On the dashboard, Earl was propped up next to Fabrice’s phone blaring music from The Nationals. My cheeks felt warm as I squinted out the front windshield at the dark fields spotted with greenish-yellow plants. In the distance we could see Vatnajökull, Iceland’s largest glacier at 8300 square kilometers, emerging from behind craggy mountains in the foreground.
As we got closer, we saw many tour buses pulling off the Ring Road to the left. It looked like something to check out.
At Skaftafell, tourists can purchase guided tours of the Vatnajökull glacier and surrounding park area. Many locals told us that walking on the glacier on your own during or surrounding the summer months is never something Icelanders risk—only tourists who do not know the dangers of falling through the ice, never to be seen again.
Guides are absolutely necessary and increase your safety significantly, but instead we opted to do an off-glacier, self-guided hike along the Gönguleiðer trails. Up the mountain 30-45 minutes would take us to see another waterfall—Svartifoss. A morning hike sounded good to us all even though we had already seen spectacular falls the day before. Grabbing water and a few snacks, we headed in the direction of the trailhead.
The morning air was cool, but the sun was bright, surprisingly hot, and gaining elevation. We all stripped off clothing as we ascended up the tree-lined path. We saw Hundafoss on the way up and gorgeous views of the highest mountain in Iceland, Hvannadalshnjúkur. In fact, we were so satisfied with what we saw already, we decided to stop as soon as we could see Svartifoss in the distance before reaching it. After pausing to take in our surroundings and cool down, we headed back down. We wanted to be sure we would make good time on the road. Our destination today was one of Iceland’s eastern most towns: Höfn.
Before we left Reykjavik, I had learned about all kinds of places to visit between the west coast and the town of Vik. Very little was told to me about what we would find beyond Vik on the way to Höfn. So I had Carolina in the passenger seat open up a document I had saved to my phone prior to my arrival in Iceland. I have a confession to make.
Just a couple of days before my trip started, I realized I hadn’t looked up many places to actually visit while in Iceland. I bought the plane ticket fairly last minute and without any idea about anywhere or anything in particular I actually wanted to see. I only knew “Iceland is beautiful” and would figure it out when I got there. Well, I am really glad that I at least took an hour to do what I did next. I turned to the only resource I felt could help me with less than 48 hours left before departure: Google Maps.
In the past, I would sometimes get distracted from my graduate studies by getting lost in another country on Google Maps. I’d type in some random place and then start looking through photos people had taken and posted to the map area. If you’ve never done this before I highly recommend it as one of the best ways to lose hours of productivity at work or school.
Locating Iceland, I zoomed in and started to drag the cursor slowly across the country, opening photos of places that looked interesting and marking them on a separate map using Google's Map Engine (shout out to my ex-coworker, Chelsea, for introducing me to Map Engine and giving me the first marks on my Iceland map!). The markers would sometimes be names of actual places, other times they were simple descriptions—even as brief as “views” to tell myself that there were views worth seeing at that location.
Here is the interactive map I came up with:
So far, I hadn’t needed the map. I had gone about my travels in Iceland completely openly, allowing the people I met and moment-by-moment circumstances to help influence my next move. But now it was the right time to pull it out. “Carolina, there should be a place somewhere between here and Höfn that says ‘Gorgeous Ice Formations.’ Where is that?” Photos of this spot were the first photos of Iceland I had ever seen and they had completely captivated me. My Google Maps search had helped me to pinpoint their location.
“Oh! It should be coming up soon, actually. Real soon. Looks like it’s near a lake.”
“Okay, keep your eyes out for a lake and we’ll stop.”
Less than 20 minutes later, we saw cars pulled to the side of the road next to large hills of dirt. The fact that I couldn’t see beyond the mounds made me think there must be a lake on the other side. I told my companions, “If it’s nothing we’ll just keep going, but I have a feeling this may be the spot.” At the edge of the small parking area, a small sign mentioned glacial moraines considered natural monuments.
My heart leapt!
Jogging between an opening in two hills, my intuition revealed to me exactly what I was seeking: Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon with natural ice formations spread throughout a lake that had formed from the receding outlet glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, of the larger Vatnajökull. The area was famously filmed in several Hollywood movies including Batman Beginsand Tomb Raider.
I melted like an ice cap right there in the foot path. I was instantly obsessed and I was only seeing a fraction of the scene. The marked path led up to the edge of a slope down into the lake and then spread along the edge of the slope as far as I could see. My reaction was to set off on my own. I followed the markers along the lakeside, breaking into a jog to gain some distance and get closer to some of the large ice formations I could see ahead.
I plopped down on a rock between two of the more interesting ice monuments out on the water. I thought one looked a bit like a crocodile and the other like Superman's Fortress of Solitude. Solitude, indeed. I just sat in awe, reflecting about this planet on which we so delicately live. We are so incredibly lucky to be here, a blip in time, with the ability to witness such wonders with a conscious, present mind. And yet so many people seem to be stuck in time and place, unable to break out of the routines of human society to see it.
I thought about this for a long while, listening to the sound of Fabrice’s harmonica in the distance. Peering in his direction, I could see another lone traveler propped in front of a boulder, gazing out over the lake. I wonder if he's thinking the same. After a few minutes, I decided it was time to make my way back to Carolina and Fabrice. I had darted off excitedly, leaving them behind.
Jogging back to them I was holding both my phone and my camera, one in each hand. The footpath was quite rocky and uneven. Jagged rocks made me pay attention to each foot landing. But one foot hit the wrong way and down I went. As if in slow motion, I had enough time to think to raise my devices up and into my body and turn my arms out to protect them.
I landed with my right fore-arm planting into a sloping rock and the rest of my right body slammed into several more pointy ones. My arm and leg burned with pain. Surely I had tore a hole in the shin of my pants. You know, the pants that were supposed to last me an entire year.
Quickly standing up, I checked out my arm first. Skinned, with one big chunk out of it—not so bad. Next, I dusted off my leg—no tear in the material? Rolling up the pant leg, my shin was skinned with one big gash in it. Wow, these pants are good (three cheers for ExOfficio clothing!). I was so relieved about not ripping my pants I didn't even care about my injuries. Limping forward to test my weight on it, I was actually okay. I glanced up at the lone traveler whom I knew had watched me take the spill. I gave him a reassuring salute. He saluted back. Hobbling back to my friends I announced how dumb I was to jog on rocky terrain, but who cares with a landscape like this!
We spent more time at the location together, and then went back to the car where Carolina graciously offered some of her first aid items to help clean me up. I realized I would need to add alcohol wipes to my first aid kit. After about an hour and a half spent at Jökulsárlón, it was time to make the rest of the way to Höfn.
A light mist had formed at the edges of the horizon as we pulled into the town surrounded by water with glacial mountains set in the west. We found our hostel, checked in, and then went for a late lunch at Vikin. After all the Skyr I ate every morning on the trip so far, I was craving a real breakfast. Eggs, bacon, and toast for lunch was just the thing.
While I was craving a traditional American breakfast, Fabrice was craving a skate park—and he found it. After we ate, Carolina and I laid in the grass and watched him ride around and make friends with a young Icelandic skateboarder.
Before dinner, we repeated the evening before by grabbing beers and ascending the hill next to our hostel. At the top, we could look out over a golf course below that stretched along the seaside. The mist faded the sun among the clouds as it dropped lower in the sky. Carolina had a plane leaving for New York in two days.
She would have to catch a bus back to Reykjavik in the morning. We all laid back on the grass and felt sad that Carolina would be leaving in the morning. Our trio would be breaking. With just three days left, the remaining pair of us were about to embark on the second half of the journey.