TECTONIC TURMOIL and INNER PEACE
Tectonic turmoil is an apt description for Iceland’s regular, violent and spectacular geographic upheaval. Split down its middle by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland is one of the few places on earth where parting tectonic plates generate a land mass above the ocean floor. To the west the North-American tectonic plate bids a fiery good-bye. To the east the Eurasian plate responds in rumbles. And along the parting rift Iceland grows outward and upward as lava boils up from far below and solidifys at the icy surface.
This is the land of “fire and ice”. This turmoil bears a resemblance to the turmoil that punctuated my life at the time and it seemed an apt coincidence that my next adventure would take me to this fiery destination. While I wondered if I would feel comfortably familiar as I witnessed the turmoil that punctuates the land, what I really felt in anticipation of my trip was a sense of peace. I am a lover of nature - I feel a sense of serenity for which there is no comparison when surrounded by fresh air, hills, the ocean and the wide open sky. I knew I’d find plenty of this in Iceland.
The sun crept low on the horizon on a cool February morning as my plane touched down in the town of Keflavik an hour west of the capital city of Reykjavik. Only a short stay was planned and I was booked on the highly recommended ‘Golden Circle Tour’ for a full day, 300 km loop that would allow me to see three of Iceland’s famous geographic wonders. Iceland has a well developed and highly organized tourist industry that allows multitudes of visitors to appreciate this country while staying often for short stopovers only. The Golden Circle Tour was no exception. A bus arrived early at our hotel, picked up guests for locally advertised tours and deposited us at a central depot. A quick bus change and our tour was underway.
Our introduction to Iceland was hosted by a guide who was both knowledgeable and endearingly proud of her country. As the bus wound through barren valleys we learned about our first destination -Gullfoss - the ‘Golden Falls’ from which our tour got it’s name. At a little over 100 feet, the multi-tiered Gullfoss is the largest waterfall in Europe. Legend says that when foreign investors decided to lease Gullfoss in order to harness its’ incredible hydro-electric power, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of the landowner, threatened to throw herself into the churning waters to prevent its inevitable destruction. She then walked barefoot to Reykjavik to raise awareness and is credited with saving the falls.
I followed a narrow path that hugged the cliffs of the Hvítá river to where it met the thundering waters of Gullfoss. I reflected on how much the brave Sigríður must have valued the beauty of this tumultuous landscape and gave silent thanks that the opportunity to witness it had not been taken from us.
As the Golden Circle Tour’ continued, barren valleys punctuated with rising steam hinted at the turmoil below. Resourceful Icelandic inhabitants of the past were known to cook food in the bubbling waters of these natural hot springs. Soon we arrived at Laugarfjall hill in the Haukadalur Valley where evidence of subterranean turmoil is clearly visible at the surface. A short path through a steaming field of bubbling sulfurous springs brought us to the famous Great Geysir, for which all other geysers are named. While Geysir has been active in the past, current activity is intermittent and unpredictable. Just 50m from the Great Geysir, Stokkur spouts boiling water 30m every five minutes. Tourists will not be disappointed - eruptions spout like clockwork and are expected to continue according to this schedule unless disrupted by one of the earthquakes or earth-rattling volcanic disruptions so common across Iceland. Stokkur provided us a few spectacular previews as we approached the area by bus and a few more spectacular re-runs as we departed.
As we left the spouting water behind, we headed downwards into a barren valley of fissures bounded by one long and jagged cliff. My fascination with the natural world was well satisfied as I stood on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, tectonic plates to the west and east, a newly formed ridge of hardened lava at my feet. The new rock displayed ridges and swirls formed by flowing lava as it shaped the valley floor. Deep chasms highlighted the constant turmoil that seethes in a jagged line and splits the country down the middle.
Our guide continued with a fascinating discourse that told a more human story of this barren valley.Þingvellir National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is considered by Icelandic people to be the center of their cultural and political heritage. The worlds longest running continuous parliament was established here in 930 AD and this laid the ground for a common culture and united identity. Amid this center of turmoil in a geographically tumultuous country, one wonders what led to such an institution of peace? I imagine the lives of those wild Vikings of 1000 years ago - sailing the treacherous oceans and building a home in this barren and tumultuous land. They found a way to establish peace in the place they called home despite the turmoil that raged all around.
Prior to my adventure in Iceland I read Eric Weiner’s “Geography of Bliss”. Iceland was listed as one of those fortunate locations where people are among the happiest on earth. So it seems that the establishment of peace 1000 years ago is a sentiment that has endured through the centuries and mirrors the peace and contentment Eric Weiner attributes to Icelandic people to this day.
This leads me to one of my best ever take-aways from a travel destination, and I can thank those wild Vikings for their insight: When you’re surrounded by turmoil, make sure you can go home to peace.
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