The Golden Circle beckons Dave and me out of hibernation. This circuit of landmarks encompasses Geysir zone, a geyser minefield the size of an airport; Gullfoss waterfall, a two-tiered glacial cataract and natural wonder; and Þingvelli national park, the only place in the world where you can easily see tectonic plates move.
I must first confess: we took a coach bus. Of course I wouldn’t normally indulge in travel means that provide comfort and convenience. If locals employ idiosyncratic vehicles or smelly animals, I say, grab jumper cables and stirrups and follow suit!
Reykjavik chills such principles into remission. Here, I hunt radiators with a crazed fervor normally reserved for pursuing chocolate.
Coach drivers obligingly warm vehicles to simulate Jamaican heatstroke. As windows steam, tourists press noses against heating vents like pink lichen. Sighs resonate as airways defrost. Dave, who’s English and built for grim weather, catches sunburn.
We arrive at Geysir geothermal region. This could easily be where NASA took its pictures of “Mars.” I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I can recognize a barren, steaming and craterous horizon when I see one.
“Hold your breath,” Dave advises. The mammoth geyser two meters ahead of us explodes.
Water launches upwards and I launch with it: shock jolts me a foot into the air. Geyser explosions, which can send boiling water up to 70m high, are now among the coolest things I have ever seen. The vat burps and discharges again. It thunders through the white sky like an inverted waterfall.
That accomplished, the geyser simmers. The hot spring churns and bubbles like a bewitched cauldron. The crowd stares hypnotically. Surely I’m not the only one humming the Macbeth witch chant,
“Bubble bubble, toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
I do hear some (fellow Americans, probably) cheer the geyser like it’s the home team,
“Spray baby, spray! This is the big one!”
A five-year old boy throws an ice block towards the geyser and I chuck a volcanic rock. We both miss, perhaps because we’re nervous about seeing these objects regurgitated at top speed.
Several explosions later, the cold ushers the group back to our heated chariot.
We move to Gullfoss, the “Golden Waterfall.” Captain Ahab’s jaw would drop at this watery confusion. Thundering reverberations press my ears as the glacial river plummets 32 feet into a narrow 70-foot deep canyon.
My eyes squeeze shut. Between a tangible rumble and icy rain, I imagine the otherworldly falls crashing at my fingertips. I reopen my eyes and remember that the fall stands over fifty meters away.
One the way to the final stop, we brake for wild horses. Icelandic horses are a unique breed: Law prohibits the import of any steed onto the island, and once a horse leaves the country it may never return.
The horses are so petite that our guide, Inka, warns us not to call them ponies (a derogatory term, as Icelandic etiquette goes). However, they exhibit the social proclivity of a sixteen-year old cheerleader.
Our group approaches and all eight horses in sight glide forth to nuzzle. If they expect food, they politely refrain from showing so. A universal “Awww” sounds as our fingers submerge knuckle deep into downy fur, and a mother house allows me to pet her foal for five whole minutes before tactfully nibbling me away.
Finally we arrive at Þingvelli park. We stand on the European tectonic plate and eye the American one. It’s the most I’ve seen in America in awhile, and I wave with the enthusiasm of, well, Miss America.
Other visitors coo over the spot because it’s where the oldest existing parliament, Alþing, formed. Alþing started the party in 930AD and only moved to Reykjavik in 1881, when shifting tectonic plates proved unsettling.
Night falls and Dave and I seek a grand finale. At 10pm we drive into the uninhabited country in search for the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, a grey sheet seals the sky. A gathering of tourists stares up like parrots in a covered cage.
A wee background on the Northern Lights, from Wikipedia: These are a “natural light display in the sky, caused by the collision of charged particles directed by the Earth’s magnetic field… commonly visible between 60 and 72°s north and south latitudes…In northern latitudes, the effect is known as the aurora borealis (or the northern lights), named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas…The Cree call this phenomenon the ‘Dance of the Spirits.’”
In truth, even when the lights are off, Iceland’s environment performs majestically. Bum numbing freeze; sulfuric and fishy aromas; bellowing waterfalls and ear-shocking silences; salmon delicious enough to corrupt a vegan; and landscapes as silver and jagged as a bread knife: They involve even the most oblivious passer-through. Such stimulation makes my beloved coffee look like anesthesia.
Not that I’m giving up coffee. My fingers need something toasty to grip once the bus driver pries me off the heating vent.