Part 4: The Golden Circle

…continued from Part 3: Packrafting the Jökulsárlón Lagoon

“Every day, I go outside and look at the vast horizons. Just because I can.” -Mark Watney

Day 7: The South Coast

I had planned to drive up to the Hvita River, a popular Class II-III bigwater river just downstream from Gullfoss, to run in my packraft for a few hours. But my washout in the Heida River yesterday gave me doubts about shit like this. Not only is it scary to capsize in a big rapid where you don’t know the hazards, but it’s also possible to lose your raft or your paddle if you don’t get them right away. So I decided to hold off on packrafting for now, and perhaps consider it again with a few river buddies and proper rescue training. It just meant that I had to find something else to do. In Iceland.

I drove west and stopped at the trailhead to Svartifoss, which was an easy scuffle up the mountain through a lot of brush. There aren’t many trees at all in Iceland, but small ones do exist in patches along various mountainsides. I got to the falls an hour later and felt underwhelmed. Which was fine for such an effortless hike.

Another trail went northeast from the headquarters to the end of Skaftafellsjökull Glacier, which was a bit more interesting. This is one of many large glaciers of Vatnajökull National Park, an area of huge volcanoes and the largest snowfield in the country.

I hiked back to the van and drove west along even more gorgeous coastline. I passed many farms and ragged mountains, dwarfed by the highlands of the inland snowfields. The coastal village of Vik wedged itself between sharp mountains along the ragged shore. Backpackers were out trying to hitchhike. Two cute girls waved and smiled, trying to get my attention. Sorry ladies, but the van is full.

After a while, the mountains faded in the east. I stopped at a campground in Fludir, a little town with its own Secret Lagoon. Almost every one of these towns has something like this. Whether it be a hot spring, cave, hiking trail, or whatever, to explore. I could live in Iceland for months and still not feel like I saw everything. The sun was out in the late day, so I made the most of it and dried out my river gear.

I slept that night under a blanket of overcast. It was my last night on the road. And I never did get my Northern Lights.

Day 8: GULLFOSS!!!!!

There are waterfalls all over Iceland. In every river, every stream, everywhere. But only a few of them can measure up to the thundering Gullfoss in sheer magnitude and strength. At an average rate of 4,900 cubic feet per second, this monstrosity is a true wonder of the world.

I was lucky to get there a couple hours before the tourist shuttles arrived. I walked along the paths on the bank and pondered the bigger meaning of things to the deafening roar of ten million gallons of water. Here, the falls seemed immeasurable – full of beauty, incomprehensible strength, recirculating terror. Only the Canadian side of Niagara could rival this masterpiece, but even the falls there don’t share the same magic as these – where fire and ice have built upon and cut away from the land for many ages. This, my friends, was the mighty Gullfoss. This was the apex of my trip around the Ring Road.

I drove uneventfully back to Reykjavik and dropped the van off that afternoon. I don’t regret using it, but I hated the stress of being responsible for an expensive vehicle in another country. I was glad to be rid of it, and took a shuttle bus back to my hostel. The first thing I did when I got back was get some decent food.

The restaurants in Iceland often cost 2 to 4 times as much as they do in Chicago. Which was why I brought freeze dried food from home to eat during my roadtrip. Because of that, I saved hundreds. But a good exception is the hotdog stands in Reykjavik, which cost about $4 each for an Icelandic Hotdog. They don’t look like much, but they’re good and the price is right.

I was done running around for now. But I did have an interesting match on Tinder who wanted to meet up tomorrow. She was local, and in most of her pictures she was doing something outside on a bicycle or surfboard, which is always a good sign.

Day 9: The Cuisine of Reykjavik

The weather was back to normal: windy and wet. It got like that all at once yesterday right after I got rid of the van, which is awesome. Until today, I avoided the local cuisine because of the prices. But it was my last full day in Iceland, and I had money to burn.

My friend Sara told me about puffin meat, which she got at the Public House. I didn’t see it on the menu there and went to Íslenski Barinn instead. They served a few pieces of it in a jar with pickled onions, blueberries, lettuce. It had the consistency of liver and the savory taste of beef. It was good and worth trying out of curiosity, but I needed to fill up. I also got a lobster hotdog. It had chunks of deep fried lobster, cheese, some kind of sweet sauce, on a ciabatta roll. It was a home run out of the park. To quote from their menu, “True friends stab you in the front.”

I wanted to meet the Tinder lady, Iris, at the Lebowski bar that night. When I invited her, she said, and I quote, “It’s a shit place!” So I didn’t go there with her, but that didn’t stop me from going on my own.

We met instead at Mikkeller & Friends, a dimly lit, local, mostly quiet bar with a lot of good Belgian drafts. I’ll take it. She grew up in Iceland, spent a few years studying in the UK, and recently came back to her home country. It makes sense. To the adventurer, Iceland can be your own personal wonderland.

She had traveled all over the world on outdoor trips, including two months of field work in Ellesmere Island. Now that got my attention. She said at one point that her team was approached by a polar bear and they had to scare it off with flare guns. They were about to use a real gun on it before it finally left them alone. It sounded like an episode out of Planet Earth.

We went to another local bar and then another (as local as they get in the tourist season) and I had a good sample of some local Icelandic stouts. To me, a good stout is always better when the weather is shitty. We made one last stop at an upscale bar on the waterfront where her friend Alana was working. She made us a killer round of whiskey sours and finished off the night with a whiskey based concoction of her own that tasted even better. I like the drinking here. This is good people.

Day 10: The $150 Taxi

Weather wise, it was the worst day yet. But I was packing up to leave anyway. Iceland was an incredible place to visit, but I was ready to get back to the land of $10 burgers. That morning, I missed the shuttle bus to the airport because I didn’t read the ticket right because I’m an idiot. I was about to buy another one online and decided to get a taxi instead. That turned out to be a $150 mistake.

But I got to the gate on time, and flew out of Keflavik that afternoon. Expensive, though it may be, I made it work. I saved up for months, ate like a college student, learned to drive stickshift, learned to scuba dive in a drysuit, spent countless hours mapping out an itinerary line by line, and it all paid off in the end. I orchestrated ten of the most adventurous days of my life in one of the most magical countries on earth. If I can do it, so can you.

This story continues in the New Year.