Toward the end of our week in Reykjavik, we rented a car in order to do some exploration of the Icelandic countryside. The laid back, urban atmosphere of the city was pleasant enough that I could have enjoyably spent the entire visit in Reykjavik’s cafes, clubs, museums and restaurants; but it would have been a shame to miss out on the spectacular natural scenery for which the country is so well known. Our trip the first day would take us along The Golden Circle; a tourist route that loops eastwards from Reykjavik, leading travelers to a number of popular destinations, including þingvellir (the site of Iceland’s original parliament), Gullfoss (a spectacular waterfall), Geysir (the site of numerous – you guessed it – geysers), and Keri∂ (a volcanic crater).
When we arrived to pick up the car, I was surprised at its high cost. It was then that I was informed by the young man who helped us that in Iceland there is a 25% tax on just about everything. This is nothing compared to the income tax rate, which, he told me, runs between 40 and 50%! Nonetheless, Icelanders are well taken care of by the government, I was assured, as they all have full health coverage. Coupled with the low crime rate, the absence of pollution, and the uncrowded living conditions, this probably accounts for the fact that Icelanders are among the healthiest and longest lived people on the earth, with an average life expectancy of about 83 years.
After our very healthy attendant transferred the keys of a Ford subcompact rental car to us, we were off and headed toward our first stop. The roads in Iceland are generally well maintained, though sometimes quite narrow, and there was little traffic to get in our way. There are speed cameras, however, and it was nice to have a GPS system that was able to warn us of the approach of such hazards. The car’s GPS navigating system did, however, keep leading us in false directions; something which quite possibly could have been the result of the Norse god Loki playing tricks on us. But by not slavishly listening to the machine, and by using common sense, we arrived at our first destination without too much delay.
þingvellir is a place that instantly inspires awe due both to its topography and its history. It is situated in a rift zone where the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates meet. There are rugged cliffs lining the valley, beneath which the world’s oldest parliament, the Alþing, first convened in 930AD. Waterfalls cascade over the rock walls, filling pools in which witches and other law breakers were once drowned for their offenses. Beheadings took place in other locations. Upon the Law Rock, the Law Speaker would recite the laws of the land from memory and others would make announcements, level charges, and raise issues of importance to the Icelandic people. Standing there now, one can imagine what this place might have looked like when it was crowded with thousands of people from across the island, gathered here for their yearly meeting, setting up a temporary village of tents and booths in which they would stay until departing home with news and legal updates. At one such meeting in the year 1000, hostility between the native pagans and Christians broke out, and the Alþing was split into two adversarial groups threatening to tear the nation apart. Oddly, the decision as to whether Iceland should remain pagan or become a Christian nation was left to the pagan Law Speaker who, after sequestering himself for one night, decided that the people should become Christians, but that pagans could still secretly practice their faith. This was one of the major turning points in Iceland’s history; but whether it was a turn toward progress or toward decline depends, I suppose, on one’s perspective.
We spent an hour or so wandering the landscape of þingvellir before hitting the road, this time heading for Geysir. Loki was apparently still with us, as yet again the car’s GPS system kept insisting that we travel in the opposite direction that our map told us was correct. Ignoring the computer, we continued east and eventually arrived at our intended destination. The landscape at Geysir is a bit unsettling, as there is steam and bubbling liquid gushing out of the ground’s surface everywhere that you walk, making it feel as if the earth beneath your feet might just explode at any minute. And explode it does. Periodically, as we waited next to one of the especially large pools, an enormous blue dome would form on the water’s surface and – WHOOSH! – a jet of steam and water would shoot into the air, soaking some of the assembled tourists and simply delighting others. All of this, of course, is a symptom of the geothermal activity that is an ongoing part of Iceland’s evolving landscape, where new islands periodically emerge from nowhere and volcanoes like Eyjafjallajökull halt air travel all across Europe. Or maybe, as the vikings believed, the gods actually are at work behind the scenes, shaping this landscape according to their mighty wills.
Our next stop was the waterfall Gullfoss. Fed by a massive glacier in Iceland’s interior, the waters of Gullfoss thunder over the edges of two cliffs, creating a spectacular, ragged cascade of white chaos that spills into a deep river valley before rushing out of sight. Approaching the falls, my first impressions were formed by noting the tiny human silhouettes of onlookers appearing superimposed in front of the falls. Their bodies looked fearfully small and vulnerable; as if they might be swallowed up in a moment by the liquid maelstrom that thundered and crashed behind them. This was what Kant was referring to when he wrote about the experience of the sublime:
If we are to judge nature as sublime dynamically, we must present it as arousing fear…any resistance would in that case be utterly futile.
…consider bold, overhanging and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky and moving about accompanied by lightning and thunderclaps, volcanoes with all their destructive power, hurricanes with all the devestation they leave behind, the boundless ocean heaved up, the high waterfall of a mighty river, and so on. (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, §28)
Not just Gullfoss, but all of Iceland’s natural wonders are called to mind by this passage. It is a place of sublime wonder and fearful natural might.
Heading back west, our final stop for the day was Keri∂, a volcanic crater lake. The singer Björk apparently performed a concert while floating on a raft here; an interesting and appropriately weird backdrop for her sort of music. We walked around the rim of the crater, which stands out against the surrounding landscape because of its deep red color. The rocks scattered around this place look just like the rocks people use to add a decorative touch to their yards and gardens back home. They are small, rust-colored and crunch under your feet like bits of hard styrofoam. And yet despite their delicate aesthetic appeal, they provide another reminder of the violent, fiery forces lurking beneath the surface of the land. Like some giant, angry asshole, Keri∂ is just one more place where Iceland’s liquid interior has spewed forth, drawing attention to the permeable nature of the ground on which we walk.
Our second day of car travel took us further south, along route 1 near the coast of the island. As we climbed over the volcanic mountains that separate Reykjavik from the lowlands of the south west, we were greeted by wide open areas of treeless plains where herds of sheep roam, and sometimes venture onto the roadways. Iceland was long ago deforested by the viking inhabitants who not only built their ships out of the native birch, but also their houses. As a result, the only thatches of tree cover that now exist are those that are part of a recent attempt at reforestation. These new forests are generally small and so organized that they are clearly the result of human intervention. An Icelandic riddle asks, “If you are lost in the woods of Iceland, how do find your way out?” The answer is: “Stand up.”
We passed through a variety of small villages on our hours-long journey across the wide open plains. Our destination was a place called Vik, and it turned out to be a much longer drive than anticipated. As another set of volcanic cliffs and mountains started to come into view, we took a break from our journey, pulling off of the main road and stopping at Seljandsfoss. Here we found a series of varying sized falls that cascade over the edge of the cliffs amid an emerald foreground of grasses and lush moss. I had to remind myself, as we stood beholding this picturesque scene, that we really were in a country called “Iceland” and not in the fantasy world of the Lord of the Rings!
On the road again, we continued east climbing past a set of rugged volcanic peaks through which we could see the white and blue glow of an enormous glacier. There was something a bit scary about this sight. The fact that in broad daylight it stood out as if illuminated by its own power source, coupled with the understanding that we were only gaining a brief and fragmentary peek of something enormous yet mostly hidden sent a tingle up my spine and provoked a sense of dread, making me feel like I wanted to flee. Past this looming white presence we finally descended down into the town of Vik, where we parked and went for a short hike along its black sand beach. The views out into the ocean from this location once again sent vaguely fearful shivers up my spine. Silhouettes of volcanic spires punctuate the horizon, jutting violently upwards like huge, jagged rock fangs. These menacing monoliths, I imaged, might be the remains of some sort of hidden lava rock monster, slain by the hammer wielding god Thor in an epic battle. This landscape, I realized, was starting to mess with my head. If I stayed here any longer, I just might become and Odinist.
We had 7pm reservations to go to The Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, and time was running short, so on our journey back west we made only one stop: Skogafoss, another waterfall. This one has an almost perfect shape, taking on the form of a large, wide and unbroken sheet of white that is an ideal backdrop for photographs. The falls flow into a rushing river, and the whole scene is framed by green cliffs that made me feel, once again, as if I was in the midst of a fantasy landscape. We lingered long enough to taste the cold waters of the Skógá River and commune with the earth sprites, who directed us westward, to our final Icelandic destination.
The Blue Lagoon is situated in the midst of a lava field near the airport where we first arrived a week before. The road leading to the spa is cut into the rock, and after parking, you approach the complex on foot, walking down a pathway lined by volcanic rock walls. Once you check in, you strip down, shower, and then enter the geothermal spring. The spring is nestled among the lava rocks, and although the waters are not treated with any chemicals, they nonetheless radiate a bright blue sheen that is a consequence of the minerals naturally flowing from the geothermal vents. The temperature of the water varies according to how close or how far you stand next to the various vents, ranging from 98 to 104 degrees. There is a sauna on one side of the spring, a bar on the other, and stations located all around where you can get facial treatments like mud and silicone masks. The place is crowded with people, mostly lounging, some splashing about. My wife and I found a comfortably cozy corner of the pool and spent the next hour and a half taking in the rejuvenating icelandic waters. Once my fingers were turned to prunes, we exited the waters, showered and then headed back to Reykjavik for lobster sandwiches.
Seeing the natural wonders of Iceland has helped me better appreciate why and how it is that the mythic tales of pagan gods might have first been generated and perpetuated. Standing next to a gargantuan, and still moving, rift in the earth, watching a boiling spout of water shoot into the sky, or seeing the white and wild chaos of waterfalls spawned from glacier melt, I felt chronically aware of how vulnerable I am, and how I am subject to forces beyond human control. Even today, the unstable geology of this island makes one feel very small and helpless. In the days of the vikings, when there was no science of plate tectonics or geological evolution, this land must have really felt as if was full of gods at war with one another. It still does.