Our plan was to drive as far east on the first day as we reasonably could, to give ourselves the most time in the Vatnajokull glacier region, so we had booked a guesthouse in the small village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Neither one of us was prepared for the vastness or scale of the landscape. I found myself at a loss for words, and still do: "breathtaking" and "magnificent" seem trite; the emotions I felt the most strongly were simply awe and amazement at the beauty of what we were seeing. Unfortunately it's a beauty that photographs can only partly convey. The feeling of being surrounded by such a landscape -- one that dwarfs you and overwhelms you at every turn -- is quite different than viewing an image of it in two dimensions, limited and bordered by a frame.
Eyjafjallajökul is a stratovolcano completely covered by a glacial ice cap. (Jökull means glacier, and comes from the same root as the Middle English ikel which gave us "icicle.") When the volcano erupted in 2010, this farm was completely covered with ash and had to be evacuated. Ash is a good fertilizer though, and the fields came back with better yields than ever before. The family now runs a small visitors' center on their land, with a movie and exhibits about the eruption.
Wild whooper swans over a glacial river. These were the first of many that we saw.
In contrast to the landscape, the villages in this region are far apart and tiny, containing a handful of houses and almost no services. Tourism has increased since the financial crisis, and some enterprising Icelanders have opened guesthouses or even built small, modern, Scandinavian hotels tucked into the shelter of the mountains. We stayed in two guesthouses with very basic accommodations, providing either bedding or sleeping bag spaces, and two quite different hotels. In all cases, a buffet breakfast of cheese, sliced meats, tomatoes, cucumbers, muesli, yogurt, toast, jam, coffee and juice was served - it just varied in how many choices there were and the relative fanciness of the presentation. We had taken a cooler along, packed with basic things like bread and flatbread, peanut butter, cheese, juice, apples and carrots. We were able to supplement that with evening meals at gas stations that had snack bars attache, where you could get Icelandic basics like hot dogs, lamb burgers, fried fish, lamb stew, and ice cream: Icelanders eat ice cream all year round.
At the guesthouses and eating places we were among other travelers in fuzzy wool sweaters, parkas and rain-pants, and no one seemed like they were there for a five-star vacation, but rather to hike and experience the same things we were there to see. Everyone was cold and wet and blown by the constant wind. There were a lot of Japanese tourists, and there was a great deal of expensive camera equipment. Both the tourists and Icelanders were friendly everywhere we went, and we kept running into some of the same travelers as we moved along. But a lot of the time, we were the only people at a particular stopping place. I had wanted to experience that sense of isolation and silence in the landscape, and we did.