Bordered on the north by the Greenland Sea and Arctic Circle, Iceland has surprisingly warm temperatures for its latitude.
Thanks to Gulf Stream currents, it receives much precipitation but does not feel much colder during winter than the northern United States. For such a small landmass, Iceland has a surprising number of land formations: startling glaciers and lava fields (home to trolls, elves, and hidden folk), mountains rising from sandy beaches, two hundred active volcanoes, a saddle on the violently shifting tectonic plates of both North America and Europe, geothermal springs and geysers, fjords, and the fertile peat bogs of the north.
When the Vikings arrived a thousand years ago, the land was covered with forests. These were quickly used for fuel and boatbuilding. The moment today’s Icelanders buy a new home or summer cottage, however, they begin planting. Most vacation homes are not near any recreation, but my guide Helgi says people enjoy just being away from the city to ride their horses and work on their gardens of trees. You can tell the oldest houses by the height of their trees.
In years past, since there was no timber to serve as landmarks, Icelanders built pillars of rock to use as signposts, similar to the cairns of alpine hiking trails.
Nowadays, bright yellow markers line the sides of the highway. In typical appreciation of not meddling, Icelanders nicknamed them both “priests” because “they keep you on the path, but they don’t get in the way.” Another interpretation of the nickname refers to road signs. These are said to be like priests because “they show the way but don’t follow it.”
In a land where tourism is now the fourth-largest business, environmental policy is equal to fiscal policy. Ishestar promotes its detailed environmental policy in the center of its tour book. A ten- step program is outlined toward achieving this goal, which includes keeping horses and riders on trails chosen in cooperation with local people and environmental agencies. The business benefits by promoting itself as environmentally friendly and following through as well. After all, who wants to go horseback riding through a mucky landfill or along high, barbed-wire fences?
In recent years, Icelanders have discovered that the hot springs the Vikings feared can generate great power and therefore income. They are now used to provide heat and electricity for the entire country. Amazingly, the Icelanders have made a second great innovation using steam heat. As at Hveragerdi’s Eden, they use it to heat greenhouses, which work so well that a country on the Arctic Circle is able to grow cacti and tropical fruit!