Sunday, May 06, 2007

by Bryan Snyder

"Hey, that's just like in "The Terminal"!" the young lady
remarked, noting my creative arrangement of airport chairs into a
functional bed. I flashed my best Tom Hanks smile and waved back, but it was
half-hearted. The situation seemed much more comical in the movie.

I was reliving this Hollywood scene because the plane
coming from Iceland to pick me up was delayed six hours. My night in the air
had become a night at the airport. After a two-hour search through all the
dusty, unused corners of the terminal, this makeshift bed was the best
I could do. Unfortunately, once I discovered that my watch alarm had
broken, I had to give up on the idea of sleep altogether. I was certain that
I'd miss my 5am departure if I tried. I eventually made it to Iceland,
quite exhausted, and was given a place to stay by a generous Latvian family
who explained that their friend at the Keflavík airport had caused the
delay by ramming the plane with a luggage conveyor belt. These things happen.

Iceland is a turbulent island. Massive icecaps hide the
presence of sleeping volcanoes which come to life periodically,
unleashing devastating rivers of lava or creating floods powerful enough to carry
icebergs the size of skyscrapers. On the positive side, Icelanders
have created one of the world's most sustainable economies, piping
geothermically-heated water into all the houses and using subterranean
heat sources to generate cheap electricity.

One power plant has created a major tourist attraction by channeling its
condensed steam into an artificial pond called the Blue Lagoon. Guests
apply white silica mudpacks to their faces and lounge about wearing
sunglasses in the milky-blue waters. I joined them for a swim, but
with all the black lava, steam swirling everywhere and white faces drifting in
and out of view, I felt like I was being stalked by evil clowns in an
apocalyptic Mad Max movie.

Another family shuttled me to Þórsmörk – "The Woods of Thor" -
an anomaly in Iceland because of the presence of real trees, though
most were shorter than I was. From there I ascended 3,000 feet to a
mountain pass between the fourth and sixth-largest icecaps in Iceland. It was a
strain on my poorly-conditioned leg muscles to carry my 50-pound
backpack all that distance.

One evening, an arctic fox loped over to my tent to see
what all the commotion was about. From three feet away it eyeballed me
curiously. It wore a sleek, black summer coat, but its white, fluffy
tail had yet to make the transition out of winter. Satisfied with its
inspection, it scampered on down the trail, leaving me to shake off my
amazement and prepare another meal of ramen and potatoes.

The next day I descended past an endless series of waterfalls
pouring over lava terraces on my journey down to the ocean. Thick,
bulging growths of moss clung to every lava outcropping so that the place
looked like it was being hugged to death by giant, pale green caterpillars. I
slept next to a 200-foot waterfall, walked to the highway, and faster
that you can say "Þingvallavatnssiglingar" (which for me is about 3 hours)

I hitchhiked all the way to the southeast corner of the island – to
Jökulsárlón, a lagoon filled with icebergs at the foot of a massive
glacier. I sat down for a while, seeking words to describe what I
was seeing. Gravity was pushing snow down from the icecaps, forcing it to
run in flat rivers of ice towards the coastline like a rolling pin pushing
dough before it. At the leading edge of the glacier, great blocks of ice
stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a long wall, silent as soldiers, toes dipped in
the lagoon, waiting for their chance to break off with a thunderous crack
and topple into the icy water to join their brethren. Arctic terns tucked
in their wings and plunged into the spaces between icebergs, seeking fish,
while seals poked their whiskered heads above the lagoon surface and
snorted at all the tourists' cameras. But the grandest spectacle were the
icebergs themselves - each one a sculpture in its own right, sweating in shades
of crystal blue, sculpted by sun and seawater, spinning around the lagoon
until small enough to escape into the greater ocean.

Following rumor and intuition, I discovered my own private iceberg-filled
lagoon nearby, beneath the shadow of Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland's
highest mountain. I pitched my tent on a promontory above the water and
exhulted in the sheer joy of being in the presence of such natural wonder. Or
maybe I was just plain gloating. This was exactly what I came to Iceland for,
I thought.

A night in the San Francisco airport was a small price to pay
for what surrounded me now. Glaciers creaked and groaned across the placid
water, while strange birds meowed in the distance like lonely kittens
stranded on icebergs. The sky at midnight was still the color of a
sunset, so I donned a sleeping mask to fool my body into thinking that night
had fallen, zipped up the sleeping bag, and reluctantly willed myself into

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