We have three different maps in the car, each with circles and notes from Icelanders suggesting different spots in Snæfellsnes that one should never miss: or at least, that used to be that way in the 1980s and 1990s. We have received numerous lectures on the north side versus south side (the north shore of the peninsula contains the larger picturesque fishing villages, the south shore contains the more ominous historical points.)
As we leave the Reykjavík city limits on a sunny July day, the Snæfellsnes glacier seems to stay at the exact same distance, the snow glowing above the horizon like a large steel cloud. For the first few miles, I keep myself occupied with the notion that the glacier isn’t getting any bigger as we get closer. Perhaps this is because it is pouring into the ocean, causing desalination that will immediately shift the Gulf Stream, bringing about another small ice age by the end of the day.
But then, coming out of Borgarnes onto Iceland’s most conventionally beautiful stretch of highway in full sunlight, I am distracted from the glacier by the local mountains and waterfalls, and by Eldborg, a massive crater that provides the kind of landscape you see photographed in New Mexico. Sunlight and good scenery clear my head of environmental concerns as quickly as healthy campaign contributions clear the heads of elected officials around the world, and suddenly I am right as rain. To further clear my head and brighten my mood, I take my friend on a death hike.
The death hike is a short trek up a creek located just off of highway 54 between Búðir and Arnarstapi. At a specific location, which I can’t name for reasons I’ll present later, a crevice forms in a mountainside. This crevice attracts large masses of seagulls, who seem to thoroughly enjoy the updraft against the cliff. The problem: at one point, in the back of this crevice, there is a place for the seagulls to land where there is no wind whatsoever. If the seagulls land there, they cannot fly, and they must descend a waterfall to get out of the crevice. This being against their nature, they tend to starve to death or consume each other.
If you are interested, you can hike up this crevice, though it requires some advanced climbing and understanding of how to climb with the aid of a rope—which some noble sportsman has fastened so that countless many can view the slow death of seagulls. On an earlier trip, I travelled with a group of experienced hikers, including a Norwegian teenager, who had his heart completely broken by watching the seagulls in such a state. On this trip, I brought an inexperienced hiker and realized that a good deal more than your heart can get broken if you climb an eight-foot waterfall in a cave without proper precautions. As it happened, all worked out fine: my friend got to see dying seagulls and various carcasses, but she was not amused by her own near death experiences. She suggested that I not recommend the exact location to beginner hikers, unless I wanted their miserable, agonizing deaths on my hands.
Following the cave of death, we drove a small 1989 Toyota sedan up the Snæfellsnes glacial road. The glacier was large and icy and many people were walking around the base of it attempting to imbibe the spiritual essence of it.
Imbibing the spiritual essence of the mystic Snæfellsnes glacier involves a special chant, which goes like this: “Can you walk there? Yes, I think so. But it said deep chasms. And isn’t this protected. Look, snowmobiles. Does anybody rent them? Maybe if we wait… This is really ancient.”
This is really ancient is the deep moment that indicates you have found a deeper state of being or that you are ready to go back down the hill and use the toilet.
After our Snæfellsnes hike, we set out for the most celebrated Icelanders-only camping spot in Southern Iceland, the small patch of grass at the end of the Berserkerhraun lava field.
To get to the Berserkerhraun lava field, simply follow the signs off of highway 56. One reason few tourists go to the lava field is that the road doesn’t look easy to handle, and it definitely isn’t. Our sedan bottomed out repeatedly, and we had to employ our jack during one strangely humiliating experience. But on following the small old road through the lava field, we came to a peaceful stretch of grass that was, indeed, packed with Icelanders. Frolicking, jeep-owning Icelanders. We easily found our own lava shaded cove, and camped out for the evening, waking up only intermittently to ask ourselves why, exactly they named the lava field after Berserkers, and to contemplate whether we hadn’t been over-reacting about the notion of climate change—near the glacier, even on the hottest day of the year, and even when the sun stays up all night, it gets cold enough that a good sleeping bag and tent are necessary.
The next morning, we set out for the quaint north side of Snæfellsnes, hoping to catch a ferry out to the island of Flatey, the largest of the many islands in Breiðafjorður bay. We set out as early as we can, but we still don’t make it to Stykkishólmur in time for the 9 am ferry. Missing the ferry… by three hours, gives us time to properly explore the north end of the peninsula.
While we were in a rush to get to Kvíabryggja, Iceland’s nicest prison, we couldn’t pass Kellingarfjall, or Old Hag Mountain, located just off of the old highway 56, and not stop. Kellingarfjall, named so because of a story of an old woman troll being caught in the sunlight, has a lighter shade, rougher texture, and more surreal patterns than any other mountain on the peninsula—set among the lush green land of the area, the large sand-toned monument valley mountain looks cut-and-pasted. A brief hike demonstrated that the whole mountain has the biting traction of shark skin.
After our hike, we set out for Kvíabryggja again but got side-tracked at Grundarfjörður. There we came upon a mass of yellow houses, yards, and even cars. Signs everywhere welcomed us to Gulibær, or yellow town. A few blocks in, we found blue town, and green town.
“They do this every year,” a visitor from Skagaströnd, who was sitting at a gas station looking at the yellow flags, told us. “And it’s just for themselves. Just for something to do. Just one weekend every year.”
“Makes perfect sense. And do you do this in Skagaströnd?” I asked, at which point the visitor smiled politely and looked away as though he was expecting someone.
We returned to Stykkishólmur and caught the 1:50 ferry, spending 1850 ISK per roundtrip ticket to Flatey on the Sæferður ferry company. Our two-hour journey allowed us to scope out a half a dozen of the more attractive small islands in Breiðafjörður before descending below deck to watch Finding Nemo on DVD. Travelling on the ferry with a great deal of local island dwellers, the experience was not dissimilar to riding the commuter rail from New York to Connecticut. Most people on the train were in their mid 30s, and many had market and grocery items with them. The experience of arriving in Flatey was also similar to arriving in a commuter town. There are no shops or restaurants waiting for you, just a few families waiting to pick up whoever went to town. The half dozen tourists on the boat with us set off in different directions to try to use our four hours on the island well.
For our tourist adventure, we set about trying to count every house on the island, (there seemed to be about 27, though dive-bombing Artic Terns distracted us). The church of Flatey was a draw, with a remarkable painting on its walls and ceiling by Baltasar of Katalonia, the celebrated artist whose son, Baltasar Kormakar, is one of Iceland’s most celebrated directors.
Beyond the church and a small monument to Sigvaldi Kaldalóns, the man who composed the national anthem and who made a home in Flatey for 3 years, the main attraction was a small coffee shop which didn’t really need a name, as it was the only coffee shop in town, and a pair of unruly sheep.
In hours one and two, my travelling partner and I marvelled at how quaint Flatey was. Hours three and four consisted of making sure we were in place when the ferry got there, as we were terrified of being left on the island overnight.
Riding back on the ferry, I reflected on my ancestry loudly: mine are a potato-picking people, not a people meant to be on a ferry in moderate seas after two days of nothing but cheese and yoghurt.
“I don’t get sea sick,” my Icelandic companion told me, though she did accompany me to the deck, where we were surrounded by many Icelanders who would classify themselves as more in the shepherd than master fisherman category.
“Just think of the dead seagulls, then,” I told her.
And she grimaced and seemed to be enjoying the stomach-churning sensation that in many cultures is taken as a sign of love. Yes, it ends as a love story, a lamer than Cameron Crowe love story.