“Welcome gentlemen. Welcome to my bus,” the driver said to Scott and me as we boarded in Hofn. “Do you know where you are going? And do you know from where you have come? These are philosophical questions, of course. You have come from the east? You have never drove this road before? You will see a beautiful country. So very beautiful you will want to drop everything and live here forever.” He shook our hands as we stepped up, his eyes like illuminated glass. “Please,” he said. “Sit where you please. It will just be a moment before we are off into these beautiful lands.”
Clear skies on that brilliant morning in Hofn, that small town on the eastern shore of Iceland, famous for its lobster. The town sits on a spit of land extending into a bay braced by barrier islands with an outlet to the sea. We took breakfast and good coffee in our camp sitting in front of the tent where we had slept, a night lulled by an eerie washing sound reverberating against the backdrop mountains in the night, on top of which you could see the great white mass of Vatnajokull, “the Glacier of Lakes,” which covers 8,100 square kilometers, a full eight percent of the country. We packed up to catch the morning bus for Reykjavik.
On our walk to the bus stop, I identified two birds I had been seeing for some days. The whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus), a wide-ranging shore bird with a distinctive long-hooked beak, used to probe the sands for invertebrates; and the black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), a relatively small bird, that like most gulls, eats nearly anything, and whose eggs, when hard boiled, are prized in Britain by people who love eggs (“people who love eggs” is quite different from “people with love eggs”; look that up).
“In Reykjavik, the people are crying,” our driver said as we sat down. “They are crying on such a glorious day as this in Hofn. You see, when the weather is fine in Hofn, it is bad in Reykjavik, where all the people live. So they are crying. Right now. And how did you gentlemen sleep last night? Soundly? Or were you disturbed by the echo of the sea? When the temperature is right, about one degree Celsius as it was last night, with clear skies as it is right now, we get the echo of the sea from the mountains. It is as the sound of machinery at work all night. Nature’s machinery! Some people find it too strange, and they have trouble sleeping. But to me, it is a balm, the sound of my home, Hofn, the most beautiful place in all of Iceland. Maybe in all of the world.”
Our driver was an average-sized fellow, with full, dark hair, and a kind face in which he stored his penetrating blue eyes, not penetrating because they are blue, but rather for the way he fixed you in his gaze, a clear-eyed gaze, a wondering gaze, alive. You could see right away that he was at rest upon the certainty of the depth of his life, that his life had come into alignment with his purpose, his mission as a man. He possessed a gentle ease that came in living as he was born to live, no hurried or anxious straining or itching, like a man does who does not get enough sex, or a man who doesn’t know who he is or where he is going. To be in our driver’s presence was to come into the center of goodness and hope.
He had lived most of his life in Hofn, he told us, and when he was a young, he went to work as a fisherman. At twenty-six, he became captain of his own boat. At age fifty, he retired. “All that time,” he said, “full twenty-four years, I was at sea.” He traded his boat for this bus, and he was now clearly its captain, making the daily run from Hofn to Vik, and from Vik back to Hofn, the road following the edge of the sea, even the sea over which he once had roamed. We came to call him The Mariner.
“The hurricanes that pass Cuba, and come up the east coast of America,” he said, “fourteen days after Cuba, they reach Iceland, or nearby Iceland. Sometimes they pick up more energy from the coast of Greenland, then hit Iceland hard. The wind can be very strong, maybe seventy meters per second, and when it is that strong, it tears the asphalt off the roads.”
Scott and I blinked in wonderment.
“So the Iceland house is built very strong too, to stand such winds. And of course you are wondering about the waves. Yes, they are very high on the sea. Eight or nine meters. We have a system of measuring devices positioned along the coast in Iceland, so anyone with a TV or a computer can get the wave height data. The largest wave recorded was nineteen meters high.”
We blinked again in astonishment.
“What’s that,” I said to Scott, “like sixty feet?”
“Sixty-two,” Scott said.
“And when the waves are high, the sea is very beautiful,” The Mariner said.
Just then, a young fellow boarded the bus.
“Welcome gentle-man,” The Mariner said. “Welcome to my bus. Where are you going? And where are you from? Do you know? These are philosophical questions. If you have never drove this road before, you will see a beautiful country. So very beautiful you will want to drop everything and live here forever.”
“Cheers, mate,” the fellow said.
“And cheers to you,” The Mariner said.
“Hello, fellas,” the fellow said to us.
A Kiwi, clearly, who told us he had been hill walking alone at the foot of the glacier these past five days. Before that, in Belgium racing bikes, and he thought he might as well stop off in Iceland on his way home. “To see the sights, you know,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t be out there in the hills alone. But I am. I made some pretty sketchy traverses, and at one point, thought I’d gotten myself into a real fix. But I’m here now, and headed to the Westman Islands. How are you fellas getting on?”
We told him, fine, fine, just fine.
“Awe-right,” he said. “Say, Icelandic? What a language, eh? What a workout. It’s impossible to pronounce these place names.”
“Icelandic pronunciation is very easy,” The Mariner said.
And since he had our attention: “Let me tell you something, gentlemen. The people in Hofn, they do not want too much. Not like Americans. We want only a good job, and time with our family and friends. And that’s all. It’s not too much to ask. And so life here in Hofn is very simple, very easy, because we don’t ask for too much. Yes, that’s how it is,” he said. “My time at this stop is ended, gentlemen. We will now travel through a very beautiful country. I will show you my land.”
Our bus pulled out, The Mariner at the wheel, steady, confident, wide-awake.
“Look around you. Have you been traveling in a lot of rain this summer? Today is fine in Hofn, but this has been a cold, rainy summer, and usually in summer we enjoy drier and more pleasant days. But this summer has been very rainy. Very dark,” he said. “But it is also good. The flowers and the grasses, they like this weather very much.”
Our road took us inland along the great fan of a drainage leading from the glacier to the sea, until it narrowed enough to make a bridge possible. We crossed there, and then turned southwest. The glacier grew up over our heads, a massive white topping on the cake of the land.
“This section of the highway, part of what we call the Ring Road, was not built for travelers and tourists,” The Mariner said. “It was built so that farmers could move from place to place. It was paved completely only ten years ago, and consists of many narrow bridges over these many rivers flowing from the glacier. From 1960 to 1970, the construction of the road from Hofn to Vik was underway. In those days, the road opened to traffic only on Tuesdays. There is no other road going from here to there, so you could only go on Tuesdays. And if the weather was bad, then the road remained closed, and it would open again the next Tuesday. It would not be opened on Wednesday or Thursday when the weather cleared. Why should they change their schedule because the weather was bad? If you live in these conditions, if you are accustomed to these conditions, then a Tuesday road is no problem for anyone.”
He paused and looked into his mirror to see that we were listening, and we were.
“I don’t know how much you like history,” The Mariner said. “But I cannot stop talking.”
We crossed the bridge at Jokulsarlon, one of the most famous tourist destinations in Iceland, and turned into the parking lot.
“We will make a brief stop here, gentlemen,” The Mariner said. “Please step out and have a look at the iceberg lagoon. I bet you have not seen such things where you are from? You will see here the many luminous blue icebergs. Very beautiful, and haunting. Out on the edge, up the road a bit, the sea has reclaimed three hundred feet of the shoreline. Quite suddenly. We need another good volcanic eruption to put the land back. And we will surely get it,” he said. “Here at Jokusarlon, the glacier is retreating, and when it is gone, the fjord now beneath it will be thirty-one kilometers long. Now the sea comes into the little bay with these icebergs to work at the edge of the glacier. Six hours in. Six hours out with the tide. For as long as the days of the sun.
“Also, gentlemen, perhaps you know of a man called James Bond? Double-O Seven? The fifteen-minute opening of the Bond film A View to a Kill was filmed here, and released in 1985. It cost thirty-five million Euros and two months to make the fifteen minutes. Surely I am exaggerating. And in that scene, you will see Bond, played by Mr. Roger Moore, skiing down a mountain to escape the Russian bad-guys. Iceland as Russia. But gentlemen, do you see a mountain to ski down? No you do not. There is no mountain here for skiing down, though Mr. Bond is a very good skier. I have to tell you also, that I do not care for the new James Bond. I do not care for the technical movie of today. I prefer the James Bond of Sean Connery and Roger Moore, because, you see, I like how they touch the woman. I prefer a more erogenous James Bond than the more technical Bond of today. Well gentlemen, our time here has ended. Shall we continue on our journey?”
As we were about to pull out onto the highway, a middle-aged German cyclist approached the door of the bus.
“May I get on here?” the cyclist asked. “I want to go only a little way down the road. I have a route to cycle, but I want to skip this next part. May I put my bike in the cargo bay beneath the bus?”
“Yes, certainly it is OK,” The Mariner said. “I will take you. But please, just put the bike there yourself because today I am much too lazy.”
We traveled on, and the storm-blast came, chasing us south and west along the sea. It grew wondrous cold, and the sea, green as emerald, all covered over in a dismal sheen. This was the rain and wet and blow that was making the people cry in Reykjavik, and the closer we came to the city, the deeper we penetrated the storm.
“You see this landscape,” The Mariner said, as we tunneled down the road. “It was made by a big bulldozer.” He pointed up at the glacier. “The glacier was much nearer to the sea one hundred twenty years ago, but it is now retreating. I am told that these are the highest glacier waves in the world. Here is the bulldozer’s work, where the land is made into these great hills, one after another, like waves. The glacier pushed and pulled back and left the earth like this.”
We cross over a bridge spanning a vast alluvial fan of black volcanic rock and sand.
“This is the longest bridge in Iceland,” The Mariner said. “But there is no river here anymore. This flat plain was made by a great flood that broke out from the glacier when an eruption shook the ground in 1996. For a few hours, a river flowed out of the glacier that was wider than the Amazon.”
We crossed another great bridge spanning another great plain of black volcanic sand. “Here there was another flood,” The Mariner said. “Look down below. You see there poking up out of the sand? There is the memory of the old bridge that was destroyed so suddenly.”
We crossed yet another bridge, this one made of wood.
“We are crossing a bridge made of wood,” he told us. “This is the third bridge in this location. It is a temporary bridge while they work on the main bridge. You see Iceland is a land that makes and remakes itself, again.”
At the crossroad into Landmannalaugar, the landscape made famous by the claim that Tolkien used it as a model for his Middle Earth, we stopped for the German.
“I am happy I was able to catch your bus,” the German said. “Three years ago I cycled this route, but I didn’t remember how far it was from Jokulsarlon to here. It was much longer than I remember.”
“Yes,” The Mariner said, nodding his head. “Sometimes we have a goldfish memory.”
We traveled on, the storm replacing the once brilliant skies of Hofn, wrapping the fog-smoke of cloud behind us, like a following bird. We arrived at Vik under the seat of the heavy rain. The Mariner stood to address us.
“Gentlemen. I hope you have enjoyed traveling through my beautiful country. And I hope you have learned something during your journey. Now you must change to another bus for Reykjavik. I will return along the sea road to my home in Hofn, where the sun is shining.” He smiled. “So I bid you a good life. Thank you. And so long.”
Scott and I stepped off into the rain, and our next bus pulled in right away. We queued up at the door with a dozen other people. We waited. Finally the door opened to a man with an angry face who was so big, he filled the passageway, entire. Our new driver. We stepped aside to let him out, so that we could then get in. But he turned and closed the doors, locked them, and walked away into the station.
“Well,” I said to Scott, as we stood in the rain. “From here, it’s going to be a different kind of ride.”
“Yup,” Scott said. “And compared to The Mariner, for this driver it’s going to be a different kind of life.”