Iceland Day 1 | An American Adventure

Iceland Day 1

Bags packed and layers on as we flew from the 90° weather of Columbus, OH towards our journey to Iceland. All seemed well as we boarded our first flight nervously laughing over the conversation we had with a stranger in line discussing The Purge. We landed at our first and only layover in JFK and joyously wandered the terminal looking for our gate and food.  After figuring out our flight was delayed, and then it wasn’t, and then the gate changed, and then it was delayed again; all was still running mostly as planned. We boarded the plane, just one small 6 hour red eye flight between us and Iceland!

Fjord Ahead

And then it happened. Rain delay. We were stuck on the tarmac waiting for our turn to take off for a little over an hour.  We felt like small children being told to sit quietly, locked in traffic on the way to Disneyland.  I was a ball of antsy, stuck tortuously in a small airplane seat. The voice of God rang through the cabin, our pilot announcing that we were next in line to take off.  “Fjord ahead!” we cheered.  Back on track all annoyance of the minor travel issues melted away.

Planes make me sleepy.  The white noise in the cabin mixed with my body’s natural instinct to hibernate through any unnecessary idleness strikes the perfect combo.  But this red eye flight sleep abated me. I was too excited. I knew I needed to sleep. We had planned to be off and running on the first day of our adventure right at 9am. There was no room for pulling an all-niter before such a journey. I turned to look at Chris and Chrissy, my travel mates.  They were deep in blissful sleep.  Well as much bliss as can be sleeping in an airplane seat.  I was jealous.  I closed my eyes and begged the sleep gods for a miracle.  They hesitantly obliged.

Nightmare

But in my sleep I was woken by a nightmare.  It was God again, I mean our pilot, he had an update for us.  We were coming up on the Keflavik airport.  My heart soared and started running like an Olympic sprinter.  Our pilot broke through the deafening sounds of my heart, bad news this time.  There was heavy fog.  We wouldn’t be able to land. That wasn’t all.  We didn’t have enough fuel to circle precariously over the Atlantic ocean and wait for the fog to thin.  We would be turning around to fly back and land in Canada.  My heart stopped on a dime and the ricochet that happened inside my soul was painful.

I began asking questions in my head that the pilot seemed to be able to hear. “Why not Greenland!?! We had just passed over the southern tip of the island.” he responded “There are no services in Greenland to help us refuel and restock our provisions.” I asked “What are we going to do to get back to Iceland?!?!?!” Our pilot “We’ll be landing in Newfoundland Canada at a military base to refuel. We will be flying a relief crew in from Detroit. Our communications are down so once we land in Canada we’ll get them on the phone and work to get a new crew out to us as soon as possible.”

Hell

My insides were being sucked out by a black hole of disappointment.  But things that seemed hopeful got worse once we landed.  It was 4 am in the states.  Our relief crew was woken with the call and began preparing to meet us.  They would arrive at 11am.  Because we had landed at a remote military base in Newfoundland Canada, Goose Bay to be exact, there were no customs officers present.  So we were not permitted off the plane.

We had enough food and drink on the plane to get us to Iceland, but there was nothing left.  Parents had meticulously planned the number of diapers they needed in their carry on to make it to Iceland.  Their diaper supply had run out.  It was a full flight so moving was limited. If someone had said “We’re in hell” I would have desperately agreed.  My body responded to the torture as an instinctual gesture of self preservation and I fell asleep. I slept for 3 hours.

Teetering

My dreams were a mishmash of reality and projected hope.  I woke in haze to the nightmare I had left.  We were all teetering on the brink of insanity. There was an incessant melody playing somewhere close by. My ankles had swollen to the size of large grapefruits from the lack of movement and circulation.  Someone was angrily shouting “They can’t do this to us!”. What was that terrible melody and where was it coming from?!?!

We were hungry and sharing what provisions we had in our carry on. The bathrooms had long since reached their limits. WHY CAN’T WE TURN OFF THAT TERRIBLE MUSIC?!?!?!? I felt a breeze. Did I hallucinate that? The haze began to lift. Was that sound was coming from the seat pocket in front of me? It was.  I frantically reached in to end the horrible sound that was the alarm on my phone.  How long had that been going off for?  What was that breeze?

Broken

I see now why torture is effective.  It breaks you.  You’re willing to give anything for it to end. Desperate to find that breeze, Christina and I delicately pushed our way through our fellow prisoners towards it.  And there it was.  The crew had opened the doors and were allowing the prisoners a brief respite from the stagnant cabin air. We waited our turn and when it came we burst forth onto the jetty. I took the freezing Canadian wind into my lungs and savored it with a full body stretch as long as I could before having to exhale.

It was then we learned the Canadians had taken pity on us. They had gained approval to bus 10 prisoners at a time to their small shelter.  We waited our turn for this precious gift.  The modest shelter had clean bathrooms, hot cocoa and coffee. We were allowed to be there for 7 minutes before being ushered back onto the bus, which was really just a small van.

Going back on to the plane was its own kind of torture. My soul screamed at me as Christina and I made our way back to our seats.  We were reassured the relief crew was on it’s way.  Our crew had also been able to work with the Canadians to supply the prisoners with breakfast and lunch from Tim Hortons.  My mind is a blur.  All efforts are made to distract us from the pain.  My ankles.  Oh my god my ankles.

Release

After an endless number of hours waiting, our relief crew showed, the plane was refueled.  The bathrooms were cleaned and prepared. We were cleared to take off. News made it to us that the fog in Iceland had abated and many flights had landed safely during the time of our imprisonment.  We were on our way again. When we finally landed in Iceland we had been traveling for over 24 hours and stuck on one plane for roughly 16 hours straight.  We had lost an entire day of our trip, but we had arrived.  Finally in Iceland; the fun part of our adventure could begin. We got our bags, secured our rental car, and made our way to our first airbnb to sleep off the nightmare we had just endured.

Iceland Day 1

Finally the journey begins in West Vesturbæ. I woke early for a quick walk on a path right out front of our airbnb.  It circled the curve of the land and was my guide to experiencing my first view of the Atlantic ocean from the Iceland perspective.  I found ducks, a black cat, and knotted fisherman’s supplies.  The vegetation reminded me of the pod people, with life trying to burst forth. I was on my way to the white boat house, when my travel mates called.  They were ready to hit the road to our first excursion.

We stopped for breakfast at a local cafe. Ordering our breakfast was our first real interaction with Iceland natives.  We were nervous and awkward, but received a friendly and helpful response. We sat in a cozy corner of the cafe and consumed the most amazing pesto sandwiches, fresh croissants and perfectly designed lattes.  With full bellies we headed on our way to Glymur.

1 Foss, 2 Foss, Red Foss, Sheep!

Iceland is known as the land of waterfalls also known as foss in Icelandic. We were here to explore so when we came across the first waterfall, Laxa i Kjos, we quickly pulled off the road and took in the sights.  It was a crazy feeling to be in such a beautiful land where this was just an everyday view on the side of the road.  We took in each second with full appreciation before getting back in the car destined for Glymur.  We pulled back onto the 47 and found a pair of sheep in the road.  Sheep! In the road! Of course we stopped to photograph thinking this may be the one and only time we would see wild sheep meandering across the road.  Lol, oh how naive.

Not more than 15 minutes later we rounded the curve in the road and unanimously agreed to pull over to explore the beauty of Sjavarfoss.  With its rock garden labyrinth and well defined pathways we walked right up to the foss through a field of violet lupine. Our stay here was quick.  We knew sights like these were small sauce compared to our first real Icelandic hike.

The Road to Glymur

The road to Glymur begins with a rectangular dirt parking lot and a sign. It was here in our car that we layered up, double checked water and food supplies, and headed on our way.  There are two paths to choose from.  Looking at the sign which had a map with points of interest and best pathway guidance we deliberated on our plan of approach to this excursion.  Once we were all in agreement we headed out.  It was about a 20 minute walk to get to the official path to Glymur.  On the way we found fields of lupine, deteriorating barns and silos, and an abandon house.  I’m a sucker for abandon houses.

Abandoned

I want to see in.  So I took a b-line straight to the cracked front door.  Someone may have been inside, so I knocked and called out.  No response.  We entered on tiptoe, sneaking into the private space of someone long gone.  It was clear that many travelers had explored inside and left their mark. I was in love with the red room.  Covered in dust and snapshots of nature held precariously to the walls with pushpins of all colors.  The air in this room was filled with energy. Messages from those who had been before were calling out to be seen and appreciated.  I wanted to look at each one and acknowledge their presence, their value.

I could have stayed in their all day.  Other rooms existed in this small home each with a different energy.  There was a dark stair way descending down into the basement.  Without a proper flashlight I was too terrified to go down, but curious as an astronaut to see into the darkness. We had to rip ourselves from this place that held us.  The house threatened to keep us there forever, but we had Glymur.  It called to us through the floating dust and metaphysical energy.

We emerged and continued on our way. Eventually ending up on a look out rock that gave us a clear view of the adventure we were about to embark upon.

Glymur

At its simplest Glymur is considered one of the tallest waterfalls in Iceland. To see it in all its grandeur you trek on a 4 hour hike that begins by passing through the eye of a boulder, similar to one found on the Greek mythological Mount Olympus.  From there you must cross a raging river on a singular log with the feeblest of support from a wire cable acting as a hand rail. Once across you follow a zigzagged path that slowly takes you higher and closer to the cascade. Much of the path hugs the cliff edge giving you stunning views.

For me, Glymur is more than its stats.  It is a glance into something greater than us.  Glymur gives me spiritual perspective.  It makes me feels small and insignificant. I am sent into nothingness in its presence and in the nothingness there is peace. To take a moment and sit on its rocky edge is to bow in humility and with gratitude for its existence. Glymur emanates an energy of a higher power that we are not worthy to experience but are graced with nonetheless. We live on a beautiful planet and I am reminded, when in places like this, of how important it really is to preserve and care for its well-being.

Rite of Passage

Once at the top and after being shocked to your core with its majesty and beauty the visible path around Glymur ends. Hikers can either turn around and go back the way they came or take the more difficult of options. Locals are eager to guide you to the latter, and now having done it I would encourage the latter option as well.  The unseen path you must follow takes you up over the crest onto a prairie reminiscent of a scene from The Lord of the Rings. Once there you are left to find the best place to cross the icy Botnsá river.  And by best I mean most shallow and least wide.  The options are bleak.

*You can drink the water here! I wish we had known that.  I was so thirsty and what a part of the experience that would have been to drink the icy water straight out of the stream.

Icy Deceit

We fretted back and forth like a game of frogger and finally decided on a crossing.  We took off our shoes and socks, tied the laces together, slung them around our neck and rolled up our pant legs as high as they would go.  The ground on the bank was soft and pillowy from the vegetation.  The water was arctic and felt like cold daggers being dragged across my skin.  The current was manageable but I worried that could change with each step and was mentally preparing for the moment I would be swept away.  The river rocks looked deceitfully smooth from above, but my feet confirmed their malicious edges at each step.

I crashed onto the bank at the other side with exaltation.  I had made it.  My feet burned with the passing threat of hypothermia, but it oddly felt good after the long hike.  Like an athlete nursing their injuries with an ice bath.  I sat on the bank and watched as my travel mates slowly worked their way to me.  We all made it across with only minor aches and pains and began our decent down the alternate side of the falls.  As hikers, we walked with a sense of accomplishment.  We had conquered this excursion with grace and appreciation (lots of sweat and swearing).

The path down on this side was a little less forged, but still visible.  It went quickly for us and we found ourselves at our car in no time at all.

Setting up Camp for the Night

Starving and exhausted we found the closest developed stop.  We purchased a few quick items at the Bonus in Borgarnes which serves as an all-in-one kind of shopping experience, selling groceries, clothing, housewares, etc.  I learned to look for the creepy, squint-eyed pig when we were in need of supplies.

Then jaunted across the parking lot to Grillhúsið for dinner.  Lured in by the blue solo cup garlands decorating the outside, we quickly were seated and poured over the menu.  We wanted all the food and all the beer.  Everything we got was delicious and as we ate we noticed all the route 66 paraphernalia, and Americanized decor. Such a strange feeling to see our culture so represented in a random restaurant in Iceland.

Sunlight and the Freezer Hostel

After dinner we experienced our first ray of sunlight since landing in Iceland over 24 hours ago.  We drove down a road similar to the one Walter Mitty long boarded down in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. We saw bridges, more waterfalls and boats. Then found our way to our lodging. The Freezer Hostel in Rif.

Like many hostels it was strange and unique.  We learned that it also doubled as a rehearsal and performance venue for a local community theatre group. We were all sad to hear we had just missed that evening’s performance which left the floor wet from a particular scene depicting a man on a boat.  The theatre crew tossed buckets of water on the actor to help bring the scene to life.

We settled in and enjoyed a game of Uno while eating cookies in the common room. Chrissy and I had a mix of Reyka, which is an Icelandic vodka, and blackberry currant juice. While Chris happily consumed his Brennivin which we lovingly referred to as the black death. Our families got word we were in for the night and we fell asleep amidst fits of laughter.

About Jennifer Zmuda

M.F.A. from the University of California, Irvine and B.F.A. from the University of Utah.

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