Before we went to Iceland, I have to confess, I didn’t understand why my friends were extra excited when I told them we were going there. All travel is a privilege, but I thought Iceland was like most other countries: interesting, full of history and beautiful natural sites, not a “wonders of the world” situation. By the third or fourth conversation where somebody said, “omggggg, you’re going to love it,” it started to dawn on me that it’s a special-er place. And it didn’t really hit me until Casey and I were on an early morning taxi ride from the airport in Keflavik to the hotel in Reykjavik, passing mile after mile (kilometer after kilometer) of moss-covered volcanic rock, a fractal, green landscape I could have stared at for hours.
My family spent the first few days there traveling the typical tourist routes: the Golden Circle with Geysir, Gullfoss and Thingvellir (the plains on which Icelanders convened the oldest parliament of Northern Europe from 930 until 1798), and then the South Coast tour of Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Reynisfjara, and Vík. We lucked into a great tour guide, Dagur, with whom we became fast friends—the type of person whom you feel like you’ve known for years after just 16 hours of driving around an island nation.
Waterfalls, waterfalls, waterfalls. Why do we love waterfalls? WHAT is going on there?! Some galaxy-brained guesses: Is it about the potential energy being realized, the sight of something that looks calamitous but is actually benign? Like Instagram videos of hydraulic presses crushing plastic toys or people crumpling expensive soaps?! Is it ’cause they’re in motion and no one is pushing them?!?! Because we just like water?!?!
Obviously we don’t need to know. I do know we love seeing those shits.
My favorite waterfall was a small, semi-hidden number in an alcove next to Seljalandsfoss. Dagur, Sammy and I carefully tip-toed on stones and hugged a rock wall to get into the recess where this particular stream falls over.
The rest of our time in Iceland was defined by walking around in Reykjavik, and of course the three Wilco shows at Harpa Hall. Harpa is the type of publicly funded venue you only really see elsewhere in Scandinavian countries. A hundred-plus million dollars poured into a gorgeous, acoustically stellar, well-equipped and comfortable building. The Olafur Eliasson-designed facade’s tinted glass panes glow in the sunlight. It overlooks the ocean and the several NATO minesweepers currently docked at Reykjavik.
GRÓA opened for Wilco on night two and converted us all into fans. One highlight of their set: dual-dual-recorders. Quad recorders. In a rock set. The making of legends.
Since we stayed in the city center, every night was a circus-spectacle of clubbing and bar life. The Irish and English pubs near our hotel were constantly packed with young Icelanders and sprinkles of Wilco fans. Casey’s and my MO is to search out the most Chicago-y, dive-y, friendly feeling bar when we visit a new city and maybe to meet the artists or grizzled lifers inevitably bartending there. But on our way back from a place like that one night, we stepped into the downtown Irish pub to witness its chaos. We couldn’t even make it past the front step. The scene was an at-capacity bar singing along with the house band’s acoustic rendition of an Icelandic pop hit, after which a table of uber-drunk women demanded they play “Hava Nagila.” (Because it was Pesach? In a country where 0 Jews lived from 1918 until 2018, I was perplexed. I guess it’s possible they were yelling a request in Icelandic that sounded like Yiddish. Or else they were #allies.)
Backtrotting: Many of the horses of the Icelandic breed can “tölt,” which is a type of gait similar to human speed walking. They keep at least one hoof on the ground at all times and go. The rider in a tölt looks like they’re floating. We met the guys above on the side of the road, where a farmer had set up a self-service “horse candy” stand.
The basalt columns at Reynisfjara Beach are formed by a process of lava meeting seawater. Something about rapid cooling forces the lava into hexagonal cylinder shapes that are hard to believe aren’t artificial. There’s also a sweet legend about the rocky sea stacks (one of which you can see in the background) having been formed by the sinking of a group of trolls’ three-masted ship.
It was refreshing to visit so many natural sites and not have to pay anything for admittance. Virtually no private gatekeepers, not even ranger stations or much public infrastructure. Taxes are relatively high in Iceland and therefore so is the cost of living. But in such a small country, with a thousand-plus-year-old stable way of being and living together, the “keep public services and commons public” thing seems to be working out.
I’m home now, where I just finished a weekend of playing with Sully Davis and Dorian Gehring’s Cosmic Country Showcase band in Chicago and Milwaukee. Goofy, countrified joy. And diving into a “normal” workweek next.
Thank you for reading. I hope you’re well.
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I love all little waterways and falls, even the smallest water-over-rocks in the Midwest. The smaller ones might even be more endearing… they’re within reach.
I was awed by Iceland, the expansiveness of it and I was completely charmed by the kindness and openness of the folks we met. Not sure if the robust nightlife would have tinged my warm impression. Haha! Nightlife for me anymore is nighty-nightlife (and it's lovely!) A place has to be pretty extraordinary when 3 nights with Wilco is the icing! :)
I wish I could have joined you all in Iceland! It looked magical and your descriptions have me putting it firmly onto my bucket list! Someday.