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Translated Jeff Matthews

I say farewell to the Edda Hotel and watch it slowly disappear from view. I start the climb back up the road, winding among volcanic peaks and sharp lava spires—and have the distinct feeling that I am leaving the last outpost of civilization behind me.

Now on the road for a few hours I am running east towards the great glacial valleys of the extreme north. I'm heading for the River Guesthouse of Skulagardur in the area of Garður where I'll spend the last few days of my trip before returning to Reykjavik for my flight home. I got away early and in good order, not because there was necessarily that much ground to cover but rather because the farther north I go the more I have a sense that human presence, itself, is thinning out and that connections between settlements are turning ever more tenuous. The first two hours pass uneventfully, so much so that I feel I can stray from my planned schedule, one that would have taken me directly to Akureyri. For the last half hour I've been following the often incomprehensible (for us) road markers and have passed the small town of Varmahlíð, leaving State Road-1 and heading north to join road 75. This detour will let me visit all of the olden fishing villages that are strung along the Tröllaskagi, the mysterious land of the Trolls.

The first stop is Hólar, a small settlement in the interior. I have read of the small cathedral and the baptismal font (photos 1 & 2) that, according to tradition, was crafted from soapstone from Greenland. The stone is said to have landed on the Icelandic coast aboard—riding, as it were—an iceberg driven by the currents. A little further on, still on the same road, there is a small ancient village restored with its peat houses and their grass-covered roofs, a small chapel and cemetery, all glimpses for the visitor of the difficult daily lives led by these people, and not that long ago, really. (photos 3, 4 & 5)

1. The cathedral

2. The baptismal font

3. The ancient village with peat houses

4. The peat houses

5. The small church and cemetery

I've been driving along rather absent-mindedly and now suddenly notice that something has changed. At first I can't figure out what it is or even what kind of a change it is, so to speak. I backtrack in my thoughts...what was I thinking of a few moments ago? It hits me. A few km back, at a crossing, there was a road marker pointing travellers to the shortest route to Akureyri. Since I missed it I was now on one of those forsaken dirt roads in the interior. I stop and haul out my map. (There's no cell phone connection here and who knows where the next cell repeater is? That means that Google maps is down and of no help. I start moving again. Now the road starts to look different; sections are trench-like and deep enough to block my view into the distance. The surface gets rougher and more uneven and I'm snaking around trying to avoid holes in the road that keep getting deeper. I have not seen another car for about an hour and start to feel very alone. Negative thoughts cross my mind; what if I bottom out? Break the suspension system? Who will hear me if I try to send out a call for help? Who will rescue me? All this is going through my head as I approach the “Great Void”.* I creep along and now the road is running by a water course. The water is flowing downhill in the other direction, so I must be climbing as I get more and more inland.

The landscape, however, is majestic and after a few km the road starts to even out and slowly move down to lower elevations. I have essentially climbed over the mountain and am now running along the glacial valley that leads to the secondary fjord of Olafsfjörđur and ultimately to the shore of Eyjafjörður, the deepest fjord in all of Iceland. I will then follow along that shore all the way to Akureyri. Along the asphalt ribbon of road the brilliant colors of small fishing villages are mirrored in the dark and peaceful waters of a glacial sea. (photos 6, 7 & 8)

6. Brightly colored wooden houses

7. Piers at the harbor

8. Piers at the harbor

Finally a city. Akureyri, also called “the capital of northern Iceland,” is the second largest city in the nation in terms of population. It welcomes me with a small lake that displays a powerful water jet in the middle spraying into the heavens; round about the shores of the lake is an elegant residential neighborhood with majestic period villas that reflect in the waters (photo 9). A stop here in this lively but ordinary city is practically a must, especially since it's time for lunch! I park my car near the harbor and the futuristic tourist information office (photo 10) and walk towards the center of town. Along what looks like the main street (photo 11), I run into two gigantic human figures, caricatures of the ancient Vikings, who, accompanied by two polar bears, look as if they are on a grand expedition somewhere (photo 12). Before leaving the city I decide to pay a visit to the Akureyrarkirkja cathedral (photo 13) which contains a gigantic organ and a boat that hangs from the ceiling, thus mixing religious symbols and ancient pagan memories. Unfortunately I'm out of luck because today the church is closed to the public because of a funeral. I drive off.

9. The elegant lakeside residential quarter

10. The Tourist Information Center

11. A main street in Akureyri

12. Migration of the ancient vikings

13. The Akureyrarkirkja cathedral

14. The River Guesthouse lost on the glacial plain

It's almost evening when I reach the River Guesthouse of Skulagardur, an isolated structure that looks like a long blue train stopped at a station on a flat plain with no geographical points of reference (photo 14). There's just time to stow my bags and then off for some fine fish and chips in a place I noticed along the road. Tomorrow will be dedicated to the mighty Dettifoss, the highest waterfall in Iceland.

[*Great Void. The reference is to Ginnungagap ("gaping abyss", "yawning void") the primordial void of Norse creation myths, located somewhere in the waters of the far north.]

To be continued---

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21 August 2019

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