One posh uncomfortable week on the edge of the Arctic Circle
The day before the last day of 2016, I stood on a beach staring directly into the sun.
It was 3 PM and the sun was sitting on the horizon. It had come up in the morning and simply rolled across the shoreline as the day went on — never rising higher or setting lower.
It felt like the end of things. A weird apocalyptic doom where the sun rises less and less until it simply goes away. I was witnessing the last days of light on earth.
Except it wasn’t end of days. This is what life is like on the edge of the Arctic Circle during winter. For five months out of the year, 340,000 permanent residents of Iceland and a decent portion of the 4.1 million annual tourists experience this dark, draining heaviness of limited daylight.
I moved my gaze east away from the sun, the spots fading from my vision. I took in my surroundings. The beach I was standing on was made up entirely of black sand. The skies were a cotton candy pink and had been that color for most of the day. In front of me were large chunks of ice that had broken off from a nearby glacial lagoon. The waves from the North Atlantic ocean cascaded through the ice field, pushing small pieces onto the shore while larger ones stood up against the tide. For the past week, I had been living out of a camper van while remaining permanently in snow gear. I had showered only once.
As I have moved through my 20s and traveled often, living out of a backpack and moving about in countries that don’t share my language has become normal. I more or less have a good sense of what I am getting into.
Yet here I was on a coastline just south of the arctic disoriented. I watched waves hit giant chunks of ice knowing everything was going to be in full darkness by mid afternoon. Just 12 hours prior, I had woken up to watch the Northern Lights. I had little, if anything, to compare this experience with. It was confused excitement.
Then I looked behind me and remembered the busload of Chinese tourists that had arrived 10 minutes prior. They had spread out, filling in the remaining spots on the beach that didn’t already have people posing for photos. For a majority of these travelers, they would be staying in boujee hotels and dining on $50 entrees after visiting tourist sights.
Throughout my trip to Iceland, I found myself jumping between two perspectives completely at odds with one another. On one hand, Iceland in the depths of winter is a dangerous and deadly place. There are stinging winds and blinding blizzards. Stranded at night, a person wouldn’t make it to morning in one piece.
On the other hand, Iceland is doing everything it can to accommodate the massive influx of tourism. The two major airlines, WOW Air and Icelandair, have set up direct flights from most major cities for absurdly bargain prices. The fastest growing major at Iceland universities is tourism and the local towns scattered throughout the country thrive on tourism dollars. Historically small fishing towns now have sleek modern hotels. There are pockets that look more like an American mall food court than a small village near the arctic.
I came to the realization that Iceland is the only place in the world where you can buy a Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell and feel like you’re eating it on the moon. Amidst Iceland’s rugged exterior is a soft, plush and commercialized liner.
In June I was sipping cervejas in Portugal. I wound up there for a long weekend on the front end of a two week trip to Europe. After talking with two of my well-traveled, has-good-taste-in-everything-friends, they told me to see Portugal. I took their advice and booked a ticket knowing very little about the country. It ended up being one of the best weekends of my life. I had a similar experience in Vietnam. Really well-traveled and interesting people told me I had to go. Vietnam is still my favorite country.
I never had this with Iceland. Nobody ever told me to go.
I bought a ticket to Iceland because of New Year’s Eve. I wanted to be as far north as possible — away from everything — when the ball dropped. I had entered a phase in my life where I was making erratic decisions after 2016 went into a tailspin. After a job hunt stalling and a six year relationship ending, I was looking for an escape-hatch. I had turned into an indie-movie version of myself. I felt like a privileged asshole, having the money and free-time to go on an international vacation to heal my wounds because things hadn’t gone my way. Yet here I was, fully committed to the idea of ringing in the New Year as far north as I could possibly go for a reasonable amount of money.
Toggling through Google images and stocking Instagram travel accounts, visiting Iceland looked like an adventure. In the expansiveness, the country seemed full of the types of journeys we tell our kids about. The country oozes beauty and rains down epiphanies on anyone who wanders through it’s open lands. I had high hopes.
After doing some research, every travel blog recommended driving the circumference of Iceland. The 828 mile, two lane highway officially called Route 1, but more commonly referred to as the Ring Road, jumps between the different regions of Iceland. The road winds through fjords, across ice fields and into mountains. While the Ring Road can be navigated in less than 18 hours by a determined driver, the guidebooks and locals all recommended a week.
In the six weeks between booking my ticket and leaving for my trip, Iceland started to feel like the crossfit of tourist destinations. Many, many people had been and it was all they wanted to talk about. Uncles, friends of friends, coworkers and casual dates all had the same Iceland story. They would talk about ponies and plane wrecks, waterfalls and hot dogs. Right before I left, I was convinced the best way to start a conversation was to bring up Iceland.
I arrived in Iceland hungry. It was Dec. 26 and I had spent Christmas in Dublin. After miscalculating my flight time, I forgot about an extra hour of airtime due to a time zone switch. I was starving by the time I cleared customs.
The arrival area in the Keflavik airport where I was waiting for my bus had one food option — Dunkin’ Donuts. At this point, I didn’t think twice about ordering a bagel sandwich and coffee. Airports have always been weird crossovers of local offerings and American fast food culture. I had watched my friend scarf down Burger King in the Dublin Airport just three hours prior.
After eating, I boarded a bus to the rental car agency to swoop up my lodging for the next week, which ended up being a small camper van that looked like an ice cream truck. I arrived in Reykjavik around 5 PM to stay the night before heading out on the Ring Road in the morning.
For holding nearly 70 percent of the country’s population, Reykjavik feels like a small town. Aside from a few shiny, glassy buildings on the waterfront, the city is how I imagine Boston looked in the early 1900s. It’s a town full of four story buildings constructed during the 19th century that have been through a lot of shitty winters. Inside, all of the buildings exude warmth. It feels old, but it is welcoming and quaint.
In Reykjavik, this quaintness works like a blast zone. The church Halgrimskirja is the center. The five block radius around the church is full of adorable coffee shops, pubs and boutiques. Right outside the five blocks is a Hard Rock Cafe. Just down the street from the Hard Rock is the Chuck Norris Grill. When tourism dollars makeup 30 percent of the annual GDP, there are going to be restaurants named after a guy who’s known for cheesy karate moves and cheap home gyms. Of course I went in.
After less than 24 hours in Reykjavik, my journey along the Ring Road started underground. There is a long tunnel about an hour north of the city that winds and snakes through drilled out rock. Inside, it looks like the inner walls of the human intestine, but it could just as easily be mistaken for a wormhole. Cars enter on one end and are spit out into another world.
On the other side, I immediately understood why this country had become one of the world’s favorite travel destinations. The uniqueness of the country’s visual offering ranges from apocalyptic-ally bizarre to astonishingly beautiful. These variations between extreme harshness and lushness is probably why every movie producer, director and studio executive considers Iceland as a potential destination when they need to film a scene in the sci-fi or fantasy genres.
Christopher Nolan has used the landscape multiple times from Batman Begins to Interstellar. The entire Game of Thrones series creates its many Northern kingdoms in the winter and fall. Even a planet from the massively profitable Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens was shot on location in Iceland.
Traversing the many miles along the Ring Road was cinematic. It was big and expansive. Having been to a good portion of the United State’s National Parks, touring Iceland felt like I was moving through the best offerings of Yosemite, Yellowstone and Zion. Except here, the sights were stacked right next to each other.
Moving clockwise around the country, each day felt like I was traveling through a different region of the world. The northwestern part of the island was coastal, with large sweeping hills that arched into quarter pipe cliff faces. The northern part was mountainous and rugged — the road crossed through passes that felt like I was in the alps. The eastern coast was full of large misty valleys and fjords that formed long crooked fingers of land that reached out into the North Atlantic. The southern coast was filled with line after line of prehistoric glaciers and peaky mountains. The only connector in this country’s diverse landscape was the earth shattering waterfalls that came out of nowhere and poured nothing but photographic beauty.
With only five hours of sunlight, the days felt full. By the evening I was zapped, turned into a geriatric traveler. Each day we spent packing in as many sights as possible. We went from mountain, to ocean, to waterfall, to big open expansive valley. We would eat on the road and go to the bathroom wherever. Even on the multiple hour stretches between sights, the landscape was fascinating.
Road trips are supposed to be filled with long hours of boredom where entertainment must be found within the vehicle to avoid monotony. I spent 18 hours driving Iceland’s Ring Road. I never once felt bored.
I did begin to feel frustrated. While astonishingly lovely, the winter Iceland experience started to feel one dimensional. The Ring Road began to seem more like a track than an open road. We were on a tour, and unless we got off, there was nothing unique about what we were doing. It was the same ride millions take each year.
A big part of this was the lack of culture. Icelanders have culture. It’s historic and tough. Before visiting Iceland, I read post after post about generations of Icelanders dating back to the vikings. They risked their lives in dangerous waters to fish. They withstood dark, dim and cold winters. They recharged during long, warm and sunny summers.
I didn’t get to meet these people. The towns where tourists stopped to refill their stomachs and gas tanks catered to the needs of the tourist. It felt more like dealing with a concession stand employee than anything that resembled local culture. I don’t blame them. In the small towns of 500 people, they could see thousands of tourists mob through their one restaurant and one gas station in a single day. I can’t think of anything more draining culturally than big swaths of people sliding through town looking for their immediate needs to be met, and then leaving.
What tourists seemed to really want Subway. It was surprising to see in towns of only a few thousand people, Subway would be one of the four food options.
The one time I stopped in to eat at one was on the west coast of Iceland in the tiny town of Fljótsdalshérað. The person behind the counter was a Vietnamese man whose parents fled to Spain during the Vietnam War. He grew up there, left for Sweden when Spain’s economy tanked in 2009. He came up empty and eventually moved to Iceland. His girlfriend was still in Sweden, not wanting to join him. He hated Iceland and it didn’t feel like he had much hope of things turning around. It may have been the saddest Subway I ever ate.
The cost of doing anything in Iceland also made it the most expensive Subway I ever purchased. The six inch sub I ordered was almost $9. Unless it was gas station food, meals would be a minimum of $15. Coffee was always $5 and filling up the camper van was almost $100. It’s an island. Like most islands, everything costs more. Iceland has got to be the most expensive island in the world.
While all of this was shitty, none of these things felt like deal breakers. It was like spending a few nights in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Stuff is expensive, culture is kind of fanned and tourists do a bunch of stupid stuff.
Iceland was unique in that the whole Ring Road is a big tourist destination. It was as if the French Quarter, the canals of Venice and Temple Bar in Dublin was spread out over 828 miles. It was an entire country made up of dumb tourists.
Multiple times I saw tourists do things I was convinced were going to kill them or do enough serious harm to diminish their quality of life. They did other things that probably permanently damaged the landscape.
It was a mix of hoping these people didn’t seriously injure themselves while also suppressing the side of me saying “Darwin, Darwin, Darwin.”
I watched a man walking down a frozen riverbed near Skogafos Waterfall thinking it was a frozen sidewalk. When he fell through, he was submerged in freezing water up to his waist. He struggled to get out, having no idea how to escape. If it had been in the wild and not near the parking lot of Iceland’s most popular waterfall, he probably would have never gotten out. It took three tourists, one of them almost falling in himself, to free the man.
In the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, a group of people jumped from the shore onto a giant ice chunk for a photo opp. Clearly bobbing in the lagoon, the ice chunk started to float away. The group barely hopped off in time with two girls not quite making the leap and getting their boots wet. A man who drives one of the tour buses told me later that people regularly jump onto the glacier chunks, only to have them capsize and need to be rescued.
Everyday along the Ring Road, there was at least one rental car or van ditched off to the side of the road. Someone had pulled off too far and the car slid down. Someone was distracted by the views and drove off the road. Someone forgot to get gas and the car was ditched on the side of the road. All of them needed to be rescued.
As my trip marched on toward New Year's Day, the absurdity of Iceland, the circus of the tourist and the business of catering to them almost became an equally depressing and entertaining sideshow to the wonderful views. With every new waterfall or rock formation, there would be a tourist there ready to ruin it.
On New Year’s Eve day I felt like I was going to die.
The day before, I had bought a pre-made taco pepperoni sandwich from a gas station. I got it as a joke and forgot about it. I had left it in a plastic bag in the back of the van.
When I woke up on New Year’s Eve day, the town where we were going to eat breakfast had closed all of its restaurants for the winter. We were hours away from the next town and had multiple sights to see before we could stop and eat food. The only thing in the van left was that taco pepperoni sandwich. Trying to forget I had taste buds, and convinced I was going to get food poisoning, I scarfed down the sandwich for breakfast and went on a one mile hike to Svartifoss Waterfall.
I had a small headache that got worse as the day went on. The van’s battery powered heater died, forcing us to idle the van all night to stay warm. I imagined it was similar to spending the night in the engine of a submarine. I woke up to the van’s engine vibrating every few hours.
By mid afternoon, my head was pounding and my stomach was revolting. New Years Eve was finally here, the day I wanted to be somewhere cool to escape back home, and I couldn’t remember feeling this bad in a long time. It was as if my body had internalized all of my frustrations with 2016 and let them out on the final day of the year.
I struggled through the afternoon, seeing sights in a sickness induced haze. We eventually arrived in the small town of Vik where I stumbled into a mini mart. I grabbed ibuprofen, water, coffee, Sprite and bread. I took the ibuprofen and switched between sipping my three beverages as I ate bites of bread.
The mini mart travel remedy worked. An hour later I was standing on top of a ridge called Dyrholaey feeling the best I had all day and thanking the creators of everything I had just consumed for fixing my body.
In my improved state, I admired a lighthouse that looked like it was straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. I gazed at the giant Dyrholaey Arch, and contemplated the thousands of miles of water that stood between me and mainland Europe.
As the sun set, we walked onto a beach to check out a wall of large basalt columns. By the time we had seen the columns and snapped a few pictures, I needed a headlamp to see.
On the way back to the van, I saw a man signaling to us in the dark. We stopped and waited as he walked over to us. He wore two cameras around his neck and held a giant box of fireworks in his hands. It was clear that by the hand signals he was using, we did not speak the same language. Motion to the fireworks and making an ignite sign, he wanted us to help him light them off. He pointed at his cameras and then turned and pointed behind him.
Moving my headlamp over his shoulder, the light illuminated a young couple huddling together for warmth. They had a blanket draped over their shoulders. They were dressed in wedding attire. After a week of interacting with people only in snow gear, I must have looked crazed taking in the scene. Oddly, they seemed excited and content with their current situation. Neither were concerned that they were three layers short of what someone should be wearing at night to stay warm in Iceland.
I have no idea why, but I felt extremely invested in this couple. If they were going to trek to Iceland and freeze in the night for a photo, I could definitely light off some fireworks. I actually would have lit them off even if it wasn’t for this couple, but I really wanted these fireworks to create an amazing photo. It was as if we were old friends.
We took the fireworks box and walked with the man a few hundred yards away from the couple. He lit a cigarette and handed it to us to ignite the fuse. We stood back and watched 30 green flares shoot out into the dark night sky. We walked back to the couple to see how the photos turned out. They were impressive. “We did it” I yelled. They had no idea what I said and seemed a little scared by my enthusiasm.
From the photo session, we went back into the town of Vik. Every restaurant was closed besides the Iceland Air Vik Hotel. It was a glass building on the outside filled with well-dressed tourists who looked like they had just come back from a day of skiing in Colorado. We didn’t have a reservation so we waited an hour and a half for a table. We bought $10 beers and drank them in the hotel lobby to waste the time. One beer down, and the travel fatigue hit me again. I hopped out of the hotel and took a 30 minute nap. Walking back in for dinner, I looked up to see a long stream from the aurora jetting across the sky.
Across from our table at dinner was a young couple beaming with happiness. They were up against the window, which now had fireworks going off regularly. It was exciting to see how lost in the moment they were. At one point they called the waiter over to take their photo. Their happiness excitement radiated into the camera.
More scenes like this happened throughout the rest of the evening. Couples and friends were doing New Year’s Eve activities with the arctic skies serving as a unique backdrop. It was epic, but also not very different than how people would be spending their New Year’s back home. It didn’t feel remote or exposed or dangerous. It definitely didn’t feel like I was ringing in 2017 a few miles from the Arctic Circle.
Just before midnight, we pulled off the road for a final time, set up our camera equipment and took photos as 2016 wound down. I glanced at my phone at 11:59, looked up and then glanced at it again. It was 2017.
The aurora was still going as the dark green and grey hues wafted over the open sky. Fireworks continued to burst as locals, and maybe a few wedding photographers, launched off their stockpiles. As I took in the scene, I was thinking about Disneyland.
When I was 18, I went to Disneyland.
On the verge of adulthood, I hopped around the Magical Kingdom with four friends who all had beards or were regularly shaving. We went over MLK weekend. Our parents gladly paid for the trip, happy we weren’t going to Canada or Mexico where we could get drunk and do stupid stuff. Instead we waited in lines, snapped photos with Disney characters and gorged on all-you-can-eat-buffets. We rode roller coasters until our heads hurt. The Walt Disney Corporation created a park that catered to our needs.
This is Iceland.
For better or for worse, the country is a theme park. The island doesn’t feel like a country with a vibrant culture and strong history. It feels like a series of beautiful views and a ton of restaurants and hotels. It is Jurassic Park minus all of the dinosaurs — if Jurassic Park was actually real. On any day, nine out of 10 people I would see were tourists and the tenth person was some Icelandic person who worked in the tourism industry.
None of this means Iceland isn’t worth visiting. It is beautiful and miraculous in ways I’ve never seen before. There just isn’t much more to the country than the views. The cultural immersion many seek out when going abroad just isn’t really in Iceland. So it makes sense the country is expecting tourism to continue to grow over the next decade. Disneyland has never stopped growing, why should Iceland?
On my last day in Iceland I got off the Ring Road. I rented a surfboard from one of only two surf shops in the entire country and headed for a beach on the southern coast.
The town near the beach was small — maybe 10 square blocks. There wasn’t a Subway. There wasn’t even a big commercial gas station. It was a fishing town. The ones I thought I would see speckled across the island.
Finding the beach, I pulled the surfboard out, waxed and slipped into my wetsuit. After being so comfortable in snow gear, I felt exposed for the brief minute that my upper body was bare — being pummeled by wind and freezing rain in early January. As I looked out into the ocean, for a brief second I paused, nervous about this decision. It was scary and felt a little bit crazy and dangerous.
In the water, the waves were perfect. I looked back at the coast and there wasn’t a single person in sight. The ocean was completely empty. It was the first time I had been alone all week. I surfed for a long time before going back to meet up with my friend in the van.
I stripped off my wetsuit, threw on my clothes and headed back to Reykjavik. Driving back , the road we were on eventually reconnected with the Ring Road. I looked out at miles of empty landscape and asked my friend to pull off the road. I got out and grabbed a rock. We were flying out the next day and I had yet to grab any sort of memento from my trip. The porcelain Icelandic elves and viking crap weren’t think I really wanted to bring home. I looked out at the empty landscape one last time and jumped back into the van with a small five pound rock.
The landscape slowly transitioned into rural neighborhoods and then city streets as we approached the outer limits of Reykjavik. On the way out of town, we saw a combination KFC and Taco Bell on the outskirts of Reykjavik. My phone flashed $8 as the drive thru person handed over a bag with a Cheesy Gordita Crunch in it.
I opened it, took a giant bite and continued down the road to catch my flight back home.