We had a hard time sleeping the night previous: people (I’m guessing locals, could be tourists, maybe) were out drinking until around 4 a.m., just being loud and obnoxious. Obviously in high spirits, and good for them, and maybe I’m the only one who has a problem with what’s otherwise a local custom. And if I had a problem, I also had a solution: my noise-canceling headphones, even without music, generated a nice, quiet pink noise that helped me get to sleep.
For breakfast, Rebecca and I made a simple coffee with the materials in our kitchenette. We also tried skyr, a locally produced “strained yogurt” that is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt, something closer to a custard in texture and even flavor. I added a local brand of muesli to mine, and until this moment I never would’ve guessed I had the capacity to care so passionately for any kind of yogurt product or grain cereal, yet my morning was filled with a rare kind of joy due to muesli and skyr. I resolved to replicate this recipe when I returned to the States (yet had no faith I would be successful—some beautiful things must be left behind to the region that makes them special).
We dressed up in cold/wet weather gear and stood outside Room With a View and waited on the street: our shuttle van for the Golden Circle tour was to pick us up there. A middle-aged couple was also waiting, polite and patient, and we wondered if they were going along for the ride or catching another tour. Finally, a white minivan pulled up and we climbed aboard. This vehicle drove us out to a small, flat, one-story office outside of town: behind us stood Reykjavik, and all around was an almost entirely arid wasteland of scrub grass and volcanic rock, a chilly wind whistling unimpeded into our group.
Our tour guide told us to call him “Bob:” he was originally from the U.S. but has been living in Iceland for 18 years. Something about the landscape and the culture hooked him. I envy people who’ve experienced this phenomenon, to have a nation or a culture call to you, to feel a pull toward somewhere you belong. This concept is not unfamiliar to me, in that I’ve heard of people who feel called to a humanitarian cause or even a god, like something supernatural reaching through the veil and announcing, “I’ve chosen you. You are the most apt tool for these cosmic devices, and if you resist Me, your life will never fall into order again.” The sensation of this kind of calling, I imagine, is like when a fickle and disloyal cat suddenly chooses you to share warm emotions with, but multiplied by 100. It’s such an intriguing concept, as it conceivably lends itself to arguments over nature vs. nurture or even reincarnation, claims that there is a universal scheme, a mechanism driving all things, which we may only perceive from one small, exclusive part of the engine.
But I digress.
The tour bus plunged into the countryside, eastward along a glacier. Rarely we would pass a small building, either a tiny blue home for some resident who suffers a profound aversion to neighbors or a utility shack, the purpose for which is thoroughly inscrutable from the shack’s resolutely featureless and unassuming visage. I’m sure Bob talked to us along the bus trip, probably unspooling his script about power supplies and weather and geologic formation, an entirely reasonable foundation upon which to build the day.
He pointed out a glacier to us, and then we drove alongside a long, large, shiny pipe that was carrying geothermally heated water from a collection plant back to Reykjavik. I think something like 68% of all the cities’ heating and electricity is powered by geothermal output, and they’re still seeking to increase that number. It’s impressive and heartwarming: who wouldn’t use such a sustainable, inexhaustible resource like that, if they had it? Unfortunately, American infrastructure is beholden to the vagaries of powerful oil lobbyists who hold more influence over legislation than any existing partisan group, it’s a wonder they haven’t formally announced themselves a political campaign. Due to this shackling of innovation, the U.S. drags its heels regarding alternative and renewable power sources, remaining firmly entrenched in its relative dark ages when held against Icelandic and Germanic standards. Such is the nature of conservatism: keep doing the same old thing we’ve always been doing, regardless of changes to environmental resources. Meanwhile, Iceland finds newer ways to extract even more energy from natural magma, producing only as much exhaust as it takes to construct the mechanisms that will extract this energy, machinery that will far outlast anyone who designs or benefits from it. American capitalists don’t find this kind of durability profitable, and they can’t exactly regulate magma (though they’ve tried to with solar and wind power), so my home nation will never see so elegant a solution until the filthy, obscenely rich and wasteful plutocrats find a way to both exploit it for riches and further suppress minorities with it.
Our first stop was on some igneous foothills overlooking a lone geothermal processing plant. For such a small thing, it was remarkable that it could supply endless power to a small city. But there it was: little more than a utility shack with a large, glossy pipe coming out of it, stretching to Reykjavik.
Even though we’d only begun our trip, people ambled out of our tour bus and stretched as though we’d been in it for a week. Teenaged girls huddled for support, adults walked up to the edge of the mild cliffs and took in the striking scenery: deep gouges in hard rock from ancient glaciers. Behind us, two hiking trails—Gönguleiðir and Upplýsingar—were clearly outlined on weathered maps. The thought of driving out here on our own (or hiring a taxi) to traverse the mountainside crossed my mind, but this was not an excursion for today. That would have to be undertaken some other time, when time and money were unlimited resources, perhaps.
The rocky terrain surrounding our paved car lot was something to be reckoned with: between the ice storms and the sharp volcanic landscape, Iceland sounds like the provenance of badasses. Who could argue with this? They received the brunt of the Viking invasions, and came away with books of awesome stories to pass down (and suffered a dearth of trees, granted, but it’s Indonesia’s responsibility to provide oxygen for the planet, not Iceland’s). This just struck me as a recurring theme: I couldn’t picture horses running across the rocky surface without puncturing that tender inner meat in their hoof, and any marauding hordes either had to pick their way very carefully across miles of jagged edges or else traipse along in iron boots. Kudos to anyone who can survive here and raise a civilization. I guess the reward for doing so is being blessed with perfectly shaped noses, because have you ever seen an Icelander?
Not far from this was a tiny little museum, of sorts. Its purpose was to show modern travelers what the night sky would have looked like ten centuries ago. This is relevant for several reasons, when you consider the context: historic travelers would have relied on the night sky for navigation, of course, a feat they could only accomplish after accessing several other intellectual plateaus as a culture. I mean, once you’re done exploring your own little rock in the ocean and you want to start having babies and spreading, seafaring is the way to go. (I think this spurs our current fetishization of space travel: our genetic programming senses we’ve exceeded the planet’s capacity to support our greedy, expansionist selves and the planet is trying to squeeze us out into outer space like it’s constipated.) So it’s of academic interest to know what the stars looked like back then, just as we might be interested in early prototypes of intercontinental maps.
But this is of greater interest than you might realize: if you ever looked up your horoscope in the daily newspaper, please note the absence of any disclaimer as to how it’s completely irrelevant on the basis of hinging upon patterns of constellations that are vastly displaced and failing to account for a 13th constellation, Ophiuchus. The charts from which all of today’s horoscopes are drawn are actually 2,600 years out of date, which means the starry lights in this museum are only 1,600 years advanced beyond the resource from which every living western astrologer pulls their information. How about that? Americans persist/insist upon feeding off of blatantly outdated information to fuel their ineffectual superstition by which they nudge their borrowed and sheltered existence into one of a few time-worn treads. And they defend this outdated, irrelevant divination by saying, “Hey, if it still works, why knock it?” But it doesn’t. This cryptic exposition is consistently incorrect greater than 50% of the time, yet so many people around the world still cling to their Greek astrology. But did you ever stop to think that other races and cultures have their own star charting legends? Think about that. Icelandic culture sees entirely different patterns in the stars, yet the European-descended Americans who invaded North America in the name of a Jewish religion still cling tenaciously to a Greek mythology that’s wrong most of the time. All the greater tragedy that the noble Icelanders can’t be left to their Icelandic religion and Icelandic star charts.
But we took in the countryside. We admired the little shack on the side of the mountain, replete with a single coniferous tree. We marveled at the ropy patterns of magma that had spilled out and cooled systematically across the ground, a rocky ground tough enough to tear apart any pair of shoes I might otherwise use to commute to work or lounge about the house in. The landscape was as brutal as it was dynamic: every slab of stone was a testament to the raw natural forces that could shape it, and yet humans had the audacity to set up small communities, bridges and ranches across this unforgiving surface.
We drove east to Þingvellir and learned about the origins of parliament there. Apparently, the belief that every man should have a voice was taken very seriously, to the extent that it took three full days for everyone to get a crack at expressing themselves. Such is democracy: every last uninformed nutjob gets their say, and at equal weight as any scholar or authority. Anyway, when it came time for Christianity to swing its unquenchable sword across Iceland (around 1,000 A.D.), Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði listened to the entire assembly and then hid himself under a staked blanket and meditated for another week on the issue at hand and everything he’d heard, until he was able to wrap his head around the whole situation and arrive at a decision by which all the tribes represented should live by. That decision was to slit their native culture across the throat, toss their ancestral icons into Goðafoss (“Waterfall of the Gods”), and pervert their historic course to that of a half-understood Eastern persuasion. They weren’t the first to do this, and they wouldn’t be the last.
There was a large group of Chinese tourists, here at Alþing (“parliament”), and they took the concept of touching the two continental plates very seriously. They all had to be in on it, and they were quite pleased when this was achieved. I mean, bless their hearts, they were doing more than some tourists, they were quite interactive with their environment. Such a change from the surly teens glued to their text messages and missing out on the raw power of volcanic landscape or the formation of civilization.
I kind wished I were part of them, for a moment. Nothing was too cheesy for them, you know, so they would pose for any photo opportunity. They formulated a substantial video record of them having been there. When someone back home would ask, “What the hell were you doing in this picture?”, they would have a very interesting and elaborate story to frame it in context, and the querant would have to be impressed. Still, they stalked from site to site with blank-faced stoicism, so I don’t imagine they were raucous party people on the bus or even on each hike between landmarks. I wonder what that mindset’s like, in which you only come to life once you are led by the nose to an area highlighted by your guide. Me, I was studying rocks and plants and houses, trying to put myself into this context, wondering how I’d live here, knowing what I know and coming from my background. Not just waiting to be arranged for the next photograph.
We walked through Snorrasbuð, “Snorri’s Booth”. Snorri Sturluson suffers an awkward name by contemporary standards, but back in the day he was a dynamic forensic force of nature. He was the original raconteur, and he spent tremendous effort in compiling the records of all the daily events of the settlers to Iceland, collecting the local “epics”, as they were, into one massive work known as the Icelandic Saga. That was his job: everyone kept sagas, the land records of who owned what parcel of land, books that turned into records of gossip: who killed what leader, who was buying favors, who did something amazing, etc. He took all of these documents and formed a… not continental tale, but and island-wide serial drama and covered the highlights from every region and told the unfolding story of the hard and determined people who settled on such an unforgiving island. A born storyteller with a golden tongue, Snorri managed to ingratiate himself to everyone in a position of power—the region was full of soi-disant kings, and he ingratiated himself to each, to leverage himself into a position of true power. He knew that he would never command an army, but he could ally himself with those who did, and by this means at least secure a comfortable and relatively protected existence. Snorri knew which side his bread was buttered on, and you have to respect that.
We also saw Lögberg (“Law Rock”), a large stone formation that served as the platform where laws were passed. They’d put up tents, get settled in, and start debating the laws they would put into practice. Very significant location. One story goes that when Christianity was infiltrating the nation, one high viking chief isolated himself to meditate on what to do, torn between preserving his culture or handing his people over to the Christians. The story has it that he staked a pelt to the ground, to serve as shelter, and he lay beneath it for three days with orders that he must never be disturbed. He emerged and reputedly announced, “If the people are divided, the nation will be divided,” and proclaimed that while everyone currently living could retain their traditional religion, all children born from that point onward would be baptized and raised Christian.
That’s one version. I mentioned this to Jonas (you’ll hear about him later) over shots of Brennivín. He replied, darkly, “And history is written by the victors. I suspect the transition wasn’t nearly so smooth and peaceful.”
From the Alþing we bused out to the Drowning Pool, but on the way we passed a cluster of rocks from which Rebecca received a profound supernatural impression. I, of course, felt nothing.
The Drowning Pool was where 17 adulterous women had been executed. They were beaten senseless with a rock, bound up in a burlap sack, and tossed into frigid water where the shock of cold and lack of air executed them. Upon their death their bodies were retrieved and given a proper burial. We were asked, in turn, how many men were drowned in the pool. The answer was “none”: 42 adulterous men had been either hanged, burned at a stake, or beheaded with an ax, but not drowned here. Which was the better demise? I don’t think any of those sound great.
I’ve transmitted my understanding of this phenomenon online, and I was actually brow-beaten by an actual Icelander who at first wanted to mock my ignorance and naïveté. But when I apologized and explained how I came by this information, he softened considerably (almost to the point of backpedaling) and transformed into a more generous educator. Unfortunately I don’t remember anything he said, so you’re stuck with my sketchy memory of the day and interpretation of events. So remember that: when some jackass tries to step up to you, using “better” information as a weapon to beat you into subjugation, simply be polite and politic and snip his nuts right off. The conversation that follows will be civil, useful and in all ways desirable.
We drove out into the countryside—even more countrysidish than we’d seen thus far—skimming along the foothills of some mercilessly craggy mountains. Occasionally we saw a patch of RVs and campers and Bob informed us these were rental units, I think, for winter sports or people who just like to get out into rural Iceland the rest of the year. There were a few flocks of sheep and once in a while a horse ranch. Mind you, Icelandic horses are small, and ignorant foreigners such as myself may reflexively label them “ponies,” but let me tell you this. If you wish to provoke the good-natured, even-tempered Icelander to violence, there are three ways you may do this:
- Neglect to take a cleansing shower before slipping into one of their thermal pools
- Refer to all the towns around Reykjavik as “suburbs”
- Refer to the stout, sturdy Icelandic horses as “ponies.”
We drove out to Gullfoss (“Gold Falls”), which was a fearsomely impressive torrent of power and erosion: it was impressively clear how relentlessly the water pounded the rock into submission and cut a wide swath into otherwise unforgiving territory. The noise was astounding and even to stand in the presence of such sheer force was intimidating. We got lots of great pictures—it was impossible to get bad ones, when the earth is clearly torn apart by ravaging waters and then folded over in ice. And as you can see in that photo, some of this ice is ancient. It’s dirty and stained with the ages! Yet the photos cannot do this landscape justice: the roar is louder than you’re imagining, the winds are frostier and stronger than you suppose. There was an icy platform upon which people could walk out for a photo op, and it was roped off and safe, but something about this powerfully destructive show of force impressed me with the idea that we truly were not safe, that nature was only holding itself back for the time being, and against it we had absolutely no defense. That’s what Gullfoss meant to me.
At the gift shop/café, we lined up at the tour-unsubsidized buffet and grabbed what we liked for lunch. Bear in mind, nothing in Iceland is cheap since nearly everything is imported, yet Rebecca and I splurged on food occasionally. I sampled the local liquor: Brennivín (nicknamed “Black Death”), an Icelandic schnapps variety, and kjötsúpa, a savory, herbal lamb stew with the consistency of a thin soup but with many chunky features and a strong, delightful aroma. I purchased the one and received a tour credit for a free refill, which of course went to Rebecca.
I enjoyed it very much, and it’s worth noting this was the only place in Iceland where it was easy to obtain the local dishes. Everywhere else was internationally themed and the regional restaurants seemed like people’s houses or obscure dinner clubs outside casual perception. We even asked about places like this, and it always sounded like we’d be intruding on someone’s domestic routine or would have to find transport some distance out of the city proper (which, you know, is just under two kilometers long!) in order to even discover what constituted traditional Icelandic fare. I have no idea what this might have been: probably something with root vegetables and herbs, and I’m aware of a fermented shark dish (hákarl) that I was never able to find anywhere. And I looked!
Finally we visited the geysers. The primary one, Geysir, is the eponymous font by which all others around the world are named, obviously. Did you know that? I didn’t, but apparently many geysers have fairly regular cycles upon which they operate. I saw the same thing in Wyoming, you know, “Old Faithful.” Same concept.
We got to see Strokkur blow up, as it does regularly, and it made for dramatic photography. I had my Holga with me and was able to take some noteworthy shots of this thermodynamic activity, much to my gratification. Up until this point I felt kind of stupid and wasteful for lugging two cameras around, even though the really good one simply fit in my front jeans pocket, and the Holga was entirely plastic and weighed less than half a pound, if that. But when I was able to get shots like this, it entirely justified its presence. And with a one-shot deal like the Holga, it was fortuitous to be able to station myself next to a geyser that operated like clockwork. It was just a matter of patience, sitting around for 12 minutes to anticipate the next eruption.
We visited Blesi, which is two pools of water in the rocky earth, separated by one meter of stone. One pool is searing hot and steams constantly; the other is frigid without icing over. Tourists could step off the wood-paved path and stand right between each pool. One guy knelt and plunged his hand into the cold pool, which was perfectly safe—to do the same in the companion pool would be to strip an inch of flesh off his muscles and bones. All of the geysers and pools had names, and I tried to document these as much as I could, though this left me with a record of uneventful photos and the occasional name chiseled into stone. What were the features of Litli-Geysir, other than being a small hole in the ground? My photos don’t explain it well.
There was a large tourist shop nearby, through which we meandered half-interestedly. There were snacks to be had, and there were ethnic knick-knacks with which we’re all familiar: wood-carved and fur-trimmed Vikings, scarves with foreign terms stitched into them, and even a small sack of “whiskey stones,” a soft stone you keep frozen and then drop into your whiskey, in order to chill it without diluting it like melting ice would. I thought that was neat but could not justify its proud price, at the time.
Our bus drove out to Faxi (Faxa Tunga), where we witnessed a somewhat smaller waterfall, but it was pretty in its own right. This was near a horse ranch, the layout was novel and unfamiliar to me. In the middle of a broad and featureless field there was a corral with an epicenter, from which a dozen pens radiated, not unlike the traditional concept of a spiderweb. Without actually seeing any animals present, I had to suppose that the pens were meant to keep them locked up until such time as they could be presented in the center.
Was this a show ranch? Were the diminutive horses or shaggy sheep of other farms, miles away, showed in this arena for competition or sales? It was impossible to know: I don’t think I bothered our doughty guide Bob with the questions. We just took it all in placidly and moved on to the next site/sight.
Finally we made our way to a historic church at Skálberg. The original structure had burned down twice: its current manifestation was at best a faithful recreation. There were “crypts” in the basement, as advertised on a humble hand-written sign next to a donation box, but our intrepid guide Bob suggested that it wasn’t anything dramatic to look at, amounting to some bones and piles of old things behind Plexiglass in a dimly lit room. It was more of a lazy attempt to earn a few kronur from unwitting tourists.
Regardless, there was some stunning stained glass that exploited the clear, sunny sky to great effect. I wanted to show my mother these photos, as I thought she’d appreciate them. That’s one thing to be said for spirituality: it does inspire some remarkable artwork, either in the form of music or stained glass windows. Here was an eclectic interpretation of the latter style, causing the entire room to glow in spikes of color, and I thought that was impressive.
Next to the church was an archaeological dig of a primitive village that had been partially unearthed by a local college, but they lost funding and had to abandon their discovery process. There were lines and walls in the earth partially displayed—the students had reputedly identified a kitchen, a dining room, even a “school” room—but abandoned and being grown over, and I felt this was a terrible shame. Iceland takes such pride in its heritage, why wouldn’t the people rise up and lobby for the discovery of its history in such a significant site as this? In fact, it was the local parishioners who found the site to be an inconvenience to them, and they easily intimidated the local government into shutting the excavation project down.
We made our way to an old exploded crater, where a magma chamber exploded and tore away the earth in this huge bowl-shape, later forming a lake. Rebecca and I were fighting about something, I don’t remember the topic, but it was probably motivated by jet lag and overstimulation. We had to spend some time apart: she perambulated the circumference of the crater, and I went off to photograph some caerns in the area, then to explore on my own.
By the time our group pulled into Eden (greenhouse/snack bar), we were speaking to each other again. Located in the middle of a small town of geothermal plants, Eden had been one man’s fancy, to construct a kind of greenhouse in the middle of this inhospitable wilderness, but then some other organization bought out his building and expanded it, diversifying the flora contained. Someone obviously believed in this vision. There were other things, minor amusements for restive children, like a vending game consisting of an ape that laughs at you and releases a bauble. What child wouldn’t crave that? We also picked up some potato chips that said they were paprika flavored, but Rebecca said, “These taste like barbecue,” and damned if they didn’t. Is that all a company has to do? Make a big noise like “oh, we’ve captured the authentic flavor of the southwest with our fancy-ass BBQ potato chips” but just sprinkle a little paprika on them? I want to see roving bands of vigilante ethicists come roaring up and raze every goddamned marketing consulting firm in the world.
Lastly, we returned from the tour and returned to our guesthouse, where we relaxed with an episode of Samurai Champloo before going out for dinner at a local Chinese restaurant, ASIA. We had seen this restaurant’s sign any time we walked back and forth, in and out of downtown, so we thought we’d try it. The food was quite mediocre and unremarkable, and our waiter was on the rude side of standoffish. That is to say, he was happy enough to serve the Icelandic family behind us, but his nonverbals intimated that either we hadn’t yet earned his better manners or he’d just rather we weren’t in the country at all. I will never understand why rude, intolerant people feel they should apply for work in the service industry.
We collected our stationery and went to walk around. Nearly all businesses were closed today due to the Icelandic May Day, which is equivalent to Labor Day to Americans. As of the writing of these notes, we are at our beloved Café Paris, splitting chocolate cake and writing. I’m also having an Egil’s Gull beer, which I find to be light and not too bad.