Iceland: Bitterness and Beauty

Iceland Bitterness & Beauty

No one prepares you for the emotional experience of Iceland.  Before we left for a seven day trip to Iceland (three days with my boyfriend and four days alone), we researched weather, prices, grocery stores, natural attractions, etc., etc.  I found all kinds of blog posts about the former.  These posts were very helpful in their way.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional roller-coaster that is Iceland.

Our flight landed at Keflavik at 11 AM.  After some initial hiccups, including a two hour delay, our bus was speeding toward our camper van pickup.  It was freezing outside, but the warmth of the mid-morning sun poured through the windows of our bus and excited me to the awaiting possibilities.  I smiled at my boyfriend, Ken, and squeezed his hand.  The landscape that flew past us surprised me.  It wasn’t at all what I had expected.  Piles of lava rocks covered in green moss.  Mountains in the distance.  It looked like we were on another planet.

About thirty minutes later, we arrived at our camper van pick up.  The sun had disappeared behind the clouds and left behind it a sharp, bitter wind.  We settled into our manual transmission camper van and embarked on our journey.

Our first stop, we mistakenly went to the wrong Blue Lagoon, and by the time we found and relaxed at the real Blue Lagoon, it was already dark outside.    I threw the campground at Thingvellir National Park into Google maps and navigated directions as Ken drove.  Based on my phone call with the visitor’s center earlier that day, there was only one campsite open and it was next to the visitor’s center.  Two hours and the camera flash of a speeding ticket later, we arrived at the visitor’s center.  There was no campsite.  Internally I was panicking.  It was pitch dark and I had no clue where the campsite could be.  I Googled “Thingvellir Campsite” and found a new location about twenty minutes away.  We found it, only to find a sign telling us that it was closed for the season and giving GPS coordinates to the open campsite.  For the life of me, I couldn’t find those coordinates in Google maps.  Now I was really panicking.  I was tired, hungry, and I had led us to another dead end.  We had seen a few other camper vans parked in car parks on the side of the road and I was starting to think we would be one of them.

I went to the park’s website and found out that the primary campsite was next to the park ranger’s center.  There were different coordinates than the one on the sign.  I put them in and thankfully Google picked them up and gave us a new location.  We headed back to where we had come from and finally found the campsite just a little further up the road that we had originally been on.  I was so thankful to see seven other camper vans parked.

We clambered out of the camper van and discovered it was too windy to start our propane camping-stove to make dinner, so we headed to the bathrooms.  The wind blew so hard that we struggled to walk against it.  The wind was sharp and bitterly cold.  I sat in the tiny, single stall bathroom and sighed relief.  At least it was warm in the bathroom.

Back in the van, we made some sandwiches, scarfed them down, and then scrunched into our sleeping bags hoping for some level of warmth.  We had two, thin blankets that we put on top.  They didn’t offer much warmth.  I had my winter hat and gloves on and that kept the bitterness of the cold out, but didn’t make me warm.  Ken had to pee, so he went just outside of the camper van since our spot was so far from the bathrooms.  When he opened the side door I looked out at the night sky.  It was pitch black, but the stars were so brilliant. They burned fiercely through the black sky.  Despite the bitter wind, I held the door open for a moment to admire them.  I had never seen so many stars.  It was like we weren’t just looking at the galaxy, we were part of it.

The wind whipped over the van so hard that it shook.  The wind rushing over the metal roof of the van created an eerie, hollow sound that gave me an indescribable feeling of loneliness.  Ken was back inside now.  I apologized for dragging him to the end of the earth with me.  We talked about how we felt like we were on another planet.  I had no idea that it would be like this.  He had no idea it would be like this.  So windy and so cold that being outside was almost unbearable.  The only sights we had seen so far were mounds of volcanic rock covered in moss and the distant mountains.  It wasn’t the picture perfect island we had seen in all the photographs and blogs, and it didn’t give me the feeling I expected to have.  I was expecting breathtaking beauty and some cold, but not like this.  I knew it was remote, but the feeling of absolute isolation, despite Ken next to me, and the seven other camper vans parked nearby, was completely foreign.

Ken was exhausted from driving.   He fell asleep quickly.  I couldn’t sleep though.  The empty howling sound of wind on aluminum kept me awake.  My mind raced with the thought that we were the last people on earth.  I felt so removed from everything I had ever known or felt that it seemed as if nothing was right, as if we were on the edge of the world and at the end of the world.  Anything seemed possible here.  Finally, I drifted off into a semi-sleep in which I could still feel the cold and hear the howling wind as the van rocked.

The next morning was gray.  We went inside the Ranger’s Station and paid the extravagant $38 for camping.  We visited Oxarfoss Waterfall, which was nearby.  It was small, but pretty.  It was still freezing and windy, but people were out and about the waterfall.  It gave me a small sense of security and normality.

We left Thingvellir and drove around Snaefellsness Peninsula that day.  We saw jaw-dropping mountains and cliffs.  We saw the iconic Iceland sheep and horses.  We even had to back down Snæfellsjökull Glacier because the road became so icy that we started to slide backwards.

As evening approached, we headed toward our next campsite on the northern side of the peninsula.  As we drove, we came upon one of many old, abandoned houses that dotted the landscape.  We were on the very eastern tip of the peninsula.  The sun was quickly circling and high in the north.  We decided to stop.   It was close to the beach.  We walked through the cinder block house as the sun peered through the empty, lifeless windows.  I had always wanted to walk through an abandoned house and this skeleton of a house was the perfect specimen.  I wondered about the people who had lived here and how they felt in this cinder block home overlooking the ocean, far away from any other homes.

I asked Ken to go down to the beach with me.  It was still cold and windy despite the fact that the sun was high and unobstructed by the clouds.  As we walked toward the beach, I realized it wasn’t a beach after all.  It was a cliff’s edge.  It was a long walk from the house, so we grabbed hands and began to run, following the two-track to the cliff’s edge.  We came upon the edge of the cliff and looked down.  It was magnificent.  Sheer black cliffs dropped down at an inverted angle to the water.  We saw a seal in the distance, bobbing in the water below.  The sun, still unobstructed, cast dark shadow under the cliffs and sparkled on the water.  I felt like we were the last two people on earth, but not as I had felt in the camper van the night before.  That night I felt as if I, even with Ken beside me, was the last person on earth and that the earth was about to be plunged into oblivion.  This time I felt as if we were the last two people on earth, but that that was okay.  That no matter what happened – even if the earth ended at this moment, we would be the last two people to see the most beautiful sight in the world, with the sun setting behind us.

Holding on to that feeling, we ran back to the car and sped along to our next campsite at the Freezer Hostel.  I was glad we went there.  There was an indoor kitchen and people.  For the first time, I realized that people lived here in Iceland.  Not just in theory, but in reality.  The man who owned the Hostel was a local and had opened this Hostel/theatre/music venue.  That night, he sang to the guitar.  We sat on couches, surrounded by other travelers.  We were warm and full, and I felt what it must be like to be in the living room of a home in Iceland.  Calm, with the wind and the cold whipping outside.  A shelter from the storm.  I tried to imagine what it must be like to grow up in a place like this, with such a deadly beautiful landscape.

The next evening, I dropped Ken off at the airport.  I picked a campsite on the south side of the island, just an hour away from the airport so I could make it there not too long after dark.  This campsite had a shared, indoor kitchen, so I was able to make my dinner.  It was actually quite crowded inside.  I settled down to eat my dinner, sharing a table with another lone traveler.

As I settled into my now doubled up sleeping bag, I felt again the sense of complete isolation, despite the full campground.  Part of it was the knowledge that I would be traveling alone for the next four days, but most of it was the lonely landscape and the black view of the open ocean.

In the morning I took my time with breakfast and made a slight plan.  It was still cold, but the sun was shining brightly in a cloudless sky, and even from inside the kitchen, I could feel it warming the earth outside.  As I drove, I was glad I had stayed.  It had, in fact, warmed up, to the point where I could wear just a long sleeve and a puffer vest.  I saw Seljalandsfoss waterfall.  It was beautiful.  I walked behind it and got wet.  I didn’t like the touristy feeling that I got when I went to the base of the waterfall.  There were van fulls of other tourists tromping around the waterfall, a gift shop, and unlike the other attractions I had visited, bathrooms.

On my walk to the waterfall from the free parking lot a little south of it, I had seen some other travelers stepping over a stile near the path to the waterfall.  I did the same.  I found a small path up the side of the steep hill leading toward the waterfall.  There was a small man-made cave with an inscription in Icelandic.  When I got to the top of the hill there was another stile allowing me to get over the fence along the ridge.  I looked out over the world.  I could see the ocean, the rolling hills leading up to the waterfall, and a long stretch of the black ring road.

I found a small walking or sheep path and followed it, hoping to be able to make it to the top of the waterfall.  I could see a house many hills away, much further than the waterfall.  I followed the path along the ridge and finally came to a man-made pile of stones.  It’s incredible how much comfort you can receive from finding something made by another human.  I was all alone on the top of the ridge and too far back from the edge to be able to see the scads of tourists down below, but this pile of stones gave me comfort that another human had been here.  I felt their presence, like they were there.

I continued another hundred feet to the rushing river that dropped in the beautiful waterfall I had seen below.  The exact drop point was hidden by the edge of the ridge, but I could feel the excitement and fear of the water as it rushed on toward its deadly drop.  I found a spot that sloped to the water’s edge and I filled up my water bottle and tasted the clear, refreshing water.  I passed the pile of rocks as I made my way back down.  I felt excited, happy, and less alone than I had felt since Ken left the night before.

As I continued on the ring road, I stopped at a little wool shop connected to an art shop.  After being frightened away from the wool shop by the $300 sweaters, I entered Gallery Flói from a separate entrance.  The woman who ran the shop sat in a room a little off the back of the store and plied away at her craft.  She gave me a friendly hello.  I asked her the price of a small piece of soap.  She replied and made some small talk about the weather.  I bought the soap, and reluctant to leave the warmth of another person’s presence, and caught by some handmade earrings, I questioned her about their material, etc.  I left, feeling the glow of the first personal connection since landing on the island.  Not just interaction, but connection.  It kept me warm for the rest of the day.

That evening I decided to push my limits and test a campsite nestled back in the mountains.  I had read that the road was treacherous and one camper van had not made it because of a flat caused by the deep potholes.  I made the turn and began the twenty-five kilometer journey to the campsite.  I made sure I still had plenty of daylight left.  At first, the road was a simple gravel road.  I passed an older couple out on a walk.  They returned my friendly wave.  I passed sheep being herded by ATV’s and was stuck for a while, while I waited for them to move.  I passed cows that stood just feet from my van.

I began to think mockingly of the reviewers who had called this road treacherous.  This was easy!  Sure there were a few steep spots, and the road was gravel, but what was that to a good driver?  Then it got bad.  The mountains went from lovely, green covered hills, to oily black, dirt.  The road became oily black, dirt.  The potholes went from potholes to man holes.  I passed a stuck camper van.  I passed an abandoned car.  The switchbacks became higher and steeper, and parts of the road were washed out.

I was finally within five kilometers of the campsite.  The road ahead of me traveled downward now into a hideous, black valley, crossed by small streams and ponds.  Everything was oily black.  My cell phone lost service.  I had been confident up until this point, a little frightened of the road and forgetting to breathe when I rounded the sharp cliff-side curves I couldn’t see around, but overall confident.   Now I lost all my nerve.  I wanted to turn around, but thinking about the horrible road behind, kept me going forward.  I realized that I had told no one where I would be staying tonight and that I had promised Ken a text from the next campsite.  I tried to use my rational brain.  “I have enough gas to keep the car warm even if I get a flat.  I have plenty of food.  There is water all around me and I have my water filtration device.”  My brain told me I would be okay, but my heart continued to race as the road became less and less visible and looked more and more like the ugly black of the canyon I was in.

Finally, I saw a wooden sign with an arrow and the name of the campsite.  The sign had a circle with a giant smile and two dots for eyes, like the smiley faces on the speed traps.  It looked sadistic, as if it knew it was sending me to my demise.  Google maps didn’t register the turn, but I made it anyways.  The sun was setting quickly and my heart began to race faster.  The “road” was right next to a stream, almost touching it.  My camper van crawled toward a valley which was a little ahead of me and hidden by a cliff.

Before I started down this road, I had hoped that no one would be at the campsite so that I could test my powers of isolation in the wilderness.  Now all that I hoped and wished and prayed for, was other people.  My heart completely dropped as I looked at my phone with no service.  I decided then, that if there were no people at this campsite, I would turn around immediately.  I finally turned the corner and the valley opened up.  It was green with high cliffs on three sides.  A small stream trickled down a slight rend in the mountains.  Nine log cabins dotted the grass near the cliffs.  But I didn’t see any of these things.  All that I saw were two, white camper vans.  My heart sang for joy and so did my phone.  I suddenly got two bars of service.

One of the two camper vans contained a friendly German couple who were surprised that I was traveling alone.  We chatted for a bit and then I slept.  Two men in the second camper van next to mine, stood outside talking.  They talked loudly, late into the night.  When I finally drifted off to sleep in the freezing van, I was awakened by the sound of their van squeaking up and down and back and forth as they fucked.  I lay awake for a long time waiting for the sound to stop.

In the morning I woke to an ice covered windshield.  I made it.  Driving out of the valley with the sun shining, nothing seemed bad.  The road seemed somehow more manageable and visible.  I wasn’t worried when I lost service again, but the smiley face on the wooden sign in my rear-view mirror still looked sadistic.  “Come to me.  Yes, I will let you in.” it said.  It was questionable whether it would ever let you out, or if that valley existed any time other than every hundred years.

The next day I went to the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon, and followed the eastern coast.  I didn’t have cell service on most of the eastern side of the island.  The German couple I had met mentioned that they didn’t find much to see along the eastern coast, but I disagreed.  It was the loneliest side of the island, even more so than the northwest side.  Much of the drive was along clifftops with views of the ocean crashing against the black beaches below.  Sometimes the road dropped and sometimes it went inland, and these times were the loneliest of all.  You no longer had the company of the ocean.  There were sporadic homes and farms, but they felt even lonelier than the vast, empty ocean.

On the sixth day, I spent most of the day driving.  I was determined to make it around the island and I had to do a big chunk of it, some of the east and all of the northern side, in one day.  I took Google map’s “shortcut” off the ring road, on 95, on my way to the Minetva Baths.  I knew it was a bad idea when I saw the hazard sign indicating that the road may be impassible in the winter.  But I decided to test my limits again and take the road less traveled.  Most of it was a dirt road.  It went high up into the mountains where it started to snow.  I rounded some impossibly tight switchbacks with deadly drops, shifting down to second gear for much of the time. Strangely enough, there was more traffic on this road than there was on the ring road.  I counted at least ten cars going past while I was on this road.  By the time I got away from the switchbacks, my body was in fight or flight mode.  Every muscle in me was tense and I couldn’t think about anything but remaining focused on the road and not sliding off a cliff.

Back on the ring road, I came up high into the mountains. This time the road was good.  Blacktop stretching out in front of me.  Snow-capped mountain peaks next to me.  I began to notice hand laid piles of rocks, forming pyramids, about every hundred feet.  “Cairns.”  They seemed to be marking a path.  I thought about the Vikings who first settled the land and how they must have felt at each marker.  The same way that I felt when I found the hand laid pile of rocks at the top of the waterfall.  Isolated, yet with a sense of connection to the fellow man who laid these rocks.  I don’t know how old these cairns were, or if they were actually placed by Vikings, but it was incredible to see these cairn beacons, that guided travelers making their way across the north country on foot or by horseback, as I rocketed by in my van.

I stopped at the baths in Minetva to eat a sandwich, then went back to the valley before it, to view the bubbling springs.  Up until this point, although I had seen a lot of tourists, I hadn’t seen a lot of trash.  But this area was different.  The wind blew so hard that a receipt from my van blew out when I opened the door.  I saw in the grass that the same thing had happened over and over again.  The grass was littered with trash.  Looking at the amazing natural wonder before me, I wondered if the draw of Iceland’s deadly beauty would be its demise, as more and more tourists arrive and litter its lonely and beautiful landscape.  I wondered this more and more often the more tourists I saw throughout my trip.  It made me sad.  I wanted to keep this untouched place untouched.  It seemed to me like one of the last refuges from modern life and it was slowly disappearing before my very eyes.

I continued to drive.  It rained.  It became alternately sunny and cloudless.  I went through grassy landscapes and farming country.  Then back up into the mountains.  My knuckles grew white from gripping my steering wheel as I tried to keep my van on the road, despite the strong winds trying their best to blow me off.  Every muscle in my body became more and more tense every time I rounded another drop off.

I drove through Akureyri.  I loved that I could feel the city’s vibrance even though I didn’t stop.  The red lights in the city were in the shape of hearts instead of circles.  The city felt very young.  I wished that I had time to stop in a shop, but I needed to gain more distance and the wind was rising and a pelting rain began.

I came across Godafoss completely on accident.  I hadn’t realized that it was on the ring road.  I stopped and listened to it roar over the cliffs.  I went into the gift shop to use the bathroom and pretended like I didn’t see the sign asking for two dollars to use the bathroom.  I climbed back into the van and drove.

A few hours from my next campsite, I stopped at a gas station with a free standing bed and breakfast.  Before fueling up, I started toward the bed and breakfast to use the bathroom.  It was abandoned.  I went back to my camper van and stared at the empty windows of the B&B while the gas squirted into my tank.  There were many of these empty, abandoned buildings across Iceland.  Most of them were very near the new house or business.  On one property, I saw three generations of houses.  The dead next to the living.  The old next to the new.  There was something indescribably eerie about this place.  I shuddered and moved on.

Finally, I drove onto the rocky beach of the last campsite and parked facing the water.  I hoped for the northern lights.  It was again too windy to make dinner, so I settled for a bacon jerky sandwich and dried mango.  I choked down some of the bathroom sink water I had filled my water bottle with.  I was exhausted, mentally, physically, and emotionally.  I had driven for almost twelve hours in almost every imaginable weather condition: sleet, snow, rain, wind.  I still couldn’t sleep.  I lay awake thinking about the eerie gas station and the wild beauty and emotional ups and downs of traveling in this country.

I woke in the morning with too much time.  It was now only a short drive to my camper van drop-off and I had nothing planned for the day.  I visited the village of Akranes, on one of the fingers of the island.  I stood at the top of a lighthouse looking out over the ocean.  I watched as the rain moved in and the wind whipped my hair.  I went to a Nobel Prize author’s house and thought about how much I would love to live there in his calm, love-marked home.  I tried to take a nap in my van at a car park.  I couldn’t sleep.  I listened to the wind and the rain whip around the camper van.

I thought a lot about the childhood stories I had read about Heidi.  I could see the stories happening in these mountains in my mind’s eye.  Heidi tripping across the mountain to find Peter the goatherd.  The sun and the rain.  The feeling of being high above the world. Remote.  Alone.

Finally, I returned the camper van and caught my bus back to the airport.  On the airplane, everything finally hit me full force.  I walked to the back of the airplane and vomited in an airplane baggy.

The emotional journey of Iceland is much like the physical one.  The highs of human connection.  The highs of unbelievably beautiful landscapes that make you want to cry.  The highs of breathtaking starry skies.  But…  The lows of isolation.  The lows of empty landscapes and howling, freezing winds.  The lows of valleys that run beside rivers that drop as waterfalls.

Lord, this bitter earth
Yes, can be so cold
Today you’re young
Too soon, you’re old
But while a voice within me cries
I’m sure someone may answer my call
And this bitter earth
Ooh, may not
Oh, be so bitter after all

Max Richter’s instrumental, “On the Nature of Daylight” set to Dinah Washington’s wailing voice, captures the despair and beauty of Iceland’s landscape in a way that words alone cannot.  The emotional roller-coaster that is Iceland captures the bitterness and beauty of the earth.  It raises feelings of the utmost nobility: connection, beauty, love.  But it also plunges you into the utmost isolation, bitterness, despair.  This was not the Iceland of my plans and dreams.  This was the Iceland that no one ever told me about.  Bitterness and beauty in one breath.

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One thought on “Iceland: Bitterness and Beauty

  1. Pingback: Preparing for Iceland | Eggs Don't Go Bad in America

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