Day 2: Independent


Vik, and Iceland’s South Coast

As a species, I think we define ourselves by moments and stretches of time.  Some of them are big, others miniscule.  My time in High School.  The time I lived in Toronto.  The time I watched all three Lord of the Rings movies back-to-back.  Which is more important? 

My most recent important time starts today.  Yesterday I stepped off a plane in Reykjavik.   Jet lag and my tour group made the day frantic and hazy, like a dream after a hard workout.  Now, the tour is finished.  I’m leaving Reykjavik.

The time I was truly on my own

But even the important times, can start with miniscule ones.  I sit in the small bus depot, writing in my journal as a girl walks by.  But I don’t look at her eyes, or legs or any other cliché bits that single, slightly desperate guys are known to watch for.  What really stands out is the sound of her heels as she walks to the café and back.   Clop, clop, clop.  I stop writing and just listen – until it fades. 

A large campground sits at the base of Skogafoss Waterfall.

I catch the bus and after a few hours it turns into a narrow canyon that opens up all around us.  There are a few small buildings, a large camping ground and a raging waterfall, tall and powerful, emptying into the valley.  Is this Vik?  No.  But we’re close.  I wish I’d brought my tent.  I could have spent the night camped at the base of the falls, listening to the thudding water as I drifted to sleep. 

My legs are bouncing.  I’m hungry and it’s getting late.  Why didn’t I leave earlier?  Airports, airplanes, busses and tour groups.  Three days of sitting and it’s finally got to me.  I want to pick a direction and run, jump, dance and do all those other things you see in the Gap commercials.  Every molecule in my body unites and screams:  Be free!

But I’m not free.  I have an outgoing flight in 3 days.  I’m on day two of my unplanned world tour and yet, I’m stuck.  I’m stuck in a bus.  I’m stuck with a plane ticket.  For three days, I’m stuck with a plan.  And I’m reasonably sure that no one with a plan has ever felt so restless.

The bus descends into a large valley that leads to the sea.  I see a small town in the distance.  It’s early evening and the sun is getting lower.  The light is getting redder.   It stops at a diner that doubles for a bus station; the doors hiss open and I quickly grab my bag.  Two girls are doing the same.  There’s a campground across the street and one of them has a tent dangling from her pack.  First the falls and now this.  I knew I would forget to bring something important.

Church on a hilltop in Vik, Iceland

The air is cool as I walk down the crumpling asphalt.  To my right, I can see the church, its white walls and red roof radiate atop a rich green hill.  Further in the distance, a huge field of yellow and purple buttercup flowers gradually grows in height.  I am energy.  Again I want to run.  Just dump my bag and run.  But I can’t.  For more than a year this bag is my home.  And you can’t throw away home. 

The first hotel is full.  They tell me to try another place.  I hurry over there.  It’s full too.  My back is sweating under the pack’s weight.  My steps have started to slow.  Someone points me to “the last place in town.”  It’s way down the road, close to the beach and seems miles away.  The sun is getting lower.  The light is getting duller.  The white walls of the church have stopped reflecting light, and I’m losing precious time.  The plane ticket to Amsterdam looms over my head.  Three days, three days, three days.  I want to be free, and my extra energy begins to fade.

I kick a stone as I walk.   It’s my second day and I can’t even find a place to sleep.  How am I going to handle jungles in South America and deserts in the Middle East if I can’t even find a hotel room in Iceland?  If this place is full, where can I sleep?  Maybe I can rent a tent from the campground.  Maybe just sleep outside in the grass.  I don’t have a tent but I do have a small inflatable matress.  I could always catch a bus back to the earlier waterfall.  There were a couple buildings there.  Maybe there’s a hotel.

But the last place in town has one last room available.  Literally the last bed in Vik.  I unload my bag and stroll back to the open field, defeated.  The sky is bloodied with clouds, and the land blanketed with flowers.  The sun lies ahead of me, at the valley’s mouth, but the incline of the ground is too steep for me to see it.  My shoes brush through the tiny flowers like a boat cutting through waves.  And just like that, all the energy and enthusiasm I had lost returns to me. 

I climb rise after rise, each time thinking it will bring me the view I know is ahead of me.  But each time the horizon gets pushed back further.  The flowers are beautiful, but I want the midnight sun.  Iceland lies on the border of the arctic circle, and the sun doesn’t set in summer, it just hovers along the horizon and heads back up again.

A cool wind is in my hair.  My shoes are wet with dew from the grass.  Dew at midnight?  I tell myself that eventually I’ll climb over a rise and it’ll be the last one.  It could be this one.  It’s not. 

With cramping stomach and tired legs, the last rise comes and the sun shines out at me from between the valley’s cliffs.  It turns a distant glacier orange and paints the grass in front of me with liquid gold.  Breathing hard, I sit in the damp brush…  and watch.  Hours pass.  The sun hides behind the cliffs in the distance.  The red clouds fade to yellow.  They’ll stay that color for hours.  It’s 3 am. 

The Midnight sun with a glacier in the background

The time I watched the midnight sun.


Day 3:

The rock formations called Reynisdrangar

Today is a more relaxed day.  There are no tours to catch, no sunsets to run to.  Only me, and Vik with a little time to try and figure out exactly what it means to be on my own.  I take a walk around town.  I see the church with obligatory cemetery; the peaceful streets, nearly devoid of people; and the occasional car or cyclist passing through on the ring road.  I decide to tackle one of the nearby cliffs to see what this place looks like from the high ground.  With my iPod set to Sigur Rós, I climb the steep winding path to the top.  The cliff is a nesting area for seagulls and there are dozens of them, flying circles in the air.  Sometimes they approach me curiously.  By the time I reach the top the wind has picked up so much that the birds flying into it are struggling just to hold their ground.  I watch one, flapping its wings with determination, yet going nowhere.  It finally turns to accept defeat and is gone in an instant.

I wonder what makes us climb.  I’m at the top of the tallest cliff in the region, and before me lies a large plateau.  But on this raised surface there are a few groups of boulders that add another five or six meters to the cliff’s height.  They sit there, taunting me, like reaching the observation deck on a skyscraper and realizing if you can just figure out a way to climb the antenna…  I can’t help but wonder what I could see with just a few more meters to work with. 

As I stare at those boulders, thinking about independence and being alone, I realize it’s not just the moments of time that define us.  I think it’s more what we choose to accomplish in those moments. 

So I do what anyone would do: I find a foothold, and a handhold, and then another foothold.  The wind wrenches at my jacket, testing me.  It’s only a few meters to the plateau but the ground is rough and rocky.  One slip and it may as well be a mile.  The wind charges at me again but I defy it.  The seagulls fly above with heads cocked and one eye on that climbing speck of a man in the distance.

I hoist myself up over the last boulder and stand triumphant on the top of the world.  And I realize with pride, I defined myself just a little bit better.  

The time I climbed the cliff in Iceland.

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