Like many travelers, I suffered my first panic attack on the tarmac at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
One of the inconveniences of flying out of Atlanta on summer evenings is the likelihood that the plane is going to be A) caught in a torrential downpour, B) swept away in a tornado, or C) struck by lightning. The South’s summer popup storms are one of those things I’ve had to get used to since moving here in 2009 (along with thinly veiled racism and sweet tea). And so here we were, Amanda and I, sitting in a grounded plane on the runway, waiting for the weather to give us a window to take off and begin our ten(nish)-day trip to Iceland. I’m normally a calm flyer – if the plane crashes, it crashes, and at least my relatives will have a good story to tell – and it wasn’t the thought of death in a spiraling ball of flame that had me hyperventilating.
It was missing our damn connection.
We had two hours to deplane in New York and catch our flight to Reykjavik. At this point we had already been held in the terminal for twenty minutes when the storm first descended, and as fifteen minutes on board the stifling mausoleum with wings stretched into thirty, then forty, I felt eight months of careful planning constricting my heart. At one point, after the pilot came on the intercom to tell us we were still waiting for clearance, I might have whimpered.
Over an hour later we took off without incident. As long as we flew direct to JFK, everything would be fine. I relaxed. I breathed easily. I tried to wipe away the tears in such a way that Amanda couldn’t make fun of me later. Finally, I cracked open Dave Eggers’ The Circle and watched our flight’s progress out of the corner of my eye on the little back-of-the-headrest screen. So far, so good. Until we hit New York and learned that due to storms up and down the East Coast, planes were stacked over JFK in a series of layers roughly resembling Dante’s circles of hell. I kept watching our plane on the screen, and every time we diverted from our northerly descent to turn east over the Atlantic in another time-sucking loop, I cackled and died a little inside.
Because I’m not a religious fella, I can only chalk up the conversation I had with our flight attendant to a degree of luck that should’ve sent me immediately to Vegas – or, considering our proximity, Atlantic City. As it turned out, the plane we were on was the very plane we’d be taking to Reykjavik, so those suckers seated in JFK scarfing down Cinnabon and Panda Express were waiting on us.
The rest of the journey to Reykjavik truly was without incident. Amanda slept. I read and watched a couple episodes of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We ate substandard airplane food and suppressed our excitement at the adventure on which we were about to embark.
Because here’s the thing: Iceland? It was still mythological. Besides having seen pictures and heard stories from a friend who’d honeymooned there, it was still largely fantastical to us – the land of trolls and Björk, volcanic activity and fermented shark. We certainly had high hopes, but for the first time in our married lives we were taking a trip into the unknown.
We were met at the terminal by a friendly guy from Lagoon Car Rental, who drove us to the office where we picked up our Toyota Auris – which is, I’m guessing, a distant Scandinavian relative to the Yaris I currently drive. I’ll try to avoid making too many plugs in this travelogue, but if you find yourself in Reykjavik and needing a car, go to Lagoon. We were only the second customers to rent this particular vehicle, and we have nothing but good things to say about our experience.
On to our first stop: the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s something of an Icelandic cliché. But after a six-hour flight, submerging ourselves in a geothermal spa sounded exactly like what we needed.
But first, this, because saying it now will save me saying it multiple times later: Iceland is a land of frequently overwhelming beauty. I’m pretty well-traveled (which I say not as a boast, but as context). My parents took care of the U.S. when I was a wee lad (the only two states I haven’t visited are Alaska and – go figure – Utah), and as an adult I’ve done parts of Canada, most of the U.K. and Ireland, France, New Zealand, and Australia. There are certainly large swathes of the planet I’m unaccustomed with, but I’m also not marveling at things like it’s my first trip to the big city.
Put simply: Iceland is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Lava fields, waterfalls, mountains, glaciers (and glacial lagoons), beaches, meadows. The country has a little bit of everything, and that little bit of everything is all exquisitely beautiful. There were times when Amanda and I quite literally couldn’t talk. It was enough just to process what we were seeing, because we knew we wouldn’t see anything like it again.
On this first day – and, really, in this first hour – in Iceland, we got our first taste of the lava fields.
Volcanoes aren’t exactly what leap to mind when I think of Iceland (it’s usually the music of Sigur Rós, which isn’t particularly scenic by itself), but they probably should be. Much of the southern part of the country is taken up with the oddly beautiful desolation of these rocky, mossy expanses. It reminded me in some ways of Joshua Tree National Park or Uma Thurman: not conventionally beautiful, but still pretty spectacular.
The Blue Lagoon itself was much as advertised. It’s a geothermal spa. The water is blue. It’s relaxing. We had blueberry Skyr (more on that later) smoothies from a swim-up bar. There were a lot of loud Europeans. It was fun, but it was also the most underwhelming part of the entire trip. That’s not a knock against the Blue Lagoon as much as it’s an endorsement of just how unbelievable the rest of the trip was. Here’s a photo, because I’m all about customer service.
Suitably relaxed, we ate an overpriced ham sandwich in the café (we learned pretty quickly not to bother doing the conversion from Icelandic kroner to U.S. dollars, because we’d just spend the entire trip in varying states of depression) and headed for the Golden Circle – one of the most scenic driving routes in the southern part of the country.
But more on that in the next installment (because everyone loves a cliffhanger).
The Afghan Whigs – Black Love (1996)