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Hella to Klaustur

The view out the bedroom window in the morning startled me. In the morning sunlight, in what I would find out was about an hour’s drive east, I saw a long line of snow-capped peaks along the horizon. The evening prior, the visibility wasn’t that good, and the eastward view just looked like farmland. But that morning, the jagged mountains met the plain so abruptly that they seemed like glass shards furiously bursting through the earth. The subtlety I’d observed my first day in Iceland — gone.

Like at most guesthouses in Iceland, Hotel Lækur’s breakfast was complimentary with our stay, and I enjoyed what I would later figure out was a typical offering. There were a few kinds of bread, preserves, butter, cold cuts, deli cheese, pourable yogurts, granola, and a tray of sliced bananas, oranges, tomatoes, cucumbers, and red peppers. Iceland is not a hospitable environment for most fruits and vegetables, so they have to be imported or grown in greenhouses at great expense, and these humble spreads were actually really special. I took a hearty white bread, buttered it, and topped it with a sampling of cold cuts and cheese. I’ve had yogurt for breakfast every weekday since college — I was not about to eat yogurt in Iceland, no matter how Icelandic.

We checked out and loaded up our car, but we didn’t go far. Hotel Lækur is a working horse farm with about 40 horses (as I recall), and the opportunity to go horseback riding was the main reason we chose it. Our guide, Raven, was the owner of the guesthouse, and I recognized him as our server the earlier evening. Raven was just lovable. In spite of the inevitable stresses of running a guesthouse and farm, being a young husband and father, and leading tourists on long rides at a slow speed in a second language every day, he seemed genuinely excited as he made introductions and distributed helmets, offering head covers and thick gloves as well. I would be remiss not to add that he was handsome, tall, and fit. Icelandic men tend to be. And the women are just as striking.

The weather was intense. I wore a turtleneck, light jacket, vest, and ski jacket shell, and two pairs of gloves and my new wool hat, pulled down tight over my ears, and I was still cold. The outside temperature was probably about 40, but it was so windy.

I don’t have much room to complain, though, because Icelandic horses stay at pasture through the winter, and unlike Icelandic sheep, they don’t have thick wool coats. They’re shorter than American horses yet seem more robust in nature, and they favor a unique fifth gait that’s somewhat of a shuffle. I imagine it’s like skipping for them — just comfortable. I can’t say the same for the rider, though. In spite of the reassurance that it would be smooth, I fidgeted through a variety of postures throughout and eventually landed on one where I tucked my tailbone under myself and hunched my shoulders. I was assigned to a retired competition mare, and I loved her. She didn’t mind me. I was told she would clear her throat a lot, and she did, and it only added to her charm. I like reminders like that that I’m riding a living, breathing, phlegmy animal.

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The glass shards.

My guy and I were joined by Heinrich and Mia, a couple visiting from Austria. They were in front of us in line, so we couldn’t hear a lot of what Raven was saying about the area. It ended up being a really peaceful ride, though, which, in retrospect, was perfect. We did a loop around other farms, and my favorite part was riding toward the shards of glass to the east.

Soon, we were driving toward them. After the horse ride, we stopped briefly at a travel station with gas pumps and a closed Vinbudin wine shop, then headed east along the coast toward our eventual endpoint, Kirkjubaejarklaustur (or Klaustur for short). After 20 minutes, we came across a small but not unimpressive plateau with several waterfalls spilling over the top, the biggest of which is easily recognizable in the trailer for “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Obviously, we wanted to get out and take pictures.

“Where’s my hat?” I asked my guy. He’d just bought it for me the day before, at Geysir. It was cream colored wool with gray Nordic accents, fleece lining, ear flaps, and a bushy pompom. I searched the passenger seat calmly, then frantically. Soon, I was panicking. I knew I’d had it when we left the guesthouse, but I didn’t remember having it after the gas station. And I did remember my gloves falling out of the car when I stepped out at the gas station, because they’d been next to me on the seat — could I have missed the hat? I asked to go back 20 kilometers to the gas station, as soon as we’d arrived at one of the most beautiful displays of waterfalls in Iceland.

My guy drove fast, and we didn’t talk much except to say forcefully optimistic things like, “Iceland has almost no crime,” and, “Maybe the wind didn’t carry it that far from its spot.” It wasn’t a pleasant drive.

Tip: Trust that Iceland is safe. They hit their third homicide of the year this October, and it wasn’t random.

I unbuckled my seatbelt, ready to jump out of the car, as soon as the travel station came into view. My guy first pulled into our parking spot at the gas station, and the hat wasn’t there. He then pulled up to the closed wine shop, where I’d hopped out to check the hours, and there was nothing there, either. I was crestfallen. My guy started to apologize and console me and — and then I saw it. It had been blown around the back of the wine shop, up against a curb. The wind had carried it 10 or 15 meters, and thankfully, no further. A group of cyclists watched me jump and dance around like a toddler.

We returned to the waterfalls and took pictures. I was just glad to have my lucky hat.

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The Walter Mitty waterfall.

We were now driving northeast on the Ring Road, passing a hundred sheep at pasture every kilometer, and a waterfall almost as often. We listened to Icelandic music and our own compilations, and we stopped to take pictures as often as we wanted to. The wind got stronger as we drove on. Even in the passenger seat, I could feel the pressure on the car.

Soon, we opted to drive 4km down a dirt road off the Ring Road to see the tongue of a glacier, which was mentioned by our Lonely Planet, and it was so windy at the mountain pass that I could barely open my car door; we seriously worried that if the wind changed direction, it could rip the car door off. We were the only ones there, and we knew why. The wind flicked me around the dirt parking lot, in this direction then the other, and I knew a gust strong enough could push me over or run me all the way across it. We got back into the car and left after only a minute without going near the ice.

We’d heard that the final leg of the drive to Kirkjubæjarklaustur was dangerous at times, as there would be a long stretch of road through a glacial flood plain. Volcanic activity under a glacier can melt the bottom layer of ice, creating huge floods from lowest point in the mountainous boundaries down to the ocean, and leaving a 50 kilometer wide wind tunnel capable of blowing loose sand toward toward the coast at speeds of 50 meters per second, or more than 100 miles per hour. It can strip the paint off the side of a car.

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A long and windy drive, but pretty.

It was really bad. My guy requested that we turn off the music and just make conversation, but conversation inevitably turned to the wind. Every few minutes, a gust would strike the driver’s side of our car with so much force that my guy’s white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel would break. Sometimes the air flow around the car was such that my side was penetrated, and it sounded like a monster trying to get into my door. The worst was when the wind managed to gather loose sand and hurl it toward us, and my guy would eye his side view mirror to make sure the paint wasn’t eroding.

Tip: Make every phone call necessary to ensure that, should you forego the auto insurance offered by your rental car company, your rental car is covered by your credit card company or insurance company. Then, make every phone call necessary to ensure that you are covered for any weather conditions that could destroy a rental car in Iceland. Do not underestimate the potential for destruction.

It would be an understatement to say that we were relieved to arrive to Icelandair Hotel Klaustur, in the tiny village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, with paint on our car. The staff had actually locked the door of the hotel because of the wind, and we waved frantically for someone to let us in. The hotel was a bit overpriced for the amenities, which I expected, and they charged additionally for breakfast and wifi (which we decided to forego). But we were ideally situated and completely isolated at the southern tip of Skaftafell, Europe’s largest national park, and of our few options, this was the best.

We weren’t the only ones who thought so. A friend in LA had tipped us off to the presence of two major Hollywood stars in Kirkjubæjarklaustur, whose last names rhyme with Damon and Hathaway, shooting a film in the highlands. And while they weren’t staying at the hotel — I hope, since I didn’t get to see either — much of the production crew was. After we cleaned up and changed, we came across two producers and a number of gaffers at the bar. My guy begged me not to be awkward and ask about the shoot, but he gave in to the temptation the next morning and learned it was to be a “space movie.”

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Icelandair Hotel Klaustur.

We shared a bottle of wine in the brightly furnished lounge — which also featured some bizarre erotic art — and didn’t say much. It had been a frustrating day, and we had the excuse of trying to listen in on the gaffers’ animated half-Icelandic, half-English conversation. They were supposed to being shooting in the highlands, but the storms were delaying production. Something about soccer. Are you getting another beer.

My guy stopped to talk with the concierge staff on the way back to our room about the weather forecast for the next day. The storm was supposed to persist, and they recommended staying another night and delaying the next driving segment. My thought was, of course they did. We would have to eat the cost of at least our next night’s stay, as I had only 24 hours to cancel hotel reservations through, and add another night at our already overpriced hotel. We’d made it this far in the storm — how bad could it be?

My guy took it far more seriously. He proposed that we adjust our trip to be one day behind and rebook every hotel accordingly, which I didn’t respond well to, as I’d so carefully booked everything months in advance, and the trip was expensive enough as it was. He also suggested turning around and driving clockwise around the whole island, in various iterations, which he eventually talked himself out of when he considered the reality of driving through the same sand storm on the same glacial flood plain. God only knows why (truly, when you read about the next morning), but that night, he would decide to stay the course.

We had three options for dinner in Kirkjubæjarklaustur. There was our hotel dining room, which looked bland and overpriced. People had nice things to say about another hotel’s restaurant up the road, so we called ahead and drove over. It looked like a college’s student union lounge, and the menu was as expensive and limited in choices as at our hotel. (And no celebrities.) The staff basically ignored us at the host desk, so it was easy enough to leave. Our last option was a cafe and bar in a stand-alone building, with neon signs in the windows. “I’m sure it’s fine,” I said.

It was more than fine. I mean, it was a total dive, patroned by a drifter in the corner who probably hadn’t showered for weeks, and run by a young hippie-type who managed to be the host, server, and bartender. But the food was genius. Not genius for a dive, but genius for anywhere. The food and sauce combinations were seriously weird and sounded amazing.

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Best. Hamburger. Ever.

I saw one unusually ambitious hamburger on the menu and spoke up to suggest sharing it, and my guy’s response was, “Obviously.” It was topped with bacon, pepperoni, pineapple, cheese, barbecue sauce, lettuce, and tomato, and I think onion, and there was also a special sauce that I think had hard boiled egg yolks and pineapple in it. When I inquired, our one-woman-show said she had no idea what “they” put in it, “they” being the slow-moving young geniuses behind all of this stoner food that I could see past her in the kitchen. It was my favorite burger, ever. We also shared a roasted lamb sandwich that, under any other circumstances, we would have raved about.

We were out there, and high on life.