Snow has finally arrived in Montezuma County, but I got a head start on the cold weather by going to Iceland the week of Thanksgiving.
My friend Jamie Santee and I landed in Reykjavik, the capital city, early Sunday morning after a direct nighttime flight from Denver, which was a bit disorienting. But once the sun rose – about 10:30 a.m. – I initially felt close to home. There were mountains in the distance, and windy plains in between. And we were soon to see rocky slopes and hot springs that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the Rockies.
But Iceland is much younger, geologically speaking, than Colorado or any other American state, and as a result, every feature it has in common with us is exaggerated, and the differences can be stark. Volcanoes are still active, and tectonic plates shift so dramatically that ground movement can be measured at the surface. And Iceland’s hot springs aren’t just tourist attractions – they power the country. The heat in every building we entered, as well as all the hot water, came directly from geothermal springs. It kept things toasty inside, but also made the showers smell like rotten eggs, thanks to the water’s sulfuric sources.
As we ventured outside Reykjavik, we started to feel farther from home. Some non-Coloradans assume that we’re used to long, cold winters, thanks to our snowy mountains. But Colorado winters aren’t good preparation for Iceland. It’s not that temperatures are dramatically lower – Reykjavik temperatures hovered at 30 degrees for most of our trip – but here in Colorado, sunshine can warm up the air even on the coldest days. Over there, the sun never gets much higher than the horizon in winter. That, coupled with constant wind from Reykjavik’s North Atlantic harbor and a few days of snow and rain, made us grateful for our thick socks and layers of clothing.
But it was worth it, because weather isn’t the only thing Iceland offers. We saw the northern lights on one of the first nights of our trip, we took a boat out into the harbor and watched dolphins leap out of the water, we visited geysers and waterfalls, and we saw the ruins of an early Viking settlement.
We even got the chance to ride Icelandic horses across a volcanic landscape.
Although we didn’t see any volcanoes up close on the trip, evidence of volcanic activity was everywhere. The sand and gravel along the harbor is black, and many oddly-shaped rocks and mounds rise up out of the grassy landscape, remnants of lava flows both old and new.
During our horseback ride, we passed “pseudocraters” formed by lava that flowed over wet surfaces, creating an explosion of steam. These formations, also known as “rootless cones,” are found primarily in two places: Iceland and Mars. It’s no wonder Iceland is a popular shooting location for science-fiction filmmakers.
But some of the things we saw aren’t quite unique to Iceland. Last summer, the northern lights were visible in parts of Colorado, thanks to an unusual amount of activity in Earth’s magnetic field. It’s rare, but it does happen once in awhile. The San Juan National Forest has a geyser, accessible by the Geyser Spring Trail, and, while they aren’t heating our homes yet, hot springs are commonly found in Colorado. There are even Icelandic horse ranches in Colorado, including one near Durango. And although no Vikings in landed in Colorado, many other civilizations have made their mark here, such as the Ancestral Puebloans, who built Mesa Verde long before the first people settled in Iceland.
Still, there are some things you truly do need to go to the top of the world to experience. Not only does the country boast an amazing landscape, but our English will never sound as cool as Icelandic, its distant linguistic relative. I didn’t learn many words during the trip – for one thing, every Icelander I met was fluent in English – but I did learn how to say the most important word in any language: “Takk,” or “Thank you.”
I missed out on Thanksgiving this year (Iceland had already moved right on to Christmas), but I spent a lot of time thanking people for showing me around a beautiful corner of the world. And exploring a faraway place has only made me more eager to explore the wonders that exist in my own neighborhood.