Welcome! This was going to be one post about my 2016 summer travels but seeing as how the trip was nearly 40 days long and the days were all chock full o’ anecdotes, I’ve realized I’ll lose my mind if I try to sum it all up in one hot dish of casserole. So lucky you, you’re going to get chapters by location! Yes, I mean you, imaginary reader.
Since everyone seems to be the most curious about Iceland, that’s where we’ll start. I'm including a short film I made out of the many video clips I shot there. Stay tuned in future days for more chapters covering England, Scotland, Ireland, France and the highly mysterious Arizona-Utah borderland area. So strap yourselves in and get ready to somehow lose 11 hours on a 6 hour flight:
Arriving in Iceland after flying all night on no sleep (who are the monsters who can sleep on airplanes?), I was pretty excited. It was my first time overseas and I was ready to soak up every delicious morsel of differentness. Wow, check out the cool faucets in the airport bathroom! There are Bjork quotes on the walls! Listen to those PA announcements you can’t understand at all because they’re in Icelandic!
Very quickly I learned something that would come up over and over again on my trip: Making eye contact with strangers on the street, smiling and saying hello is an American thing. They don’t do that other places, and will look at you like you’re fucking crazy if you try to pull that shit with them.
I shuttle to the rental car place, sit through many dire warnings about sand storms, ice, puffins, the many, many roads you absolutely cannot take this rental car on, etc. Hop in the car. Since the Iceland excursion was a last-minute add-on to the Europe trip that I’d only tacked on after I realized Icelandair lets you do multi-day layovers for free, I'd rented the cheapest car Iceland had. Which also turned out to be the smallest car I’d ever been inside, a Kia Picanto. I didn’t make that name up. It was also a stick shift (no one outside America knows what “stick shift” means since almost all of their cars are manual transmission already, so cars to them are either standard or automatic), which is something I hadn’t driven since I had my first car. Thankfully the muscle memory came back quickly and I was-STALL-off like a tiny bullet.
Holy crap, I can’t believe I’m driving on the highway in Iceland, this is nuts! Look at that speedometer, all in kilometers. Look at that gas tank (petrol! They don’t call gas gas), all measured in liters. Such charming differences. Oh hey, all the clocks are in military 24 hour time. Interesting. And the temperature is in Celsius. How do you convert that again? Fuel economy is measured in liters per 100 kilometers. That’s kind of tough to figure out, so basically gas costs- Wait, all the prices are in kronas, shit. One krona is .0082 US dollars, so- and at that moment my brain broke and I spent the rest of my time in Iceland having no idea what anything cost or if it was cold or what time it was.
I’d spent a fair amount of time recently thinking about how we can keep from declining mentally as we age. The conventional wisdom is to constantly learn challenging new skills as you get older. I would add international travel to the list, because there’s nothing like suddenly having to think about every little thing you take for granted in your daily life, and needing to do it right now if you want to survive. It’s overwhelming, but at the same time your brain definitely can’t crack open a beer and slide into senility.
I hadn’t been too worried about going to Iceland since I’d done my homework and learned that all Icelanders speak English as a second language. This is true, though I would add the disclaimer that some speak it far better than others and all speak it in heavy accents that range from adorable to deeply strange. More than once I thought someone was fucking with me before I realized they weren’t doing that accent on purpose. I say that admitting fully that I speak exactly none Icelandic myself. I made a brief stab at learning before the trip only to find that it’s really freaking hard, and none of the standard language-learning tools have an Icelandic option. I tried to learn just listening to audio clips online, but gave up after every clip I found pronounced the same words wildly differently, and since the language sounds like a cross between Russian and German played backwards, clarity of speech is not a priority.
I did learn enough to say Góðan daginn (Good day/Afternoon/All purpose greeting), Takk (Thanks) and Já (Yes). Já, I forgot to learn how to say “No,” so sue me. No wonder I ended up with all the options on my rental car. This tiny bit of Icelandic knowledge was just enough to create some hilarious scenarios, since every time you interact with an Icelander there’s a brief pause while they scan you and decide if you look like an Icelander or a tourist. If you look like a tourist, they’ll start speaking to you in English, otherwise it’s Icelandic. Imagine my pride the first few times I got the greetings right and locals spoke to me in Icelandic! And then I had to stop them and explain that sorry, I don’t actually speak Icelandic at all, could you please say all of that again in English. Americans are the worst.
My “nothing to worry about, they all speak English over there” bravado was quickly shattered when I realized that nothing outside of the airport was written in English at all. All Icelandic. And if you’ve never seen Icelandic written out, don’t let “Já” fool you, it’s not a language you can figure out on your own. Most of the words are 30 characters long and they have several letters we don’t even use. If someone asks you how you are and you want to say “Fine,” all you have to say is “Ég segi allt gott, þakka þér fyrir.” So good luck with that. Soon I was driving past wordy road signs and thinking “Well, I hope that didn’t say ‘Whatever you do, don’t take a shitty little rental car up this road, it ends in a volcano.’” Fingers crossed!
But the real fun was reserved for the grocery store. Veganism isn’t really a thing in Iceland, since their two national dishes are a boiled sheep’s head and a dead puffin. So I knew I’d have to do my eating from the grocery store. This was complicated somewhat by the quirk that nothing opens before noon and everything closes at 5pm, so I was in the store with the entire population of Iceland. I’d studied ahead and been told that the way to beat Iceland’s sky-high food prices was to shop at Bonus, the store with the giant freaky piggy bank for a logo.
Everyone else had this idea too. This made it slightly more difficult for me to pick up every food item in the store, stare in bewilderment at all the Icelandic writing on the front, wonder what kind of food it was, then flip it over to the back and blink at all the ingredients listed in Icelandic. “I wonder if this is vegan?” I’d think to myself as I held up the entire damn store and people flowed and reached around me from every angle to grab things off the shelves. “It has a cartoon elephant on it. Hmmm.”
I had the bright idea to use Google’s amazing translate app, which you can point at any written language and it will magically convert it to English on the screen, right before your eyes. I pointed the app at Icelandic and it said “Eh” and shrugged at me. Dear Google: Great shrug animation!
So I ate a lot of fruit and water in Iceland.
For anyone who has had a layover in Iceland and was underwhelmed by the view from the airport, allow me to clarify that even though your ticket said Reykjavik, you actually landed in Keflavik, and Keflavik is the only part of Iceland I saw that wasn’t beautiful. Keflavik is kind of a flat barren wasteland, so there was nothing to ruin by putting the airport there. I kind of admired that choice once I realized the rest of Iceland didn’t look like the moon.
The rest of Iceland that I saw was beautiful and otherworldly, though you paid for that beauty by enduring the full range of seasons in every day and enough cold wind for a thousand blues songs. If you come to Iceland, bring all your clothes. I was told that this is because Iceland is where the Atlantic and Arctic meet, and also because the faeries are trying to kill you. When I was there the temperature hovered around 1, which sounds funnier in Celsius than 34 or whatever would in Fahrenheit. The weather would shift between sunny, windy, hailing, cloudy, windy, snowing, and windy like it was all on fast forward, and the skies always looked dramatic as shit. Every landscape had a mountain in it somewhere, cascading down to fields of weird lumpy brown grass that always made it feel like you were on another planet.
So what’s the best thing in Iceland? My favorite was the drive on route 360 along Þingvallavatn lake. This felt like a bit of a secret I'd stumbled onto since the second I saw the lake I veered off the main road and luckily there was another road there to keep me from driving into the lake. After you wind around the beautiful shores of the lake, the road swirls up into the mountains on its way to the Ion resort.
I liked the road so much I raced back at the end of the day to drive it again before the sun went down and I returned to Reykjavik.
Both nights I was staying in a hostel in Reykjavik, which was by far the cheapest option and also my first hostel experience. You know how they call them youth hostels? That’s because no one old enough to afford a hotel stays there. It felt a lot like going back to the college dorms, only I was 20 years older and everyone else was still 19. After I walked through a party to get to the bathroom and someone shattered something I had the thought that I might be too old to stay in hostels. But considering I was only there to sleep during the six hours of darkness each night and only spent about 20 minutes conscious in the building in total I think it worked out fine.
On my first day I did the Golden Circle loop, which is like Iceland’s Greatest Hits and the first thing everyone does their first day out of Reykjavik. I can’t even count how many waterfalls I saw, but they were all great. The granddaddy of them all was Gullfoss, which is like Iceland’s Niagara Falls without all the mooks getting married there. It’s one of those waterfalls with several stages and you can climb out to the middle so that the waterfall is all around you, and you can feel the immense energy of all that water churning on through.
That same day I climbed down into the rift in Þingvellir National Park, which involved basically just sitting on my feet and sledding down some icy slopes since I didn’t bring gear for this. After admiring a waterfall and a rocky cliff I came across one of the only English-language signs I saw in Iceland, which explained that this cliff is where they used to hang people. And also, Drowning Woman Lake is where they used to drown women. Yikes. Thanks Iceland, you can go back to being mysterious and indecipherable now.
Geysir is exactly what it sounds like, a town for old people. No, it’s actually the first geyser ever seen by Europeans, in Haukadalsvegur (Did I make that town up? You’ll never know). Apparently it was impressive enough that they named the word after it. Geysir doesn’t seem to geys much anymore, but thoughtfully they have several other named geysers nearby, and Strokkur was kind enough to go off and scare the living Jesus out of me several times while I was there.
There were few things I loved more than this "Don't Stack Rocks" sign next to a giant stack of rocks:
I also really liked this sign. Hættusvæði is Icelandic for "Highway to the":
One of the things this trip taught me is that I like visiting weird cool churches, and Iceland definitely got this started in style. The Hallgrímskirkja was the obvious first stop. I’d seen pictures of it online but the thing you don’t see without going there yourself is that a residential street basically dead-ends into the church, so these people look up the street every day and see this crazy thing taking off out of the ground.
I knew that church was going to be cool, but the surprise was that I stumbled across other churches that were just as interesting all over the place. Many of them seemed very modern to me, though it also occurred to me that our ideas of modern might be borrowing from some older Nordic traditions.
And, what the hell, let's throw in a more traditional cool church for you old-school church fans:
On day two I toured the Snaefellsnes peninsula, which I know you’re tired of hearing about constantly on TV and in the movies. After driving through a bitchin 6-kilometer long tunnel under a mountain, I splashed through some intermittent rain that ended when the clouds opened up and a huge rainbow streamed through the mountain pass and into the valley below, which was officially the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Part of the challenge of driving around in Iceland is that you want to take pictures of everything, but there is literally nowhere to pull off the road to take pictures. None of the roads have shoulders, they just immediately drop off into ditches on both sides. So you experience a lot of “Oh man I wish I could get a picture of that!” and then you look down into the ditch and realize there’s no way your wind-up car is getting out of that. This rainbow was so incredible though that literally everyone driving on the highway at that moment stopped their cars simultaneously in the middle of the road and got out to take pictures, standing right on the highway because fuck it if I die looking at this rainbow that’s still pretty good.
I’d already missed the best part of the rainbow but still ended up with a pretty great photo:
After that I toured through a lot of neat little fishing villages on my way up the coast:
Outside of one of these I picked up an older Chinese couple that were wandering around looking confused. It turned out their tour bus had ditched them during a stop, so I drove them from town to town until we found the bus again. This was kind of funny for me since I’ve never had the “package tour” travel mentality, but I think most people don’t consider anything else, and I had to explain to them three or four times that I didn’t live there and had just rented the car. It’s funny having people ask you for insider advice about a place that you’ve been in for 20 hours.
I think many Americans visiting Iceland would expect some degree of mystical fun, and on that note I did drive through Hafnarfjördur, the Town of Elves (it says so right on the sign) which according to local folklore is stacked to the tits with huldufólk (“hidden people”), i.e. elves, dwarves and fairies. I was even more enchanted while driving along the countryside by the ghostly mist that would hover inches above the road and swirl around the landscape as the wind blew through.
Iceland also had an interesting variety of beaches. Black sand, yellow sand, whatever your sand fetish is. One of the beaches I visited was strewn with the wreckage of a shipwreck from 1948 that I guess no one could be bothered to clean up.
This beach also featured four lifting stones, which were once how you qualified for work on fishing boat, based on which one you were man enough to hoist without sprouting a hernia like a birthday party clown’s balloon animal. This was basically the Icelandic equivalent of that thing you hit with a sledgehammer at the state fair to ring the bell and impress your date. The stones even had names, heaviest to lightest: Fullsterkur (“Broseph”), Hálfsterkur (“lady man”), Hálfdrættingur (“total pussy”) and Amlóði (“Urkel”).
I’ve grown accustomed to using Google Maps in the US, since it can usually find faster routes than what I’d pick and it always estimates drive times far better than I do. So it was a rude awakening to find that the maps were often flat-out wrong in Iceland (forgivable since I think their country was just mapped last year). This was mostly just funny, like how it took me to Siminn corporate headquarters when I wanted to buy a SIM card or to an elementary school parking lot when I asked it to try again. But it got weirder when I asked it to take me to Kirkjufell, Iceland’s most popular and funkiest mountain.
Instead of directing me to a scenic lookout or a parking area, the app followed computer logic and took me on the road that goes literally closest to the mountain. A road which happened to lead right into a prison complex. One minute I’m bopping along to DJ Shadow’s “Nobody Speak” and the next I’m throwing the car in reverse because holy shit that was only the second sign I’ve seen in English in Iceland and this one said you’re entering Kvíabryggja prison and we’re going to shoot you.
Actually, before any Icelandic people post in the comments, it probably just said something like “No Trespassing” and I’m sure if I’d driven further in they would have given me ice cream and sent me on my way. My understanding is that they don’t even lock the doors in Icelandic prisons. I later found out this is the prison where they put the bank executives behind the 2008 financial collapse. Wow, why didn’t we- Thanks for making us look like assholes, Iceland.
Sometime during the second day I realized that all the shitty little roller skate cars I was seeing on the road were tourists like me who had chosen the cheapest rental option possible. None of the locals drove cars like that, they all drove Renault Dusters. They were also probably at work or something and not out driving around taking pictures of volcanoes. I also had the sneaking suspicion at times that there were more tourists in Iceland than Icelanders.
These little moments of recognition were very comforting, like the first afternoon when I suddenly realized that all the cars I saw pulled over at the rare waysides were napping North Americans who’d been on overnight flights to Iceland like I was. Since things start to get wiggy at around 40 hours of wakefulness, I promptly pulled off by a lake and took a solidarity nap.
Another thing that made me smile while driving around was going through the inevitable lurch as you’re adjusting to driving a stick shift again and you’re shifting gears as you pull away from a red light, and then realizing that everyone around me was driving manual transmission cars as well. So the entire flow of traffic would pause and lurch at the same time. First gear, lag, second gear, lag, third gear. Not something you’ll often see in America. I also appreciated that everywhere I traveled outside the US, the traffic lights went from red to yellow to green, which is very handy when you need to remember to clutch. It freaked me out the first few times it happened, as I thought I’d hallucinated the yellow light. But once I got used to it I came to wish that the lights would do that in the US as well, so you wouldn’t have that awkward pause when a light turns green and you have to wait for everyone to wake up or finish their game of Candy Crush before you can go.
Reykjavik has roundabouts at regular intervals on the main highways, though they tend to be a free-for-all in terms of signaling or having any defined lanes. I quickly discovered the joy of drifting into a roundabout at freeway speeds, dropping into second gear, putting the pedal down and whipping that shitty little lunchbox of a car diagonally across all the lanes and shooting out the other side of the roundabout without slowing down at all. Very fun.
Also, don’t buy former rental cars.
One thing I need to address is that I grew up believing Iceland had the most beautiful women in the world. I think this is because there are maybe three Icelandic women the world has ever seen and they’re really gorgeous. The reality on the ground is that it’s just like anywhere else, except a lot of the adults look like giant little kids because of Danish genes or whatever. There are definitely a handful of very beautiful women, but they’re all in public-facing jobs like stewardesses or cashiers at the Harpa, so tourists go home believing Iceland is one giant modeling agency.
The other thing is that all Icelandic men look exactly the same. I swear the same guy waited on me at three different gas (petrol!) stations. I don’t know how this works.
By the way, the Harpa concert call in Reykjavik is an extremely cool building and if you need proof of this I took roughly 4,000 pictures of it.
One of the things that really amused me everywhere I traveled was the perception of America in each country. I left fully expecting to get into debates about American politics or having to apologize for Donald Trump or whatever, but none of that ever came up at all. I was amused however to see that America basically equals “cheeseburger and a Coke” everywhere in the world. In Reykjavik I drove past a chain restaurant called “American Style,” which seemed to trade in every single probably-accurate stereotype about what we eat. Three chicken breasts with hamburger patties in-between them and a fried egg on top, that kind of thing. Though they did mess up and included some kind of greens that weren’t iceberg lettuce on one of their burgers. Rookie mistake. Everything on the menu was some kind of garbled cultural reference, like the “Chuck Norris Style” entrée, which was just a steak with butter on it, the “Ocean’s Eleven Style” which was fish sticks (??) or the “Bearnie” sandwich which I’m not sure if it came with free health care or what.
My favorite entrée was the one advertised on the sign out front: The Kevin Bacon Burger.