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Iceland Day 5: Catastrophe

Iceland Day 5: Catastrophe

After running Björk’s built-in space heater for a few minutes Monday morning, I was able to convince myself to wriggle out of my sleeping bag. I shortly discovered my first serious snafu of the entire trip. Despite the switch being on the lowest setting, my little icebox had been acting as a freezer. Two Cokes and one beer had exploded overnight. I must have been sleeping like a rock.

And so, my first productive hour of the day was spent in the back of the camper, meticulously taking every item out of the icebox and washing and drying it like a dish, then mopping Coke-Zero-beer out of the back.

Mischief managed! These things happen, I suppose. On to the pretty stuff.

First, I drove down to the first of several black sand beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s the opening-scene-of-Rogue-One beach! Worth clicking through to the big version.

Birds were nesting by the thousands in the cliffs, wheeling for no apparent reason in the air before returning to their nests.

Also worth a click.

Heading east out of Vik, I drove past fields of bumpy moss, wind-swept grass, and gray moonscapes, always with the mountains to my left and the ocean to my right. There were (of course) plenty of scenic stops along the way.

One thing I’ve failed to mention thus far: the driving conditions in Iceland take some getting used to. First, there are no giant billboards directing you to the major tourist attractions; you’ve got to catch the tiny directional signs, no bigger than regular street signs, as you zip down the highway at 100kph. Second, the side roads to many of the tourist attractions would, in any other scenario, convince you that you’d taken a wrong turn. “Bumpy” is a kind word for it. Suspension repair has got to be a BOOMING business in this country. Much like yesterday’s strange trek to the thermal bath, it’s not until you see the collection of tourist vehicles that you’re sure you’re on the right track.

The major event of the day was a walking tour of the Svínafellsjökull glacier (SVEEN-a-fells-yokel1). I checked in at the mountain guide center and was fitted with a safety harness (juuuuuust in case I slid into a crevasse!) and crampons.

What a dork.

Then myself and 20 other tourists spent a couple of hours criss-crossing a glacier. Yes, it was the one from Interstellar. Yes, it’s quite surreal-looking.

*overpowering Hans Zimmer pipe-organ score*

The tour had a funereal feel—our guide pointed out the many places where the glacier had retreated, with lakes growing in its place, and speculated that within five years they’d need boats in order to conduct tours. Glaciers are a dying breed, friends, see em while you can. 🙁

On the way back to the van, it began snowing.

By then it was 6pm and for the first time (but not the last) I had to cut stops from my trip to stay on schedule. Too damn much to see in this country! Sorry I missed you, Svartifoss.2 Instead, I continued east.

At one point I was crossing yet another one-lane bridge (they’re ALL one-lane bridges) over yet another glacial river when I happened to notice two strange shapes in the water below. Are… are those…


Seals were not on my Top 1,000 list of things I expected to see in Iceland. It was a lucky fluke that I’d even glimpsed them from the bridge. The country continues to throw me strange plot twists.

As I “turned the corner” of Iceland and the Ring Road began leading me north, the snow picked up. Before long I was driving through a winter wonderland, with mountains and glaciers alternating to my left. My enjoyment of the snow turned gradually to worry—I was close enough to my stop for the night (at Höfn, if you’re keeping track). But what would the roads be like in the morning? Would tonight be the night that Iceland’s weather shamelessly threw my itinerary for a loop like a fork in a garbage disposal?


And now: a Justin Bieber music video shot in Iceland. You’re welcome.

Iceland Day 4: Kevin Gets Naked

Iceland Day 4: Kevin Gets Naked


To pick up my camper van on Sunday morning I had to walk to the bus station and take a 45-minute ride back to the airport, only to pick up ANOTHER shuttle and get to the rental agency. But after that and the usual stack of paperwork, I was finally introduced to her.

Now, y’all may know that I always name my cars after female solo artists—Fiona, Tori, Cher, Florence, and so on. And so, uncreative though it may be: everybody, meet Björk.

She’s a stick-shift, the sliding door doesn’t always open, the dome light doesn’t work, the bed doesn’t fold flat, and I love her to pieces.

I drove Björk back to the Airbnb, tossed my stuff unceremoniously in the back, and by 11:30 I was headed southeast out of Reykjavik on the Ring Road.

Oh yeah, the narwhalrus came on the trip, too.

To call this the best weather of the trip so far is an understatement. The sun peeked through broken clouds above; not a stitch of rain. Later in the day it would be downright sunny.

In most places, Iceland consists of very wide, very flat land backing up to incredibly dramatic cliffs and mountains. Off those cliffs fell one stunning waterfall after another. I could have literally stopped for a picture every five minutes. I joined the throngs of tourists1 at some of the major ones, but there were so many others without even have a spot to pull over. It’s an overwhelming experience.

Then I stopped at a grocery store, bought food, and made myself a PB&J for lunch, just to remind myself that mundanity still exists in the world.

My two afternoon activities each felt like some kind of bizarre cold-weather dare that I, for some reason, accepted.

Dare #1 was Seljavallalaug. Say it with me, now: SEL-ya-va-la-lowg. It’s an outdoor thermal pool that’s so far from the road, parking lot, or any other human habitation that only the ant-trail of fellow tourists convinces you you’re not walking randomly into the wilderness. I hiked almost 20 minutes up a narrowing ravine, carrying my swimsuit and towel in a plastic grocery bag. Finally I rounded a bend and saw… a guy’s bare butt. This must be it.

This place is some kind of life-after-people thing. The pool has been open since the 1920s, but only the barest of maintenance has kept it alive. The changing rooms were in ruin, which meant most of us just changed clothes right there in front of God and everyone, freezing wind spanking us the whole time. I quick-changed into my swimsuit and immediately dipped into the pool, discovering to my dismay that (unlike the Secret Lagoon) it’s merely warm, not really hot. Like hour-old-bathwater warm. Yuck.

There was a thin waterfall trickling down the hillside into the pool, so I backed into this little alcove and let the hot water trickle down my back. (“Naturally hot water” still doesn’t quite register as a logical thing in my brain.) There, I was able to relax for a bit. The mountain in front of me was brilliant in the sunlight. Occasional snowflakes drifted downward. It was pretty darn nice.

The real challenge was getting out of the water.

Dare #2 was Sólheimasandur (SOUL-heim-a-sand-ur). This is a beach where a US Army DC-3 famously crash-landed in 1973, and was largely left there to rot. You can hike from the Ring Road to take a look at the rusting plane sitting by itself on the sand.

The catch is that the hike down to the beach is crazy-long, like, almost an hour of brisk walking. Time and space seemed to lose all meaning as I walked on this straight track from the parking lot. The ocean was visible in the distance from the very start, but absolutely refused to grow any closer. The sun set slowly to my right2 and the wind seemed to emanate directly from it, my shadow stretching off to the left was like a wind sock.

Just when I had lost all hope of ever seeing my family again, the plane finally appeared in the distance. And yes, it is quite strange-looking, though all us tourists hopping around like flies on a carcass take something away from the effect. Still, a neat sight.

Of course it was almost an hour to walk back, this time directly into the wind. (I’m trying not to bitch about the wind constantly, but it’s pretty impossible to ignore.) I made it back and drove another few kilometers to Vik—finally, a place with a short name!—where I gassed up and parked at the camping area.

I wish I could have captured the moment an hour later, in the back of the camper, after I poured the boiling water into my freeze-dried chicken gumbo, set a timer for 10 minutes, and then just sat there, head back, white LED dome light dimly illuminating the scene. Only my hunger kept me from passing right out as I sat there. My watch told me I had reached almost 700% of my daily exercise goal. HOLY CRAP FREEZE-DRIED GUMBO IS SO GOOD, Y’ALL.3

ICELAND FACT OF THE DAY: There are currently no trains of any type anywhere in Iceland.

Iceland Day 3: Waffles! Waffles! Waffles!

Iceland Day 3: Waffles! Waffles! Waffles!

After enjoying many fun beverages and cool people at Friday night’s improv afterparty, I woke up chilly but well-rested at 8:30 Saturday morning. I’d previously learned that the “oldest pool in Reykjavik” (I don’t know how to verify these things) was just a block from my apartment. So I threw on my layers, walked over, and paid a $9 entry fee to soak alongside the locals.1 I sank into the 42-degree water (yes, that’s in Celsius) and listened quietly to their friendly Icelandic chatter, failing to recognize a single word. It felt like my most authentically Icelandic experience thus far.

My body temperature sufficiently raised, I then spent the $30 Of Shame on a new hat before returning yesterday’s rental car. The rest of mid-day was, as I’d hoped, chillax. I walked along the waterfront and had a perfectly decent burger at a well-known local dive. I wandered through a moss-draped cemetery, shoes squishing in the black leaves under my feet.

I went to the National Museum and saw thousand-year-old artifacts that had, in an amusing number of cases, been randomly found in some Icelander’s attic. In one corner was a shockingly well-preserved jawbone from a Viking woman, who had died in eastern Iceland shortly after 900AD and been partially mummified in the ground until a road crew uncovered her in 1938.

Plus this guy.

Then I pressed against the bitter wind, back up the hill to the Airbnb. Did I buy a sugar-covered waffle from a food truck on the way?

My friends, yes I did.

Back at the apartment, I found a newly-arrived tourist from Seattle in the adjacent room. She said she was making coffee and asked if I wanted some. “Sure,” I said politely, and a few minutes later was handed some sort of coffee-flavored pudding. Lesson learned: never assume the person offering you coffee actually knows how to MAKE coffee. The caffeine burst definitely helped, though, as I caught up on photos and Merlin Works stuff.2 Plus, the view out my bedroom window was not bad at all.

After a not-long-enough catnap I walked through the wind, which I’m pretty sure is getting colder and bitterer by the hour, to the theater for the final night of the Iceland Improv Festival. On the one hand, I should’ve said more about the festival thus far; on the other hand, IT’S NOT LIKE I DON’T TALK ABOUT IMPROV ENOUGH. But it was a delightful night of comedy, with an especial shout-out to the amazeballs headlining set from North Coast out of New York City.

I enjoyed myself at the tiki bar (?!) where the festival had its afterparty, then wandered back to the Airbnb for the final time. The moon rose beautifully behind the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral, and I suddenly realized: the moon is out! For the first time since I arrived, the sky is clear! It might not last, but even at night, it’s mildly exciting.

Back home now. Still sorting through Merlin Works work. Tomorrow at 7:30am, I take the bus to the rental place to pick up my camper van. I doubt that I’ll go off the grid, but the Internet might become spotty for me. Barring a catastrophic volcano eruption, though, you can assume I’m fine.

Gonna abruptly end this entry with some cool graffiti (if this even counts as graffiti) in downtown Reykjavik.

Iceland Day 2: I Think the Swans Stole It

Iceland Day 2: I Think the Swans Stole It

First, some terminology: The Ring Road is the big drive. The Golden Circle is the little drive. Confusing I know.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 09.18.22.png

Today I took the little drive, splitting a car rental with two Brits (Phil and Katy!) and two Swedes (Peter and Daniel!) to visit some of the best views in Iceland within spitting distance of Reykjavik.

It was still overcast when I left the Airbnb—24 hours and counting with no sun—and walked across downtown to the car rental. I picked up the gang in my shiny new Kia hatchback and we headed east out of town, up a wide valley, the low clouds stubbornly refusing to show us the tops of the surrounding hills. As we got higher, white streaks of remnant snow joined the green-gray-brown of the landscape. Native Icelandic horses could be seen along the roadside, as well as various birds—especially swans. An unsettling number of swans.

After an hour we made our first stop: Þingvellir National Park. (Þ is pronounced “th” as in “this,” and ð is pronounced “th” as in “thing.” Yer welcome.)

There we tromped against the wind along a boardwalk, down a Middle-Earth canyon, to the first of two terrifically powerful waterfalls that misted us generously. I requested windshield wipers for my glasses.

Couldn’t take a picture any closer. Too misty.

45 minutes later we were at Gullfoss, which is professional-grade waterfalling, A+, would waterfall again.

Click to make bigger. See the little tourist-people on the left side?

Thirdly, after an errant drive down a comically bumpy road, we made it to the geysers at Haukadalur. One of them is named Geysir. We got the word “geyser” from THIS EXACT GEYSER. It’s inactive today, but another one called Strokkur burst into the air three times during our brief visit. It was a bubbly-cauldron landscape of weirdness. I’m gonna go with Monty Python & the Holy Grail for my movie comparison, just for the persistent random blowing smoke.

Arður, king of the Britons.

The weather throughout the day was nose-runny cold and generally miserable. I believe Forrest Gump would have called it “little bitty stingin’ rain.” But, you know what? Good! One doesn’t come to Iceland for its blue-sky 70-degree afternoons. This felt like an authentic experience. (Plus, there were free refills on the lamb soup at the Gullfoss cafeteria.)

And then came our final stop, the Secret Lagoon, my first Icelandic thermal bath experience.

Thermal baths are to Icelanders what saunas are to Finns, or what breakfast tacos are to Austinites. So, being in Rome, we unbundled ourselves of our various layers; took the required shower (there were diagrams showing the body parts to wash); threw on swimsuits; tiptoed hurriedly from the dressing-room door through the misty 40-degree air; and plopped in.

Ohhhh yes. I could get used to this.

We were quickly up to our chins in the exceptionally warm water, comfy as puppies. As our bodies acclimated and grew hot, we could comfortably lift ourselves into the frosty air, letting the thermal currents sort themselves out. I drifted off alone for a bit and found a shallow spot where I could sit half out of the water. That very same freezing drizzle, which had rendered me miserable an hour before, now bounced harmlessly away. The sun peeked through the clouds for one of the few times that day, and I even glimpsed bits of blue sky above. I smiled.

Somehow my hat went missing in the middle of all this; no idea how that happened. So tonight I’ll be a meat popsicle, and tomorrow morning I’ll pay way too many moneys (ohmygodsoexpensivehere) for a new one.

Pictured: Kevin Without Hat

It was less of a whirlwind day than this entry makes it seem. Quite a full one, though. By 5:30pm we were heading back to Reykjavik through the intermittent rain, over a snowy mountain pass, past more horses and swans ohmygodsomanyswans.

Tonight: dinner and an improv-festival after-party. Tomorrow: a much more chillax day, mehopes, and the last in Reykjavik. Sunday: I pick up my rented camper van, and the trip really begins.

“Interstellar” is Dumb

“Interstellar” is Dumb

In 2012, I decided that I would visit Iceland in 2017. Yes, that’s ridiculously far in advance. I like planning things. Just ask my parents about our trip to Disney World in 8th grade—there were dot-matrix-printed spreadsheets.

But, five years is enough time to plan a serious trip. And now, sure as the Mayan apocalypse, the time has arrived. I’m flying to Reykjavik on Wednesday morning, spending the weekend at the Iceland Improv Festival1 in between sampling the tourist attractions and local cuisine.

Local cuisine. This is an actual photograph.

Then on Sunday morning, I’m renting a ramshackle camper van and spending the next ten days driving the Ring Road (as it’s called) around the entire country.2

Iceland is about the size of Indiana. It’s got about 335,000 permanent residents, but 60% of them live in and around Reykjavik. The rest of the country is mostly empty, wild, weird space; “it feels like someone put the American West in a blender.” It’s played a zillion different planets and fantasy-lands—the glacier from Interstellar is right next to the ice pond where Qui-Gon had a sword fight with Batman, and just down the road from Galen Erso’s farm from “Rogue One.”

I got the outfit at REI.
I got the outfit at REI. The doll is homemade.

There’s a waterfall, beach, gorge, lake, volcano, or cave around every bend in the road. There’s a Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, “The home of the Necropants.” There’s a Phallological Museum, with the excellent URL There’s something called “Interdimensional Hopscotch” (stay tuned on that).

My keyboard is programmed to type bizarre Middle-Earth-looking letters like Þ and ð. I have tips on the best hot dogs and thermal baths. I’ve bought and marked up a giant folding paper road map, like it’s 1986 or something. I’ve got the optional “sand, gravel, and volcanic ash insurance” on my rental car. Just like Disney World, I have carefully-crafted spreadsheets and itineraries—and Iceland’s famously capricious weather stands ready to blow them both to smithereens. (As I type this, a significant chunk of the Ring Road is closed to all traffic.)

Actual webcam image. It's called Iceland for a REASON, people.
Actual webcam image. It’s called Iceland for a REASON, people.

It’s going to be a wild time. Watch this space for more.