Because we’re crazy, Jamie and I didn’t find a place to sleep around 11 p.m., when we left Seljavallalaug, our hidden mountain pool. Instead we drove another half hour, headed, we thought, to the seaside village of Vik.
But before we reached Vik, we were sidetracked by a sign for the beach and a row of parked cars. Eager to see the black sand, we parked and started walking, following the signs.
The landscape was barren and rocky, with odd, looming natural pyramid formations. It felt sci-fi and sacred. We were cold and under-dressed, but we thought the ocean was five minutes away.
Half an hour later, we were still walking. Now we were hungry, exhausted, grumpy and thirsty. We’d been up since 7 a.m. We’d done a million things. Jamie’s bum knee hurt. My camera weighed a ton.
After what was probably another 15 minutes (it felt like another hour), we saw came to a random abandoned truck, and then, about 5 minutes later, abandoned plane wreckage.
On top of the plane, there was a tourist doing an entire photo shoot with a selfie stick. A small film crew (maybe 5 people?) gathered around, glaring at selfie-guy.
We knew about the US Navy plane that crashed on Solheimasandur beach in 1973. It was on tomorrow’s itinerary. But here we were, by happenstance, tonight. (For a few days, this became a pattern.)
A crashed plane on a black beach, miles from anything, has inherent surreality. Stumbling upon it unexpectedly makes it even weirder. (Although truthfully, awhile into our walk, we began to suspect that’s where we were headed. We thought about the cars and the sign off to the right when we started out, far enough away that we didn’t bother walking out to read it.)
We took a few requisite snapshots and (somewhat reluctantly) walked another hundred yards or so to the ocean. Jamie took some sand in a bottle. I picked up half of an oval rock, somehow perfectly sliced in a zig-zag. I wanted to take half and leave half on the beach, but the pieces seemed to belong together, so I put my half back. When we walked back to the plane, selfie-guy was still at it.
Around 2am, we started our trudge back to the car. It never got completely dark, but the tones in the sky got bluer and cooler. To keep ourselves alert, we played the three Black Eyed Peas songs and the five Digible Planets songs that I had on my phone (randomly, along with a Sigur Ros album; the sum total of my phone music collection, since I mostly use an old school iPod mini). I held it on my shoulder, tilted towards Jamie, boom box style, so we could both hear from the tiny speakers.
We were stoned on exhaustion, giddy and loopy. (Hey, it beats grumpy.) Finally we spotted the sign. This time I trotted over to read it. It said 4km to the wreck. Five miles round trip. OH.
We drove another 15 minutes or so, into the center of Vik, followed signs to a camp ground (with no bathrooms, as used toilet paper revealed when we poked around in bushes for a place to pee), parked, put on eye-masks and tried not very successfully to sleep in the Suzuki.
This is how the most trying sector of our trip began. About three hours later, we gave up on sleeping and drove to Puffin Hostel, where we already had reservations for the next night. It was drizzling and the temperature had dropped.
No one was at the hostel desk or restaurant at 5 a.m., but the front door was open and there were bathrooms, which we used to wash our faces, change clothes and brush our teeth. In our cold car, knotted into sleeping bags, we killed a few hours reading before the hostel finally opened and we were able to sit in the restaurant and drink $4 coffee and use wifi.
The drizzle turned into steady rain. We felt bad for the friendly cat whom the hostel staff shooed outdoors. We couldn’t check in for another five hours. After an hour the rain slacked back to drizzle, so we decided to try a hike to an overlook, where we could see the beach and basalt formations.
Now the drizzle was sleet. I put on wool underwear and jeans and flannel-lined waterproof pants and my puffy coat, a scarf, hat and gloves. We set off into what quickly became cloud soup. It was pretty obvious that we wouldn’t see rock formations or anything that wasn’t two feet in front of our face.
We got hot. Ten minutes in, I stripped off my waterproof layers. The road wound up, around rock walls with tiny flowers growing in crevices. Maybe half an hour in, we reached the top of the small mountain. The wind blew hard and now we were both soaked. I put my coat back on, but because my jeans were wet, the waterproof pants would be no help.
Here’s where things got murky.
Our trail split into three paths with no markers at what looked like an old communications tower. The fog was so thick, we couldn’t see the cliff drop. All these warnings I’d read about tourists falling off cliffs and freezing in Icelandic blizzards swirled in the paranoid mush of my brain.
Our plan was to hike to the Reynisfjara Beach and hitch back, but about 15 minutes later, we decided to turn around. We’d been miserable for awhile, unsure which would be shorter, going back or completing the hike. But at this point, we didn’t even know if we were on a trail that would take us to the beach.
Back at the tower, I wanted to curl up in the slight protection the overhang the shed’s doorway offered. I wanted away from that driving sleet. Instead, we headed down on the trail. I couldn’t feel my hands or face.
After about ten minutes later, I realized we were walking on a road wide enough to drive on. Earlier, we’d been walking a path. I pointed this out to Jamie. We trudged back to the radio tower. From there, we didn’t know which way to go.
We had a 50/50 chance, so we made a choice. As soon as we realized we were right, we picked up speed. Now it was pouring.
We were almost back when we spotted a tiny SUV wedged sideways across the narrow, rutted path. We scramble-slid up the embarkments to dodge it, and with Jamie’s guidance, the driver was able to make a thousand point turn-about. From there, they gave us a ride back to the hostel, where, despite the fact that we dripped lakes in the entryway, hostel staff told us we still couldn’t check in.
We asked for a laundry mat. We were told at the town pool/community center, we could pay to wash our clothes. We drove off, the heat blasting, and discovered that the pool didn’t open till 4 p.m. It was only about noon.
We pleaded. We’d been cold for hours. Could we please pay just to use the showers?
We wanted to stay in those showers forever, but since they were doing us a favor, we were quick. We lobbed our sopping laundry into the center’s single washer and were told to come back in half an hour to switch to the dryer.
Finally we were given the single key to our two-bed closet-sized room. (Btw, here are a few funny youtube reviews of the Puffin. This one was created by people who have clearly never stayed in a hostel before. This girl cracked me up with her “not enough room to sling a cat” metaphor. My review: the bathrooms were clean and the common spaces were frumpy but cute, and at about $80, the room was pricey, but honestly, all rooms in Iceland are pricey.)
We lunched from our groceries, and Jamie opted to hang back, read (understandably—she was just beginning the Neapolitan novels) and take care of our laundry. I went to the adorable church in the center of town. It was locked and its picturesque-ness was marred by construction vehicles, but I parked there and walked a path through lush green ground cover and purple lupines, only to end up in misty Middle Earth, with huge birds whirling around choppy outcroppings, as fast and thick as bees at a hive.
These birds had no fear of humans. One zoomed so close, its wings ruffled my hair. The crags were tall, rough and steep, dotted with hundreds of massive white birds, tucked into crevices in pairs. The mist was moving enough to break in places, revealing glimpses of a distant shoreline. It felt untouched, like I’d stumbled upon some ancient Nordic elf kingdom.
When I made it back to ordinary earth, we went to the community center to collect our laundry and soak in the pool. There was a kiddie area and a chilly lap pool with a small, curling, dragon-painted slide, and the hot lounging pool. Maybe because it’d been raining all day, the hot pool was crowded with young tourists.
There were two girls from the Czech Republic who had planned, over Facebook, to meet for the first time face-to-face in Iceland. They were camping in the woods. Two other teenage French campers were sort of stuck here. They’d been hitching and just hadn’t made it out. There was a Swedish girl, and I can’t remember who else.
We spent the evening in a pub (maybe the only pub? It’s called Sudur Vik) with a guy from our hostel, a philosophy major turned medical resident from San Francisco. We chased brennivin (potatoes and caraway liquor) with beer and had good conversation. The pub was crowded and cozy, with wooden beams and cast-iron chandeliers. By the time we left, the brennivin sloshed warmly in our bellies and the morning’s misadventure was a far memory.
Coming soon— Skaftafell and Seydisfjordur. More Iceland pictures here….