Tales from Abroad: Iceland

The terrain in the southern central Highlands of Iceland appeared both terrifyingly remote and otherworldly beautiful in all directions. The green and blue bodies of water glistened in the sun in hues unimaginable to the Monongahelan sensibilities of Pittsburghers like yours truly. Spread over the mountainous red, brown, and grey desolation, such watery pools and rivers provided a calm reminder of nature’s power in carving such voluminous expanse of rock — that and the lava fields and ubiquitous scattered volcanic remains that exhibited the natural history of how Iceland was formed. This was the place where the astronauts trained for the moon, but such notions might be conjured without knowledge of that trivia.

Driving for miles in my family’s specially equipped SUV rental on bumpy, narrow dirt roads in the middle of a nowhere called the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, I get the back-of-the-mind fear and thrill of wondering what could happen in such a godforsaken, almost anarchic place. I try imagining how life would have been for a supposedly historical mountain man and his wife who in the 1700s settled in the region and went through 30 years of absolute isolation until some other people managed to run into them again. Obviously their situation was much more harrowing than mine, cruising along on what was a warm day for Iceland when I went this past August, which means it was like a cool, spring day in the high Fahrenheit 50s or low 60s.

The few vestiges of civilization I came across in the Fjallabak area were structures belonging to off-limit hydroelectric or geothermal power stations that look like the secret hideout or works of a Bond movie villain. There were few other travelers on the road: just the occasional hearty hitchhiker and an apparently organized caravan of Jeep or Range Rover type vehicles that kicked up tremendous dust in its military-like pursuit of tourism. At the end of the nebulously long dirt road, we hoped, was supposedly Landmannalaugar, because if we were going to nowhere, it was better to at least end up at a named destination in nowhere rather than to end up in absolute nowhere without even the benefit of a stupendously tongue-tying Icelandic name to denote it.

After miles of twists and turns on the dirt road revealing one great view after another, around the bend suddenly appeared, well, a dirt parking lot. Where did all those cars come from? We certainly hadn’t come across that many on the long ride to Landmannalaugar. And really, what was this place in the middle of nowhere with an unpronounceable name? Hike over a hill from the parking lot and there it was: a base camp with the Icelandic flag waving high and proud above it. I breathed a sigh of relief for sweet, sweet government, no side-of-the-road serial killers or dying of exposure for me, thank you. In Iceland I was generally a bit glad to get away from any flag that inspires football players to kneel or that rednecks mythologize as representing the lost cause of their supposedly proud heritage, but there’s something to be said for the comfort of a national flag in the wilderness.

Landmannalaugar, however, was not just any base camp. The main attraction was that sitting in a valley surrounded by some of the most aesthetically diverse natural wonders of mountainous, volcanic terrain was a naturally occurring hot spring, safe for human entry. Although I hadn’t earned it remotely as much as the alluring European hikers that I encountered and by whom I felt mildly emasculated, I took a soothing dip in the mountain’s rejuvenating waters and wondered whether I had stumbled across what the Viking ancestors of the Icelandic people called Valhalla.

Iceland’s bizarre and gorgeous natural wonders were an undeniable highlight of my trip. Sitting atop a hill that overlooks Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and main city, is the magnificent glass dome of the Perlan Museum, which serves as a testament to the conservation of Iceland. After a tour of an ice cave made from real pieces of Icelandic glacier that is housed in the museum, guests exit to a high-tech exhibit that depicts the melting of glaciers and the extreme threats that climate change poses to Iceland as an island nation.

The emotional combination of viewing the wondrous ice cave and then being hit with the bleak, concrete facts on the climate filled me with a jolt of rage and shame at being an American living under the sociopathic Trump regime that has highlighted in a particularly egregious and overt way how the institutions of my country’s government and corporations have long been the biggest perpetrators of crimes against the environment. Once I was done viewing the environmental exhibit at Perlan, I walked up to a level that had an outside rotunda with breathtaking panoramic views of Reykjavík and the Icelandic coast. I hoped that in 200 years the place would not be totally under water. I had dinner at the lovely restaurant at the top of the Perlan and watched the sun set from quite a view.

The Icelandic people, who are one of the world’s most literate, are very conscious of environmental concerns and climate change being that they are on the frontlines of rising water and melting ice. With regard to climate threats, many Icelandic people tried the “Veganuary” challenge in January and have even turned to the diet full time being that the environmental costs of meat are much greater than those of plant-based diet production. The restaurant at the Perlan Museum and many restaurants in Iceland had vegan options, which, due to me being one, was quite desirable.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the music of Iceland. At the Reykjavík Record Shop and Lucky Records I perused the crates and snagged some obscure Icelandic pop/folk from the 60s and 70s alongside the “classics” of the Beatlesque Hljómar, the prog-rock of Trubrot, and the iconoclastic singer-songwriter Megas. On the way back to the airport in Keflavik, I stopped at the Icelandic Museum of Rock ‘N’ Roll and enjoyed the informative experience of the quirky little tourist trap that convincingly advocated Iceland’s place in the rock world.

Iceland was truly a majestic destination with its awesome nature and beautiful people. The trip made me think about the importance of preserving our environment and not allowing tourism to overrun the environmental, economic, and cultural capacities of small nations. Moreover, I appreciated the wonderful privilege of being able to travel in safety to such an incredible place as so many poor souls in the world are stuck or forced to flee.