I’m at Keflavik International in Reykjavik, Iceland. It’s raining. I’m waiting, watching the planes come and go from the tarmac. On only two days notice I traveled to Iceland, thoroughly unprepared. I’d seen pictures but in my experience pictures never do anywhere justice. The atmosphere of the Island is enough to consider leaving the rest of the world behind me. Now, more than ever, that feels like an appropriate move. I look at the drops of water leaving trails down a pane of glass as the desk attendant opens the bridge door to offload the incoming passengers at my gate. The tourists, fresh off a flight from New York, file out. A slight feeling of envy of the new arrivals creeps in, but I suppress it. It’s been six days since I arrived on this Island. It’s time to go home.
I land in Reykjavik at 8 in the morning to an unlit sky. The winter days only allow you five hours of sunlight so sun-up isn’t for another three. I drag my feet to the luggage conveyor belt while looking for the signs to customs. There’s a hallway of floor-to-ceiling windows, the sky is ink outside. There is no moon, no stars, only runway lights in straight lines through the darkness, with my reflecting silhouette in the window. We often think of our ancestors crossing oceans and seeing land in the distance during the day, but it’s equally as likely they ran their boats ashore at night.
My instinct to run toward life may be my strongest attribute, but it’s that same instinct that lets me run from everything else. In the wake of a failed relationship, that need to disappear from home for a while, and hope that new territory can change my frame of mind has taken me to Iceland. I leave as often as possible in order to feel forward progress but lately making progress feels like looking for a lost dog. I’m meeting my friends at a hotel downtown.
In a gesture of solidarity the Island decided to match my mood and I can’t thank it enough. What should have been snow was actually a thin cloud of rain for most of the trip. Rain drops hang in the air and are hell bent on drowning me as slow as possible. The locals say its unseasonably warm, but at 35 degrees Fahrenheit its not exactly a spring picnic. The wind, as I’d find out, is what you most have to be worried about. It’d cut through the layers of your clothing and strip you of warmth you didn’t even know you were hiding. The skies were full of clouds for most of the trip, adding to the old-world feel of the Island. Every once in a while the charcoal clouds would recede during the daytime and sunshine would smile through. The winter daylight, when you can get it, is perpetually dusk, orange and yellow and pink, which makes for some beautiful pictures. The weather wasn’t perfect, but it never needed to be. Half of Iceland’s appeal comes from what it tries to conceal in the fog.
At the hotel, my friends and I make every effort to hide my presence. Policy stipulates only two people to a room and there’s three of us so we break up before check-in. They get the room, drag their luggage up and come back for mine. I follow behind other guests, making a straight line to the elevator bank. A shower has never felt so good. It’s been just over 22 hours of travel time, and I’m so ready to wash airports off of me. It’s been over a day since I’ve slept.
I get to sneak into the breakfast hall before we go on a city walking tour. Oh by the way, eat for free whenever you can, because nothing is cheap in Iceland. Nothing. When you’re a small tourism based island country near the arctic, most of what you need has to be imported. This means expensive everything. Gasoline was the equivalent of about seven dollars a gallon, so when you see a Ford F150 on the road, you know that guy is ballin’ out of control. A regular black coffee will set you back about four bucks and Iceland’s fast food joint, Aktu Taktu, isn’t cheap either. A hamburger meal will cost you about seventeen dollars, and to be honest…not that good. You don’t realize how much you miss an american hamburger until you’ve had a bad Icelandic one. We survived mostly off ramen noodle cups, chips, and duty-free whiskey.
One thing the Icelandic get right is the Pylsa. Pylsa is a hot dog, but made mostly of lamb, and they love the things. You can find a Pysla stand every few blocks. The locals love to tell you that Bill Clinton’s favorite hot dogs come from a Pylsa stand nearby. Bill strikes me as a man who enjoys hot dogs, so I filed that story under Probably True and Repeatable in my brain. Pylsa tastes nothing like an american hot dog, so if you get the chance, treat your lame palette to something different by trying one with everything on it. Now, back to the story.
A quick piece of toast and some eggs with coffee and we’re on our way to go to the walking tour. Reykjavik is stunning in the light. You can see the progression of time that the capital city has went through by looking at it’s buildings. They’re mostly danish style brick buildings and peppered in-between are old stone houses from the original settlers, but they change it up with a few ultra-modern marvels of architecture. We make our way past the Harpa, a performance hall made of honeycomb shaped glass that lights up in waves at night, no doubt based on the Island’s Northern Lights. It could easily be mistaken as a city hall on a future space colony. Throughout the city, the Christian symbology is heavy from it’s long time under Danish rule, but the people still embrace their viking ancestry. The tour takes us past statues of infamous vikings and they all look out in the distance as if they’re still searching. It’s a combination of old gods and new ones that reminds me of a book by Neil Gaiman.
We walk through an area of Reykjavik that is clearly older. Instead of modern brick foundations, old stone peaks out at the corners and they’re covered in tin. The corrugated tin siding on these old houses is to protect the original rock walls from the rain and snow because they can’t be renovated in anyway. As part of a historical preservation initiative the structures can’t be modified other than a change of color. I stretch my neck to look into a window —like a tourist— and it’s clear the lady of the house has a Pinterest account. Inside is very styled, very cozy, with wool blankets draping over the couch and bright, hard wood floors that even I was jealous of. There’s Land Rovers or Audis parked out front next to the wet one lane road. These houses belong to the affluent.
The tour guide walks us to a small area park with a boulder off to one side. It’s weird that there’s a boulder in the children’s playground, but it doesn’t appear to be out of place given the houses surrounding it. He sets us up with a loaded question. Do we believe in elves? Well, I’m not six, so no. Well some people in Iceland do and that’s no ordinary rock, it’s an “Elf Rock” and it’s home to elves. Did you just roll your eyes? So did the tour guide. The legend goes that when constructing the park they tried to move the boulder with a machine, and it kept breaking down after touching the rock. So they do the only logical thing they can and bring in an expert. An elf expert. Upon examination of the rock he concludes, sure enough, it’s an Elf Rock and it should not be trifled with. So this Elf Rock sits protected in the corner of a very tiny park, in the middle of an affluent neighborhood of Reykjavik, and produces no cookies that I’m aware of.
On an uncharacteristically dry night, we decide to hit the bars. Maybe a little alcohol and conversation will improve my overall mood. We stumbled our way to a popular area in Reykjavik where no-fucking-joke a regular beer is like ten dollars. The whole Island is like that. It’s ludicrous. Do yourself a favor and buy alcohol from the duty free shop at the airport; it’ll save you alot of cash if you pregame at the hotel. Bar hopping starts at midnight here and goes until five in the morning, but before that, the locals get nice and toasty on airport liquor. It’s that or take out a loan to get drunk. We arrive at the bar and are immediately welcomed by a few natives. Their names are Marie and Nanna. Nanna is quick to let us know it’s not pronounced “Nana” like a grandmother’s name, but instead “Nuh-nuh.” Almost everyone speaks english, and Marie even surprises me with a little Spanish. It’s useful to know the word for beer in every language. We drink, and smoke and laugh but never all three at the same time. The law says you can’t drink alcohol outside, but as a cruel joke that also means on the patio of the bar, so if you enjoy a cigarette with your booze you’re out of luck. If you absolutely must have a cigarette you leave your beer on a shelf above the front door, alongside a dozen other matching drinks left by the other smokers outside.
Like most nights spent drinking, the conversation leads to politics. They are very interested in our new president elect, and not because of their love for American politics. They speak in condolences. In this case, it doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you support, it’s way easier to change the subject than to try and explain your country. I take a drag from a cigarette and ask about their government, how it’s set up. Marie explains Iceland is technically an anarchy. Their parliament has 36 members, and they’re in the process of deciding between nine different parties. Apparently, there was a shake up in the government after the 2008 economic crisis. After the collapse they sent a bunch of bankers to jail, which is way more than we did. Now if that’s what an anarchy is, then it’s better than what we have. She says the Island has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and a growing tourist industry which is expected to double by next year. This loosely defined Anarchy serves their country well. She offers another cigarette to me; it’s probably like my fifth. I don’t smoke, but I’d be a terrible guest to make our new found friend smoke outside by herself. Four in the morning rolls around and we have things to do tomorrow, well today, so we need to crash. We tell our new friends goodbye and head back to the hotel where we don’t even try to hide me this time. Lights out.
We’re making our way to the southeast side of the Island. My mouth feels like carbon from the night before. It’s a four hour drive from Reykjavik to the hotel and we’re late. Iceland outside of the city is not the same as Iceland within the city. While Reykjavik feels settled and modern, the rural areas don’t share that quality. The small towns we pass on the way to the glacier are comprised of gas stations and little else. I notice there’s very few animals on the Island besides birds. A quick Google search explains that Iceland’s wild life is mostly birds and small mammals such as rodents. The few sheep and horses that are there were brought by people. It’s not hard to imagine why there’s almost no natural fauna. It looks like a tough place for all life, but that’s part of what makes it beautiful. I also note that trees and brush aren’t common. There’s plenty of grass but even more moss. The moss grows on everything. I ask Alice for gum to help with the cigarettes’ aftermath.
We stop at an endless field of volcanic rock. There’s a place to pull over and take pictures, so we follow the trail. The rain picks up, more than a drizzle now. The path leads us to a look out point. From the top you can see the fields of volcanic rock that stretch until the horizon, or where the fog ends, I can’t tell. It looks like an ocean of an alien planet. The rock is covered in lime green moss, the only thing that will ever grow on it. Interspersed are areas of red-brown dirt the moss has yet to assimilate. If you took NASA’s images of the landscape on Mars, and you shifted the color from red to green, you wouldn’t be that far off from the volcano fields. I’ve never seen anything like it.
We’re crossing through some low lying areas of yellow grass, it could be dead or alive. Rivers of melted glacier water reflect the small amount of sunlight left, creating strips of silver that cut through the fog and stretch across the plains towards the ocean. Periodically we stop to see a river that was making it’s way through a canyon, or a literal waterfall in a farmer’s backyard.
There’s no more sunlight and now there’s real rain. The car moves with the wind, making it difficult to drive. According to the map, the road we’re on hugs the coast line. About fifty yards to my right should be a beach and beyond that the Atlantic. All I see is black. The world is flat and the beach is the edge of it. Everything ends at the coast. Jet lag kicks in and I sleep.
We want to climb a glacier so we drive an hour to the guide’s meet up spot. On our way, I can see a white mass pushing it’s way through the mountain range etched into the skyline. It’s Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier, which also happens to be the largest glacier in Europe. It takes up about eight percent of Iceland’s land area. We’re going to climb it today. We’re in the intermediate group so it’s going to be about three hours up the glacier. Each of us receives an ice axe and a pair of crampons. Crampons are metal teeth you strap to the bottom of your boots that dig into the ice so you don’t slip while climbing, but they also look like old viking pillaging weapons. The guide makes sure our harnesses are high and tight and takes us through how to walk so we don’t take the world’s worst amusement park slide down the glacier. I’m more focused on the settings of my camera than what he’s saying, but the gist is to kind of stomp down with your whole foot at one time to make sure all the teeth dig into the ice.
The glacier ice is sky blue. Our guide explains that ice out of your refrigerator takes on a white color because of the oxygen trapped inside but the glacier ice is blue because the sheer weight of the ice has pushed all the oxygen out over time. Sounds sketchy, but I’m no glacier scientist — not that he is either. I drag my fingers across the ice, taking with them a small amount of moisture, feeling it, rubbing it between thumb and forefingers. Feels kind of oxygen-y.
There’s two ravens following us up the ice. I really want this to be a one-off thing like they were watching over us in some mystical manner, but the guide informs us that they follow every group up top because there we stop for food and coffee. Damn. If the ravens following us up this glacier aren’t really harbingers and all they want is our Clif Bars then nothing is sacred in this world.
At the top, I look out and see how high we’ve climbed. Sunlight is breaking through the clouds and you can see the horizon. It’s yellow, it’s orange, its blue, it’s untouched, it’s beautiful. Pictures will never do the view justice, but I take them anyway. We rest, we drink coffee, we feed the ravens, we enjoy life. It’s a shame that one day global warming will make this view impossible, but nothing lasts forever. It’s a sentiment that I empathize with in that moment.
On the way back to Reykjavik the weather is more cooperative. We pull over to a landmark called the Church Floor which is a naturally occurring rock bed being pushed up from the ground, but it’s split into hexagonal and octagonal shapes so it looks like tiled flooring. The name is fitting. There really is something hallowed about it. It looks man-made, but just imperfect enough to be natural. In the distance, off to my right, a mountain range catches my attention. The ones in the front are darker, more visible, than the subsequent ones which slowly fade back into the haze. When you’re next to a mountain it feels like it’s towering over you, a monolith inattentive to your existence. But these…you get the feeling these mountains aren’t looking over you, but looking at you, trying to figure you out. Returning to the car, the mountains’ shapes become more hidden inside the fog, a little less discernible with each step. I look back at the mountains, they’re watching us drive away and we fade into the fog as well.
On the south side of the Island is a black sand beach. As you approach the beach the wind from the Atlantic hits you with its wall of salt and rain. The sand here consists of large, black grains of volcanic rock so you’re not making any castles out of it. Off the coast are basalt pillars that stick out of the ocean resembling the jagged fingers of a sinking giant’s one last attempt at air. I know the feeling. Walls on the nearby cliff are smooth and the color of smoke from an oil fire. The rocks in the cliff wall aren’t broken and crumbling, or rough in the way you would think of a cliff face. The stone is broken up into geometric shapes, rectangles stacked against each other, getting longer and longer consecutively as they make their way out of the ground. Whoever created this cliff is a geometry enthusiast.
The Ocean is dark like the rest of the country. The water has no gradation, it doesn’t turn from light blue to dark blue as it gets deeper, it stays navy blue-black forever; just abyss. The black laps the beach, reaching up, touching the Island and moving back out quickly, trying not to disturb anything. The waves aren’t violent. They touch the Island like you wish you could touch your crush.
Maybe it was the Jameson. Maybe it was the company. Maybe it was both combined with the lack of warmth in my body, but the Northern Lights are one of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed. We laid a blanket down on the ground and passed the whiskey, watching the green ribbons bounce between each other. The sky was relatively clear so we headed for a field outside of Reykjavik, as far from light pollution as we could get. We’re eating Oreos and soaking in the solar radiation, the clouds don’t even cross our minds. There’s greens, and occasionally pink tears in the sky, dancing with each other above us and the mountains in the distance. When you talk to locals they all sound disenchanted about the lights, as if they’re a burden. I think they’re jaded. Maybe because they’ve seen them a thousand times, or maybe life has beat the wonder of the Lights out of them like it does everything. Not us. We embrace them, hang them in our one bedroom apartments as if they were a Renoir we stumbled upon at a garage sale.
The whiskey is running its marathon, doing its best to keep me warm as it courses through my veins. The union between alcohol and Lights is opening new pathways of compassion for the human race, in a way that only alcohol or psychedelics can. There’s a stab to my gut and a much needed shift in viewpoint occurs, one I haven’t been able to understand in a long time. I take a few mindful breaths and split an Oreo into two pieces, eating the creamed side first, throwing the other side into the field like an offering. Again, I repeat the series with another cookie, this time the cream side as the sacrifice. Sometimes, people will leave you and when they do they will take the color of life with them. All you can do is push forward through the grey and be prepared to embrace the color when it shows itself again.
Iceland doesn’t feel like a place you should live. It’s a place you should just touch and leave; let it make it’s mark on you, but you never on it. I have an urge to stay and learn it, but that would be wrong. Like all beautiful things it has to end. To stay here would to be to eventually take it for granted, which we always do.
I look out the airport window one last time into the dark. Wintertime only allows you five hours of light, leaving the rest to darkness. It’s Iceland’s way of saying that some things —most things— are best left to mystery. Enjoy what you can, while you can, but not too much, or it will become mundane just like the rest of the lighted world.
The new arrivals finish getting off the plane and I slip my notebook into my backpack, taking out my passport in preparation. The desk attendant picks up her phone to announce boarding. It’s been six days since I arrived on this Island. It’s time to go home.