Saturday, April 7, 2018

West Iceland: Day 11

I feel as if we could drive around this country forever.  The mountains and fjords are familiar features of the landscape at this point; they seem normal, as if there could never be a landscape without mountains.  I try not to think of the big city waiting back home for me in just a few days.

We are traveling west towards Snæfellsnes Peninsula, making a couple of stops along the way.  It seems strange that we are getting closer to Reykjavik again; even though we know we've been driving in a circle around the country and only have a couple of days left, it feels as if we have just started the trip; that we could go forever.  Every time we stop in a gas station or campsite facility, there is always a large map of Iceland somewhere, prominently displayed.  I'm always drawn to it, running my finger along the Ring Road, tracing all the various turn-offs and detours that we did.  I'm amazed that we've come this far in such a short time; it really didn't feel like it would be a reality when we first started out.  The weather, so unpredictable and quick-changing in Iceland, has definitely been on our side.  We've narrowly missed gail force winds, road closures, and massive snowstorms by less than 24 hours.

Iceland, especially the north and Snæfellsnes, is dotted by cairns up high on the mountainsides.  These mysterious, man-made structures of unknown date, keep us company as we drive the often lonely and barren landscapes.  A small sign that at some point in time, there were other humans here.  Somehow, it makes it feel a little less lonely or isolated.  Ghosts of the past.

Our first stop today brought us intimately close to one of these ghosts.  Eriksstadir, the location of an old Viking home from the 10th century.  The ruins were discovered in the late 90's, and since then a reconstruction of what the home must have looked like has been created nearby.  We climbed the small path to explore the ruins.  The stone foundation of the house is all that was left, as the rest of the home would have been constructed out of turf.  The stones were overgrown with grass, but the shape of the foundation and the entrance-way were still clearly discernible, as was the paved path leading up to the home. 
The ancient stone foundation, grass-covered

We were the only ones there, and the stillness of the valley lent itself to historical imaginings.  I could almost see the ancient Vikings, walking around these hills, collecting water from the nearby streams, coming out of the doorway to their home... 

A reconstruction of what the house
at Eriksstadir would have looked like

Remainds of the monastery
After that, we headed to the town of Stykkisholmur, stopping on the way to climb to the top of the little mountain Helgafel.  Though small in size, this mountain was once venerated as holy by early Icelanders who worshiped the god Thor.  In the 10th century, a prominent Thor worshiper converted to Christianity and built a monastery at the top of the mountain; it's ruins can still be seen there today.

According to local folklore, if you walk up the entire mountain without looking backwards, without
View from the top of Helgafel
speaking to anyone, and make 3 wishes while facing east, then they will be granted.  We thus made the silent climb up the 73m Helgafel, taking in only the scenery in front of us and ensuring not to look behind, while thinking of our three wishes.  (I can't tell you what they are, or they won't come true).

At the top, we were able to speak again and look around.  I think I'm running out of words to describe the scenery in Iceland.  The 360 degree view of the mountains around us was breathtaking.

Being immersed in this kind of beauty every day does something to the spirit.  The crisp mountain air; the infinite rows of mountains, snow-capped or otherwise; the waterfall around every corner; the valleys and hills in muted shades of greens, reds, browns, and yellows - these things have imprinted themselves upon me so thoroughly that the landscape is starting to look familiar. 

The way the wind moves; the way the clouds come in quickly and leave just as quickly; it's all becoming a part of the way we move through the land.

View from the lighthouse hill in Stykkisholmur
Chocolate-lemon-custard pastry

We enjoyed some more kleina and another pastry in town, bringing them on our walk with us to the top of a hill with a lighthouse.  The views of all the little islands scattered around this part of the peninsula were worth the short hike.

The drive towards the western tip of the peninsula was full of almost every type of landscape we've seen in Iceland so far - mountains, fjords, black sand beaches, beautiful coastal views, shining blue lakes, volcanic lava fields... one thing after the other goes by our windows, and we periodically pull over into marked spots to more fully enjoy the views.

Lava field

Our final stop for the evening was the very popular Kirkjufell mountain.  The landscape had suddenly changed to snow-covered, and the trail to the falls near the mountain looked icy, so I put on my crampons and we set off.  The mountain is as picturesque and beautiful in person as it in the photos - even in winter.  I thoroughly enjoyed my easy walk up and down the slippery trails around the falls while everyone who was crampon-less skidded and slipped beside me.  It does pay to be prepared for every condition while in Iceland!

I spent a long time sitting on a rock and staring at the mountain, with the sound of the waterfall beside me.  I tried to memorize the moment - the stripes of white snow alternating with the black rocks on the side of Kirkjufell; the consistent pounding and splashing of the icy falls; the brilliant ice-blue of the icicles that hung on the rock wall behind the water; the purple-and-white mountains in the distance over a lake reflecting the blue of the sky, and the cold wind against my cheeks.  I felt truly lucky to be here, after coming all this way to this foreign, almost mythical place.

There is so much fragile beauty here, and my heart breaks when I see tourists trampling the delicate moss and lichen when they steer off the trails for selfies, not realizing these things take decades to grow back.  Iceland's remote landscape and nature seems unprepared for the influx of uninformed tourists that have started to come in recent years; this is evidenced by the recent closures of very popular places like Reykjadalur Hot Springs and the walking paths at Fjaðrárgljúfur cayon, due to large scale damage from tourists going off the marked paths.  I hope this gives the land time to heal.

There's always a catch-22 in traveling - the very beauty and remoteness we seek to experience becomes suddenly threatened by our desire to experience it.  We have tried very hard to be responsible travelers while on this trip.  I feel almost as if I've become over-protective about Iceland's beauty the way I would about a person I care about.  I want to embrace it, protect it against all the things that threaten it.  It's a strange feeling, not one I've really had about a country before.  

I think I've just fallen madly in love with this place. 

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