The Geldingadalir volcanic eruption began, startlingly, on March 19 along Iceland’s gray and brooding southwestern coast. Startling, even for a country accustomed to volcanic activity, because nothing like this had happened on the Reykjanes Peninsula in more than 800 years.
It wasn’t lost on me how this literally earth-shattering event began nearly a year to the date of another that was just as forceful and unexpected: the day COVID-19 stormed my home of New York City with the fury of a Viking army.
Nature’s overwhelming presence here acts as both balm and tyrant. There’s nothing in between.
After an ensuing year of insulation and isolation, I felt not unlike the volcano's roiling lava — pressure mounting against darkening walls. Fifteen months after the shut-down and barely a month after my second vaccination shot, I boarded an Icelandair flight on a hot June afternoon and headed east over the Atlantic. I wanted to see if my spirit could reawaken at the edge of a neon-orange stream of lava. (It was worth a try.)
A vodka cocktail on the plane. A PCR test outside of baggage claim. A heavily jet-lagged nap interrupted when my negative test-results text arrived, awakening me to my surroundings in the otherworldly Silica Hotel. Wedged into a field of lava rocks and hugged by the same bright milky-blue water of the infamous Blue Lagoon, the hotel is mercifully and deeply quiet.
It was hard to believe I’d been in Brooklyn just one night before, sleeping with an air purifier on, not to zap errant COVID particles, but to buffer the sirens and street chatter three stories down. Sometimes, it feels like every element of New York is assaulting you, riling you up, in small and not-so-small ways.
In Iceland, it’s the opposite. Nature’s overwhelming presence here acts as both balm and tyrant. There’s nothing in between.
The next morning, I exit the hotel to find a black Mercedes GLS waiting for me. I hop in with Ryan Connolly, a young Scotsman. A refugee of the international finance industry, he’s now the environmental manager and co-founder of the carbon-negative tour operator Hidden Iceland. He’ll be leading me on the two-mile hike up to the lava’s edge. While you don’t technically need a guide to get there, it helps. Because as it turns out, it’s not the molten-hot lava that’ll get you — it’s poisonous gases. Ryan has a portable gas monitor clipped to his hip and a contagious fascination for Iceland’s geology in tow.
Our 45-minute ascent in the mist and fog is uneventful. We pass a handful of people trundling down from the summit, looking slick and triumphant. Once we reach the peak, I don’t find some Hollywood-style volcanic eruption, a splashy red explosion from a mountaintop. This lava I find here is more like The Blob, an amorphous mass slowly bubbling out from under the earth’s blanket. It’s not Al Pacino dramatic; it’s Morgan Freeman dramatic. It’s beautiful.
Yes, this is Iceland, but it’s summer and it’s not cold. My beat-up North Face jacket and cheap, stretchy skull cap do me just fine. I stand, mesmerized, at the crusty edges of dried black lava that has already encroached on the soft brown dirt, while new glowing striations of fresh orange peek through like glowing cat eyes. The air is mossy and sulfuric. As the raindrops hit the lava, they sizzle and evaporate. Occasionally, patches of grass catch fire from the heat. The rain puts it out. The earth is being born and dying all at once.
After all of our Covid-induced contractions and thrashing about these many months, here was the earth herself, reminding me of our tiny place within her.
We are so small and so fragile. Nature — whether in the malevolent molecules of a weird virus or a sudden gust of geologic gas — is so enormous and powerful. A wave of her hand, and we’re dust.
This reminder wasn’t depressing or apocalyptic. It was comforting. There’s only so much we can control, so much we should even bother worrying about. Like the lava spreading across the Reykjanes Peninsula, we will arrive and depart, be covered and changed. As the Icelanders have said for centuries, “þetta reddast” — it’ll all work out in the end.
Live Feed from the Volcano
Can't make it to Iceland but want to see the action? Visit Iceland has a live video feed of the volcano.
Ryan Connolly of Hidden Iceland shared with Fathom more unbelievable natural marvels in Iceland.