We can’t see the earth below but it just feels like we were flying over frigid waters. It is dark outside and we sit wedged into our seats, going on the 7th hour. I keep doing the math. It’s 4am which means it’s 10pm our time. Try as I might, I just can’t sleep. And neither can the Scottish woman I’ve been bumping elbows with. She is traveling from China to Germany for her mother’s birthday. So we order red wine and watch Life of the Party until Iceland.
Our pane lands at 6am and the sun is still several hours away from showing herself. Andy and I hadn’t planned much for our trip except for Iceland. Months back we had made a list of possible vacation rentals and when we checked back in a while later, they were all booked up. I searched and found a little bed and breakfast that we reserved. We also reserved a 4wd car with studded tires. Two things I feel really grateful to not need to figure out right now.
We can’t check into our place until 4pm and decide to push through and stay awake until the evening. I did quite a bit of research on Icelandic hot springs and narrowed it down to a few I hope to check out. Online information for Iceland is scarce and conflicting so we aren’t even sure if the roads we want to drive on will be passable this time of year. Nothing to do but open ourselves to adventure and go for it. We drive into the dark toward the rising sun, watching the surreal landscape light up pink.
I am over the moon for this adventure with my love. It’s been a few years of planning and saving to make this happen and here we are, on a frozen volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean driving into whatever comes next, together.
There aren’t signs and cell service is spotty but we find what looks like a trailhead. In the parking area is one compact car with five suitcases tossed in the ice next to it and five people sleeping in it. We consider napping as well (again, the math…it’s 8am which means it’s 1am my time…) but it is pretty dang cold out there and we are pretty dang amped up. Instead we eat almonds, strip down and layer up with bathing suits, thermals, down and wind barriers. By now the sun has revealed a cloudless sky and we see plumes of steam pouring from the snowy hills all around.
We begin walking up. We walk fast and steady, completely unsure how long it will take us to get to this mystical river as most online estimations are in the green summer months. The snow is windblown and there is no way we could do this if visibility were compromised. We are so grateful for bluebird skies. The trail is barely perceptible in places, boiling water pushes up through neon green moss. Everything is snowy and the rocks that poke through are ancient black lava.
The sun is up now and the wind is damp and freezing. We are bundled up and ascending toward a promising steamy horizon. We bump into a few groups and most are turning around. It is a pretty easy hike, although quite technical in the winter — definitely a place for some good gear you trust. Our essentials include mittens, sunglasses, warm and windproof layers, sturdy shoes. The steam pouring out of the earth makes contact with the snow creating a gleaming slick of steep ice. Our snow cleats make us confident in our steps up the slippery hillside.
We come to the river and it flows slow and shallow. All I want is to lay in hot water and I am beginning to think it may not happen. There is no way we are getting into water that isn’t HOT. It is too chilly outside to risk hiking back out while wet and cold. We walk along the river stopping often to check the temperature and finally find the perfect spot. It is brutal undressing but the promise of the hot, healing water? We are giddy and perhaps a bit slaphappy tired.
And here we lay for hours, our bodies supported by a pebbled riverbed and rocks as perfect pillows. A few other groups come and go while we are there. People from all over the world seeking a wild bath in this wild place.
We didn’t bring enough drinking water. The hike out goes fast, sun hugging the earth as it moves across the sky. We drive along the black sand-beached ocean toward Keflavik stopping in Selfoss for a seafood stew I will dream about.
We have one of three sweet and simple rooms at the bnb, operated by Andi and Yuki. We check in and Andi warns us to not give into sleep. Take an hour nap he suggests. He also asks if we want him to let us know if the Northern Lights show up. We say yes, of course and quickly drift off for our one hour nap. Shortly after waking he throws open the common room door and shouts, “Northern Lights!” We leap up, layer up and head out into the ink black, wind gusty night driving away from the little bit of light pollution on the island.
And it is life changing.
I’ve seen green glows in Montana before but this is another universe. It moves slowly and imperceptibly and I can’t tell if it is far away or up close. I feel like I am being lifted off the ground. We listen to Bjork and totally GET her music.
The next morning is my birthday and we have the lovliest spread from Andi and Yuki. Homemade breads, jams and butter. Local fish, cheese and eggs. Fantastic espresso and great conversation. Everyone in Iceland is gentle, sincere, kind and strong. There is a deep appreciation of culture and landscape. The country holds only 300,000 people and the native language is abundant and treasured.
We set out to drive a different part of the Golden Circle than we drove yesterday, this time aiming at another hot spring. One that is on private land with public access. We return to a beach access we saw yesterday and discover an ice-bejewled black sand beach. The ocean is aggressive and the wind whips up a biting spray into the bright sunlight. It truly is like another planet.
This is Iceland. Rugged and gentle. Harsh and lulling. Brutal and tender. Cautioning and inviting. A land of beautiful, artful, harmonious tension. It’s irresistible.
The hot spring is in the middle of nowhere and pure magic. I imagine elfin gatherings and viking festivals. Reindeer and narwhals dancing in the moonlight. The wind is still relentless. It nearly ripped my car door clean off. And, then the sheltered spaces are serenely still.
We drive back to our bnb after dark, my bikini drying on the dash. We listen to Sigur Ros and the cadence perfectly matches what we see. Again, the Northern Lights shaking the sky. Our eyes are now trained to notice the subtle beginning. On this night, the night I am 41 years old, the sky throbs with energy. If last night was ballet, tonight is hip hop.
Tomorrow we leave for The Netherlands.