Perhaps the most obvious contrast is the weather. What is true, meteorologically speaking, in the morning, won’t be true by midday. And, by evening it will have changed again. One morning might be glorious – sunshine and temperatures in the 60s – only to recreate itself as stormy and cold by noon. That night, it may be only cool but the mist occludes vision to mere yards. Or, even more contrarily, it may alter within hours and even from hour to hour.
The first time I saw the mists of Iceland began to suddenly pour over the massive coastal cliffs, I thought I might actually be in danger. The giant milky cloud appeared so suddenly, climbing over the rocky walls and sliding down their edges, that the first thought that exploded in my mind was “pyroclastic cloud.” This is, after all, an island filled with geothermal activity. An island that, over the years, has seen hundreds of volcanic eruptions. Its landscape is filled with lava formations, so intricate and so numerous that Iceland’s inhabitants came to believe that it was trolls and elves who had formed the strange rock shapes. In fact, half of Icelanders still say there are “definitely” or “could possibly” be such creatures on this island.
So, the idea of a “pyroclastic cloud” heralding a new volcanic eruption was not improbable. I even rolled down my window to take a whiff (although I’m not sure I know what an erupting volcano smells like anyway). But, no, it was just mist. Soon, it dropped over the car, obliterating the road except for a few feet ahead. Immediately – at least it seemed – the temperature dropped. I rolled up the window and turned on the heat.
The mist became so thick and dense that I feared I would inadvertently strike a wandering sheep or reindeer. I was then on top a mountain in the middle of nowhere, chugging along slowly. Suddenly a figure loomed out of the fog on the side of the road. It didn’t have the requisite fluff of an Icelandic sheep or the antlers of a reindeer. To my surprise, I saw it was a man, backpack strapped on and clutching – of all things – a skateboard. He was hitchhiking. Unfortunately, he had appeared so quickly from the mist that I didn’t have time to slow down and pick him up. I surely would have loved to ask him questions such as: “What are you doing with that skateboard in the wilds of Iceland?” All I could think later is that he could write an arresting blog: Skateboarding Across Iceland.
But, I digress. Oh yes, the conflicted nature of the island.
As you can see, the weather is certainly changeable. And, it seems even internal temperatures seem to modulate much more here. One moment I’ll be seated in the car, cranking up the heater. And, the next, after a vigorous hike down to see yet another foss (waterfall), I’ll be stripping off my coat and rolling down my windows. It’s worse than hot flashes.
Just as variable as the weather and the temperature is the countryside of Iceland.
The south (which I officially renamed the “Holy Shit” portion of the island) is all greens, browns and lupine purples. Puffins and other birds soar high above the cliffs. An azure sea rolls against a black sand beach.
The west was all sharpness and rocks. The sea had turned a more crystalline blue and roiled in angry swells. The high cliffs seemed almost devoid of vegetation, black and foreboding. Snow caps the rugged peaks and the damp soaks through all. Still beautiful, but a definite contrast.
Then, you’ll top a mountain and drop into a valley of indescribable beauty. Suddenly the normally tree-challenged countryside contains dwarf Icelandic birch and pine. Massive swaths of lupine mark the forest edges. A bejeweled lake or sparkling river sits in the midst of the valley.
Over another mountain and you’ll see steam arising from the valley below. The terrain becomes absolutely lifeless – although not colorless. It’s a geothermal field. Bubbling cobalt blue and black mud pots dot the surface. Holes in the earth’s surface breathe out sulphur-scented fumes. Acidic leakage from everything dries on the surface, coating the ground in hardened thin shells of blue, yellow, brown and rust. Towering red sand mountains surround the field.
Another few miles down the road and you arrive in the land of ancient lava flows where black, writhing hardened rock shows the turmoil that occurred here. Sprouted here and there are vast oval hills, concave in the middle. These, also, are marks of the geothermal activity. Called pseudo-craters these mounds were formed by steam explosions when lava encountered lakes or wetlands.
And in the middle of the island, sometimes with feet extending to the sea are the mammoth black mountains capped with glaciers. No paved roads run through here; it’s too rugged. It’s a place of at once vast nothingness and at the same time vast opportunity. No one but the hardiest venture here – backpackers, hikers, adventurers. It’s the most pristine wilderness of Iceland.
And it’s here where I hope to venture when I next visit this island.