A útlendingur’s account of finding herself snowed into the Icelandic countryside.
On February 22, 2013, Rebecca Field and myself followed the magnetic pull that we had been resisting for the previous six months and travelled 1222.3 miles north from Brighton, UK to Reykjavik, Iceland. We spent one month exploring, meeting fellow travellers and locals, trying to gain an understanding of the true soul of the country. For me the most poignant days of the trip were spent snowed into a tiny hostel not far from Hvolsvöllur, where I was able to truly reflect on the previous days and experience the incredible calm of the expanse of a country so sparsely populated. I arrived back in England, fat with experience and love for the island that had challenged me beyond my expectations and welcomed me unconditionally. Beautiful and fierce, Iceland is a country not to be reckoned with.
Day 14 of 30
We planned the bus journey meticulously the morning before, counted out our remaining change, wrote down the bus times and arrived half an hour early. Upon attempting to buy tickets we were told that we needed to get a different bus, at a different time and our plans altered.
It was the beginning of our adventure into unknown rural Iceland – away from the concrete comforts of Reykjavik and the uneasy familiarity that Akureyri had brought us. We sat in a deserted petrol station, that sat in the deserted town of Hvolsvöllur and waited for ‘Anna’ who going to pick us up at 4pm in a white car. The weather was at its worst yet, and we were naive to its normality due to the blue bird days and light filled night skies of our first week on the island. The elements here were like none we had ever experienced: snow fluttered at speed across the road, skimming its surface and the wind felt not like a gentle breeze but a huge sheet, pulled taught and dragging us with it. The snow was so dry it resembled flour and the cold of the air hugged us tight yet sharp, avoiding the damp depression that the cold of England brought.
As we embarked upon the twenty five minute drive to Fljotsdalur hostel the weather continued to deteriorate, and the cloud cover made it impossible to distinguish the snowy road, from the snowy path next to it or the snowy sky above. Only the waist high yellow poles that lined ‘the road’ kept us safe. We learnt that Anna was the daughter of the woman who owned the farm next to Fljotsdalur and worked at the local slaughterhouse. She had a four year old son who joined us for the journey; a quiet little boy with dirt under his fingernails and a green balaclava. We pulled up to the end of the road and the car failed to climb the steep road to the hostel — perched proudly atop a snowy mound, porch light twinkling through the hazy snow. Out the car and loaded up with provisions for our stay, we began to climb upwards through the knee-deep snow. Anna’s voice calling to us, “There is a steep bank to your left…you’ll discover it if you fall down it…good luck, someone might come to check on you later” Able to see nothing and terrified of missing a step we hiked the path without ease, the snow falling on us in huge clumps and coming way above and into our boots. Today the ‘road to Vik’ was paved with snow.
Only a mouse and Eyjafjallajökull for company
Finally we made it to the garden, through the back door and into the house. It suddenly dawned on me that the tiny haven was ours to do with as we pleased. Off the kitchen was a communal living space and off from that was a tiny bedroom housing two wooden bunks with bright blue mattresses. None of the walls or skirting boards were at right angles to their neighbour, or aligned correctly to the cracked ceiling and in one corner daylight peeped through a gap where two external walls were supposed to meet but didn’t. Everything was slightly stained, slightly broken and the soft furnishings were crunchy with dust. We discovered maps pasted to the walls, chunks of lava balanced in various places, a beautiful box of Swedish matches that expired in 1997, plants in need of some TLC, binoculars, a tin can, pots, pans, mugs, and hundreds of sandwich boxes and flasks ready for the walkers in the summer.
However the greatest treasure in that troubled little building was the hundreds of books squeezed into every nook and cranny of the communal area. Each of them ready and eager to inform and fill our hungry minds with information on Icelandic culture, history, landscape, food and everything before, after and in between. If someone told me that every book ever written about Iceland wasn’t present in that room I couldn’t believe them. This tiny sanctuary had been handed to us as part of the puzzle of our adventure that had been missing. A present to reward us for all the bravery we had exerted throughout the weeks before.
Over the coming days we did little but sit and read, with our feet as close to the electric heater as we dared, drinking endless cups of tea with tiny dashes of milk to ensure our rations lasted. We were snowed in, the windows were white and if you peered through the glass you could just about make out the wispy clouds of snow being blown from rocks and near by trees to dance around the corners of the house. Eyjafjallajökull stood proud opposite us and kept appearing and disappearing in cloud, its rocks (which in my mind should have been black) were a deep shade of navy. Our evenings were spent by candle light as the storms that raged outside toyed with the electricity, and having the light bulbs flickering was much more eerie than the gentle glow of fifteen tea lights. We dined on lentils, Skyr and tomato soup and for dessert there was strawberry jelly, which we discovered at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards. Our only company during those four days was from a mouse who scuttled around our feet once the tea lights had been blown out and night time tucked itself in around us.
Its little pats were wonderfully friendly
For a week before arriving at Fljotsdalur my experience had been saturated with vivid nightmares, sleepless nights and days of exhausted delirium. I had found myself unable to escape a childlike fear of the dark every evening after the hostel curfew arrived, and shadows of the bunk beds became shapes and people prancing around an unfamiliar room. My only comfort had been a set of worry dolls and a hand carved wooded charm, given to me as unexpected gifts from friends. I held one in each palm during the night, believing that as long as I had them close I would be safe from the tricks my imagination was playing on me.
Finally all the feelings of unsettlement, frustration and anxiety from the trip had dissipated, and for the first time in my life I felt as though I was fully present in my experience, with no desire to be anywhere else but sat in the rickety little building that we called home for that time. The silence, still and realisation that I had never before been so isolated was comforting to me and I suddenly gained a true understanding of the meaning of contentment. Something that up until that point I had craved, idolised but assumed to be an unobtainable treasure, and as a result had planned a trip far from home comforts in order to discover the secrets to its fortune. Contentment came to me for those four days and I welcomed it graciously, cradling it and never taking its presence for granted. As we dropped a couple of hundred Króna into the pay pot for our stay, I felt it leave me and move forwards to ventures new. I have since wondered if it will come back to me, and what I did throughout that month to earn the pleasure of its company. But perhaps it won’t, and instead it was waiting within the pages of the books, the cracks in the walls, under the dusty rugs and buried within the soul of that building; left there in small pieces by visitors and adventurers before me, to be discovered as a trophy of the journey taken to arrive at that location. A testament to the exhilarating pain and fear exerted in order to gain the stories and personal growth that comes hand in hand with experience. If you delight in the journey you become rich with what you collect along the way. Maybe if you’re lucky what you’re looking for will be waiting in the most unexpected places, maybe perched proudly atop a snowy mound.