Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
On board the plane to Iceland with my travel companion. Our plans are set: a road trip along the highway which circumnavigates the island. Sigur Ros will be our soundtrack. The trailing edge of winter will be our weather. And perhaps we'll see Bjork in blue plumage out on a snow-covered lava field howling at the aurora. You never know.
Keflavik International Airport, Iceland. We get our rental car. First travel day adrenalin keeps us awake and excited despite the overnight flight. We drive a loop around the southwest tip of Iceland, less than 100 kilometres total distance. The weather here changes before you can decide what to wear for the weather. It feels as if we are jumping continents – such variety in this place.
We drive east along Route 1, Iceland's ring road. We decide to go for a hike at a place called Reykjadalur. There's supposed to be a hot spring at the end, but we're uncertain about distances and it feels like a storm might be coming in.
The trail is through tall hills, at first on gravel paths but soon there is snow over everything and yellow stakes planted in the ground are the only guide. Over a hill, into a valley, up another hill. Here, except for our footprints and the yellow stakes, all the earth is smooth, flat white.
It takes us an hour to find the spot where the water steams.
I change into swim trunks and, feeling exposed in that snow-covered valley, step into the flowing stream deep enough to cover my body, hot enough to warm my core.
More snow-packed roads. The rental vehicle has studded tires. I don't realize how well they work until I step out of the car at one point and discover my boots have no traction on the road. The wind grabs hold of me and starts to push me away from the car. I grab onto the door just in time and pull myself back.
We're after glaciers today. I think, "What's the big deal with glaciers?" They're just thick sheets of ice and there's been enough ice in Toronto this past winter. It's the stuff my bicycle tires slip on as I ride into work. It's the stuff that tells me winter is not yet done.
And yet, as soon as I see the tip of the Vatnajokull glacial ice from across the snow field, I want to get closer. When I reach it, I break off a piece and bite into it. So that's what 10,000-year-old ice tastes like, I tell myself, whether it's true or not.
Days 4 and 5
I am visually overwhelmed and spoiled here. We question the quality of our daily lives back home. Sure, travel – good travel anyway – always does that, makes us ask questions. But this place, like no other I've been to, doesn't just ask. It waits for an answer. What has meaning? Who is important to you? What are you doing with your life?
The Blue Lagoon resort is perfect if you like mingling with busloads of tourists in a pool not quite warm enough for a cold blustery day. We spend much of our time searching for hot spots and quiet corners. Still, even this premier Icelandic tourist trap is a worthwhile experience with its surreal blue waters and vast surface of steam rising into the chill.
Back in Reykjavik, we walk downtown under a flat grey sky. We have some simple soup at a place with the word "Viking" in its name. We walk into gift shops and peruse the $50 tchotchkes. The Harpa concert hall is beautiful with its fish scale-like glass outer shell and coloured glass birds hanging from the ceiling. Whenever I have questions, people take their time and give full answers. Asparagus is $10 a bundle, cauliflower is $5 a head. Gas is $2.10 a litre. The owner of the house we are staying in tells us to turn up the heat because the energy here, geothermally sourced, is almost free.
More sites. More history. More water. The word geyser comes from this place Geysir. The original vent is no longer active, but another nearby spouts every 10 minutes or so. At Thingvellir, the rain pours down as we walk along the stony chasms of the world's first elected Parliament (930 AD). Who knew Vikings were so democratic? And before the light fades, we walk the banks along Gullfoss and feel the thunder of the "golden falls" beneath our feet.
We go for a ride just outside of Reykjavik on Icelandic horses, which are smaller than typical horses and furry because they live outdoors.
Later, we meet more horses at the farm we're staying at near Borgarnes. These ones aren't for riding. The herd sees us standing in the same field and starts trotting toward us. I get the sense they aren't exactly friendly. The owner of the farm places herself between the horses and us and holds up her arms and starts yelling, "Nein! Nein! Nein!" She suggests we do this if they try to start eating us.
The only good thing about terrible weather is it often provides a great backdrop for photos. The rain runs sideways across the windshield. The wind races across the grassy plains and feels as if it could lift the car into the air. The gale is strong enough to ruin car doors opened too quickly into the wind – the rental place had warned us about that.
I drop my friend off at Keflavik Airport. She's flying home while I continue north. I return to Borgarnes and visit the Settlement Exhibition. There's a display about Egill Skallagrimsson, a hero from Iceland's most famous saga, who committed his first act of violence at the age of 7 while playing a game considered to be an early version of hockey in 917 AD. Some things don't change much.
The guesthouse I am staying at in Akureyri is a concrete structure, and yet it creaks and whistles in the gale. Next morning, the wind still blows but skies are mostly blue. The forecast calls for some light precipitation. Fifteen minutes into the drive, I see a glistening wall advancing. It's very pretty. I watch it thinking it's mist in the sunshine, but I'm wrong. By the time the hail reaches me, it has blotted out the sun. I decide to keep driving, thinking I can out run the hail. But then it turns to snow.
Now I can barely see the road, barely see the yellow posts which line the edges of the road. For better or worse, I decide to keep going. My hands are white on the steering wheel, my eyes strain to see through the white murk. Half an hour later, I am under blue sky. Then back into storm. Then back into sun. Then back into storm.
I make it to Godafoss – God's Falls – the whole point of the trip. I stop the car and get out, happy to plant my feet on rough rock. The sun has broken through the clouds and the mist off the raging waterfall shines like silver. I crawl to the edge of it – there are no guardrails anywhere. I don't dare stand because the wind would knock me off my feet. The weather has driven away all the other tourists. I am the only one here, staring at this great beauty, and that is both exhilarating and frightening.
Second last day. I head back to Reykjavik. What was hidden by the snow yesterday is revealed today. Overnight, someone has painted great swaths of the land with shades of white. I am awestruck and stop continually on the drive to take photos, sometimes just to gape. If I were prone to religion, this would've been the day I converted.
Iceland buffets with wind and snow, but just beneath the surface there is heat and pressure enough to warm the country and sustain the rhythm of life. I realize now I've got the same penchant for places as I do for people: exterior cool with a heart on fire.
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