Vikings of the Northwest: A Return to the Land of Fire and Ice

Posted: November 23, 2012 in Travel

It was 6:45 a.m., and sleep had become a lost cause.

I looked out the window of our 747 that had just touched down in Reykjavik, Iceland. It had been 10 months since I’d last arrived here, and I grinned when I realized my level of sleep deprivation was almost identical to that last time I laid eyes on these barren lava fields. Granted, “last time” entailed the end of a three-country trek that started by leaving Munich at 5 a.m. after drinking enough beer to drown a large moose, but even without the flow of liquid libations coursing through my veins, the feeling in my head at this point wasn’t exactly alien to me.

The sun had not gone down during the flight at all, making sleep difficult, even with the cabin windows shut. This was a good precursor of things to come, I thought. Iceland never gets completely dark through most of the summer, which had inspired thoughts of pub crawling through the extended twilight hours and the surreal feeling of walking home at 3 a.m. in broad daylight. Those thoughts turned out to be more real than I could’ve ever predicted, but we’ll get to that terrible business soon enough.

Stepping into Keflavik International Airport felt like coming home again. It was strange to feel this way and not be in California or Washington, my usual airborne destinations. The airport is extremely modern and deceptively large, with a huge central plaza-like area filled with restaurants, cafes, shops, and the usual array of departure and arrival times across ubiquitous boards throughout. Even for such an early hour, Keflavik was bustling with life; travelers in long lines to get on flights for places like Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and London. Not bad for a place that had only been converted from a military base within the last 20 years.

Walking to the kiosk for the Reykjavik Flybus, which takes tourists directly into the heart of town from the airport several times daily, I began to feel the sleep deprivation catch up to me — lack of energy, slowed thought processes, seemingly no connection from the brain to the extremities….all a very bad scene for someone who just landed in the middle of a remote island country in the North Atlantic. My sentences were short:

“Next bus to Reykjavik?” I asked the attendant.

“Right now,” she said, gesturing outside. “Three thousand kroner.”

The price tag seemed steep, but then I remembered the exchange rate — roughly nine dollars to every thousand kroner.

I paid the attendant and threw my large Osprey backpack over my shoulders, grabbed my duffel bag and hastily trotted towards the open door to the terminal. The air outside was crisp, clean, with a little bit more wind than what could be seen through the small airplane window.

It felt like home. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d not only been on this land 10 months ago, but before. Not last year, but another time; another age perhaps. My dreams in the weeks before coming here hadn’t been so much dreams as they were almost memories.

Like any halfway-alive and breathing miscreant zipping around this giant rock in the great vacuum of space, I’d experienced deja vu plenty of times before. Maybe the cause of all of it was purely subconscious; the brain’s attempt at making something relevant to what we want to be relevant. Something out of nothing, nothing out of something.

But maybe it was different. Maybe there was something about the feeling of what we call deja vu that was far more important, and our brains haven’t been trained by society to recognize it. And considering the fact that American society is turning people into uncommunicative zombies, this is not outside the realm of realistic possibility. These thoughts are what Iceland does to my brain – and the fact that I’d been here for 12 minutes and had already begun philosophizing on the perceptions of the human brain didn’t surprise me; even in my groggy state.

I climbed on board the Flybus and took a window seat about halfway down the aisle. The hazy glow of morning through the scattered, wispy clouds painted a vivid scene on Mother Nature’s canvas. The backdrop was classic Scandinavia – all four seasons seemingly happening at once.

On the road, the bus rode smoothly, passing by endless lava fields in a deserted landscape that somehow managed to be barren but beautiful. Someone had once described to me that “lading in Iceland is more like landing on the moon,” and I wondered how Neil Armstrong would’ve felt if he’d ever touched down here. The word “lunar” is not hyperbole.

My eyes grew heavy as we neared the transfer station in central Reykjavik. It was just outside the city center, if I had recalled correctly, and I thought I had a fairly decent idea how to get to my hostel, known as “KEX.” My good friend and fellow world traveler Tashina had stayed there during her visit for New Year’s Eve, and had highly recommended it to me for this stay. Being that this was a popular time for Icelandic tourism, I had managed to book it for only the first half of my stay — four nights. Other local guesthouses were a long shot at best, so I had taken the social option and booked another hostel on the outskirts of town. I was told it was a bit of a walk from anything central, but this was no time to roll the dice on lodging in Iceland. July has rapidly become the country’s premier time for doing anything and everything, and travelers have not been ignoring that.

Once at the transfer station, my legs felt weak. I was no longer able to deny that yes, I had been awake all night, and yes, whoever is going to make any attempt to engage me in coherent conversation is going to quickly discover that I’d just hauled ass at 30,000 feet all night from halfway across the world. I either needed to drink an entire pot of coffee or half a gallon of whiskey. I wasn’t sure which. But, this was Iceland, and I had a sneaking suspicion I’d have that answer given to me in the very near future.

The transfer station was the same one I’d been in last year when setting off on an ill-fated night tour to see the aurora borealis. It was like some kind of sadistic tease – get dragged off into the middle of rural Iceland with the promise of an amazing light show thanks to the wonders of solar flares bouncing off the earth’s atmosphere, resulting in brilliant ghostly green glow dancing across the sky – but it ended up being trapped on a bus that backed into a fencepost in the dead of night for two hours. No trace of the northern lights; nothing but dark sky and the sudden surge of panic that occurred when 50 tourists heard the unmistakable CRUNCH of the bus hitting a very solid object while backing out of a ditch.

That was a rather unsettling night. And it was my first tour in Iceland last year; one that I was almost to too tired to go on, but….buy the ticket, take the ride. No regrets here.

Jesus, I thought. Would I ever be in this goddamn bus station when I wasn’t partially delirious from sleep deprivation? Who were these people and why were they looking at me expectantly? I felt their eyes on me as I warily looked around. Sauntering up to an information booth, I told the guide at the desk that I was looking for the KEX hostel.

“Oh,” he said, pulling out a map of the city center, “that’s just right down this street here.” He pointed to a street parallel to Halgrimskirkja, the huge pointy cathedral in the heart of Reykjavik. I took one look at the street name and didn’t even try to pronounce it. There was certainly an S…and J….and several vowels that seemed to be haphazardly scattered wherever the hell they felt like going. Ah, what a fun life being an Icelandic word, I thought…

“Sir?” said the guide, looking at me and raising an eyebrow. “Did that make sense?”

I blinked. Had he been talking to me? “Sorry, what was that? I think I’m a little light-headed. No sleep on the plane from Seattle, you see.”

“Ah, Seattle!” said the guide. “My favorite city in America. Kurt Cobain!”

It was my turn to raise an eyebrow and laugh dismissively. “Right, right. So how do I get to this place again?”

He circled our location on the map, and then drew an arrow pointing to the hostel. Right on the waterfront, I noticed. Not bad. The guide told me I’d have no trouble walking there, as it was just a quick jaunt up the hill, past the cathedral, past Lauganvegur street (where all the happening shit goes down), and just down there on the left. He told me the sign was small, so pay close attention that I don’t miss it. I thanked him and apologized for my apparent trance-like state.

In walking outside, I felt the chill of the brisk morning air. Yes, this was July, but it was also in a country just below the Arctic Circle. In anticipation of this, I packed accordingly.

The hostel turned out to be a bit farther down the road than I had been led to believe, but it wasn’t unmanageable by any stretch. A bit more than I’d have preferred? Yes, without doubt, but I was continuing to impress myself with my ability to walk with a huge backpack and duffle bag whilst managing to stay on two feet.

Twenty minutes later, and I’m standing in the lobby of KEX, looking around at the decorative nature of the walls and complimentary breakfast being served in what appeared to be a bar doubling as a cafeteria of sorts. I walked up to a smiling employee sitting behind the registration desk.

“Too early to check in?” I asked, undoing the straps on my backpack and resting it against the front of the desk.

“We can’t check you in just yet, but we can take your stuff into storage until your bed is ready,” said the employee.

“Great,” I said without sarcasm. I wanted to sleep for a few hours before anything wild began happening, but food was beginning to sound like an equally appealing option.

While the employee was taking my information, I noticed something that struck a chord of recognition in the jangled depths of my wary brain: A bumper sticker from the Seattle radio station KEXP, 90.3. I made the obvious connection between “KEX” and “KEXP.” Right, one letter off, ha ha, funny coincidence, I thought. I was surprised to see the bumper sticker no less, and mentioned it to the employee.

“Oh, you’re from Seattle??” he excitedly asked. I braced myself for another awkward shout out to Kurt Cobain. Instead:

“You know what’s going on today, right?” he asked.

“N…no…?” I managed. “Happening? Here? Oh god, what’s–”

“The KEXP/KEX Block Party!” the employee said with a proud smile. “It happens every year here at KEX. Your radio station out there sponsors it – twelve bands in twelve hours, playing right outside there.” He pointed to the outdoor patio area to my right.

“Live music, starting at noon?” I asked. Hoboy. Here we go. Knowing my luck, my room would be positioned right underneath the fucking speakers, and I would no doubt be wanting to choke the living shit out of the elitist hipster pissants that would have certainly followed them here.

“Well, that’s intriguing,” I said without much enthusiasm. “And here I was hoping to sleep off the jet lag. No rest for the wicked, eh?”

The employee laughed and told me to follow him back to the storage closet. I dropped off my bags and got a breakfast ticket for the buffet, which turned out to be pretty light but no less delicious – eggs, biscuits, cheese, salami (!!), oatmeal, Nutella, and various grains/toasts. The Nutella turned out to be the most amazing thing this side of the Atlantic.

I was sitting alone when a short-haired man wearing glasses and a KEXP hoodie approached. “Did I hear you say you’re from Seattle?” he asked.

“That’s right,” I said, perking up a little. “Don’t tell me you are too.”

He nodded. “I sure am. I’m here wth KEXP – they flew me out here to help organize the show today.”

“No shit?” I said, laughing incredulously. “Small goddamn world, man.” I introduced myself. His name was Jim, he said, and he lived in Ballard — just a 20-minute drive from my Capitol Hill one-bedroom condo.

We ended up talking for a while over breakfast. My brain was forced to pretend that it wasn’t operating on the level of an ostrich with early onset Parkinson’s, and I think it worked. Or if it didn’t, Jim understood why I was exhausted.

“Couldn’t decide on a pot of coffee or a vat of whiskey,” I said as I poured a second cup of joe. “Once you start on either, it gets hard to stop in this weird state I’m in.”

Jim laughed. “I know, man. I’ve been there. This is the sixth time I’ve been out here, and the time change on the flight out from Seattle always gets me.”

We finished up food and made our way to the back patio, where the first band was already setting up. It was already 10:30, and I had landed almost four hours ago. Time is a fickle mistress in Reykjavik.

I asked about the bands playing that day. I was actually more familiar with Icelandic music than most Seattleites, only because I’m a master at random knowledge and have a penchant for weird music in general. The first band, he said, would be an Icelandic reggae band.

I stopped him right there. “Icelandic reggae?” I chuffed. “That’s a thing?”

“Yeah,” he said, telling me the band’s name which I now can’t recall, “they’re actually pretty amazing. You might be surprised.”

The other names included Agent Fresco, an alt-rock hybrid from Denmark, and Ghost Digital, who was apparently the headliner later that night. Solstafir, sadly, were not on the bill as I’d hoped. They’re a fairly indescribable mix of prog rock and shoegaze, and come across sounding like Mastodon if they’d ever spent time jamming with Rush and Pink Floyd. And even that’s kind of a shitty description.

When it came time for the Icelandic reggae to start laying down the ganja-fueled rhythms, I was skeptical at first, but soon realized that this wasn’t ordinary repeat-the-same-measure-until-you’re-too-stoned-to-notice reggae. This was genuinely interesting – there were accordions, guitars, two vocalists, and everyone in the band looked like they were having a really damn good time. I soon found myself watching their entire set, and not regretting that I did.

The other bands that followed were as mixed a bag as I’d ever recalled seeing in my 31 years on this earth. The Heavy Experience, who sounded like Isis if they decided to collaborate with Morphine, took the stage and impressed everyone with their unique brand of crescendo-driven rock. The horn section seamlessly transitioned from soft, anticipatory passages to rollicking cacophony before anyone got anything close to being bored. Their influences must’ve been too wide to properly catalog, but I was happy with just calling them “great.”

There was something special about this show. Not because it was arguably the most spontaneous experience that had befallen me in recent memory, and not because it was quietly assisting me in reaching new heights in sleep deprivation. It was because this show epitomized the very reason for me taking this trip in the first place: Get in, sit down, shut up and hang on. Shrug your shoulders, say “fuck it, why not” and fearlessly go into whatever lies ahead.

I had taken this trip alone, and not entirely by choice. There had been a plan for going with a group of friends, but extenuating circumstances became….extenuating. And I soon found myself flying solo as a result.

This made me uncomfortable at first. I wasn’t sure I’d have fun traveling alone. Last year’s jaunt to Europe had been different – I’d be meeting close friends along the way the whole time. Friends in England, Scotland and Germany would highlight my trek. This time, it would be different. I’d know no one on my way in. Reykjavik would be packed with tourists, which I figured would be a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because there would be plenty of people to meet. Bad, because Icelanders are never too thrilled to have their tranquil nation invaded by foreigners.

Hell with it, I thought to myself after I found out I’d be traveling alone. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

And there I was, only a few hours into my trip, and I’d already met a friend from where I just came from. Things had gotten off to a promising start.

Agent Fresco came on stage shortly after I took one of several walks across central Reykjavik, exploring Lauganvigur Street and getting a preview of places I wanted to venture into later that night if I was still coherent. KEX had been steadily filling up, though, and I was beginning to lean toward staying here and mingling with the assorted bunch of inebriated music fans throughout the night. Shit, why not? This was why I was here in the first place. Fresco had me drawn in anyway – their energy and raw blend of Faith No More-inspired vocals above distorted Deftones-ish riffs had me dubbing them the top act of the day. I wrote down their name in my phone for future playlist possibilities.

“I love these guys,” Jim said as we watched their energetic on-stage antics. “They’re unlike anything else I’ve ever seen or heard.”

I nodded. Their set seemed to double the crowd size. Icelanders are huge on music in general, but when a band comes around that gets a crowd particularly fired up, nothing else in the world matters — the show becomes the focal point of the moment.

These were my kind of people.

  1. Trish Giroaurd says:

    Can’t wait for chapter two!

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