Day One: Iceland--The Perfect First Stop (and Start)
Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Someone at Icelandair should be given a medal for inventing the “stopover” program : fly to Europe and stop in Iceland for up to a seven day visit without any change in airfare. Our own stopover from Seattle was only for twenty-four hours, but it turned out to be a fitting round-the-clock-once prelude to the VECTORS Virtual Field Trip (VFT).
Iceland had been on my travel bucket-list for a number of years, thanks mostly to a longtime love of Icelandic mythology and my historical interest in the country’s role in transatlantic defense during the Cold War (yeah, I know—weird combo). More recently, this particular scene from one of my favorite (relatively) recent Hollywood movies The Secret Life of Walter Mitty turned up the volume on Iceland’s clarion call to my wanderlust, a scene that provides an accurate snapshot of the country’s stunning landscapes and equally eye-popping public highway design preferences. So when it turned out that the cheapest fare to Europe for the VFT would be on Icelandair, it was a no-brainer to take twenty-four hours to see what I could for myself; it was more than enough time to convince me I’ll be going back for a longer exploration as soon as I can.
Going through Iceland was also a fitting first stop on this particular trip, as Keflavik International Airport has a history directly connected to the Second World War; it also appears in Krelle’s Inferno. The airport began as Meeks Field, a US Army Air Force airstrip built in 1943 as part of America’s fortification of Atlantic sea lane defenses and as a key stop along the famous and dangerous “ferry route” for military aircraft flying to the European Theater from North America. Aircraft stationed at Meeks / Keflavik conducted surveillance against German U-Boats in support of Lend-Lease convoys headed to the UK and the Soviet Union, and the base became a key transit point for cargo aircraft—like the C-47—and bombers on their way to and from European combat zones.
In the counterfactual world I built for Krelle’s Inferno, Keflavik undergoes a massive expansion in 1945-46 in order to expand its surveillance and anti-submarine operations against the Soviet Union. In actual history, Iceland played a key role as a “first-line” of defense against Soviet forays into the North Atlantic by surface ships, submarines, and aircraft, so I mostly just “super-sized” that idea in the novel. Meeks / Keflavik witnessed thousands of sorties during the war years, and the US military maintained a significant presence at the field during the Cold War (the base closed for a time, but it now contains a US Naval Air Station that serves as part of the American commitment to NATO). I was first introduced to this fact by the famous novelist, Tom Clancy, who made Keflavik a primary target for invading Soviet forces in his 1986 novel, Red Storm Rising, a story exploring the possibilities of a Third World War between the global superpowers. So, for me, the chance to fly into Keflavik and see it for myself was almost as exciting as everything else I was going to see on the VFT.
After a seven-hour nonstop flight from Seattle, my first glimpses of Keflavik—indeed, of Iceland itself, as the airport is at the very tip of a peninsula on the island nation’s southwestern edge—were of the Naval Air Station. Despite my numb posterior from sitting so long, I bounced in my seat with the excitement of the teenage me who read Clancy novels as we touched down and taxied along the perimeter of the longstanding US military base, which sits across the tarmac from the civilian terminal. Beyond the airport in all directions was a volcanic expanse of the kind I had not seen before, despite having lived a half-hour from Hawaii Volcanos National Park early in life. The in-flight magazine made clear that “in Iceland, there are not many trees,” a statement that appeared as odd to my eyes reading it as its actual truth did once we emerged from the airport. Not a tree in sight. Moss on every rock, it seemed, but no trees other than the shorter-than-me ones planted on the occasional highway roundabout. It took some getting used to.
The forty-five-minute drive into Reykjavik in our rental car--secured in what was easily the most efficient car rental process I’ve ever witnessed (kudos, Iceland, for including portable internet hotspots for up to ten devices for less than $10 a day. You made finding our way around and communicating with the outside world so much easier)—was like driving across the surface of a desolate yet beautiful planet in a sci-fi movie. We wove through small coastal villages along the coast facing north and west into the Atlantic; later that night, the glacial mountains of Greenland on the other side of the Denmark Strait stood out in the clear northern air. It’s a good thing it’s illegal to stop your car on the side of the roads in Iceland to take pictures—yes, it’s dangerous, but also no one would ever get anywhere.
Our impending VFT received a positive omen within less than two hours of our arrival—we spotted one of the DC-3s heading to Duxford parked in a corner of the small airport in downtown Reykjavik—a field that started as a British air strip prior to the Americans’ arrival in 1942. Being gigantic airplane nerds embarking on a Gigantic Airplane Nerd trip, we quickly found our way to the fence line just in time to identify it as one we had seen before in Aurora, Oregon, and to see it power up its engines and take off for its next stop along the ferry route: Scotland. For the first time of many on the trip, I caught a sense of history in where I was and what I was seeing, almost as if it were about to appear in front of me but didn’t *quite* get there. 1944 didn’t feel very far away…
Despite being up all night gazing down at Canada and Greenland, I felt a ton of energy and excitement in that moment, and was so fired up for the day and the rest of the trip that I wondered if I’d be able to sleep that night.
Thirty minutes later, I was asleep in our hotel in Reykjavik—the world’s northernmost capital city that somehow manages to feel both modern and lost in a nineteenth-century Danish time warp. After two hours of slumber, we drove the so-called “Blue Diamond” tourist route around the Reykjanes Peninsula. The area is the primary source of the geothermal energy that powers all of Reykjavik and the surrounding areas—meaning the primary population areas of the country. The trade off is the occasional whiff of sulfur out along the highway (or in hot water in the shower—weird, but totally safe), but no one seems to mind. Within minutes of leaving the capital, we were driving on roads that switched intermittently between paved and gravel, up and down the sides of rolling hills and mountains that ended along wide lakes or on the edges of cliffs that dropped down into the cold ocean. After visiting a lake where legends insist whale-shaped monsters dwell, then climbing to a lighthouse that looks westward towards North America, and adding several hundred pictures and equal amounts of oohs and aahs to our lives, we ended the evening at the famous Blue Lagoon volcanic hot springs. Yes, it’s a very expensive tourist trap, but I honestly didn’t care and still don’t—it was incredible. The blue of the water is the color of kid’s toothpaste or that blue milk drink stuff in Star Wars, and the pools’ perfect temperature makes it completely unnecessary to ever step out because it’s never too hot or too cold. Going later in the evening cut down on the crowds, and the cool night air and various refreshments on hand kept us in the water until closing. By that point, I’d already decided I needed to come back and visit much more of the country—particularly the glaciers in the central and southern areas of the island. That’s since been added to near the top of my bucket list.
The next morning, we were out the door early and back to Keflavik for our flight to Heathrow. Our own “ferry flight” took less than three hours, but it was less time than that before I was already planning my next trip to Iceland. The twenty-four hour “deep breath” before the dive into the VFT was exactly the right way to start, and by the time we were on approach to London, I was fired up to get started by taking a full day in one of my favorite cities. But that’s a subject for another post—the next one!