A Whole Lotta Lava

A Natural Tour of Iceland
By Hannah Holmes
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When we hand over the dust-caked Corolla we had rented at Iceland's airport, we quail before the 20-something Hertz Viking.

"We got a flat," we confess. He doesn't look up. We hesitate, then continue.

"And we lost a hubcap."

The Viking looks at us sternly.

"Only one?" he asks. And then he stamps our papers. In Iceland, it turns out, your first hubcap is free. In my notes, I write, "I'm starting to see how this could be Heaven."

Planetary Dyspepsia
Heaven indeed, but a very quirky one. Eccentricity is a national characteristic in Iceland, prominent both in its people, who take their automobiles to very strange places, and in the country’s odd and wonderful landscape. Iceland is a Pennsylvania-sized island formed by a giant attack of planetary dyspepsia. The whole of Iceland sits atop, and was formed by, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a north-south seam in the earth's crust that's continuously ripping wider and leaking lava. In some areas, the ridge spits up in a marvelous myriad of ways.

One morning, we head east to the land of planetary spit-up, toward Myvatn. It's beautiful, bumping through the green hills, and we pull over for waterfalls and to visit with a pack of sturdy Icelandic ponies. The ponies are wild-eyed and jumpy but unexpectedly sweet, nuzzling my face.

While many tourists come to Myvatn for the preternatural clouds of ducks, geese, and swans, I am more entranced by its burpy geology. We start the Spitting Up Tour in a field of boiling mud. Among the pots of burping gray goop is a man-high tower of stones blowing steam with the bellow of a jet engine. It's scary to approach, scarier still to imagine what lies beneath the thin skin of the planet that exhales so ferociously.

We drive into the hills, past a tangle of pipes and red barns at the Krafla geothermal power plant, and pull off near the Krafla lava field. First, we walk on old lava, a cracked, foot-thick plate of graying stone, with moss and feisty pink flowers digging into its surface. After a quarter mile, we come to a new layer, blacker, and sagging over the last, without life. And then we come to the hot stuff.

Krafla is a long gash in the ground that periodically bleeds black lava. The freshest gush, vintage 1984, lies in crumbles and frozen ripples, like magnified fudge, for miles around. And down the middle of the lava field is a zipper of steam. I'm drawn there, though the smell of sulfur is starting to produce a gag reaction. I climb between sharp hunks of lava and step down into the broken chaos of the fissure. It's warm and damp, and I'm standing on the newest earth on Earth. When the tumbling clouds split open, I lean inside a burst bubble of rock and watch the planet's white breath rise to meet the rain.

Another day, we climb on a normal-looking bus that carries us deep into the interior, over a black ocean of lava. The bus labors at walking speed up a swell, does a drunken nose stand, wallows, then labors up the next one.

Six or seven hours into a 13-hour voyage, I find myself marveling at how people will travel over lifeless and hostile heaps of rock in order to look at more lifeless and hostile heaps of rock, mountains, and craters. And I'm as cuckoo about Iceland's rocks as Icelanders, who, rather than loathing the rude and ubiquitous lumps, incorporate them into everything from lawn ornaments to dried-flower arrangements and lamps. Inside the mammoth crater, Askja, I find an icy lake whose beach is composed entirely of rainbow-colored pumice stones.

And the Spitting Up Tour continues. The ash fields and craters south of Reykjalith were judged so perfectly lunar by NASA that they sent the astronauts here to get used to desolation. So one morning, we hike through Dimmuborgir, a field of 60-foot, frolicking Martians formed when pipes of lava squirted up through a lake, to look for Neil Armstrong's footsteps.

The desolation proves ungodly beautiful. We emerge from the scrubby trees to find swirling, black dunes of ashy sand, studded with lonesome gray stones. All of Iceland quickly disappears as we climb the black ridges, and the sudden emptiness brings tears to my eyes. I run down the gritty side of a blown-out black crater, flop on my back under dull clouds, and wonder what brings the tears: the huge beauty of this blasted country? The heart-breaking tenacity of the human race? Simple road-weariness? Enlightenment doesn't come, but rain does, light and steady, evaporating from our bare legs as we wander home.

Published: 8 May 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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