By Jake Strickler, Co-editor
We left Reykjavik before the sun had come up. It being the transitional period between the elongated daytime of summer and the bleak endless nights of winter, the amount of daylight was comparable to an average July day in Phoenix; the last dregs of sunset fading around ten PM and the sun reappearing in the early morning. Wintertime in the vicinity of the Arctic Circle, I don’t even want to imagine. Like rats in a maze, we navigated our trusty Skoda through barriers set up for the soon-to-begin marathon. After a fair bit of consternation and backtracking, we located the main highway, and were soon on the open road.
The previous day had been spent checking off the list of requisite Reykjavik tourist stops –the Hallgrímskirkja church and adjacent monument to Leif Eriksson; the legendary 12 Tónar record shop (a veritable Shangri-La for fans of Bjork and Sigur Ros – I’m not); the hyper-trendy boutiques and bakeries and coffee shops. And last, but most definitely not least, the famous Blue Lagoon – a geothermally heated pool located conveniently between the airport and central Reykjavik that costs roughly nine million dollars to swim in for a couple hours, is packed to the gills with tourists from around the world, and leaves you smelling like you are literally made of rotten eggs (I know I’m doing a great job selling it, but if you find yourself in the country it’s an experience that you have to go through).
Later, we ventured out into the weird and wild world of Reykjavik nightlife – an odd mix of red-carpet-exclusive clubs (seemingly unaware of or at least quick to rebound from the wholesale destruction of the country’s economy during the European debt crisis a couple of years previous) and rough-and-tumble heavy metal dive bars (we stuck to the latter). Somewhere in there was a bar themed down to each and every last piece of decor after the 1998 movie The Big Lebowski located, whether by brilliantly intentional design or by pure absurdity of chance, next to a restaurant serving gargantuan steaks and burgers called the Chuck Norris Grill.
It was an odd scene, but one that we were not altogether unhappy to be skipping out on. After all, If the first night of the festivities featured a gargantuan bearded Icelander (and I can only imagine the quantity of beer it took to get this man to the state of intoxication he was in) regaling us with stories of his personal interactions with trolls and fairies between extolling the virtues and unique spiritual properties of Icelandic marijuana (trains of thought which may have been correlated), it was anybody’s guess what the following days would bring. Instead, we took our chances with the volcano. My only regret: not partaking in the local tradition that goes by the welcoming name of Black Death and involves tossing back a shot of local schnapps chased with a glob of fermented sharkmeat shoved into the mouth. But there’s always next time.
And so the journey began. With about 60 hours until our flight home, we had much ground to cover, a daunting number of sights to take in (and it’s not in our constitution to skip such things when we had traveled over three and half thousand miles to see them), and, oh, the volcano, the eruption of which was growing more and more imminent with each passing news report. I won’t waste time trying to describe the grandeur of the country, as I’m told that each of the accompanying pictures are worth a thousand of my words.
There were waterfalls; there were geysers; there were geo-active hotspots that looked like the sets of science fiction movies. We repeatedly and wantonly violated agreed-upon terms of our car rental. To make time, we traveled at speeds well in excess of posted limits, which was extraordinarily irresponsible and I do not in any way condone, as some stretches were so remote that the slightest mishap could have meant hours before discovery and assistance. There were several close calls with sheep, which roam free (necessitating the aforementioned annual roundup) and exist in an amount nearly triple that of the country’s human population. This led to the creation of an incredibly fun game called “Beep the Sheep”, where the objective was for the driver to cause as many sheep as possible to run away from the vicinity of the roadway using only our pathetic clown-car horn (while we got a couple of good stampedes, most just lazily sauntered off while others looked up and glared, perturbed). Good clean fun!
I do, however, have a few tales of interest. The first involves a US Navy recon plane forced to make a crash landing on an Icelandic black sand beach during the 1970s. The crew survived and carried on with their lives, but the plane remains. Locating it was one of our primary objectives. GPS coordinates and directions obtained online had us peel back a section of barbed wire fence and drive our car down miles of terrain that it was obviously not intended to traverse, dodging rocks that could have ripped the undercarriage clean through all the while. Eventually the plane was spotted and we ditched the car and headed toward it, discovering as we grew closer that a rushing flow of glacial melt stood between us and the plane. Off came the shoes and we made the crossing. With blue feet slowly regaining feeling, we reached the plane. Many of the navigational bells and whistles had remained intact, giving it the feeling of an eerie dilapidated time capsule. After climbing inside, outside, and all around, we began the trek back to the Skoda, thankful that we were both up-to-date on our tetanus shots
But back to the volcano. Five or six hours outside of Reykjavik, smack-dab in the middle of a potential floodplain, we stopped in a town (if you can call a gas station/fast food restaurant, general store, and a couple scattered dwellings a town) to fill up on fuel and hot dogs – an omnipresent food item in both Norway and Iceland and, to be completely honest, about the only form of sustenance we could afford outside of Pringles, which were for some reason remarkably cheap. Upon walking in, the satellite television hanging in the small seating area and tuned to the BBC greeted us with some mildly concerning information: the eruption of Bárðarbunga had begun, and the speculation was that it was only a matter of time before the magma began breaking through the surface of the glacier. Visions of hot dogs were quickly swept from our minds to make room for ones of imminent death, and we began feverishly asking the locals if there was something we should maybe be doing, like making tracks in a different direction and fast. The standard response was a noncommittal shrug seeming to say, “Meh. Don’t worry until they tell us to. And then maybe, yes, leave.” Not wanting to blow our cool, we scarfed the hot dogs, gassed up the Skoda, and pressed onward.
The day’s goal was to reach the glacial lake at Jökulsárlón, a body of water fed by runoff melt from the Vatnajökull ice cap; yes, the same one that Bárðarbunga was currently erupting under. For those who continue to deny the scientific realities of climate change, like Mr. Donald Trump who espouses the belief that the concept was invented by the Chinese in order to steal American jobs (still not quite clear on the logic there), Jökulsárlón is a site to consider visiting. Due to increasing rates of melt and glacial retreat because of a warming climate, the lake now occupies four times the volume that it did in 1970. Fragments of the glacier that had sheared off float around the lake, and the air is alive with the sounds of them cracking and colliding. The water, seeking somewhere to go, has carved out a channel to the ocean, about a quarter mile away. Smaller bergs shoot through this like bowling balls to be tossed around by the rough Atlantic surf. In other words, even if the weather was a little nicer, it’s still not a beach you’d want to go swimming at.
An interesting side-note: the Washington Post reports that the loss of glacial mass in this area (to the tune 11 billion tons per year) is causing an expansion of the underlying rock and soil, an effect which will be seen all the way down to mantle rock, potentially causing it to melt into magma faster than usual and therefore increasing the volatility of Iceland’s volcanic activity. The potential upside to this future volcanic hell-scape? The elevation of the country is expected to begin increasing at about “the same rate as an elementary schooler,” possibly offsetting the effects of sea level rise.
But I digress. The environment was awe-inspiring, with the deep blues and teals held within the free-floating bergs shimmering in hues and tones that seemed at once ancient and eternal, yet alien and unfamiliar. Trust me; no photograph can convey the feeling of standing there and seeing it in person. Though there was no instruction to do so, those present spoke in hushed, muffled tones, as if in the presence of something divine and unearthly. It was unlike anything I have experienced before or since.
We had booked lodging in a hotel about an hour away. After spending our fair share of time observing the ebb and flow of the waves from the ocean into the lake and back, the mammoth chunks of ancient ice knocking one another to and fro, we headed back to the trusty Skoda and turned it in the direction of hot showers and some R&R. That is, until we were stopped by a park ranger demanding to know why we were leaving when we had such a great parking spot staked out. Perplexed, we asked just what she was talking about.
You see, the sheep round-up is a national holiday. And while those in Reykjavik were engaging in booze-and-rotten-shark-fueled revelry, those in the North had their own way of celebrating: wiring up those floating glacial fragments with the kinds of fireworks one would think are available only to the organizers of major sporting events and Bruce Springsteen concerts, waiting for full darkness (at that point, about 11:30-midnight), and then setting loose a handful of maniacs in tactical motorized watercraft to scoot around the frigid water and light the fuses with large blowtorches.
Running on very little sleep; mentally overwhelmed by all we had seen that day; road-weary; bruised, battered, and bloodied from scaling decrepit airplanes and rickety paths to the tops of waterfalls and down into the calderas of dormant volcanos, we were dead on our feet. And the news that we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a massive pyrotechnics display over glacial lake was music to our ears.
We hightailed it to the hotel, checked in, cleaned up, threw on some cold weather gear, and pointed our little Skoda back toward Jökulsárlón, along with, apparently the 100,000 or so people who don’t reside in Reykjavik and the surrounding environs. We managed to find a somewhat legitimate spot in which to leave the car, and ran as fast as our legs could carry us up hills and around obstacles in pitch darkness toward the crowd, climbing down a precarious slope and sliding ourselves into prime viewing position just as the fireworks began firing off and exploding into spidery, variegated patterns and colors above the lake.
Much as with our experience at the lake earlier in the day, simple words cannot convey the sensory impact of the event, neither can photographs accurately represent the sheer physical resonance and shock of the explosions. The sharp cracks and booms echoing off the distant ice cap; the reflections of the colors on the crystal-pure water activating and amplifying the shimmering colors within the icebergs we had seen hints of earlier; the chaotic peril that the men in the watercraft wielding blue-flamed torches placed themselves in while somehow controlling it all. In a word, it was ineffable. I can describe the situation, the circumstances, but the cumulative effect is impossible to encapsulate or quantify.
At the risk of seeming maudlin or woo-woo, this was one of those widely-sought transformational moments for me; a point at which I took stock of the circumstances and priorities of my life and saw them reframed, through a newly-acquired set of eyes. As much as I loved elements of the career trajectory that I was on: the chaos, the pressure, the extreme stress and physicality and challenge of the restaurant industry, this experience made me realize the extent of the rut I was stuck in. I had been spending a vast majority of my waking life doing the same thing, day in and day out. Situations would change. Employees would move on or simply stop showing up. Flooded kitchens, overserved bar patrons, kitchen equipment malfunctioning or bursting into flame during service; I loved overcoming these kinds of challenges but was worn down by the ultimate inconsequentiality of it. So I resolved to quit and come to this school, where doors would be opened to tasks and experience of consequence. So I did. And here I am.
The remainder of the drive was spent to a large degree in quiet reflection upon this, staring out at the passing Icelandic countryside and resigning myself to the fact that I’d soon have to return to reality. We completed the circuit; the volcano had burst through the glacier but with nowhere near the propulsive force of the previous explosion. Karmic justice caught up with us as we came within a few miles of Reykjavik: we were pulled over for speeding by the kindest police officer I have ever encountered (he even insisted that my friend roll his window up while being taken back to the officer’s car so that I wouldn’t be chilly).
The $300-odd we were asked to pay using a credit card machine located conveniently in the back of the officer’s car didn’t even register as an inconvenience or source of upset; it was simply a penalty that we deemed justified by the fact that we had accomplished what we set out to do. Sure, we had to break some rules to get it done, but the benefits far outweighed the cost. We dropped the car off with no issues (though the inspection was maybe not as thorough as might have been expected) and made the airport with time to spare. Before too long, we were high in the air, hurtling back towards our jobs and girlfriends and everyday lives.
In the end, while I may have not gotten my idealized hammock-swinging Club Med rest and relaxation, I gained something of far greater value: perspective. It’s impossible to gain a full picture of your life without taking a step back from it and doing something that runs counter to your routine. I learned that through diving into uncertainty can a newer and fresher kind of certainty be attained. And most importantly, I learned that sometimes having no plan can be the best plan of all.
Zack Roif is a professional Instagram celebrity and has so many followers that I suspect him of fraud/malfeasance. If you’d like to follow him, you can do so at @zckrf. At @? Is that right?