Messages in a Bottle #3: Stoppin’ in a Winter Wonderland

This post was originally dated 12/28/17. It chronicles a stretch of the 54 and the 55 –  unpaved but “real” roads reasonably far off of Iceland’s Ring Road – as well as part of the Ring Road once we finally found our way back onto it heading North from Snæfellsnes to Hvammstangi. It was written from our little cabin at about midnight after we’d gotten in about an hour earlier. For those at home who are keeping score, the sun sets in Iceland in winter at about 4pm. So, we had been driving one-lane dirt roads along a fjord well after dark. The road conditions were “icy” with “blowing snow.” But, they weren’t yet a blizzard. That would happen later in our trip! Thank heavens our little cabin had a self check-in, as checking in with limited check-in hours might have been interesting. If you read my last Iceland post, you learned that the west of Iceland completely shuts down over Christmas and Boxing Day. It does open back up afterward, but there aren’t many restroom break opportunities along even the Ring Road, and many of the N1 stations that claim to be open those days are in towns off the Ring Road – or they close down about 2pm. This makes pit stops complicated. I have no photos of the moonlit fjord or the crazy drive because I’m a chicken, but I include some photos from the next two days at the end.


Well, we successfully navigated the food crisis, and we had plenty of petrol in the tank. We did not quite, however, successfully navigate the pit stop crisis. Not to put too fine a point on it, but dysautonomia is a little like having an old car with a not-so-accurate float sending info to your petrol sensor. You might be able to drive for 20 or 30 miles even after you reach the empty marker while the float bobs a little lower than it should in the tank, but you’ll sure think you can’t. Alternately, it might bob a little high, and you’ll think you have plenty of time to spare, then hit crisis mode when the correct reading catches up. You need to handle the urgency. Immediately. If you haven’t worked it out, the “faulty float” analogy for dysautonomia is the bladder, and the communication with the sensor – the autonomic nervous system – isn’t reliable. You might have twenty miles after your autonomic nervous system first signals the beginnings of trouble – or you might not. It’s uncomfortable either way, and the best thing to do is simply not guess. Plan “pit stops” more frequently than someone with a working autonomic nervous system would need them. Autonomic control of the bladder is nothing to take chances with. When petrol stations that claim they are open on their website aren’t actually open, that might mean going far out of your way to tiny towns of a few hundred people and one store.

It also might mean ending up on a dirt road over a fjord at night. Now, the road trip Bible of Iceland – – claimed the 54 wasn’t an F (Highland) road. It was a “real” road. (We had a 4×4 rated for F roads anyway.) It was only supposed to be a couple hour drive, so even with pit stops, we should have been in well before dark. The road conditions were “icy” – but that had been the condition of every road we’d traveled so far. So far as we could tell, that was the road condition of about every road in the country. All of this was true, but we are not locals who can take one-lane mountain roads with a sheer drop to a fjord on one side of us up and over a mountain in “icy” conditions at the allowed 90km/hour – especially while not having seen another car coming from the opposite direction for over an hour to assure us the roads really were passable from the other side. Was our car equipped for it? Yes. Were we psychologically equipped for it? No.

When we pulled over and used our traveling GPS – yes, Iceland has great GPS coverage even in the middle of nowhere – the weather started turning and it started getting windy and blowing snow around. We saw that we’d still have to go over a one-lane metal bridge with the fjord now on both sides and little visibility after dark to round out our trip, so we chickened out and turned off onto the 55. We decided traveling on the same quality of road an extra hour after dark – but away from any sheer cliff drops crossed on slick metal bridges – back to the Ring Road eventually was worth the cost in time and bladder concerns. (P.S. – I don’t recommend telling a girl with dysautonomia that she needs to add over an hour to the trip with no promise of a pit stop as a good way to keep her calm and avoid the need, but, in this instance, I agreed the bridge was scarier.) This was probably a wise move, as the blowing snow and wind kept picking up. While we weren’t on a bridge, we did have to travel over lakes (being blown off the road onto a lake seems more survivable than being blown off a bridge, but I am glad I didn’t have to test that assertion.)

After an incredibly tense – and incredibly slow – trip that added much more than an hour – we finally reached the Ring Road. We connected where we only had about 45 minutes back to Hvammstangi left at that point. We found an open gas station, got some hot food, caffeine, and a pit stop, and we carried on. It turns out that even on the Ring Road, blowing snow is nerve-racking at 9pm at night, and having to make constant micro corrections while traveling at a crawl up and over a mountain and then across a lake – to avoid falling in/off either – makes exhaustion hit faster and harder. My Partner found a wide, flat portion of the Ring Road that promised a scenic stop during the day and, as he put it, “pulled over while it was still his choice to do so” to rest for a bit. Oops. The turnoff to the rest area wasn’t quite as flat as it looked. There was just enough of an incline to sink into the snow and get stuck at 9:20pm at night on a virtually empty road. Well, at least it was the Ring Road, right?

Sometimes it comes in handy that I need to fall asleep to white noise. One of those sources of white noise – don’t ask, I’m just weird – is the Weather Channel. The Weather Channel has this “what would you do to survive” type show, that challenges readers with everything from hypothetical bear attacks to tsunamis to having cars stuck in the sand on a beach with the tide about to roll in. We figured wet snow is about like wet sand, and we hauled our floor mats out of the car to provide some traction and back out over it. Or, at least we initially tried to. It didn’t work at first, and we were about to call 112 to come rescue us – whatever that would entail in cost and embarrassment – when a nice local did detour from his late-night trip home to come help. We had almost replicated the Weather Channel lesson. We’d forgotten the unintuitive ways we were supposed to steer it, and the car probably needed a bit more oomph in pushing than just my Partner could provide while I steered. With two adult males and proper steering, the floor mats did the job. We freed ourselves and staggered in, exhausted, to our lovely little cabin.

My Partner fell asleep immediately. I, being weird as I mentioned, am still awake and reading blogs to try to get past the “wired but tired” portion of the evening. I gather it’s snowing in the States, too, as I am reading a blog post about the loneliness of becoming stuck in the snow and being physically unable to free oneself alone while the family lives scant miles away, but don’t care. We obviously weren’t alone today. We were thousands of miles from our nearest family – heck, we live thousands of miles from our nearest family even when we are not in a foreign country – so whether they’d be willing to help in a snowstorm is irrelevant even if we ever get stuck. We did receive help from a kind stranger. Some strangers are nicer than some families.

However, that blog post reminded me of something that I likely wouldn’t have noticed if not for it. We kept our phones off for most of our adventure tonight. If we ever had gotten stuck for any length of time – and thus couldn’t power the USB port in the car that kept our cell phones charged – we wanted enough juice to call emergency services and stay on the line until they arrived. We only turned our phones on to check maps and road conditions and to send our GPS coordinates to this automated databank in Iceland. (How freaking cool is that – Iceland emergency services would have known exactly where to come rescue us if we had needed to call for help because we’d been sending them our data the entire trip! The data geek in me loves this.) I deeply regret that I didn’t take more photos of our adventure since our car power never died and now I have only one impossibly blurry picture through a car window of the moonlit fjord that no other sane tourists will ever get to see. Oh well, phones off seemed the safer option at the time. When we finally arrived at the cabin, we had a bunch of concerned texts from my Partner’s parents asking if we had made it in safely. We normally text a brief “hi, we’re in X location” each night after our activities. We didn’t tonight. My Partner called his parents briefly on Skype and let them know we’d had an adventure, but we were fine.

I don’t live in the kind of family that would check up on me. That’s a big reason why I created the travel tradition over Christmas in the first place. It has led me to have a strange relationship to having strings attached. I don’t feel lonely that no one would help dig me out from the snow. I often feel relieved. I dig deep into my brain for the Weather Channel knowledge to free us even as emergency services are one quick automated app text away. I feel a bit anxious and confused about having people check up on us.  Are they going to call us idiots for ending up in that situation at all? Are they going to suggest that, if we were smarter, we’d have somehow avoided it? Are they going to bemoan the fact that we were able to travel over Christmas and try to ruin it by suggesting we are selfish for finding ways to find joy even though bad things can/have happened in life, instead of living only in the misery? If they bothered to be worried – is that something that people actually do – what would be the inevitable catch? How will that “concern” be turned around to use as a weapon to bludgeon us with later?

Rather than feeling lonely that I don’t have family members to dig me out, I feel relieved that my family would never text to see how I am while I travel. I feel relieved because any texts would just be one more scary thing to deal with after a tense night. The concept of family isn’t a relief. It’s another stressor, even if it isn’t technically my “original trauma.” I feel relieved to be ignored – not lonely – and I instantly tense up when I hear my Partner telling his family that we’d had an “adventure.” How will this be used against us later? I have to work really hard to even feel comfortable asking for help from my Partner. I was still embarrassed to initially admit the cold weather was futzing with my personal petrol gauge more than usual, and that I needed those pit stops. I was embarrassed to consider calling Iceland 112, and I looked immediately towards alternatives if at all possible (though so does my Partner, and he has no trauma history.) I can’t imagine calling someone other than AAA to dig me out voluntarily, even if they would.

I’ve written before about how my Partner’s family is politically opposite of us, that they unintentionally trigger me because of it, but that they really do seem to care. I guess their concerned texts to both of us – yes, I got them too – aren’t something I should shy away from? Even if my Partner would also agree that family can be hard to manage – no matter how much you love them – for more than about a week, I guess the fact they texted when they didn’t have to is why we will keep going back on Thanksgiving and then traveling on Christmas? I guess his family is a good example of the standard, “we have nothing in common, but we love each other and blood is thicker than water” type of family that would dig us out of the snow? (Well, an example of a family that would try to dig us out if they could. It doesn’t snow much in the South. I don’t know how much experience they actually have. Probably less than us at this point.) I guess I’ll have to figure that relationship out – but half the time my Partner still has to figure that one out. I might be able to be forgiven for having some anxiety over handling concerned parents, having little experience with it.  But even if that takes some time, should I also extend that thought and make more effort to maintain friendships, especially now that we’ve moved far away from a lot of our friends, too? I am not good at strings. Tonight reinforced that, but should I learn to be better at them? Not because I need someone to dig me out of the snow – even my “family of choice” (aka friends) and family-in-laws are too far away to help with that – but just so I don’t accidentally get stuck in other ways?

Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out the Glossary of Terms.


3 thoughts on “Messages in a Bottle #3: Stoppin’ in a Winter Wonderland

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