When Ingólfur Arnarson first approached the coast of Iceland in 874, he threw two carved pieces of wood overboard and followed them to their landing place southwest of the place he named Reykjavik, the Cove of Smoke, because of the steam rising from the hot springs all around. This is the beginning of Icelandic history because before Ingólfur’s arrival the island had been uninhabited except for the visits of Irish monks considered by some to be hypothetical, escaping from the world. Before the arrival of humankind, the only land mammal living on Iceland was the Arctic fox who probably arrived during the Ice Age. And please don’t ask me what he ate, since apparently even mice were introduced at a later period.
I arrived in Iceland by air and not by sea, at Keflavik which is somewhat south of Ingólfur’s landing site. Landing at Keflavik is a bit like landing on the moon. You come in over dark and brooding waves which merge almost imperceptibly with dark and brooding lava flow on which almost nothing seems to grow. It looks, in fact, as though it had been frozen in the moment of boiling, rocks belched up like great bubbles on the land.
Since the collapse of its banking industry–a collapse so traumatic that Iceland is considering adopting the Canadian dollar as its national currency, although that’s a tale for another day–Iceland is doing everything it can to attract tourists. My Boston-Keflavik-Amsterdam flight was several hundred dollars less expensive than anything I could find this summer, and allowed me to break my journey for as many days as I liked between legs, so I decided to spend two days in Reykjavik. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland ever since reading Njal’s Saga, and I found a ridiculously inexpensive room, and besides I wanted to visit the Blue Lagoon and go horseback riding. There were no academic pretenses or excuses to my initial plan; I just felt I’d earned it (an academic excuse evolved later, but that’s for another post).
So at ten o’clock this morning I stepped out of a warm spa building into bracing 40F weather, wearing only a bathing suit. I only had to suffer the chilly wind for the ten steps it took me to lower myself into the weird robin’s egg blue waters of the lagoon, waters that seem even bluer because of the harsh black basalt that surrounds them. I’m not going to go into detail about the chemical composition of that water, or how it’s related to the lava beds below or the near by geothermal plant, because frankly I don’t really understand any of that, but I will say that early in the morning, with only a handful of other people in the water paddling silently about, it was a remarkable experience, eerie and yet strangely meditative. The steam above the water was so heavy, because of the difference between water and air temperature, that all you had to do was move about 20 feet away from another person and you were screened away by the mist, in your own private universe. Sometimes, to make things even stranger, a human figure would surge out of the swirling fog face entirely painted white with silica from the bottom of the pool. It’s supposed to do miracles for your skin (though it wreaks havoc on your hair!).
Ok, it’s not ancient. Maybe it’s not even “real”, whatever that means, since the pool was created as a by-product of the abovementioned geothermal plant. And it’s too expensive, and they pressure you pretty hard to buy Blue Lagoon skin care. But after 4 hours of unsleep on the plane, and for that first half hour in particular, when I sat in the hot water at the edge of the pool and looked out over the black lava fields towards the snowcapped fells, feeling that no one in the world existed but me, it was entirely worth it.