Everybody knows that train travel is superior to all other modes of getting from here to there, except for travel by foot (“It is rich in details,” a Hungarian friend told me, who was walking around the world), and perhaps travel by camel (the romance of the Silk Road, of course), and maybe by canoe (because canoes are a kind of poetry). So except for those three, trains are superior. But then, I also love my diesel pickup with its eight-foot Alaskan camper. So, except for those four, trains are the best. And the list of great wanderer/writers who love trains is long indeed. “Trains are for meditation,” writes the late Scottish poet Alastair Reid. “I like trains,” writes Australian writer Anna Funder. “I like their rhythm, and I like the freedom of being suspended between two places, all anxieties of purpose taken care of: for this moment I know where I am going.” The 1982 Nobel Laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, called the train, through one of his characters, “a kitchen dragging a village behind it.” And novelist and travel writer, Paul Theroux, a man well-known for making long journeys by train, writes, “Ever since childhood . . . I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it.” Because “I can’t make my days longer,” Theroux muses, “… I strive to make my days better.” That’s beautiful, if you hadn’t noticed, words to live by it seems, and one way to make a day better is to travel by train.
But Scott and I were traveling in Iceland, and Iceland doesn’t have any trains. I don’t know why not, when the famed Ring Road circumnavigates the entire country, and seems a likely, even obvious route for a train. Imagine how many happy tourists (some of them wanderer/writers) might more happily part with their money while riding the train around the island. Local communities on the Ring Road Railway (surely someone has thought of this already; but if not, I get credit for that name) could decide if they wanted to build track outward from the ring to various fabulous local destinations. A circular rail line then, with rays emanating into the peninsulas, not unlike a flower with its petals. That too is beautiful, if you hadn’t noticed. Of course, one complication is that in Iceland now and again, a volcano pops it top, and the result can be a torrent of glacial melt, especially in the south from Vatnajokull, which rushes out to sea and destroys miles of highway, along with many bridges. Perhaps Iceland decided against a rail line long ago because rebuilding all that track would be just one more expensive thing to do.
Anyway, there are no trains in Iceland, and so when Scott and I discovered that we really didn’t have enough time to make long walks into the backcountry, and also travel from town to town on foot, we decided to take the bus. Icelandic buses are fairly nice: no real crowds, slow but acceptable WiFi, and big comfy seats. Not cheap, mind you, but a good option all the same if you decide against renting a car. We thought we might meet some interesting people too, and we did. Not passengers, for the most part, but drivers. In the next three dispatches, allow me to introduce you to a few of them.
Brjanslaekur to Isafjordur: The Neatnik
Brjanslaekur is the ferry terminal on the north side of Breidafjordur, and the best route into the Westfjords, that wild and glacially incised region in the far northwest of Iceland. It is a place so entirely itself, legend has it that a couple of trolls tried to dig a canal across the neck of it to separate it from the mainland. As these things go, the trolls were so devoted to their work, they did not notice the sun coming up, and when it did, they turned instantly to stone. Grimsey Island, on the east side of the Westfjords, is the site of their tragic end.
The Westfjords are, in my opinion, the last best place in the whole country entire, and anyone considering a walking tour will need to bring it to the front of their list. Scott and I planned to make a four-day walk into the remote Hornstrandir, and to make that happen, we had to get the bus to Isafjordur. The ferry terminal at Brjanslaekur is a nowhere place, merely good footing for boats, with a small station and coffee house to rest while waiting for the bus, which Scott and I did for near six hours. It was a mix up really, another story altogether (see dispatch five, “Eating the Pylsur of Heaven, Part Two”), and when the bus to Isafjordur finally arrived, we gratefully boarded.
Our driver was a slight man, if that, withery and willowy, who seemed to carry the excessive weight of a nihilist on his shoulders, all the more true by the look of his eyes, over-shelved by his bushy black eyebrows. He spoke no English, rare in Iceland, and odd that a man transporting travelers for a living had not this skill.
Also on board were two Belgians, women of quiet confidence and good humor. They would go as far as Thingeyri (about half the distance we would travel) where the Viking Festival was soon to kick off in celebration of the Viking Gisli Sursson. Also of note: some of the best remote hiking in the Westfjords could be found here in the over-hanging mountains. One of the problems with traveling by bus is that you come to realize how much of the world there is, and how much of the world you are passing by. But you can’t go following every shiny thing, or else you’d get no work done at all. Your entire life would be one big glorious party. And who wants that?
So we were off, and a few kilometers down the road, we turned north at Flokalundur, and the Hotel Flokalundur, named for the famed Viking Floki Vilgertharson, one of the first explorers in Iceland, and who, in AD 860, gave the place its name.
From here, the bus climbed up and up as we left the pavement for dirt track, skirting the edge of the Vatnsfjordur Nature Reserve and away into the highlands, a vast expanse of open country covered by a hard crust of broken rock. I sat bolt upright in my seat, gazing onto that mysterious land. It was as the travel writer Pico Iyer has written, a landscape so primitive and wild, so rife with a mythic shimmering, that I really did expect to catch sight of the monster Grendel shambling among the stones, or the hero Beowulf riding out upon his horse.
It was then that I noticed the bus was climbing at an ever-increasing speed. Not only were we angled steeply up, but were going really fast too. I checked my GPS: 1100 meters elevation, 80 km/hr; 1200 meters, 90 km/hr; 1300 meters, 100 km/hr; and up we went, climbing into the sky. We topped out at 1700 meters, and came fast across a long flat, where we passed two poor sops on bicycles, their light clothing slapping in the cold wind. The bus kicked up quite a bit of dust, a long contrail running out behind, as we descended on the other side, dropping fast into Arnarfjordur, the tight steep dirt track curling and bending this way and now that. Our driver seemed not at all disturbed or aware of the changes, the road’s tight and sudden curves, as he pressed harder on the gas pedal and moved us on at an alarming speed. I could see his face in the rear-view mirror, the creases drawn down his cheeks into the flat plateau of his mouth, except his eyes, I could not see his eyes! beneath the bushy country of his brow. He appeared a kind of mad-scientist, or was that Groucho Marx at the wheel, whose blood had been recently en-cocktailed by the plasma of Mario Andretti.
Across the aisle, my buddy Scott looked at peace, casting a languid gaze onto the shimmering land.
“We’re going pretty fast,” I said.
“Yeah we are,” said one of the Belgians. “This guy must really know the road.”
“I bet he drives it every day,” said the other Belgian.
That was some comfort, at least, as we descended to the sea. Our driver slowed then, and turned into a parking lot, where before us, the cascading loveliness of Fjallfoss, a 100 meter-high falls that some have called the very jewel of the Westfjords.
“Take a photo,” our driver said, his only English.
We all hopped out and did as commanded, then hopped back in, and we were off again, running out the remaining klicks dragging the contrail of dust, the driver pressing down and around each curve, until in Thingeyri, we reached pavement at last. The Belgians stepped off at the station, leaving only Scott and me for the onward journey. But onward is not where we went. Our driver backed into a carwash stall, and stepped out.
“What’s he doing,” Scott said. “Is he gonna wash the bus?”
“No,” I said. “Why would he do that?”
“Yes,” Scott said. “He’s going to wash the bus. Look at him.”
He dropped a few coins into the machine, and selected the high-pressure pre-wash. He picked up the instrument, and wetted down the roof and hood, the panels and wheels, the back window and bumper.
“What-the-fuck,” Scott said. “I’m paying for this shit. I don’t want to sit here while he washes his bus. I want to get to Isafjordur.”
“Maybe he’s just going to spray it off,” I said. “That was a lot of dust on the road.”
“I hope so,” Scott said. “Otherwise, we could be here an extra half-hour. Or longer. It’s getting late, man, and we got some miles to travel yet. I want to get in there and get a beer, and then go to sleep.”
“I hear you,” I said. “Let’s hope he just sprays her off.”
After spraying her off, our driver changed the setting to the foaming brush, selected the instrument, and started in on a slow and deliberate cleansing, scrubbing away the dust and grime kicked up by the dirt road. We could see the determination in his face, and by the force and care of his scrubbing, his bushy eyebrows winking in pleasure as he went.
“Look at him go,” Scott said. “What the fuck.”
“OK, wait, wait. Dude,” I said, “we’re in fucking Iceland and the bus driver has just stopped off to wash his bus. I’m just registering this.”
“Yeah, take a photo or something,” Scott said. “I mean, does he expect us to just sit here while he washes the bus?”
We just sat there while he washed the bus.
“Maybe he has a date or something,” Scott said. “I mean, why else would he need to wash the bus mid-trip? Why can’t he do it after? Maybe he’s gonna get in there to Isafjordur, and head over to his woman’s place.”
“Or his mistress,” I said. “Maybe that’s it.”
“Yeah,” Scott said. “Maybe his mistress. So, he’s gonna drop us off, and then he’s gonna pull into her place to get laid, and he don’t want no questions. He wants his bus lookin’ good.”
“Look at him go,” I said. “He’s really washing it up nice.”
We watched him working the foaming brush, scrubbing here and there, a hard little back and forth motion over the trouble spots, so intent it seemed his whole life depended on it.
“Let’s be practical,” I said. “Maybe this is the only car wash around, and the company requires the bus to be cleaned before it’s stowed away for the night. So he has to do it here.”
“Yeah, no, this guy ain’t doing this for the bus company,” Scott said. “He’s gettin’ laid tonight for sure. Or he thinks he is, anyway, and his bus gotta be clean.”
“Ha-ha-ha. He’s been out on the road, man. He’s like a mariner come in from the long crossing.”
“Hey dude,” Scott said to the driver. “Wait, wait. Over there. You missed a spot.”
“I think he heard you.”
“Shit yeah. Look. He went back for it. That’s it. Get that spot there too.” Scott sat there shaking his head. “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe what’s going on here.”
“We’re in the middle of it, man. Right in the middle of it. But he’ll go into the rinse phase soon, and we’ll be on our way. I can taste that beer now. It’s waiting for us up there in Isafjordur.”
“No dude,” Scott said. “After that, he’s gonna have to go with the spray-on wax. Really give her a good shine. This is gonna take awhile.”
And he did. He added more coins, ran the rinse real good, and then hit the wax.
“Jesus,” Scott said, as he was finishing up. “Let’s get the fuck outta here. Let’s go.”
We pulled out onto the road, but our driver only went a short distance before turning up into the neighborhoods.
“This doesn’t look right to me,” Scott said.
“Nope. It ain’t right. I’m looking at the GPS man, and this is not the right direction. We gotta go back the other way.”
Our driver drove up to a house, and backed into a parking spot next to a van. He got out.
“Now what?” Scott said.
“This is probably his mistress’s place,” I said. “Shit. He’s gonna go in and get laid right now! No wonder he had to wash the bus.”
“I’m not sure if I hate this guy, or I’m starting to admire him,” Scott said.
Our driver went up to the house and knocked on the door. No answer. He knocked again. He paced about in a circle. Still no answer. He returned, and opened the door of the van parked next to the bus. He opened the jockey box and looked inside. He looked under the floor mats. He ran his hand up along the dash through a clutter of papers and other shit.
“What’s he doing,” Scott said. “Is he looking for the keys?”
“Yeah, he must be. But the keys to the house or the van?” I said.
“Maybe he’s gonna get the keys to the house and let himself in. Maybe she’s got another driver up there, the driver of this van, and he’s gotta wait in line.”
“Yeah, but why would the driver of the van not take the keys to the house with him?”
“Yeah, good point,” Scott said.
“It seems to me, if I’m gonna be reasonable, that what’s going on here is that he doesn’t want to drive this big bus all the way to Isafjordur with only two people on it. So he’s going to swap out for the van, and he can’t find the keys. And whoever lives here has them inside.”
“No,” Scott said. “There’s nothing reasonable about this.”
Our driver stepped out of the van and made a call on his cellphone. No answer. He returned to the house and knocked again. He paced about in a circle. He came back, and tried the phone again. Nothing. He rifled through the van, looking everywhere he could think of to look.
“What the fuck,” Scott said. “I want to get to Isafjordur.”
Now he just stood there outside the house. He didn’t know what to do. He paced about in a circle.
He looked at his phone. Then he got into the bus, and pulled back onto the road.
“We going the right way now?” Scott asked.
“Yep,” I said, checking the GPS. “Looks like it. We’re on our way, man.”
It was nearing 8:00 pm, and the sun fell lower in the sky, that continual twilight of an Icelandic summer. We hummed along at an easy pace, and I felt the happiness of moving on toward our destination. Then our driver’s phone rang.
“Damn,” Scott said. “This could be anything. What if we have to go back?”
“Damn,” I said.
He answered it. He spoke rapidly in Icelandic. He seemed to be having an argument, but we didn’t turn back. The bus pressed on down the road.
“Yep,” Scott said, nodding his head. “He was going to get laid, but she couldn’t make it. And he washed his bus all up and everything.”
“It’s been a rough day for all of us,” I said. “A real rough day.”
Next up: Let’s Take the Bus, Part Two: Borgarnes to Akureyri: The Sleeping Giant