In a direct challenge to most internet commenters, two friends and I decided to spend two days circling the island in a grey rental car. While certainly not “preferable” to taking one’s time, driving Iceland’s storied Route 1—the ring road—in thirty-eight hours is by no means “pure folly” (as one commenter, named Kyle, suggested).
Maintaining such a pace certainly results in many lost opportunities to explore alluring sites—at the same time it provides a distinct sense of the raw, sometimes infuriating beauty (here’s looking at you, fog) the island reveals when taken in as a whole.
While it lasted
When it comes to sightseeing in Iceland, I’m your girl. I’ve fanny-packed, camera-bagged and way-too-big-rucksacked with the most over-prepared of tourists, and I’m far from done. Thus, when a friend needed a ride to Seyðisfjörður, I figured that since I had yet to see the east, my scant free time would be best spent driving him there. We called it the “Fury Road Trip.”
Our driver barely blinked as we drove north from the city, winding around the near-empty roads. The mountains were half-swathed in snow, the countryside horses propped so picturesquely in front of them you’d think some nearby farmer was offering equine modeling classes. The light alternated between a faded yellow and green-blue, sometimes cradling both colors. It was beautiful, while it lasted.
Nice as it was, my arm reached longingly to the window as we sped past old friends like Goðafoss, Fjaðrárgljúfur and Reynisfjara. I desperately craved pulling over to reconnect with these fine entities, but we had so little time. To say nothing of the rain-fog. Oh, the rain-fog.
In general, visibility was low. For most of the trip, we could barely see ten feet ahead. We bounced uncomfortably over the pot-holed roads. It rained intermittently until darkness set in, and the fog returned in surges, even when the dark had completely taken over (this happened by 7pm, mind you). We missed a lot of things: historic sites, landscapes and small coffee shops. I drank too much RedBull, and saw the inside of too many N1s.
The ring road in two days
Yet, despite all that rainy, foggy darkness, I saw things I never thought I’d see. Iceland revealed itself to us from the angles that tourists lose when they seek nightly refuge in their hotels. Did you know that a spotlight shines on Foss á Síðu at night? That Akureyri looks so much bigger when seen from a nearby mountainside in the evening, once the locals have lit up their porch lights? That I can, in fact, drive straight through a cloud on a curvy gravel road for forty-five minutes, without any accidents?
It’s rare to see the varied landscapes of Iceland in rapid-fire succession. I liked tracing the island all at once, like a ribbon. I liked comparing western Iceland with northeastern Iceland, since we had driven by both at the same time of day. I know Mývatn doesn’t usually look much like the South Coast. But it does, in dense dark and even denser fog.
As I watched a German tourist use his jeep’s high beams to illuminate a night-enshrouded Jökulsárlón, I thought about how different the shards of glacier would look tomorrow. How different they had looked when I visited them earlier this year.
Iceland is a landscape that changes. Nothing accentuates this fact more than seeing so much of it change in so little time.
It was terrifying and comforting, and I felt it all at once.