Iceland on the Fly (Part One)

The Icelandic landscape. Courtesy Iceland Dept. of Travel

By Jake Strickler, Co-editor

It was mid-September when Zack, a good friend and a die-hard photographer, and I drove into Reykjavik. We had spent the last ten days exploring Norway, flying first into Oslo, where we met a friend who was living in Spain and had spent the last couple of nights by himself in the capital city, acquiring a truly horrifying amount of bedbug bites and learning to thoroughly check reviews before booking a hostel. After linking up with him and spending a night out on the town, we took a train across the country to its “second capital” in the Southwest, Bergen.

From here we began a whirlwind trip, joining forces with a Norwegian guy about our age who was also a photographer and an outdoorsman with the apparent desire to fall off the side of a mountain and into a fjord thousands of feet below, or so his carefree attitude toward the natural perils he confronted said. By the time we had dropped our friend off at the airport for his flight back to Madrid, we were tired and burnt out, spending our last night in Norway truly relishing the plush comfort of a B-grade Best Western by watching trashy reality TV and eating a tiny, mediocre delivery pizza that had cost, I think, $42 (a trip to Scandinavia is not kind to a wallet full of USD). For the first time, we relaxed during a trip that was everything but. And it wasn’t over yet.

Your heroes on the road in Norway. Courtesy Noah Wanebo.
Your heroes on the road in Norway. Courtesy Noah Wanebo.

When Zack had put the idea of an early fall trip on the table over the summer, I had relaxation on my mind, as in beaches, hammocks, and blender drinks with little umbrellas in them. The reason? I was committed to opening a restaurant in July: setting up the kitchen, putting a solid team of cooks together, and getting the whole thing purring like a Rolls Royce before returning to the restaurant that I ran. But when Zack started looking up shockingly cheap tickets on Icelandair, these dreams of sand and sun were cast aside for ones of verdant mountains and Viking lore. The itch for adventure was scratched just the same. And by the time the restaurant was on its feet, which took me putting in 70-80 hour weeks for 30 days straight (though at some point these measures cease to really mean anything), that departure sign in the Denver airport reading “Reykjavik” said, to me, “Paradise” in bright, flashing neon.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. You wouldn't want to get closer to this?? Courtesy Reuters.
The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. You wouldn’t want to get closer to this?? Courtesy Reuters.

We had passed through the airport outside of Iceland’s capital (and, by far, largest) city at the front end of the trip on a layover for the flight to Oslo, and now we were headed back. But this time, the stakes had been raised on us. One of the country’s largest volcanoes, Bárðarbunga (that’s a D sound four letters in and, when spoken, kind of sounds like “cowabunga,” which prompted a lot of hilarious jokes about riding a wave of lava on a surfboard), was rumbling and set to erupt. The volcanologists were tipped off by a total of 1,600 earthquakes taking place in the vicinity over 48 hours. When another volcano, Eyjafjallajökull (you’re on your own with that one), had erupted in 2010, the cloud of volcanic ash thrown into the air grounded flights into and out of Iceland, as well as a lot of Western Europe, for weeks. Bárðarbunga contained about five or six times more magma, and we had front-row seats. I downplayed these facts in an email to my mother. Sorry, mom.

Bárðarbunga, dudes!! Courtesy Wikipedia
Bárðarbunga, dudes!! Courtesy Wikipedia

Reykjavik is colorful, warm, and inviting, in contrast to much of the rest of the country, which grows more arid, alien, and extreme in its geologic activity the further away from the capital you get. We had the first two nights planned: beds booked in an aggressively trendy hostel in the middle of town. The second two nights were question marks, but we tend to be comfortable with, if not partial to, that kind of uncertainty. We like to cross bridges when we come to them.

When we arrived at the hostel, the conversation and activity had a peculiar rushed buzziness to it, as if air raid sirens were going off at a tone outside of our range of hearing. We soon found out that this wasn’t due only to the volcano, but also to the beginning of an annual celebration called Rettir. This traditional sheep round-up had, over the years, turned into a national festival, described to us by a Reykjavik local as the “Icelandic Fourth of July.” The same guy, with a tank already full of akvavit, told us that the day after next started with an early morning marathon, followed by two days and nights of “heavy drinking.” It became clear why there was no more availability at the hostel, and that we likely wouldn’t have any luck finding a place to stay in town. We expressed a brief moment of remorse, in strings of vulgarity, at not having done a bit more planning.

The general path of the Ring Road. The volcano is underneath the enormous glacier in the Southeast. Courtesy icelandontheweb.com
The general path of the Ring Road. The volcano is underneath the enormous glacier in the Southeast. Courtesy icelandontheweb.com

As our Plan B took shape, however, we drew upon our shared ability to turn lemons into a bowl of high-test party punch. We obviously had to get out of Reykjavik, but how far we were willing and able to go was the question. Iceland is a craggy and amorphous blob of an island, like a stepped-on Mentos candy, roughly the same size as Kentucky. Its center is basically unpopulated, with a wide majority of its 330,000-strong population living in Reykjavik and its suburbs and the rest in tiny townships dotted around the coast. They’re all linked by a two-lane highway that runs the entire circumference of the country, colloquially referred to as the “Ring Road” or “Golden Circle.” We had discussed doing the drive, but eventually had written it off as non-feasible, a conclusion that we were now reevaluating.

Gullfoss. Courtesy beautifulplacestovisit.com
Gullfoss. Courtesy beautifulplacestovisit.com

This road, without the side trips required to see the insane natural attractions like Gulfoss waterfall or the ancient lava formations at Dimmuborgir, runs about 830 miles in length. And as it heads northeast out of Reykjavik, a big stretch of it sits downhill of the Vatnajökull glacier, which is so big that it’s technically an ice cap. The problem: Bárðarbunga is located about a half-mile beneath the surface of the glacier (it’s…Iceland,) and if the volcano were to experience a full-scale disaster movie eruption like the last one in 2010, there was danger of flash flooding from glacial melt.

The lava formations at Dimmuborgir. Courtesy reykjavik.com
The lava formations at Dimmuborgir. Courtesy reykjavik.com

Additionally, we had a couple of other things stacking the deck against us. The first was time; rational people blocked off around four days to do the trip, mostly because they wanted adequate time to see and do everything they wanted to see and do. But this was also because of Iceland’s natural unpredictability; the possibility that you could be held up for hours by a river that wasn’t there the day before or having to wait out an extreme storm was very real and in this case compounded by the impending volcanic eruption. Also, our rental car left something to be desired. While you see a lot of enormous SUVs with big tires and snorkels for fording rivers on the front setting out on the Ring Road, you see fewer two-door Skoda hatchbacks.

We sat down to weigh out the pros and cons of making the attempt. Sure, we had two days and a puny car and would be heading even closer to the volcano’s danger zones, but what else would we do? Find a cheap hotel out in the ‘burbs and eat expensive pizza in front of the television for two days? And for all we had against us, we had some very important things going for us: phones loaded up with rock & roll music and, of equal importance, the will to attempt it. And so we grinned at one another with a certain gleam in the eye that means one specific thing: Ehh, why not??

Will your heroes make it all the way around the country in time for their flight home? Will a massive volcanic eruption stand in their way? Will they be confronted with a wave of floodwater? Or lava? If confronted with either, could they surf it? Tune in next week to find out. 

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