Glancing wistfully back at Grindavik, we wondered if the hospitality we encountered there would set the stage for our entire trip. Up next were the first of many geothermal features that we would see during our stay, along with drop-dead-gorgeous scenery.
Perched at latitude 66, the sun resists climbing too high into the sky above the island. Instead, it rises low on the eastern hip of the horizon and traces a shallow arc to the western hip of the horizon, casting a deliciously warm glow over this land of fire and ice. Late in the year, once vibrantly green grass turns straw-yellow and the sun, though warm, paints pensive creases and shadows onto the landscape, much as age paints character into an old man’s face.
The roads, while in good repair, are few and diminutive, never more than two-lanes wide with shoulders like a frail 15th century princess. The farther you drive from Reykjavik, the fewer cars you encounter. Half an hour may pass before you see signs of life.
Iceland straddles the underpinning plates of two continents that, as they divorce each other, give birth to a few centimeters or more of new land each year. It is, perhaps, fitting that the people of this torn land straddle two cosmologies, taking from each what is most essential and creating a unique and independent approach to life. Each village, no matter how tiny, cuddles at the feet of a well-tended Lutheran church. During the 16th Century, the Reformation brought new structure and hierarchies to Iceland, yet the pagan ways of the original Norse and Viking settlers never fully succumbed to Christianity. Ancient beliefs and folk tales lurk behind rock outcroppings, nestle in scant forests, and hover in all the natural elements that keep the land alive and bubbling. It is a land of contrasts: contrasting light, contrasting colors, contrasting temperatures and contrasting beliefs.
A foot path crosses between a pair of nearly matching cliffs which represent columnar jointing of an ancient basalt lava flow. The lava cracks as it cools. These cracks crow perpendicularly as cold river water—perhaps the result of rapid volcanic ice melt—flows over the hot lava. The columns are evidence of slow cooling from the base upward with simultaneous rapid cooling from the top down.
The cliff name refers to the legend about supernatural beings (elves or dwarfs) living in the rocks. One folktale that keeps the legend alive describes the peculiar experience of a farm girl, Ölafía, who lived nearby in 1904. She went out one evening to bring in the ewes from the pasture. As she walked through the small forest near these cliffs, she heard beautiful singing. In disbelief, she sat down to ponder who could be singing as she knew that no one was about but her. She eventually realized that the voices were singing the Christian hymn, Father in Heaven. When she began her journey back to the farm, the voices followed her for a long time and so the legend of friendly supernatural beings living in the rocks was born.
This, by the way, was the largest deciduous forest I saw in Iceland.
The next post will highlight some of the astounding waterfalls that break the silence of the countryside.