As I said in an earlier post in this series, travel—especially international travel—is a fairly unfamiliar thing for me. Even more unfamiliar is making such a trip on my own, without family or friends to offer suggestions and push against my stodgier tendencies. And when you do land in a new place all on your own, that’s when self-discovery kicks in and you start to see more clearly the sides of yourself that you can often ignore when you’re back in your comfort zone.
This came to me in a flash when I trekked up the hill from my guest house to bask in the glory that is Hallgrimskirkja. The Lutheran church, commissioned in the ’30s with construction starting in the ’40s and not wrapping up until 1986, is a gigantic, awe-inspiring structure poking into the air at a height of 244 feet. The parish the call the church home have embraced it as a tourist attraction, with art exhibits in the main entryway and a chance to ride an elevator to an observation deck at the top.
Here’s where I found out something about myself: when I stepped inside the church, I saw a line of 20-30 people, all waiting patiently to take the trip to the top. My first instinct was to just turn right back around and leave, enjoying it only from the outside.
Luckily, better thoughts prevailed and I had to remind myself that I might never get back to Reykjavik in my lifetime, so best to use my time wisely and wait with the rest of the rabble. It was entirely worth it. The view of the city from way up there was unbeatable, letting us drink in the expanse of the North Atlantic and the snowy peaks surrounding the city. If you visit Reykjavik in the future, make some time for a visit here.
On this trip, I’ve also had to learn how to access whatever reserves of internal fortitude that I may have to get me through some challenging moments. That is: I’ve not been able to sleep well at all on this trip, my body choosing to stay on Portland time. So, while I’ve spent much of the last few days here in a kind of narcotic, insomniac haze, I’ve had to push through to get myself out there rather than crashing in the guest house in the middle of the day.
Thankfully for me, on my last full day in Iceland as I joined about 15 other tourists on a guided bus tour of “The Golden Circle,” a route that takes you to some of the most breathtaking sites in the country, the brace of the cold weather and the buzz of seeing new places helped keep me awake for the eight-hour journey.
As you would rightly surmise, this island nation is rich with geological wonders, including the alien-like landscape of Þingvellir National Park where jagged rocks, the crystal clear waters of Lake Þingvallavatn, and huge crevasses in the ground mark where two tectonic plates are slowly separating. Nothing worrisome: just matter of about an inch every year. The area is apparently where the first Parliamentary meetings in Iceland took place, as well, with a big annual event where laws were made and the decision to convert the country to Christianity was finalized.
Another element of this country that you might already be aware is that it rests on a nonstop flurry of geothermal activity. That means plenty of earthquakes in the southern part of the island, and a volcano that likes to erupt every 20 years or so (our tour guide said it’s due to blow any day now). That also means that the wise people of Iceland have learned to embrace the steam and heat of what is coming out of the ground around them, using this geothermal energy to provide them with electricity and to heat their water (which is why the shower might have a sulfuric smell to it).
This also means hot springs and geysers. It’s the strangest thing to walk around the area around Geysir Center and watch little pools of water bubble like they’re on the stove and run off down the hillside. It is, again, like being on another planet. But we were all really there to get a look at Strokkur (which means “churn”). The geyser does what a good geyser does, which is spew hot water and steam into the air about every 10 minutes. It’s unpredictable, and a bit shocking the first couple of times, but also inspires a grown adult like me to grin like an overjoyed child at the sight.
Absolutely nothing on this day-long tour that I went on could compare to Gullfoss, the ever-roaring waterfall in the middle of the Hvítá River. Fed by runoff from nearby glaciers, it is…well, it’s hard to really put into words. It is just a waterfall, but to watch it spill millions of gallons of freezing cold water into a crevasse for a few minutes is to really be put in your place as a human. Compared to this gigantic body of water that has flowed for thousands of years before my visit and will surely keep going for thousands of years more after I’m gone both from the country and this world, you can’t help but feel minuscule. Silly as it may sound, it would do us all a world of good to get humbled like that on a regular basis.
As I head back to Portland today, I won’t deny that I’m really looking forward to seeing my family, hopefully getting back into a normal sleep pattern, and enjoying some familiarity after 10 days in another part of the world. But very soon afterward, I’m sure I’m going to start feeling the itch to get back here to explore even more this singular landscape. Thanks for joining me on this little journey.
Read all the Journey to Iceland posts: