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Iceland: Into the Blue

Icebergs, ice burgers—what's the difference when things are forever taking new shapes?For the most wonderful thing about icebergs, I discovered while we threaded our way in a chugging motorboat through towering constructions of ice, is how readily they metamorphose. They are Rorschach images; they are prompts to the imagination; they're whatever you want them to be. Our kids broke into an ongoing, overlapping run of similes: "That one looks like a bird! That one looks like a hat! There's one like a castle!" Slanting, late afternoon sun found the inner brilliance of every object. The lagoon was an inestimable blue, most of the icebergs unearthly in their pristine blue-tinged whiteness. And if we adults were quieter than the kids, we were no less launched on a stream of comparisons: hey, there's a horse head and a lamppost and a throne.

Just north of the Sea of Dreams lies the Road of Nightmares. The Ring Road turns very spooky along the east coast, spinning into a steep, tortuous, unpaved mountain track without guardrails. (From the back seat: "But what would stop us from falling all the way to the ocean?") It is also surpassingly beautiful: rugged cliff faces hurtling toward winding fjords, distant ghostly dots of sheep wandering among the skeletal remains of abandoned farms. Fishing villages were clustered here and there along the fjords, but there were few traces of life between them. This was July, the height of the tourist season, but often we felt like the last survivors on the planet.

Even the plant life vanishes beyond Egilsstadir (population 1,600), where the Ring Road swings inland and leaves the east coast for good. Gravelly mountains give way to gravelly mountains. This is one of the few stretches of the Ring Road where the sea is remote; the last of the birds disappear.

Eventually we turned off the Ring Road and drove north toward the coast in search of a farmhouse that offers accommodations. We didn't find the farm, but in time we found a hotel—of sorts. The nice thing about being in the middle of nowhere is that thieves no longer seem to exist, since there were no locks on the doors. Unfortunately there were still televisions: amazingly, our next-door neighbor had brought his own. He cranked it up, his door wide open, and left it that way before heading to the lobby to listen to a boom box playing Icelandic cowboy music. Long into the night he and another guest sat, exchanging the-one-that-got-away fishing stories, or perhaps comparing notes on the size of boulders they'd seen fallen on the road. Each would hold up his hands in the air—assessingly, as if gauging length—while the other nodded respectfully and drank more beer.

The next morning we got back on the Ring Road, which, after many uncoilings, began to even out, promising soon to deliver us beside the grassy luxuriance of Lake Myvatn. But here the journey forks, and we had to make a choice: Should we head first to the green, lush borders of the lake, home to (so our guidebook told us) some 15,000 breeding pairs of ducks?Or should we check out the volcanic activity a few miles north, including an old crater called Víti?Well, when we learned that víti is Icelandic for "hell," the choice became obvious. We chose death over life, and were cheered by the result.

The new lava fields near Víti were not only black but glossy; they still wore the sheen of the molten underground. Thermal pools bubbled and popped irrepressibly, eager to swallow up a host of sinners. Others threw up thick, stinking, sulfurous clouds that hid us from one another. And in the midst of this infernal environment, we came upon a mineral pool of an exquisite—a celestial—pale blue. It was a reminder that in the afterworld no hell will be complete without a few tempting, unreachable glimpses of heaven.

Another couple of hours' driving brought us to Akureyri, Iceland's northern capital and second city. In this case, there's a big gap between number one and number two. With a population of 15,000, Akureyri simply lacks the size and wherewithal to play Reykjavík's game: being a small big city. It is at most a big small town.

It's also extremely pretty. Snuggling with a feline neatness under a running spine of hills, it gazes out upon Eyjafjördur. My family and I once whiled away a summer month here—contentedly uneventful days in which we did little more than swim, go for walks, read in the handsome public library, and watch the clouds extravagantly assemble and reassemble themselves over the fjord. Akureyri seems a good place to take up watercolors or yoga. It rarely occurred to us to look for something to do.

Still, looking for something is what the town's teens are constantly up to. Their sport of choice is driving round and round—and round—the town square. Especially on weekend nights they gather in traffic-jamming numbers, doubtless emptying farms for miles around of all nonfarm vehicles. They inch along in their cars and every now and then speed off in a patch of rubber as though seized by some imperative errand. But five minutes later they're circling again, eyeing one another expectantly.

On our only morning there, we were awakened by a sharp rapping that might have been an early-rising, overzealous maid. It was rain, blinding rain, whipping at the window. The weather was another reminder that Iceland's pellucid summer skies have a way of rapidly turning damp, misty, and chilly. With the rain dogging us the whole 270 miles from Akureyri to Reykjavík, we had to abandon plans for a hike. (I'd felt enticed by a trail listed in our guidebook: "The sign, which unfortunately faces the opposite direction, is just before a collapsed bridge.") The rain cleared on the outskirts of the capital, shifting melodramatically into rainbows, but then the clouds rushed back and the rainbows melted into a string of glowing traffic lights. We were back in the big city.

And after our week in the hinterlands, Reykjavík really did seem a big city. Here were tapas bars and Internet coffee shops and clubs. Here were string quartets and martial arts studios and squash courts. And here was, on a mild and sunny July day, a sudden breeze that cut right through my sweater: a breath straight off a glacier. It's something you can forget—in Reykjavík, in summer—but not for long. Iceland's beauty is, ultimately, as rigorous and cutting as a diamond.

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