Leaving the south of Iceland was hard. I loved the hotels and just wanted to stay snuggled in our cozy bedroom window seat with a blanket and a nice book. But soldier on, we did. With only a few more days remaining on our trip, there was still more of Iceland to see, so I bid the glacier lagoon farewell and travelled to Húsafell – a 6 hour drive that left us spending most of the day on the road. On the way, we grabbed dinner in Reykjavik and by the time we arrived at Hotel Húsafell – a cute, well designed spot nestled between glaciers and lava flows – it was well after dark.
But this isn’t really where the trouble began.
The trouble began the next morning, while eating breakfast at the hotel’s buffet. While studying a bottle of cod-liver oil and shot glasses along the table (yuck!), I started to hear the howling of the wind. This wasn’t just an occasional gust, but rather an incredible bellow that echoed down the dining room chimney. The sound gave me chills and I paused to watch the big glass windows vibrate and shake from the stress. It was windy everywhere else we had been in Iceland, so I did my best to shrug it off, noting that it was going to be another blustery adventure. We hopped into the car, nonplussed by the drizzling rain and sleet, and headed out.
It was Westfjord day.
Our first stop was a nearby waterfall, Hraunfossar, which was a short drive from the hotel. There we were treated to an epic rainbow, a full arch across the sky that haloed the blue glacier water gushing from the lava rocks. It was still quite windy and cool, with sputtering weather, but the bright rainbow against the grey sky left me feeling optimistic. The weather thus far into the trip had been relatively good, so I naturally expected the sky to clear up as we drove north.
There’s a ghost ship off one of the southern fingers of the Westfjord peninsula that ran aground in the 1920’s. It’s visible on Google’s satellite view and Jon was determined to photograph it. So, that was where we were headed: Örlygshafnarvegur – a 4 hour and 15 minute drive from Hotel Húsafell on a good day.
As we started north around 10 a.m. along the ring road (remember that’s Iceland’s main highway), we were immediately aware of the intense wind gusts. They’d swoop through the sparse plains north of Reykholt and give the car a little jolt left or right. But the movement was nothing compared to the sound – a foreboding howling, like an animal call. As we drove, I kept my mind off the wind’s spooky tune and stared out the window at the rolling plains. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how the roofs were not blowing off nearby houses.
We veered off onto the northbound highway 60 when the snow suddenly picked up. After the brown, gray plains we were now surrounded by white in every direction. Descending down a sheltered, snowy valley, we were surprised to find ourselves all alone save for a lone plow pulled over at a turn out. However, it looked like he had skipped this route. The road was absolutely covered in heavy, wet slush, and despite our 4×4 tires being covered in little spikes, the car was showing signs of slipping. Jon cut the gas and we coasted along at a slow pace, my hands sweaty on the door handles, watching the snow blow across the front of the car and already wishing we could go back to the hotel.
Did I mention I’m not so great a passenger?
The snow pass was only a few kilometers long, and we were greeted by clear visibility on the other side. With a gray sky, we stopped for gas at a small village, and took in the first views of the Westfjords: large valley walls carved by giant glaciers many, many years ago and a pool of dark ocean water between them.
I should mention, before leaving the hotel that morning, I discovered the location of a hot pot – or a natural hot spring – located on the way to the ghost ship. This was our second stop, about 3 hours into the drive and off the side of the road.
We wound our way along the fingers of the fjords for a few hours. I hate heights, so despite the okay visibility it was difficult for me. The cliffside along the highway are not particularly steep, but rather the grey weather and the occasional gust of wind left me feeling very unsettled. I still wanted to turn back.
When we finally approached the coordinates of the hot pot – longitude and latitude, rather than address – we pulled into a gravel lot, got out and looked around. There was the ocean, as it was supposed to be, with nearby rocks, but no pool of welcoming hot water. Jon was not deterred, he got out of the car, took the umbrella and went to look around. It was pouring rain.
To describe to you how this day felt, imagine the most ominous grey sky, a feeling of unease in the pit of your stomach, and a strong desire to be somewhere inside and safe. I felt a prickling on my back, a ghost haunting me, a cloud over my head. I was pretty sure the Westfjords wanted to eat me alive. Jon said I was just being anxious.
I watched him hike around in the rain, seeing only the top of the red umbrella as it made its way along the rocky coast through bushes and bramble looking for the hot pot. No luck. After a thorough 30 minute search, Jon came back shrugging his shoulders, simply drenched. “It’s not here,” he said. So we got back in the car, only to find that a mere 3 minutes down the road, was a sign for the hot pot, complete with a small parking lot and a rock-lined path down to its location. Oops! All that searching for nothing.
Apprehensive about the cold, we grabbed our bathing suits, Speedo towels, and headed down to the natural spring. Someone had build a little rock outcrop, about waist-height, for changing behind. The wind whipped off the ocean and through the holes as we changed into our suits. I don’t know why I even bothered with the one-piece, it wasn’t like anyone was going to be as crazy as us to sit in a hot spring in awful weather, but wrestle it on I did.
Donned with my ridiculous furry hat, I rushed from behind the rocks and slipped into the warm hot pot. It was delightful, melting away much of the stress from the three hour drive. We sat, clouds looming but no longer raining, in a hot spring in the middle of freezing weather off the side of the ocean in the Westfjords. It was an experience, that’s for sure!
After a 20 minute soak in the heated waters, we climbed out. Jon bravely changed back into his clothes behind the rock wall, while I threw on my jacket, heavy boots, grabbed my things and ran back into the car to get dressed.
Red-cheeked and refreshed, we headed to the ghost ship. Around another fjord and through a snowy pass, until we arrived at the final turn for the ship. It was one of those moments where the road looks happy and safe in one direction, and dark and spooky in the other. We took the dismal, left turn, along the winding, windy ocean road, to the ship.
It was smaller than I expected, which after nearly 5 hours of driving was disappointing. I had imagined a much larger boat, like a passenger ferry or something. While the rain and gloom was still hanging over us, I stayed in the car. Jon ventured out to photograph.
At this point it was five in the afternoon. I wanted to head back, knowing that as it was we wouldn’t get home until after dark. But we knew if we didn’t get food now, we risked not eating the whole drive home, which would have made the trip back much more exhausting. And so, we hurried on to Bíldudalur, a 45 minute drive further north to a dead end. All other roads to the town were closed for the season.
The small fishing village was calm (it looked like this but the sky wasn’t clear and it wasn’t looking cheerful). Fishermen were returning from sea and children were running out for a last piece of candy before dinner. The clouds were high, but breaks in the heavy grey revealed blue sky here and there. We chose a local restaurant and ordered two hamburgers, fries and drinks, along with a few other salty snacks. But it was then, at checkout, when Jon noticed something. His wallet was missing. A quick patting down of his many pockets yielded nothing, so I pulled out my card and paid as he hurried back to the car.
We tore it apart. There was nothing. His wallet, which sat in his left zippered jacket pocket, was gone.
I wolfed my hamburger, eager to get back on the road for the long drive back to Húsafell. Meanwhile, we discussed the plan back. The last place he used his wallet was at an unmanned gas station, near the beginning of the Westfjords, so it was lost somewhere between there and where we were. We agreed to stop at the ghost ship and the hot pot – where I was sure he lost it because we were changing clothes and hurrying around.
We searched the car, head to toe, again before we left. Nothing.
Forty five minutes later we were back at the ghost ship. But it wasn’t the same. A fine dusting of snow had covered the area, making the hunt much more difficult. It was 8 pm at this point, and starting to get dark, snowing, windy, and we still had the whole road to go back on. While Jon was outside searching, I was terrified, worried about the weather and wishing we hadn’t come out so far. The pit in my gut kept sinking, deeper and deeper until I forced myself outside into the snow to keep my mind from imagining the long drive back.
We found nothing.
The next place was the hot pot. By this point it was getting dark, so Jon grabbed his headlamp that he uses for night photography and headed down the path. I was so sure he’d come running victorious back up the stairs – but no.
He found nothing.
A last ditch effort had us looking around the gravel lot where we originally searched for the hot pot. Again, snow had obscured the ground, and while our foot prints were easy to spot, there was no sign of his wallet. Jon went off, with his headlamp to trace his route from earlier – through the brush and bramble. It was dark, and lightly snowing. I was freaking out.
The darkness quickly engulfed us and we began the five hour drive back through the fjords. My mind was racing with the thought that we still had an unpaved gravel road over hilly terrain, now having to scale it in the dark, along with a slushy snowy pass. My stomach was tense, my palms were damp and I fiddled with the radio to calm my nerves. Static. Just what I needed to hear, when wishing for some calm Icelandic banter and pop music.
Occasionally in the dark, I’d see a house. Thinking to myself that we should just stop, knock on a door, and spend the night curled up on a stranger’s couch – hopeful that the morning would bring an easier trip home and a brighter sky. But we kept going.
Snow came in and out, as did visibility.
The roads in Iceland are all lined with yellow posts located every few meters along the road. Without these reflective markers, in a storm, you would be quickly off the road. Jon drove slow and was careful – never fearing, and assuring me that the car felt stable and gripped the road. As we climbed into a higher altitude pass, we found ourselves in a complete and utter whiteout, unable to see the few feet in front of the car. It was terrifying and sudden. As we came through the blizzard, there, perched on the cliffside, was a giant statue of what looked like a nordic king towering above the road. The snow swirled around his face, and I was truly humbled by the wrath of the storm, whipping around us and the statue.
For hours we sat. Me sweaty palmed, Jon keeping calm. The snow eased up for a while and we found ourselves traveling in darkness, unable to see more than our headlights. Occasionally in the far distance, we could see an approaching car, the only other light in the black world around us. On the other side of the fjord, the little beam seemed to take forever to get to us as we traversed the valley.
Time moved so slow, a minute here, a minute there, until we were finally back on the highway 1. But it was there, not 10 minutes from the hotel, where the weather struck hardest. The road to our hotel was clear in the morning, and now it was covered in over a foot in snow. Whiteouts struck here and there, and it seemed the weather was determined to be its worst right as we were getting close to home.
Then, on a straight pass of road, I saw something walking along the shoulder. A large man, in a gray full snowsuit and furry hood, arms swinging wildly through the wind. “Did you see that man?” I asked Jon. He shook his head. It was brief, just a glance, and maybe a trick of the eye, but let’s just say that I understand why the Icelanders believe in trolls. I may have seen one.
We arrived back at the hotel at 2 in the morning, exhausted, stressed and glad to be out of the car. I felt bad Jon had lost his wallet, but so happy to be safe and sound, huddled inside away from the terrible storm. In retrospect I know we were safe, driving slow and except for that early slush, we never were in danger of losing control of the car. I still can’t really laugh about it though. It was such a bad dream to be stuck in a car, in a remote landscape, in terrible weather, but I can at least smile when thinking of ourselves in the hot spring off the side of the road.
Jon’s wallet was lost in the Westfjords, likely blown away into the ocean or stuck in mud near the ghost ship. And I can’t help but think, that we were nearly lost to the Westfjords too.
Have you ever been stuck driving in terrible road conditions on a trip? Share your story in the comments below! Next week I’ll be finishing our Iceland trip with tales from the north. I’ll also share some tips and what we’d do differently next time! For more of our Iceland trip, check out Part 1, 2, 3 and 4.