Over the Top – Iceland

On our third morning in Iceland, we wake, pack up, and stop briefly to pet the small family of border collies before we leave the dairy farm. They’re a lovely bunch, especially the two young pups. There’s a clear social hierarchy in place, and everyone seems content, except, that is, for the Beta male. I feel badly that he gets scolded for allowing me to let him and promptly gets chased across the yard to the corner of a muddy corral. I wish I hadn’t gotten him in trouble.

Back down the gravel drive to the bridge that crosses a rushing stream, and out onto the Ring Road to continue our clockwise loop of the island. We are crossing over the top of Iceland.

It’s a gorgeous sunny day with clear skies, which helps to melt the frost on the car windows. A thought occurs to me that perhaps we missed the northern lights last night. I make a mental note to check the aurora forecast app on my phone later today.

Before booking this trip, I thought long and hard about how to time it so that I could hopefully enjoy some decent weather and still get to see the northern lights. Should I go in summer to enjoy the velvet green, waterfall strewn sun-soaked landscapes? Or should I come in winter and have hours and hours of darkness for stargazing and aurora absorption? I opted for what I thought might be a middle ground – autumn’s golden and reddened grasses and longer nights with extra aurora activity around the equinox.

We had gone into Akureyri the night before and shopped at the local Bonus, a supermarket we have dubbed the Pig for obvious reasons. We stocked up on Skyr and veggies for dinner back at the farm and tea which I’ve enjoyed this morning before heading out.

We drive through Akureyri again this morning as we make our way east and pass the Pig one last time. There will no doubt be another one down the road. I’d had the Iceland Motorcycle Museum on my list for the trip and have checked hours online so we know when to arrive, but the sign on the door doesn’t match the hours posted online. We arrive to find it closed and locked, and decide not to wait the extra three hours before it actually opens. We have too much to see and I’m not that patient.

We continue moving east on the Ring Road which climbs higher. Snow lines the road edges and covers mountains in the distance.

Less than an hour out of town we hit our first major waterfall of the trip, Godafoss. There’s a parking lot not far off the road with two excellent viewpoints and we walk to both. It’s breezy and the wind feels intensely cold up on this high plateau when carrying the mist from the falls.

At a small gift shop near the visitor parking I catch my first true glimpse of the famous Icelandic high prices. It will cost us $2 each just to use the restroom. Postcards are $1.50 each, not including international postage. A wool cap that I really like is $50. A hot cup of coffee is $6. But I can buy a small plate of fresh cold-smoked salmon on thin slices of bread for $7.

I spring for a bathroom break since I haven’t seen many roadside trees, and we keep moving down the road.

Somewhere before Myvatn we start to see what looks like steam rising from chimneys scattered across the horizon. But later I see these aren’t chimneys. They’re steam vents coming out of the earth. This area is covered with hot pots, thermal pools and geothermal activity.

Myvatn is supposed to be a tourist spot that draws people to its famous baths and lake. It doesn’t seem as inviting to me as I had expected when it’s freshly ice-coated from a two-day snowstorm that passed through a couple of days before. So we keep moving on toward Detifoss, the next waterfall on my list. This one is quite a few miles off the Ring Road and requires a short hike across an icy flat to reach an overlook.

Mist rising from the canyon creates a rainbow that arches over the river and falls. The deafening roar of rushing water echoes from every direction.

I slip and slide my way back to the car and retrace my way back to the Ring Road to keep moving east. Not more than a mile farther on Jen and I spy a hitchhiker ahead and glance at each other briefly to read each other’s faces for the unasked question that has just hit us both. We seem to agree without saying it and I slow down and pull over. Dad, I don’t want you to worry. I promise I don’t do this often, and never when I’m alone. In fact I’ve only ever done it once before. Hitchhiking is very common in Iceland.

Diana, our new guest in the car, is from Portugal. She came over a few months ago to take a temporary job at a resort near Myvatn to save money for school. She’s energetic and friendly, and has gorgeous wild dark ringlets of hair. Diana will work long hours nearly every day for six months until she goes home, but has an 8-day mini break that started today, during which she hopes to explore a little more of this beautiful country. Other students have suggested hitchhiking as a way to save money, but she was nervous to do it by herself. She says she was relieved when two women offered her a ride. She and I chat non-stop for the next couple of hours before we deposit her at a gas station in Egilsstadir. She will find another ride from here to carry her to the fjord village of Reydarfjordur.

We wish each other well before she springs across the parking lot on her way to her next adventure.

Jen and I take a detour off the Ring Road and drive to Eidar where we have a room at a hostel. The skies overhead are crystal clear. I have my fingers crossed for a glimpse of northern lights.

When we arrive, we are both a little surprised at the mildly austere appearance of the place. It’s set back from the main road and gives off a former-school vibe. Not cold, but not inviting. Not bad really, until Jen spies the cemetery at the edge of the property and cracks a joke that references The Shining.

It’s very dormitory-esque, but serves the purpose just fine.

At the reception desk I ask about when and where we might watch for aurora. The desk clerk suggests we start watching the sky at about 10:00pm, and if nothing is active then, to keep checking back outside about every hour.

We settle into our room and surf online for a bit. At about 7:30, and still before it’s completely dark, I run out to the car for something. When I walk out the front door of the hostel, I’m amazed by the sky above. Even with the parking lot and building lights around me, I can clearly see waves of green light rolling over me from every direction. The sky is practically live with movement. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

I’d planned to tinker with my camera in hopes of getting a couple of cool shots, but I haven’t had time. I run inside and grab Jen and my camera, and my sleeping bag for warmth in the chilly night air. We run for the car and peel out of the parking lot, driving north in search of a dark stretch of land where we might see the lights better.

Jen is amazed too. The lights wash over us, rolling to and fro, stretching to the horizon in every direction. We drive for about ten minutes, during which the last bits of light from the setting sun fade away. And just as we park and expect to experience even more of the aurora…it stops. Just like that.

At first I think my eyes need to adjust to the darkness, but I quickly realize the show is nearly over. We start to notice a more subtle form of aurora out on the horizon to the west. I can still see the waves of green light moving, but only a couple of degrees above the horizon. A full moon starts to rise behind us, dampening our hopes even more. We sit and stare west for an hour or two, enjoying this smaller version of the light show before calling it a night.

However briefly it lasted, I’m so glad we were able to see the northern lights. Bucket list item checked!

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