When Palli disappeared into the hole, Mark and I just looked at each other. Looking to the French couple would be no help; the only two words they knew were "honeymoon" and "thank you". I don't mean English words, I just mean words. They never said anything in French or any other language to each other, to us, or to our guide, who had just vanished into the earth. Icelandic is a language of whispers, so when we called after Palli his replies were muffled by the wind and the snow drifts piled at the entrance to the cave. We had no choice but to follow him in.
The opening was about the size of a manhole, although nowhere near perfectly round. Had he not moments before slid right in, we would have thought he was joking when he told us that this was the entrance. How he located it was beyond my reasoning. We were in near whiteout conditions, and aside from the silhouette of the volcano obscured by the blowing snow, the landscape looked the same in every direction. Bulbous mounds of porous black rock poked out of the white, some the size of soccer balls, others like discarded bean bag chairs. This, for as far as the eye could see. Which, in this snow was not far.
"Well, since I'm smaller I'll go first," Mark said. He sat at the opening, dangled his legs in, leaned back like a kid going down a sliding board and a second later he was in the black. Our French companions went next while I adjusted my headlamp and thought, "How's that a reason to go first?" I shined my lamp into the hole and saw faces looking up. Taking care not to kick snow on them, I took the plunge.
Sunday. March 16th, 2014. Charlotte, North Carolina. USA.
I said goodbye to Katie at the curb. She dropped me at the US Airways departures entrance at Charlotte Douglass International Airport and drove off. After passing through the sliding doors and turning left I immediately spotted Mark on one of the dark leather seats by the window. He wore the face of a man who had just stubbed his toe for the second time and had already gone through all of the fun swear words.
He approached me and didn't return my smile. "Hey man, what's up?" I asked.
"Well, we're not going to make our flight to Iceland," he said.
Mark took a deep breath and pressed his lips together. "Our flight to Boston has been delayed by two hours, which leaves us seven minutes to make our connection to Iceland."
"Well shit, that won't work," I added helpfully.
"Nope. And I couldn't do anything because you have the tickets."
Time to put on the Spock ears, I thought. "Let's see what they can do," I said, and nodded toward the check-in counter. Bags in tow we marched toward the line. "What's the worst case scenario? If they can't get us to Boston on time some other way... Hmmm. I bet that's the only flight from Boston to Reykjavik tonight. What do we miss if we're not there by tomorrow morning?" Our plan had been to fly through the night and wake up in Iceland on Monday morning.
"Tomorrow's our day to just explore the city during the day on our own. The aurora tour is tomorrow night."
I had been looking forward to having that downtime; our planned activities were going to be nearly nonstop once we got going. "Okay, so we might miss that. That's not so bad." I reminded Mark that a true worst case scenario would involve pirates, or some other variation of not making it there at all, but he was not amused by my jokes. "Well, we don't necessarily have to go through Boston either," I said to Mark as we approached the counter.
"Where you tryin' to get to?" asked the large black woman on the other side. She held out one brightly clawed hand and flipped open my passport when I relinquished it. "Mmm. You ain't makin' that!" she said to the computer. "How many bags you got?"
"Two," Mark said.
"One," I added. "I mean two. Two total. One each. So, two." Apparently one of my Spock ears had fallen off.
She printed baggage stickers, slapped them on our bags and handed us our boarding passes.
"Excuse me," I said. "These are for the delayed flight to Boston. Can you help us figure out how to get to Reykjavik?"
"I can't do nothin' for you honey. You have to go to the gate where you board and see if they can. D12. Security's that way. HEY CHARLIE, I'M GOIN' ON BREAK!" She then walked out of our lives forever.
Mark looked at me and pressed his lips together even more tightly.
Once through the mandatory TSA diddling, we headed toward D12. "Bah! Of course the gate is empty! We're two hours early. Well, we're certainly not waiting two hours to figure this out. I remember walking by a customer service desk on our way here. Let's go see what they can do."
"There wasn't anyone there either," Mark said.
"Okay, we'll hit the one down in E Terminal. Follow me!"
The one down in E Terminal had obviously taken on all of the passengers from our screwed up flight as well as the countless others that get screwed up every day. We got in line and I pulled out my phone. Katie was already on standby out at the cell phone lot in case we had to bail, and I decided to try calling the airline while we waited in line. Whoever got to me first would win a prize. A very nice phone lady picked up after the twentieth iteration of the commercial for their credit card. I miss the days when we had annoying hold music. That was better than annoying hold commercials. The only reason I'm calling this number is because I'm unhappy about something and you're going to try to spin that into "give us more money!" Bold move guys, bold move.
The very nice phone lady apologized after a few minutes of clicking and typing and told me that the best they could do was send us via Frankfurt, Germany. We'd leave the US later that evening, and then backtrack out of Frankfurt the next day getting into Iceland just before dinner. We'd lose our day of exploring, but still have time to make the first scheduled event, the Northern Lights Tour. I broke the news to Mark and we agreed that this would be our best course of action.
"Have you checked any bags?" Very Nice Phone Lady asked. I told her that we did, and she assured me that they would meet us at our destination. "Could you please describe your bag?"
"Well sure. It's the one that has that computer generated bar code on it that you charge so much extra for. Other than that it's a medium sized black rectangle. Should stand right out."
"Tell her mine's red," Mark said into my other ear.
"Well sir, all you have to do now is go to the nearest customer service desk and show them your passport."
Mark and I spent the next hour in the line and while we waited we called our wives to tell them of the change of plans. We laughed and joked about how quickly everything was resolved compared to how much we were stressed out by it. After collecting our new passes we had a quick meal which neither of us finished and a beer which each of us finished.
"Now all we have to do is hope that our bags don't go to Boston."
"Damn it Gary! You said it out loud!"
Monday, March 17th, 2014. Frankfurt, Germany.
"How many times has that pink one gone around, Mark?"
"I'm going give it one more turn. I think they're still putting bags out."
"I'm going to go ask someone." Mark headed to the nearest uniformed personnel, in this case a friendly looking employee from some other airline. She told him that we didn't have to get our bags here and take them through customs. They'd be waiting for us in Iceland. She wore a smart hat. And a pin. We believed her.
Monday, March 17th, 2014. Keflavik, Iceland.
"How many times has that flowery one gone around?"
We moved to the lost luggage line where I asked Mark, "What did the tour company say about our shuttle to Reykjavik?" We were ten hours late, and it would not have been reasonable to expect our ride to wait for us. Their last vehicle had already left for the day and another company offered to honor the voucher for us. They all do that for each other. All of our clothing and most of our gear was gone, but we had a ride to town, so we had that going for us. We filled out some forms, exchanged phone numbers and tossed our meager belongings into the seats of the bus which awaited us. Other than the driver, we had the whole thing to ourselves. We texted home that we'd arrived and within minutes of leaving the airport we had pressed our faces and cameras against the bus' windows. Miles in the distance were jagged snow covered mountains and plateaus. The ocean surrounded us on three sides, shimmering bright blue. Small buildings, small cars, and weird road signs filled the foreground.
Mark flipped through our itinerary and said, "Once we get to the hotel we'll have about two hours before the guide meets us. We should have plenty of time to find a place to replace some of our gear and a quick bite to eat." I agreed that that sounded like a great idea. I was wearing light comfortable pants for the long flight, but they would certainly not provide any kind of warmth while standing in a field somewhere in the middle of Iceland. My good gloves. Warm socks. Boots. Draw a circle around Iceland. All we knew for sure was that most of our warm things were somewhere outside of that circle. At least I had the sense to put my down belay jacket into my carry on. At least I wouldn't *die*.
We checked in and shared our woes with the concierge who showed us on the map where the nearest outfitters were. They were just a few blocks away!
"But you will probably not get what you need at these places," she said.
"Because everything closes at six o'clock," she said. It was 6:05. " You can still try though, there might be some others here, and here," she pointed.
"Thanks!" we said, and bolted for the door. I looked at the map. "What street are we on?" I asked Mark.
"I see the sign but I have no idea," Mark said. "Sherfta... berka something. Voss. And a 'D' with a line through it."
I stuffed the useless map into my pocket. "That way!" I said and headed to a street that looked like it had some shops. Most were in fact closed, but a few still had lights on inside. I managed to scare up a pair of merino wool long johns, Mark got what he needed and we rushed back to the hotel. "We have just under an hour before the van picks us up," Mark said. "And I didn't see anything quick food-wise, did you?"
I suggested that we just try the restaurant in the hotel and that if we needed to we could pay first and bail mid-meal.
We split a fancy club sandwich and a gigantic bowl of French Onion soup and moments after we paid our bill the van arrived. We stepped outside and were greeted by a friendly man with a round face. He shook our hands and said “I am Gilli! Are you Mark and Gary?” We were his last pickup, so we squeezed into the back of the van. Sitting in the seat directly in front of us was a gregarious Australian couple we had met while boarding in Frankfurt. It turned out that he was both an astronomy enthusiast as well as a photographer. She had heard all of this before and mostly looked out the window while we three boys conversed in the universal language of gear talk. Lenses, focal lengths, apertures and so on. It quickly became apparent that he was going to “one-up” anything Mark or I said. Even once we stopped feeding him, he continued. “I did a thesis on gravity drives,” he proudly announced. "Dark matter doesn’t exist and is just a cover up created by the scientific community to hide something from us." That sort of thing. The sky darkened and we drove for about an hour to a remote field north and east of Reykjavik.
“Okay, now let’s talk about the aurora,” Gilli said as he rounded us up. “It is very unpredictable. Sometimes it is very bright. Sometimes it is very faint. And you must know that most times we see nothing at all.” He went on to suggest the most effective exposures, F-stops and other settings. He even had an extra tripod ready when Mark explained our luggage situation. While we waited, I passed around my binoculars and showed people how to find Jupiter and the Orion Nebula.
After about fifteen minutes of looking up and shivering, Gilli shouted, “Look to the north! Do you see it?” There was definitely something, a dim glow at best. It could have been a cloud catching the moonlight, or it could have been…
“Is that it?” someone asked. “I think I see it.”
Mark shot a quick thirty second exposure and then looked at the screen on his camera. “Guys, that’s it! Come look!”
The group formed a crescent behind him, confirmed that the dim glow was in fact, aurora, and quickly dispersed to set up their own tripods. As they did so, the glow brightened into a lime green wave. “Wow! Look at how it moves!” someone yelled.
For the next thirty minutes we stared up at the sky, watching the lights dance, retreating to the warmth of the van, and then going back out. Despite the thick cloud cover during our descent into the airport, the sky had unexpectedly cleared allowing what little heat from the day to radiate out into the blackness of space above. Without my boots my feet stung from the cold. People were doing jumping jacks and those with cameras danced with exposed fingers tucked into their armpits. A second van had joined us, and half of the group decided to take it back to town, having had enough cold in exchange for what was in their opinion, a less than spectacular light show.
Of course we braved the chill and stuck around, hoping for an increased intensity which, after another thirty minutes never came. The lights were fading, and we were all cold and it was late. We piled into the second van and headed west, back to town.
To give you an idea of how cold it was, as we were driving back to Reykjavik, those of us in the back of the van couldn't see out because a thick frost had formed on the inside of our windows. A frost thick enough that it had to be scraped. An Asian tourist in the row in front of us (presumably, our Aussie friend, Dr Gravity Drive had pressing matters back at his imaginary headquarters and had left on the earlier van…) had just rubbed a portal into his window, pressed his forehead to the cold glass and started hooting and pointing. “Ohhh! Ohhh! Look! Lights!” He began making bigger and bigger circles into the frost with his glove. I leaned forward and shared his view. “HOLY SHIT!” I yelled. “Sorry, I couldn't help it, but you guys have GOT to see this! Look!”
More people began pawing at the glass and yelling. “We have to stop!”
Our driver (Gilli took the first van) pulled over at the first opportunity. We bundled back up and spilled out into the cold yet again. The entire sky was ablaze with green plasma. It was as though someone had flipped a switch. Just an hour earlier we had been oohing and ahing over a small triangle of sky with a greenish tint to it. Now, impossibly tall curtains of light swirled in massive loops overhead, bright green like weird alien searchlights. The full moon rose and illuminated snow covered mountains and lava fields in the foreground. Green spikes would appear, shimmer and shrink, only to reappear moments later miles away.
This second show continued for another half an hour, maybe more. All sense of time and space was lost. Since last we slept we’d flown thousands of miles. For reasons we still don’t understand we’d spent part of that morning in Germany. Most of our possessions had disappeared. Or maybe it was we who had disappeared, standing there in that moonlit field watching ions glow and soar above. Still cold but no longer shivering, we stood and gaped at the heavens until the lights subsided.
We climbed back into the van, and rode back in silence, still in awe of what we’d seen. It was after midnight by the time we returned to the hotel. Despite being physically and mentally worn out, sleep did not come easily, which was unfortunate because tomorrow was supposed to be a very full day, culminating with the exploration of a lava tube beneath a dormant volcano.
- Mark vs the Volcano
- Mark, crawling out of the hole where we lost Palli
- Streets of Reykjavik
- More Aurora in Iceland
- Aurora in Iceland
My pants don't smell like sunshine anymore.