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Höfn to Mývatn

A replacement SUV rental arrived mid-morning, shortly after we finished our complimentary breakfast in the Höfn Inn’s charming dining room across the street from the guesthouse. We loaded up the car and were soon on our way to the resort area of Lake Mývatn, where we would be staying at a guesthouse with a working dairy farm. I booked it before we’d even bought our flights.

We had every reason to be optimistic about the day’s drive, for a change. Vegagerdin, the national weather/driving conditions/wind speed website, indicated that the Ring Road ahead of us was manageable — the line marking the road was green for the the first half of the trip, which meant “easily passable,” then light blue for a long stint, which meant “slippery,” and then white just before we would arrive to Lake Mývatn, which meant there would be “snow.” This didn’t seem particularly risky to us, because light blue and white weren’t the worst conditions available to us. There was also pink for “difficult driving,” gray for “difficult road conditions,” red for “impassable,” and two degrees of “closed.”

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Slopes along the Ring Road.

We set out driving north toward the East Fjords. On a map, it looks like the top side of your left fist, the fjords like the slits between each flat knuckle. When you’re actually driving it, the fjords feel like hawks’ claws, with monstrous mountains for the bones, tendons, and talons, and huge gaps for the water between. It can take 45 minutes to drive around one fjord, either along the water’s edge or atop a cliff looming dangerously over it. Also, for the first time on our trip, the Ring Road turned to gravel for short stints. This was the last part of the Ring Road to be constructed, effectively connecting the ring itself, but it didn’t exactly feel complete.

We finally entered our last fjord, the one that we would follow inland. I was concerned. The road had been gravel for an uncomfortably long time, and the mountains bordering the innermost shore of the fjord were imposing, and covered with snow and ice. I didn’t see anything resembling a valley. I hadn’t read about a tunnel.

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Looking inland toward a fjord.

Soon, it was obvious to us that we would be going over the mountains on a one lane gravel “pass,” nearly as high as the summit itself. I’d said earlier on the trip that if I ever got really rich, I would give money to Iceland to build guard rails along its coastal roads, which were often dangerously close to rocky cliffs and subject to strong winds in the direction of said cliffs. But coastal roads were nothing compared to the steep, icy trail on which we’d just found ourselves, in a snowstorm. The ascent was perilous, with only the occasional presence of guard rails, and never where they were most needed. My greatest fear is of falling off of a mountain — I have stopped short of summits on relatively benign hikes, and I’m not fond of ski lifts — and I went on about it until my guy finally let me know I was stressing him out. And, he informed me, I should not stress out the driver.

Tip: Don’t stress out the driver. Buy them coffee, paprika flavored chips, licorice candy, whatever it takes to ensure that they are consistently feeling alert, satisfied, and even more alert.

As we neared the top, I noticed that the view out over the valley and the fjord was beautiful. Had there been pavement, road salt, or guard rails, I might have looked at it more, or taken any photos. Instead, I was trying to convince my guy to slow down so I could climb back to the cargo area — where I could pour some box wine into my empty water bottle. “It’s too early in the day,” he said, brushing me off.

How right he was.

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The view from the passenger window back toward the fjord from halfway up the mountain pass.

The drive did improve, briefly. Once on the other side of the ridge, descending into a lightly forested valley with small farms and industrial towns, we realized that we were the farthest from Rekykjavik that we would be the entire trip. We wondered whether food and supplies came in via truck or boat — it could really go either way. We listened to Icelandic music and made light of how much better the drive was. It wasn’t snowing, and the drive was paved and even. Until it wasn’t.

We didn’t really ease into snow. It was light and familiar for maybe only five minutes before it started really coming down. Suddenly, we couldn’t see the boundaries of the road that well, much less the landscapes on either side of us. I had the national weather website up on my guy’s phone, and it indicated we had just entered the “slippery” territory, so we reassured ourselves that the near-white-out conditions were merely temporary. But we never left it.

This is “slippery.” Roads in Iceland have reflective marker poles on either side about every 7 meters. The snowstorm was so strong that we had 5 meters of visibility. That meant that, driving at a slow speed, we still had 2 meters and 2 or 3 terrifying seconds wherein we couldn’t see the outline of the road ahead of us.

Soon, we felt a gradual rise in incline, and we had no idea how high we were or how the steep the drop-off on either side of the road might be. Based on traversing the mountain pass without guard rails, we knew it could be really steep. But I got an occasional glimpse of a snow drift just out my window, which made me think there could be land on the side of the road. I told myself that.

Tip: Pay the extra money for a four wheel drive rental. Seriously.

As frightening as it was to drive with such limited visibility, the road was being plowed. We were mostly driving on packed snow. We once approached a driver getting out of a plow truck and assumed he would stop us and tell us to turn around, but he didn’t. We later stopped for gas for good measure and saw a rescue truck there, and the drivers didn’t say anything to us. Finally, a dinky two-wheel-drive rattled on past the station, and we felt a little wussy.

But still — this was their idea of “slippery”? Was something lost in translation?

Respite came in whatever form we could find. Following the national weather website on my guy’s phone, when we crossed from light blue “slippery” into white “snowy” on the map, the only transition we felt was from terrible to equally terrible, and no worse, which came as a tremendous relief.

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Improved conditions.

Almost to Mývatn, the two-second white-outs subsided and we could see again, barely. And the Vegagerdin website updated its maps on Stewart’s phone, re-coding the 150 kilometer drive we’d just completed as merely “difficult.” I was pretty ready for that wine.

Mývatn is considered a resort area. When I was booking the trip, I imagined big log cabins organized in tidy rows, waterfront beer gardens overflowing with fun locals, and kids learning how to sail in little dinghies, or learning how to ice skate, depending on the weather. I was basically imagining somewhere outside Milwaukee that might not even exist.

In reality, it was quiet. There was a tiny village of a few houses and guesthouses at the lake’s northeast corner, Reykjahlid, but most of the guesthouses were spread out around the perimeter of the lake, including ours. And the lake was so large that we would need to drive everywhere. There was a thick blanket of snow on the ground, and it was getting dark fast. We’d hoped to arrive mid-afternoon to give us time to hike or soak in the hot springs, but it was already evening.

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Vogafjós Guesthouse’s restaurant and cow farm.

We could smell the cows as soon as we got out of our car at Vogafjós Guesthouse’s main building, on the water. Its construction was rudimentary, but once inside, we found a charming reception area with woolens and home accents for sale, the inviting dining room of the aptly named Cowshed Cafe with a couple of sheep just outside a window, and, behind glass, in separate areas, at least two dozen dairy cows resting in individual stalls or being milked.

We were greeted at the concierge desk by a talkative young guy, blond and thin and pale, who eagerly gave us a fifteen minute guide to the area and his favorite natural attractions, which was truly helpful. (Somehow, in eight hours in the car, we hadn’t gotten around to our usual routine of discussing the next destination and what we wanted to see and do.) He recommended the Cowshed Cafe for dinner; he promised that even if he didn’t work at Vogafjós, he would still think its restaurant was the best.

While we waited for our room agreement to be finalized, I watched a cow being milked behind a glass partition. I was completely engrossed when suddenly, another young employee came out to the small reception area carrying a tray of little plastic sample cups and offered us milk from that very cow, still warm. It was my first time tasting raw milk, and it was heavenly. It was creamy in taste, but not as thick as I thought it might be, and a little sweet, and warm, and comforting. The stresses of the day’s drive began to fade away. But it would still be a while before I was fully relaxed.

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Well cared-for cows at Vogafjós.

We had to drive to get to our room, with the young guy as our guide, and he proudly unlocked the door, and pointed at the desk and bed and coat rack, and gave us the wifi password, and warned us about the sulfuric smell of their water, and showed us how to control the thermostat. I learned, while the door stayed wide open and cold air flooded in, that heat was cheap in Iceland because it came in the form of steam. He added, reassuringly, that he couldn’t smell the egg smell in the water anymore because he was used to it. And that he was a skiier, but a lot of his friends couldn’t keep it up as a sport because it was expensive. I learned a lot from him.

After we unloaded the car, for the next five minutes, my guy and I collapsed into the two chairs in the room, still in our outerwear, and mindlessly scanned through our email inboxes and Facebook newsfeeds, stopping only to sip box wine — finally — from water glasses. We badly needed to trade the stimulation of one of the scariest days of our lives for the stimulation of digital age ephemera.

I eventually scraped myself off the chair to take a shower. I shut the bathroom door and started the water, and — there was my gag reflex. We had washed our hands and flushed the toilet by that point, and we’d winced at the brief output of the sulfuric smell, but it was considerably different to be standing in a small bathroom with a slurry of rotten eggs coming at my head. Definitely among the faster showers I’ve ever taken.

The Cowshed Cafe was nearly full when we arrived, about 8:00 p.m., but we managed to get a good table in the middle of the room. Through huge panels of windows on the south and west walls, we could see soft pillows of snow covering farm equipment and fencing in the dark, but not the lake, or the sheep, or stars in the sky. It was a cloudy night. Even so, I found myself glancing around often, hoping to see the Northern Lights.

Tip: Icelandic cuisine is centered around lamb and fish. Other proteins are available, but they’re not local, and they’re not specialties. If you’re inland, as at Lake Mývatn, order lamb. If you’re staying on the coast, order a local fish dish. You’ll never have such fresh or delicious lamb or fish again in your life, so get good and tired of it. Skip the chicken.

We both ordered the fixed price two course meal. It began with an appetizer of sliced tomatoes garnished with a few leaves of lettuce and fresh herbs, a light lemon vinaigrette, and homemade cheese from the milk cows sleeping some 30 feet from our table. The menu used the word mozzarella, but it was akin to feta in both texture and flavor. This was served with a regional specialty, rúgbrauð, a molasses and rye flour brown bread baked underground over several days with geothermal heat — firm and moist and a little sweet. Its nickname in Icelandic translates to “thunder bread.” Eating large quantities is said to cause flatulence.

Lamb was the entree, of course, and my guy felt strongly that theirs was the best of the trip. We each received a whole roasted shank, seasoned simply, with its juices spilling out into a potato and winter vegetable cake that tasted like Thanksgiving mashed potatoes and stuffing mixed together. There was also a ramekin of sweet chutney, a big slab of buttery garlic bread, and a small lettuce garnish, further underscoring the high status of fresh vegetables.

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Two homemade ice creams at the Cowshed Cafe.

And for dessert, we shared two homemade ice creams: one blended with rúgbrauð, and the other with local herbs. They tasted like Christmas and felt fatty in my mouth. I don’t even care for ice cream anymore, but I liked these.

I reprised my role as the night’s watch after dinner, poking my head outside our cabin to look at the sky for hints of green throughout the night. But the forecast held up. It was too overcast. I started to wonder whether we’d ever see the Northern Lights.

And what it took to close a road in Iceland.

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