Returning from Europe, where I spoke to the Amsterdam Jewish community and participated in promoting an extraordinary new theatrical production of Anne Frank’s life on the 70 anniversary of her murder, I thought I would indulge my life-long dream of seeing the northern lights.
Iceland Air was cheaper on the return trip, and charged nothing for stopping in Reykjavik. Yes, free ice!
I loved Iceland when I traveled around the beautiful country with my family a few years back. But that was in summer. The difference between Iceland in summer and winter is like the difference between having root canal with an anesthetic versus without.
Disembarking from the plane in winter, I was hit by such a ferocious wind that it sent my yarmulke flying. Oh, and my head was attached to it. It was like being in the ring with Muhammad Ali. “Icelandic weather,” the rental car agent said. That was just the appetizer.
Over the next two days my desire to see the Aurora Borealis became a simple battle for survival. Screw the northern lights. If I got out alive, I’d be happy.
Driving to Reykjavik through the blinding snow and howling wind, I asked myself if I had been possessed by a malevolent spirit. Did I really choose to go to Iceland in winter? Was I out of my mind? Did the sulfuric fumes of the Blue Lagoon fry my circuits?
I drove through the ice and snow not knowing if I would plow right into the volcanic rock that surrounded us on both sides.
But to the Icelanders the weather was the Bahamas. Only 30 below zero? Time for a tan! We were in a four-wheel drive SUV, driving slowly and cautiously. I was now being overtaken by tiny cars beeping and honking for me to get out of the way. You’ve got to be kidding. They drive these little put-put vehicles in Icelandic winter? Heck, they even sell these cars in Iceland?
Soon kids on bicycles were overtaking me. Moms pushing carriages were calling me a dumb American. Infants were crawling past us. Stationary trees were overtaking us. It seems that everyone who has survived an Icelandic winter is rendered into Thor, god of lightning.
We had a tour booked to take us to see the northern lights on the first night. I called the hotel. “Ah, this is Jorgen Bjorgenson at reception. Hey hey. Tak tak. Ah, your tour has been canceled.”
“Does that mean that we won’t see the northern lights tonight?”
“Ah, well, between the blizzard, thick cloud cover, howling wind, hail, locusts, earthquakes, shooting volcanic ash, and asteroid strikes you have as much chance of seeing the northern lights as you do in being able to pronounce our volcano’s name. EyjafjallajÃ¶kull.”
We got to the hotel and decided to go for a walk on the main street, famed for its bars and nightlife. We didn’t need to walk. The wind picked us up like wings of the eagles. Only this eagle then smashed us down on ice sheets the size of Greenland.
Returning to the hotel, it suddenly struck me that I had left my nose at a bar, which had fallen off without my noticing. I braved the storm to retrieve it.
The next day I got up early, wanting to maximize our time and see as much as we can. What no one told us is that the sun doesn’t come up until 10 a.m. So here I was, with hours to burn and absolutely nothing to do. I practiced saying “EyjafjallajÃ¶kull.” Then I decided to take a long, hot shower. The water was all geothermal, with the constant smell of sulfur. I was in hell after all.
We got into the car and left about 11. Miraculously, it did not snow for the first hour. But what opened before me was a snow-white landscape of endless bleakness. You’ve got to be kidding. Were we supposed to drive on these roads? And how the heck am I supposed to focus on driving, when those tiny little cars are always honking behind me to overtake me?
I felt emasculated.
It started to snow. No, correction. The entirety of the earth suddenly turned white.
We arrived at Thingvellir, where the continental plates of North America and Eurasia are pulling apart, leaving a visible crack in the earth where you can go hiking. The howling wind and snow felt like someone putting a thousand needles in my face. My wife laughed at me. “Look, your beard looks like Santa Claus,” she said. It’s a curious phenomenon when the person married to you for 26 years makes fun of your imminent demise.
I walked through the fissure of the earth. My phone rang. It was a Jewish leader calling about something regarding Israel. My fingers were turning to marble. I could not move them. Less so could I move my lips. Yes, Israel is under threat. But one sinking ship cannot save another. “Uhh, amma gonnna have to call you beccckk. I’m kinda nutt really able to tuuckk right now.”
Then it happened. My mouth froze on the word “now.” I could not close it. I had to get to warmth quickly or the body part I most use to feed my children would be left in Iceland. I ran to the visitor center. I did not look human. A frozen, white barely mobile human popsicle entered.
“Duh yah sell cuffee heeah?” I tried articulating the words. My lips would not move. He told me no, but there was a place a short fifteen kilometer hike away that does. The Icelandic school children do it all the time. I stared in disbelief, then walked to the bathroom and put the hot water on until I felt my fingers again. Then I splashed some hot water on my face. Fortunately for the future of the human race, my mouth began to move again.
For the next three hours, we drove back to Reykjavik through blinding snow that gave us perhaps 3 feet of visibility. We were overtaken by perhaps 700 tiny Icelandic cars.
We made it back, got on our knees, and thanked God for allowing us to live another day. The man at reception looked at me. “Your tour company called. They cancelled the northern lights tour becauseâ€¦.” I cut him off.
“Yes, they canceled because it I can’t see my fingers in front of me so I’m assuming, bud, that the chances of seeing the northern lights are just a wee bit diminished, wouldn’t you say?”
We went up to our room, giving up all hope of seeing the northern lights. The focus now was simply to get out of Iceland before we died or went mad.
The next day we woke up early, waited three hours for some light outside, and left at 11 a.m. for the airport. And behold, a miracle overtook the island. The sun came out. I heard the heavenly host of angels singing. “Hallelluka, Halleluka.” Never have I loved the sun as much as that day. I adopted it as my religion and began to worship it.
We began to drive under bright blue skies. And then, just as soon as we left Reykjavik’s small city limits, a blizzard of epic proportions came out of nowhere and dumped so much snow on us that I could hardly even see the 21 tiny Icelandic cars which overtook me. “Get me out of here,” I screamed in the car. Driving at a snail’s pace, we made it to the airport. “The skies are expected to be clear tonight,” the same rental agent from two days before told us. “Why don’t you delay so that you can see the northern lights?”
I grabbed him by his lapel. “If you gave me this car as a gift I would not stay to see the northern lights. If you dragged my body behind Icelandic ponies you could not get me to stay to see the northern lights. If Santa put me in a first-class cabin on his sleigh I would not stay to see the northern lights. And if every elf that is believed to inhabit this island came forward and bestowed on me magical powers that gave me infinite might, I would only use them to get off his island rather than stay to see the northern lights.”
He got the message. There was a tiny break in the weather. The pilot took advantage of the momentary drop from 55 below zero to 53, and the plane miraculously took off.
The northern lights remain on my bucket list. But better that they remain there instead of my having to kick the bucket just to get them off my list.