the full report
Though many months after the fact (almost 5 now!) I am finally able to share the entire piece I wrote about my trip to Iceland. I will post the text only version here but you can read it with photos interspersed on my blog (I didn't include photos from the first day as another earlier post included those): http://bit.ly/2E3Qxw
Every step leading up to my adventure in Iceland meant moving forward without any sense of what was to come. I was not sure I could afford the trip at all, which prompted me to launch an art sponsorship program; likewise, although we have been friends for years, my travel companion, Sandra, (who lives in Stockholm) and I had only met once in 2005. Then again, despite having seen many photographs and some movies of Iceland, nothing could really prepare me for what I was to experience. Similar to the all-too-common sign we would eventually see on one-lane roads in the more rural areas of the country – BLINDHÆDIR, which indicated that you were about to crest a hill blind, without any sense of what was approaching from the other side, this trip rested on a hundred leaps of faith occurring on an almost hourly basis.
It had been several years since I had traveled beyond North America and the need to travel was becoming quite strong. While planning for the week-long trip, I realized that even though I had a companion to share the costs and I was going to keep myself to a strict budget, it would still be a financial stretch. One of my friends, joking that she would like to live vicariously through my trip, offered to become my sponsor as long as she could have a print of one of my photos from the excursion. At first I scoffed at the idea, but soon it started to become clear that I couldn’t afford the trip on my own and might have to take my friend’s offer seriously. Around the same time, another friend alerted me to the launch of kickstarter.com, a website serving as a platform for users to gain sponsorship for creative projects, so I was one of the first people to sign on and present a project. In return for financial backing, sponsors would receive their choice of a print from the trip. Because of the generally turbulent economic climate, I underestimated how much interest there would be in such a project – and was genuinely surprised when I ended up raising close to $3000. Sure, most people could not afford a huge contribution, but so many people – friends, family, complete strangers, even kickstarter.com staff members – all became intrigued enough to become involved, with the result that the trip essentially paid for itself. The added dimension of sharing my trip and the images I would create with my backers created a certain level of excitement for me, and even posed a challenge to my abilities. Once I reached Iceland, however, I realized that the beauty of the country speaks for itself; for a photographer, it was more a question of being able to do it justice in the limited time I had.
While driving to JFK, I received a constant flow of text messages from my traveling friend, Sandra, who had arrived in Reykjavík much earlier in the day than I. Though she had made it quite clear in advance that “Iceland is PURPLE!” – the whole island seems to be carpeted in purple lupine flowers (the Nootka Lupin or Alaskan Lupine) – by the time I myself was looking out the plane window shortly before landing, as the midnight sun sat low on the horizon, the sky, the mountains, and the earth – everything was truly glowing violet. To all appearances, I was landing on another planet. The Flybus, an airport shuttle service well-equipped to handle the influx of travelers coming into Reykjavík, ferried me and the other stragglers on the last arrival of the day through a delightfully lavender but scarcely populated lunar landscape to drop off each of us at the door of our respective hotels. As one of the last two riders to be deposited outside Hotel Cabin on the waterfront around 2 a.m. local time, I was able to watch the single hour of Icelandic night pass – more of a twilight than a real darkness – and then track the sun as it went back on the rise immediately. Across the water, I could make out a huge, looming, deep purple mountain, with a thick, cottony indigo cloud obscuring its peak, and a sliver of moon hanging low in the sky… and the air was filled with the scent of flowers. Despite my delirium, I wanted to grab someone off the near-empty streets and dance from the thrill of this sight. Instead, I tried to keep my composure and checked into the hotel to find Sandra sleeping in our tiny room with paper-thin walls. She awoke and we talked excitedly until our eyelids grew too heavy.
We rose in time to catch the tail end of breakfast downstairs: simple but traditional Icelandic fare. Well before I had left Iceland, I had become addicted to the tangy yogurt-like breakfast staple called skyr – actually a traditional Icelandic cheese – so I was overjoyed to be greeted with a full bowl, topped with fruit and cereal, alongside toast with cheese, boiled eggs and cucumbers, and a much-needed cup of coffee. We set off towards downtown Reykjavík to collect our rental car, pick up something for a picnic lunch at the ‘big’ (though by US standards quite diminutive) Kringla Mall, and then indulge in what would be the most touristy of our day trips: the Golden Circle, which includes Geysir and Gullfoss – a full day of geysers, glowing blue pools, and waterfalls in the southwest region of the country, on the Reykjanes peninsula. Travel on the Ring Road, the main highway around the coast of the country, as well as most other roads on the Golden Circle area, is fairly smooth and fast-paced, and gave us our first taste of both the scenery and the experience of driving in Iceland. The roads both inland and coastal are generally punctuated by roundabouts, and on either side you regularly see clusters of tiny native horses, long stretches of flat ground carpeted with the vibrantly purple lupines, otherworldly stretches of lumpy volcanic rock thickly covered with gray-green moss, or distant snow-capped mountains. The contrasts and colors can’t be compared to anything I’ve ever seen, but if I had to draw a comparison, I would liken it to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the deserts of the West, the moors of England blooming with heather, the surface of the moon, and Alaska, all rolled into one. Vibrant lime greens, chartreuse, black, purples, sage greens, rich blue-greens, rich rusts and deep reds. As our time there wore on and we spent more and more time among such landscapes, it became easier to understand why the Icelandic people for the most part believe in what they call “hidden people” – trolls, gnomes, elves, fairies and the like. The strange rock formations, the traces of brute natural forces, the flora and the fauna are all so entirely unique and possess strongly anthropomorphic and supernatural qualities, one can not help but be charmed by the notion.
Our first stop was at a massive crater called Kerið. On the face of it, it seems difficult to muster enthusiasm for a large hole in the ground; when the powerful geo-forces of the island go to work however, this particular hole in the ground becomes an intensely blue-green pool of water, ringed in gold-white mineral deposits and black rocks, surrounded on all sides by volcanic earth of a warm maroon hue. Neither Sandra nor myself being keen on heights, we redirected away from perilous drops back to the safety of solid land.
In our few hours on the road it appeared that there are no longer any truly wild horses left in Iceland, as every herd we came across was fenced in, along with much of the burgeoning sheep population and scant numbers of cattle. Even from a distance, it was obvious that the demeanor of the Icelandic horse is quite different from your typical Thoroughbred or even wild pony from any other part of the world. We pulled over to admire some and they ran off towards their feed trough, apparently expecting us to fill it. When we caught up with them, they were inquisitive and playful, jumping, rearing, scrunching up their remarkably expressive faces, with thick manes whipping in the strong winds. Though we didn't have time to take a ride this trip, I know I will find time for a tölt (a gait that is unique to Icelandic horses- a fast and very smooth ride) on my next visit to Iceland.
Strokkur, the geyser situated next to the now-dormant Geysir (for which all geysers are named), erupts every few minutes, and burbles and steams constantly in between eruptions. The explosive drama of the geyser’s spout against the backdrop of the purple, June-time landscape, surrounded with jewel-toned pools of steaming water, rich blue skies and intense sun was quite rousing. The intensity and raw power of Gullfoss – the grandiose Golden Falls, our next stop, dwarfed even Geysir. When you pull into the parking lot, you can neither see nor hear this raging force of water cutting into the land, but after a short walk over the hill, the turbulent wind and mist grab you and start to pull you into the core of Golden Falls. Standing on a ledge a few feet from the edge, separated by only a single thin wire, the wind at your back edging you forward, it would be easy to get swept away by its force.
The map Faithful Navigator Sandra was consulting made it look as though the most convenient route to get back to Reykjavík, passing by Þingvellir (a large national park), would be Route 365, rather than double back the way we had come. As we turned off the main road, the terrain immediately changed as we crested our first (and certainly not our last) blindhædir and entered the most desolate lunar landscape we had seen yet: moss, volcanic rubble, and craggy mountains as far as we could see. When we stopped to take some photographs at one point, when we stopped speaking we realized the air was utterly silent. The occasional SUV was the only reminder we had that the road we were on actually led anywhere: there were no buildings, fences or animals, only the thick dust clouds that rose as passing vehicles disappeared – after forcing us off the narrow roadway, that is.
Miraculously, we emerged on the other side of this no man's land back on a main road, hurtling towards Reykjavík. After dinner, we ended up taking a stroll through the streets of the city, taking in the last rays of daylight around 11 p.m. We did have to make it an early night, as the trip we had planned for our second full day was going to be quite an undertaking: driving from Reykjavík to the glacial lake of Jökusárlón in the southeast of the island and back again – about 12 hours on the road altogether.
The weather that met us each day seemed perfectly appropriate for the character of the day's wanderings, and the gray gloom of this day was no exception. Our first stop, about two hours drive from Reykjavík, was Vík (fully: Vík í Mýrdal), which greeted us with some characteristically stunning visual drama – deep black sand beaches, fast-moving gray clouds with a mist of rain, and towering cliffs dressed in lupines and fog.
After a quick lunch of soup and bread, we walked the beach, admiring the Reynisdrangar – columns of black basalt said to be trolls petrified by morning light – and the swirl of nesting seabirds, mostly puffins and fairy terns. When we'd had our fill of rolling about on the black sand, we took off towards Vatnajökull and the glacial lagoon.
The landscape changed quite distinctly at several points along the Ring Road on the south coast, and frequently hid the ocean from view although we were quite close to the shore. The glaciers of the Icelandic Interior (the remote central highland region that is off-limits most of the year), including Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull, were always visible in the distance, remaining the sole constant as the roadscape shifted from flat, lupine-covered plains to barren black lava fields to placid glacial rivers reflecting the gray sky. We stopped to take a closer look at the moss-covered volcanic rock and found the moss to be incredibly thick and bouncy – closer examination proved even more like walking on the moon than just appearances.
Even on the major roadways, there is a peculiar lack of signs indicating direction or distance to and from major points in Iceland. No matter how far removed you feel from civilization, however, it is rare that another vehicle is all too far behind you as the last disappears from sight. The road dips inland at Skaftafell National Park, close to the Vatnajökull glacier, and turns back out towards the water – and there, suddenly, icebergs are upon you! Sandra and I stopped dead in the parking lot and shrieked with delight in the car: unimaginably majestic, the icebergs were an amazing shade of pale blue-green, with veins of black.
They are constantly moving, but ever so slowly, out to sea – breaking, colliding, melting. Being in their presence is peaceful, like watching the ghosts of long-dead giants passing by. Tomorrow there will be all new icebergs, and those I saw will be long gone, but quite unforgettable.
Doubling back again through the alien landscapes, hoping to see Svartifoss (a remarkable waterfall in Skaftafell which inspired Reykjavík’s most impressive cathedral) before returning to Reykjavík, we were told at the visitors center it would be a 45-minute hike each way. We decided that with 4 hours on the road still ahead of us plus a dinner stop, we couldn’t afford it. We carried on through to Vík where we paused long enough to stop at the Strondin Bistro; the service was fairly awful, but the burger that filled our empty stomachs at 10 p.m. could not be matched for divine flavor.
The weather was taking a turn for the worse: fog was darkening the skies and the rain was coming down more steadily. Driving up a very steep mountainside cloaked in milky haze, the edges of the road dropped off from imagined cliffs. It was a harrowing drive home, especially for someone who hates driving as much as I do (Sandra does not have a driver’s license) and is unfamiliar with the twists and turns of the road ahead. Still, it wouldn’t be the last of our death-defying driving. We made it back to our Reykjavík base quite late and packed our bags so that we could launch early for the West Fjords and Strandir Coast.
The drive northwest along the Ring Road was fast-moving, and we paused only a few times to admire the changing landscape before we were abruptly ejected onto one very rough road. We stopped almost immediately at a stretch of rocky beach when I was struck by a rainbow-like array of seaweed and kelp in every imaginable color washed ashore. Unlike every other beach I have ever been on, despite the massive amount of dead and decaying organic matter, it smelled fresh and salty and was a feast for the eyes. When we got back on the road, I was only willing to go about 30km/hr, but we soon realized we might never get to Djúpavík at that speed. The road from there on out was extremely rough, paved with only stones or dirt, and barely one and a half lanes wide. We pulled into Holmavík a couple hours later, which is the last “big” town on that route in the north – about 300 residents. After refueling the car, we stopped by Café Riis, a tiny pub, for some lunch. Expecting a rustic, pub-style meal, we both ordered a roasted bacalao (salted cod) dish with potato cake and salad. We were blown away when we were served beautifully presented platters worthy of a much more upscale restaurant: all locally-produced cheese, fish and shrimp. It was impeccably prepared, with delicate, bright flavors.
The road heading north from Holmavík was even narrower, and followed the bend of every fjord, making the drive woozily repetitive but ever more harrowing as the roads became increasingly rugged. Although as the driver, it was hard for me to appreciate it fully, the weather and the scenery were stunning. Golden sunshine was chased by brief bursts of showers inland, dramatic clouds played over the mountainsides and ocean views; breathtaking terrain rolled past, dotted with tiny farmhouses and clusters of sheep, and waterfalls appeared at regular intervals.
The last two fjords before our arrival were particularly treacherous, and I had to do everything in my power to keep my cool. Sandra would point her camera out the window to shoot the scenes for us to view later, averting her own eyes as the drop induced a bit of vertigo. The final kilometers of road into Djúpavík hugged a cliff face with falling rock tightly to our left, and went into a sheer drop without a guardrail abruptly to our right. Around the last turn of the fjord, our jaws both dropped when a wide rainbow touched down on the road in front of us. As we pulled into Djúpavík around 9pm, on the longest day of the year, we were both shaken and awestruck.
We were shown our room by our kind host, Eva, then unpacked and decided to take in some of the midnight sun. Before I even conceived of coming to Iceland, I had been told by several friends that I should watch the documentary Heima, which elegantly chronicled the homeland tour of one of Iceland’s best-known bands, Sigur Rós. The film’s portrayal of the landscapes was engaging enough alone, but it was the band’s visit to Djúpavík and its long-abandoned herring processing factory, closed since the early 50’s, that convinced me to visit this remote and astonishing region. Sandra and I took a walk over to admire the factory, the few buildings in town, and the stunning waterfall that runs into it. We were caught in a sudden rain shower and retired to the lounge for the night to process our photos.
The hotel owners now also own the factory and provide tours to visitors. Eva informed us they wouldn’t be able to give us a tour our first day because a large group was coming to stay and they were short-handed. She suggested we drive further up the coast to where the road more or less ends and there is a geothermally-heated, oceanside pool. It took over an hour – at my breakneck pace of 50 km/h – but at this point, I was almost getting used to the mountain-goat-style driving. The pool, at any rate, was worth every white-knuckled blindhædir. The sun was shining brilliantly in the blue sky, and from the vantage point of the pool you could watch the rainstorms out at sea. After soaking in the comfortably warm water and taking photos there for a couple hours, we left when a large group of sightseers parked 4 SUVs on the beach, obscuring the view.
That evening we had a relaxing dinner at the hotel and took a little walk around the bay area,, photographing the fairy terns circling overhead. I also slid inside the massive concrete tanks that were once used to store the processed herring meal by the factory. The next morning after breakfast we packed once again and were led to the herring factory by Eva for the tour. The main hall of the lower level was now a makeshift storage area for vintage cars belonging to the locals. They had converted some of the spaces for use in public events, including a recent chess tournament and a regular art exhibition.
It was quite stunning when she introduced us to the flock of fairy terns through a large window that make their nests on the rooftop. Eva told us that the building had been built entirely by hand, without the use of any heavy machinery, in less than a year and a half during the late 1940’s. For quite some time, it was the largest concrete structure in Europe. It takes a particular kind of person to make a life in such a distant region, but Eva and her husband have gone to great lengths to preserve the history of the place and ensure a future for the town and its structures.
On our return trip to Reykjavík, we promised ourselves we would stop back at Café Riis for lunch and also visit the famously disturbing necropants at the Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum of Hólmavik. At Café Riis, I sampled the local mystery meats via an ‘open sandwich platter’, including dark Danish rye bread, Icelandic flatbread, hardfiskur (fish jerky), green pea salad, smoked lamb, and heady smoked lumpfish.
In the aftermath of the meal, my stomach felt a bit like an aquarium. The Sorcery and Witchcraft Museum was a bit underwhelming in terms of its displays, though the audio tour, at any rate, proved to be bizarrely engrossing. The necropants, however, are so richly weird that they could stand alone. To procure a pair of necropants – the surest way to secure wealth in an uncertain world – a man must make a pact with another man who is dying. After the man dies and is buried, the other man must exhume the corpse, remove the skin perfectly from the waist down, and rebury the body with a coin stolen from a poor woman tucked into its scrotum. The man must then wear the pants made from the dead man’s skin, whereupon they will bind to his own skin and bring him great and constant fortune, via the loins. Though the necropants in Hólmavik are a replica made of latex, they left an indelible mark on my psyche.
The rest of that day was devoted to driving back to Reykjavík. Much to our surprise, about half of what had been gravel and dirt roads on our way up to Djúpavík on Sunday, had now become paved roads by that Tuesday afternoon. The responsible parties turned out to be an enormously industrious two-man team we spotted on the road south. This cut our travel time to a fraction of what it had been before, even with stops along the way at a number of shorelines, abandoned houses and farms we had noted on the way up.
Our final rest stop in Reykjavík, the 4th Floor Hotel, was the accommodation on which we had decided to splurge. Located on a busy central block, the hotel was awkward to maneuver, the staff behaved in an unnecessarily confusing way, and the room, though clean, was plagued by an intense stench of sulfur emanating from the facilities in the bathroom. The evening was spent catching up on photos, emails, updates and preparing for our flight the next day.
We were planning on taking a leisurely soak in the Blue Lagoon on our final afternoon and heading directly to the airport afterward. Foolishly, we had not done much research at all on the Lagoon, thinking that finding it would be a simple affair. We checked out of our odiferous digs in Reykjavík a bit on the late side and headed towards the Lagoon’s restorative milky blue waters. Little did we know that Icelanders are so confident in the mystical power of attraction exerted by the lagoon that they would not bother with an actual sign indicating its location on the main road to Keflavik; there was only a small unassuming sign for Bláa Lonið. After driving well out of the way, by the time we arrived, checked in, took the manadatory pre-dip scrub and conditioning treatment and photographed a bit, we had less than half an hour of quality soak time before we had to get out, rescrub, dress, refuel the rental (and scrub the mud off it), drop it off and get back to the airport. The white silica mud we glazed ourselves with did in fact zap all the stress and frustration of the day. Bláa Lonið is a truly extraordinary and bizarre place, the last of many we saw that week.
We arrived safely in New York, bleary-eyed and jetlagged. After all the long uncertain drives, I was shocked to have avoided peril there, only to end up in a car accident on the turnpike on the way home! After a trek that was truly the smoothest and most sensational I have ever taken, that final east coast blindhædir threw me for a loop. The ineffable beauty, colors and stark contrast in the land will stay with me for a lifetime, inspiring and informing the artwork and photographs I have yet to make. With only a week to work in, there were too many roads I never got the chance to turn down, too many stretches of coast I did not get to admire, but every turn blind turn moved me to embrace the unexpected grandeur of a land to which I cannot wait to return.
NOTE! There are still some backers who haven't contacted me about the print they would like or their mailing address. If you are one of those people, please get in touch with me! I would like to be able to hold up my end of the bargain since you made this amazing trip possible! Thank you!