fit into the driver’s seat of our compact car. He left the door open while he played with the gas and the clutch. The groom and I, meanwhile, pushed on the nose of the car, rocking it back and forth to pry the front wheels loose from the mud. The driver’s hesitant first attempts failed. Then he gunned the motor, and suddenly the groom stepped back. One entire side of his body was coated with a strip of healthy-looking light brown soil. “Ah, this is my last pair of jeans,” he said, returning reluctantly to the task.
We finally extracted the car from the ditch. The driver accelerated in reverse—with his door open—up the embankment and back onto the dirt road. The car kicked up a cloud of dust when it reached flat ground. We thanked him profusely, and I took over the wheel to finish the first leg of the journey. My hangover had disappeared. Incidentally, I couldn’t fall asleep again while Garam was driving for the rest of the trip—and for the next five years.
We arrived at Akureyri hostel, a charming little place in the bustling—for Iceland—town of Akureyri in the North part of the island. Garam and I and another couple stayed in the main building, in what felt like a converted hospital room. It slept four in bunk beds. Outside in the backyard was a large pinewood cottage that slept eight. A wooden boardwalk led from the main building to the cottage, giving the impression of boarding a ship. The cottage’s interior was cozy, yet efficient. Narrow stairways led to a second floor loft, and a maze of hallways connected the small cabins to each other on the ground floor. The whole cottage was elevated off of the ground. In winter—the season when Iceland lived up to its name—I supposed that a little bit of ground clearance would be quite practical.
On Day Two, our party split into faster and slower groups, the fast group covering the entirety of Eastern Iceland in a single day. Garam and I and two other couples took a day tour of Askja—pronounced as in “Lemme ask ya something”—the active volcano at the center of the island.
Our tour started from a gas station, where a nice, boot-wearing woman with short hair picked us up in a school bus on steroids. The bus’s knobby wheels were taller than my waist, and it sounded like a semi-truck when she pulled into the station.
The road to Iceland’s interior was a glorified hiking trail. Dirt and large rocks impeded our progress as we entered a desolate, unlivable area that looked like the surface of the moon. “Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trained here for their mission,” our guide said.
We veered off the trail and the driver stopped, instructing us to get out and follow her. The volcano’s peak was visible in the distance behind a gray shroud, but aside from that, there was nothing but rocks. Our guide walked a few paces and stopped next to a small hole in the ground, big enough for one or two people to crouch inside. “In this place is where Fjalla-Eyvindur—or Eyvindur of the Mountains—spent the entire winter one year in the late 18th century,” our guide said in a practiced tone. “He was a famous outlaw, and he and his wife Halla lived in remote hiding places like this one throughout the Icelandic wilderness. The year that Eyvindur stayed here was a very cold winter, and he was alone because his wife was being held captive in the town of Myvatn. So he had to survive on the meat of stolen horses.”
Listening to her story, the tourists’ faces were covered in disbelief. tk We’ve gotten soft as a species, was the first thought that entered my head. It was the first monument in my experience that honored a person simply for surviving.
History Committee Chairman: Did he go to war?
Monument proposer: No.
History Committee Chairman: Did he accomplish great things?
Monument proposer: No, he was a criminal. But he did survive an entire Icelandic winter alone in a stone trench.
History Committee Chairman: Sold. You’ve got yourself a monument.
The next stop was the Askja caldera with its vast, icy, crater lake. The lake was accessible via a long slog through deep snow from the bus’s parking spot. Beside the vast crater was a smaller dimple, featuring a beautiful and inviting teal-blue lake about the size of a city park. When asked if it was safe to go in the water, our tour guide—for legal reasons—wouldn’t comment. She neither forbade us to go in the water—which would have been weird considering the abundance of swimming pictures on the tour company’s website—nor encouraged us. Instead, she stood at the edge of the lake and said flatly that we would have one hour to “walk around and explore”.
It took a difficult shimmy down a steep gravel slope to reach the lake. Garam and I changed into swimsuits on the tiny sand beach, shielding ourselves behind a beach towel. On the opposite side of the lake, some tourists (European, or perhaps Russian) beat us into the water by skipping the put-on-swimsuit step in their preparations.
The water was warm, although the temperature varied by where you stood. “Come over here!” I called to Garam, my toes in the sand alerting me that I had found a hotspot. What if one of these heat pores suddenly pops? I worried, trying not to reveal my anxiety to Garam. I looked upwards at the bizarre view. It looked as if we had fallen into a large construction site, and a fork crane would arrive any second to dump fresh dirt on our heads. The lake could be filled in a day’s work, burying us in the process.
By the time we changed clothes and scrambled back up the slope to our guide, it was approaching dusk. I dreaded trudging back through the snow to our bus, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a large snowcat gliding towards us. It had a large viewing platform attached in the rear, so we tourists could continue to enjoy the crisp air and majestic landscape on our way back to the bus.
That night, I had arranged for each couple to stay in their own wooden cabin. Each cabin was small, featuring a pair of bunk beds, a small throw rug, and a radiator for amenities. The cabins were perched right next to Lake Myvatn.
Despite her distaste for no-frills lodging, Garam was happy to get inside to escape the large black flies that frequently buzzed past riding the lake breeze. Moss-covered volcanic rocks surrounded the lake. They were otherworldly and held a strange allure, leading one friend to coin the euphemism: “Me and my girl are gonna go find some lava moss”.
Day Three was a long slog around the east and southeast section of the Ring Road. I misjudged how long it would take to arrive at that night’s lodging, so midnight came and the groom and I were still driving on some winding road far from civilization. We pulled over to regroup. It was not dark, but the sky had an eerie pinkish-yellow glow, like a perpetual sunset. I needed to get my blood pumping, so I got out of the car and began jogging through a field of lava moss. Suddenly the groom steered his SUV off-road, and he began pursuing me across the lava moss field. His car headlights illuminated my path as I gradually increased my speed to a sprint. He accelerated to match my speed. I glanced back, and through the windshield I could see a glint in his eye that made me nervous. I returned to the relative safety of my car, and we drove the final leg to that night’s cabin. We arrived after 2am. It was a cute cabin that slept six, with lots of bare wood and a cozy feel. The newlyweds and another couple snagged the full bunks, so Garam and I slept on the pullout sofa bed.
In the morning, we took a zodiac tour to the Vatnajokull glacier. The tour departed from a small outpost with a few picnic tables and a little cafe inside, serving coffee and hot cocoa. The zodiac navigated around a series of small icebergs. As we passed alongside one, a crew member scooped out a small block of ice that was floating beside the boat. He chiseled off small chunks of the ice and distributed them for us to try. In global glacial-destruction terms, it seemed innocent enough. The main body of the glacier was like a giant sledding hill at the opposite end of the lake, barely peeking out from beneath an overcast sky. Our guide informed us that the glacier line was receding. It was not the most surprising fact of the day.
We continued southwest along the Ring Road to Skaftafell National Park, which didn’t look like much from the parking lot. Some members of our party were tired, but I promised them a good hike, and we set off towards the Svartifoss waterfall. The forest scenery was raw and varied, beautiful in spite of the overcast skies.
The cliffs surrounding Svartifoss looked like organ pipes at the back of a cathedral. The magnificent brown rock tubes, arrayed vertically along a semicircle, highlighted a steady narrow stream of water spilling straight down the middle. Like the rest of Iceland’s scenery, Svartifoss was stunning and unspoiled. There was no question in my mind that it was absolutely, 100-percent safe to drink straight from the stream. But I didn’t, because there were people around. We snapped a few photos and decided not to continue hiking, for fear of repeating the previous day’s taxing schedule.
There were many fosses (waterfalls) on the Ring Road, including one that looked like a tiered wedding cake, and another with an impossible name: Gongumannafoss.
Our journey took us past another fascinating natural phenomenon. The road deposited us in front of a valley, surrounded on all sides by vertical cliffs which formed an enormous “U”, kilometers across. It was as though the earth’s surface had been depressed by a giant, godlike footprint. We hiked into the valley, then ascended a trail to the second level, as it were. We followed the trail around the cliff’s edge to the U’s vertex and lunched next to a small pond of turquoise water. I raised my pant legs and dangled my feet in. The view from the cliff’s edge was odd, like looking down at a giant game board, with trees and rocks and tents and cars for the game pieces.
I had booked accommodations for six in a town called Hveragerdi, but the newlyweds decided to continue to Reykjavik. So Garam and I stayed in a two-bedroom apartment with a couple we had just met at the wedding. They were nice, but all four of us were too tired to make the effort required to create lasting friendships. As our distance from Reykjavik shrunk, the accommodations grew more luxurious. We arrived Night Four to nice beds and a kitchenette. They even had a sauna on the premises—which we didn’t use. But it was nice to know they had one.
Some of the wedding guests had arrived in Iceland wanting to see the capital city of Reykjavik, with its fancy cars and igloo-themed bars made from solid ice, where you could only stay inside for 30 minutes before you risked turning yourself into an ice sculpture. For me, the natural wonders were Iceland’s raison d’être. That’s why my itinerary included an extra couple of days with Garam in the fjords of northwestern Iceland.
We drove kilometer after kilometer on winding gravel roads in our little Hyundai i20, and it became clear that my itinerary was a little…ambitious. We stopped at a place billed as the “westernmost point in Europe”, home to an enormous colony of sea birds who had turned an expansive series of seaward-facing cliffs into a giant outhouse. As we walked from the parking lot towards a single-track dirt trail overlooking the cliffs, we passed a yellow warning sign. On it was a stick-figure man, falling off of a stick-figure cliff. The man looked genuinely perturbed. I respected the simplicity of the European warning signs.
The trail led close—dangerously so, if you ask me—to the edge of the cliffs, and there was no guardrail. But this allowed for spectacular views of the puffins, which perched and preened on small ledges just below the cliff’s edge. They were irresistible to some of the tourists on the trail. One man with a long telephoto lens lay on his stomach, arms over the precipice, snapping closeups of a puffin. I was content to snap photos without regard for the bird’s individual feathers.
In my guidebook, the authors warned that the cliffs could be swarming with insects, so I bought Garam a mesh head net which was designed to fit over her hat. The head net looked ridiculous on her otherwise stylish frame. A strong breeze kept the bugs moving that day so they couldn’t hover around our heads for long, but the netting still gave her some peace of mind.
I planned to splurge that night on a nice dinner and stay at the Hotel Breidavik. It was the most remote lodging in the northwestern fjords, promising wonderful views and good rest. Unfortunately we arrived there too late for dinner. Instead, they supplied us each a bowl of leftover cream of mushroom soup in the dining room. We ate in silence, but not the romantic kind I had envisioned. Our room was nice, with views of the ocean and the bright-pink setting sun, which shone directly into our room window like a spotlight, even around 11pm.
In the morning, we had a leisurely breakfast at a cafe overlooking a beautiful red sand beach. My original itinerary called for driving east to another valley with beautiful lakes and lush green trails. I had a reservation in Holmavik, but we scrapped the plan because Iceland had taught me to distrust map distances. Instead, we made our way south. In the afternoon, we stopped at a roadside restaurant to use the telephone and arrange new accommodations for the night. Fortunately, one place responded that they had a guesthouse—with a pool—available. I liked the sound of that.
The guesthouse was a short drive from the restaurant. When we pulled into the parking area, the guesthouse building didn’t look like much. It reminded me of an old community center building. There was a row of small, rectangular windows just under the gently sloping roof.
I went to the large, multi-story main house and retrieved the key from the owner. He pointed me to the rectangular guesthouse structure about a hundred yards away, from whence I came. He said we would have it all to ourselves.
Inside the building, there was a clean, medium-sized lap pool with locker rooms. A sign near the pool entrance showed a cartoon man, standing proud like a broadway singer who just finished a hit number. Yellow circles highlighted his hair, armpits, hands, feet, and genital area. The sign was a warning to wash up before using the pool. Again I liked the European simplicity, although we all know where most of the germs reside, yes?
The pool building had an attached apartment—the guesthouse—with two twin beds and a kitchenette. Garam and I cooked hot dogs for dinner, because that’s the only food we had left from our grocery store run two days before. I stepped outside to the fence-enclosed patio to find a hot tub. One pleasant surprise after another at this place. We didn’t have much food, but we had wine, so we drank in the tub while enjoying the lingering dusk that descended on the valley. Like the previous night’s lodging, this one had an entire valley all to itself. Iceland seemed like a real estate developer’s dream, if you could get past it being one of the most desolate places on earth.
Our only unplanned lodging of the trip turned out to be the best lodging. Figures. The next day, I told Garam I wanted to travel guidebook-free for our next adventure. In my heart, I knew neither of us could survive the anxiety of that sort of freewheeling schedule.
Keflavik was a strange town. A sort of holding pen for travelers catching flights back to the real world. The day we were there, most of the town’s restaurants were closed, so we ate hamburgers at a convenience mart on an uphill street. Hamburgers in Iceland—oh well. We had gone out on a limb and tried whale one day—which had the texture and taste of an extra-chewy steak—but we didn’t get to sample many other Icelandic delicacies. Puffin we couldn’t eat, on account of having already seen the cute little things in their cliffside perches, their rainbow-colored bills and narrow eyes making them look like adorable play dolls.
After dinner, we walked along a seaside trail that wound uphill into the backyards of some luxury homes. Then we crashed in our small, contemporary hotel room, decorated with beige laminate floors and machine-printed artwork on canvas. The rental car company told me to just leave the car in the hotel parking lot. We could leave the keys with the hotel before taking the airport shuttle in the morning. An undercurrent of nervousness about the car had stayed with me since Garam’s accident the morning after the wedding. I looked at the car, its tires and sides mud-caked from a brutal week of driving over dirt, gravel, boulders, and sand, and I thanked it for its service. There were no additional charges when we got back to the U.S.. I credited the leniency to the fact that we used a local car rental agency instead of one of the bigger names.
Security for U.S.-bound flights was onerous, with multiple lines and checkpoints requiring you to submit your passport and/or bags for inspection and re-inspection. Stay inside the guide ropes. My mind wandered to the stick-figure man falling from the stick-figure cliff, to the narrow dirt trail, to the puffins.