WINTER IS COMING: A Road Trip To Djúpavík

WINTER IS COMING: A Road Trip To Djúpavík

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Hannah Jane Cohen
Photos by
John Rogers & Hannah Cohen

“Hey Hannah, you can drive right? Do you want to drive John up north, to do an interview?”

‘Up North’—that’s what they told me. You’ll drive ‘up north’. In my naiveté, I assumed by ‘up north’ they meant something like Winterfell, the remote countryside home of the Stark family in Game of Thrones. Who could’ve foreseen that actually, they meant going much further: all the way beyond The Wall to a remote, frozen and unforgiving wilderness.

But anything to get out of 101, right? So I accept, and off we go, headed to a tiny town called Djúpavík. I pronounce it incorrectly—more like Dubrovnik—and everyone in the office laughs at me. But such is life in Iceland for a foreigner; this land is forever humbling. I pack a sweater, an extra shirt, and a swimsuit —all the Icelandic essentials—and like Brienne of Tarth, bid my farewell to Kings Landing (Reykjavík), driving out of the city in a brand new hired Skoda. “It’s only done 14km,” says the fresh-faced kid at the Hertz place.

The adventure begins! Almost. We instantly hit rush hour traffic while getting on the highway. At the same time, my travel companion starts playing indie-pop. This mix makes no sense to me. Gridlock soundtracked by hipsters—and Sartre said hell was other people?

SPRING: LAVA FIELDS

Once we get out past the city limits, the traffic dies down. Amidst breathtaking scenery, the indie-pop feels more fitting. The mountains bulge like mounds of black play-dough out of the flat grasslands surrounding the road. I stop to take photos, but they fail to adequately give any sense of this majestic scale. I feel small—but as I said, this country forever humbles.

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After a snack stop in Borgarnes, the grasslands abruptly turn into porridgy lava fields. It’s static, but like a good painting the landscape gives the illusion of movement—a rough ocean tide suddenly turned to stone. With the sun shining bright, we pull over onto the shoulder of the highway for our first scenic stop.

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Picking up a couple of moss-covered basaltic rocks, I find them to be surprisingly light – breakable by hand, even. The lava fields seem to go on endlessly, interrupted only occasionally by a few acres of crops. This shocks me. What masochistic Viking came across this plain and thought, “Hey Þórsteinn! Grab those oxen and start clearing, this place looks perfect!” Maybe it’s something only Icelanders understand. (How well did ’50 Shades of Grey’ sell here? Must look up.)

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SUMMER: GLANNI WATERFALL

When driving along any road in Iceland, it’s important to look out for one sign in particular: a blue and white swirly Celtic square. These signs mark ‘Points of Interest’, which are particular sites that some man in the transportation sector of the Icelandic Government deemed worthy of exploration.

We see one marking a waterfall and pull over. It’s gotten a bit chilly, but the grass is vividly green and there are a few wildflowers, so I’m into it. A short windy walk through some rough brush (conveniently located next to a mini-golf course) leads us to the Glanni waterfall.

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Though you can hear the rapids from far away, the viewing point still seems to come out of nowhere. It’s much bigger than seems appropriate for the generally flat topography of the area. We stand on a little platform and look down at the peculiar dark turquoise water. It seems the perfect hue for a mermaid or some other aquatic figment. In all honesty, Glanni is nothing compared to the larger waterfalls like Gullfoss or Seljalandsfoss, but it’s still a nice place to stretch your legs.

AUTUMN: THE MIST

As we progress northwards, the weather quickly deteriorates. Hurled by strong winds, the rain starts to come at the car horizontally. At this moment, I feel very grateful for my windshield. It’s the small things in life, really, right?

Despite the overcast gloom, the colours around us are bright and vivid. The verdant chartreuse of the grass outside Reykjavík has turned into a darker greenish umber. The country foliage is also filled with golden hues, although I cannot figure out what plant has caused this. It’s a picture perfect autumn, and I half expect to see copses of laden apple trees and jack-o-lanterns dotting the few houses we pass.

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Past the tiny windswept village of Buðardalur, the landscape becomes more dramatic. We head towards a range of massive mountains, whizzing up windy roads, going gradually higher and higher. Draped in deep mist, the place feels distinctly otherworldly. Were I to be given the job of location scout for a remake of the 2004 film ‘King Arthur,’ this is where I would set it.

John then offers me control of the car stereo, a choice he will probably later regret. I put on some sufficiently epic metal. Perhaps my remake of ‘King Arthur’ could be scored by Sólstafir. Can someone please give them my email?

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STILL AUTUMN…

A few hours later, we’re still driving through beautiful mountains, but the cars are becoming fewer and the wind is growing stronger. I think we’re getting close to the Westfjörds, but how could I know?

We hit a patch of snow for a few minutes. Only in Iceland can you pass through sun, snow, and rain in a kilometre long section of road. Not only does this country humble you, it also keeps you on your toes.

Alright, now I’m at the end of my road. No really, the road just literally ended. I stop and ask John if we’re lost. He points to a dirt track on the right. “Okay,” I say, doubtfully, and start up the trusty Skoda. We start bouncing along a rough, rocky track. Other than sheep, there are no markers of civilization for about 30 minutes until we run into a lone blue truck. We’re now so starved of interaction with humanity, we stop for a photo. Alas, the strong winds are freezing, and make the whole experience rather unpleasant.

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I’m starting to think that this trip might be a prank. Maybe they do this to all the new staff members at the Grapevine? Send them to a town that isn’t even on Google Maps and see how far north they drive until they realise? Hazing is illegal in the States. Maybe John’ll leave me to hitchhike back, or maybe he’ll just leave me to die. I read a lot of Stephen King and so my imagination runs wild as John nonchalantly eats potato chips in the passenger seat.

The scenery grows more and more startling. I still haven’t seen a sign for Djúpavík, though I’ve seen signs for a tonne of other similarly unpronounceable places. These mountains make those puny black ones outside of Reykjavik seem like molehills. The wind is picking up and at one point the car starts to slide around slightly on the road. But we’re surrounded by sharp boulders on one side and the wild Atlantic on the other. There’s no place to go but onward.

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We cross the mountains and drop into a dark valley. This place is fucking creepy. If there were ever a place where legitimate supernatural activity might occur, it’s here. The air feels electric and I keep thinking how perfect this scenario would be for a horror movie. “Ever seen Cabin in the Woods?” I think. “No, shut up Hannah,” I reply.

As I start getting worried about the possibility of Joss Whedon engineering my death, we turn around a bend and LITERALLY run into a fucking Blair Witch Project cruciform horror sculpture thing next to the road. I couldn’t have even made this up. I scan the horizon for signs of sorcery. Far in the distance there’s a little house. This is some weird pagan shit that I want no part of. I want to be as far away from this place as possible.

Driving quickly away from the witches, we start climbing the side of the fjörd. There’s room for only one car on this road next to a vertical drop. We climb higher and higher until all of a sudden there’s a sharp incline that takes us into a land completely covered in snow. We’ve made it. We’re at the Wall, and like Bran and Hodor, we’re going through. (As the driver, I am Hodor in this simile.)

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WINTER: THE WHITE WALKERS

On a philosophical note, there has never been a moment in my life where I’ve truly considered the gravity of death. Yes I know, “All men must die”, but I’m a writer not a base jumper. I spend most of my time behind a bright computer screen, thinking. Yet as I started driving along the edge of a snowy cliff tumbling hundreds of meters downwards to the rocky sea, without snow tires, the possibility was getting a little bit too real. Valar morghulis.

But, thank god, I saw the film ‘Mad Max’ last week. Inspired by the many badass female drivers in the movie, I continue on like a champ. The car never slides or skids, but my passenger squeals a few times anyway. White knuckled, he yells: “There’s a big drop!” I respond like a stone-cold bitch: “Don’t look.”

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Eventually the cliffs lead us into a flat area. John’s knuckles regain their colour, and once again we’re confronted by one of those fucking weird pagan cross things. Another one? What the fuck are these things? Signs of the White Walkers? Fuck!

Because I am embarrassing, I ask John to take a photo of me posing as a black metal musician next to the cross. This will be perfect for my next (first) album cover. But I’m not an actual black metal musician, so the next best thing is to periodically pose like one. For the record, I’m single.

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Getting back into the car we continue along the precipice, and I realise that this landscape is actually pretty majestic. High mountains, snowy fields, the Atlantic at our feet—this country once again humbles me with its beauty. As we turn the final corner and finally descend into Djúpavík, I’m not only super jazzed about being alive, but also in awe of the wildness of the land. I always thought that if I lived in Westeros, I would be a Targaryen, but I now know that wildling blood runs through my veins.

So be warned: if you undertake this road trip, things may change. You may not come back the same person. Me? I don’t know if I can go back to my comfortable room on Njálsgata.

I’ve gone beyond the wall, and I might not come back.

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Car provided by Hertz car rental