Waking up to a hangover, a stuffed-up nose, and a soundtrack of pattering rain, this was one of those mornings when you open your eyes in a hotel and you have absolutely no idea where you are. After orienting myself and remembering that I was nestled in bed at the Hotel Alden in Seyðisfjörður, in the midst of a spectacular whirlwind trip around Iceland’s Ring Road, I headed over to the empty dining room for a wonderful, hearty breakfast served to me by the hotel’s owner, Klas Poulsen. After chatting for a while about his move from Denmark to Iceland some years ago, I hit the road, travelling up the winding switchbacks leading out of the small town, ready for the second half of my trip. My journey would now take me through the northern realms of the country, and as I would soon discover, incredibly different landscapes from the glaciers and fjords I was leaving behind. I passed through the sleepy town of Egilsstaðir once more on my way out. Not much more to see here than I’d seen previous day, but at least there was a gas station at which I could spend another hundred bucks to fill my tank. From here, I was faced with two choices: continue along the Ring Road to Myvatn, an easy journey of a few hours, or wind around the coast for a more lengthy trip and explore some off-the-beaten-path villages. With no real deadlines or time restraints, I decided upon the latter route, with perhaps a second thought or two as I left the main road for a dirt track that seemed to point me directly into the sea. As I pushed my Explorer to undoubtedly unsafe speeds on these uneven surfaces, I realised that if anything were to happen – flat tire, car flipping, careening off a cliff into the cold surf – I was literally the only person around for kilometres in any direction. So be it.
I climbed a twisting road over a mountain pass and down again, and picked up the pace as I skirted the coastal road to Vopnafjörður. This was one of the only truly scary moments of the trip. Gale-force winds threatened to sweep my car off the road. I actually felt the undercarriage rise up just a bit as I sailed past the occasional farmhouse and flock of sheep. It was clearly time to slow down a bit which, while making me feel a bit safer, did nothing for the wind pounding my vehicle. Perhaps the boxy construction of an SUV isn’t the most aerodynamic form for these coastal routes. I pulled over to the side of the road, gathered my thoughts, and tuned the radio to the single station I was able to get out here. To my pleasant surprise, Wilco’s “What Light” became my current soundtrack, shoring up my confidence as Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette-stained voice became my guide through this stretch of north-eastern Iceland.
This is a beautiful, grassy, windswept area, where snow-capped mountains meet the ocean and grazing herds seem to outnumber people. I passed through Vopnafjörður and Bakkafjörður, finally reaching Þórshöfn, at the bottom of the Langanes peninsula, where I stopped to buy some lunch at the local supermarket. From here, my route seemed clear: leave the coast to take highway 867 directly across the Melrakkasletta peninsula. Not knowing a thing about the road, the weather, or the distance, this seemed like the obvious choice. As some obscure ‘80s tune based around the incredibly clichéd notion of “jumping in my car” trickled over the static-ridden airwaves (apropos, nonetheless), I followed suit and hit this rocky dirt road that would surely shorten my journey, ultimately proving to be one of the most solitary, thrilling, and ominous parts of my trip.
I passed through a beautiful, eerie wasteland. Threatening clouds of brown dust floated in the wind above a volcanic desert as the road crunched through dry washes and rocky gullies. This was true desolation. The landscape seemed like something right out of The Hills Have Eyes, and I half expected to catch a glimpse of a mutant family peering out of their cave at me somewhere in the distance. Out here, there was no radio signal – the only soundtrack was the grinding of my teeth as I tensely clutched the steering wheel, navigating around boulders and potholes. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of triumph as I descended past a few farms at the end of this leg of the trip, my return to civilisation, unscathed and victorious.
In the Hoof steps of Sleipnir
Ásbyrgi, at the northern end of Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, reminded me of the American Southwest, with scrubby brush and a mini version of the Grand Canyon dominating the scenery. Asbyrgi was impressive, and the wind continued to buffet me as I gazed at the towering cliff walls, supposedly an impression of Óðinn’s horse’s hoof. No reason not to believe this particular myth, especially on a day when I was virtually the only visitor in the park. This feeling of being utterly alone continued as I headed down through the park, passing through a desolate landscape whose features (or lack of) help one understand why it was the perfect place for training NASA astronauts.
Naturally, the thunderous waterfall, Dettifoss, demanded a stop. This is a breathtaking natural monument, unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The most powerful waterfall in Europe lived up to its name. It seemed that Dettifoss’s show of strength challenged the elements to step up and prove their mettle, as the wind fought me every step of the way to the rocky edge far above the river.
Back in the car, safe from the wind, a curious soundtrack of what I can only describe as field recordings of Icelandic children playing and chattering greeted my ears. I headed south into driving rain, and before long I was safely back on the Ring Road. From here, my destination lay westward towards Myvatn. First up, though, a stop at Krafla, an active volcano near an active geothermal power station, as well as the incredibly stinky bubbling mud of Hverir. The gut-wrenching stench here and the icy rain coming down forced me to cut this stop short, as I also wanted to see some of the lakeside sights before dark.
I rolled into Reykjahlíð about two hours before dusk, stopping at the sensibly named Hotel Reykjahlíð, where I’d be spending the night. The constant supply of complimentary coffee in the dining room was welcoming and inviting. To top it off, the excellent dinner of Arctic char I would indulge in later that night made this an excellent choice of accommodation in the area. Racing to beat the oncoming night, I made my way down the eastern shore of the lake, stopping at amazing natural tourist sites like Dimmuborgir and Hverfjall, remnants of the powerful volcanic activity that has taken place here over the centuries. At this point, the nasty cold I was battling seemed to be winning the fight, so I decided that the only remedy would be a stop at the Jarðböðin nature baths, a sort of smaller-scale and less flashy version of the infamous Blue Lagoon. My visit here was pure bliss, as I spent almost an hour soaking in the slick, geothermal, hot water and sauna, as the cold rain pissed down from the skies. The woman at the front desk even offered me a free towel for my visit, good-naturedly indulging my assumption that they were included in the cost of entry (about 1100 kr).
But the highlight of this night would come after dinner back at the hotel, when I had my first encounter with the Northern Lights. The only other guests staying there, a vacationing British couple, and I scurried outside to revel in the beauty of the drifting fields of light sweeping overhead against the dropping temperature and a sky that was finally clearing up. This was a nightcap better than a potent shot of Brennivin.
Húsavík, Without Phallus
By morning, the temperature had dropped to nearly 0 degrees Celsius, but I resolved to bundle up and explore the rest of the lake. I made my way down to the southern shores, and took a hike through the pseudocraters near Skútustaðir, whimpering as my Southern California-weakened constitution dealt with an icy wind chill factor. From there, I headed over to climb Vindbelgjar, a smallish peak that rises about 530 metres above the lake. Again, the wind and cold proved to be almost unbearable, and I literally cursed and swore my way up the mountain. But the view made it well worth it, as the clear morning air allowed me to see for kilometres in every direction.
From here, I headed north to the small town of Húsavík, where I had only one goal: to visit the famed Phallological Museum. To my dismay, I arrived to a note pinned to the door saying that the museum was closed for the season. The owner left his number to call if one really, really wanted to get in, so I did, but he was out of town for the next few days. I headed down to Akureyri, the last stop of my trip and Iceland’s second-largest city. My accommodations here were at Gistiheimilið Gula Villan, a sort of dormitory-style arrangement with a shared kitchen and bathroom that seems to be popular with students who are attending university in the city.
After wandering around for several hours, seeing the few sights there are to see, I met up with two students, Balli and Bjarni. We walked down to Strikið, a rooftop restaurant overlooking the harbour, where we indulged in pizza and a couple of Vikings. After establishing an acceptable level of inebriation to break down social barriers with my new friends, we headed over to a local bar called Café Amour, where a bunch of students were drinking after attending a lecture. Rounds came and went in a blur, and before long we stumbled over to some underground club which I believe was underneath an art museum… but here things become slightly hazy. I do remember a bunch of musicians and artists, thick clouds of cigarette smoke, good Icelandic rock music, and more beer. Before long, it was time to head back to my room to fortify myself with some water and sleep before an extremely early departure the next morning for my drive to the airport and my flight back to the States.
My final day of driving was definitely the longest and most tedious, although I did make several stops and detours along the way at various churches and vistas (including one unexpected stop in suddenly blizzard-like conditions). Although the main focus of this final leg of my journey was to not miss my flight, I had ample time to reflect upon my four days travelling around this beautiful country, and the soundtracks that accompanied me along the way. This was truly the perfect wind-down after the hectic musical debauchery of Iceland Airwaves, and I can’t wait to explore parts of the country that I missed if I’m lucky enough to come back for another round this year.