Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Essential Iceland

“You cannot take the tunnel today,” proclaimed my friend Þórður.

It was too sunny. A brilliant sunny day in September of last year, and I was off on a roadtrip from Reykjavik to Reykholt, home of the greatest writer of the Middle Ages, the Icelandic chieftain Snorri Sturluson.

The fall colors were bright—as bright in Iceland as they are now, here in Vermont, something that surprised me.

So instead of taking the coast road north (and the time-saving tunnel under Hvalfjordur), I took Þórður's advice and drove inland from Iceland’s capital city to Thingvellir, where the ancient open-air parliament or Althing was held, and followed an old road north from there.

I was in the middle of writing Song of the Vikings, my biography of Snorri Sturluson, and I wanted to see the Iceland he saw. How better than in a jeep, driving the old road north from the Assembly Plains.

Snorri went this way on horseback. He was probably more comfortable on his smooth-gaited Icelandic horse than I was in my rented jeep. The road is washboarded—torturousmore than you can ask a set of shock-absorbers to handle.

The vast brown plain looks smooth from a distance, but it is full of broken ground, boulders, hidden streams, and crevices.

It’s desolate. One bus passed in two hours—a group of medieval studies students from the University of Iceland also taking advantage of this sunny day to tour from Thingvellir to Reykholt.

I pulled over to pee, and, of course, a second car came by, a regular car (not a jeep), and going rather fast, I thought, kicking up dust driving right into the sun. The old woman in the passenger’s seat looked horrified. She had a long, bumpy road to go.

A bit of silvery glacier, like an inverted smile. A raven kronking. A flock of little brown birds with wings of white. Patches of dirty old snow, of lichen burned a brilliant red. Long stretches of nothing but gold-brown rocks.

After three hours of slow driving and many stops for photos, I was very tired (too much of a good thing) and happy to come down into the valley and drive a paved road. There was grass beside the Geita, golden yellow with heavy seedheads, and red-leaved brush on the hillsides.

Along Hvitarsida, the White River snaked through golden birches tall as hedges. I came back a day or two later to picnic and watch the light play over the woodlands.

After a sprinkle of rain, Iceland’s autumn colors can be almost gaudy. As brilliant as the fall foliage in Vermont—though Iceland’s trees are too short to form that golden leafy canopy Vermont provides.

No waterfalls like this one in Vermont, though, with jets bursting out through the porous lava rock.

A rainbow welcomed me home to Reykholt, home of the 13th-century chieftain and writer, Snorri Sturluson. Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths will be published October 30 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Join me again next Wednesday at for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.

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