I had been climbing an ambiguous trail of scree for an hour when I was slammed by an especially convincing gale and a coinciding realization: the Dutchman who promised me a guestbook at the top of this mountain was joking. Of course. Who puts a guestbook at a snow-buried 844-meter summit near towns that have double-digit populations?
The Icelandic do. It took another twenty minutes of self-flagellation and scrambling on all fours to find it, but there it waited, marking the peak of Hafnarfjall Mountain. I opened the makeshift mailbox, removed the journal’s plastic wrapping and sat on the mountain’s ledge, alone with a view over Borgarnes and the water that nuzzled up against it, Reykjavik in the distance. I imagined that from here I might see an orca’s inky skin in breach from the sheen of the sea, or an arctic fox slinking by, or the faraway specs of a puffin colony. But I had been in Iceland for two weeks and it had taught me this: when you expect a show, when you think you deserve it, you will be left with stillness of sky. When you are hypnotized by highway miles, eating canned tuna from the driver’s seat of a VW Polo that is not equipped to make it to Djúpivogur even in April, and you turn your head just slightly to comment on the quality of the tuna to the hitchhiker you picked up – it is this moment that Iceland will rise to greet you, precisely when you’re most likely to miss it.
I saw Glacier Lagoon this way – a flash of blue fluorescence in the cleft between two hills that compelled me to pull over and take the slope at a run. From the top I could see the sun flush pink into the translucence of hundreds of chunks of floating ice. I trotted down to the beach and stepped onto the ones that had grounded. The only sound I could hear was the gentle chink of ice knocking against itself in the easterly wind that cut right through me. I stood transfixed. The map would have directed me to a tourist viewing point some few miles ahead.
I tucked my hands into the sleeves of my jacket now, and held the guestbook in my lap. Paper feels more precious when the words are earned as I knew these to be. I flipped through the pages with mildly frostbitten fingers and read the words in the languages I could claim, and for the others I imagined tales both like and unlike mine – ghosts who might have been friends if our timing had corresponded.
At this stage of my trip I was staying with a family near the mountain’s base – farmers who baked me fresh bread in the morning and let me romp around their land as if it were my own. Their three border collies seemed to find me interesting unless there were chickens nearby, and if I sat on the ground the youngest dog would stumble onto my lap, unwieldy, still a puppy. Late April is lambing season, and birthing was in full throttle: the barn was filled with bleats and sheep whose bellies swung like saddlebags. ‘Would you like to feed the runt?’ my hosts asked me, after explaining exactly how far they had to reach to extract it from its mother. Despite my official status as a twenty-something, the concept of bottle-feeling a birth-damp lamb in a humid barn appeals to me infinitely more than making small talk with other twenty-somethings in a Reykjavik club, so I said, ‘Yes, please’. I had a car with gasoline and miles of exploring before me, but I spent hours this way – sitting in the sunshine with collies, eating bread still warm from the oven, and learning the history of the piece of land upon which I now stroked a sneezing infant sheep.
The tour books direct people to Gullfoss Waterfall and Geyser and the Blue Lagoon, but I have to believe that the magic of this country is principally here – understated, with people who have stopped noticing the cold, or on tops of mountains, or in tiny pubs where you find waffles and warmth after a failed whale-watching expedition that was supposed to be fun. Although we did spot a timid pod of porpoises (‘A pour-poise!’ shouted our guide in relief) that fled pretty immediately, all was not lost in the docks of Dalvik: I watched a fisherman slice a bucket full of cod with skill as sharp as his blade. Noticing my attention, he gave me an impromptu anatomy lesson – showed me the liver and the heart, squashed the gallbladder so that blue bile oozed out. Seagulls dive-bombed for the scraps he tossed. He carved a dozen fillets, and fifteen minutes later he was adding butter to the grill and telling me to help myself.
I returned my gaze to the guestbook, now hungry. One page of curly handwriting boasted a day of skipped classes, the sun a favorable alternative; I imagined two Icelandic schoolgirls camped here with bars of chocolate (why didn’t I bring chocolate?). Couples had hiked together; tourists; old friends. Americans claimed they would be back with a lot of exclamation points. Artists sketched. I swore I could see drops of sweat sunk into the pages, my own included, my body temperature disoriented by the combination of exertion and wind. Some visitors had just begun their drive on the Ring Road; others, including myself, were finishing it, and some knew better than to follow the tourist trail in the first place – even if it leads to puffins, even if it still feels wild.
Wildest for me was the concept – and the actuality – that I could stop the car at the base of any mountain and try my hand at scrambling it, limited only by my gear and my guts and my proclivity for cold (and possibly some agitated seagulls). The only barricades I encountered were to suggest that a visitor not step into the 100-degree mud pots bubbling in Hverir, and a modest sign warning that the roads beyond it were considered impassible – which was only to say that if you chose to continue you would be on your own and good luck. At that point of my trip, considering my rented Polo and the lashing snow, I retreated down the thirty-mile road that had led me to the sign, and with the help of an inconspicuous tourist center, I learned how to correctly pronounce ‘Akureyri’ and charted the optimal reroute to get there, which would increase my ETA by eight hours. In the absence of alternative accommodation nearby, I spent the night driving 35 kph in second gear up and down ferocious cants of Icelandic mountains off Route 1 – identified on Google Maps with names like ‘East, Iceland’ – and trying to remember what I learned in American driver's training about the mysterious concept of ‘pumping the breaks’ of a manual car if it slides.
By then, I was growing to understand that my experience of Iceland was contingent upon the timing of natural forces to an extent more drastic than in any other place I had been. The snowstorm cleared by 6 a.m., two hours after I got off the road. The morning before my whale-watching tour, visitors on the same fishing boat chased the flukes of humpback whales; I cupped my mug of hot chocolate and stared at unbroken sea (except for the pour-poise!). Northern lights and arctic foxes and chances flickered and vanished; if you choose the right day to fly to Iceland and the right cabin to rent and the right moment to walk outside in the night, you might see something. But chasing these delicate moments will sabotage the beauty of the banal – I enjoy the sky, I had to remind myself, even without electromagnetic activity overtaking it.
From my spot atop Hafnarfjall I scribbled a few lines, adding the log of my incidental timing to those of the others, and tucked the journal and pen back into their packaging and metal box. I picked up my pack and descended the mountain in a semi-controlled slide. When I reached the base, everything had changed again. The winds that burned my cheeks had stilled, and in only three hours the snow had visibly melted from the trail. Two hikers passed me on their way up and we nodded at each other. I knew their experience would be utterly disparate from mine. Perhaps this is the very thing that draws us to Iceland: we can spend days or months or years exploring its bounds and ours, but the mysteries fall right back into place after we lift them.