Kim Nelson: Iceland, or the Time My Husband Almost Accidentally Killed Us While on Vacation

As we’ve seen in a million sitcoms, marriage is full of wacky hijinks, silly squabbles, and (hopefully) happy compromises. My husband Kurt and I have been married close to 3 years, but we’ve been together nearly 12 years total. We share a love of traveling in the great outdoors, and even spent our honeymoon camping in the Yellowstone backcountry, dodging bison and pooping outside. However, we are not as aligned when it comes to our tolerance for danger. For example, while camping in grizzly country, I’ll startle at every little sound outside the tent throughout the night, whereas he’ll sleep soundly while knowing that he left a granola bar in his backpack that he didn’t tell me about.

I like to think that our differing outlooks on self-preservation bring a balance to our marriage, a cautious yin to a reckless yang, where we meet in the middle to have fun, slightly extreme adventures with a relatively low risk yield. 

We just got back from an 8-day trip in Iceland. Iceland is often called the land of fire and ice, which is super dramatic but accurate. There’s dormant volcanoes, rivers that steam thanks to the hot lava running just beneath the surface, sprawling glaciers, and beaches covered with crystal-like boulders of ice. They have epic waterfalls at the same density that Chicago has gyro joints. The beaches are made of black sand and everywhere you look, you say, “yes this is scenic and romantic and I want to bone Jon Snow in all these spots.”

After spending a few days in Reykjavík with friends, Kurt and I escaped city life by renting a Land Rover and venturing down the southern coast. We were in heaven. We got doused in waterfall spray. We saw Icelandic horses frolicking in fields and wooly sheep that looked like cotton balls on stick legs. We walked up to the cliffs overlooking the black sand beach while rain whipped across our faces,  and made futile attempts to capture the awesome magic of Iceland on our inadequate phone cameras.

It was Valentine’s Day, and we were leaving Vík for Skaftafell, a small town on the edge of Iceland’s largest glacier. We had no set schedule in mind and in our Land Rover, we could park and camp at any rest stop along the road, but we decided to push further east towards Glacier Lagoon. It was our first night driving in the dark. Kurt was the only one of us capable of driving manual, so I was riding shotgun for the duration of the trip. I’m not always super great about giving up control.

As the sky turned dark, I grew anxious. Streetlights didn’t exist outside of any of the major towns. It had been steadily raining all day. The windshield wipers on the Land Rover were old, worn out and made the rain look like a smeary mess. We discussed pulling over at the next rest stop and calling it a night.

We found a rest stop a little west of Skaftafell. As we pulled off the road, the headlights washed over a gravel road that continued past the stop. Kurt glanced at the map and saw a skinny, unnamed road that led straight to the border of Skaftafell National Park.

“Sweet,” he said. “Let’s drive back for a bit and check it out.” These are the kind of words that set off the alarms in my head. The kind that have made me say things in the past like “We’ve got enough pictures of that bear, we should get out of here.” The sky was emo dark. All we could see was the small patch of black volcanic gravel road illuminated by the headlights. The Land Rover bounced and jostled us over potholes; it didn’t seem like this road was ever used. I went into full-on Cringer mode: ”OK, I think we’ve gone far enough.” But Kurt had seen something that drew his curiosity, a sharp incline flanked by two road signs. We couldn’t see beyond the top of the hill. The first sign was a giant exclamation point, the next a picture of falling rocks. My spidey senses a-tingling, I again asked him to stop, but he pushed on. As the Land Rover climbed to the top of the apex, we could see over the edge of the road into…nothingness. The road disappeared, dropping out from beneath us like a trap door, and all we could see was a gaping black abyss, and in the distance, the soft glow of a large white plain (ice? a lake? a cloud?). It was like staring into a black hole, something big and dark enough to suck in entire planets. A hole we almost drive right into.

“Whoa,” Kurt breathed, stepping on the brakes. In shotgun, I was FREAKING. OUT.

“STOP!! OH MY GOD!! GET US OUT OF HERE!” I hyperventilated. He began backing up the car, swerving left to turn around.

“DON’T BACK UP THAT WAY!” I screamed, unsure if the sheer drop-off existed to our left as well. At this point, I dissolved into tears. My husband almost accidentally Thelma and Louise-d us. On Valentine’s Day. In Iceland.

I begged him to drive us to the nearest sign of civilization, which he did to placate me. We arrived at the National Park visitors center, where I calmed myself back down in the brightly lit women’s room.

Kurt apologized. “They should’ve made the signage more specific,” he said. “Like instead of falling rocks, they should have a sign that says ‘GIANT CLIFF: you should stop now.’”

I looked around the parking lot of the visitors center, where various other campers were pulled over for the night. They walked around on the pavement in their pajamas, carrying their dirty dishes to the bathroom sinks. The parking lot was flooded with street lamps. I glanced up at the sky. Here, I felt safe surrounded by other people. But we’d also spend the night dealing with their headlights flooding through our windows, hearing their chatter as they exited their vehicles. We’d have no solitude or privacy, no chance of potentially seeing the Northern Lights should they appear, washed out by the light pollution. I turned to Kurt and said, “I feel better, we can go back to that deserted road to sleep tonight, as long as we don’t go close to the cliff.” I could see the relief in his face and he gave me a hug. We had found our middle ground.

We went drove back to the rest stop to sleep for the night, staying well within view of the safety of the road and slept in the peace and quiet of a place devoid of any other tourists.

The next day, after visiting Glacier Lagoon, we came upon the same rest stop as we headed back toward Reykjavík. “Let’s see what it looks like in daylight,” Kurt said. I cautiously agreed as long as he went very slow and stopped well before the cliff.

So we drove back down the bumpy gravel road, this time bathed in soft Arctic daylight, with a clear view of the glacier gleaming in the distance. We reached the incline at the end of the road. I made Kurt stop a good 20 feet from it, cautiously avoiding any chance of the rocks crumbling beneath our weight or the car sliding off the cliff. We walked up to the incline slowly. Kurt peered over the hump first, and began laughing.

“Come look.” I walked up the steep ledge and peeked over. On the other side of the apex, the road continued down a steep descent then smoothed out into a long, gentle rambling road at least a quarter of a mile long before meeting the glacier. The black sand that resembled a gaping abyss in darkness looked as smooth, level, and safe as a soccer field. We hadn’t nearly died at all. I felt like an idiot. This could have earned me some well-deserved heckling from Kurt. But he was kind to me, because he knew how scared I had been, and he knows that my cautious nature is part and parcel of who I am.

And that’s the thing about adventure travel in another country. The signs are different. The terrain is unfamiliar. Sometimes, you need two voices: one to drive you outside of your comfort zone and encourage you into new experiences, and one to say stop when the road is too slick or the sky is too dark. Between the two of us, we get just close enough to the cliff to avoid going over, but still get the view. A natural balance in a world full of contrasts, of fire and ice.

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