First time, right off the bat, pre-GPS and armed with only a map, we got lost.
Within 20 minutes of leaving Reykjavik we saw a fork in the road and after putting all our collective navigational skills to work, we took the wrong turn. It took about an hour before realizing it. We were nine women stuffed in a van, three layers deep, with luggage on our laps and at our feet—four teenagers, four middle-agers, and Esther, who defies age-related genres. The teenagers wisely tuned out on their IPods in the way back. Bags of cheese pretzels and chocolate-covered cookies got passed around. We listened to a CD of the Dixie Chicks. Kathyrn was driving and the rest of us grownups were supposed to be navigators. Our index fingers dutifully, if erroneously, followed the map. We took turns passing it around every 20 minutes or so, occasionally interrupting our stream of conversation to weakly feign interest in the directions, saying something helpful like, “We should be in Smorgasbordafjordur any minute now.” After making such a declaration, we passed the map to the next person, as if to say, my job’s done. At one point, I heard Kat murmur to herself, “Mmm, we’re supposed to go through a tunnel at some point.” But by then the landscape had changed from a few horses in the fields (when one of us would irrepressibly shout “horsey!”) to hundreds of horses in the fields. There were herds of mares and colts (“babies!”), a horse lover’s dream — all the Icelandic horses the eye could behold. We gave up on the map and picked up our cameras, dangling them out the window to click away.
Kathryn did her best to lure us back to getting our destination. She would pull over to a road sign, squint at the town name and say, “Does that look like anything on the map?” Our heads would collectively bump in the backseat as we focused briefly on the map again, “Mmm, sort of.”
Until finally Kat said, “Folks, we’re on a dirt road, no highway in sight.”
This alarmed Esther: “We’re lost. Pull over.”
We pulled off the road at a juncture and parked on a hill with a view of a mesmerizing blue fjord. Below us on the beach was a family of about eight – grandparents, parents, and children digging for mussels. Esther grabbed the map from us, got out of the car and headed for the family. “Look at her go,” Kat said. And we looked at Esther because she walks like a cowboy: skinny, slightly bowed legs, tends to hitch up her pants up before she struts anywhere. She had her curly red hair tamped down with a multicolored Peruvian wool beanie, wore her round red-rimmed Harry Potter glasses and, around her neck, a dash of more tribal color from a Bali scarf. She approached the natives, waving the map over her head and giving them her signature greeting, “Yoohoo, yoohoo.” At first they looked as if they were going to ignore her. But it is hard to ignore Esther. She tramped down the hill closer to them, “Hello, does anyone speak English?” Now if they were wise Icelanders they would have denied all the English classes they ever took, or denied they even had tongues, but one man reluctantly approached her, albeit cautiously as if approaching an unnatural phenomenon. We watched the gesticulating communication from the safe distance of our van, until one of us said, “I have to pee.” Which started many murmurings of “oh, yeah, me too, I’m dying,” except from the teenage girls, who would rather die than pee in the wild. So the rest of us tumbled out of the car and surreptitiously looked for a suitable rock to duck behind. In sync all four of us crouched down behind a rock, peed, jumped up, and pulled our pants up as quickly as possible. But that, for some reason, got the natives’ attention, at least their steely stares. Did we offend? We acted like a pack of territorial dogs, sending one out to scope while the rest of us marked our territory. Esther made her way up the hill looking discouraged. “I don’t think they liked me very much. And we’re way off track.” We assured her that they just didn’t understand her. “I have to pee,” she said, and found a rock to pee behind. Before we got in the car, we waved to the family on the beach, yelled out our thank yous, and drove away realizing we may have jeopardized Icelandic/American relations for a while.