SLEEPLESS IN ICELAND
My brain registers an insistent ringing as I groan and roll to the wall in defense. The room is dark as night within light-blocking drapes. I can’t seem to remember where I am. Then… it’s my phone that’s ringing and we’re in a pristine Icelandic guesthouse, the Sulur. My son and I checked in late last night after our all-day drive from the Highlands, bumping along at 20 miles per hour on F Road 35, a gravel road, to the northernmost city of Akureyri. The slow speed suited us. The landscape seemed to change by the minute. Clear lakes and rushing streams; lava mountains striated with rivulets of snow; patches of tiny violet and white flowers peeking between rocks; long beaches of volcanic sand; small waterfalls rushing to hone cliffs covered in green grasses; fissures between grass-covered mounds coddling beds of lichen and orange-hued mosses.
Our goal: Kerlingarfjoll with its thermal steam and otherworldly landscape where steaming streams compete with steam rising from the earth. One could consider it hellish, but we chose to see it as a new exoplanet where life was just beginning. Wooden boards dug into the hills offer a path to the top, but it rained last night and turned everything to slippery red mud. We settled for being in the midst, and collected pebbles in the warm water. Further up we drove, to large beds of snow. Jay mustered a primal whoop and threw himself into one to make snow angels; in another he climbed up and foot-skied down. Glaciers lay on the horizon: massive Vatnajokull to the east and smaller Langjokull to the west. Iceland has thirteen large glaciers, many of which lie above volcanoes. As we made our way back onto Route 35, the rain began again.
The harsh old-school ringing continues. I jab the green button and glance at my sleeping son on the other side of the room. My twenty-five-year-old and I are on a bonding trip. Photos of cool Iceland had us salivating at home in the steamy Florida heat. Both of us Game of Thrones fans, I booked a tour with Saga Travel for a personal GoT tour. For tomorrow, or so I think. The pleasant voice on the other end of the phone tells me nope, today is the 5th and you have me for the entirety. I ask our guide, Jon, to give us 30 minutes.
We are ready and waiting when Jon pulls up in a sleek black Toyota Landcruiser. After a quick stop at a nearby bakari to load up on croissants and coffee, we cruise to the outskirts of Lake Myvatn. He points out landscapes that were commonly used in seasons three and four of GoT. Jay and I stare, then squint, but it’s hard to visualize since the scenes happened in winter and it is now summer. Tall grasses and magmatic rocks surround us. A small dark forest looms in the near distance. We walk more paths as Jon points and recounts scenes of murder and mayhem. The infamous Lake Myvatn midges buzz in our faces, annoying but not intolerable. They are drawn to CO2 so waving them away only adds to their frenzy; they think you’re joining in.
The area is beautiful and secluded. A pair of rare Slavonian Grebes are nestled in some bushes, golden ear tufts vibrating as they warily watch us. We admire unripe blueberries and taste tiny black crowberries. A gale comes from nowhere and we duck down until it passes. Much of Iceland is wide open. When Norwegian settlers first landed, they cut down trees for houses and fires. Soon the old growth was gone and the saplings they had planted grew slowly. Square hectares of swaying tall trees can typically be found behind houses on hillsides. Our guide says they catch the snow from avalanches. Floods, and gales, can come on quickly and sweep over large open areas. Rental car stickers warn about holding fast to door handles, and deny coverage for wind and water damage. The #1 Ring Road encircles the island and is mostly paved, but once you veer off it, the roads are gravel or dirt.
By now we have worked up an appetite. Jon recommends we have lunch in a cowshed called Vogafjos, a farm to table restaurant with a pastoral view of milk cows lollygagging in a small pasture with cloth bras to support their full udders. Meanwhile, their calves wait impatiently, separated in stalls. Soon after we arrive, they receive mounds of fresh hay. This weaning practice necessary for dairy cows does not sit well with me, but all bovine seem content enough. I order a plate that includes Icelandic Char, fresh salad greens, herb-fried tomatoes and fresh strawberry skyr made from their very own cows. Jay sticks with a burger.
Our guide is friends with the owners and gets a free meal for bringing us. I swear he’s salivating when he orders the much-touted smoked lamb shank, a mountain of dark brown succulence that brings him close to ecstasy as he slowly chews with his eyes closed. It makes me think of the sheep that roam in groups, usually three—a mom and her two young—all over the landscape. Most are white but occasionally we see a black sheep. Often on the road licking the salt that is sprinkled in with the gravel, they typically do a startled about-face and run back into the fields when you honk. We even had the privilege of coming up on a sheep coupling in the middle of the road and had to drive around. While we enjoy our food, we mark up a map and our Guide tells us of places we should not miss. We map out the next two days.
After satisfied sighs, we roll ourselves out of the Cowshed and head to Dimmuborgir, a park dotted with lava formations and touted to be the home of the Icelandic Yule Lads. Legend has it they are the thirteen sons of a vicious and prolific troll couple. Instead of following in the proper troll footsteps, they are full of mischief and play pranks on innocent park visitors. They sport outrageously bushy beards and have equally outrageous names such as Sausage Swiper, Spoon Licker, Door Slammer, and Skyr Gobbler, references to their individual pranks. They hibernate in the summer but are out in full force during the winter. To meet them, walk the trail and loudly shout Jolasveinn, which is Icelandic for Santa Claus. They will gather around and prank you.
For now, we have to be satisfied with our imagination and the fantastic lava rock formations. If I squint, many of them look like troll heads. Imagine them coming to life. Icelandic sagas are filled with trolls and elves. One story is that the trolls were tricked into being outside of their caves at sunrise and turned to stone. We all know that trolls must be back in their caves before the sun comes up, don’t we? Jay poses in the mouth of an entrance, but refuses to go in, as he keeps glancing behind him. Laughing, Jon and I take photos. Jay and I pose together in a formation created by two lava flows that melded in a perfect circle and rises high above us. We are specks.
We make our way to the famous “love cave” where Jon Snow and Ygritte stripped and dipped in geo-thermal clear blue waters. The waters here at Grojotagja were a popular bathing place for several decades until volcanic eruptions at Krafla distributed magma streams and turned the water to 140 Fahrenheit. The cave is now overrun with tourists, but everyone stays out of the water. Signs everywhere tell us we are entering at our own risk, as everyone climbs down as far as they dare. Our guide discovers unprecedented movement in two of the overhead boulders; he tells us he notices a distinct shift since the last time he was here. He gets on the phone with the landowners who turn out to be the owners of the Cowshed. Most of the tourist attractions are privately owned; the government agrees to maintain them in exchange for public access. Now he tells us that chances are good this cave will soon be blocked off. The number of tourists clambering in and out, above and below is testimony he is probably correct.
Our time with Jon is winding down and we pile back into the Landcruiser. On the way back to Guesthouse Sulur, we pull off at a small geo-thermal station that offers in-ground baking ovens for the locals. We peek into one and are rewarded with a nicely browned loaf. Hungry and tempted to break off a luscious brown edge, we sigh, restrain ourselves and climb back in the SUV, opting for a light meal at an adjoining hotel. Then it’s on to bed behind those lovely light-blocking drapes.
BIO: Maddie Lock is the author of two children’s books, and has been published in various journals and anthologies Find out more at https://maddielock.com/