Unfastening my seatbelt, I contorted myself around and pushed back groceries and sleeping bags to set up a high-efficiency mobile sandwich-making station while my good friend Josh manned the helm of our Renault Kangoo 5-speed diesel. A late shuttle pickup meant we were a few hours behind schedule, but now out on the open road the “kilometers” slid past and carried us easily into our six-day road trip around the south of Iceland. In our hasty supermarket supply run we’d done our best to navigate the abstruseness that is the Icelandic language, but now was the moment of truth regarding the mystery foodstuffs we’d provisioned ourselves with. While in the store I’d asked a clerk if a vacuum-sealed bag of oblong objects was pickled eggs, and he politely informed me that no, they were in fact potatoes. That didn’t bode well for what we had now to work with, but it all turned out just fine. I’m still not sure what the meat was that became the staple of our sandwiches throughout the trip, but our best guess was some type of ham.
Iceland is not known for its cuisine, and outside of seafood the country doesn’t have much worth writing home about. Josh and I were completely OK with this: as long as we could adequately fuel our bodies for adventure we were fine with “boring” food. Their “USA style” peanut butter got the job done fabulously #merica. One exception I found to alright-ness of Icelandic food was the magical skyr...sweet genius: it’s like Greek yogurt that’s been separated from its parents raised by angels. It’s thicker and creamier and pairs exceptionally well with muesli and chocolate 😍
If our road trip was Oregon Trail, Courthouse and Jailhouse Rocks corresponded to our first stop of Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir (or, properly: “Þingvellir”, with that weird tongue-sticking-out-character) is one of the three star attractions on the immensely popular “Golden Circle” driving loop. Thingvellir’s claim to fame is that it’s one of the few places in the world where you can stand between two tectonic plates. Here you can literally walk in a rift valley caused by the North American and Eurasian plates as they pull apart like two halves of a gigantic chocolate chip cookie.
Continental drift! Pangea! Science! Thingvellir also is a UNESCO world heritage site because it represents the founding of the Icelandic parliament (the world’s oldest) in 930 AD. The whole Golden Circle is usually done in a day starting in Reykjavik, but because of our 3PM start time darkness was falling fast, so we decided after this one stop to press on another half-hour to the town of Laugarvatn and see what attractions they had to offer.
Pulling out my phone, I booted up TripAdvisor to see what the cool kids were doing in Laugarvatn. The #1 (of two) things to do there was the Fontana Geothermal Baths, so we dutifully punched address into Google Maps and hit the road.
When booking our campervan I’d seen that was equipped with wifi, but I had very low expectations about its performance and reliability. As it turned out, the connectivity we had available throughout the trip was shocking. Driving through lava fields with not a car or town in sight we had sufficiently fast internet to stream YouTube and for Josh to call into his group Skype interview. Nearly every restaurant, bookshop, and info center we went to had free public internet. It was almost to the point of being unfortunate: I was looking forward to this trip being a digital detox, but found myself sucked back into the allure of curating a pristine Instagram profile and staying on the up with the social medias.*sigh* 25 and I’m still learning how to be responsible with the great power that is technology. Existential guilt aside, it was hella convenient to be able to see how late a restaurant was open or where the nearest place we could re-supply ourselves with skyr.
We arrived in Laugarvatn just after sundown and parked the ‘van to do like the Romans and check out these geothermal baths. Fontana turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. After a long day of adventuring and getting dirty and sweaty, it was a sublime finish to be able to slip into warm, soothing waters (yes, you shower first…) in the cool night air with a star-speckled inky black sky stretched out overhead. On our road trip we hit up Fontana and then a few days later the iconic Blue Lagoon – both were life-changingly wonderful. “It’s like a big bathtub.” I hadn’t thought about it, but Josh was right: if you’ve ever had the experience of taking a bath and wishing the tub was the size of a soccer field and filled with Scandinavian women, Iceland’s geothermal spas are the realization of that fantasy. Oh, and Blue Lagoon also has a waterfall you can play in.
Post the dream-like Fontana, it was time to again face the harsh reality that is trying to prepare food in Iceland’s dominant weather, namely: wind. Iceland is ridiculously windy, and nobody warned me about this. Maybe it’s because they’d never tried to operate a $3 butane camping stove from Alibaba (we looked it up) in gale force winds out of the back of a campervan. Peanut butter & nutella sandwiches to the rescue.
One of the fun aspects of our campervan was not being 100% sure where we’d wake up in the morning. Not that the van would move on us, but we’d park after it was dark and usually under some state of duress in the form of extreme weather conditions, so though we’d have a general idea of being either in a campground or a gas station parking lot, the finer points required the light of dawn to reveal. After surviving a downpour and whipping winds that woke both of us up in the middle of the night, we groggily crawled out of our sleeping bags in the Monday morning sun to discover that we were just off what appeared to be a bike path running through Laugarvatn. In our eagerness to track down some coffee we proceeded to back over the camping table we’d neglected to stow away in the hecticness of the night before. So far no charges have shown up for that. Go Campervans, if you’re reading this: it was like that when we got it.
After that rough start we got into our travelin’ groove and continued through the rest of the Golden Circle and beyond. Key stops included Geysir, Gulfoss, Friðheimar, Kerið, Solfoss, & Seljalandsfoss. Got it? Great. Icelandic language is redonk, in case you hadn’t picked up on that yet. Josh and I trying to refer to places inevitably ended up in us trailing off into muttering. Somehow we usually seemed to be able to tell what the other was talking about, but it was a struggle. Even my trusty Google Translate seemed at a loss.
If you read anything related to the geology of Iceland, usually there will be something along the lines of, “In geological terms, it’s just a baby!” Now I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time conceptualizing 18 million years as young. Quite the opposite, in fact: Iceland to me felt very very old. I think part of that sense, ironically, came from its comparative youth and elementally raw landscapes: jagged ridges not yet worn down by wind, jet black volcanic sand still glinting with the ferocity of the lava from which it cooled, geysers of ancient seawater bursting into the pale, clear sunshine… All these features served as immediate reminders to the processes that formed this island; they made accessible the hard-to-fathom immensity of millions of years.
Another reason for the sense of agedness I picked up is the fantastical spirit that permeates the land. For one, it’s an island, and we all know islands are where adventures happen: Robinson Crusoe, Journey to the Center of the Earth (which actually takes place in Iceland), and Treasure Island, to name a few. Rather than fluidly blending into some larger landmass, an island is a unit – it’s its own entity with quirks and mysteries that stand a better chance of resisting the homogenizing effects of modern times.
Iceland has a vibrant folklore history, and a 1998 study found 54% of the population believes in elves, which they call huldufolk, or ‘hidden people.’ The sincerity of this belief is supported by the Icelandic Road Administration taking steps to not disturb enchanted elf habit as recently as August. Icelanders themselves are descendants of Vikings, which are a storied enough group that someone like me has to think for a minute about whether or not they’re mythical. While JRR Tolkien never set foot in New Zealand, he did visit Iceland before writing The Lord of the Rings, and being there it’s hard to step over blackened boulders blanketed in moss not have thoughts of Middle Earth come to mind.
The Tourism Bureau’s schtick is Iceland’s contrasts: fire and ice, light and darkness, wool and...polyester (I don’t know, they lost me with some of the campaign’s finer points), and it did occur to me how that yin and yang was consistent with my impression of agedness: there’s also a youthful quality to Iceland. Looking at the northern lights for the first time I briefly fumbled with my phone attempting to capture the magic, then quickly realized doing so was futile and simply gazed up with childlike wonder. Fluid green undulations swam their way across the sky like slow-motion kite tails, then gradually slipped behind the jagged mountains they silhouetted. Moments of speechless appreciation like that, or of seeing up close the delicate lattice of scalloped glacial ice beached on black sands, infused this trip. Standing before a waterfall like Skógafoss is a full-spectrum sensory experience that fosters a unique quality of innocent thrill: thundering sheets of water crashing down 200’, lofting up water droplets through the sunshine to arc a rainbow through the mist.
Our week and the rest of the sights we visited were defined by that type of adventure. It felt like Calvin & Hobbes; just turn the ignition on our dauntless Kangaroo and strike out for the next place begging for exploration. The Sólheimasandur plane wreckage, hiking the highlands of Skaftafell National Park along Europe’s largest icecap, peering over the edge from the top of Dyrhólaey past the circling seabirds to the breaking waves below… Iceland is a wild and weirdly wonderful place. Even exploring all the corners of the country we did, we failed to sight any of the iconic Fratercula arctica (puffin), so that means queue it up in the list of countries I have to go back and visit again.