Getting Slippery in Iceland

Our morning was misleading: a gentle sunrise over the light snow outside, warmly witnessed from inside the dining cabin, waffle batter sizzling in the griddle. Jamie went to shower in our own tiny cabin while I scribbled in my notebook between sips of coffee. Iceland had given us a calm morning, small condolences for the hectic journey that would follow.

Today, we were off to explore Iceland’s Golden Circle, a triumvirate of enticing landmarks: Thingvellir Park, site of Iceland’s first parliament; Geysir, namesake for all hot springs; and Gulfoss, one of the country’s many thundering waterfalls.

It was quickly evident why Thingvellir would be a top pick for parliament. We slip-slid our way up an icy hill for a view of breathtaking vistas of the plains below, white and endless all the way to the foothills of the mountains. With slate-colored clouds speeding along above us and ice-covered rivers churning through the valley, the landscape may sound more monochrome than anything, but a glistening of sun off the snow and the occasional red roof or church steeple rendered it all absolutely splendid. It was around this time that I realized gloves might come in handy. (Get it?) I made it a mission to obtain gloves at Geysir.

Jamie looks over Thingvellir.

Jamie looks over Thingvellir.

Unlike snowy Thingvellir, Geysir was located on a section of earth pockmarked with tiny hot springs bubbling beneath heady puffs of steam reeking of rotten-egg. It took a few minutes to navigate the geyser field, pausing occasionally to marvel at the boiling temperatures posted on warning signs along the way. The rust-colored path wound through a minefield of slumbering geysers until it stopped at Strokkur, Iceland’s answer – predecessor, really – to Old Faithful. Reliably erupting every 8-12 minutes, Strokkur draws more eager photographers than Geysir, whose eruptions these days are linked with earthquakes. Much like Charybdis, Odysseus’ headache of an obstacle en route to Ithaca, Strokkur sucks hot water down its throat before spewing it back up, occasionally flecking viewers who stand too close. Despite my chilly fingers, I stood rooted before Strokkur, determined to capture its eruption more than once. Satisfied, we left after tipping our hats to Geysir. I found myself wondering with awe what it must have been like to stumble into a field of geysers before they were cordoned off with rope and marked on tourist maps.

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In the gift shop, Jamie kindly procured me a lovely pair of gloves, warm and woolly and bearing a white reindeer, the Icelandic flag small and proud at my wrist. We dined on hot, traditional meat soup before bundling up for our last stop of the day, Gulfoss. Back in the snow, we stumbled down another slippery path toward the massive gorge that is Gulfoss, a cavernous maw filled with two roaring rivers colliding into one another before cascading down as one. We ignored the “ledge is not secure” sign, following other foolhardy tourists down a rocky ledge for better views of the falls. Pinpricks of snow spun around in a frigid wind, battering my cheeks and making me grateful for my toasty gloves. It was cold, with icicles dangling from wet rocks and the occasional chilly mist gusting up from below. Along the way, signs divulged the tale of Sigridur, Iceland’s supposed first environmentalist, a woman who marched barefoot all the way to the waterfall to support its conservation. Just thinking about it made my toes feel numb.

Gulfoss

Gulfoss

It was early afternoon by now, as good a time as any to push on to our hotel for the night, located in a town whose name was a mouthful of unpronounceable syllables. Even our GPS was not familiar with this town, probably because the automated voice was not able to pronounce it. (And it was capable of some pretty polysyllabic pronunciations, though they were giggle-inducing.)

“Oh, Kirkjubaejarklaustur,” the woman at the gift shop pronounced easily. “I can show you where that is.” A moment later, she turned the computer screen and showed us a map. It would be a long drive, about 100km, just off of Iceland’s Route 1: the ring road. This would be the official start of our drive, and I was excited. We hit the road and stopped at an N1 for petrol and snacks, and we were off again, Jamie driving along under clear skies, me happily eating pistachios.

And then, out of nowhere – snow. At first, it was just a friendly flurry, a few little snowflakes dancing around the car. In minutes, the clouds above had unleashed a fury of snow, hammering the windshield and coating the road. I’ve driven in some pretty snowy conditions before, but nothing like this. The road appeared deceptively innocuous, but suddenly, we spun out, the car slowly slipping around until we were facing the opposite direction in the opposite lane.

It was terrifying.

Luckily, there were only three cars behind us, and they seemed rather unfazed by our stunt, traveling onward. Jamie gracefully righted the car, and we continued onward, slowly. Ahead, a large bus made its way toward us and then – without warning – we spun out again. In front of the bus.

Again, he moved us back into our lane and the bus nonchalantly continued on its way, but at this point, we were pretty panicked. I stopped eating my pistachios. Jamie soldiered on impressively. We figured out how to manually put the car into 4WD (that’s what the little gear shift was for!) and crept along the road at a snail’s pace, and with good reason. Ahead, two SUVs had gone off the road. One was stuck in a small creek down a little ravine.

It seemed like we were stuck in the snowstorm for hours, but suddenly, just as quickly as we’d gotten in, we were out.

Still, we were wary. Iceland had thrown its notorious, mercurial weather at us. Who was to say it wouldn’t happen again? I tucked my pistachios away to concentrate on the road, as if that might ward off unwanted weather. By the time we reached Vik, we both had a few gray hairs. (Probably.)

A small town – I use the word very loosely – on Iceland’s coast, Vik is home to black beaches, with anthracite-colored sand (a result of volcanic ash) starkly contrasting the white sea. We stopped here to unwhiten our knuckles and exhale for the first time in an hour before heading onward to Klaustur, as the locals call it. I hoped since we were driving along the coast now and not through the mountains that perhaps the snowstorms would stay away.

Safe arrival at Vik!

Safe arrival at Vik!

Vik

Vik

I was very happily correct. Soon, the road unraveled, clear and dancing with shadows from the gold sun overhead, not quite ready to set. Along the roadsides were mounds of moss-covered rocks. I thought of the trolls in Frozen and scrutinized the landscape for signs of movement. We pulled over after a one-lane bridge to take photos in the road. We hadn’t seen a car for miles and the cloudless sky was both breathtaking and very welcome.

By the time we reached Klaustur, it was after nine. Our hotel appeared to be a large storage shed located in the middle of nowhere. We’d passed the small town of Klaustur – an Icelandair hotel, some homes, and a large soccer pitch – more than twenty minutes ago and were now, literally, in the middle of a lava field, a large mountain looming in the background.

It wasn’t until we sat down for dinner that we finally relaxed, digging into a hearty dish of lamb, veggies, and potatoes, the sun reluctantly setting over the Vatnajokull glacier in the distance. Jamie thought wine was required – I wholeheartedly agreed – so we snagged a bottle of house red from reception and retreated to our room, a sparsely decorated little cubicle at the very end of the storage shed.

Our entire wall was glass, with two full-length windows and a glass door that opened up onto the vast lava field. We shut off our lights and set the chairs up to look out through the windows, planted the bottle of wine between us, and kicked back to watch twilight gradually seep over the sky.

View from our hotel

View from our hotel

And just as the last wisps of light vanished overhead, we saw it. A glimpse of green over the mountain in the distance. Momentarily paralyzed by incredulity, we sat frozen to our chairs, wondering if we’d actually seen anything at all. But then there was a shimmer again, and the sky opened up in a slow, expanding gimlet green. We bolted out the back door and stood shivering on the brittle grass, staring up, mesmerized.

Before science explained them away, the Northern Lights were thought to be the souls of unmarried women (not a bad fate to look forward to) or reflections from the shields of vikings on their way to Valhalla. Others believed they were just the spirits of the dead out waltzing, on their way to somewhere else.

They were unlike anything I’d ever seen before, shimmying and swaying against the night sky. One second they were a thin line, barely discernible, and then the line would curve and green would drip down like paint spilled on a canvas. It was incredible.

Standing there beneath the lights, which the forecast had assured me would probably not be out at all – quiet, it had promised -, I couldn’t believe how much had happened in one day. We’d started out at our little cabin, hit every stop on the Golden Circle, nearly slid off the road in a sudden snow storm, stood on a beach black with volcanic ash, drove over 100km through verdant terrain, and now found ourselves beneath the dazzling and unpredictable Northern Lights. I’ve heard that everyone who visits Iceland falls in love with it at some point.

That was the moment I fell in love with Iceland.

Northern Lights!

Northern Lights!

Trolls?

Trolls?

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