Greenland is icy, whereas Iceland is green with a temperate climate and is much like beautiful remote parts of Scotland's west coast.
Our car trek was from Reykjavik, initially going west, then reversing the route to go south and east around the coast stopping in each place for a few nights to explore, walk, eat fish, drink beer and walk some more. The final destination was Borgarfjordur at the north of the eastern fjords, after which we flew back to Reykjavik, then home
The stone I picked up that first day was greyish with lots of white spots. Not distinctive, pretty or valuable, but different from those around it on that beach near Reykjavik; a stranger in its setting, calling to me.
I am a “rock anorak”, a lapsed geologist regretting I have forgotten more than I know about rocks and the Earth. Not rounded, not angular, the rock that is, not me; perhaps with some rounded angles, the rock!
I smell it, lick it. Grey rocks seem black when you lick them; they look better, richer, have more depth and spirit. I decide to keep it for my desk in England; I will have this memory totem of Iceland. Between the moment of my picking it up and then the action weeks later of placing it on my desk I can imbue it with a sense of the mystery, power, climate and culture of Iceland. By stroking, touching, gripping thinking and feeling it as I travel and absorb the place into me, I will make this pebble represent a sense of my Iceland time, some essence of the beauty of landscape, seascape and rock.
The pebble is a small “stone” with lots of white spots that are not really spots; they are little holes that minerals formed in which they now inhabit; the white minerals appear as spots on the rock's surface. The basalt, this rock, was probably created under pressure in the earth, then later liberated at or close to the surface when it expanded leaving room for gases around and about to settle, fill holes and later cool as solid minerals. Rocks, outcrops and pebbles like this appear all over Iceland, they are not rare, but this is now my piece pebble stone. It does not matter what science calls it, once I am home it will possess the spirit of Iceland.
Over seventy percent of Icelanders believe Elves exist and live amongst them and yet are almost never seen. It seems terrible to express this knowledge in those terms. I prefer to say that “over seventy percent of Icelanders know elves exist”; I feel sorry for the other thirty percent. Icelandic elves, when seen, are tall blonde and beautiful, not small like the imaginary elves of Europe.
Day two, late in the day in the west. I am on a crunchy, moss bordered path made of grey ash gravel, close to a beach near a black church. I am sitting looking at my feet and the path around. Sea laps lazily, seals bask in the sun on lava protrusions. The seals are not ignoring us, we are not important enough to be ignored; it is simply that our presence is unimportant to their existence. Nature dominates and rules unspoilt by minor human perturbations at the fringes.
My eyes note pebble number two that is to become mine. Greyer, at least less black than pebble one, more angular, less rounded angles; all of the holes that once held minerals or the gases that may have formed them are empty. There are many similar stones. This one is only distinctive in that I am looking at it, it is near my right foot which wears a brown boot; most importantly it is different from pebble one, because there are no minerals, only holes where minerals might once have been, or might possibly have been for a moment while gases vied with the laws of physics as to whether they would solidify and settle, or dissipate.
This pebble may be different because the minerals never formed, or because the place that the rock settled had water and weather conditions that dissolved the minerals over time, washing them away.
All these thoughts about the second pebble are interesting to me the anorak ex geologist, but more importantly I grasp the stone and place it into my back trouser pocket with my right hand; in that moment and through that gesture a second pebble becomes imbued with some meaning of Iceland. It becomes something I may dwell on, think about as a friend that carries the wind steam heat power and elves that make up the being that is Iceland.
My right back bum pocket has a flap that can be pushed down onto Velcro and gripped until perseverance, intent and effort incline me to lift and explore the rock that rests cached beneath.
Gullfoss and Geysir
I am carrying both pebbles in my pockets, different pockets. At Geysir numerous bits of grit and occasional pebbles are thrown into the air by volcanic gases and waters under pressure. The same may once have happened to my pebbles.
At Gullfoss (Gold Falls) thousands of stones large and small are moved by the waters down, down and down again, broken, made angular and then rounded over time as they roll, rush forward, jump down the falls, break, settle and wait for water strong enough to lift and move them.
My journey here was taxi and plane in the UK, then car, foot and hands around and in and out of Iceland's roads and gulleys. My pebbles may also have travelled as far; glaciers pick up and catch stones as they are formed and flow. Pebbles under the glaciers can be ground to powder by ice and stones; those like my rock friends that survive may travel long distances inside glacier ice as it pushes out from its home mountain col, discarding foreign bodies along the way; those that can cling on eventually come away, discharged at the ice's advancing or retreating edge, to be embraced by a glacial river or sea and moved again, helpless to make their own way.
In places, geysers of hot volcanic water shoot high in the air periodically and unpredictably, often accompanied by oohs and aahs in English, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Swedish and American. The Icelandic dialect may also be an accompaniment but I am ashamed to say I cannot distinguish Icelandic from some Scandinavian languages. It has taken me weeks to master the name of the national park in the west. I can now say Snaefellsnesjokul National Park without first looking at a map or guide book. My pebbles hear all of these oohs and aahs, perhaps taking some of them in.
I treated my two pebbles to a glacier walk today at Vatnajokull. The guided walk was expensive, I secreted the pebbles deep in pockets in case I was charged more money to carry two small stones, especially those imbued with such meaning.
Supplied with crampons and taught to use them we walked, trekked or hiked for four hours back and forth close to the front of the glacier on the south coast of Iceland near Skaftafell.
The word “hike” came into my awareness. As child we used that word but it has gone out of my usage, coming to mean something soft weak even a thing to be disparaged. We may say “go take a hike” to get rid of someone, but would not say “I am going hiking”. In Iceland it is used and folk from North America were using the word, innocent of what it has come to signify in English English.
This glacier is black and grey at its lower parts, stained and affected by ash from volcanic eruptions during the years that the ice has flowed down. In some cases larger lumps of rock have fallen onto the glacier, as it cracks and grunts they have been ground by the action of the ice itself, retained until now, a part of the glacier. Perhaps my friendly pebbles have been inclusions in older now dead glaciers and were then alone until I embraced them and made them a part of me.
Pebbles go East
Journeying steadily east, day by day, enjoying sun wind rain, sea and smells. The small stones have become familiar as they nudge my sides. I miss them when they are not close.
Together, my pebbles and I reach the eastern fjords and get to a place in the north of there named Borgarfjordur Eystri.
My pebbles like this delightful, friendly seaside location with green brown mountains, numerous walks, embracing bars and nice people. I take the stones on several high walks where we lose sights of the sea and are surrounded by volcanic turrets that were perhaps once siblings to my stones. I could be here a week and walk a different path each day, talking to puffins, gulls and other birds who call to me, but whose language and names I do not know, I suppose it is because they speak Icelandic.
Soon I must head for Reykjavik and my flight back to the UK. The pebbles are beside me. I have placed them together touching each other on the grass. I am to pack them for the final journey to their home on my desk, where they will watch; imbued as they are with volcanic eruptions, steam, sulphur springs, geothermal bathing, high mountain passes, clouds that rest on mountain tops and wait, geysers that hesitate and toy with watching tourists pretending they will not gush, then doing so with enthusiasm.
I realise these stones are not only imbued with millions of years of Icelandic travel, they are also affected by their journey with me and have something of my being in them, on the surface of the stone or tucked away in a hole. I want to leave a little of me in Iceland, so decide I will leave one of these stones here to remember me and remind Iceland that I once came and liked the place, especially the local beer at Breiodalsvik and remote landscapes in the east.
I part from the second stone, that with empty holes rather than mineral filled crevices. I leave it near the home of the elf queen in hope that she will find it and place it back deep inside Iceland's heart.
I head off with the first pebble, now my Icelandic friend on a journey to a desk in the UK.
Tony Halker, Author of "The Learn" travelled by car in Iceland in July 2017
The itinerary included: Reykjavik; Glymyr and Hvalfjordur; Snaefellsfjordur; Geysir; Gullfoss; Hveragaroi; Skogafoss; Skatafell and the Vatnajokull glacier; Eyjafjallajokul; Breiodalvisk and its brewery; Egillstadir; Borgarfjordur Eystri