A slant of light pours through a flannel-like cloud, spotlighting an iceberg the size of a Mac truck. Its crusty opaque edges surround a grizzled cerulean face wrinkled with lines of gray ash. Floating in a silent lake, the ice moves among thousands of other frozen chunks of varying size, some stretching out like a two-bedroom ranch house, others bobbing like a claw-foot tub.
When did this ice freeze, I wonder, and what volcanic explosions of shooting ash caused those stripes? These simple scientific questions bubble up wherever I wander in Iceland, all empirical and answerable, and all secondary to the effect that this particular land has on me. This may look like a National Geographic moment on the outside, but on the inside, I’m pulled by a taut umbilical cord tethering me to this mother earth—an earth that’s dynamic and changing right under my feet.
I am standing on the banks of the seemingly unpronounceable Jökulsárlón, a lagoon at the base of the Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier on the east coast of a rock in the North Atlantic. That glacier also sits atop several active volcanoes where hot magma roils below the surface, connecting Iceland’s fire and ice theme.
It’s easy to fall into the traditional saw that describes Iceland is green while its neighbor Greeland is icy. Yes, Iceland is green, but 11 percent of the island sits compressed under glaciers.
Only 325,000 inhabitants populate this a land the size of Kentucky. They write their country’s name as “Island.” It’s easy to feel alone here when away from the city and villages, and even in those communities, this place has a far, far away from the rest of the world culture that gives my head space to think.
Standing on the side of the lagoon I’m intensely aware of being a tiny warm dot on a massive globe, yet I don’t feel alone. There’s something about this connection between me and this odd patch of earth that makes me feel right at home. I’m exactly where I am supposed to be at this moment.
Another Kind of Journey
It had taken me most of my adulthood to arrive here.
Long ago as a college freshman, I was assigned a speech to introduce my class to a new place. Standing in the school library, I spun the globe with my eyes closed and pointed down. Iceland lay under my index finger (always aim high, I say). Over the next few hours, I studied this nation that at the time had more PhDs than anywhere else (per capita, of course), as well as more published authors and recorded musicians, more artists, philosophers, designers, and so on. Those long dark winters must attribute a great deal of contemplation and industry by its Nordic residents.
I learned that two-thirds of the Icelanders live in the southwest corner of the country, and the remainder populate the coastlines. The interior, called the Highlands, remains uninhabitable, with no paved roads over its expanse of mountains, glaciers, petrified lava fields, and deserts of black sand. Bubbling mud pots and sulphuric steam vents pop up in the landscape, as do geysers—an Icelandic word.
Eighteen of the 130 volcanoes have been active since the Vikings first rowed ashore in 874 A.D. looking for people. They saw smoke rising near the present-day Reykjavík (“Reyka” = smoke, and “vík” = harbor), but the plume was actually steam venting from the ground. Iceland’s breathing mountains generate an inexhaustible source of geothermal energy, which the Icelanders tap to heat their homes, roads, businesses, and use to create comfortable spas for loosening the binds of stress. (As far as I can tell, there’s not a single water heater in the nation.)
While Iceland is the second largest European island, the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans meet here, as do the North American and European tectonic plates. It’s a place of moss and shrubs, giving it an otherworldly landscape that haunts my dreams. And most Icelanders believe in little people, huldufólk, elves, trolls, and fairies that build homes under the carpets of moss in the lava fields—so much so that roads are constructed around points where the huldufólk are supposed to live.
After my successful college speech, while I never actively tried to visit this place, Iceland stayed tucked away in the back my imagination, aging like a cord of wood, ready to kindle into a warm and cozy fire.
When visiting with friends in Florida not too long ago, they mentioned Iceland over dinner one night. They had recently visited and were struck by its differentness and its culture, resurrecting my vision. At first I considered popping over solo, and then I realized this place was too special to keep to myself. I wanted to share it other travelers, to marvel together. So those good Florida friends made a few introductions for me in Reykjavík (everybody knows everybody here), and within a few months we arranged to bring a professional association convention.
The Perfect Storm
I first set foot on the island a year or so ago on a day before a storm of Biblical magnitude hit. Winds blew so strong out of the Arctic that they smashed small rocks into car windshields in the Highlands, cracking them. In the storm’s aftermath, the fjords gleamed under milky snowcaps, and the sheep huddled in hollow spots at the base of mountains, waiting for farmers to dig them out if they could find them. This wasn’t an easy-going spot with a cozy fire from my dreams. I felt threatened by the physicality. What had this suburban woman from the Deep South gotten herself into? It was early September, yet I was wearing layers of wool and technical clothes. Can I survive a simple visit?
I drove out from Reykjavík into the neighboring southwest coast during those first few days, and learned to grip my car’s door handles upon opening and closing to prevent the gale force winds from ripping them off. Yes the wind was that strong. Driving around a bend, I spied a ship, broken in two by a raging surf years before. The pieces of hull were cast upon the shore a mile or so apart. While I may live in the land of tornadoes and hurricanes, the fury of the wind and sea felt just as menacing. Yet simultaneously, I didn’t worry for my life. Instead, I felt closer to life’s dynamics. More alive.
What kind of place had I uncovered? And why did it attract me so? That night, sitting over a mug of Icelandic ale, the residents were stoic to my questions. They simply didn’t understand what I was asking. To them, this was just another day in their life. At home we fill newscasts with 24/7 stories of individual hardship and woe, calculating the losses from these freak storms. To Icelanders, this was simply September, not much to chatter about. The storm may cause a bit more work than normal, and losses of livestock. Nothing more.
Iceland has a rawness, a newness to it. Its active volcanoes spew molten earth and toss out rocks, forming new land almost every ear. Very few trees here survive here—the land simply isn’t old enough nor the climate friendly enough to support sylvan forests.
Determined to wear the Icelandic mantle of indifference amid the most different landscape I’ve ever encountered, I set out to poke around this island. I rode with a local in a monster type truck down a pot-holed studded dirt track into the interior. In a flash, a dirty gray fox, the only native land mammal, ran across the road, gone as fast as it came. After several hours of jostling, we arrived at a little cabin as far from anywhere as I’ve ever been. There we hiked along a mountain stream till we came to a hot spring that someone had stacked rocks around the edges, fashioning a rustic spa. There I plopped into the earth’s own bath, and watched the moon peak over the mountains, turning the silvery steaming river into a painting. On moonless nights the green lights of the Aurora Borealis can fill that same sky.
Another day, I burrowed through three different mountain tunnels to find a tiny fishing village of Siglufjörður in the north. The world’s largest herring fleet once hailed from these fertile waters on the Arctic Circle. I wandered into another fjord in the northeast where locals create Sunshine Pancakes—a crepe filled with jam and whipped cream—to celebrate the return of the sun and daylight into their valley in late February every year. And, I stumbled upon black sand beaches with basalt column cliffs. At every turn on this island, I discovered waterfalls, some so powerful that Niagara would be at home, others so tall that it took two mountains to get them to course to the sea. Wherever I roamed I couldn’t take a bad photo.
Iceland was worth the wait. I realized upon that first visit that my younger self was not aware enough to fully appreciate. So I came back the following year.
The one place I missed my first visit that made my Icelandic bucket list was this Jökulsárlón. As I watched the icebergs silently float by, a fuzzy head popped up out of the near freezing water. A seal. A big playful blubbery creature. She seemed so out of place at first. Then I had to laugh at my thoughts as I saw more of her kin slide onto ice the shelves or roll along in the lagoon. Why shouldn’t this threateningly raw land hold new life?
My thoughts turned back to school one more time, and the poetry of William Wordsworth. A master of describing the threateningly satisfying effects meeting God in nature, he wrote of the reverence and awe of walking through a summer’s thunderstorm or of being along on a path across a mountain in Britain’s Lake District.
As the brutal wind braced my face at Jökulsárlón, I contemplated a volcanic eruption nearby. What if Bárðarbunga erupted under the ice, melting glaciers, sending torrents into the Atlantic? What if I were standing here? Those seals will be here, washed out to sea. Why does it even matter if I’m among them? I’m more alive and tethered to life at this moment than ever before.