Jul 17, 2006

The Center of Iceland

Where is the center of Iceland? Not the geographical center. The center of Icelandic consciousness, culture and history must surely be Thingvellir. It is located just 45 minutes northeast of Reykjavik, yet it has the feel of another place and another time.

What is Thingvellir? The idea that first comes to mind is the birth of government in Iceland. Around the year 930 the Althingi, or general assembly, first met at Thingvellir. Members of the assembly traveled from all over Iceland to this location, which was peculiarly suited to the purpose for a number of reasons. Thingvellir is the site of Iceland's largest natural lake, and its wide plain made it a practical place for large numbers of people to congregate.

I anticipate that visiting the hangout of founders, lawmakers, heroes and outlaws of Icelandic history will be stirring. But I am taken aback by the compelling physical nature of Thingvellir. The high ridge that runs along its edge is a very imposing, dramatic backdrop to the Law Rock. Waterfalls spill down the side of the ledge, and plant life is varied and abundant.

Geologists, too, find their Mecca at Thingvellir. It is here that the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and here that the earth's crust is slowly pulling apart. In fact, John notices two small, brass knobs embedded high in the ledges that appear to be markers, indicating the extent of this movement over time. Hey, 70 meters over 10,000 years may not seem like much to you, but to a geologist...

We trek all around the huge, fantastically formed gorge, ledges, and the lovely plain with its small church. Gabe is curious about something on the map of the area. Skogarkot, the receptionist informs him, was an old farm that had been in use from ancient times until the 1930's. We decide to take a hike there, through the lava fields. Moss beds masquerade as lava: it's hard to tell whether your foot will sink inches into deep moss or strike hard rock until you actually step. I find places where the moss is so thick that it makes a delightful mattress when I lay down in it. Tall rock piles mark the trail with worrying frequency: they are so close together that we ask ourselves if lava-sandstorms, fog or snow make it necessary to mark the trail with such closely placed markers. We add our rock offerings to the tall rock piles as we pass by. Despite having left our picnic lunch in the car, and it is now long past lunch time, the hike is well worth it. We find the old homefield, with a rock fence delineating it and rock cellars marking the old farmhouse.

We leave the magical, evocative valley, and head off through countryside in the direction of a waterfall. We got off to a late start from Reykjavik today: in addition to other errands we stopped by Arctic Rafting, a company that provides guided outdoor adventures. We promised to call or stop by their office by 8:30 pm tonight to find out if enough people signed up for the trip and to confirm tomorrow's plans. The problem is, no cell phone coverage in this area, and it's getting close to 8. Must we skip the waterfall, after driving so far, in order to arrange our plans for tomorrow? Although we are told that there aren't pay phones at the gas stations, we decide to pull in one anyway, and ask.

As we pull into the Esso parking lot, about 45 minutes away from Reykjavik, John asks, "isn't that the Arctic Rafting van?" It is! It has pulled in right ahead of us! I go into the convenience store, and accost people until I find the employee from Arctic Rafting. He obliges by "phoning home" to the office, and all the arrangements fall into place. Love those cosmic coincidences!

On our way to the falls, Gabe asks about a plume of "smoke" that he sees far in the distance. I confess to knowledge of a geyser in the area, and it is clear that we have found it. "Geysir"--the big one--decided to go on an extended vacation years ago and no longer discharges. But "Strokkur" is very impressive, and we stay much longer than we intended to watch him perform over and over again, every 10 minutes.

We reach the waterfall, the famous Gullfoss, when it should be dark. But it isn't, it's misty and dusky, and a lovely light in which to view the falls. You can get as close as you like...no danger signs and fences. I don't like to get too close...but other people in our party do. The cafe at the falls is still open, so we can have a late dinner. The view even includes a glacier in the distance. We buy an Icelandic bumper sticker and patches for our backpacks, and drive back along a route dotted with steam rising from geothermal pockets, marveling at the good fortune we've had throughout the day...especially when the Arctic Rafting van materialized right before our eyes. What a day! Home at 11:30; still light. High 54°F Low 42°F


John said...

I want to see pictures of Strokhur and Gullfoss. Don't cheat us.

Karen said...

"Althingi, or general assembly, first met at Thingvellir." Is all Icelandic history so sensible?

What a lovely day this sounds like. Not all those who wander are lost.

Joel said...

What a lovely blog. I have plenty to catch up on to see where you stand. But I decided to start at the beginning as I too am anticipating a trip to the Island in a years time. Thanks though, you have a way with words. I also appreciate the drawings and journal entry pics.

Rose said...

Hi Joel,
Nothing could give me more pleasure than to share my love of Iceland. I so envy the year of anticipation that you have to look forward to! My husband's journal drawing really helped us to slow down and see things in a different way. Maybe you'll consider sketching on your trip too? Anybody can do it!

Joel said...

I did make a mental note to sketch any journeys I take for now on, be they adventures in encountering the sacred or the mundane. All of it seems so worthwhile to jot down. I hope I can muster up some discipline and follow through with it.

And, I leave for Korea in a few weeks to teach esl for a year to bank some money and make Iceland a possibility (just in case you were curious about what kind of readers you may be reeling in).