Our road trip began along the south coast east of Reykjavik. On our left we could see snow capped mountains in the distance. To the right of us were flat green fields dotted with sheep and horses, interspersed with lava flows and the wide flood plains of glacial rivers. And I do mean flood. What looked to us like benign creeks and rivers In the clearing June weather showed a history of washing out roads and bridges, jumping banks, and generally causing mayhem. (I joked, after the fourth or fifth morning of discovering that what happens in Icelandic showers does not exactly stayed in the showers, that Icelandic water doesn’t follow our silly human rules about drains and tiles and such.)
The reason for these floods is the other half of the yin and yang of Icelandic elements: Fire. Because Iceland sits on the cusp of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates it is the most actively volcanic area on earth, with over 100 active volcanoes. The continually upwelling Mid Atlantic Ridge (which is what is pushing those two plates slowly apart) has created powerful hotspots. When there is a sub-glacial eruption, the glacial ice melts and can create epic floods called jokulhlaup.
Those glaciers – which we could see on our left, beyond the rising mountains – fuel massive waterfalls, which were just aching to be photographed: tall thin graceful plumes that cascaded before caves into deep round pools which led to soft spoken brooks that a bride and groom might be posing beside; meandering streams that spread like lace black igneous cliffs; massive torrents that thundered down chasms which echoed with their intensity, each had their own character.
There were also tourists. The south road is the most heavily traveled and visited, owing to its accessibility to day-trippers from Reykjavik. Now, my perspective as an ex-New Yorker and now resident of Southern California, is to laugh at calling the driving population of Iceland “traffic”. It was easy to get complacent walking back and forth across the road during our photo stops without actually checking to see if a car was coming, so this was a far cry from the hoards on Interstate 5. But at many of the waterfalls and other scenic attractions, we were overrun by bus loads of iPhone toting, selfie stick waving, drone launching sightseers who didn’t seem to actually ever look at what was in front of them except to pose for their next Instagram update. I’ve found the same mindset in museums, in front of the greatest art ever created: a stream of gawkers who simple click a shot of each painting instead of actually… looking at them. So we learned to work around their rhythm, because few of them were interested in staying in any one spot for long, which created viewing gaps where we could set up carefully considered, carefully composed images instead of snapshots. It was a joy when we arrived at bus-free spots.
But there is a reason that so many people have come to see these things. The sites are spectacular. The glaciers are always a hulking white presence in the background, supplying the pure, clear rivers that have created the chasms through the volcanic rock.