The periphery of Reykjavik feels at once foreign and familiar. Gas stations and grocery stores stand out to the visitor due to their shape rather than their signage. Apartment buildings and condos line the water’s edge but have that distinctly different personality of cold-weather architecture. Traffic signs have unfamiliar symbols. They are, however, still gas stations and grocery stores, apartment buildings and condos, and simple traffic signs. But when you turn off Route 49, the main artery out of the city, and onto Route 1, even that familiarity falls away.
Route 1, known as the Ring Road, circumnavigates the island. Drive far enough and you’ll end up back where you started. The landscape is practically lunar as you begin heading southeast away from the capital. Dry moss and the like grows along the hardened lava flow that stretches out on each side of the road further than the eye can see. Bald mountains stained with rusting iron or dotted with patches of snow spring up as the road winds its way up and up, raised slightly over the landscape on a kind of berm. The wind whips across the road and wobbles the smaller cars that drive it.
Such is the nature of the island’s landscape that, constantly looking out the windshield to see what new view awaits, the environs change before you’re ready to leave them behind. With the lava fields and snow-topped mountains behind you, a massive valley lays ahead, with the road winding down towards it. The town of Hverager∂I is nestled on the flatness below, and is the beginning of a string of settlements of various sizes and stages of upkeep strung together by horse farms, small ranches, and the occasional gas station. It’s a long stretch of road with the disadvantage of existing between the lava fields and the desolate expanse that everyone is heading for. Bear right when you get to the town of Hvolsvöllur, and make sure your camera is at the ready.
The Iceland that most people photograph begins in what is basically a run-off area of the glaciers of the Thórsmörk mountain ridge. Thundering out across the river of glacial melt is Seljalandsfoss, the first in a string of waterfalls that tumble off the edge of land at the base of the mountains before trickling much less impressively into the ocean a few miles away.
Route 1 runs just along the edge of this rop off, and the pure white glacier can be seen from the road and is a bit disorienting when one realizes it isn’t a cloud, sitting so high above the mountains. Waterfalls of varying sizes coat the cliffs, deep valleys cut into it, and the occasional homestead watches over the fields that stretch out between the road and the undulating ridge line.
Two of the biggest waterfalls on this stretch of road are Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. Each has a convenient pull off and a few amenities. Seljalandsfoss has port-a-potties, food trucks, and a little shed where a local woman sells handmade sweaters. Skogafoss has a hostel, a restaurant, and bathroom facilities that resemble a campground’s. Brightly colored tour buses line the parking areas of each one.
After driving through hours of abandoned countryside and quiet homes, the crowds (if you can call them that) are a bit jarring. Each waterfall has an unexpected stairway that clings to the steep hillside which gives you a better vantage point of the drop and is lined with photographers. When I stopped at Skogafoss, the second stop on my trip, an odd sensation occurred to me. I had spent the entire drive from Reykjavik in total awe of the countryside I was driving through, passing only the occasional rental car that I imagined was filled with intrepid explorers like myself. I felt further from home than I ever had before, and the view around each corner was as unexpected as the last. Before you see them, the waterfalls are no more than a dot on an empty map; nestled in crooks in the cliffs, as massive as they are you don’t really see them until you’ve arrived. At practically the same instant, if not before, you see the parking lots filled with tour buses. I even saw some of the same people I’d walked beside at Seljalandsfoss here at Skogafoss. My excitement wasn’t lessened, but my sense of adventure morphed slightly into an internal sense of discovery rather the trailblazing wonder it had been.
The tour buses go to each of these spots because the itinerary is worth it. I don’t suggest skipping it because of crowds; this is still Iceland and there was never more than 50 people wandering around. But it is a sudden feeling of finding yourself back on the map when you get to each of these places. On the journey out of the city, Route 1 felt like a tight rope: stray too far off of it and you risk falling into wilderness oblivion. By the time I pulled out of the Skogafoss parking lot, that feeling was gone. But there are ways to regain some of that trailblazing wonder.
Tucked between Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, in an unmarked valley, is the Seljavallalaug pool. Built in 1923 as a place to teach the local kids how to swim, the pool is kept up by the Icelanders that live in the area. They clean it and its rudimentary bathhouse once a year. The pool itself is about 50 feet long, hot in the corner where the geothermal water runs into it and lukewarm throughout. It was flurrying and 30 degrees when I went for my swim, and although I wasn’t cold I did keep my hat on.
It’s difficult to locate the access road that leads into the valley, but once you’re there the half-mile trek into the narrow river valley is simple. Follow the stream that trickles through the valley until it becomes more of a river, crossing it once, and keep walking until you round a corner. The pool will be on you left, clinging to the foot of the hillside that rises, in varying degrees of magnitude, to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano above you. Tour buses don’t visit this spot, but I did meet a few people along the path to the pool: a French family visiting from Marseille, a group of Canadians or Americans, and even a few Icelanders.
Until this point, I hadn’t noticed the lack of local people. I’d been a bit distracted. But walking up to a pool in the middle of nowhere warrants friendly introductions with the few other people that are there, and so I got to talking. It was when I asked my second Icelander where they were visiting from, only to learn that they had come here many times before, that I realized I had seen so few locals outside of Reykjavik that I now assumed everyone I came across was a visitor, like myself. I hadn’t expected to see Icelandic school children on tours of the waterfalls, or college students lazing about Seljavallalaug between classes. But I had expected to see people around the houses I drove by, or at the gas stations I stopped at, or in their cars passing me on the road. But I hadn’t. And so I found myself back-peddling as a got into the pool, telling them how much I enjoyed their ountry, and offering a smile and a shrug towards the water as an exit strategy.
In Reykjavik, I had felt very much a visitor. I was lost frequently, deciphering maps and signage in a language I knew not, and I took too many photos, pausing on sidewalks at nondescript locations when something caught my eye. I had been welcomed in a friendly way and then left to my own devices. Upon leaving, I felt I had left any semblance of the city behind. But here I was, swimming in a hundred-year old hot spring-fed pool attached to the base of a volcano, as far from the confines of my New England life as I’d ever been, and so lost in my own narrative of adventure and discovery that it had been unthinkable that I was encountering people going about their daily lives. I swam in the pool for a while, shared a glass of cheap red wine with the Canadians, and dressed. By the time I left the sun was beginning to reach for the horizon and dusk was nestling into the little valley. I walked back to the parking lot with a few of the other swimmers, our damp towels tucked around our shoulders, wet hair dripping a bit, just as I had left countless swim lessons at home.
This is not the story of Iceland that is projected in travel media today. In travel media, we see photo after photo of waterfalls and glacial rivers, read articles on all the remote fishing villages and stark chapels we need to visit. In the photos, there is always an intrepid traveler or two, a well-equipped Land Rover with skis or surfboards strapped to the roof, and an empty, re-historic coastline. And while it’s mostly a desolate, beautiful place, it’s not empty. People spend their days here, their lives here, even though you may not see them walking dogs or taking the trash out as you drive by on the Ring Road. The point here is not to detract from the exploration Iceland provides its visitors, but to remember the people who have kept the island the adventure it is for the rest of us.