A Guide to Visiting Iceland on July 16th, 2014

by Emmet Stackelberg


Your day in Iceland begins on a bus, the Flybus, which shuttles along Iceland’s edge from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik. In ten years, you might be able to do this trip on a train that will carry a thousand passengers every hour. Iceland has never had a public train before, so it’s possible that the first public train in Iceland will cater almost exclusively to tourists, whose numbers are projected to almost double by 2023.

Until then, it’s the Flybus, which traces a boundary between Atlantic Ocean and an inexplicable, bulbous network of volcanic rock. Observe as you travel that the treeless terrain, at once both traversable and inhospitable, makes it perfect for video game realms where characters can only move, jump, and shoot. Travel fact: Ridley Scott’s upcoming movie version of Halo just filmed in Iceland a few weeks ago.

Reykjavik is a driving city — a small Los Angeles, you will be told, with growing traffic problems. The traffic gets worse as the city gets bigger, in large part because of tourism — because of all the hotels they’re building. But still, we’re talking a really small LA, since its population is just a bit over a hundred and two thousand people. After stopping by a hideous cement church, a hot dog stand, and the shopping district, you will finish your city tour in forty-five minutes.

Now it’s time to see some of Iceland’s famous wilderness. Rent a car with a friend to go watch a performance of Cage’s 4:33 in an ancient ravine. Pile in with another guy and two girls you just met. One of them is best friends with that girl from your high school, which is the sort of improbability that you can still fathom, like the fact that all the water in Iceland smells vaguely of sulfur. Travel fact: that girl from high school had blond hair and responded to something you’d say with a scoff and a smirk and that either meant she disapproved or didn’t understand — you never figured out which. You spoke little to her and she to you. And now you and her best friend are careening across a well-marketed arctic landmass, united by that foreign visitor spirit, that desire for exotic curiosities and safe adventures.

Arrive, suddenly, at a ravine, a gash in the earth so vast it hosts a waterfall from which they used to hurl women accused of adultery. Travel fact: adulterous men were hanged from the edge of the ravine. No number of imagined self-deaths will help you decide which gender had it worse.

Look across the ravine, at land that pushes itself apart. The line of the Eurasian plate and North American plates is right there, where you can see it. But while the land recedes from you, the sky appears to careen toward you. You’re making this drive at midnight and the sun’s still up, seeming to you, a man from the temperate zone, like a mistake of the universe.

Watch out for the bugs. They’re all over. Later, your friend will show you some footage he shot for a documentary he’s working on. It shows a woman yacking it because too many bugs flew in her mouth. Contemplating that many bugs is a challenge for you, but part of the fun of travel is the challenge.

Make too many jokes with your fellow adventurers, unsure of why you’re making them. Maybe because you’re tired and your body is confused, or maybe because the notion of unsetting suns and ancient human ritual outdone by more ancient geological inevitability brings out an awful dread in you. You want to mask this bizarre feeling, one you figure Icelanders must’ve gotten over thousands of years ago. It’s probably what makes them so nice, so crimeless, so etc.

Learn, via Facebook (events) and Google (translate), that you missed the Cage thing by hours. At some point, 20:00 had become 18:00. Easy to do in a land that seems to disobey time. You have other things to explore, like an ancient dueling ground now ruled by a fiefdom of protective geese, and a moss-covered hill overlooking a misty, mysterious lake. Travel fact: you will only learn after you step on the moss that you’re royally fucking with the biome and ruining a bunch of little lives as significant to you as yours is to the shifting tectonic plates beneath you. This will be told to you in the form of, “Yeah, we really shouldn’t be walking on this moss.” Your emotional response to this will be almost volcanic — a sudden, obliterating sadness. Why, when this place so amazes you so, did you wreck a little piece of it?

Travel facts: a geological instant ago, just before the Vikings stumbled across it, a quarter of Iceland was covered by birch forest. The first Viking settlers destroyed that forest. The old growth probably helped build structures and maybe even ships, and the newer, stubby growth that replaced it got thrown into vast pits to create charcoal for the iron forges. And so we got deforestation and desertification and Halo terrain. No pesky trees to render. Less than one percent of present-day Iceland is birch forest. The passage of that geological instant has not, on the whole, changed us. Humans continue to be unsurpassed, even by volcanos, in our capacity to annihilate. According to Greenpeace, between 1996 and 2006, loggers in the Amazon rainforest deforested an area about the size of Iceland.

You’ll find all this out a few days later, though. Right now, you’re still freaking out about the moss. You can’t explain why and you don’t think your friend or the other riders or that girl from your high school or the traditional phrases sewn into your Icelandair blankets or the map of the forbidden driving zone in the Subaru’s glove box or the Vikings or any living thing could clarify it, either. The closest you will get to explaining anything comes when all of you, together, stop on the walk back to the car and watch a cloud slowly, so slowly, move across a mountain. You will do this in total silence. Altogether you reenact 4:33 about three times, just standing there, in awe or in deep focus or just lost. The land in that moment needs no interpretation, no advocacy, certainly no alteration. At least, you think. You’re still really jet lagged, of course, and you have an early Flybus to catch in the morning.

Emmet von Stackelberg is a writer living in Cambridge.
Photo by Matteo Sorba