After one hour of sleep, a handful of aspirin, and a gallon of Gatorade, it was time to rejoin the rest of the group. Our guide told us that we’d be going with a company called SAFARIS (www.safaris.is) to off-road to Iceland’s new geothermal power plant and along the South Shore. Our guide turned and asked me and another guy, Ben, if we could drive manual. I immediately squeaked out a no, but Ben enthusiastically shouted, “I’m a country boy from Tennessee, of course I can drive stick.” Parked outside a gas station, with a light flurry in the air, Ben flipped himself into the driving seat of our fancy new Land Rover. I struggled getting in, just barely managing to plop myself into the back seat. “OK Ben, just follow me. We’ll meet you at the second river crossing,” our guide said from the walkie-talkie. Nervously, Ben began to drive. Soon, the once light flurry turned into a violent snowstorm, making driving on the main highway feel like an off-road experience in itself. “Oh this sucks! We’re going to have to turn back now. They’ll never take us up in the mountains,” someone else in our SUV said.
As the four other Land Rovers ahead of us began to plow forward it became clear that they had every intention of continuing onward. By now, the once undaunted Ben shouted, “The last time I drove stick was when I totaled my Nissan Sentra. When I was just 17!” We all took a deep inhale, and we rapidly ascended the Narnia-esque mountain. We went through rivers and around geothermal power pipes, and when Ben plunged the entire vehicle through two-foot deep waters we knew his anxiety was gone. Meanwhile, my hangover vanished when I stuck my head out the window into the surprisingly rejuvenating negative degree temperatures and like a dog opened my mouth catching the snowflakes as they hit my tongue. Enthused by the miles of pure, white tundra and the energy of the adventure, I yelled for more off-road action. We drove along and through streams that were so powerful they whisked away large chunks of ice and rock. We stopped to further immerse ourselves in the landscape. We stepped out of the vans to gawk at our surroundings. I stood in silence as my brain tried to assess the situation, finding it hard to comprehend the heavenly white that surrounded me for miles in each direction. It was so unlike anything I had ever seen before that my body’s only reaction was to crack a huge smile, skip excitedly through the tundra, and then fall flat on my back to show off my snow angel skills. Re-boarding the SUVs, my excitement didn’t wane, despite my soaking wet clothes.
The next day, I got together with the all-stars of St. Styrmir (www.ststyrmir.is), Iceland’s all-gay soccer team. They had invited me to a house party a few minutes outside the center city. Ben eagerly joined me and off we went to the party. Not knowing anyone, we swallowed our social anxieties and gleefully exclaimed, “Hi, we’re American.” Everyone looked hesitantly for a few seconds; then they quickly poured us generous cups of deliciously sweet Glögg (mulled wine) and before we knew it, the entire party was talking to us in English, without a second thought or the tiniest bit of uncertainty. One of the guys even proudly showed off his best American motivational speaker spiel, which is a regular feature on Icelandic radio. When a newcomer came to the party and began speaking Icelandic, one of the guys scolded him saying, “Hey come on dude. Don’t be rude. We have Americans here.” The hospitality was something so un-American that it threw Ben and I for loop. “What kind of place is this?” we laughed to one another. St. Styrmir’s kindness didn’t end there—they
even eagerly drove us back into the city so we could experience a Reykjavik revamped leather bar.
MSC Iceland (Laugavegur 28, www.msc.is) is Iceland’s gay secret. Hidden behind metal gates, off the main street, and down the uncomfortably dark stairs of an apartment building, the entrance is marked only by a flyer. The door opens to a basement, painted entirely black with dildos and gay pride flags plastered on the walls. On Fridays the MSC does not have a dress code, but Saturdays they abide by a strict leather code. Ben and I ignored the patrons continuing in the Icelandic tradition of silently checking out the new people in the room, and took it upon ourselves to explore the basement. That proved to be a mistake. As I naively walked into a curtained room (and with a quick flash of my camera), I soon realized by the look on the face of a man touching himself, I wasn’t supposed to be in there snapping photos. Running out mortified and pale as the Icelandic tundra, I saw Ben and confessed what just happened. A man came up to us while Ben was trying to console me, and laughingly pointed out, “That’s the dark room. It should stay dark.” His laugh trailed off and I headed for the bar. Trying to once again rid myself of my social party foul, I had a few beers. The Icelandic leather-men soon began talking to us and after a few more drinks they were telling us about growing up in Iceland and their first loves. They welcomed us into their tight-knit community, a small place where they can be themselves, hidden beneath the streets of Reykjavik.
On the last night of my trip, I walked back to the hotel (dodging tumbling drunks). I couldn’t help but feel like I belonged in this city. As the freezing breeze smacked my face, I bumped into four people I’d met the previous night who all enthusiastically shouted my name. Each place I visited changed me and opened my eyes to a different world. While trolls and elves didn’t roam freely around Iceland when I visited, its far-away, enchanting feel forced me to recognize the possibility that maybe, just like in Icelandic folklore, magical, hidden worlds exist all around us.