I went to Iceland to be alone. I wanted to wallow in melancholy, to eavesdrop but not engage, to pretend the Northern Lights were a supernatural show curated just for me.
In the spirit of independence and grit, I rented a GoCamper in Reykjavik. Not only was it how I would get from the Snæfellsnes peninsula to the hot springs of Mývatn, the golden cliffs of Egilsstaðir and the Jökulsárlón lagoon, but it would be my home for the next nine days, where I’d sleep and eat most meals.
The Ring Road loops the country in it’s entirety. I had plenty of time for side trips to surreal landscapes in those nine days, but I raced against the setting sun each day, with only eight hours of light. Driving in the dark in Iceland is like going to an art museum with an eye mask on–there’s majesty everywhere, and what a waste to pass it without oogling it’s grandeur (evidence below).
Night also induced in me a fear of meeting a troll. If otherworldly fairytales are what we need to believe to respect and protect the environment, then please tell me a story. When volcanoes and glaciers are raging all around you, magma bubbling below your feet, shifting the Earth, melting hundreds of thousands of years of ice, clouding the sky, grinding flights to a halt for weeks, it’s quite logical to anthropomorphize that power into a troll, eliciting a healthy fear of environmental imbalance.
Reykjavik: The Smoky Bay
I arrived on the bus from the airport to Reykjavik at 5am on a chilly November morning and was dropped off in the plaza of the Hallgrimskirkja, an imposing and futuristic looking church, complete with a statue of Leif Erikson, the full moon casting a mysterious glow upon the city.
I wandered the cold, dark streets, and finally ducked into the Grai Kotturinn (the Gray Cat). It was the heartiest breakfast of my life, so simple, so delicious, so comforting.
Reykjavik is small enough to be walkable, yet incredibly cosmopolitan. Everyone is an artist, even if she’s a plumber by day. The high-fashion shops on Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur are inspired by nature (laser-cut horse-hair shoes! iridescent fish skin purses! volcanic ash pendant necklaces!) while the more practical are stocked with clothing to fend off the same elements. And of course, you can find lopapeysa everywhere. The lambs’ wool sweaters are made locally and repel the rain and cold, hence their ubiquity as a national uniform. Too itchy for me, but the unique patterns in each lopapeysa keep folk art alive and thriving in a very practical way.
I love fashion because it’s wearable art; it makes my daily life joyful. Each day I get to choose what to project and what I repel. There are days I choose sexiness or class, days I choose laziness and sloppiness to repel attention, days dedicated to amplifying my rough edges with studs and spikes I’ve sewn onto my jackets, and coins from the countries I’ve visited. I am the architect of my image; I use it as a powerful spell to chase away a childhood of hand-me-downs that I didn’t choose myself. Still thrift shop threads are often the most interesting finds, and Reykjavik has those too.
Whether you research in advance or just wander the streets, it’s easy to find good food, drinks and live music in Reykjavik, so I’ll give you a bit of the places I enjoyed.
- Café Roma for breakfast or afternoon snack. Look at that pastry. My mouth is watering.
If you’re window browsing or at that baller status, you are guaranteed to find something uniquely Icelandic. I liked:
- Kiosk. Local designers, but quite the pretty penny.
- Geysir: full of warm wools, beautifully crafted. I got some slouchy chartreuse knee-high wool socks.
- KronKron: because the shoes are frickin outlandish.
- Rakel Bloom: a local designer whose current line looks like bad-ass stained glass windows.
Alas, I came to this island to bask in nature, not city life. I picked up my camper, stalled in the parking lot, got lost trying to get out of Reykjavik, but eventually got found and headed toward Snaefellsnes. (Reminds me of Snuffleupagus–anyone?)
There was a mountain; it’s texture reminded me of the Wooly Willy toy. Fog and rain made for low visibility, and during an hour’s driving I passed only one other car. Loneliness. Green moss blanketing bulging black lava rock. Big sky. A rainbow. All for me. All mine.
I slept just off the side of the road in a pull-off the first night. A house was lit up on the mountain, but the rest of my surroundings were pitch black, and I didn’t see the other two houses until the sun rose the next morning. I woke, put together a cheese and flatbread sandwich, brushed my teeth on the side of the road, and made my way on to Akureyri and Mývatn. Roughing it, fine, but it was only night one.
The road between Akureyri and Mývatn yielded the spectacular Góðafoss waterfall. Though winter hadn’t come, it looked like a scene out of Frozen. In fact, I sent a whimsical postcard featuring Góðafoss to my niece, told her I saw Elsa peek her head from underneath the falls. I wanted to create for her some of the magic and wonder I felt. I hope I succeeded.
Next up on Iceland: Mývatn, the jewel of the north…even if it does mean Gnat Lake.