On Friday and Saturday nights in Reykjavik, Icelanders go wild. Channeling their fellow cosmopolitan Europeans, they stay up all night boozing, downing shots of the notorious Brennivín—Iceland’s signature schnapps—or the particularly tasty craft beers we sampled, like Akureyri Einstok White Ale. It’s messy and clubby and the youngsters love it. C and I learned we’re no longer youngsters (or never were), so it was a relief to spend the majority of our week in the company of very sober sheep and ponies.
If you look past the razor-sharp mountains, ocean views, glaciers and occasional aurora, driving Iceland is a lot like driving Iowa: Miles/kilometers of highway dotted with hay bales and the occasional farmstead. The landscape is constantly changing, from the volcanic, moss-covered rocks stretching for miles in the south to eastern fjords to northern moonscapes.
On our big driving day up the east coast, we skirted the ocean and climbed into the highlands, pretending — in our clunky camper — to be James Bond cruising the Scottish roads to Skyfall. A tidbit in the guidebook indicated one of the mountain lagoons we passed was a sister lake to Loch Ness, with a related legendary monster. The mountains descend into black, forsaken land. A range of Tolkien’s Dooms loom over scoured plains, where we got out of the car to lean against the wind then trek down to Dettifoss, Iceland’s answer to both Niagara and the Grand Canyon — bleak and beautiful.
Around another bend, we found a campsite near pastoral Lake Myvatn, ate at Daddi’s pizza (mine was topped with smoked trout and pine nuts) and, soon after sunset, got to experience the Northern Lights. Absolutely incredible. Green fingers of light reached out of the depths of the sky toward us then pulled back into darkness. The galaxy has never seemed more three dimensional. It was a quick show, beckoning us back for more with its hand motions. I’d love to oblige someday.
North of the lake and just south of the Arctic Circle, I popped a Dramamine and we boarded an old whaling boat in Husavik to chase humpbacks around the bay. The company provides passengers with cozy coveralls (I grabbed two at random from the pile, gave Chris the medium and put on the extra large) and hot cocoa. We got close enough to see the whales’ white fins glowing green under water as the curved against the surface.
From there we started the descent home, physically and mentally. That seemed to be the week Iceland went from pleasant autumn chill to snow on the ground in the mornings, and although our van was comfy, it wasn’t well insulated. Ahead of schedule on our road trip, at an abandoned campsite in the fjord-side town of Borðeyri, we decided to book our delicious hostel room from the week before for the last night in Iceland, rather than roughing it. Another great change in the itinerary, another lesson in being flexible (and kind to yourself) while traveling.
So we spent the last day on the road on Snæfellsnes, a western peninsula with a name that sounds like a sneeze. I danced to an old house music mixtape on the road to nowhere; we hiked cliffs along the coast from the tiny town of Hellnar to the tinier town of Arnarstapi; we explored oceanside ruins and camped in an old farm field with a new goat friend, christened Fred.
Reykjavik the second time around, on a Monday afternoon, was much more relaxed and we were much more awake. I shopped around Scandinavian design shops, we revisited the hot dog stand and the art museum and showered twice.
Now rewind and picture every meticulously documented scene written here in copper light. The sun rises and glides and falls again at such at angle in the fall this far north that it’s perpetually the golden hour, until it’s not and darkness falls and dancing lights replace the sun. Luckys.