Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Ring Road Day 3: Mývatn, to Húsavík

Brace yourselves, folks, this day is gonna be one of the most busy travels days we'll be having.

Stopping for a moment on Route 1 on the way to Mývatn, we took a break at Ljósavatn, a lake-filled area punctuated by one farm and one lone church in the wilderness. The church was built by an architect that I met at a party! He gave us excellent recommendations of sight-seeing places along our trip, including Ljósavatn. His church features a beautiful wall of windows behind the altar, so there is nothing to separate the congregation from nature. Quite beautiful.

Nearby was Goðafoss, a small but beautiful waterfall.

We arrived at Lake Mývatn and its surrounding countryside. I have been wanting to see Mývatn for several years; many of you might remember my orchestral thesis by the same name, which tried to imagine the sounds of birds, bugs, water, and volcanic eruptions in this area. I had only imagined what it would be like. I was delighted to be able to play my piece on my headphones while looking at the lake, and I think it was a good complement (and compliment) to the landscape if I do say so myself.

Mývatn is sort of a place like no other on Earth, where within the scope of just a mile or two there are landscapes ranging from New England-like trees (such beautiful and unexpected autumn colors!) and forested nature paths, to lava formations, hot springs, geothermal power plants, and separating tectonic plates. "Travel between North America and Europe in thirty seconds! Just don't fall into a mud pit and be boiled alive", the brochures should say.

We stopped next at Dimmuborgir, a lava field of unusual rock formations and home to the Yule Lads, Elf-like Troll dudes who (so the story goes) hide/live in the rocks until Christmas, when they appear one by one to parade around the country for the holidays. That's another story I'm sure I'll discuss at another time.

We drove right around the bend of Dimmuborgir and arrived at Bjarnarflag, a hotbed of geothermal vents and human-made attempts (sometimes successful, sometimes not) to capture the geothermal energy trapped beneath the ground by essentially plopping a power plant on top. We spend some time nerding around here, recording the steam sounds and photographing a million different Mars-like hills. Don't get too close, light-colored soil is a sign of something cooking underfoot and the ground could give way under you.

Bjarnarflag is also the site of a former algae plant which captured little particles for use in toothpaste, fertilizers, etc. But now, it's just a scary, otherworldly lake, dangerous, probably toxic, and totally jaw-dropping. There are several pipes of runoff water which shoot into the lake violently, half-boiling and half just making a scary ruckus.

I've never really been to a place before that felt physically like this-it really gave me a sense of real potential danger, I was frankly a little scared but also exhilarated. The ground rattles at some places with the force of steam coming out of the ground.

Even the puddles have a strange glow from minerals in the soil. This is the Earth at work! It's not humans that somehow f-ed up the ground here (well, except for that fake Blue Lagoon), it's Nature just doing its millenia-long thing. This hot steaming waterfall here, this sizzling pile of rocks there- it's happening, for realz, no DisneyHollywoodification about it.

On to something more relaxed: a safe version of the toxic lake we just visited. The Mývatn Nature Baths (Jarðböðin). Like it's big brother the Blue Lagoon near Keflavík Airport, this swimming pool was a delight after a windy day and a great place to swim in the mineral-rich lagoon. I naïvely expected the ground underfoot to be white, like the bluish-white waters. But it's black lava sands (silly me).

We drove to Húsavík to spend the night, which was a much shorter drive than expected, through barren fields and cracking tubes of lava that looked like giant black loaves of bread. We spent the night in an older couple's guest house, and the owner only spoke Icelandic with us. We were essentially sleeping in his children's old bedrooms, and we felt a little awkward using his kitchen while he and his wife watched TV (and might I add, sang along to the TV too, our karaoke-like hits of the night included 'Hava Nagila' and Rihanna's 'Please Don't Stop the Music').

But even with dealing with the town's overwhelming fish smell and disappointment that the Phallological Museum was closed, Húsavík was charming. And with art like this on the walls, how could you resist a cozy stay here? Cross-stitched Fishermen for Everyone.

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