Iceland is a land of extremes. A journey through the countryside may lead to fjords, glaciers, and mountains that hide witches and sorcerers. Or it may embody Reykjavik, the island's capital: a place that seemed nearly overwhelmed with loud American and German tourists, and perhaps almost a foreign country to native Icelanders. Where else can one visit a Chuck Norris grill or buy goofy and historically inaccurate Viking horns?
I had been to Iceland before to witness the Northern Lights and wander the black sand beaches with the aid of formal tours. I had learned how to say "thanks" (tak), knew that Reykjavik means smoky bay, and that Eyjafjallajökull essentially means mountain covered in glaciers.
The trouble with tours is being at the mercy of other's, their timetables, and the places they intend to go. Even with the best of intentions, those aren't always the places I want to go. That limits the effectiveness of photography. How can someone ask a bus driver to pull over to accommodate a picture of snow-covered and distant Hekla, the gates to hell?
This time my goal was to travel to areas only accessible with the freedom of a car. When I worked for EMI Music, home of Capitol and Virgin Records, my manager enjoyed playing an album called "Return to the Centre of the Earth" by former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman. During the early stages of the album - Patrick Stewart of Star Trek fame -
pronounced the mountain Snaefellsjokull with his rolling Shakespearean accent. The team would crack up laughing every time. One day, I knew, whether it was due to the influence of Rick Wakeman or Jules Verne, I would get to Snaefellsjokull - if not to journey into the earth.
That I was travelling in mid October to a region where winter arrives early wasn't quite part of the plan. But the Snaefellesness Peninsula is famous for being photogenic. I was eager to try. After landing in Iceland, what I hadn't anticipated, but should have expected given the wild weather back home in Seattle, was that a series of storms would be roaring through.
On the my first day, it was clear that travelling didn't make sense. Instead I decided to walk through Reykjavik, photographing the city.
Reykjavik is actively being transformed. Older buildings, often covered in layers of graffiti, would be knocked down to make way for new development. Not, perhaps, with the safety of my camera in mind, I wandered through the streets taking pictures of what I could. If the horizon and city were grey, the sky itself was white. Later there seemed to be little differentiation between my color and black and white pictures. Periodically, torrential rains tore through. After about 6 hours, I realized there was only so much I could photograph. As I walked into the hotel, cold and drenched, the concierge asked: is it raining? Welcome to Iceland.
I dropped my camera off by the room's heater and ventured out again. I was hungry, amidst a mixed sense of general awe of Iceland and annoyance, and quickly realized I needed to be an annoying American tourist. That meant bypassing local food or making any attempt to fit in. Instead I walked into Lebowski's Bar, sat
at the counter, ordered plates of nachos and mozzarella sticks, and watched Coming to America on the big project screen. I don't know what was more surprising - how risque the movie now seemed, decades later, or how bad the food was. But the beer helped. A quick word about both the beer and the burgers in Iceland.
The beer, to put it bluntly, is awful. For a country where beer had been outlawed until the late 80s, it clearly hasn't picked up on the microbrew trend. The most troubling moment for any beer snob was ordering a pint of "Classic" (i.e. Carlsberg) and realizing it was a vast improvement. That directly lead to a later chapter in this story. Hamburgers are the other interesting topic. As Americans, we have a sense for what the taste is supposed to be. And we expect it to in some way approximate our memory of over-drugged cattle from the Midwest. Burgers in Iceland are vastly different, at times sickeningly so. The flavor is far from our expectation of cattle. But more than that, the effect of eating one lead to a quick sprint to a bathroom. So the question is: what are burgers in Iceland made of? To this day, I still don't know and I sincerely hope it isn't horse. Maybe I was just unprepared for eating cattle not tainted with growth hormones and antibiotics.
Dusk falls early that time of year. I wasn't quite ready to look for more Reykjavik nightlife, even the boring Americanisms of the Lebowski bar. Jet lag was beginning to set in and I needed time to consider what my next day's adventures would bring. Back at the hotel, I looked at the weather forecast. Rain again in Reykjavik. A possibility of sun east of Vik, along the south shores. And likely rain to the northwest. I was in a bind. I flipped the tv on while considering my next move. There weren't many options. It was mostly a question of whether to watch local public stations in Icelandic or catch any number of stations from the UK, whether the BBC or ITN, finally settling on "The Yorkshire Vet" and pondered the map
The next morning I left the city before dawn, driving along narrow highways bright with traffic and swept by rain. Slowly as the miles passed, the sky began to brighten. It revealed grey-green mountains, lost among lowered clouds. I had an atlas of Iceland, but was reluctant to pull over so I could consult it. Instead I believed the signs to Snaefellsness would be obvious. Naturally they weren't. The further I got from Reykjavik, the lighter the traffic became. That allowed me time to admire the dark green hills. I intended to take the long route, taking a meandering road alongside a picturesque lake. The weather didn't really accommodate anything picturesque, but that didn't change the intention. But even as I periodically looked at the Google map on my phone - naturally a safe thing to do while driving - I didn't remember the road I needed to take. Then I passed it.
There was no room to turn around. A 5 kilometer tunnel was up ahead. I drove through and paid my fee, not once realizing that the tunnel was simply a shortcut, not a wrong way. Not knowing that, I spun around and went back to the toll booth. The elderly man at the booth said, in broken English, "wrong turn?" I could only laugh, say yes, and pay for the tunnel again. Another 5 kilometers through the darkened underground and I found the intended route. Was it worth going the long way? Perhaps in sunshine it would have been more dramatic. Under clouds and rain, it still captured the eeriness of Loch Ness. I wasn't comforted, though. The rain, while not constant, hadn't quite let up. When I finally got to the turn-off for the peninsula, it increased again.
The westward drive at the entrance to the fabled peninsula was, given the weather, somewhat boring and uninspired. At worst it was colorless farmland. At best, colorless hills and nearby ocean. An hour later, the conditions were still dreary. It reminded me of Seattle in November. I was about to take the pass over the mountains, to reach the north coast. It could only get better. The pass didn't give me much hope, though. The temperature dropped a few degrees short of freezing and the rain became torrential again. Driving an unfamiliar car over an unfamiliar pass in those conditions was somewhat nerve-wracking. Visibility decreased to a few dozen feet.
As I felt the car begin to descend, something completely unexpected appeared before me. There was the ocean under blue sky. The mountains which had previously been grey turned green. A rainbow swung out from a coastal town with its arc ending well out to sea. Against all odds, the weather gods were about to cut me a break. The road was rough, but now I felt eager to speed up. I descended to sea level and sped towards the town soon to be identified as Olafsvik. The town hugged a narrow space between the mountains and the water. Overhead the mountains had begun to appear. Somewhere over those mountains, still shrouded in clouds, was Snaefellsjokull.
Now I knew everything was going to work out. Not once did I expect sunshine. I inspected a dirt road nearby with its sign saying Snaefellsjokull was 10 kilometers away. I looked at my rickety four wheel drive vehicle, one that as prone to stalling at lights, and decided neither it nor I were ready to drive those 10km into winter, to glaciers, into what was likely falling snow and ice, and to the entrance to the center of the planet. Only now did I realize I was hungry. Blue sky had brought back hope and with hope, hunger. Olafsvik is a small town. Even though it was cold, I drove with the window open, taking in the seaside smells. One smell stood out in particular - a small bakery in the middle of town. I went inside hoping the woman behind the counter spoke English. She did. Just barely. I ordered, mostly by pointing, some of the best food I've ever had then returned to the car.
Yet another decision awaited. I could continue west towards the tip of the peninsula and into the national park. I could tell the blue skies were temporary. Clouds were beginning to encroach again. I decided to give it a shot. I turned the car west and proceeded less than a kilometer before the rain returned. This didn't seem like the right time to give up, not now on the Snaefellness Peninsula. But looking back along the water to the east, I saw that the clouds were still being held off. It only made sense to follow the sun. I spun the car around, driving back through Olafsvik and along the ocean-side.
Because I was, of course, unprepared - I had neglected to identify the major tourist spots. That included some of the most photographed locations in the country. Heading back to the east meant that I accidentally ran into one. Kirkjufell rose from the water like a shark's fin, slicing through the clouds overhead. I scrambled up the nearby waterfall and photographed the area.
Rain was still lurking, but for that moment the crags over the water stood out starkly on the horizon. The mission had been accomplished and I was tired. It was time to return to Reykjavik and evade the rain.
I hadn't given up on the idea of driving to Vik and beyond. The weather forecast was not encouraging, though The hotel posted a sign from the Icelandic Meteorological Institute warning of a highly unusual event with extremely hazardous conditions. That included a risk of flooding and high danger around the south and west edges of the Langjokull glacier. Travelers were advised against driving over rivers and streams, and to be wary as there was an elevated risk of landslides. Rather than scare me away from driving, it sounded like a challenge. And with two days remaining, I had no intention of hanging around Reykjavik with all that time.
The weather looked no more welcoming further to the east. But I was certain I had further to go. During my last trip, while on a tour, I looked along the Ring Road and knew I wanted to see more. This was the time. I filled up the tank and sped east.
It was hard to say what I expected. Mounds next to the road, seemingly no more than a dozen feet high, certainly weren't. In some ways they resembled the Mima Mounds of Washington, perhaps caused by giant rodents burrowing beneath the earth. In the weather though, in the green so deep it could only be created by excessive rain, they reminded me of the barrows described in the Lord of the Rings. Maybe those pyramid-like mounds hid dangers that Frodo and Sam might unwittingly stumble into. There were no places to pull over to investigate more. But with a growing sense of wonder, I entered a region that inspired even more awe.
Iceland is well known for volcanic activity. What I found were miles of lava fields over which dense moss had grown. There were parking lots next to the road for travelers to wander into those lava fields, immersing themselves in the moss-laden wilderness.
With one day remaining, and with the rain still falling, I no longer had an interest in driving anywhere. During my prior trip, two things had occurred. A Scottish couple told me that the Volcano House had the best fish and chips they'd ever had and highly recommended it. In addition, I'd been on a tour where the guide - from the far north of Iceland - talked about how the European Union wanted to steal Iceland's fish. While I was now focused on getting cod for lunch, the second memory didn't cross my mind. But in the way of happy accidents, these random coincidences were about to come together in a meaningful way.
I had promised a coworker a picture of CCP - the software company that made Eve. While along the bay, I noticed the Maritime Museum. I can't say I was particularly interested. But I was certain I didn't want to spend more time in the rain than necessary. I had already discovered that my passport had begun to warp. And it was in the Maritime Museum that I learned all about cod and the theft of fish. For almost two decades, from the 1950s through the 1970s, there had been an event called the Cod Wars. England, that well known purveyor of fish and chips, fished for cod right along the Icelandic coast, entering what Iceland considered its territorial waters and depriving it of one of its most important commodities. Iceland fought back. Nets were severed. Boats were attacked. After decades of hostility and sometimes outright violence, England agreed not to fish within a defined number of kilometers from the coast. It turns out the guide, who a Reykjavik local had called a "hick", had been somewhat right all along.
With those thoughts in mind, it was lunchtime. The Volcano House, looking at it more closely, seemed more touristy and oddly high-brow than I could bear. Instead, I found another restaurant across the street that had a more comforting "pub" vibe. As it turns out, they also made the best fish and chips that I'd ever had. The product which I'd done by best not to call "French fries" was also very good. Even watching the continued heavy rain outside, I felt warm and happy. I had only one more bucket-list checkbox to cover. In the meantime, I had to find more shelter. Walking back along the harbor to Reykjavik proper, I saw an art museum. Typically, I'd never want into a place like that. The idea of spending time looking at pompous art and listening to people talk about its importance didn't interest me. But it was warm and dry. I walked in.
Along the first floor there were large cartoonish paintings from a famous Icelandic artist. Some of the concepts were troubling. Sometimes they seemed to veer all the way to disturbing. I couldn't quite figure out all the connotations. That the artist was saying the U.S. was a full of war-mongering capitalistic hypocrites was clear. That the artist was also saying we created an anti-Islamic agenda by feeding arms to Israel was also clear. The appearances of Nazis, of Hitler and Stalin, in the paintings was less clear. Or rather, it wasn't clear what the artist was saying. How could it be obvious to me that the artist was mocking the Western democracies and yet I couldn't determine what he was saying about the Nazi's? In a troubled and thoughtful frame of mind, I went to the second floor.
This is where I ran into something I didn't expect - an art exhibit from Yoko Ono. She had asked women from around the world to submit testimonials about how they'd been mistreated. Some of the stories were horrifying. I couldn't help thinki what's wrong with us to treat women like this? Then I thought: what's wrong with women to purposely pick dangerous guys, even knowing they're dangerous? Then I moved along to other stories. After a while, I couldn't
figure out what I was seeing. Clearly some terrible things had happened. But this was all of 100-200 stories. It was impossible to generalize for millions. Plus some of the stories seemed like nothing more than complaining. And for having that thought, I felt very guilty.
I quickly sent a few text to women back in the US, saying: there must be something wrong with me. I should be more empathetic. But the more I read the testimonials, the more it seemed like "whining". I even sent pictures taken from my phone. What I heard back generally was: yes the word can be a rotten place, but it's not you, that does sound like whining. Relieved that I hadn't completely lost my ability to both sympathize and empathize, I left the museum. There was still my remaining item on the to-do list. I went to the famous hot dog stand - Baejarins Beztu Pylsur - visited by world leaders and rock stars and ordered a second lunch. After feeling appropriately gluttonous, the rain intensified again. I walked over to the English Pub and ordered a sampler. Wanting to more fairly judge the beer of Iceland, I figured I'd try everything the pub had. The bartender explained who brewed each and the history behind them, including a local vodka. I then tasted each, becoming increasingly drunk and yet disappointed by how poor the beer was. They immediately made me think of Budweiser. The bartender asked about my travel plans and I said I was leaving for Copenhagen the next day. He then told a story about an adventure he and his friends had in Amsterdam. After a long night of many either legal or illegal activities, depending on country of origin, they kept telling a taxi driver to take them to McDonald's. You see, Reykjavik got rid of the last McDonald's years ago. Finally becoming very annoyed, the driver threw them all out of the car.
The way was clear. I had a mission. The first thing I'd do in Denmark was find a McDonald's.