Driving Down A Road To Nowhere

Driving Down A Road To Nowhere

Photo by
John Rogers for The Reykjavík Grapevine

Taking the high road to a curious backwater of the Reykjanes peninsula

Reykjanesbraut is one of the most well-travelled roads in Iceland. It’s a straight shot that slices through the windblown stretch of lava between greater Reykjavík and the international airport in Keflavík. Among a steady trickle of cars, the Flybus fleet streaks by at all hours of the day and night, full of hungry-eyed visitors taking their first — or perhaps last — glimpse of Iceland’s bleak lavascape.

There’s plenty to see through those fogged windows. To the south lies Keilir, an almost cartoonishly conical volcano that stands tall and proud before the craggy Sveifluháls mountain range. A conspicuous jet of white steam billows up from the Svartsengi geothermal power plant and the Blue Lagoon — often accompanied, in recent times, by a volcanic haze that hangs low in the sky. To the north is a narrow shelf of land that holds a couple of small villages, with various tempting tracks trailing off towards the rugged coastline.

But what’s out there, really? There’s only one way to find out.

The lonely road

It’s a grey and overcast summer afternoon when we peel away from the traffic to join route 420, a faint line on the map that traces the northern coastline of the Reykjanes peninsula. Despite its proximity to the airport road, merging onto it immediately feels like entering a pocket of wilderness, with rocky outcrops slowly splitting open by the roadside. A smattering of derelict buildings and colourful cabins are serenaded by the territorial shrieking of arctic terns who dart and skim over the lonely road.

The first seaward turn is a gravel track leading to a half-finished house that juts up against the roiling ocean. It stands windowless and doorless, exposed to the elements and covered in graffiti and murals — a diving whale, a hummingbird and a tiger. A stencilled character called Magnituda is a cartoon figure who could equally be an obscure comic book hero or a creation of the artist’s own imagination. A cursory Google indicates it’s probably the latter. A pile of spent fireworks tells its own story and I imagine this remote spot at the dead of night, illuminated only by a campfire and sudden, smoky bursts of light and colour.

A little further along is one of Iceland’s many improbable golf courses. As we drive by, a group of locals are in the middle of a round, playing more against the wind than the course itself. A well-struck ball is caught in the air by a harsh gust and redirected to a thick, knotty verge. When we pass again later in the day they’re still persevering, hacking their wedges through the brush to send the ball wobbling sorrily back to the fairway.

Yes we cairn

There’s one site of historical interest along the way, marked by a sign for “Staðarborg.” Starting at a parking spot, a humble sheep track meanders off over the rough ground marked — barely — by a few mismatched old poles, set at irregular intervals.

The trail winds between boulders and hillocks, over stretches of tough grass, arctic thyme and raw, cracked dirt. Sometimes the way forward isn’t clear and at one point the trail peters out completely. My eyes comb the ground for signs of footfall. Nothing. Somehow suddenly lost, I glance around, until a blindingly obvious fact sets in — the tumbledown cairns that dot the area are more than ornamental.

The combination of cairns, footprints and dilapidated trail markers get the job done. When Staðarborg comes into view, it’s like an unexpected turret crowning a small hill. The site turns out to be a tall, well-kept stone ring, originally built to protect sheep from vicious winter storms. Its exact age is unknown, but it’s thought to be a couple of hundred years old.

As I walk the circle, my reverie is broken by a white Flybus rolling by in the distance. The distant traffic sound snaps the moment into focus. It’s like having a foot in two eras — the first following a trail of cairns through the wilderness to check on a remote sheep shelter and the second rocketing along Route 41 to fly out into the rest of the world.

Cradle to grave

Route 420 wasn’t always so seldom travelled. Until 1965, it was the main way to drive out to the Reykjanes peninsula, making the village of Vogar an essential stop. But despite being cut off from the throughfare by Reykjanesbraut, the town seems to be thriving. Its small network of residential streets includes both a busy school and an old person’s home, with several new apartment blocks under construction. There’s a quiet park with twin benches that seem perfect for chilling and conspiring and a harbour walk where screeching seabirds circle a statue dedicated to the town’s fishing past.

All of this seaside tranquillity makes the presence of a Korean wings joint, of all things, an absolute curveball. But there it is: the village restaurant, Kim Yong Wings. All this 420 has summoned up an appetite; it would be simply rude not to drop by.

Hand in glove

Kim Yong Wings is an unadorned room with a bunch of booths, one of which is occupied by a local family several generations deep. The barman is a ginger Icelander and one of the owners. Could this be Kim Yong himself? No, he laughs — he just thought the name was funny.

The menu boasts various pizzas and wraps, but the wings are the main event. They turn out to be huge, almost more like drumsticks. They’re coated in a light batter and sesame seeds, and dripping with a savoury sauce that’s sticky, sweet, and lightly spicy. Faced with a choice of ranch dressing or blue cheese sauce, the obvious answer is both and both are delicious. Best of all, they’re served with a pair of disposable gloves, so hungry wayward travellers can dig in without needing to take a shower afterwards.

Roads to somewhere

As we turn back towards Reykjavík, there are several paths still untaken. A proud orange lighthouse guards the coastline, not reachable by car. Once again, I’m tempted by a glimpse of the unknown — this time, the slender walking path that winds out to the coastline between tumbledown sheds and strands of beach and land.

But a blot of inky clouds and a well earned wing coma are both setting in. It’s another affirmation that investigating any tiny backwater of Iceland provides more questions than answers and that every road to nowhere leads to something worth seeing.

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