The fault line between those tectonic plates runs across Iceland from southwest to northeast, and can be explored most hauntingly at a place called Thingvellir, a wide rift valley that has been preserved as a national park. The valley is named for the Althing, Iceland's ancient legislative body and the world's earliest true parliament; the Althing was first convened here, in A.D. 930, under one of the valley's long, sheer walls. The standard one-day "golden circle" tour of southwestern Iceland always includes a stop at Thingvellir, and Tim and I had signed up for such a tour; first-time visitors probably should do the same, as a means of basic orientation. It will invariably give you too little of too much -- still, I would not want to have missed the moment when a guide, from his platform on a footbridge across a chasm dividing "Europe" and "America," began expounding on the subject of Iceland's pivotal role in NATO.
Tim and I came back to Thingvellir the next day by public bus from Reykjavík a 1:25,000 geological-survey map in hand. We had the park to ourselves. The parallel walls of the valley lie about three miles apart. The spongy green flatland in between, with its grace notes of bluebells and alpine cinquefoil, is deceptive: a foot or so of matted tundra conceals a lava plain. The plain is scored with crevices -- twenty feet wide, two or three stories deep, hundreds of yards long -- into which you can descend, with great care. (Auden, on packing for Iceland: "The most essential article is a pair of stout gumboots.") Water runs in many of the crevices, flowing into Thingvallavatn, the large lake at the park's southern end. The flatland is crossed by east-west footpaths marked with cairns. Occasional ruins fleck the site.
We followed the fissures from north to south for the length of the park, emerging at last onto the grounds of the tiny Thingvallakirkja, a nineteenth-century Lutheran church. A Christian sanctuary has stood on the site since the early eleventh century. In the middle of the sixteenth century, after a theological debate whose finer points included that of an ax blade, Iceland embraced Lutheranism. Next July an ecumenical festival is expected to draw thousands of people to Thingvellir to celebrate ten centuries of Christianity on the island.
The decision to become Christian was made by vote of the Althing (and on condition that baptisms occur in thermal pools, not frigid rivers). Next year's festival will include some Icelanders whom the original voters would never have anticipated. At mass one Sunday in the Catholic cathedral at Reykjavík, attended by what may have been a quorum of Iceland's Catholic minority, the moment came when congregants greet the people nearby. Turning around, I found a long pew full of Vietnamese. Iceland has taken in 160 Vietnamese refugees since 1979 -- something of a surprise to the rest of the world, given that the country's human gene pool has been so stable for so long that biotech companies are today vying, in effect, to bottle it. "Fridur se med ther," the Vietnamese said in Icelandic: "Peace be with you."
ONE of Iceland's advantages for a visitor is its small size. To be sure, travel by car can sometimes be slow, and a trip around the perimeter, on the country's 900-mile main highway, may take three days. But the country is only about the size of Kentucky, and Icelandair's busy domestic service can get you anywhere by small plane within an hour. Most places are closer. The Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where Jules Verne imagined the cratered entrance to the center of the earth to be, is forty minutes by air from Reykjavík, to the north. Europe's largest glacier, the Vatnajökull, is a fifty-minute flight to the east.
Iceland's international airport lies thirty miles out of town, on the lava wastes at Keflavík, next to the NATO base, but Reykjavík's local airport adjoins the city. After an early-morning cab ride from our headquarters at the amiable Hotel Borg -- one of the few old hotels in Reykjavík, a venerable Art Deco adornment on Parliament Square -- we took a thirty-five-minute flight to the Vestmannaeyjar, the Westmann Islands, a volcanic archipelago off Iceland's southern coast. Most of the other people on the plane were Icelandic teenagers on a golf outing to Heimaey, the largest of the islands and the only inhabited one. Above the seatbacks in front of us bobbed the tousled crowns of a dozen towheads.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; The Near North - 99.12 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 6; page 46-51.