Faxaflói (Faxa Bay), in late morning.
We arrived in Keflavík around 5 AM. When we eventually found the place to pick up our rented car, and got our first warning to “park facing the wind so you don't lose your doors,” we started towards Reykjavík. I looked out into the darkness, mostly only able to see the slight embankments on both sides of the road, and was reminded of Hawaii, where I was this time last year — large, rolling hills all barren of trees.
As we got closer to the capital, larger geological formations appeared next to the road, made visible by the nearby city. We arrived downtown, parked, and walked up Laugavegur, the main street. We popped into the few stores that were open, in hopes of finding me some gloves. I'd forgotten what real cold was like after a few years in Florida, and didn't come nearly prepared.
Around 09:30 the sky was finally starting to get bright enough, and for the first time we could see the world surrounding us. We went back to our parked car and noticed — whoa! — a giant bay nearby. And across from it — oh shit! — a big snow-covered mountain. We went down to the water to take in the landscape, and I wondered aloud, should we go check it out?
So we did.
Sunrise on the path to Steinn.
Our GPS guided us through roundabouts to somewhere on the singular road running along the base of the mountain. As we got closer, we found a parking lot and figured we'd start walking up the mountain.
It paid off.
The sometimes-icy, sometimes-clear path climbing Esjan.
We met a dog and an older gentleman on their way down as we climbed. We weren't normal tourists, he said, laughing, for starting a hike just after we'd arrived in the country. But he let us know which route up was the best, reminded us to park facing the wind, and wished us a good time in his home country.
Some parts were too icy to climb (note: bring crampons on your next winter trip to Iceland), but we still made it most of the way, and each only fell on our respective asses once on the descent.
After a night in a Reykjavik hostel playing cards and drinking Brennavin, we woke, ate breakfast, and headed north towards Gullfoss. We didn't have a plan besides that, but mountains passed, and we ended up in Þingvellir.
It's a national park “that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian.”
Yep. The earth was tearing apart.
We walked in the gaping valleys created by the rift, some with a walkway suspended above a deep hole, and again tried not to slip on the icy paths.
It was windy enough to be slightly unbearable, so we didn't stay long. But it's funny how venturing around a volcanic island can suddenly turn you into a geology buff.
Continuing on, we found a parking lot with a nice view of an expanse of nothingness. We ran down the snowy hill to a little creek and examined the Icelandic flora.
Besides the occasional passing car and trickling water, everything was silent. This place is so peaceful.
As the protracted sunset continued, we decided to make Geysir our last stop and venture to Gullfoss another day.
The water from the springs here ran 80°-100° C and trickled along rock and pathways, lined with signs telling everyone not to stick their hands in it. One geyser went off every couple minutes, to the delight of fellow tourists Snapchatting and selfie-ing the experience, as smaller vents gurgled and spewed the rotten smell of sulphur into the air.
One pool of putrid water held a few glimmering coins at the bottom — things that nature, as this sign noted, just doesn't care for.
On our quest to find a nearby craft brewery, we instead found someone's house and some Icelandic horses.
Our one scheduled excursion: an ice cave tour.
After riding over deposited boulders left behind by a receding glacier, we donned crampons and walked up and into this cave.
Snow and volcanic ash have accumulated, condensed, and pushed out most of the air out of the ice, making it look clear up close, and blue when light hits it. As the glacier moved down the mountain, it turned, moving the layer of ash on its side (this is basically a cross-section of it).
That “snow” on the bottom of the wall is left over frozen water from the day before, when the cave was apparently flooded. We were lucky enough to arrive on a clear, dry day.
Not clouds, but cosmic radiation in the upper atmosphere, greeted us on a cold, windy morning at the foot of the glacier.
Our tour guide mentioned the exploding star that apparently caused these “daytime northern lights,” but I forgot the name.
Not only is Hvannadalshnúkur a mountain, it's the tallest mountain in Iceland. Not only is it the tallest mountain in Iceland, it's a volcano. Not only is it a volcano, it's an active volcano.
You wouldn't think it, but it was hard to move, and eventually leave this lake of gently moving ice. These chunks had broken off of the glacier we just finished exploring, Vatnajökull.
Icelanders are especially proud of their water. Cold springs provide pure drinking water for the populace while hot spring water provides clean, potentially scalding water for showers. One night we stayed at some cottages where the owner talked about her dad drilling wells to tap into the warm water beneath the earth back in the '50s, digging tens of wells before finally hitting the mother lode. That well apparently provides hot water for most of Reykjavik now.
We decided to walk the streets. Without a particular plan, any interesting path led us somewhere we never would've otherwise seen.
Here we found a small playground, where we rode a suspended rope hanging from a long rail, trying different moves on a playground that seemed suited more for adults than children. With the tower of Hallgrímskirkja illuminated in the background, it's never too easy to get lost in Reykjavík.
For our last few days we ditched the car and settled into a comfy AirBnB on Laugevegur. We stocked up on food from Bónus, the non-tourist-oriented grocery store, and watched people walk up and down the streets below.
We could see Hallgrímskirkja from the living room, and after a few days there I could tell roughly what time it was by how much of it was illuminated.
Most nights we ventured downtown for drinks. Almost every night we met new people: one night, some sketchy, but friendly locals who offered us LSD (we declined), then tried taking us to some place to drink after the bars had closed, then met up with his “body guard,” and left after we met some girls from Australia, who passionately chastised us for electing Trump (we didn't vote for him). Another night, we met a couple of lads from England, a fellow American, and another local who also offered us drugs, then showed me around town and talked about the changes his city was going through with the recent influx of tourists. When it was time for me to go home, I asked his name and he tried helping me get it right, but after a few beers my ear for the nuances of a Icelandic wasn't sharp enough to retain it.
One night, while everyone was relaxing at the place, I decided to take a solitary walk around town. I picked a street I hadn't seen yet and started walking down it, generally aiming right. I stopped at a bench overlooking a valley and texted a good friend back in the States about how incredible I thought the place was. The sky hadn't seemed to change for an hour, and as I walked up a road-crossing bridge I snapped this picture. I continued on and found Tjörnin, a small lake in the middle of town where obviously well-fed geese came right up to me. I wandered down to the bay as the last bit of twilight died, looped back, and eventually found the part of town with a clear line of sight to Hallgrímskirkja — my beacon home.
The last night there, as we all packed and I stayed up a bit longer, I got a message from a girl I'd been talking to on Tinder.
When you've traveled for a while, you start to notice how similar a lot of the world is. Some places are hot, some are cold, some are covered in snow or in concrete. Each is certainly unique, but eventually the physical places themselves stop becoming profound. What is always profound about a new place is the people there. All 7 billion of us have experienced something different in life, and that is the most interesting thing to me. It'd be impossible to know every person in a lifetime, but it's the reason I travel, and the reason I decided to meet a stranger from the internet that night at 3 am.
We walked along the outskirts of town, retracing many of the steps I took the previous night, and she filled me in on what I was looking at — the Sólfarið sculpture, Harpa Concert Hall, the Reykjavik Art Museum. All the murals downtown were painted for songs or albums by local musicians — something I'd wondered about since arriving. She smoked cigarettes and we talked, and I wished I had known all of these things when I first got there. By the time we finished walking it was 5 and the streets were empty. We said goodbye (or “cheers!”) and parted ways. I walked back to the apartment feeling like the trip was complete, at least, having seen a lot of the country and, most of all, knowing a bit more of its people. I have a feeling I'll be back to see Iceland again soon.