Ben and I spent the last week and a half in Iceland, exploring the country via the Ring Route, a mostly two-lane, mostly paved, road that circumnavigates the mountains and lava fields and fjords of the small island nation. We lived out of, and slept in, a campervan, cooking much of our own food, and spending most of every day in the middle of nowhere, gasping at the scenery.
Most days, once we had found a spot to pull over for the night and made out supper, we'd watch something from the collection of TV and movies I had loaded into my Kindle that were filmed in Iceland, and one night it was "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", which is the source of this quote (along with a great series of discussions on the nature of life and travel and adventure.
On our first day, having arrived at 4am local time, we hit a geothermal pool for a relaxing soak until the newly minted whale museum opened ... it was incredible!
The museum houses life-sized models (most built around actual skeletons) of the 23 species of whales/dolphins that inhabit the waters around Iceland. We spent the rest of that day exploring Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, and getting acclimatized to the new world and time zone shift.
Early the next morning, we headed out on the road, opening with the "Golden Circle", a tour of some of Iceland's most spectacular sites within easy reach of Reykjavik. The first stop along the way is Thingvellir.
Thingvellir is the sight of the first congress held by the various tribes of Iceland, nearly 1000 years ago, which would be amazing enough on its own if it weren't also the location of the convergence of two of the continental plates ... in the picture above, you can see my son Ben standing between the European and North American tectonic plates.
Our next stop was Geysir, a hillside covered with steaming vents and boiling water outlets and churning hotpots and geysers ... the ground is actually hot beneath your shoes in places, and the main geyser pops off every few minutes in a spray of water and steam that reaches hundreds of feet into the air.
Here's a short video of Ben helping the Geyser Stokkur to go off while we were visiting.
After Geysir, we visited Gulfoss, which translates to "Golden Waterfall" ... it's huge and wildly impressive to see up close.
Kerid is an ancient volcanic crater with a blue colored lake in the middle, which Ben and I hiked around, and loved, possibly most of all in our day's adventures.
The size and depth and beauty of the site specifically, and Iceland in general, took our breath away continuously during out week and a bit of exploration.
The last spot on our first day of active exploration on the road was Seljalandsfoss, which is a very tall waterfall with a trail going all the way back behind it ... Ben loved getting behind the waterfall, and the feel and sound of the spray and coming at us from every direction.
Our first night on the road, we camped a few miles down Route 1 from Seljalandsfoss
The next morning was gorgeous, and after a leisurely breakfast on the beach of skyr, an Icelandic yogurt-like treat, with fruit and some Tang -analog, we headed out towards Vik, continuing our counter-clockwise journey around Iceland along Route 1.
Most days we got on the road in that sweet spot of the morning between first light and when the sun came up over the mountains ... yes, there are always mountains.
This is a beach we found with a minimal side-trip ... it has fantastic rock formations, including most notably these hexagonal basalt columns.
Ben loved climbing on them; they were broken off at all different levels, and if I was a slightly less nervous parent, he could have scaled them to astounding heights.
They went up for hundreds of feet, and the uniformity of shape and angle was mind-blowing.
It was a phenomenal place to watch the sunrise from ... we felt lucky on this morning to be exploring Iceland together.
This photograph was taken looking up at the ceiling of a cave on the beach, and really shows the crystalline structure of the basalt columns.
After leaving the beach, we passed this pretty little church, nestled against a mountain, and I snuck into the cemetery to take a picture as the light crept over the tops of surrounding hills.
We often stopped off during our wanderings to take a picture of the empty and open and magnificent space and country we were passing through ... it's haunting.
Moss-covered lava ran off in every direction for as far as the eye could see ... it turned out to be about 50 miles of lava-inspired meditation.
Throughout our trip, we made sure to always have a solid supply of carrots to feed the horses and sheep and reindeer we came across along the Ring Route.
Ben and I were able to get pretty close to this glacier, Svinafellsjokull, and were blown away by the look and sounds of a living glacier in its environment (growing and calving as it carves its way down the mountain).
The Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon is an amazing spectacle ... a lake at the base of a huge glacier that feeds house-sized chunks of blue ice to a hungry ocean in a never-ending process. Watching the ice float out and under the bridge was truly hypnotic.
The black lump in the foreground of the picture above is a seal that was circling the icebergs in the lagoon and putting on a show for us ... and presumably fishing or something useful to seals (although maybe they can make a good living, and have leisure time to people-watch).
The blues and whites and blacks and grays all around us and the brilliant sun overhead were captivating and grabbed our attention to an amazing degree.
We walked out and under the bridge, away from the lagoon to the ocean, where the icebergs go to die. They reach the open ocean and are mostly thrown back to break up on the shore ... white chunks on a black beach. Ben and I had been watching "Fortitude" on my Kindle the night before, and spent some time looking over out shoulders for hungry polar bears ... we didn't see any.
We stayed on the road for Hofn, and started to come across reindeer in ones and twos and eventually in herds in the dozens (hundreds?).
Hofn is famous for their Langoustine, a prawn-like lobster ... deservedly so. Ben and I ate dinner at a wonderful restaurant that truly did justice to the tasty crustacean. I ate a whole extended family of the sea-bugs.
Ben had a yummy pizza covered with langoustine bites.
The sunset over distant mountains and through steam and fog and mist was incredibly beautiful!
The next day we started off with an incredibly stressful drive for me, along a narrow road, with a gazillion foot dropoff into a rocky sea just off the side of the road. Once we reached the far side of the mountains, we stopped so I could breathe and unclench my clenched bits, and decided to take a photo-shoot of our campervan.
We lived and explored in a VW Caddy, which had a put-away-able bed, which we never really put away ... we left it mostly assembled for simplicity's sake, and put our luggage on top of it during the day while driving. This worked for us as there were only the two of us, and we sat in the front all of the time. It was about the size of a full/double bed, and we kept bags of produce/bread/drinks at one end, which our feet shared with the bags every night.
The platform and mattress setup was surprisingly comfortable, and once we got used to it, we were able to switch from day to night mode in a matter of minutes.
Having a table and chairs made the whole of Iceland our living room which was great, especially since we had unexpectedly nice weather during our entire stay.
As this, and my other pictures, show, we spent most of our days virtually alone in the back of beyond of Iceland, sometimes going hours without seeing another soul. It was a pleasant artifact of the time of year that Ben and I were able to travel, as apparently in the summertime, there are many more people exploring Route 1.
The drawers at the back of the campervan open up to reveal the kitchen: fridge, sink, and plates/bowls/cups.
The next layer included the stove, cutlery and cookware. In a tiny amount of space, we had a fully functional kitchen, that was adequate to the task of prepping and cooking and serving any food we cared to eat. The great thing about this is that it allowed us to really explore and enjoy the supermarkets, and try everything that Iceland had to offer ... our favorite dinner was fresh lamb chunks, fried with onions and butter, then added to a tomato sauce for sopping up with fresh bread. We also had fun trying a variety of cold cuts and preserved meats and cheeses for lunches. Breakfasts tended to be simple affairs with bread/nutella or fruit or skyr, all with juices and coffee or tea.
Time and again, we would be stunned by the natural beauty of the country we were driving through, and would stop to walk and sniff and listen, to broaden our sensual experience of the places we drove by.
We stayed on the road one night until well after sunset, looking for the perfect spot to camp, and finally settled on a turnaround at a closed roadhead. It was frigidly cold, and there was a serious wind blowing that night, so we changed into our warm sleeping gear and set up the sleeping environment as quickly as possible before climbing back into the front seat to warm up for a few minutes ... and that's when Ben pointed out the northern lights coursing and pulsing overhead.
Not everyone who goes to Iceland is lucky enough to see the northern lights, but we were ... and it was a fantastic show that we were treated to on that night. The northern lights ran over our heads like a river of fire that kept jumping its riverbed and changing course.
It went on like that for about two hours, growing and receding, with us watching and then hiding from the cold in our van to warm up our fingers and toes again. Ben and I had been joking that we were "North of the wall" (GOT reference), we'd passed a reindeer herd numbering in the hundreds a few minutes before parking, had left trees, and even shrubs behind us hours ago, and were now in a world of snow and ice and rocks and wind ... and the aurora borealis.
It was magical, and although we stayed up too late, and were at time bitterly cold, it was more thna worth it.
The next day, we drove the remaining 3km to Dettifoss, a truly remarkable waterfall which we never got to see. We started walking across the snow and ice and rock on a cold morning, feeling as though we were the only living beings on the planet.
We walked across the vast and empty and windy plains of snow and rock in the direction of a plume of mist released into the cold air by the huge waterfall, but less than halfway there both Ben and I punched through the tough icy crust of snow, and fell through/down up to our waists (with no solid ground evident anywhere beneath our feet).
I worked to keep the panic out of my voice, and head, and heart, and told Ben to wait a minute while I tried something. I leaned back and pulled up my legs and rolled out and away from the hole I'd broken into the bottomless depths of snow; rolling until I reached a nub of rock poking through the crust. I stood up on the rock and told Ben how to extricate himself from the quicksnow pit, and thirty seconds later all seemed right with the world again.
The question now was whether or not we should go forwards or back. I'll always regret not seeing Dettifoss, but it seemed the prudent thing to do, so we walked and jumped our way back to the car along and among nubs and spines of rock, climbed into the camper, and headed off for Lake Myvatn.
The Lake Myvatn area is famous (please allow my qualified use of the word) for it's geothermal properties. There are numerous power plants and springs/geysers/vents in and around Lake Myvatn, and we explored a fair amount of them during our journey. This spot was particularly interesting ... and stinky.
When we hopped out of the car, into the gusty morning air, we were hit by alternating blast of cold/dry/icy blasts of air, and then warm/sulfury/moist clouds.
All around the area are pools of this bright blue water, which is, I believe, indicative of silica and other minerals in the water. The sign in the foreground warns would-be dippers that they could be accidentally cooked by errant jets of superheated water (as hot as 200C and more).
In lieu of running the risk of getting par-boiled, Ben and I opted for some quality time in the Lake Myvatn Nature Baths ... a domesticated set of hot springs and pools that allow people to take advantage of the healing/soothing waters without so much risk to life and limb. There are numrous pools of hot water for bathers to swim in, hot pots to soak at greater heat, and steambaths ... as well as locked rooms and showers and a cafe.
We loved it! It was so much more pleasant, and less crowded/hectic than the fabled Blue Lagoon (which I visited on my previous trip to Iceland ... never again). The pools were large, the crowds were small, the views lovely, the sun hot and bright in the cold breeze, the staff friendly and helpful. It was a few well spent hours that helped to sooth the long days in the car from our tired muscles, and helped get us ready for what was to come.
We had gotten to the Nature Baths a few hours before opening, so we first headed north to Husavik, a remote whaling town only about 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, to explore what they had to offer. Although it was a fun drive, and an interesting town, we were a bit disappointed to find that most things were closed due to it being off season.
As you can see from the picture above, Husavik in particular, and Iceland in general were used by the US to train astronauts for missions in the sixties (how cool is that?).
There was a whale museum (sadly closed) but we found an interesting array of whale bones strewn around outside the museum, available for us to check out ...
... and sit on.
After exploring the town a bit, Ben and I settled on a lunch of lamb-dogs at an N1 (the prevalent chain of gas stations along the ring route), before heading back for the aforementioned (and aforedescribed?) soaking and swimming and steaming.
On the way out of town, we came across a friendly seeming herd of sheep, sorely in need of the carrots we always had with us to befriend herd of beasts along the road. They started off a bit standoffish, then once they got sight/wind of our goodies, they stampeded us.
They were sweet and lovely, even if their squarish pupils are a bit freaky, and we spent some quality time with them, ending up with lots of what we chose to designate as "mud" on our crocs (standard spa and pool wear while on the road in Iceland).
We had a great time visiting with them, and other beasts we came across on the ring route, in our journey around Iceland.
I included this picture for no other reason than that I love the brown sheep begging another carrot from Ben while the last one is still hanging out of his mouth.
We spent that night in a lovely little cabin just to the north of Akureyri, the so-called northern capital of Iceland (and also the second largest city in the country, with some 30,000 inhabitants). As you can see, the house was tiny, but lovely, and with a great view of the surrounding countryside and nearby fjord.
It was only about 12X12, but felt roomy and solid compared to what had been our home for the last few nights; we truly enjoyed the break that this Airbnb treat gave us.
As the afternoon wore on, and night began to fall, we talked about the adventures we'd enjoyed so far, and what lay ahead along the road, called Gail, listened to music, watched a show on my Kindle, and prepared dinner ... lamb steaks and potatoes with pre-made pancakes spread with nutella for dessert.
I took a short walk once the sun went down, enjoying the lights of semi-distant Akureyri from afar (as many of the things of man are best enjoyed). It was a lovely night, although the temperature dropped quickly, cutting my walk short as I started to freeze solid in the wind.
The fading light over the fjord was amazing, and took my breath away (maybe it was the cold, who knows) ... I was once again grateful for the chance to explore this fascinating and beautiful country.
Morning brought with it another wonderful light show, and Ben and I slept in a bit, enjoying the solidity and warmth of our home as compared to the camper, taking our time with some morning eggs and cups of tea while enjoying the views out the window.
When we finally headed out, we stopped briefly in Akureyri to explore the town, and enjoy their lovely public pool/pots/steam/slides, and then headed north to explore a series of increasingly tiny and remote towns, via a series of increasingly tiny and stressful roads and tunnels.
Possibly the most amazing/surprising thing that we saw that morning was a number of single-lane, but two-way, tunnels ... you read that correctly.
I was several hundred yards into my first of these tunnels before I realized that it had narrowed to one lane, and it was at that exact moment that I saw the oncoming lights of a truck coming from the other direction. There were periodic pulloffs, and I ducked into one just as the truck roared past us, then pulled out cautiously, only to have to swing back in numerous times before emerging (sweaty and white-knuckled) into daylight again.
We drove up and down lots of tiny fjords and valleys and steep mountain passes, seeing towns that few others ever visit, eventually ending up in Saudarkrokur, a village famous as being the center of Iceland's equestrian culture and history for centuries. We explored the town, checked out a tannery that processes all manner of beast hides/skins (including making fish leather), and made arrangements for a riding trip for Ben the next morning, before finding a spot to call home for the night.
Here, Ben can be seen posing with a statue of Jon Magnusson, a man famous in the town for running the manual ferry back and forth across the fjord to town for more than 40 years.
Ben had a great time riding the next day, despite he and his companion for the ride having no shared language (except, perhaps, a shared love of horses).
The Icelandic horse is smaller and sturdier and more calm than other horses, and have two more gaits in their repertoire than do standard horses the world around.
After Ben's ride, we beat a hasty retreat from the north, down to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, and way out to Stykkisholmur, whose scenic streets and vistas were used in the filming of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", a great movie which we watched the night before (prior to heading to Iceland, I filled my Kindle with TV and movies that were filmed in Iceland).
The building picture behind us was part of a pivotal scene in the movie, where Walter finally seizes the reins of his life ... we liked exploring the town and swimming at their pools, one of which blended hot spring water with cold ocean water, to interesting effect.
After leaving Stykkisholmur, it lacked great camping spots for us, we drove down the coast a bit in search of the right place to call home for the night, until we found this lovely inlet.
It was a lovely spot to spend the night, and after we had set up our sleeping quarters, we watched a bit of Kindle in the fading light and talked about the day we'd just enjoyed, and what was to come the following day.
The next morning, we were surprised by the short drive we had to reach Kirkjufell, one of the most beautiful, and photographed, spots in Iceland. We walked around the mountain and waterfalls to see it from all sides, and take in the majesty of the glacial and volcanic creations, before heading off.
These beautiful ruins, pretty horses, and sad fjord spoke to me as we were driving by, so we stopped to appreciate/experience it for a while before continuing on our journey.
Not much further down the road, we ran into this group of horses, and stopped to talk with them. They were very friendly, but surprisingly had no idea what to do with the carrots we offered them ...
This guy was much more interested in nuzzling Ben, and then trying to eat his raincoat, completely ignoring the carrots, as did his friends ... eventually we left, both us and the horses slightly confused by the encounter.
On our way around the end of the peninsula, we came to a wild beach called Djúpalónssandur, which felt, again, like the far side of the planet ... we hadn't passed or seen anyone in hours, and the desolation of this place was palpable (seriously, you could palp it with your eyes closed).
The beach itself is strewn with the wreckage of a shipwreck from decades ago, which is slowly rotting into its constituent elements thanks to wind and salt and time.
Also on the beach are a number of "Fishing Stones", and ancient Icelandic test of manhood for would -be fishermen. The stones are lined up on the beach for the men to try their hands at: ranging in weight from 23kg to 54kg to 100 kg to 154kg ... the minimum acceptable for a person to lift in order for them to be eligible to work on one of the boats was the 54kg stone.
Ben lifted the 23kg stone, and I lifted the 54 kg one ... I might have been able to lift the next bigger one, but didn't think it would help Ben if I injured something in my back in the middle of nowhere.
A hidden gem, a tiny and beautiful pond, just a bit back from the beach, that we saw on our walk back to the camper ... despite the driving rain and bitter cold on this chunk of coastline.
We had a spectacular time in Iceland, saw and enjoyed many more things than I could possibly share in these few (or possibly too many) picture, and grew ... both as father and son and as individuals.
I find Iceland a fascinating and beautiful part of the world, and am intrigued by the culture and people and forces that are at work (and have been at work for a thousand years) on this tiny outpost of humanity.
I could live here and be happy, but for now, I am more than happy to have visited again, and to have shared it with someone I love.