Small Wonder: Tiny Iceland’s Vast Majesty

The Strokkur geyser erupts every four to eight minutes. In between, it’s a brooding, bubbling hot-pot surrounded by a ring of gray steam and a flimsy looking guardrail. After a lull, the geothermal bowels of the Haukadalur valley start to crunch and stir. Strokkur—Icelandic for “churn”—begins to bulge into a blue dome of water before a plume of smoke whooshes through, rising to a height of 50 feet. A wall of steam engulfs onlookers as the geyser sulks back into its hole. For a moment, everyone loses track of each other. The moment the steam clears reveals my favorite thing about Iceland. All of a sudden, a diverse crowd of smiling faces—young, old, tourist, local—unites in a wave of expectancy: Again! Again! you can almost hear them thinking.

Green mosses cling to the gravel-and-lava landscape as if someone tried to plant an English country garden on the surface of the moon.

Last year, the Flying Longhorns took two trips to Iceland, lasting five and 11 days, respectively. Having visited the arctic isle previously, I spoke with travelers in both groups upon their returns, and a similar feeling of majesty was not lost on them. A relatively short flight from the East Coast over Greenland and its glaciers, Iceland is a world of deep blues, scratchy browns, and—despite the name—lush greens. “Whoever said that Greenland is a land of ice and Iceland is a land of green was absolutely correct,” says Ann Froelich, who went on the 11-day Exploring Iceland trip.

When I first landed at the Keflavík airport, a repurposed Cold War military base on the isle’s western edge, I was immediately struck by peculiarity—Iceland is volcanic, damp, marine, and sparse. Green mosses cling to the gravel-and-lava landscape as if someone tried to plant an English country garden on the surface of the moon. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I’ve traveled the world,” agrees Nicole Mathews, BBA, MPA ’09,  who went on the five-day trip for young alumni, Iceland Expedition.

Iceland is small—about the size of the Texas Panhandle, but with fewer people. Yet with so much to see, the five-day trip was briskly paced. Upon landing, Mathews and her group were immediately whisked off to the nearby Blue Lagoon resort, where mineral-rich milky blue water laps along the black rocks of the Grindavík lava field. It’s about as touristy as Iceland gets and yet was the perfect launching point into the country.

“We just got off the flight and then all of sudden you’re in this beautiful warm setting having a drink and getting to know everyone,” Mathews says. From there the group powered on to Reykjavik, which means “smoky bay.” Half of Iceland’s 330,000 population resides in this Scandinavian-style port known for its narrow alleys, lively harbor, and rocket ship-shaped cathedral. Being so far north, dusk in the summer time doesn’t fall until nearly midnight. The nightlife is attuned accordingly. “It was never-ending,” Mathews says. “With the sun not going down, you feel like you’re always at happy hour!”

Despite its brevity, Nicole’s trip hit all the highlights: the majestic Gullfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls, Strokkur, the rock pillars of Reynisdrangar, and the Thingvellir historic site, home of the world’s oldest democratic parliament, which was founded in 930. The group also visited the snow-capped volcano of Hekla and its cousin Eyjafjallajökull, which was last active in 2010. “It almost felt like Iceland was a dream,” says Mathews, who spent “day six” back in her Dallas office. “But not a moment was wasted. We got a lot of what Iceland has to offer.”

Iceland was founded by Vikings (yes, Vikings) who started to brave the chilly, choppy waters of the arctic circle in the 9th century. Residents proudly descend from these saga-writing poet-warriors and are keen to tell you exactly where J.R.R. Tolkien got all his ideas from. One can surely forgive locals for their home-grown version of American exceptionalism. This pint-sized culture is undergirded by a sense of difference and divergence rooted in both the landscape and the storied people who sailed west and discovered it.

If the shorter trip—aimed at a younger crowd—is more affordable and jam-packed, the longer trip means a slower pace and a wider net.

Froelich’s group started in Borgarnes, a quiet, cultured town on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where scenes from Ben Stiller’s 2013 movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were filmed. After a leisurely exploration of the peninsula, the group headed east to Iceland’s second city Akureyri and the volcanic Lake Mývatn, both of which sit on the northern edge of the isle’s arctic wilderness interior.

Over the course of several days Froelich’s group witnessed the molten mud pots in Namaskard, the igneous architecture of the Dimmuborgir lava field, and the Niagra-like majesty of Dettifoss. They also got to sample the local delicacy: dried shark husk. “We weren’t certain what we were going to find but it was amazing and pretty,” says Froelich, who wryly describes the meal as “interesting.” “It’s a different kind of environment … the things you did were less impacted by masses of people. You were simply experiencing nature.” After their northern sojourn, the group resorted to the more well-trodden “golden triangle” of Thingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. From there it was on to the southern volcanoes, beaches, and towns.

Tourism in Iceland has endured a geyser-like surge since the financial crisis of 2008, the local economy finding much shelter behind the wall of visitors that has been steadily building. It has proved to be something of a Faustian bargain—1 million people passed through Keflavík in 2017, or three times the nation’s population. And yet, Iceland still feels wild, open, stark, and welcoming. Could this change?

Half a mile from Strokkur lies its dormant cousin, Geysir. Several years ago, something underneath the Haukadalur valley crunched shut and Geysir stopped catering to the diverse, smiling crowds that used to gather. You hope the Icelandic soul won’t undergo a similar process.

Photos by Ben Wright and Nathan Rylander.

 

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