Somewhere ahead, probably no more than three meters away, are the taillights of a Land Rover LR3 like the one I'm driving, just like the one that won Motor Trend's 2005 Sport/Utility of the Year. But I've lost sight of them again behind a curtain of snow blasting sideways at 90 mph, and for the moment I'm cut off from the rest of the world. Suddenly the taillights reappear; looks like our convoy has stopped again. Perhaps the lead LR3 has fallen into a volcano.
Iceland, home to glaciers, fjords, black-sand beaches, geothermal springs, pop-star/fashion-comic Bjoerk, and one of the world's most unpronounceable languages (it sounds like Swedish spoken after half a bottle of Jack Daniel's), is burdened with an unfair reputation. Most people who haven't been here think it's, well, icy. Parts of it are, but thanks to the warm North Atlantic current, in general Iceland's winter climate is more temperate than New York City's--and the country's 297,000 citizens are warmer in temperament, too. The difference is, when the occasional blizzard hits Manhattan, the generally preferred emergency procedure is to tell your cab driver to drop you at the Carlyle Hotel for a snifter of Macallan. But when a blizzard roars into Iceland's remote, primordial Highlands, where it's found us, you either stay firmly glued to the taillights crawling along ahead of you, or you start perusing the dinner recipes in the Donner Party Cookbook.
Instead of staying home and munching tofu sprouts by the pool in sunny L.A., I've come to Iceland to join up with a Land Rover Experience expedition, a team of professional off-road guides who lead adventure-seekers on high-octane SUV drives all over the world. Our expedition started under a benevolent blue sky: three hours by highway southeast out of Reykjavik, then off-road across Iceland's vast lunar landscape (this is where the Apollo moonwalkers trained), up snow-covered slopes, through several deep-river crossings, and finally to an overnight stop at the isolated cabins and hot springs of Landmannalaugar, an Icelandic word for "journalists who forget to bring their trunks swim naked." At least I enjoyed the view (in the sky): Northern Lights glowing on the horizon, Milky Way shimmering above, shooting stars crisscrossing the cloudless void. Sleep came easy that night.
We awoke to a white-out. "Afraid I have to cancel all of today's planned activities," said expedition leader David Sneath to the group at dawn. "Our objective now is just to make it back to the main road." The words "with our lives and all of our limbs" would've been redundant.
That was nine hours ago. Since then we've traveled less than a half-mile, probably getting us out of the Landmannalaugar parking lot. The arrow on the GPS screen has moved, but mostly in circles. Every time one of us climbs out of the vehicle to scrape the windshield--which freezes solid every five minutes or so--the howling wind tries to tear the door off its hinges.
But we have it good compared with Sneath and his crew, who are out there in the storm, walking with sticks to gauge snow-drift depth before we forge ahead, 25 meters at a time. And we're all getting stuck, slowing us down even more as we stop frequently to hook up tow ropes and snatch each other out. A few hours later, the sun sets, and all any of us can see is what's lit up by the headlights. And that's all white. Pass the cookbook, please.
It's nearly 2 a.m., after 18 hours of creeping along, digging each other out, tip-toeing down icy grades, refueling with jerry cans, and just sitting still while we all figure out what to do next, when we finally make it back to the main road--a testament to the super-capable LR3 and to Sneath's tenacious team.
Our dinner is hot soup. Vegetarian, thankfully.