Our trip started on a piece of graph paper. Five dates, each with its own column. Each column with a town. Each town with a person, or a point of interest. We’re headed south: Vík, Skaftafell, Höfn. Early Thursday morning we pack up and head out.
The world is getting smaller I hear from all directions, and naturally my inner skeptic creeps out as we pile into the car. The south coast of Iceland is a path-more-travelled. The roads are narrow, the busses are wide, and there are parking lots at the base of every waterfall. Perhaps that’s exactly why I needed to get on this road—to remember that no matter how many versions of Seljalandsfoss there are, it still remains one-of-a-kind.
Stop and stay awhile
Vík is a stopover town, and the first on our list. It’s a town on the way to another town; a bookend to a 179km series of sights that include Skógafoss, Sólheimajökull and Dýrahólaey. It sits directly south of “the” black sand beach in Iceland, Reynisfjara, and lies directly below one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes, Katla, forming a comfy halfway point between Reykjavík and the Skaftafell National Park. Like the younger brother of a famous athlete, Vík always exists in relation to something else.
Vík’s western horizon is punctured by the basalt sea columns Reynisdrangar, which are, according to local legend, a couple of trolls who tried to drag a ship from the sea, only to be caught by the dawn light and turned to stone. Facing Reynisdrangar, above the black sand, is a quiet and strong arrangement of stones, dedicated to the dead seamen shipwrecked just offshore.
One of the most prominent sights in Vík is the church, propped on the highest point overlooking the town. The church is a beautiful vantage point and a photogenic fixture itself, and it’s also the place locals are told to run to the next time Katla erupts. For a town where many people stop but few stay, Vík is littered with monuments to the frozen, dead and trapped.
But you just got here
There are two walls of windows on the second floor of Norður Vík hostel. One faces the mountain that drops into Vík from the west. The other looks toward the Atlantic, out over the rooftops of the town’s 318 residents. The storm held us there. On the day we were supposed to be waking up in Skaftafell, I sit in this room and watch the cars come down the mountain road. As the road steepens, they slow down, in reverse momentum. One spins out and lands at an awkward tilt on the side of the road. Soon the glow of police lights crawls up, presumably to advise incoming travellers to find a place to stay for the night.
At 3am the night before, all the roads from Reykjavík to Þingvellir, Selfoss and Akranes were closed. By 4am, every road in and out of Reykjavík was closed. A “no travel” storm was moving from the southwest to the northeast, preceded by a wave of road closures, and followed by a parade of ice scrapers and snowploughs. By about 10am, the storm reaches us in Vík. The road is clear, carless and covered in ice. And so, marooned in the second storey of the Norður Vík Hostel, we join the town’s monuments.
That 10am wind swept the town in the Icelandic tradition. It was the kind of wind that makes you go to the hot tub, cook potatoes, appreciate wool, and drink too much. It was a wind that reminds us we’re spending February in Iceland, and instead of hiking to Svartifoss and gazing out at Jökulsárlón, we’ll spend it watching ice pellets spatter across the other side of the window, as if looking out of a transparent dart board. We will be drinking Americanos among equally international and stranded company in Halldórskaffi. We will run on the black sand beach and test the limits of wetness, and of course, we will go to the hot tub. Though it wasn’t what I had written on my ink-river-illegible piece of paper, it was as “Icelandic” an experience as any. There is no way to plan Iceland. Iceland just sort of happens. And travel in general will always find a way to maintain its serendipity.
Besides, it turns out there is actually lot of charm in a town of 318 during the dead white of winter. And some people really do choose to stay in Vík, like Cristian and Bea, a couple working at the hostel, who moved to Vík from Barcelona. “We visited Iceland in April 2015 and fell in love with Vík,” Bea tells us. “So we contacted Æsa, the manager [of Norður Vík Hostel] and she said she would be happy to hire us.” They moved in and started work exactly a year after their initial visit.
Where to next
The weather did end up clearing for the rest of our trip and a week later I drop my friends at the airport three up-close waterfalls, four black sand beaches, two glacial lagoons and a trillion glacial “toes” more experienced. As I stand in line for the bus back to Reykjavík, two British women in front of me argue and laugh in what seems like a mixture of terror, delusion, and humour with the woman behind the Reykjavík Excursions desk. Clearly confused about the limited road conditions they scan their purses quickly to change and cancel reservations.
“You didn’t do your research before you came here, did you?” the woman asks them with a huge, unapologetic smile.
“No,” one answers. “Yes,” the other answers simultaneously.
They look at each other.
The receptionist doesn’t break her smile.
Each day, undaunted by history, we look forward. But of course, the most precise planning always happens in retrospect, so maybe it’s best to relinquish control from the start and then lay it out once it’s over. Plan ahead, plan behind, make your checklist with circles instead of boxes, be reckless, be restrained. The only strategy I can offer here is to be light on your toes; the roads are icy, and the only thing you can be sure of is the wind.