The road goes ever on and on
down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the road has gone,
and I must follow, if I can,
pursuing it with eager feet,
until it joins some larger way
where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then?
I cannot say.
— J.R.R. Tolkien, 1892–1973
In a 2007 survey conducted by the University of Iceland, 64% of citizens polled had some belief in huldufolk or hidden people, and alfar, or elves. Almost two-thirds had some belief in guardian angels, or fetches. I found out why during a four-day, 400-mile round-trip jaunt from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, to its southernmost point of Vik.
One of the newest land masses on the planet, Iceland’s sweeping vistas are alternately majestic, playful, and even frightening, giving rise to some of mankind’s oldest emotions. Goosebumps, gasps, giggles and even tears are among the gamut of reactions that the country’s landscape elicits. Within an hour’s drive, a visitor can walk on lava fields and glaciers, across black beaches and verdant fields, and under waterfalls and rainbows. In our trek across southern Iceland, my husband Tom and I experienced the magic of an otherworldly geography that has inspired long-held folk traditions.
On a misty spring morning, we left Reykjavik and meandered along the winding Route 1, with long stretches as the lone car on the road. Our heads swiveled continuously, gawking at the scenery–herds of Icelandic horses romping in emerald pastures, plumes of steam rising from a geothermal field, and immense snow-capped mountains standing sentinel.
On a flat stretch of road, we saw the Westman Islands off to our right, a family of triangular rocks rising from the shimmering Atlantic. Ahead, something on the face of a steep green hillside glinted in the sun. As we got closer we realized it was an immensely long strand of gushing water spilling over the horizon high above—the 131-foot Seljalandsfoss waterfall.
We swung left, joined the handful of cars in the parking lot, and approached the cascading water. No rangers, no ticket office, no lines. We stood together transfixed, our mouths hanging open, when Tom realized a couple of people actually stood behind the sheet of water. He left me to climb the rocky path to join them, while I remained mere feet from the pool at the waterfall’s bottom. Damp from its spray, I imagined what it must have been like for early Icelandic settlers when they first approached this roaring wonder. Deeply moved by Mother Nature’s powerful display, tears of awe and humility welled in my eyes.
Back on the ribbon of road carved into the undulating landscape, we passed numerous tiny communities nestled at the foothills of glaciers, no more than homesteads, each with a cluster of buildings painted in cheerful shades of reds. The buildings often appeared to be built into the hillside, their roofs and walls made of turf. The effect was cozy and conjured images of hobbits; the practical reality was that the earth enclosure created warmth during the frigid Icelandic winters. I felt real respect for the people who had the spirit and fortitude to carve out a life in a corner of this vast open space.
Approaching the village of Vik, we pulled over to better read a sign. The view below us recalled Brigadoon, glimpsed through patches of dewy fog drifting by. In a steep valley below, a river flowed toward an elegant white church with a graceful steeple, perched on a ridge. Fanning out below was a small, peaceful village.
Once down in the pleasant valley, we stopped for coffee at a casual restaurant on the shoreline. The clouds parted, and we decided to take a stroll on what was once named one of the world’s ten most beautiful beaches by Islands magazine. In the late afternoon sun, we crossed a field of waving purple lupines onto the black sand beach. The waters were turbulent and foaming aquamarine waves surged and crashed. Beyond the surf, at the far end of the beach, strangely shaped black columns reached into the sky. I later learned these rock pillars are said to be trolls trying to drag a three-masted ship to land; according to legend, when daylight broke, they turned to stone.
That night a fierce rain pummeled the roof of the lodge we bunked in and the next morning we saw scattered clouds hanging low in the sky and in a hurry to move on. Once back through the mountain pass, a grassy plain stretched ahead, with the sparkling Atlantic off to our left. Slowly beginning to appear before us on the horizon was a huge, shimmering rainbow, which we took as an auspicious sign that a good day lay before us.
We backtracked on Route 1 for about an hour, the landscape still fresh, and took a right on Route 26. We were heading for the gate to hell, according to folk lore, otherwise known as the volcano Hekla. We climbed rolling hills sparsely populated with sleek horses in a palette of earth tones and an occasional red-roofed farm. When the terrain began to level out, we traversed a lonely road down the middle of a vast lava field of grey gravel. To our right, in the distance, sculpted dunes bore the scars of a powerful surge. Beyond, Hekla presided over it all, a grand dame with a white shawl of snow across her shoulders.
Mile after mile went by, with the only change in the scenery being the appearance of groupings of oddly-shaped black rocks. We laughed nervously, saying to each other that they looked like trolls. It occurred to me these were the remains of real volcanic activity, and just when that activity might have been, I didn’t know. We had heard that Hekla was overdue for an eruption and I began to feel genuinely uneasy. I could tell Tom was relieved too when at last we reached an intersection with another road, and knew from our map that we had some space between us and Hekla.
Later that afternoon, we witnessed up close the geologic gyration for which Iceland gave the world vocabulary the word “geyser.” At the geothermal valley of Haukadalur, we joined a dozen or so other tourists rimming the perimeter of blow hole Strokkur. Seconds and then minutes ticked by and I began to wonder if we were all waiting for a geological Godot. Then the small crowd collectively drew in its breath as the earth blew a giant translucent bubble. Time seemed to stand still for an instant as we intently watched the embryonic form grow and then explode in a tremendous rush of energy, shooting a powerful surge of water 65 feet high. We all screamed and shouted in great delight, looking at each other in astonishment, grinning madly.
In the span of just a few days, we had traversed a Tolkienesque topography that had alternately thundered, whispered and whooshed, all the while imparting timeless lessons that are the stuff of epic journeys and enduring folk tales. As evidenced by our Icelandic trek, as we make our way on life’s mysterious path, we can be certain the unexpected lies ahead. Around the bend, we are sure to meet scenery that embodies either inspiration, terror or comic relief. In each encounter, we can experience the emotion evoked, extract our own meaning, appreciate the divine…and sally forth to the next phenomenon that lies beyond the horizon.
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