There and Back Again

Adventures across Iceland

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in Features

“The guidebook says there’re two road trips we could do, The Golden Circle or The Ring Road. The Golden Circle covers most of the big tourist spots like the Blue Lagoon, but that route only covers the south-west. I want to drive the Ring Road, which circles the whole country. I want to see all of Iceland.”

I paused.

“Obviously it’s a bit of a trek, but I don’t mind driving. We’ll have to keep a tight pace since we’ve only got a week, but we can do it. I was thinking to save time and money, we’ll just sleep in the car and pull over if we see anything cool. There’re a few spots I marked in the Lonely Planet that I want to check out, but we can improvise as we go. Oh, also, the book says we should go clockwise but I want to do it counter-clockwise. Just because.”

I looked at Katie, waiting for her response. We were standing in our hostel dorm-room, a building off Hlemmer Square, near Reykjavik’s city center. On my bunk I’d spilled out everything from my backpack to take stock:

Maps of Reykjavik and Iceland, a notebook, and about $500 in Icelandic Kroners; a couple shirts, extra socks and boxers, hiking boots; toothbrush, razor, soap; and some books — a Lonely Planet guidebook, Jar City by Arnaldur Indriðason, and Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne.

I packed light and mobile, not knowing what to expect, other than the loose road trip Katie and I had sketched out over the phone. Other travelers might have set an itinerary before flying to their destination, but against the wisdom of Treebeard, I’d been hasty.

It was August 2016. I was a grad student in a PoliSci program at the time, and everyone I knew was on edge from the campaign madness. Having prepared for a career in government, the life I planned was falling apart. I felt helpless and bitter as America ripped itself in half. Anxious and paranoid about the future, for my 24th birthday I dreamed of going somewhere far away and serene.

I wanted an adventure. I needed an escape. And Iceland seemed to fit the bill.

In our hostel, Katie took the Lonely Planet and skimmed it.
“Highway 1, the Ring Road . . . ” She read out loud, “One ring to rule them all!”
And with that, it was settled. Katie began going through the guidebook, making her own notes. We were going to circumnavigate all of Iceland in one week, driving on a deadline. I was ready for the journey.

I flew in from New York, Katie from Denver. I landed first. In the airport bar, I made friends with a fashion designer and offered her a ride. When Katie walked out of the airport and saw a stranger in the front seat of our rented white Volkswagen Polo, she just said hi, chucked her bag in the trunk, and jumped in.

Farmland surrounded the car as the three of us drove out. Katie and I were headed to Reykjavik to check in to our hostel, but the designer wanted to go straight to the Blue Lagoon. She was anxious to relax — I could relate. While making small talk she asked how Katie and I knew each other.

We met as students at CU-Boulder when I was sophomore and she was a freshman. A Colorado-native, Katie had long dark hair and a natural tan. She grew up in Crested-Butte, a small ski-town in the mountains. She was a bit wild, and given my more reserved nature, we butted heads a lot.

Despite our differences, we both grew up a lot during college and bonded over our shared love of reading and fantasy. Many nights were spent arguing about Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.

“So,” the designer motioned to the both of us, “are you guys like, uh, dating?”
“Oh gross! He’s like my brother,” Katie made a face from the back seat.
“Yeah, Katie’s like the annoying younger sister I never had.”
“Hey!” She reached forward and punched my shoulder.
“Careful now,” I chided, “Don’t hit the driver. We might roll off a cliff.”
Katie laughed, “Oh god. Let’s not repeat last year.”

The rest of the drive, Katie and I bickered back and forth, until the designer hopped out at the Blue Lagoon, eager to have her spa day. As soon as she was gone, Katie clambered over the divider into the front seat.

In Reykjavik, we checked into our hostel, washed up, and decided on the road trip. The rest of the day, we killed time running errands, stocking the car, and meandering the alleys and avenues. I snapped pics of street art and we visited the hill at the heart of the city. There we saw the massive cathedral of Hallgrímskirkja and a statue of Leif Erikson.

Jet-lagged and excited, we turned in early and woke before dawn. Under the daybreak light, we set off on the Ring Road.

The glittering metropolis gave way to rolling hills. Driving along the coastal road, I kept the windows down and inhaled the crisp salty air. The Atlantic crashed and receded with rhythmic timing as Katie and I admired the Nordic landscape. Jagged outcrops, grassy mounds, and crystalline glaciers – the midmorning sun radiated over the topographic beauty.

The view had a natural fantasy element to it. We joked that Iceland looked like Middle Earth. While Lord of the Rings was filmed entirely in New Zealand, Game of Thrones (LoTR heir-apparent) has many scenes shot in Iceland. It’s no surprise. The nation known as the “land of fire and ice,” is a fitting choice for a TV show based on a series titled “A Song of Ice and Fire.”

Shortly after passing through the town of Selfoss, Katie grabbed my shoulder, “Look, waterfalls!” She said pointing to a sign.

60 meters high (just shy of 200 feet) the Seljalandsfoss cascaded from cliff to pond, soundtracked by the heavy beat of crashing water. A winding dirt path led from the lot to behind the waterfall. A short queue had formed for people posing in front of the falls.

Katie grabbed my arm, “We need to take a photo.”
“Ugh. I hate lines.”
“Oh come on. Look, it’s moving quick.”

When it was our turn, Katie did her runway routine with the waterfall providing an impressive background. After the quick fashion shoot, Katie checked the camera. She didn’t like the pictures. Rinse and repeat. Katie skimmed the new set.

“Okay, these are much better. Do you want to take one?”
I turned to look at the people waiting behind us.
“No, let’s go,” I said continuing down the dirt path.

The path was worn, as it changed from packed dirt to slick stone. An eroded cave circled behind the falls, and the roar of rushing water echoed in the hollow chamber. A heavy mist encased the cavern. I stopped behind the falls, watching the waters tumble over itself, erupting across the surface, in endless repetition.

I was hypnotized. Beyond the falls I saw skies overflowing with clouds.
“Ok, I lied,” handing my phone to Katie, “I do want a photo.”

An hour later, we were back on the road, cruising east. Iceland is a tiny country by American standards, roughly the size of Kentucky. In a straight shot, we could have knocked out the southern coast in two hours, but we were there for the scenic route. We stopped a few times, pulling over and hopping out any time a good snapshot presented itself.

By late afternoon we were getting hungry, so we set our sights on Jökulsárlón, the Glacier Lagoon.

We wandered the lagoon, a tranquil bay overlooked by a parking lot. Although it was summer, large chunks of steel-blue ice bobbed in the water. Near one glacier, a seal popped his head out to say hello, before diving back into the cold waters.

Down by the coastline, Katie took off her shoes to walk along the black sand beaches.
“There’s ice and rocks. You’re gonna cut your foot.” I told her.
“Relax. It’s an Icelandic pedicure!” She called back.
Ignoring me, Katie walked barefoot to the water.

After tentatively checking the shore, I followed her lead and took my shoes off too. We dipped our feet in the freezing water, watching the Atlantic waves rock gently along the beach.

After spending the night camped out by a farm, we woke up early. A dark sky and the morning chill greeted us as we prepared for the day’s expedition. I splashed bottled water on my face to clear the daybreak grogginess.

“How’d you sleep?” Katie asked as she brushed her teeth in front of the side view mirror.
“Alright. I sorta half slept for the last few hours. It got cold.”
“I know. I saw you shivering. Shoulda brought a sleeping bag,” she said in an I-Told-You-So tone. Katie had the foresight to bring one.

I had been reading Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, an adventure-fantasy set in Iceland. The plot follows Professor Otto Lidenbrock, a savant-scholar and adventurer. He comes to Iceland to lead an expedition to the heart of the world via a volcanic vein in Mt. Snæfellsjökull. I found myself enchanted by the character, particularly his resolution to not let his journey be jeopardized. Lidenbrock’s mantra whenever encountering an obstacle was “Forward.”

For a few hours we drove, just listening to music. Katie made a playlist and a few songs became our de facto anthems – “My Trigger” by Miike Snow and “Friends” by Francis and the Lights, with Bon Iver and Kanye West. The road curved, rolling parallel to the coastline, and the Polo danced in smooth turns. Instinct took the wheel while I daydreamed. We cruised by small towns and farms, the scenery rolling by as we headed north.

The path got steeper as the Polo drove up an incline. Shortly after, we realized we missed a turn to stay on the Ring Road. I wasn’t worried about being lost, all roads connect back to Highway 1 eventually. However, soon the shore began to fall below us and raindrops began to patter on the road.

The rain grew heavier. Thunder boomed in the distance. Lightning ripped across the sky. Anxiety seized me, as I realized there was no escaping the storm.

The dangers of driving were heavy in my mind. The year before, for my 23rd birthday, I’d flown back out to Colorado for a camping trip with Katie and our friend James. While James was driving through the mountains, the road gave out and we rolled into a ravine. Miraculously, no one was hurt. But the experience shook me. It was the reason I insisted to Katie that I do all the driving. I needed the sense of control.

As we rounded the Icelandic cliffs, I turned the music off. It was time to drive.

Hands at 10 and two, eyes on the road. The wipers were in overdrive, shrieking as they flew back and forth. An unrelenting waterfall pelted the Polo. Conscious of hydroplaning off the cliff, I slowed, easing between the brake, the pedal, and the brake.

Wind shook the car from side to side. A low howl curled around the car, as gusts whistled through the rocky bends. Thunder roared. Hard thuds broke through the chorus, as gravel hit the roof. My adrenaline spiked. All my energy was devoted to staying alive.

Terror paralyzed my mind. I inhaled sharply and held it. Holding back the fear. When I exhaled, I commanded myself: “Forward.”

Revitalized, I drove on. A lifetime seemed to crawl by, but eventually the road began to snake inland. The rain slowed, drying, until it had vaporized into a heavy fog. Relieved, I remained on my guard, vigilant to the road. The Polo climbed the misty canyon, higher and higher and higher. It felt like flying through a cloud.

And then out of the blue, we broke through the haze. The path leveled out as it reached the top of the canyon. Stretched out in front of us was the plateau, the road shooting straight as an arrow across the Icelandic plains. No more storm, no more cliffs. I pulled over.

Katie and I took a moment to appreciate the view. Down in the canyon gentle winds swirled the fog below us, gliding gracefully across the path. I absorbed the tranquility and let go of the fear.

We got back in the Polo and drove back toward the Ring Road.

We pulled into Egilsstaðir for lunch and gas. Despite the overcast sky, it was the season of the midnight sun. With a few hours of light left, we debated what to do in northern Iceland. We decided to drive to the edge of the world.

We kept going as far north as the road would take us. The landscape looked bleak under gray skies. I thought about Jar City.

Unlike in the Verne novel, Jar City presented a dismal view of Iceland. A grisly detective novel, the book follows Detective Erlendur, a washed-up cop, as he investigates the murder of an elderly man. As the book unfolds, Erlendur is forced to come to terms with the dark underbelly of Iceland, encountering pedophilia, incestual rape, and a rare Nordic blood disease. The grim landscape of northern Iceland fit Jar City’s tone.

Near the tip of the island, we checked out the Arctic Henge. Composed of 72 stones, the Arctic Henge and was inspired by an ancient Nordic poem, “The Prophecy of the Seeress.” Built by a pagan priest, construction began in 1996 but stalled when the site’s founder died. It remains unfinished, an eerie artifact of a poorly understood religion.

From the Henge, in the distance, we saw a lighthouse with a bright orange crown. We decided to check it out. As we approached, we drove through a remote village.

An ominous cloud seemed to hang over the village. The place was deserted. There was not another soul in sight. We passed a schoolhouse, whose mascot was a satanic-looking goat with blood-red eyes.

Around town, there were scarecrows. They looked like Halloween decorations, but without cultural context and the emptiness of the town, the scarecrows had a menacing effect. One was propped on the edge of town, a faded orange jumper covering its wooden body. A pumpkin had been nailed to the top, painted with only one eye.

“What the fuck . . . ” I whispered.
“We’re gonna die.” Katie said.
We both started laughing to ease the tension.

At the edge of the desolate village, the road gave way to a gravel path, which turned to a field of dead grass and shrubbery. We could see the lighthouse on the near horizon. We had to leave the Polo behind to keep going. I was hesitant, but Katie chided me on.

As we crossed the field, the only evidence people had been there was a massive cairn. The rocks were piled almost 8 feet high. It was next to a hollow pit, big enough for human sacrifices.

After a long walk across the field, we reached the lighthouse. Its orange beacon was off. The white building was dimmed by dirt and graffiti tags. A locked door with a filthy window was at the base. We peered inside and saw indistinct red streaks. Maybe graffiti. Or maybe blood. I was paranoid we were being watched, though no one was around.

Along the shore, violent waves crashed against the rocks. We climbed down to the water, balancing on jagged rocks. The waters were a swirling ashen-blue and the sky was gray and foreboding. A few degrees shy of the Arctic Circle, it was the farthest north I’d ever been. The edge of the world.

A polar wind sent a shiver down my spine. Looking north, ahead of me all I saw was emptiness. A black chill filled me and gave rise to a deep fear. The fear I’d come to Iceland to escape. Throughout 2016, I harbored a premonition that the world was ending. That the world I’d known and believed in was dead and that the future was dark and uncertain like the sea before me.

I turned to Katie; “It’s getting late. C’mon let’s head back.”

Back across the field, I felt safer and more secure in the Polo. We high-tailed it south, back to the Ring Road. As we drove down the coast, the sun finally began to set and darkness fell around us.

It had begun to rain again as we pulled into the town of Jokulsargljufur. Guided by neon light, we took refuge in a gas station, eating a dinner of stale bread and kiosk snacks. We pulled over in an empty lot outside of town and slept.

We woke at dawn and headed west to Mývatn, a marshland region. At the Cowshed, a bed-and-breakfast farm with the eponymous baby cows, we had our first decent meal in days. Over eggs and home-baked bread, we took advantage of the wifi, posting pictures to Instagram. Katie hash-tagged all our photos #oneringtorulethemall. As we left, I joked, “But what about second breakfast?”

Nearby we visited Dimmuborgir, roughly translated to “Dark Castles.” A geological novelty, Dimmuborgir is swampland overrun with hollow black tunnels. Dimmuborgir was formed 2000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption flooded the marshland with lava.

As the molten goo washed over the bog, steam jets shot up, cooling the molten lava and forming the demonic structures. In Nordic folklore, Dimmuborgir is the gateway to Hell that Satan used to come to Earth and wreak havoc.

Touring the marsh, we followed the Church Circle path but rushed along. The hellish landscape was filled with gnats and had a fetid smell.

After Dimmuborgir we drove to Hverfell Crater. A massive mound of dirt and gravel, Hverfell is 1040 meters across and 463 meters high. Eager to stretch my legs, I bounded up the path as it began to drizzle. Katie trailed behind. I called back, “C’mon Mr. Frodo!” She rolled her eyes.

Though not exactly Mount Doom, it was an arduous hike, as the path wound around the massive crater. At the summit, I marveled at the region’s gloomy beauty, looking out at Lake Mývatn and Dimmuborgir.

Set away on the edge of the lake was Grjótagjá, a small lava cave filled with hot spring water. Made famous by Game of Thrones, it’s featured in the episode “Kissed by Fire.” Grjótagjá is the scene where Ygritte leads Jon Snow to see if knows how to ‘sheathe his sword.’

Heavy steam filled the cave. It was a popular Icelandic bathing spot until the 1970s when volcanic activity raised the water’s temperature to a scorching 50°C (122°F). It’s since cooled down but signs strictly forbade travelers from swimming in the hot spring pools.

“I bet we could jump in and no one would ever realize,” Katie said.
I shook my head. “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”

We crossed the harbor bridge into Akureyri. It was a proper city, the first we’d seen since Reykjavik. Akureyri looked heavenly.

Near the city center, we parked next to a church on a hill. While looking for dinner happenstance brought us to a local festival. Under calm blue night, the chapel was aglow in golden light. Down the steps, hundreds of candles lit the pathway.

On the street, people crowded around a stage, as folk singers came up and played. All the music was in Icelandic, but it was a happy tune. Katie and I grabbed beers and mingled with the crowd. As we danced, I realized it was the first time we’d seen people — as in, more than just a passing stranger — in several days.

We considered spending the night in Akureyri but decided against it. Nonetheless, as we drove out of the city, I felt a serene sense of ease — peace of mind that there was good in the world.

“Are you ready?” Katie asked as we drove west under the pre-dawn sky.
“Ready for what?”
“This.” She pressed play.

The audio was from Lord of the Rings. I recognized the scene immediately — The Ride of the Rohirrim. Horses prattled, as the soldiers prepared for the battle of Pelennor Fields. The orcs formed ranks, pikes in front, archers behind. The choral music rose slowly as Théoden gave his war speech.

“Forth, and fear no darkness. Arise, arise riders of Théoden! Spears shall be shaken; shields will be splintered. A sword-day, a red day . . . and, the sun rises!”

As if on cue, the sun began to rise over the Icelandic highlands. Katie and I recited along with the scene.

“Ride now! Ride now! Ride for ruin, and the world’s ending!”

Théoden’s speech sent a jolt of energy through me. I was ready to take on the last leg of the Ring Road. I kicked the Polo into high gear, driving 140 kmph. We rocketed across the Icelandic highlands. There were no cops, and not many cars either. Just the endless freedom of the road.

Our destination was Stykkishólmur, a coastal town where we planned to catch a ferry to the Westfjords Peninsula. There, we were hoping to see the Aurora Borealis and some cute puffins.
The ferry left a little after noon. Plenty of time, but I was still speeding.

It was a sunny day, and the halcyon light blanketed the landscape. The view reminded me of happy days in Colorado. The Nordic was composed of pretty farmland and jagged glacier-tipped mountains with names we struggled to say. Iceland is a nation of unpronounceable beauty.

“STOP!” Katie shouted.
I slammed on the breaks as we skidded to a halt. “What’s wrong?!”
“Look, ponies!” I smacked my forehead, as we pulled over to take pictures.

Katie had spent part of her childhood on her Grandma’s horse ranch. She was giddy as we walked up to the ponies, whose long manes and velvet coats were so photogenic they could have been models.

Back in the Polo, I hit the gas and we shot across the plains. Just before noon we made it to Stykkishólmur, a fishing village full of colorful boats and adorned with artistic metal sculptures. But we got some bad news at the ferry. Our schedule was out of date. There were no ferries until tomorrow.

I swallowed my disappointment over tea in a local café. The sun was still shining and the boats bobbed in placid waters. It was too nice a day to be upset. Rather than wait it out, we decided to return to Reykjavik.

As we drove south on our final ride along the Ring Road, we passed Mt. Snæfellsjökull, the mountain Professor Lidenbrock descends to reach the center of the Earth. But we didn’t stop. It was time for the adventure to come to a close.

With extra time in the capital, we made the most of our last days, doing the touristy things. We checked out the Reykjavik Art Museum, saw the Harpa Concert Hall and its glittering glass walls of fish scale architecture. We went snorkeling along the continental divide and spelunking through a dormant lava cave. We even visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is as strange as it sounds.

Finally, we closed out our adventure where it began: The Blue Lagoon.

Far-and-away Iceland’s most popular attraction, we lucked out that it wasn’t crowded when we arrived. The geothermal spa is heated by underground lava currents that are cycled through to warm the water. The waters of the Blue Lagoon are rich in mineral content and are to alleged have mystical healing abilities, curing all manner of skin ailments.

While I’m not sure it’s a panacea to all life’s problems, it was very soothing. Katie and I soaked in the Lagoon, sipping on beer and wine. All the aches and pains from a week on the road evaporated with the steam. In the back of my mind, I knew soon I would return to New York and be forced to confront America’s turbulent politics, the grind of grad school, and unanswered questions of my future. But for the moment I just enjoyed the serenity.

“Hey, let’s have a toast.” I raised my cup to Katie’s, “To a grand adventure with a great friend.”
“Aww. Here’s to road-tripping the Ring Road!” Katie said. Our cups clinked.
“To Iceland, the land of fire and ice!”

And with that, I sat back and relaxed. •

Graphics created by Emily Anderson.