The government of Iceland fell the week we were in the country.

It wasn’t apparent in the shops, streets or bars.  Life went on as normal.  The tour buses on the Golden Circle continued their rounds. Thousands of cameras continued to document where the earth splits, west moves west and east east where, one day, perhaps, one land will become two, an ocean between.  Out of the buses and cars the thunderous double water-fall named Gullfoss was swarmed.  Everyone was amazed.  Rainbows appeared and disappeared in the rising mists.

Down the road awhile another waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, invited the intrepid to come around behind, new boots and waterproof hoodies doing their best to grip the mud and stone and protect the spray smacked faces as mist turned to icy horizontal rain, whipped up and off the cascades. Chinese tourists stopped for selfies. Catalans exclaimed in amazement. The wind tore up Englishes of every kind.

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Iceland’s unemployment is somewhere near 2%, in good part from skyrocketing tourism.  Everywhere we went we found service staff learning polite phrases in Icelandic, young summer emigrants from Poland, Portugal, Italy, bulking up the workforce, which already includes a permanent 3% of Polish immigrants. New hotels have gone up in recent years. Icelandic cuisine of fish, tubers and skyr have been hyphenated with the international nouveu prefix and is served in delicate presentations with selections of wine from Argentina, Australia, Spain and France.  Don’t ask about the price, it’s a vacation!

To tour Iceland is to forgo the big-city experience of Paris, Rome or Barcelona.  The entire country only houses some 330,000 . Reykjavik, the capital and biggest city might have one-third of those, including families escaping southeast Asia in the 1970s – their Thai and Vietnamese restaurants finding a place alongside the fiskisúpa, cod and Norway lobsters (aka langoustines)  offerings from the old-timers. The main street can be walked twice in half-an hour, the biggest church visited and the waterfront perused in a little more.

For many, the big attraction is waterfalls, and more waterfalls.  Glaciers are good, too.  The largest one in Europe, the Vatnajökul, sits right over the enormous Icelandic magma plume which has been the source of Iceland’s growth for 20 million years.

 

Glaciers calve, as we all know by now. Except here, instead of dropping into the ocean, they come down a shallow river to the sea.  Some bottom out and wait patiently to be photographed until rushing water, sandy abrasions and air temperature cause them to lose mass, turtle in the stream and move further along towards the sea

Iceland is much younger, and smaller than its giant northern neighbor, Greenland.  Being younger it is much more active.  By younger let’s say 16 million years old.  That’s about when paleogeologists, with some disagreement, think the Iceland plume began to surge enough basalt to build an island.  Greenland, on the other hand has some of the oldest stone on earth, dated back to 4 billion years ago

As one commentator puts it:

“If we take the age of the Earth as one year, then Iceland was born less than two days ago. The first regional glaciers of the Ice Age appeared in Iceland about five hours ago and only a minute has passed since the Holocene warming removed this ice cover from Iceland.”

All guidebooks to Iceland will tell you, that this hot-spot –much like the one that has created the Hawaiian Island chain– coincides with the northern most portion of the  Mid-Atlantic Ridge, in fact, it is the only place where the ridge is on land, and accessible. Tens of thousands of visitors will testify they have walked with the American plate on one side and the Eurasian on the other. They will have pictures in proof.

To the mid-Atlantic ridge we owe the Atlantic ocean itself, and therefore the look of the world as we are accustomed to seeing it on grammar school globes.   As Alfred Wegener speculated in 1915,  Brazil looks suspiciously like it once nestled into the the comfort of Africa’s arm.  By now, it is fact.  Deep core samplings, measures of magnetic-shift frozen in rock-time, detailed sonar topo maps show that subterranean forces, over millions of years, pulled apart the supercontinent Pangea, beginning somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic as we now know it, over 200 mya, and unzipping north and south.  Greenland itself, about the time of the dinosaurs demise, 65 mya,  separated from Europe leaving remnants of itself in Scotland and moving west, making room for Iceland and the Faroes.

What we see, and marvel at, in many parts of Iceland are the near perfect layer-cake layers of magma that have flooded out thousand upon thousands of times, hardening the one before the next arriving.  Geological strata like this is visible in many parts of the world, from the depths of the Grand Canyon to the lifted sea-beds in the American southwest.  Nowhere, however can we count so high and see so plainly.  In some places each fresh upsurge added weight disproportionately and  tilted the stack-of pancakes basalt towards the trenches it was coming from.

All over the millions year old basalt has been covered by ice sheets, waxing and waning in thickness and coverage, from one kilometer over the entire island to next to nothing at all. Tens of thousands of years between ice and no-ice allowed vegetation to grow, glassine volcanic dust to settle, and eventually be covered and compressed by the next layer of ice, then another layer of basalt, then a thaw, then basalt….  In some places deep red layers of the organic clayey remnants lie between the black basalt.

Under the weight of the ice bearing down, and the force of the glaciers pushing forward some of the land gave way and settled between jagged mountains that resisted.  The entire southern coast, green and flat, now the recipient of the riverine run-off from Vatnajökul glacier, was once at the bottom of a bay under the greatest extent of the ice some 20,000 years ago.  As it pulled back, in our current 10,000 years of grace, the land eased upwards, from bay-bottom to marsh and wet-lands.

For all the water, however, much of Iceland has been characterized as a “wet desert.”  Plant life needs more than water to flourish and the soil to be made from the Pahoehoe lava run-off is not as rich in mineral content as would be ash-born and other forms of volcanic product.  So, besides some patches of deliberate tree-planting — conifers and cottonwoods– what we mostly saw was shin-high shrubbery and downy birch which, as shoulder-high bushes, look little like New England birch forests.  Wide spread birch forests when the Vikings began to colonize in the 9th century were soon demolished to rebuild ships, build home and keep warm.

Very little of the island is sandstone or mudstone as we see in much of the U.S, no terrain aggregation such as made the Pacific Coast range – the scraped off-shore settlements of earth and organic material piled up as the deep ocean crust plunges below the coastal crust. Lava, lava and more lava.  Ice.  Water.  Deep blue skies and convoys of clouds of every shape and size. Or finally, Iceland’s signature: thick, gray overcast, sometimes for days on end. Hats, coats and a very walk-able 10° C. Another slick trail to a hidden waterfall just ahead.

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There are other pleasures beyond the famed, one-day tour of the Golden Circle, the roads of which can back up like Bay Area traffic with all the cars and buses on it.

Water! And water!  Falling everywhere, running in bouldered rivers and small rivulets.

The result to the curious eye is a wide variety of landscape and related vegetation, reminding a traveler of landscape in Ireland (green, rolling hills), Scotland (brown, short brushed moors), the coast of California, never quite as plunging as Big Sur but often jagged cliffs and sea-mounts of various sizes and shapes. The beaches are not white leavings of ancient sandstone, but black, black black, some of it very fine, from the harsh, and fast, weathering of the basalt

New to many eyes will be the miles and miles of columnar basalt, mostly vertical, but sometimes laid horizontally over an assemblage of vertical columns.  They shape themselves into the proximate hexagonal shapes starting at the cooling surface

And yes, there are people, and pride in small town, Icelandic life.

A young woman gave us a tour of a shark rendering facility in far northern Iceland.  “We don’t fish for sharks, she said.  It’s been illegal for years.  We receive accidental catches from fishermen,  up to 100 a year and process them …..

Shark Cold-Curing

And yes, we tasted a bit of it, once with dark rye, once on its own, a piece no more than the size of the small fingernail.  Imagine the strongest camembert you’ve ever had, and double it.  Usually it is washed down with equally strong brennivín.  At ten in the morning, and with miles yet to drive, we chose not to.  But pass the minty gum, please!

In another find, we stopped at a small town museum, not just with grandma’s flatware and grandpa’s old harnesses and horseshoes but with excellent displays of killer whale skeletons, taxidermied puffins and informative graphics and texts. In another town, a herring museum, testified to the once semi-industrialized center of the northern economy

And, after nightly trying, up into the cold dark every half-hour or so, we saw some Northern Lights!  Not as spectacular as can be found in photos from travelers around the world, but direct to our own happy eyes. The last night on the road. Now we can go home!

 

Not my photo but similar to the memory of my eyes.

In all the hours of driving, and gaping, we also listened to a fine Audible reading of Iceland’s most famous modern novel, Independent People by 1955 Nobel Prize winner, Halldór Laxness.  Wonderful wonderful, especially to be a passing part of the same landscape he lived in and to understand the severe social conditions he wrote of.  The romance of a small and distant land gets very real, and not romantic in his hands.  (Perhaps a review later. For now, goodnight.)

 

And oh, yes.  The government fell.  A small party pulled out of the governing coalition out of disgust at a letter of recommendation sent by the Prime Minister’s father.  Elections in November.  Why oh why can’t American politics be so responsive?

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