Grace had been crying since we arrived in Iceland. The wind stung her eyes; she was cold and it was gloomy. Her stuffed cat Gretzky kept getting blown out of her hands. Even though we’d bought her a blue fleece balaclava within an hour of checking into our hotel, she still objected every time we suggested going outside.
The information center—which, according to the guidebooks, should be the first daily stop to check on current driving conditions and plan your day—was next door, but that was still too far for Grace. We were surprised at how much effort it took just to get from one set of sliding glass doors to the next.
We gathered some maps and brochures, but when we asked the staffers at the desk, Where can we go today?, they looked down at us sympathetically, How far is your hotel? Apparently, the winds outside were blowing approximately 100 miles per hour. Even for Iceland in the off season, that’s considered extreme.
There’s a reason people don’t visit Iceland in October. In September, the puffins go back to sea, tourist sites and hotels outside of Reykjavik shut down, and the inland roads sprout signs notifying drivers that they aren’t monitored from October through May. But we couldn’t ignore the pull of cheap airfare, so here we were—my husband, Mark, our three-year-old daughter, and me, six-months pregnant. Maybe not the rugged, youthful backpackers Iceland usually entices.
The staff suggested we stay in Reykjavik, shop a bit. We were thinking of going north, to drive up the coast, we said. Sorry, but the wind comes right through the pass, and you’ll be blown off the bridge just north of the city. We asked about going south to a fishing village with an elf museum. They didn’t recommend that. In fact, they couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend any driving today. But we’re only here for four days. They recommended we come back in the summer. And allow extra time for bad weather.
We had no intention of spending a precious day in a cramped hotel room with an tired and wired child, so feeling somewhat naughty, we decided to drive back toward the airport town of Keflavik, then inland to the Blue Lagoon. Only an hour away, it seemed a manageable drive.
The road from Reykjavik towards Keflavik, part of the ring road that circles the island, is flat and barren. After you get out of the city, you shed civilization fairly quickly. On one side, the land is gray and rocky, dotted with hikers’ cairns, with the gray sea stretching out behind. Occasionally a brightly colored crop of houses pops up and just as quickly disappears. On the other side of the road, lava fields spread inland, stopping only where snow-covered volcanoes rise up in the distance. That’s Iceland’s chewy center, the part that most travelers don’t see, the part where even on the most benign of summer days, they recommend you keep an experienced guide with you in case of melting snow, flash floods, lost bridges, mud slides, and surprise gusts.
The wind wasn’t bad on the ring road. When we turned east to cross the lava fields, our little green car started to shake. Every few minutes, we’d feel a gust, the car would drift to the right, my husband would over-correct, and the car would lurch toward center. His hands began to cramp. We slowed down.
The only other place I’d ever seen like this was the Burren in Ireland, but even that had some hospitable green spots. Aside from those looming mountains in the distance, I couldn’t see anything in any direction other than black, lumpy pumice and occasional plumes of steam breaking through the crust. There’s apparently an old joke—What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? You stand up—but we didn’t even see anything to give credence to that joke—no scrub, no low alpine bushes, not even grass. It looked like an army of trolls caught in the sunlight, these black mounded lumps covered in patchy moss. If it hadn’t been for the oncoming traffic that appeared every ten minutes or so, I might have thought we were on the moon.
We stopped at pullover and got out. The wind pulled the door out of my husband’s hands, slamming it open, and bending the frame. He had to come hold the door open for Grace and me, bracing his back against it.
Wooden stairs led down into a lava tube—a black tunnel-like cave. At the bottom of the stairs, a pile of snow sat unmelted, untouched by the wind whipping around just a few feet up. The walls dripped and some moss grew, though fitfully. Mark pressed further into the cave, crouching lower and lower, trying to fit his body into the tunnel.
We climbed back up above ground, Mark pushing Grace and me from behind so the wind wouldn’t push us backwards off the steps as soon as our bodies emerged. I held Grace’s hand and we stepped off the gravel pull-off and onto the lava field.
From a distance, the rock looked smooth, like molasses poured over the landscape, but up close it was porous and pointy, full of crevasses that could trip your feet or catch your leg up to the hip. At first, Grace seemed to like climbing around with me. We giggled, holding onto each other, struggling to stand still for pictures, picking carefully over each foothold, but then the she started to slip. The wind pushed her out of my arms and sent her rolling across the rock like tumbleweed. I tried to grab her, but fell, banging my knee; she was crying and reaching and fighting to stay in place. I called to my husband, but he couldn’t hear me over the wind as he stood with his back to me, taking pictures, his family screaming not three feet away.
Eventually, of course, Mark turned and saw us. He went for Grace first, waving his arms and pushing against the wind as if he was fighting an unseen genie. He got her in the car, then came back for me. When he finally fell into the seat beside me, the doors closed, the absence of wind felt like being wrapped in a heavy blanket. Aside from the car’s shuddering and Grace’s sniffles, the car was quiet and warm. We ate our lunch silently in the car, forgoing the wooden picnic table optimistically placed at the edge of the lava field, and looked outward toward those mountains.
Susan McGowan lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband, two children, and redundant orange cats. She blogs about traveling with children at Travels with Pirates. Visit her on Twitter @SelimaCat.
Why I like this story: Because the wind isn’t just weather, it’s a character in the story.