My wife and I recently returned from our second trip to Iceland. Many people ask us why we went back to Iceland so soon after going the first time. Well, there are many reasons: we wanted to see it in Winter, we wanted to go to different areas of the country, and once she graduates in May we won’t have Spring Breaks to rely on for trips.
But one of the main reasons we love the country of Iceland is the people. We love the incredible nature, the culture, and the food of the country, but it’s the people that make it stand out even more. Let me tell you two stories that truly reflect the nature of the people of Iceland and the community feeling that you get from the entire country.
Monday March 6, 2017 – Somewhere outside of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Iceland
We are driving out to Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon in Southeastern Iceland. As we leave our guesthouse in Kirkjubæjarklaustur for what we think will be about an hour and a half drive, I check my gas gauge and see that I have about 120 km to empty. In my mind, that´s perfect for two reasons: One, I figure there will be a gas station near the glacier lagoon as it´s one of the top tourist destinations in the country. And two, because I had just looked up the distance and it was about 77 miles, so I was totally fine.
Did you catch my mistake? I was so used to cars telling me how many miles I had left in the tank that I forgot to convert the kilometers I had left in the tank to miles to figure out how much gas I really had.
So that was totally my fault.
The other mistake, I will contend wasn’t totally on me. I had assumed there would be a gas station somewhere close to Jökulsárlón. That is not the case. There are two between Kirkjubæjarklaustur and Jökulsárlón, but when we passed those stations I had at least 70 km to empty.
Then as we kept driving through the otherworldly beauty of the south coast of Iceland, I noticed the gas gauge drop down from 50 km left straight to 0 km left.
There was no 45, 40, 30, 20, 10, or 5 to empty. The 2008 Hyundai Sante Fe decided that 50 km was enough warning and then it just said I was empty.
Panic set in.
So, we punched in Fuel Station on the GPS and received terrifying news: the closest gas station was 42 km away. Well past Jökulsárlón and well past populated areas. But we had to try and make it. So I nursed that gas pedal all 42 km. Several times I thought we had run completely out of gas, only to find out we had just a little more in the tank. I took advantage of the fact that we seemed to be on a gradual downhill slide the entire way.
As we stared at the GPS ticking off each kilometer and minute until we arrived, the stress made me want to throw up. I was thinking through every possible scenario.
So if we run out of gas right now, I’ll have to coast to the side of the road, but there’s almost no shoulder and it’s a little steep on the side. That’ll be nervewracking. Then, our phones absolutely will not work in this country no matter what we do. So even if we knew who to call, that’s not an option. I guess we will have to flag someone down for help, have them drive us 20 km to a gas station, buy a gas can, have them drive us back 20 km, fill up, then drive to said gas station, and fill the rest of the tank.
But we didn’t have to do any of that! We made it to the gas station. As we rounded the curve, the ocean waves crashing down at the bottom of the cliff to our right, the stress began melting away.
We turned left…into a driveway leading to a little farm. All that was there was a sign written in English:
The GPS had been wrong. There was no gas station here. We were done. We punched in the next closest station on the GPS. It was another 35 km. There was no way we were going to make it that far.
So we made the decision to head back the way we came. Even though we knew we wouldn’t make it back to another gas station, we knew that there were more people in that part of country and that we would be more likely to get help once we ran out of gas.
About two kilometers away from the NO GAS station we saw a small outcropping of buildings. There were signs that indicated that there was a guesthouse and a snowmobile rental place in this outcropping. However, the signs did not mention gas. But we made the decision to pull into this area and just see if someone could help us.
When we pulled in, the area seemed abandoned. No one was out walking around, but there were cars indicating that someone was inside at least one of the buildings. But, I couldn’t figure out which building to walk up to and tell my sob story.
Then I hear from behind me, “Can I help you?”
It startled me, but I tried to act composed. I told her what had happened as she stood there with her yellow lab. The dog was casting a wary look towards me and so was this lady. But she listened and told me she wasn’t surprised.
Apparently, that “gas station” used to be one but was taken down a few years ago and the GPS hadn’t caught up. She then asked me if I had cash. I told her I had 500 kronur (less than $5) and some American money.
She got on the phone. I tried to listen to her conversation to see if she was saying anything about a dumb American, but alas, my grasp of Icelandic is still too rudimentary to recognize slang insults. I’m sure she didn’t say anything rude though, because, like basically every Icelandic person I’ve ever met in my travels, she was beyond nice and helpful.
Because they do snowmobile rentals, they actually had their own gas pump for personal use. She told me that since the close station was shut down, they had to install their own because otherwise they’d be driving 50+ km roundtrip just to get gas.
They told me it would be about $75 for 21 liters (half a tank) and I just gave them the $100 bill I had been given by my in-laws for souvenir purposes. I didn’t even try to ask for change. I’ve never parted with a $100 bill so easily in my life.
Once we had gotten past our initial standoffishness, her yellow lab came over to greet me. He was only six months old, which accounted for his awkward nature. I petted him once and he put my entire arm in his mouth and then rolled over for some scratches. It was nice therapy for all the stress.
After this episode took a few extra hours of our time, we headed back to Jökulsárlón and experienced the unbelievable glacier lagoon and the Crystal Beach. It was incredible. Our day ended up being fantastic thanks to the generosity of some random íslendingar.
Tuesday March 7, 2017 – Skogafoss parking lot
“Scott, I know what I forgot.”
These words set off a chain of events that would help define to us exactly what it means to be Icelandic. My wife, Sami, had forgotten her hiking boots at our guesthouse in Kirjubæjarklaustur, over two hours back in the opposite direction. There was no way we would be able to sacrifice over four hours of our time in order to get hiking boots back. We were only in the country for a week and using that much time for something like that was not an option.
Our phones didn’t work at all unless we had wifi. So, with all of this on our minds, we trudged through the mud and the other tourists to get some pictures of the spectacular Skógafoss, then we went to the convenience store near the parking lot to bum some wifi. We messaged Valur, the owner of the guesthouse where we had been staying. Valur is a super nice guy and we had gotten to know him a little bit in the last few days. I´d tried to carry on some rudimentary Icelandic conversations with him and he´d made everyone pancakes each morning.
We knew he owned a horse farm near Selfoss, which is about 30 minutes from Reykjavík. We were going to be staying outside of Reykjavík for the next three days so we were hoping there was an off chance that he would be going to Selfoss that week and we would be able to drive out there to pick them up.
We sent the message via wifi and then got back on the road toward the capital. A few hours later, when we got to Reykjavík, we searched for a building with some wifi. Where else would we go than Harpa?
As we walked around marveling at the beautiful concert hall, we pulled up the wifi to see one of more unexpected pieces of news ever. Not only was Valur coming towards Selfoss, he was coming all the way to Reykjavík the next day! We couldn’t believe our fortune.
But this presented some other issues. We were planning on driving all the way around the Snæfellsness Peninsula the next day. This would have put us a long way away from Reykjavík for most of the day, and far away from wifi. So we messaged back immediately, asking him when he planned to be in the city. We didn’t get an immediate reply, so we eventually headed to the house where we were staying.
The only reply we got from Valur was, “I have your number and you have mine so we can figure it out.”
We had tried to specify that our phones do not work without wifi. But Valur’s Icelandic sense of time and urgency was strongly overriding our American desire to plan everything out. So, with that, we decided to stick with our original plan to drive around Snæfellsness.
Wednesday March 8, 2017 – Snæfellsness Peninsula
Boy are we glad we made that decision. We had a great time driving around this stunningly beautiful area. We saw some amazing things and spent all day marveling at the stunning landscape.But all day we had a sinking feeling that Valur had arrived in Reykjavík and was calling and texting us, getting increasingly frustrated at these dumb tourists for whom he was doing a favor.
When we got back towards civilization we stopped at the first available place with wifi. It was around four in the afternoon. Valur had not contacted us once.
So…now we were really confused. Exactly when was he going to be making the three and a half hour drive from Kirkjubæraklaustur to Reykjavik? Had he just forgotten? I mean, at the end of the day it wasn’t a huge deal, we just needed to know what he was up to.
Once again we had to just trust that it would all work out and continue on with our regular plans. We went to dinner and went back to our house, about 30 minutes south of the capital.
We’d written off ever getting the shoes back in our mind so we started playing some cards and were just about to get ready for bed when Sami’s phone dinged.
It was 11:15 pm.
“I am in downtown rvk.”
That’s all it said.
At 11:15 pm.
So we immediately replied asking how long he would be there, where we could meet, could he give us 30 minutes to get there.
“Where are you staying?”
We told him.
“Meet me in Hafnarfjörður.”
That was it. We threw on our jackets and headed out into the cold, dark night to drive to a city we’d never been to, to meet an Icelandic man we kinda knew at a gas station in order to get shoes, at 11:20 pm. We weren’t sure if Valur was going to be super annoyed with us or not. We didn’t know if he’d been searching all day, or if he’d just remembered. We didn’t know anything.
When we got there it was almost midnight.
When I saw Valur I said, “I can’t believe this worked out.”
He hopped out of his F-150 (a rarity in Iceland) with a big smile on his face, handed over the shoes and said a phrase that’s a perfect description of the Icelandic attitude.
“Everything works out in Iceland!”
In Icelandic, it’s apparently a common phrase, þetta reddast.
We had a good conversation in that cold parking lot. Valur told us some stories and then we said goodbye and he gave us hugs and hopped in his truck to barrel down narrow, dark highways along the coast. He probably arrived home around 3:30 AM.
Living in Iceland can be extremely difficult. Between the snow, ice, rain, cold, bad-driving tourists, isolation, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, they’ve found a way to carve out an amazing existence. Community bonds are strong. Life-expectancy is the highest in the world. Many factors are listed to explain this. Namely, strong genes forged by devastating events in the history of Iceland.
But one of the greatest factors must be this attitude of þetta reddast. Icelanders seem to have a perspective that we lack sometimes in America. Life can be tough, but for the most part, it will work out. No challenge is too big. And very few things are important enough to stress out over, specifically, the return of hiking boots or even running out of gas.
So, thanks for that lesson, random Icelandic family and Valur.