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Iceland: Not for Wimps

January 17, 2016


1 Do not be deceived by the beauty

Do not be deceived by the beauty

Iceland is one of my favorite places, which is strange considering how many times the island tried to kill me in a week of vacation.

Cake Man and I had already been in Iceland a few days. On a whim, we decided to drive the entirety of the ring road – all eighteen hundred kilometers of it. Our vehicle was a poorly-built Toyota Yaris with a creaking frame. The creaking was most noticeable when the car turned. Most turns were into and out of gas stations, the only reliable places to eat outside of Reykjavík. Luckily, all the gas stations served hot dogs wrapped in bacon and one hundred types of yogurt.

2 A jökulhaups-twisted steel bridge beam left behind on the Vatna Glacier flood plain

A jökulhaups-twisted steel bridge beam left behind on the Vatna Glacier flood plain

My first glimpse of death-by-Iceland was not in the presence of nitrates but on the Vatna Glacier flood plain. When volcanic activity warms the earth’s crust, and the Vatna Glacier, the second-largest in the world, sits atop the heat, a wall of water 4 meters high results. This is called a jökulhaups, a glacial outburst flood and an epic Magic the Gathering card. During the 1996 Vatna Glacier jökulhaups, hundred-ton icebergs cascaded toward the ocean via a river that was briefly the second-largest in the world.

3 Iceland vista of death

Iceland vista of death

In Iceland, the vistas seem endless, though Wikipedia tells me someone my height can only see 4.7 kilometers to the horizon. In Iceland, I could see far enough to know I wouldn’t be able to outrun a jökulhaups if another suddenly occurred.

4 Wind-denying waterfall

Wind denying waterfall

The first time the island actually tried to kill me, Cake Man and I were outside of Hofn. The night before we set off, the wind howled without stopping. I couldn’t sleep. We’d already driven 400 kilometers past at least 40 soaring waterfalls framed by bright blue skies and ridiculously green vegetation hugging the ground. My subconscious, which had already gotten a taste of “no guardrails” and “100-meter sheer drops to the rocky beach below” and “rickety cars” and “hurricane force winds,” wasn’t fooled by the beauty. My subconscious was worried. And it let me know.

Still, we set out. I stopped before too long because the road’s blacktop had folded over on itself. Yes, that’s right. The wind off the glaciers is so strong it folds blacktop over onto itself.

5 So pretty it hurts

So pretty it hurts

My subconscious knew that was coming next – the seemingly-endless cliff-side portion of the drive along a road that was being rebuilt. Think rock falling from above on the left, one-and-a-half lanes of dirt road, wind, trundling construction equipment and guardrail-free100-meter plunges to the rocks below on the right. Oh, and rain – random, windshield smearing rain unabated by the Yaris’ pathetic attempt at wipers.

The drive was exhilarating. With my eyes focused on the dubious road, I didn’t see large parts of the drive, which Cake Man said was beautiful. In Iceland, it’s pretty easy to feel lucky to be alive when you see death so close up so often. The night after that drive, I slept well.

6 Come to me, preciouuuuusssss...

Come to me, preciouuuuusssss…

The second time Iceland tried to kill me that week was with a boiling geyser.

Here’s one of the many cool things about Iceland – you can get really close to the action. There’s no government regulation or park patrol officer to stop you. There’s only a little, trip-height sign that says “Danger, walkways are slippery.” And by “walkways,” Iceland means rocks slanted naturally toward the boiling geysers so water and people can easily flow toward the magma lurking somewhere far below. It’s an ingenious and subtle natural design to ensure only the most intelligent with the best rubber-soled shoes survive.

Through sheer luck, I remained unboiled though only just barely. But I came away from the geyser conflicted. I was happy to be alive, but I’d acquired a strange desire to visit future geysers whose viewing areas permitted me to be in the spray zone.

7 Avert your gaze. You are unworthy to look upon Dettifoss

Avert your gaze. You are not worthy to look upon Dettifoss.

The third time Iceland tried to kill me was at Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. To get to Dettifoss, Cake Man and I drove 37 slow kilometers in 2 hours along gravel road that seemed to be surrounded by misty moonscape as far as the eye could see, a distance considerably less than 4.7 kilometers given how low the Yaris sat when it drove through a divot in the road.

Once at Dettifoss, I could not see the waterfall. I literally could not get my raincoat hood away from my face. I could barely stand up straight. The wind was insane, and skin-piercing blades of ice filled it. I was no doubt standing near the edge of yet another cliff. I know I was on slippery rocks. Soaked, I fought my way back to the Yaris. Cake Man said Dettifoss was amazing.

8 Planning his next attack

Planning his next attack

The last time Iceland tried to kill me was with a non-contact fear incident. The trip was just about over. We’d listened to Early Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin at least a dozen times (Iceland doesn’t seem to have anything on the radio for most of the ring road, a fact we were unaware of.) We’d taken a lot of pictures. Being so close to death so many times, I’d bonded with the Yaris and felt more comfortable relaxing in her presence. Cake Man had bounded away to take pictures of some giant lava protrusion or something. I decided to sit this one out. In his enthusiasm, Cake Man had left his Yaris door open.

For some, surviving brushes with death can induce a calm that lasts days. Sitting in the Yaris, I was filled with this calm. I saw neither cliff nor rain. The wind gathered its strength elsewhere. The temperature was definitely at least forty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and I could feel all my fingers and toes. My calm was so complete that an outside observer might have mistaken it for laziness. I thought I was alone but only because a human, regardless of height, still cannot see through even the balsa wood doors of a Toyota Yaris.

Bottom line: I did not lean over to close Cake Man’s door.

A sudden bleating sounded from right near the open car door. And then the deadly ungulate from whom the horrible noise erupted bleated again! Shock almost killed me. Fear paralyzed me. I had only one defense: the stench emanating from the colon-killing bacon-covered hot dog and my person.

The nitrates worked their magic. My stalker retreated to his high tower, and I survived my last brush with island death.

9 Just cuz

Just cuz

Iceland is awesome. I strongly recommend visiting it and driving all the way around the ring road. The adventure may be the closest you come to death until the big day. If you survive Iceland, your life will be all the better for it afterward.

For a glimpse of Iceland without the danger, visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s exhibit “Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed,” compliments of the Embassy of Iceland and the Feo Pitcairn Fine Art Photography.


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