Brian Killigrew
Inner Light

My Icelandic Adventure (1988)

September 2013 marked the 25th anniversary of my 1988 photographic adventure in Iceland. As a photographer, I have had the good fortune to take numerous photographic trips, but this particular visit to Iceland is memorable for many reasons.


Not the least of which is that I am alive to tell the tale.



Taking a leave of absence from my job was a hard decision to make. Two years without a paycheck is a long time. My reason for doing it, however, was quite clear.

I wanted to photograph.

I had been working as a photo-technician for 14 years, a job that was becoming  dull and routine. I also worked as a freelance photographer, shooting assignments for other people.

My dream was to photograph what I wanted to—assignments from within, if you will. I wanted to photograph landscapes: mountains, volcanoes, and glaciers.

Iceland, the " Land of Fire and Ice," had always fascinated me. Observing the vast rugged Icelandic countryside in National Geographic Magazine, and watching a television show about the country, made me dream of Viking warriors and exploding volcanoes.

I planned to stay in Iceland for one month, about how long I would need to complete the 3,000 mile journey around the country. Iceland has one main road that circles the country, and the interior of the country is barren and uninhabited. In fact, the NASA astronauts trained for their moon landing in the interior of this country because it closely resembles the surface of the moon.

I had meticulously planned the photographic part of the trip, and decided that I would use my 4x5 large format camera. The drawback of using the larger camera with all its accessories is its size and weight. Since I knew that I would be doing a lot of hiking over rugged landscape, I purchased a backpack, bringing my camera gear into the store with me to make sure that the camera, lenses and everything else I needed would need fit into the pack. Fully loaded, it weighed 55 pounds.

I was now ready to embark on an incredible adventure. It was not the one I had planned, however.

As I arrived in Iceland, I checked into a bed and breakfast in the capital city of Reykjavik. The landlady greeted me in very broken English, "The sun is good," was all I could make out, as she pointed out her kitchen window. I knew I was supposed to respond, but I couldn't figure out why she was so happy about the sun. "Yes, the sun is good," I said bewildered.

It was the last time I would see the sun in Iceland for the next two weeks.

The next day I visited a fellow photographer, Gudmunder Ingulfsson. Gudmunder showed me around Reykjavik and gave me some advice for my journey. "Be careful about how much money you spend; Iceland is very expensive," he said. Then very seriously, he gave me a warning: "Be very careful driving through the northern part of the country. If you get caught in a blizzard, stay in your car. Do not get out and try to walk; you will not make it. If you stay in your car, eventually someone will find you."

If you speak to someone at the Icelandic tourist board, they will tell you that 80 percent of the roads in Iceland are paved. What they neglect to mention, however, is that 90 percent of those roads are in Reykjavik. Once you leave the city, it's loose gravel roads for hundreds of miles. Most travelers to Iceland take tour buses to get around. Few people rent cars and drive around the whole country.

I was about to find out why.

On the morning of the fourth day, I set off from Reykjavik. The car I rented was an Opel Cadet, which is a very small car. I usually rent bigger cars when I travel, but as my friend warned me, Iceland was very expensive. This small car cost almost four hundred dollars a week.

The Icelandic countryside was beautiful. Farms with brilliant green grass greeted me every few miles as I drove along the narrow gravel road. The green grass surprised me, since the temperature was only in the 40's and I had envisioned a country ravaged by severe weather. But Iceland was full of surprises.

With my camera gear safely packed away in the car's small trunk, and my luggage on the back seat, I was glad to be on the road. However, the road was not happy with me. Gravel is not an easy surface to drive on, and I could feel the back wheels losing traction every so often. I actually drove below the speed limit, as the sliding rear tires made me quite wary. The cars that sped passed me on the road were all four-wheel-drive vehicles; mine was not. The cost for renting a four-wheel drive vehicle had been far beyond my budget.

I brought along plenty of music for the long trip, and fifty miles outside of Reykjavik, I popped in one of my favorite tapes. As I was singing happily, enjoying the wonderful landscape, it happened. The rear wheels started to lose traction, but this time, I couldn't correct it. As the back end slid, I turned the wheel hard to avoid going off the road. The next thing I knew, the car flipped over and I was upside down. Pain shot down my spine as my body slammed into the roof, which was now sliding on the road. I heard my vertebrae crack, just as they do in my chiropractors office. I think the car flipped over a couple of times, although I can't be sure. It's a strange feeling, not to be in control. I had no idea which direction was up, or what was actually going on. It felt like everything was happening in slow motion: a loud horrible noise, bending metal, shattering glass. I was hearing things as if I was underwater. I was trapped, in the middle of an unstoppable catastrophe. On and on it went, getting louder and louder, at a furious pace.

Then suddenly, silence.

Thoughts came slowly. My mind was trying to comprehend the scene—it took a few moments to realize what had happened.

I had been thrown through the side window, my right arm smashing through the glass. I was now knee-deep in water, the car was upside down, and sinking slowly. It was as if I had awoken from a deep sleep, into a nightmare. I still couldn't figure out where I was. Then I looked up. The road that I was just driving on was now above me. My car had flipped over and gone over the side of the road, crashing into a stream 15 feet below.

Pain. I now felt pain. My right arm was swollen with blood pouring into the stream below me. Cold. I felt cold. I was now outside, soaking wet, and starting to shiver. The reality of what had just happened still hadn't hit me.

Then I saw it.

There are some items that we own that are very personal to us, without our realizing it. As I looked at the water below me, I saw my toothbrush floating downstream. Tears flooded my eyes, I felt as if it was my life that was floating away.

"No!" I screamed, and grabbed at the toothbrush with every bit of energy in me. My fingers grasped around the toothbrush as a drowning man would grasp a life preserver.

Toothbrush in hand, I was now in emergency mode. First, I had to climb back up to the road. The pain seared through my arms as I grasped the wet grass. Making it to the top, I realized that I had no shoes on. They must have been pulled off in the mud. In fact, I had only a shirt and pants on, everything else I owned was in the car, submerged under two feet of water.

I now began to realize that I was in big trouble and tried to do a self inventory. My eyes seemed okay—my vision wasn't blurry. Although I could stand, I was hunched over in pain. My arm, still bleeding, was swollen twice its normal size. I mustn't lie down, I thought, I must stay conscious. I remember thinking how beautiful it was out; the sun was trying to break through the Icelandic clouds and in the distance there were horses grazing. I walked for a few steps to find help, then realized I should conserve my energy. I waited for a car to pass.

After what seemed like an eternity, I saw a car in the distance. As the car approached, I stood as straight as I could and waved for it to stop. The driver peered out of the window and then kept on going! A few minutes later a second car approached. Again I signaled, again the car went by without stopping! At this point, I began to panic. I was getting colder by the minute, and I started to walk. Then, a third car approached. This time, I knew if I didn't get help, I probably would not make it. I stood in the middle of the road—the car had to either stop or hit me.

The car stopped.

A woman looked at me through the car window. As the window rolled down, I told her that I had been in an accident. She looked around suspiciously, and I realized that she couldn't see my car. I pointed over the side of the road. A man got out of the passenger side door and looked down at my crashed vehicle. He then ran to the trunk of the car, pulled a blanket out, and wrapped it around me.

The couple took me to their house, and the woman called the police to take me to the hospital. She then gave me some of her husband's clothes to wear. When I looked in the bathroom mirror, I gasped at what I saw. A mud-caked, blood-stained face stared back at me. No wonder the first two people didn't stop for me. I looked like a monster.

The police soon arrived and then drove me to the car where they recovered my belongings. The officer stopped his car about a hundred feet from the crash, where the climb down to the stream was only a few feet. He then pulled my floating luggage out of the car, and the camera gear out of the trunk. Finally they took me to what I thought was a hospital, and I was relieved. First, I was still alive. Second, I would soon be able to lie down, something my body was craving to do.

When the person in a white lab coat looked at me in my fresh clothes, she said "Ah, you don't look too bad." Imagine my surprise when after being examined and bandaged up for all of ten minutes, I was told that I could leave.

"Leave?," I shouted, "I want to lie down somewhere." I was informed that since they didn't think I had any serious damage, that I could, indeed, leave.

"The back of my neck hurts," I said, "You didn't examine it!" As the person in white lifted up my hair, she said "Yes, I see it. There is a lot of glass in your neck." Evidently, this was a revelation to her. For the next half-hour, small pieces of glass were removed from my body. " If you still feel pain in a couple of days, you should go to a hospital in Reykjavik, they will be able to do a more thorough check there." Now I was sure I wasn't in a normal medical hospital. Before they released me, the woman noticed that I had no shoes on. She produced two surgical caps that were now snapped over my feet.

After the people in white had finished with me, the police drove me to a nearby hotel. As it turned out, this was a four-star hotel. I must have been quite a sight as I walked through the plushly-carpeted lobby in my height-of-fashion footwear. Behind me was a red-faced police officer, dragging my water-logged suitcase (which now must have weighed 75 pounds) across the carpet, with water draining out over it! If I wasn't in so much pain, I thought, I would have been laughing. But as my luggage and I were deposited in the room and the door closed behind me, I felt as alone as a person could possibly feel.

I did a lot of soul-searching that night. I thought about my life, and my dreams. If I went back home immediately, I thought, I would go back a broken man. I hadn't even made a photograph yet. What I did now would define me for the rest of my life. I had to take a stand. I decided that if I could walk, and if my camera gear was not shattered, I would continue my trip.

The next morning, I awoke. This was great news for me, for during the previous night, I had doubts that I would. Considering what I had been through, I felt determined. Since walking was difficult at first, I decided to rest the first day after the crash, and order room service.

The next morning I hobbled down to the hotel restaurant. A waiter with a strange grin approached me as I slowly sat down. Handing me the Icelandic morning paper, he said, "You in paper, this story you." A person sitting next to me translated. "The story on page three is about you" he said. "It says that your car flipped over, you weren't speeding, and that you were not seriously injured." Five days in Iceland, and already I was a local celebrity! I was glad I didn't make page one.

Because my camera gear was so tightly squeezed into the trunk of the car, it did not bounce around and wasn't badly damaged. Also, the rear end of the car was the only part of it not submerged under water, so my camera equipment didn't suffer any water damage. I figured that if I could physically carry my equipment, I would continue my quest.

The following day, I took a bus back to Reykjavik to rent a another car. When the mechanic heard that it was I who was in the wreck, he motioned for me to follow him. Walking over to a closed set of double doors, he opened them as one would open the doors to a cathedral. As the other mechanics gathered around, an eerie silence filled the room as I entered.

The car was now right side up. Its roof, the same one that two days earlier was over my head, was crushed down to the steering wheel. If I had been wearing a seat belt, I thought, I would have been crushed beneath it. The strange thing is that five minutes before the accident, I had the seat belt on. I took it off because it was too tight.

"We usually try to take whatever we can salvage off the wrecked cars," said the mechanic. "The only things we can save off this wreck are the tires. It's hard to believe that you survived."

The first photograph I made in Iceland was of that wrecked car. While I was setting up my tripod in the garage, I felt a strange sense of triumph. I had not been defeated. I would photograph Iceland and make my dream come true.

For the next three weeks I drove around Iceland on that gravel road. I stayed in farmhouses when I could, but many nights I had to sleep in the car. As I would crawl into the back of the small car, the cuts on my knees would open up and I would fall asleep in pain. Even though the experience was painful, there was a good side. I saw many wondrous sights in Iceland. I was enthralled by this fabulous country, from the towering glaciers to the roaring waterfalls. There were days when I didn't make an image, but there were other days where I used up every sheet of film I had loaded. One day at the Krafla volcano, I had tears in my eyes from the sheer magnificence of its beauty. These days are still with me, and I remember them with joy.

One day before my return flight to the United States, I was again in Reykjavik. I had a nagging feeling that would not leave me the entire trip—I was still scared of that gravel road where I had crashed. I felt that if I didn't face my fear now, it would always haunt me. There was only one thing to do—I had to drive past the spot where I had crashed. Two hours later, as I approached the site, my anxiety was almost overwhelming. What I found as I drove through the area was hard to believe—a car had crashed in almost the same spot I had three weeks ago!

At the airport the next day, I felt a mixture of emotions. I loved the Icelandic landscape and its beauty, but I was still in pain from the crash and from the long drive over the rough roads. But there was one thing that I was sure of: I did what I set out to do—I photographed Iceland!

Two years after I made that first photograph in Iceland, I saw John Sexton in New York at the International Center of Photography. "I was in New Mexico a couple of years ago," he said, "and I saw a photo essay in the local paper on Iceland. I knew they were your images before I saw the photo credit. It must have been a fascinating trip."

If he only knew.

Other writings:
Journal from California,
Journal from Iceland and London

Copyright(c) Brian Killigrew 2002. All Rights Reserved.