“We’re staying in a guesthouse,” she said, adjusting her earrings in the mirror.
“A what?” I asked. I was shaving, and trying (in vain) to avoid slicing my chin open.
“A guesthouse,” she repeated. “You stay in a local’s house. They cook for you, help you with recommendations,
that sort of thing.”
I turned to look at Marisa, my fiancé. “Wait – a local person is going to do all of cooking for us? This sounds amazing. What do they eat in Iceland?”
“I have no idea – I think sheep?” she flipped open the guidebook. “I’m a little nervous. From the looks of the map, this guesthouse is going to be a little off the beaten path.”
“It’s going to be fine,” I said. I’ve realized I say that a lot. “It’ll be an adventure.”
We were going on a trip. After years of commuting an hour plus to a hospital for work, Marisa had recently left, and agreed to join a private clinic near our apartment. She was in need of a vacation. So she was taking one – spending a month in Europe with a friend from home who was studying abroad.
I would be staying at home with our dog, Sherman, and then meet her in Iceland for the final leg of our trip. Five days in Iceland. It was February.
On the night Marisa flew out to Europe, her plane was delayed and delayed, and almost didn’t leave because of impending snowfall. By the end of the storm cycle a few weeks later, Boston had experienced its snowiest winter ever, at 110.6 inches. The streets were completely full of snow, and some cars looked like they would never get out.
I kept reminding myself what I’d learned from Maria in D2: The Mighty Ducks:
“Greenland is covered with ice, and Iceland is very nice!”
I was desperately hoping that wasn’t a crock.
As they de-iced the plane and prepared for our flight to Reykjavik, I popped two NyQuil and sent Marisa a message: “Getting ready to board. See you soon for our adventure.” I couldn’t wait to tell her about all the shoveling Sherman and I had done while she was gone.
Here’s the thing about trips to Iceland. It’s a five hour flight, but Reykjavik (the nation’s capital) is also five hours ahead of Boston. So while I spent the few hours drooling on the poor woman next to me, time was changing rapidly outside the window. After taking off at 8:30pm, we landed. It was 1:30am my time, but 6:30am there. People were cheery at the airport. I had taken too much NyQuil.
During the winter in Iceland, the sun isn’t up for very long. At the time I arrived, the average day length was seven hours.
Marisa pulled in with our rental, a Kia. “I had asked for something we could take off-road,” she said, “they said this would work.” We set out in the dark.
“Take a nap,” she said, “you look tired.” I tried to protest. The large coffee I had drank should be enough. I passed out somewhere in the middle of my sentence.
I awoke to her hand shaking my arm. “Do you think this is safe?” she asked, pointing ahead.
I rubbed my eyes and sat up. The Mighty Ducks were full of crap. We were driving up a gravel hill in a complete whiteout. The Kia’s summer tires weren’t pleased. The windshield wipers were going full speed to try and keep up with the snowfall. A Land Rover, jacked up on tires made for a bulldozer, scurried past us on the skinny road.
After a half hour of precarious climbing, we reached the summit. Thankfully, the snow had stopped, and instead had given way to a brilliant sunny day. We drove the Kia to Thingvellir, and then to Geysir, to see Iceland’s version of Old Faithful. We went down to Gullfoss, to see a falls that isn’t as big as Niagara Falls in New York, but is definitely as cold and is definitely also a waterfall.
As we pulled the car onto “the ring road”, also the only highway I ever saw in Iceland, I yawned. “Where are we headed?” I asked.
“The guesthouse is in Hrifunes. If the map is right, we can take the highway through Selfoss, past Skogafoss, stop in Vik for dinner, and be there about an hour later.” My wife is a planner.
So that’s what we did. Stopping at the waterfalls along the way to take pictures (Iceland has LOTS of those, all cool) we made our way nearly 200km South to Vik. The sun was setting as we pulled into the Berg restaurant.
“A lovely view of the ocean” it said in the guidebook. Tonight, the curtains were drawn as the rocks pelted the windows. The waves sounded so massive and close I was afraid to open them. “The wind is blowing fast,” our friendly waiter commented. As always, I was impressed that someone could speak fluent English and Icelandic at the same time. Icelandic looks like someone’s cat walked across the keyboard. We had learned a few phrases, so naturally I felt like a local.
Piling back into the car, my eyes were already struggling to stay open. It was nearly 8 o’clock. Marisa headed due East for a spot that looked like it was in the middle of nowhere on the GPS. I fell asleep as we left town.
“Jeff. Wake Up!” I jolted awake. Marisa was gripping the steering
wheel, her neck and shoulders bent over it in concentration
“We can’t go forward.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. I reflected on the time I drove a rickety Trailblazer, sunburned and exhausted from a week at Spring Break, through a New York snowstorm. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
Marisa pointed ahead. Looking out, I could barely make out the terrain around us. The headlights, struggling to illuminate a full car length ahead of us, were reflecting strongly off the road. It was thick, wind blown ice. The kind they closed school for as a kid. My eyes followed the reflectors on the guardrail as they turned a slow bend and then dropped, sharply, into the dark distance.
“Ease it forward,” I said, hovering my hands to indicate we needed to stay cool.
Marisa slowly took her foot off the brake. The car, sensing it needed to intervene or else these tourists would do something really stupid, immediately and unceremoniously drifted to the passenger side and thumped into a ditch.
“I’m…going to look around,” I said, opening the door.
I stepped out onto pure ice. Slipping, I felt the wind whipping by my face. It was strange – as strong as the wind felt, there was almost no sound. Without trees or buildings to rush through, the noise level was eerily low. Instead, all I could hear was rushing water. Fifty feet below, the tiny road got even tinier, as it traversed a river. The frozen river was rushing below. I struggled to my feet.
“Oh my god. Oh my god! I’ve broken our rental car. We’re stuck.” Marisa was pacing across the ice. I love how she worries about the car rental company in Iceland as we’re standing on a sheet of ice at the top of a hill, miles from the nearest civilization.
“We’re going to have to walk.” I said. “How far away are we?”
“Last I checked, a little under two miles.” she said.
We pulled our belongings out of the car, stopping long enough to pull our cramp-ons out of the box and fit them over our boots. We had gotten them as a gift from Marisa’s parents. “When the heck would we use these?” I had thought to myself when we opened the present. Ha.
I paused for a moment to turn on the GoPro, and started recording. “The car is staying in a ditch, and we’re starting to walk,” I said into the camera. That, Marisa really didn’t like. She trudged off in the dark.
And so we walked, one behind the other, over the tiny bridge. Marisa’s cell phone provided the only light. The wind blew so hard I was worried about it carrying her away. We walked up and down hills past empty dark farms. Occasionally, we could catch a glimpse of a single light, far off in the distance. Iceland is really really dark.
We finally approached the house, Marisa holding her cellphone up as a flashlight, me staggering behind with a rollie suitcase covered in snow. A figure came running out, holding a lantern high, a fur hood over his face. “What the hell are you doing walking out here?” he asked. “You are the Americans, right? Hilarious.”
Robert was the caretaker of the house. He helped us in and pushed us to the kitchen table. In the coming days, he would tell us about coming face to face with a polar bear on a hunting trip in Greenland, and take me on the scariest snowmobile ride I’d ever been on. He was blunt but friendly. A pot was bubbling away on the stove. “I made some meat stew, in case you were hungry,” he said. Kjotsupa is a traditional comfort food in Iceland, and it’s delicious. A Ron Swanson favorite – it’s mostly meat with some stewed root vegetables.
The wind was still howling outside as we dragged our bags to our room. I peeled off my clothing, which I realized had been on for nearly 30 hours. I collapsed on the bed.
“Well, you wanted an adventure,” Marisa whispered, her own eyes shut. She smiled.
Iceland is awesome.