I recently read a book by a pastor who used the Dakota Badlands as a metaphor for middle-aged life and ministry. It borrowed imagery from his family vacations, driving from Baltimore, Maryland (his adopted home and church) out to Kalispell, Montana (the place where his family had its roots). He described the slow transition from industrious factory-towns to fertile farmlands to wild grasslands and then barren rock as a way to understand a transition from early-career successes and the achievement of goals to a time of perceived stagnation and aimlessness. I appreciated and acknowledged the effectiveness of the Badlands’ name and barrenness as an effective literary device, but I pushed against the imagery because I personally love driving through the Dakotas more than the farmlands or mountains.
On our third day — and worst day — in Iceland, however, I found a new way to relate to these concepts. With apologies / credit to Eugene Petersen, I’m going to appropriate and adapt his imagery to talk about my journey through Iceland’s Grimsá River Valley.
We knew it was going to be a travel day, shifting from our southern base near the city of Selfoss to our northern base in the city of Akureyri with a relative dearth of tourist attractions to stop and see along the way — but we never realized how challenging the day would be. As we drove northwest, through one of the large national parks, we kept looking for a gas station. Based on the number of tourists we had seen the previous day in this national park, we figured it wouldn’t be hard to find a place to refuel. But we never did find a place to stop, and before long the pavement gave way to gravel and we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere.
I found it simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying to be driving across the interior of Iceland on Route 52. This was the rugged remoteness I had come to find! It was like my favorite drive from Wyoming, earlier this summer, with all the vast vistas and lack of traffic — yet even more so, on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic! At the same time, our vehicle was running desperately low on diesel. There was no sign of civilization for miles in any direction. And, of course, it started to rain. It would continue to rain for the rest of the day.
As the roads got rougher, I also started to worry about the dire warning issued at the rental car company: No off-roading… Avoid gravel roads… Driver assumes full liability… Insurance doesn’t cover gravel damage, etc… Combined with my concerns about fuel efficiency, we crept along at 50 kilometers per hour (about 35 miles per hour), trying to stay light-hearted and enjoy the scenery. But failing.
It was a massive relief when we made it to the Ring Road (Route 1) and the N1 Gas Station. After refueling we tried to enjoy some waterfalls. They were beautiful — super-wide, light-blue opaque water — but everything was dampened by more rain and gravel. A lot more rain and a lot more gravel. We had to eat our packed lunches in the car as we pushed back toward the north.
As we neared the northern coast, I suggested a detour to the hot tubs at Drangsnes, up a ways into the Western Fjords. My thinking was that it would only be an hour off our route (thus, two hours of total detour) — but it would allow us to get a taste for a whole other region of the country we wouldn’t otherwise get to see and why not enjoy the hot tubs when we’d be getting wet anytime we stepped out of the car anyway!?! Chad disagreed, however. He thought it would be better to just make it to Akureyri for a more relaxed evening. I persisted. Jason stayed out of it until a couple of miles before the turn-off, when he ultimately cast a reluctant vote towards Drangsnes.
The regrets started pretty quickly as we started climbing into the fjords. More rain. More gravel. Anxiety-inducing cliffs. All of the white-knuckled hairpin turns with none of the snow-capped peaks to show for it. Everything shrouded in gray mist.
The hot tubs were unique: three of them, right up against the water. A green square, a blue octagon, and a light-blue octagon. They were fun and free, in an otherwise-obscure village. They were popular, though. A young couple from Switzerland, a small group from Italy, two others who never spoke, and (later) a brother and sister from Buffalo (New York) plus the brother’s wife and a total of four kids. Not the traveler’s secret I’d thought it might be. Sure, it was a pleasant experience. We got some valuable intelligence on Akureyri from the Americans. But it wasn’t worth the two-hour detour.
We got dinner afterwards at Holmavik, across the bay from Drangsnes. One of two cafes in the whole fjord. The service was terrible: slow and rude. I ended up spending way too much for really bad fish and chips, and then we had to drive back through the fjords to the mainland and then on to Akureyri. It took way longer than expected. We didn’t make it to our destination until after midnight. Persistent rains through massive mountains we couldn’t see. Not at all the day we expected.
Somewhere along the way, however, I realized that the day was an apt metaphor for middle age. The coming — and current — season of life for us.
There was plenty of room for adventure (if anything, a bit too much adventure!), but things felt hard and heavy. Everything was coated in gray: overcast skies, dark-gray gravel on the road surfaces and stuck to the exterior of our rental car, mountains wearing trench coats of mist, a steady wind and rain in our faces.
We almost ran out of gas. We got dinged up by gravel kicking up off the ground. We experienced indecision and lost our way, resulting in more dings and more grime. I mean, it’s almost too easy — to clichéed — to make metaphors out of all these elements!
It’s sobering to think about middle age in this way, but it also feels like insight. Being “grown-up” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Adulting is hard (more clichés). At the same time, I find encouragement in the fact that there were three of us, close friends, sorting our way through it all together. I also take solace in the fact that we survived all the shenanigans. The middle-aged, middle-of-Iceland stuff didn’t kill us. It just challenged us to rise to the occasion, enhanced our appreciation of the other (more pleasurable) parts of the journey, and gave us a good story to tell.