Through the Glass:Seeing Iceland from the passenger’s seat
“Whoops” wasn’t what I wanted to hear as we barreled down a windy road in the middle of an Icelandic blizzard. The word crackled through the obnoxious headset every tour guide knows and loves, magnifying the shock we all felt as Thor, our extremely talkative driver, nonchalantly swerved and narrowly missed the oncoming car.
This was the very scenario my parents feared. When I informed them I’d be exploring Iceland during the dead of winter, they immediately picked up on the “and I’m renting a car” sentence I’d tried so valiantly to slip into the conversation. Their firm response was, “absolutely not,” punctuated with a few parental sighs. Apparently driving snowy mountain roads in Washington State didn’t translate to navigating Arctic squalls.
I was crushed. My friend Maria and I wanted to experience Iceland, and in order to do so, we had to get outside of Reykjavik. Although surprisingly hip, there’s more to the country than its capital city of brightly colored houses nestled amidst the elements. I knew I wanted to explore Iceland’s southern coast and check off all the natural wonders: glaciers, volcanoes and hopefully, the northern lights. I couldn’t wait to be inspired by the beauty in Iceland’s vast emptiness.
I like feeling small amidst immensity. Planting myself in the middle of landscape that makes me feel tiny also makes me feel powerful, as if everything else has fallen away and the sky is actually the limit. If I could explore and connect with such a rugged, unforgivingly beautiful place like Iceland, I could go wherever, do whatever and be whomever I wanted to be. The real world, life after my year of falling in love with Denmark and traveling Europe, was starting to scare me. I craved silence from my panicked thoughts about internships and my creeping dread of returning to a university where being busy and sleep-deprived is the definition of success. Iceland was about as far as I could get from the absurd discussions about resume typefaces and even more absurd all-nighter comparisons.
For the moment, I shoved my inner commotion aside. Now was the time to plan a trip, not my entire life. After pacifying my parents, I grudgingly started looking up tour guides and landed on a company called ‘Extreme Iceland.’
Thor’s driving put the “extreme” in Extreme Iceland. I liked to think he knew what he was doing, after all, he had grown up with these harsh conditions. His weathered face and tough hands told a story of long winters and blustery winds, but his driving style was a little too relaxed for my taste and definitely too relaxed for the conditions. He held onto the wheel with one hand as he chatted to whoever would listen, barely seeming to notice the fact that he was driving on the left side of the road.
As the whiteout got progressively worse, Thor stopped every couple of minutes to get out and scrape off the windshield with his bare hands. His white tufts of hair blended in with the whirling flakes, making him almost invisible.
Although his temporary disappearance was a welcome treat from the non stop nattering, no one wanted to drive the van if he was seriously injured or killed by one of the few cars whizzing dangerously close. Without fail, he always forgot to put on the emergency flashers and use the parking brake and without fail, someone would leap up and do it for him.
The only positive of the blizzard was that Thor had finally stopped talking for probably the first time since I met him at 8:00 am sharp earlier that morning. He began the journey by launching into a twenty minute tale of why, until recently, Iceland outlawed dogs. Fascinating. Tell me more. As we bounced through the countryside, eight of us crammed into a small van, he did just that.
“This is the most dangerous area for buses in Iceland,” he suddenly intoned. “Many accidents and blown out windows happen here.” Everyone looked alarmed. Without elaborating or seeming to notice, he continued his story about a strong Icelandic man who climbed a volcano with bare feet after eight hours swimming to shore.
Thor’s chattiness and meager rationings of time at both the Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls barely dampened my spirits at first. My opinion of Thor even rose slightly when he jerkily pulled off the road and helped us climb over a fence to pet Icelandic ponies. But eight hours of constant chatter, ranging from traditional myths and favorite foods to sexist remarks and off-kilter comments about lazy Danes later, I was ready to explode.
“Come on ladies, you can put your makeup on later!” Thor chortled as he tried to rush a couple from London outside. Maria and I exchanged aggravated glances while Kate, one of the girls, responded like a true Brit with a sassy, “I’m putting my bloody gloves on like you told me to!” Clearly, I wasn’t the only one annoyed by Thor’s antics. They were distracting me from experiencing the place I’d so desperately wanted to see.
It took skidding past the road to our lodge for Thor to finally admit, “Oops! Might’ve been going too fast. Might’ve been going too fast all day!” with a hearty chuckle. We looked at each other with more resignation than the earlier horror. It had been a very long day.
After trying, and failing, to blend in with the honeymooners staying at the lodge, my friend and I retired to our cozy cabin. I spent the night urgently looking out the window for the northern lights, to no avail. It was cloudy.
The next morning, I stuffed myself with tart Icelandic yogurt called Skyr and homemade jam. I was ready for another day of Thor. Or so I thought. The day began with two blissful hours of tromping around the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. The only noise was the occasional barking of the seals scattered on the ice. Everything was crystal-clear blue. This emptiness, far from selfie sticks and the rest of my group, was exactly what I needed. Maybe I could still salvage the trip.
As soon as we piled back into the van, we were bombarded by Thor. Apparently our next stop was particularly dangerous. My ears perked up. Glacier hike, here I come.
“Don’t fall,” Thor said. “What I say on the ice is the law. I have only one rule. Do. Not. Fall.” We exchanged bewildered expressions. Isn’t falling, by definition, accidental? Tentatively, someone asked, “Is it easy to fall? “Oh yes. Very easy,” Thor replied with certainty.
According to Thor, we’d have two minutes of oxygen in a deep crevice before our lungs were crushed by the lack of air. No one wanted to question his science, but I wasn’t about to let Thor’s fearmongering keep me from going on the glacier. I chirped, “I’m in!” His hulking frame turned around in his seat as he raised an eyebrow, looked straight at Maria and me with an icy stare and said, “I don’t like strong, independent women who think they know what they’re doing. That’s how people get killed.”
My jaw dropped. At least I knew who he’d save last.
Thor’s hyperbolic warnings were just scare tactics. The crampons, ice axes and helmets we wore weren’t even needed. We barely got onto the glacier before Thor turned us around. I longed to be in the smaller, hardier group who had passed us earlier.
As we drove back to Reykjavik that night, I felt a palpable defeat. After five hours of craning my neck, no northern lights appeared. I’d like to say my disappointment was because the tangible thing I searched for, the northern lights, didn’t appear in their full tourist-brochure glory. But that’s only really part of the story. I came to Iceland with a fervent desire for all things wild and vast. But seeing these things through a tour van’s window, complete with the incessant blabbering of Thor, led to a different kind of vast.
More than anything, I felt a vast disconnect from the country and even from myself.
I left Iceland feeling resigned, not inspired. After enduring 35 minutes straight on the topic of Icelandic Christmas traditions from Thor (yes, we timed him), I knew what the problem was. Sure, I couldn’t get him to stop. But the bigger issue was the lack of agency I felt while being part of a tour. I was mentally and physically constrained.
Maybe some people feel like they can “experience” Iceland through people like Thor and companies like Extreme Iceland. But I’m not one to ask for permission, and I’m not one for prepackaged moments. I want to learn about “fantastisk good” jólagrautur, or Yule pudding, organically. I don’t want it shoved down my throat.
Thor’s nationalism shone throughout our two day trek along the southern coast. He repeatedly crowed, “I love my job. This is my office. It changes every day,” as he gestured wildly to the vistas surrounding us. “Iceland is the most beautiful country.” I wanted to love Iceland as much as he did, but I just couldn’t. Thor didn’t have to ask for permission to step outside. He could’ve gone further onto the glacier. He could’ve spent more time exploring the waterfalls. He had control over his own experience. He was the driver.
I wanted to feel dwarfed by Iceland’s immensity, but I felt the same size I always do. Even when I wasn’t inside the van, it seemed like there was always a pane of glass separating me from Iceland. I saw Iceland from the passenger’s seat.