As featured in print in Live FAST Issue 1
It was a crisp August morning. I had taken the red-eye from Montreal, and other than the liberating effect of being in motion and marvelling at what I knew would be otherworldly landscapes, I still wasn’t sure why I felt such a strong impulse to travel to Iceland. At the car rental, near Keflavik airport, a young Greek employee offered me coffee, convinced me to sign up for travel insurance, handed me the keys to a small automatic car and reminded me that I should always leave the headlights on, even during the day, because “that’s how they do it here.” I impatiently threw my bulging bag, my tent, my tripod and my stash of energy bars onto the back seat and headed northwest on Route 1. Behind the wheel, I revelled in the promise of new adventures and the simple joy of having finally arrived.
Iceland’s Route 1 – more commonly known as the Ring Road – circles the island in 828 miles of jaw-dropping scenery, and it would be where I would be spending most of my time over the next three weeks.
On my way to the charming harbour town of Stykkishólmur in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, red hills were draped in Arctic light and seemed to hover beyond my path, while the peaks of a dark ashy mountain stretched up to the passing clouds. For days, I drove amongst moss fields and lakes. I descended into volcanoes and hiked glaciers. But mostly, I submerged myself in silence. On the road, I saw more sheep than locals, and spoke to hardy Nordic horses instead of travellers. I took photographs and then more photographs, all without a single person to tag.
With the exception of the piece of hákarl I ingested (a local delicacy also known as rotten shark), luck was on my side. The sun had been shining for days, my camping skills were steadily improving, I hadn’t run out of gas and had yet to find reason to unfold my rain pants. I was alone, contemplative, and free of civilization. For miles, piles of rock seemed so empty of life. That all changed in Mývatn.
When I arrived in Mývatn I watched the daylight quickly fade away, and started to worry about dying in Pompeii-fashion due to reports of a mud flow gushing from the now-erupting Bardarbunga volcano. After knocking at the doors of two overpriced hotels and feeling less than impressed, I decided to camp in the town of Reykjahlid. I should state that by now, I had learned that all campgrounds in Iceland were not created equal. But Bjarg campsite’s best feature was its location. I settled right on the shore of Lake Mývatn, grabbed my map (International Photographer’s map to Iceland), a flashlight, the bottle of Cabernet that sat in the trunk, and hopped into my little portable home to plan tomorrow’s itinerary.
Explosive geology had created a multitude of star-studded attractions in the Mývatn region. At Krafla, fissures spoke of great fires, while in the lava fields heat seeped up through the ground and into my sneakers. Meanwhile, in nearby Námafjall, mudpools coughed up boiling clay and fumaroles let off some steam, perhaps exhausted by the tourists who kept taking selfies with them.
Mývatn was the futuristic and otherworldly Iceland I had imagined. In his book The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton wrote on the sublime recalling Edmund Burke’s idea that a landscape could “arouse the sublime only when it suggested power – a power greater than that of humans, and threatening to them. Sublime places embodied a defiance to man’s will.”
I’ll admit it; there was a constant fear during my journey across Iceland. But it was that healthy kind of fear, the kind that garnered respect for my environment and forced me to be fully present. At any moment, I could step into a hot spring or fall into a crevice. Caves could collapse, or worse. Hiking the rugged backs of the remote Landmannalaugar’s mountains in violent wind, I remember kneeling and grasping the Earth to avoid being blown off a precipice. I sat and contemplated my surroundings, in complete awe at the treacherous beauty around me.
In Þingvellir National Park, where geysers exploded like ticking bombs and waterfalls wore crowns made of rainbows, continents split. Here, the Earth’s tectonic plates ripped apart and like two estranged lovers, they just keep growing farther apart. Today though, I would swim in the space between them.
It took me an hour to wriggle my body into the dry-suit and equipment that would protect me from the 2-degree glacier water. But that still didn’t keep me from feeling the stiff sting of coldness as I let go of the metal stairway that led me into the Silfra crack. To my right was the American continent. To the left, Europe. With head under water you could see as far as 150 meters on a good day. Hundreds of years of filtration through underground lava fields had made this fracture the clearest water in the world. Looking down the rift I was totally amazed, half dizzy and strangely emotional. How could there be clutter in my mind, when I was adrift in such clarity?
For the sake of being in motion, I had crossed an ocean, drove for miles, and walked for hours on end. All this to reach a place of utter solitude—the quietest place I’ve ever known. I doubt if I’ll ever feel that small again.
Special thanks to Go Iceland Car Rentals (goiceland.com) and Padi 5 Star Dive Center (dive.is)