When my father left the North American continent for the first time in his life to visit his expatriate son, I knew that I had to take him on the Golden Circle, though. First of all, he was here on a short trip, and from experience I’d learned that marathon trips around the Ring Road, the highway that circles Iceland, don’t allow for full appreciation of the area—they’re the equivalent of a bad college survey course. Secondly, we had a limited budget and time. Third, my father is not weighed down by an overwhelming sense of irony, and he appreciates things like race cars, classical paintings, and wonders of the world. For my needs, I decided to rent a small jeep, and break the tour of the Golden Circle into two days. To aid us in this, we picked up a handy Audio Explorer CD, though more for kitsch-value than for any other reason. As the Golden Circle is the most travelled tourist destination in Iceland, we decided against a map—we thought we’d just follow the line of busses. Day One- Þingvellir In day one, we discovered that there wasn’t a large line of busses. Even during the busy tourist season, the highways were not especially crowded at all. My plan to simply follow traffic was a bad one. I had to look at signs—again, not difficult, but I did miss one turn, onto highway 52, a half hour from Þingvellir that took me out toward beautiful, but less historically significant scenery. With time and a fair amount of travel food, this wasn’t a worry. From the conveniently located parking facilities, you can dash around to Lögberg, the cliff that overlooks where lawmakers may have gathered as far back as 930 CE, and then you can move on to a quiet churchyard that contains the remains of national poet Jonas Hallgrímsson. Then you can shuffle to Peningagjá, a deep chasm of vibrantly blue water that was recently featured on the cover of Time magazine as someplace worth travelling to. These key aspects of Þingvellir are memorable but touristy: while democracy is an important thing to celebrate, the sites here seem too ritualized. My father pointed out the reason Lögberg, the churchyard, and Peningagjá aren’t that remarkable—the whole time you go around looking at these small sites, you are surrounded by the remarkable rock formations of two continental plates pulling away from each other. Add to that the fact that Þingvellir is a nature preserve, with dozens of species of waterfowl fearlessly… and shamelessly, wandering the area. In this light, the park becomes an excellent place to acknowledge the works of men done 1000 years ago in a setting that suggests that men—even great, forward thinking men—aren’t the end all be all of existence. Thinking of this and of grilled lamb—we brought food and a portable grill for the picnic area—we occupied ourselves at the park for a whole day, and felt we could have stayed for a weekend. Day Two—Geysir and Gullfoss In day two, we again left Reykjavík and saw no traffic whatsoever. Again we missed the turn into Geysir and thought about wishing we had a map, but got over it quickly. Iceland doesn’t have many paved roads, and I told all passengers that if we’re headed to a tourist site, and we’re on a paved road, then we’re going in the right direction. We got there soon enough. As for Geysir itself: at first view, it disappoints. The Suðurland area in which Geysir sits is an anti-climax; the best farming land in the country, one can easily confuse the area near the erupting hot spring with stretches of Nebraska or Iowa. But there is the steam and the erupting hot spring: as it happens, Geysir is not the active hot spring anymore, due, some say, to not so environmentally friendly soap tricks from Iceland’s early ventures into the tourist industry. Strokkur, which signs warn is less of a site than Geysir, now satisfies the need for bubbling water. Wandering up to the site, you could hear the complaints from those who wanted to see the bigger hot spring. Then, just as we approached Strokkur, an immense blue bubble of water surged out of the ground, bursting into a 30-foot hot water and steam plume. The force of this smaller hot spring was startling. As we watched a young Icelander line up four children under her care in front of a rope just twenty feet from the bubbling hole, the source of the active hot spring, and as she commanded them not to move and to smile as the hot spring erupted, we decided any larger a hot spring would have been horrifying. As it was, we got the idea that nature was beautiful and dangerous. The nature is beautiful and dangerous theme continued as we made the fifteen-minute drive to Gullfoss. The walking trails near Gullfoss are wet from the droplets rising in the sky off of wind gusts from the gorge in which the waterfall deposits its mass. As I escorted my father, and watched a few other people escorting more elderly guests, the signs featuring a diagram of a hiker falling off a cliff started to disturb me. As self-mocking Americans, we joked that in America this site would have a guide rail. (A similar joke had been made in my earlier tour with a Swedish group… about Americans and their guide rails.) But the site, unimpeded by any pesky safety accoutrements, made for an experience that my father claimed would rival the Grand Canyon. With energy and an open schedule, we decided to continue down highway 35 past Geysir, up an imposing gravel road to Bláfell (blue mountain). For this trip, we felt our jeep and a good amount of experience driving rural, unpaved roads would be essential: but as I had both, we made a pleasant three-hour detour into the interior of Iceland. Driving only thirty kilometres away from the lush area around Geysir, we were in a total moonscape, with no sign of anything but rock and a small amount of moss. The complete isolation here impressed us all, though there was a moment of shock when I looked down and noticed I had no cell phone coverage—we truly were on another planet. On our drive back, we put the Audio Explorer in, surprised to discover that the CD was full of useful information: more than an hour’s worth. In fact, as it is narrated in a pristine Icelandic-English accent and presented with competent Icelandic folk music, the CD made for an attractive souvenir. Our total costs for the two days of site-seeing were minimal. Food and gas cost a total of 8000 ISK—while there are shops at each site, grilling ourselves and bringing our own sandwich material was more appealing and budget friendly. Car rental would have been 14000 ISK, split three ways—cheaper had we gone with a sedan, but the jeep proved essential for our second day jaunt to Bláfell. These were the only expenditures. Car and Audio Explorer Travel CD provided by Hertz. 505-0600, www.hertz.is.
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