elves racing across the tent roof: iceland

For at least a week after my return from Iceland, I frequently found myself in a strange, almost disassociated, mental state. It wasn't the jet lag, which resolved fairly quickly, and I've certainly traveled enough to recognize what that feels like. I've traveled to plenty of places I adore, retain fantastic memories of, would be happy to return to some day. And yet... Iceland. It's how visitors often describe it: surreal, dark, cold, strange, beautiful. Well, dark in a sort of Sigùr Ros or Björk sort of way - atmospheric, ethereal, just... odd. Certainly not dark in the literal sense - at least not in July, while we were there. This was taken at 2:30 in the morning at the Landmannalauger campsite, our very first night on the Laugavegur trail:

Landmannalauger at 2:30 am

1:00 am: teenage boys hanging out on the football pitch. 1:35 am: father and his kids playing catch with a ball ten feet from our tent. 3:13 am: heavy, heavy partying downstairs in the old-school, new-style bar at our hostel in Reyjavík. By the end of the journey this all seemed so natural and I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this lifestyle. I am convinced that the extended daylight hours in the summer must have an influence on the creatively rich Icelanders. Sure, some seem to spend much of the night drinking, carousing, looking for hook-ups. But some also extend the time with their families, and I often imagined others walking the Reyjavík streets, skirting the lava fields, or cozy at home, the light kindling their creative imaginations. There are only 320,000 Icelanders and yet, in the months before and the weeks since my visit, I've been constantly surprised at the sculpture, literature, music, visual art, architecture, and even culinary creations to emerge from such a small population. I am, of course, acutely aware of such things these days, but they've always existed, in such a high percentage; my sudden sensitivity to them doesn't mean they haven't always been there. And though I didn't experience the opposite conditions of winter - very little daylight in proportion to the darkness - I wondered if, despite sleeping more (which I certainly would, but I'm not Icelandic), those same artists find themselves cooped up in houses with the dark and cold pressing in and turn to the same creative interests to vent the wild, potentially depressive, thoughts.

Although our adventure was sensuous and varied, including almost three full days in Reyjavík and a side jaunt to the Snæfellsnesvegur peninsula, our primary focus was to backpack the the Laugavegur Trail. 55 km in four days, which may not seem much to more experienced hikers, but this was my first significant backpacking trip. I trained for months before. We were well prepared for the conditions and weather, despite realizing literally a couple of days before our flight that the guidebook and internet advice as to average temperatures for Icelandic summers was 20°F higher than the reality we were facing. But my longest training hike was still with significantly less weight, less distance, and with no successive days in a row.

I did okay with all those things, got through quite well, actually. But something you can't really prepare for? A migraine. On the very first day. With a more than 1,400 foot ascent. And a snowstorm. With a memorial along the way for a man who died of hypothermia.

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This is me, About 2/3 the way through that day. Which took much, much longer than it should have. I only distinctly remember the first hour or so; the rest of it was, I think, likely the most physically and mentally difficult experience I've ever had. But I was able to walk away, having done it. My worst fear in preparing for the trip was that I could have to deal with a migraine and I didn't know how I would get through if I did - but sometimes, as with many difficult things in life, onesimply has no choice. You have to move, or you die of the cold, or you slip off a high ridge, or - best case, if you can't make it to the next hut - figure out how to pitch a paper-thin tent on top of some lava rocks. I'm not sure, to be realistic and honest, that I would have made it without my boyfriend's strength and directions to keep moving. I remember, at one point, throwing my backpack off and curling up next to a cairn, as the leading edge of the snowstorm was moving in. It was so warm and comfortable, and I thought I would be able to make it through if I could just sleep there for a while...but Jamie got me up and moving, and we made it to the second hut of the trail, Höskuldsskàli, at Hrafntinnusker, only about 20 minutes before those who were caught in the middle of the storm. A small group of woefully unprepared hikers were taken out by emergency services that night, but no one had a great hiking day that day.

But the next three days of the hike? Fogged, cold, rainy, and for a person who woke up with a migraine on the first day, glorious and fun and - relatively speaking - easy.

 

Our third night on the trail, Botnar, was the most peaceful night we experienced in the tent (two of the five nights on the trail were in huts with other backpackers). We created a smoked salmon and pesto pasta that we worried we'd have to carry the next day as garbage because there was so much of it, and polished it off in about ten minutes between the two of us. A couple of French guys next to us gave us advice about the next days hike, and we were camped right next to the stream. It was our first night without significant wind, and Jamie went on a midnight hike while I crashed with The Great Gastby and, appropriately, Cheryl Strayed's Wild.

Towards morning, I woke up to the most peculiar sounding wind pattern on the roof of our tent. I'm going to write wind pattern here as the standard for which most people would take a frantic guess as to what they imagined was factually happening. What it sounded like, however, was a creature running across the roof of the tent, pausing, and then running back for the same pace and distance. Repeatedly. Tud... tud... tud, tud, tud, tud, tudtudtudtudtudtudtudtud. pause. Tud... tud... tud, tud, tud, tud, tudtudtudtudtudtudtudtud. I made sure to wake up Jamie so he could hear it, too, so I wouldn't spend the rest of my life thinking it was imagined. Isn't it funny how we do that? Believe that if someone else experiences the same thing we do, then it must be real, must be factual. Like greater Iceland, it was a bit surreal, dark... and seemingly perfectly normal while it was happening.

That morning wasn't the only time we experienced something happening around us or even physically to us during our time in Iceland. It was pretty much par for the course. It was easy, while tired and hungry on a long day's hike, to intellectualize and shrug some things off, but at other times, we were well-rested, well-fed, and warm, and still couldn't account for the magical-ish things that happened. It's not hard to imagine magical forces around you while in the land of fire and ice and mounds of lava rocks that look very much like they could be caves or homes for smaller people. Everything is differently wrought in Iceland. While hiking in the Highlands, we received warnings that if a volcano erupted we would hear gunshots. If we heard gunshots, though, we were go up, not down, as one might imagine, given that there could be active lava rapidly flowing towards you. This is because there's so much snow and ice on the slopes of the volcanoes that the lava would melt the snow, flooding the valleys below.

Icelanders routinely make concessions for the hidden folk around them. Even if they don't admit to believing in them themselves, they frequently step aside or delay progress on projects, like road work, to give the elves time to move out of the rock in way of the planned roadway... or just bend the road around the rock. And then they have the discussion as to whether this method was appropriate because who - especially an elf - wants to live in a rock located in the middle of a road? It can't possibly be easy to build a road in Iceland, what with all the natural geothermal springs, lava fields, and other considerable barriers, such as volcanoes. But after having to forgo the glacier pass from Pórsmörk to Skögar due to, as the warden in Pórsmörk repeatedly described as "shitty weather" (locals told us that the weather this summer has been the worst in twenty years), we returned to Reykjavík and rented a car. We took a day to drive out on the Snæfellsnesvegur peninsula, northeast of Reykjavík. There's a road around the edge of the peninsula, which we took during our lazy, meandering day around the coast, to reach Stykkishólmur, where we stayed the night. But there is also a road out of Stykkishólmur, a beeline straight back to Reykjavík. Come to discover, there was originally a road built on one side of a mountain there. Drivers repeatedly felt the presence of a woman riding in the car with them, so the original road was shut down and a new one created on the opposite side of the mountain. We felt a distinct presence in the car with us, but it was decidedly not female. But can you blame them for hanging around?

After pitching a tent in Stykkishólmur with what felt like half of Iceland, visiting for a few of Iceland's musicians performing on the bay, we headed down to the water for a restaurant recommended in our Rough Guide. Narfeyrarstofa was our splurge meal of the trip. Just incredible. Everything was local: blue mussels, lamb, and cod. I made only one non-local request: a Manhattan. Although our waiter/bartender spoke English, he had no idea what a Manhattan was nor, when he earnestly tried to make it for me, had the ingredients for the drink. I loved this and very happily accepted a gin & tonic instead. When I write that we had rhubarb cake for dessert, I want you to immediately dismiss whatever ghastly image springs to your mind and just trust me that it was the best dessert that either of us have ever experienced (and I really am quite the dessert snob).

Before the trip I actually made a point of not searching for or salivating over too many pictures of or articles about Iceland. I read and thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed Names for the Sea, which I highly recommend, even if you've no immediate plans to travel to the country. I absolutely prefer the Rough Guides over any other and this year's edition, as always, proved entertaining, dense, and accurate. I enjoyed Kris Atomic's 10-part series on Iceland (and learned all about tilt-shift photography). Not much else, as I wanted to leave some mysteries open to true discovery. But it's nearly impossible to investigate anything about Reykjavík without seeing photographs of their famous sculpture on the water, a viking ship, called The Sun Voyager. Truth is, I was a bit disillusioned about this - it was so ubiquitous I feared it would be sad, touristy - and despite it being about 1,000 yards from our hostel, I was ambivalent about stopping by. We did, on the way to The Harpa, and I fell in love. Elegant, fluid, just astounding. Now I suppose I understand why it's famous.

Reykjavík was a whirlwind, despite being quite small for an international city, and that we spent a bit over two full days there. Cannot extend a positive enough recommendation for the KEX Hostel, where we stayed for three separate nights and experienced a variety of rooms. I was concerned that falling in love with their glittery website would lead to disappointment at the hostel but I assure you that the property definitely lives up to the first online impression. They held on to our small amount of belongings we didn't want or need to carry on the trail for a week. The 4-bed room and the 6-bed room, shared with strangers, was as you would expect, but clean and tidy and respectful. On our last night we had a double room, private. No more fancy than the other rooms but at least we were alone. There is a restaurant/bar downstairs that does rock the night away, and though we weren't really up for that after our long days on the trail and in the city, the rooms for staying guests (even locals come to hang out downstairs) are secured and pretty insulated. Definitely go for the morning buffet breakfast, especially if you're heading out and want tasty, healthy fuel without having to wander the city for it.

Hallgrímskirkja is architectural magnificence that towers above the city (don't bother trying to find it on a map - just walk outside). I expected the inside to be spare and elegant, like the outside and so much of Icelandic architecture, but found it rather spare and drab, instead. Still worth a visit. The maritime museum instills a deep respect for the dangerous water surrounding Iceland, and the lifesaving importance of salted cod. An excellent follow-up to the museum is just a few blocks away at Icelandic Fish & Chips, where you order your fish and chips a lá carte. Try the homemade soda! Two other no-miss culinary treats in Reykjavík include Bergsson, where we went by advice of the KEX staff on our first day in town and enjoyed the lunch so much we returned another night for dinner. Definitely pass on the dessert, which strangely seems to be made by a completely different entity than the rest of the lovely food. And of course, do all you can to get a hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, already famous even before Anthony Bourdain graced it with a visit, with surprise crunchy onions. Don't peer over the counter, worried about what's going on that thing. Just get everything. On the opposite end of town from the maritime museum - both literally and figuratively - is The Icelandic Phallological Museum. When you read the name of the museum, did you chuckle to yourself, thinking you thought I was writing about something I couldn't possibly be writing about? I am, actually, you're right. Check the link.  For book lovers, Mál og Menning on the high street has some books in English and other languages but primarily carries literature in Icelandic, making it feel more authentic than touristy. If you're slanted to the morbid side like me and the general edge of darkness already inherit in Reykjavík isn't enough for you, look for the graveyard; it's shadowy and overgrown and beautiful, feeling both neglected and a target of tenderness. The Harpa is a concert hall and financial controversy. Impressive design and light. We attended a show there with Bjarni Haukur Thorsson, How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes, funny, insightful, crude, a great final night in the city.

We heard it said so many times that The Blue Lagoon is touristy but worth it, and we join the chorus. Many people stop by the Blue Lagoon on their way into town from the airport or on their return home (definitely the preferred way, especially if you've been hiking/adventuring). But most stop for just a few hours; we went for the full splurge and stayed for a night prior to our flight. There's a hotel up the road from the lagoon but it was sold out and, thank goodness, we stayed at the clinic instead. I had my first pedicure at the spa, and a massage, given in the water. The Blue Lagoon is absolutely enjoyable, but if you stay in the clinic, they have their own private geothermal pool, which was just incredible, private, and definitely preferred. The clinic hotel is one of those places of which you see astounding pictures in travel magazines and fantasize, "someday..." Be warned, both the Blue Lagoon and the clinic hotel are absolute splurges - but relieved a bit if you stay in a hostel in the city, or camp for several days as we did.

Landing back at JFK, never my favourite place to begin with, was jarring and unwelcome. I'm the first to admit my guiltiness, in the past, of projecting on destinations before I've even traveled there. I've fantasized about places, imagining that after I traveled there, I would be changed in some way, that my thoughts and my future would be different after the travel.

But this time, I had no expectations. I'm more mature and experienced than most of my travels when I was younger. This time, Iceland felt so distant and incomprehensible that I didn't expect anything of it, other than, perhaps, some beauty and some challenge. It never felt real until I was actually, physically there, and then, strangely, I kept thinking I was only couple hours from home because it felt so intimate and immediate. And I still don't know how to describe what I walk away with. More than any other place I've visited, I do feel distinctly different. Calmer? Closer to myself, physically and mentally. Contemplating the lifestyle and the thought processes of an Icelandic life. And yet, even as I write Icelandic life, the change I sense in myself and find ineffable, feels unrelated to the concrete, physical life in Iceland and more intangible, permanent, long-lived.

There are memories: the wind trying to tear us from our tent beneath a snowbank, the realization that I would, in fact, find it perfectly reasonable to fall asleep beside a cairn in a snowstorm if I hadn't someone who loved me literally pull me to my feet, the sperm whale penis in Reykjavík, discovering the Icelandic literary hero, Halldór Laxness, watching a man glide without the slightest jolt through field on the back of an Icelandic horse, which has two more gears than other, more boring horses, and waking up every single hour of the night for the first few nights, panicked that it was already deep into the morning. The memories of Iceland will stay with me forever, of course, but the experiences have instilled a change in me, more deeply affecting than I can relate.

 

** Please note that some of the photographs in this post were taken by James Fagedes.