When you’re driving across Iceland, ten miles from nowhere, you don’t expect to be stopped by a pair of jaywalking puffins.
The birds, with oversized, red-and-yellow beaks, waddled in front of my jeep rental. I screeched to a halt. The noise failed to startle the birds into flight. The road was narrow, like most roads in Iceland, with a steep embankment and no shoulders. There was no room to drive around them.
Puffins are common here in the summer. They are small, stubby-winged, and, by all accounts, delicious. A traditional delicacy and Iceland’s national emblem, the aquatic birds winter on the North Atlantic, then come ashore in mid- to late May to breed.
The date was May 19, so my two puffins were right on time. I, however, was late. My itinerary for the day included three destinations: Geysir--the steam fountain from which other famous geysers, such as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, take their name; scenic Gulfoss waterfall, with its 105-foot drop and majestic mile-and-a-quarter-long ravine, and Mount Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes.
You can drive to Geysir and Gulfoss in about an hour-and-a-half from hotels in Reykjavík. To approach Mount Hekla, north of Selfoss, requires another hour of driving. Unless the puffins moved soon, I would not get to my third destination until the next day. My jeep idled.
Waiting, I gazed past the puffins and admired the view. The road dissected endless fields of grass, still brown and patchy with snow from the long Icelandic winter. Amid the grasses, geothermal vents coughed up white plumes of steam, and the air was ripe with sulfur. Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the American and African continental plates are pulling apart at a rate of almost an inch a year, allowing steam, heat, and magma--underground lava--to bubble up from the depths. In the distance, I could see white-capped Mount Hekla thrust its peak into the clouds.
I yanked my eyes away from the vista and rechecked the road, where two tiny puffin heads still were visible just beyond the hood. Finally I had the bright idea to startle them by honking the horn. They waddled toward the edge of the road. I tapped the gas, inching forward. The birds’ wings spread and launched into flight, leading the way to Mount Hekla.
Iceland is an island slightly larger than the state of Maine (39,758 square miles) with a population of only 275,000, nearly 60 percent of whom live in or around the capital city, Reykjavík. You don’t have to go very far in Iceland to get off the beaten path.
Wherever you go, there is always a view. Imagine the endless views of Kansas and the big sky of Montana. Now add the gently rolling hills and rustic green-brown of Scotland, with fields dotted with grazing sheep. In the backdrop, place the steep, snowy mountains of Alaska. In the foreground, steep cliffs and flat-topped mesas jut toward the sky like a misplaced slice of Arizona. Add in the briny salt smell of the New England coast. Finally, include just a hint of Tolkien’s Mordor. Put them all together, and that’s Iceland.
The first Vikings to visit Iceland in the 800s A.D. came with no maps, no guides, no directions. The arrived in longboats, sailing from Scandinavia in a perilous journey that lasted weeks. To decide where to settle they flung wooden planks overboard and built settlements wherever the wood washed ashore, believing the wood was guided by Thor, the Norse god of thunder.
Today you can fly to Iceland from Boston’s Logan Airport in just five hours. Unlike the Vikings, modern visitors are advised to make reservations first. Thor is no longer considered a reliable travel agent.
I spent six days in Iceland. Everywhere was a waterfall, a glacier, a mountain, a volcano. Iceland’s landscape still calls to me. Someday, I will return. There is always more to see.