One glance out of the plane’s window while descending for arrival in Reykjavik, Iceland reveals a startling lack of roads. The only one clearly visible is a dual-lane road snaking off into the distance from the airport. It’s a scene that would be desolate if not for the stunning scenery of ancient volcanoes, coastline and dramatic rock formations covered in dense moss.
During my last trip there, the driver I’d hired to escort me to a town on the country’s western coast met me in the Arrivals Hall and led me outside to an enormous four-wheel drive utility vehicle, explaining that it was necessary for the winter weather and the area where we were headed. During the two-hour drive, we encountered an astonishing total of only 12 other cars. Beyond the main city of Reykjavik and larger towns, much of Iceland is very isolated with little traffic and petrol stations that are located long distances from one another.
The roads were all two-lane, punctuated by empty roundabouts. Most of Iceland’s roads are asphalt, gravel or a mix of both. Even sections of main highways may be gravel. Many roads don’t provide enough room to pull a vehicle safely off the paved area, especially during rainy or snowy conditions. Areas beyond the paved surface may be unstable, and often contain sharp volcanic rock.
Tall yellow poles, evenly spaced about 40 or so feet apart, lined one side of the main road we were following. When I asked the driver to explain their purpose, he told me that they’re visual markers that help motorists identify the road’s edge during snowstorms or deep snow accumulation. He added that roads designated as “F” roads in mountainous areas are often closed until June due to severe weather conditions.
I spent several days on the western coast, far from the city. I’d arranged for a guide to take me to see the famous Snæfellsjökull glacier that dominates the landscape in this part of the country. I knew of it thanks to author Jules Verne, who made it famous in his 1864 science fiction classic Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the book, Snæfellsjökull was the location of a passageway that led to the center of the planet. The day was bright and gorgeous, and my guide left the asphalt road and struck out on a gravel track leading to a trailhead. We parked and then followed a route on foot through the mix of snow and springy moss that covered the glacier’s surface, and within the space of 20 minutes had been engulfed in thick, swirling cloud cover.
The sun disappeared, and I could barely see more than a few feet ahead. Soon, a howling wind kicked in, followed by flurries of snow. I was glad to be walking instead of driving, but when I mentioned this, my guide simply shrugged, telling me that the rapid weather changes are something Icelanders are used to. Sure enough, by the time we began our descent back toward the spot where the car was parked, the wind had stopped and sunlight blazed across the moss.
Most of the roads we traveled were well-maintained asphalt, but we passed numerous smaller roads and tracks that were signed to advise travelers that a four-wheel drive vehicle was required. One of the most interesting signs was a bright yellow rectangle rimmed in red that showed two vehicles approaching each other from either side of a steep hill. The word “Blindhæð” appeared across the bottom, and I learned that this means “blind rise.” When I asked my guide if this was a common road condition, he told me that too many Icelanders grow so used to the lack of other cars on the road that they may assume they’re the only ones using it, resulting in crashes and near crashes that end with one or more cars running off the road.
After my tour of the western coast, I spent a few days in Reykjavik. It is far and away the most serene capital city I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. A modern highway edged by the harbor front borders the small downtown area. Traffic is orderly, and though I sat for nearly an hour at a café sipping tea and watching as the locals went about their business, I never detected the slightest bit of road drama. It began to rain, and I located a taxi at the end of the main shopping street for the ride back to my hotel. It was only then, as the driver made his way through the city streets back onto the main road, that I began to notice the odd way that cars were parked: blocking entrances, turned backwards, and even obscuring sidewalks.
To me, the unfathomable aspect of this was the vast amount of open space that’s available. There’s simply no need to be quite so creative in finding a parking spot. When I mentioned this to the young driver, he agreed and told me his own theory: that Icelanders are so used to having as much space as they need that it doesn’t occur to them to not park wherever they want. He explained that the parking laws aren’t very strictly enforced, and that there’s even a Facebook page dedicated entirely to wacky local parking practices. Sure enough, the Facebook page exists: https://www.facebook.com/groups/verst.lagdi.billinn/
At Grand Central Station when she was 9 years old, Debra Bokur decided that a different train from the one her parents were boarding looked as though it might be going someplace more interesting, so she took that one instead. She still loves trains, and has since traveled the world as an award-winning journalist, magazine editor and filmmaker. A member of the Society of American Travel Writers, Debra contributes regularly to Global Traveler Magazine, and serves as the magazine website’s daily feature writer. Debra is a contributing author to Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001). She holds degrees in both Theater and English Literature, and has been the poetry editor of the nationally acclaimed literary journal Many Mountains Moving since 2002. She has also been the travel editor at national publications including Healing Lifestyles & Spas Magazine, American Cowboy Magazine, and Fit Yoga Magazine, and has been a frequent guest on Wine Country Network’s national radio program discussing the topic of international travel. Debra once lived a double life training horses professionally in the disciplines of dressage and three-day eventing while serving as an editor and writer at several equestrian-themed publications. Her current favorite places to wander are Iceland, Switzerland, the U.K., Israel and Italy. In her new blog, Globe Tripper, Debra will bring us along on her adventures.