Iceland's Isolated Beauty, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Hike of the day. #Iceland #ايسلند پياده روى امروز

A photo posted by @bahmankalbasi on

A reader, Dave, responds to Rosa’s note with some fond reflections on Iceland:

It is hard to capture just how big and beautiful it all is. We hiked, drove, and mountain biked (with an emphasis on mountains), around Iceland. We saw fields of basalt with sharp-edged mountain ridges that seemed to be made of a single solid rock, covered in moss. We saw tens of thousands of acres with a single tiny road in, one out, and no other sign of humanity: no telephone poles, lines, pavement, agriculture, litter. We came upon waterfalls that would be the wonder of any Colorado resort town but are unnamed, flowing over unnamed ridges into unnamed basins.

Coincidentally one of my friends is currently in Iceland and just posted several photos and videos of waterfalls, including this one:

Last fall of the #Iceland trip.

A video posted by @bahmankalbasi on

Back to Dave:

Then there is the water. It is a force of nature, wonder, energy, and culture in Iceland. It rains, then pours down into rivers, makes up the glaciers, and is heated by ingenious people, then piped by above ground aqueducts into the towns, where it heats lovely, neat homes. And it heats public pools that make your college gym look like a swamp puddle. These heated pools and saunas were worth the trip entirely.

#Bluelagoon #Iceland #استخر آب معدنى #ايسلند

A photo posted by @bahmankalbasi on

And the water tastes like water; in many places you can drink it from the basin of that waterfall. When we came home, our filtered water tasted of metal and chemicals.

Then there are the miscellaneous: A jewel of a city, Reykjavik, where you can eat fish, horse, shark, and whale. Or have great Pakistani, decent Ramen, and awesome bread, and go to bars, nightclubs, coffee shops, stores of all kids. It’s the smallest biggest city outside Reno, full of Brits, French, Germans, Japanese, and Americans. And the natives: fun and lighthearted, but intellectually curious and fearless. Seemingly they are all industrious, beautiful, individualist and possessing what I'd call an American spirit.

For these and other reasons, if you ever get the chance to go: go.

Another reader who went is Rebecca Zicarelli, and her dispatch and photos will make you want to follow in her wake:

We just got back from Iceland. It’s a beautiful place.

Iceland is the newest landscape; it’s where the North American and Eurasian continental plates recycle back to the raw stuff at the heart of our planet. It’s also the oldest modern culture (if the rule of law is your metric of modernity), based on an agreement in the year 930 that just happened to be signed where the walls of this continental-plate collision rear out of the ground.

This photo is in Þingvellir, a national park where that government of rule-of-law was formed, looking down through the wall of the North-Atlantic plate the to the crack between continents and the plain where modern culture was born:

It’s a landscape of rocks thinly covered by moss, lichen, and small shrubs and trees. Besides the lifting of continental plates into mountains, the dominate feature is the seabed floor and volcanic rock eroding back into the ocean. The delicate landscape won’t survive too many footsteps.

Antiquities won’t survive, either. At dinner one night, a man who makes his living as an Iceland-adventure guide entertained his clients at the next table, and he spoke of this and the Icelandic distaste of saying, “No, don’t do this.” It’s a national ethic of being good stewards of the land, and one I loved. It was certainly lacking in the sign pollution that litters our national treasures proclaiming drug-free zones and don’t litter and don’t park and no dogs allowed and gun-free zone and on and on …

Laugarvatnshellar, a protected cave dug into the sand-stone/basalt layers in the south, is on the road between Þingvellir and Laugarvaten, and a likely stop on a Golden Circle tour. While Laugarvatnshellar was mostly used as a shelter for sheep and their shepherd (the cave has two rooms), families have made it a home as recently as the 1940s. Being here unsettles the soul; it’s easy to imagine being here alone through the dark winter or isolated here in the brief summer. There appear to be centuries of carvings inside the cave, and the urge to leave your mark on the wall is powerful.

But tourists aren’t such good house guests; they don’t have the Icelandic stewardship ethic, and easily give in to temptation to leave a mark. The tender moss is often trampled. At Laugarvatnshellar, centuries of carved runes and the slow-growing lichen that covers the walls are being scrapped off and replace with English-alphabet letters, cute hearts, and smiley faces:

There’s also a wool shortage now, created by the high demands of knitting tourism. I admit to participating; I was drawn there because of the wool industry, and I brought back a suitcase full of wool.  

Keldur, the Viking heart of Iceland that lies in the plain south of Mt. Hekla, the volcano that shut European airports down in 2010, you’ll find the oldest buildings. Equally obvious, if you stop at the forest nursery before Keldur, is the massive effort to repopulate the landscape with trees and and hold back the eroding basalt with stone walls, you can read the fascinating story here; a Google Books chapter called “Tackling the Ubiquitous Wind.”

There are still lambs here, jumping over the stone walls used to hold back the desert of eroding sandstone and crumbling basalt. But the wind and the water are winning, and I question how Iceland can hold both her plants and the weight of our footsteps without instilling a better sense stewardship her visitors.

My last image is a new lamb, just a few days old, and its mother in front of one of the newer buildings in ancient Keldur—the church (part of that 930 agreement made Iceland a Christian nation, and the churches of each village are supported by the government).

Rebecca has more photos on her Tumblr. If you have your own anecdote from Iceland to share, please let us know (especially if you have a good photo from an airplane). Update from another reader, Matt, with fond memories of proposing marriage in that magical land:

I don’t have any pictures to share, as my (now) wife and I were in Iceland in September of 2000 before the advent of digital photography. She is involved in genetics and was in Reykjavik for work, where I met her for a few days.

I was immediately struck by the drastic changes in landscape in Iceland. You land at Keflavik, in the middle of a wasteland of volcanic rock, and a golf course is the only oasis of green you’ll see between the airport and Reykjavik. But when you arrive in Reykjavik you get the quintessentially neat, multi-colored homes of Iceland. Travel just a bit further to the east and you’re treated to the greenest pastoral hills and valleys you can imagine, many with sheep and Icelandic ponies scampering over them to add to the Shire-esque feel.

Our first full day together we went to the Blue Lagoon, where I proposed and she accepted. Our second day we hiked up the Reykjadalur trail north of Hveragerdi, where we passed bubbling pools of gray mud along a steaming river. At the northern end we heard the sound of a freight train passing, only to finally round a bend and see that it was a column of steam issuing from the side of hill.

Seriously, it’s like wandering from one dreamscape to the next, all shepherded by the nicest, handsomest people on the planet.