Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Takk fyrir

The thick Icelandic wind warned of winter. It harshly dried my tears, which had fallen in endless waterfalls down my cheeks like the powerful waters of Gullfoss.

The wind brought on chills, shivers, uncontrollable shaking. The damp earth where we laid slowly stole my warmth. A distant red-roofed farmhouse stood in stark contrast to the dramatic mountains, decorating the valley where we crashed. It appeared to be a picture perfect scene from a movie, and I felt as if I were in one, or perhaps in a distant dream. Somebody wake me up.

Four thousand miles from home, but close to each other, we laid in the grass, whipped irreverently by the relentless wind. We were insignificant obstacles in its path towards the angry ocean at the base of the nearby cliffs.

We laid and we waited. Laura ran down the road to find help as we hung on to the hope that someone would drive by. Anyone.

Time did not seem to move forward. Worse case scenarios ran through my mind. I don’t remember how long we waited, but I soon felt a gentle touch and caught a glimpse of white hair as it touched my cheek, soft like silk. A calming, motherly voice said hello; she said her name was Sue. She told me it was going to be okay… so I believed her.

Faces blurred in and out of view, blankets piled on top of us, rocks placed around the edge of the blankets to keep them from joining the torrents of the wind. People held cushions to barricade the harsh wind, building a fort around our sprawled bodies.

More people arrived and the wind soon carried foreign words, worried tones. Minutes felt like hours and strangers became friends as we learned the language of expression, tone, and smiles. Kind gestures speak volumes.

Our eyes tried so hard to close, but Sue’s words kept us awake. In a friendly Toronto accent, she and her husband Dave asked us about our trip, asked us our names, and constantly reassured us it would be ok. We weren’t sure what to believe, but we nodded, still fighting the urge to sleep.

Magni joined Sue. He was driving from Ísafjörður to Reykjavik to visit his daughter when he saw the remnants of our van and stopped to help. While we waited for the ambulance, he taught us the longest word in Icelandic: Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur.

Magni’s smile came in and out of view as he taught us various Icelandic phrases and brought blankets and more barriers from the wind. Others stopped to help, braving the devastating wind to collect our belongings and help the other four in our group. We got word that Fiona couldn’t move.


I still now have flashes of flipping – as I fall asleep, I am often awaken suddenly by the feeling before we rolled, my heart racing. I can vividly remember the moment, frozen in time, when I knew we were going to die… and also the moment when the chaos came to a halt and we somehow didn’t.

Just moments before the crash, we stopped to admire the majestic Icelandic horses. I marveled at their resilience, picturing them in the dead of winter, eyelashes covered in ice, hooves in the deep white snow.

Just moments before, I ran back to the RV, sprinting up the middle of the wide-open road, tiptoes touching the double yellow lines, every step pushing me through the strong wind, feeling energized, blissful, free.

I grew up longing for wind and lived by it for years of competitive dinghy sailing. We called ourselves sailors, but I now realize we were really acrobats of the wind. We jumped, hung, and balanced in the boat, every precise movement carried out with calculated grace. And we did all of this while reading the wind, analyzing every pattern on the water, preparing for what we anticipated it would do next. Many metaphors relate sailing to life, but for me, sailing was life. We lived by, and for, the wind.

But all sailors also know that the wind can be challenging, unpredictable, unforgiving.

When our RV emerged from behind the wind shadow of a mountain in Iceland’s West Fjords, a damaging gust violently threw us off the road.

There are simply no words to describe the feelings moments after the accident, besides perhaps pure shock. I had no idea what had happened or how many times we rolled, or where I had been when it happened.

We screamed for each other, cries drowned by the roaring wind. It lets up for nothing.

Some of us emerged from the rubble. Fiona had been thrown from the van as it tore into pieces during the roll. Greg’s face was painted red with blood. It wasn’t until 2 hours later that I realized I suffered a bad concussion.

We found each other and fell to the ground next to the van. The wind instantly ripped the roof and sides from the RV, sending them flying like pieces of flimsy cardboard, across the field and into the roaring ocean below.

Photo by Jennah Caster

It’s amazing how something can be so horrific and traumatic, yet so beautiful. We experienced the kindness and generosity of total strangers – in a foreign land, we felt like family.

A helicopter came for Fiona, and Magni graciously offered a few of us a ride back to Reykjavik – the ambulances from the west fjords didn’t go to the hospitals in the capital. It was the longest 2-hours of my life, but along the way Magni made it a bit better as he pointed out various landmarks and told us their names, and often a little story. He shared with us his love for his gorgeous country as we drove by scenery that looked unreal – this simply added to the dream-like, dazed, and shocked feeling of the whole endeavor. But as he taught us more complex, yet beautiful, Icelandic words, we realized that there was really only one word we wanted to learn: thank you. “Takk fyrir,” he said. It took us quite a few tries and I’m not sure we ever mastered it, but Magni smiled.

I have eternal gratitude for the people, both local Icelandic citizens and other travelers who, selflessly and without hesitation, went out of their way to help us both at the scene of the accident and throughout the difficult days that followed.

In a world so often full of negative news – from natural disasters and war to sadness, tragedy and devastation – this was a beautiful reminder of the compassion and kindness that still exists. It’s also a reminder of the fragility of life, how everything can change in seconds.

Just as we will never forget the gust, the shock, the trauma, and the tears, we will also never forget the incredible people, once strangers, who now hold a special place in our hearts. To those who we will never see again, to those who we did not officially meet and we never learned your name, to those who took the time to comfort us, help us heal, and make it back to our own home: Takk fyrir.

For more details about the accident, see Patrick's Facebook post and for photographs of our adventures during the 10 amazing days in Iceland before the accident, check out @Waterlust & @jmadler.

A photo posted by @goingowengone on


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