I left New York on a summery warm September night, and four hours later was shivering in my raincoat on a flat, grey, treeless island in the Arctic. I had long been curious about Iceland, where national roads are planned not to disturb the habitats of the elves and imaginary people, where horses have five gaits (as opposed to the usual three or four), where they don’t have one, but rather thirteen mischievous Santa Clauses.
A place I had to see for myself, in other words. («Come see for yourself,» by the way, is the motto of New Jersey, my home state.)
While Reykjavik is known for its tireless nightlife, I was in Iceland for the far-out landscape — black obsidian lava land, icy glaciers, Hawaiian-tropical waterfalls, northern lights, and the magical daylight of the high north. After putzing around Reykjavik for a day and loading up on salty black licorice (the best in the world), I took off on a four-day road trip around the island.
First stop, Gullfoss, an enormous waterfall. So enormous and loud for a tiny, quiet country. Standing in the mist of the deafening falls, you can feel the power generated from the collision of the Asian and North American tectonic plates. Iceland is the offspring of the two plates, and the result is a magical land covered with waterfalls, volcanoes, and ice. I stood between the fissures, covered with lichen and red flowers nearby at Þingvellir, which was also the site of the country’s first parliament.
On day two, I visited waterfalls along the main highway in the south heading east, and I climbed Mýrdalsjökull glacier. Because it was raining, there was no snowmobiling that day. In fact, there was no one around at all anywhere. It was calm, restful, and astonishing to walk across ice built up over centuries of lava. There’s not a whole lot to do on a glacier in Margiela boots. I slipped. I shivered. I peeked down into deep ice crevasses. And then I retreated to the heat of the car and drove on through landscapes that made me gasp, giant waterfalls that reminded me of Kauai, and still lakes that were like giant mirrors. You could look down into them and see the sky above.
I stayed overnight southeast of Gullfoss at Hotel Ranga, where I ate puffin (yes, as in penguin. For the faint of heart, it tastes like beef jerky) and waited for the light to fade, hoping to see the elusive northern lights. Finally I caught them, green lights dancing in the black sky. There are no street lights or people or sounds that far out — just this majestic show filling all you can see above. That sight was worth the whole trip alone.
The next morning, I continued east along the coast to Dyrhólaey. Time and time again I would be driving through a lush green area, only to find myself in a landscape so black and white, I was the only thing in color I could see. Near Dyrhólaey is a black obsidian beach with enormous cubes of rocks speckling the sea off the coast. I stood on the cliffs as foamy waves 20 feet high crashed into the black shore below. Once again, I was the only color in the landscape. The scene reminded me of the ending of The Goonies when the pirate ship miraculously emerges from behind the rocks, the sky parts, and the sun blazes through the clouds. Discovering this beach was a magical, mesmerizing thrill. What I was looking at was so magnificent that I half expected my next vision would be a 500-year-old ship full of jewels and pirates emerging from the sea. Or a little person peeking out from behind the rocks below.