“I like my backpack, a cup of coffee, and my itinerary, and my passport and I’m out of here.” -Henry Rollins
It was a hot day in Chicago and I was in a dead sprint to get to my bank. I forgot that my debit card had expired and it was the only backup I had if my Visa had any problems. I arrived 15 minutes before they closed and cleaned out my savings in cash. I hated to do that but it was the only way I knew of to access those funds over the next ten days. Can I wire it in Iceland? I don’t know. I don’t want to figure that out there. I thought I had prepared for everything, but this put me in a spin.
I got back to my office, hauled my luggage outside, and kept running. It felt like I was in a scene out of Breaking Bad; and I was Walter White, running around like a maniac to close an important deal. Only I wasn’t carrying any blue crystals, just a lot of money that I didn’t want anyone to know about. By the time I got to the airport I was covered in sweat with two backpacks, a large suitcase, and way more cash than I’m comfortable with. When I went through the body scanner, my sweat caused it to throw a flag. I was taken aside for a TSA pat down. Thanks for the extra attention, guys.
Until now, I had only known of Iceland based on what I had seen in pictures and videos. It looked like a vast, magical country where I could keep myself busy for a while. On this trip I planned to be there for ten days and had a loaded itinerary of things to do. The plane disembarked and flew east, leaving the skyline of Chicago and the sunset behind.
Day 1: Jetlag in Reykjavik
When I arrived the next day, it was 7am and my body thought it was 2. I went to the currency exchange and got out my roll of cash to change over to Krona. When the attendant counted it up she asked me if I wanted it back in Icelandic cash or a card. I asked her to explain. She said that she could create a Visa debit account right there with a local Icelandic bank, and I could use that instead of carrying the Krona in my wallet. Fuck yeah, I want my money secured! Thanks, Iceland!
The shuttle bus drove me into the city and I had to wait 6 hours to check into the hostel. It normally wouldn’t be a problem, but I was exhausted from jetlag and felt like canned tuna in a sock. I wondered around uneventfully for the day. The sky was grey and the cold North Atlantic wind almost blew my hat off as I walked down the street for coffee. I finally checked in the hostel at 2:00, immediately crashing in my dorm bed, and then went into downtown to explore. The first place I stopped was the iconic Hallgrímskirkja Cathederal.
This tower was on the top of a hill overlooking the city, now lit up in a perfect sunny afternoon. Weather can change in the blink of an eye in Iceland, but that means that a great day can happen just as quickly as a shitty one.
I went down to the waterfront to see what was there. I found the Sólfarið, or Sun Voyager, a steel sculpture of a boat facing the blue skies to the north. It was built to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the city, and symbolizes the Icelandic ancestors who sailed westward into to the sun to discover new lands.
Natalie, a woman from New York, wanted me to take her picture next to it. Neither of us had any plans, so I invited her to find a bar in downtown. We found a tiny dive next to a tattoo parlor and ordered local beer. She was a theatre choreographer who visited Iceland to run a half marathon tomorrow. Lucky for her, the weather was set to be perfect.
I came back to my hostel and sat in my bunk to read. It took about a minute for me to lose control and start crashing into a deep sleep. I never pass out like that, not even when I’m drunk. But I had a long overnight flight, and an even longer day exploring. And now I felt like I was freefalling into an abyss. Except not really falling, but gently descending backwards into a warm place of fuzzy darkness. Downward is Heavenward.
Day 2: Diving the Silfra Fissure
About an hour northeast of town is the pristine, ethereal Silfra Fissure. It is a flooded trench between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe, where you can literally swim between the continents. The glacial water is near freezing, clear, and perfectly safe to drink. It is beautiful to see and even more magnificent to dive.
I booked my trip for it after watching a few videos from other travelers and learning about its geology. Earlier this summer I spent a weekend getting drysuit certified, and went back to my dive shop in Chicago again to practice in their pool, specifically for this trip. By the time I left for Iceland I was finally ready. The divemasters picked me up that morning and we drove for an hour into the country past numerous mountains, pastures, horse ranches, and eventually the edge of Þingvellir National Park. We reached the flooded canyon at 8, and were the first group to arrive.
They split us into smaller groups, and we suited up and got in at the entrance. When I descended beneath the surface, the drysuit kept me dry and warm, but my face and hands got a rush of cold, not unlike a brain freeze you might get from choking down a milkshake. It didn’t last long. Soon I acclimated to the temperature. We followed our divemaster Marie into the blue canyon, immersed in gorgeous clear water beneath a ceiling of silver. Sunlight danced through the surface, refracting and shining on the rocks in rainbow colors.
At first, my buoyancy was completely off as I tried to maneuver in my drysuit. I found that at different depths it can unexpectedly change. A few times I lost control and went to the surface (it wasn’t deep enough to cause decompression problems). I started getting decent buoyancy control by the middle of the second dive, but it was still a challenge to keep it together as we descended into the blue.
We approached a narrow section where you can literally touch North America and the land between there and Europe, technically about a mile to the east. I swam through this passage and touched the canyon walls between the continents, creating a link between my homeland and that of my ancestors.
On occasion, char fish swim into the Silfra from the warmer lake below. Marie spotted one hiding among the rocks. According to the guides, they taste like something between salmon and trout. Awesome, in other words.
We went to the surface and took a shallow passage over to the next descent. My favorite section was the Cathedral, a trench of 60ft that eventually reaches a sandy slope going up to the grassy shallows on the far end. You can see it from 100ft away, maybe even more. We turned left and entered the Silfra Lagoon, an open shallow area of silt and grass, slowly making our way to the exit platform amidst the sunlit water of the morning.
An hour later, we were driving back to the city. I looked out at the passing mountains, certain that I would remember the Silfra Fissure as a truly remarkable wonder of their country.
This story continues on The Ring Road.