The Borgarfjörður Eystri area, in the eastern fjords, is known for hiking and bird-watching. Photos by Frédéric Lagrange.
In August 2016, I found myself wrung out and miserable over the state of the United States—the vitriol of the presidential election, the deep chasms of reality where we all seemed to find ourselves. I wanted to get the hell away, but not just away. I wanted out. I wanted nothing that resembled where I was coming from. I wanted everything new.
I chose Iceland, which was in the last few minutes of its tourist season, when the roads were about to become impassable. I packed my bags and decided I needed to get there not just before the roads went bad, but before the puffins migrated. Puffins! What could be more new to me than puffins? My weary eyes needed to see things they weren’t accustomed to, and the country’s Mars-like terrain, its misty pools, and its strange flocks of puffins all felt right. Besides, how many times could you see Iceland near the top of all those happiest-people lists before you decided to investigate? I had a fantasy that if I could just be around the puffins in this place I didn’t know, I’d be rid of all I did know, at least for a moment. So I caught a ferry from Landeyjahöfn, 80 miles southeast of Reykjavík, to a tiny island called Heimaey, because someone told me you could see swarms of puffins there.
It should have been true. The Cantonese restaurant featured a cartoon of a puffin in a pointed bamboo hat. The armrests on the park benches were shaped like puffin heads. The gas station had a puffin pumping gas painted on it. I arrived at the Hotel Vestmannaeyjar at 8 p.m., two more hours of daylight to go, and the young man at the desk told me how to get to the beach where I would find all the puffins. Well, I went, and I drove up the mountain on the one-lane gravel road, and I hiked down the rocks to the beach, and I didn’t see one. Not one. And so I went back to the desk and demanded of the young man: “Where are those puffins?!” “I’m sure they’re there,” he said. “I saw them yesterday.” I had heard the puffins would be migrating soon, so I said, “Maybe they were there yesterday and they’ve left today.” And he said, “It doesn’t work like that.” But what is migration but being in one place one day and not the next?
The young man took out a map and showed me again where he knew for sure the puffins were. I went again—the whole island is only a few miles wide—and stood in the rain, because it rained every day I was in Iceland, and still nothing. And I wondered how I’d ever be able to say I’d seen Iceland if I hadn’t seen puffins. I wondered how bereft my experience of the country would be for not having gotten a chance to see them flock together, sitting still or batting around like manic deformed penguin impersonators. Think on that for a moment while I make this point: Everyone comes to Iceland with a version of Iceland they’ve made up for themselves—a place of infinite happiness or infinite pools or infinite fermented shark or infinite Björk—and a visit to Iceland is very much about that particular Iceland, the one that really exists only in your mind.
But before the puffin pursuit. On the first day of my trip, a few hours after I landed in Reykjavík, an American I know who lives there said to me, “You’re not going to go to the Golden Circle, are you?” You should have heard the contempt in his voice. He moved to Iceland a year ago, and he loves it, but he finds it hard to avoid the Americans, and therefore the America, he was escaping. The Golden Circle—a route that allows you to see several of the country’s main attractions in a day’s drive—was inundated, he said: Geysir, the geothermal spout after which all other geysers are named; Gullfoss waterfall; Thingvellir National Park; plus the Blue Lagoon, the spa that’s not officially part of the Golden Circle but is often included on the same daylong tour. It’s all such a quick trip from the capital, too tempting a day trip not to indulge, so it’s crawling with the hundreds of thousands of American tourists who somehow discovered that there is a beautiful, exotic country a mere five hours from our Atlantic coast. “You won’t see Iceland if you see those things,” my friend said. “You’ll see Americans being American.”
“But you’re an American,” I said.
“Just you wait,” he said. “The Blue Lagoon selfie is ruining this country.”
It is true that Iceland is full of tourists. In 2010 the country’s main airport received 459,000 visitors. In 2016, that number was nearly 1.8 million. A waitress told me she thinks the tourist boom happened when the United States rediscovered Iceland after the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption in 2010. My expat friend thinks it has to do with Icelandair offering free stopovers. I said that maybe we were looking for beauty and something fresh. Maybe we were looking for some inspiration. Whatever it is, tourism saved the Icelandic economy after the banking bust in 2008, and I am going to just throw it out there that our newly discovered proximity to the place might just save us, but more on that later.
Everyone comes to Iceland with a version of Iceland they’ve made up for themselves.
So I set out in search of Iceland in my rental car . I decided yes, I’d avoid the tourist traps—no Blue Lagoon for me—and instead I would traverse the country via its main paved highway, Route 1, the Ring Road. I would find the Iceland I was so desperately looking for.
I went south first, to a waterfall called Seljalandsfoss, just beyond inclusion in the Golden Circle. Seljalandsfoss’s best feature, other than being a waterfall and waterfalls being impossibly beautiful, is that you can walk behind the waterfall and look out onto all the tourists taking pictures of it from the other side. If you drive down the road a little farther, you can see more waterfalls, and it is almost disturbing how quickly waterfalls become ho-hum. (I should confess here that I’m not exactly what you’d call a scenery person. I love a gorgeous flash of scenery, but once there is much more than a scene or two—and Iceland is basically all beautiful scenery—the beauty of the scenery fills me with a kind of dread, a sense that I’m somehow not enough in awe of nature. But Iceland gave me its best shot: I saw so many rainbows, so large and close up that I could see the delineation of each and every Roy G. Biv color. Still, after a while, oh look, another rainbow, bravo.)
At Seljalandsfoss, someone told me the better waterfall was down the road at Skógafoss, so I hightailed it there, stopping at a small house on the side of the road that’s a museum for the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, run by a family that had to evacuate their nearby farm during the eruption. No one was hurt; the lava moved so slowly that the locals could make an easy run for it. The museum sold not only the usual volcanic ash, but also books and T-shirts with the name of the volcano, and I asked one of the clerks why anyone would want to wear something that reminded them of something so painful. “No,” she told me, “we remember it as a time we all worked together and took care of each other.”
Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson collaborated on the design of Reykjavík's Harpa concert hall.
I made it up to Skógafoss, which had a hotel with a restaurant where I had lamb stew while looking out over a pasture of lambs, which was awkward but unavoidable; lambs dot every square inch of scenery in Iceland. The waterfall was beautiful, too. You could climb up and look over it. But also, it was another waterfall.
I asked a gas station attendant what I should see around there that was something the locals loved, and he told me about Seljavallalaug, which is a man-made pool built into the side of a mountain. You change in front of everyone and there are definitely no attendants or towels. How much less touristy could you get? It sounded perfect.
I hiked a full mile over a not quite paved path—what other American would do this? I thought triumphantly—realizing that I didn’t have anything that passed for a towel and that it would be very, very cold when I left. I changed into my bathing suit in full view of everyone, and immersed myself in the most delicious warm water of my life while rogue lambs walked up and down the lava rock surrounding the pool. I swam back and forth, talking to my fellow bathers.
There was a woman burning up her severance on an extended European vacation, a couple making the most of their pre-child years. There were two women on an Eat, Pray, Love quest, a new classification of traveler who is trying to get over something and find her truth or whatever. They were all American.
There are two kinds of pools in Iceland: man-made pools and natural pools. The man-made pools are where your average Icelander socializes. Beer wasn’t legal here until 1989, and so socializing was done not in bars, but in pools. The natural pools are another story. They’re bubbling, steamy water right there amid the rest of Iceland. So one day in the middle of my trip I headed over to a natural pool called the Secret Lagoon, located in Flúðir. Now, I’m not dumb enough to think that a secret lagoon listed in a Lonely Planet guide is secret. But it is off the path of the regular tourist attractions, far more inland, and I was thinking maybe the tourists would have had their lagoon lust satisfied by the Blue Lagoon. So I drove off the Ring Road, way down another road, and as I slowly rolled up through the woods, it appeared that the lagoon was on fire: Dusk was setting in, with a bright golden light that turned out to be the reflection of the setting sun on one of the greenhouses surrounding the lagoon.
You wouldn’t believe the variety of people I met at the Secret Lagoon! There were Americans from New York. There were Americans from the Midwest. There were Americans drinking 16-ounce beers; there were Americans drinking 24-ounce beers. There was this particular strain of American that anyone who has visited Iceland recently can identify: the bro who decided this was his summer, and he was going to go to Iceland with his fellow bros, and he maybe brought a couple of squealing, bikinied companions who scream, OHMYGODITSSOHOTTAKEMY PICTURETAKEMYPICTURE.
Geothermal energy feeds both the power station at Bjarnarflag and the nearby Jarðböðin hot spring.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the fact of actually being in a pool. Sitting/floating/walking in a pool is the opposite of traveling/exploring/wandering and getting there. A pool is a place to sit and to think, and the most jarring aspect of this is how ill equipped I and the rest of the Americans were to sit there and enjoy and feel and be, without asking, now what? You sit and you think your thoughts about beer and puffins and bikinis and why your GPS buttons only respond to pressure from the corner of your left middle fingernail and you ask yourself if you’re done and realize you don’t really know what done actually is. You don’t really know what it means to not be an American who is moving with velocity and purpose. You don’t really know another way to be.
Back in my rental car, I gunned it for the north. Someone on Twitter had sent me a picture of a hotel up there that sat so close to a fjord that the water reflected it, and I had to see it.
Siglufjörður is a tiny, tranquil town that thinks its main draws are its herring museum and its folk music museum (which are both excellent), when in fact its prime attractions are things you can’t sell tickets to: a lack of Americans, a dearth of tourists, and a front-row view of just how happy and peaceful a small town full of about 1,200 Icelanders can be. The man who owned the hotel where I stayed took me fishing. We sped on a dinghy outside the fjord into the Atlantic Ocean, where I caught cod after cod (after pollock) after cod and felt like a Viking. I saw Icelandic culture distilled down to its essence, and I realized in Siglufjörður that it is easy to be Icelandic. The Vikings came from Norway to a basically undiscovered land. They didn’t have to kill anyone to take it for themselves. Plus, almost everyone looks the same and is the same race and religion, and it is pretty hard to immigrate here. There is very little to fight over.
It’s not like being American. We have so much fodder for fighting. And it has driven us to Iceland, even if just for the week.
Simon Duur, a retired fisherman from the western coast of Iceland.
Ok, but about the puffins. Since I never saw any that rainy night on Heimaey, I prepared to leave the next morning disappointed. But the ferry I had been planning to take was cancelled because of the fog. So was the next ferry. I sat in front of a huge mural near the port that depicted a toddler playing with a ship in a puddle, but the puddle was the ocean and the land around it was Heimaey. Imagine knowing how small and contained you were; imagine knowing that and not feeling trapped, I thought.
So I went in search of the puffins again. I came back and folded my hands across my chest and stamped my foot at the hotel clerk and said once more that he was wrong, that the puffins were most certainly gone, and he came out from behind his desk and told someone in the office he was taking his break.
His name was Fridrik, as it turned out, and he was the son of the hotel’s owner. He was on a pro handball team, and he was thinking about studying abroad in the States during college. He would come back, he said, because everyone goes abroad and they come back because they don’t see a way to emulate anywhere else the life they have here.
Fridrik asked me to drive him home, and he changed out of his hotel suit and into a sweat suit, and he directed me back up the mountain. He knew the puffins were there because every night, he and his friends go to the mountain and guide the puffins. Puffins are not the smartest animals, so they are attracted to the lights of the city. I said I didn’t think that was that stupid, to love the lights of a city, and Fridrik shrugged and said anyway. Anyway, he and his friends guide them back to the beach where they belong—all the teenagers do—so that they don’t get fooled by all the action, they don’t think that there’s more to be had just because it’s brighter or more populated elsewhere.
We drove and drove and then we got out of the car. We went to the beach, where seals bobbed their heads just a few feet from the shore. This is where I’d been, I told him. But he told me to go farther up, and we climbed and climbed on a not not-dangerous, not not-slippery hill in the fog.
“Look,” Fridrik said.
I turned my head and there were hundreds of puffins, just hanging out on the hill, ridiculous, standing by until I found them. They stood in regal waiting, no place to be for now, not till the dark descended and the city lights came back on and their curiosity got the best of them. They were just there, being puffins, unaware of how badly I had needed to see them. I hugged Fridrik and whooped with joy. I had found my Iceland.
By then I knew that my Iceland was just the Iceland of my mind and not anyone else’s. Someone else’s Iceland could be hiking all day; another’s could be turf houses and troll hunts. Friends who told me to eat fermented shark or whale because it’s what Icelanders do—that’s the Iceland of their minds. The Icelanders I met laughed and said it’s cruel to eat whale and disgusting to eat shark; they would never do it, and they were surprised that this is somehow someone else’s authentic Icelandic experience. But how could you begrudge someone the Iceland of their mind? How could you say that someone else’s desire is less real than your own, even if you live there?
We should all be asking ourselves what the Iceland of our minds is, and we should all be looking for ways to find it.
If your authentic Iceland is eating fermented shark and puffin soup, then be your authentic Icelandic self and eat those things (though really you shouldn’t). If putting silica on your face and floating in the Blue Lagoon for days is your trip, then you should enjoy it, because it is your trip to Iceland and because all your trips are ones you have earned—you’ve earned them by paying for them, but also by yearning for them, by being as curious as you are.
My theory on why Iceland is now inundated with tourists is this: I think Americans who visit Iceland now are seeking a break from ugliness. We want to expose ourselves to a way of life that works, to a place more attentive to what bubbles beneath the surface, where submerging is the national pastime. We want to bring home a souvenir that reminds us that when the volcano erupts, we can all take care of each other. Maybe that’s how Iceland could save us.
And I shouldn’t leave out this part: On my way to the airport I stopped at the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a hot blue pool surrounded by old lava rocks, and yes, it was overrun by Americans, but that didn’t take away any of the heat in the water, the energy bubbling up from below.
No, in fact, the Americans, with their squealing and drinking and their body heat, they added to its warmth. I was proud of us for coming here. I was proud of us for trying. I applied my complimentary silica mask and took a selfie.
My economy rental car boasted something called SkyActiv technology, which must be the word for when you have a push-button ignition that only randomly actually starts the car. Or maybe it’s Icelandic for “We didn’t put windshield wiper fluid in this car before you left with it.” I don’t know—I’m not a car expert. I do know that the car, which became a menace on my trip, had a push-button ignition, and if you walked away from it with the keys and you forgot to shut it off, which you might if you’ve never driven a push-button ignition before, it stayed on. Perhaps I did this several times. Perhaps I left my car running for an hour at a time before returning to it. But Iceland, like a perfect older sister, has a crime rate of nil and actual negative unemployment, and so its people let my car run, for hours sometimes, while I went off to see the country. I was also outfitted with a GPS that was temperamental when it decided to function at all. It only functioned in Iceland, which, fine, but when you typed into it, you had to use the edge of your left-hand middle fingernail, the only one of my previously thought to be identical fingernails that would work on the thing.
The GPS matters, and so does the car, mostly because when I left Reykholt in the west, after seeing the cultural center built where Iceland’s most famous poet, Snorri Sturluson, wrote his sagas, the GPS took me on a road it had no business taking me on. Now, I’m not the kind of person who thought I was susceptible to GPS trickery. I am shocked when I hear stories of people driving into ditches because the GPS told them to, so please hear me out: There are a lot of roads off the main artery, Route 1, that aren’t quite paved—even Route 1 isn’t a smooth concrete ride for the duration—but they’re not treacherous. They’re just gravely, and a little pebbly. I had two choices for getting back to the Ring Road from the Snorrastofa Cultural and Medieval Centre, which includes a tiny church, a tiny geothermal pool, a tiny graveyard, the remains of the tiny home in which Snorri wrote, and a very large exhibit and gift shop. One choice was a long road to Route 1; the other was a shorter one. Which would you choose? Exactly.
So I headed down the faster road, and then there was some gravel and then there were some pebbles, and then suddenly there were some rocks, some fairly big rocks, and then it seemed they were boulders. I looked around to find that I was on an elevated pathway of these rocks that was very narrow, meaning I couldn’t make a three-point turn and get out. I could either ride backward the roughly two miles and hope I didn’t veer right or left by more than six inches, or I could drive four miles per hour while weeping loudly and figuring that eventually this road must end because eventually everything ends, right? Up ahead coming right at me was a jeep, and I tried to signal to it that it had to go off-road OR SOMETHING since I was in a crappy car, and it stopped and flashed at me and someone got out and shouted to me that I was not where I should be and that it got worse up ahead. He offered to drive my car down while I drove in his jeep with his fellow geologists, because apparently the only reason to be up there is if you are an actual rock person. I made it down. The point is don’t rent an economy car.