The Real Land of Fire and Ice

So what's Iceland like, you ask? They say that Greenland is actually all ice, and Iceland is green, but what they forget to mention is that the green is actually just the moss and lichen on the lava fields. Iceland is a volcanic island, with gorgeous soaring mountains everywhere you look. There aren't any foothills ... the "mountains" just shoot suspiciously straight up from flat plains of lava rock. There also aren't very many plants or animals ... only 1% of the country is wooded (due partially to logging and partially to climate change) and birds and arctic foxes are the only native wildlife of mention. There aren't even any native insects, though some flies are said to have hitched a ride in recently.

The combined impact of all this is a landscape that is magnificently desolate, punctuated by grand waterfalls like Gullfoss, hot springs like the Blue Lagoon, vast stretches of glacier, and impressive geysirs (the original "Geysir" is in Iceland). In fact, most of Iceland's electrical power is produced by geo-thermal plants, and hot water for homes comes straight from the hot springs under most of the country (smells vaguely of sulfur coming out of the tap), while the cold is routed from the glaciers (we poured out our water bottles and refilled them from the tap before getting on the plane, that's how good it tastes). Most of the country's population lives in Reykjavik, which is a modern city on the southwest coast ... Icelanders seem to have quite a predisposition toward public sculpture and corregated metal as home siding, if Reykjavik is any indication.

Also of note in Iceland is the history of the people: Iceland is the home of the oldest parlimentary body, the Viking Thing. The inhabitants of Iceland would meet every summer in a valley called Thingvellir, where they would pass laws and rule on cases, as well as arrange marriages. One person was designated to recite the laws of Iceland by memory, which would take three summers to complete. This valley is also the product of the continental rift between the European tectonic plate and the North American plate. On each side of the valley, east and west, is a long line of cliffs, which mark the position of each of those plates; as the plates push away from each other, the valley floor falls several inches and the cliff walls retract. Also in view of Thingvellir are over 100 volcanoes, making for an amazing view across the water of the valley's lake.

And last but not least, I have to mention the Icelandic horses. They look like shaggy ponies, though genetically they're horses ... they actually decend from Viking horses, and are unique in that they have 5 gaits where typical quarterhorses only have 3. One of these is called a "tolt," and is about the speed of a trot without all the jarring ... it feels like you're sitting in a chair, hardly moving at all. It's quite an experience to be tolting through the lava fields, with volcanoes looming above you. I highly recommend it!

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