No trip to Iceland is complete without a visit to the highlands. With the help of an expert guide–equipped with a “Super Jeep”, Rick and I made the four-hour trek from Reykjavik to the rugged and almost other worldly landscapes near Eyjafjallajökul (pronounced EY-ya-fyad-luh-YO-kuld, a.k.a. E15–starts with “E” has 15 letters). You’ll recall that this volcano erupted in 2010, creating much disruption throughout Europe. Tons of its fine ash spewed into the atmosphere, prompting the cancellation of hundreds of domestic and international flights for weeks. While they say you have advanced warning of an eruption, I couldn’t help but be a wee bit nervous.
Cutting through valleys of ebony lava rock, I surveyed this eerily desolate yet strikingly beautiful landscape and imagined being back in earth’s primordial youth. We rumbled over deep ditches, through rushing streams that could inundate or even topple a lesser vehicle, and below the shadows of a volcanic mountain range. We were following the tracks of so many who had bravely (or foolishly) trekked here before. It’s not just adventurous Icelanders or curious tourists that come here to explore this strange and old-yet-new land. This terrain has been used as the backdrop for futuristic, ancient, and imaginary worlds in films such as the recent blockbuster Star Trek: Into Darkness and the upcoming re-interpretation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
At times, we were surrounded by nothing but rubble, and I wondered if anything could possibly thrive here. Then suddenly, broad swaths of (barely) inches-high foliage appeared as intricately woven rugs, blanketing mile-long stretches of this remote valley. Was this spared from E15, or was it evidence that nature–life–will always overcome adversity and destruction? I hoped that, somehow, both were true.
Sheep roamed the lower slopes of the valley and grazed the tender, wild grasses. They paid no attention to the rain, their thick Nordic wool virtually impenetrable. I could barely make out their ear tags, but clearly, these sheep belonged to someone who let them wander far from visible signs of civilization. The flock knew what it was doing. They followed their instincts to find stable a source of nourishment, and here, they had found it.
Further on, we stopped at the E15 glacier. Admiring its angles, its white-against-black contrasts, and its immensity, I felt small. And not just small, but humbled–awed in the way that only the majesty of nature can make you feel. Standing before this mammoth ice mass, I knew that is was only a fraction of its former self. Volcanic forces had melted, bombarded, and crumbled enormous sections of the ice, as well as the mountain that lay beneath and alongside the glacier. Its castoffs had been carried off to sea by torrents of meltwater. Three years later, what remains at its base are boulders too massive to be swept away, literal tons of volcanic ash, and tiny rivers of still melting ice. Still, despite the evidence of colossal destruction, tiny bits of life emerge and boldly strive to make their presence known.
As we continued on our trek, my abs ached from trying to find stability in our roller coaster ride through nature. My forearm and shoulder started to throb after having hit the walls of the Super Jeep so many times–bruises would become my adventure souvenir. And nausea became a rather inconvenient and unrelenting foe. But as soon as we arrived at our hiking stop, none of that mattered.
The heavy cloud cover started to break, and the rain diminished to a fine mist. A singular, unbroken rainbow stretched itself along the near bank of the dry, ash-laden riverbed. The look of the land was drastically different here. Shrub-lined trails led us steadily and steeply to the top of a high rock outcrop. Looking around, below, and across, we saw that trees were now relatively prolific, but their slender trunks and petite stature revealed their youth. This region was screaming with potential–not for civilization, urbanization, or industrialization, but for life, in all its untamed glory.
We headed back towards Reykjavik, and just before getting back to the paved roads, we stopped at a grand waterfall. Even standing three hundreds yards away, I sensed its power as it surged over the cliff and pummeled the area below. It seemed to have its own gravity, and it drew me closer. I needed to see this waterfall up close, to feel its chilling spray on my face, and to be deafened by its roar.
At its base, a man stood on a rock, fishing. He looked so at ease, so expertly natural. I moved behind the waterfall. I wanted to preserve the moment and kept trying to take pictures. Rick turned to me and, straining to be heard above the rushing water, said, “Put your camera away and just be in the moment with me.”
Perhaps it’s human nature that in our quest to understand nature, we try too much to encapsulate it, to control it. Whether it be with machinery, with a camera, with pen and paper, or a laptop, we want to hold onto its amazing power and beauty–perhaps for the betterment of society or simply for the betterment of self. And more often than not, we would perhaps do better to just stand back and be in the moment.