I never expected Iceland to be so beautiful. It almost felt alien, in fact, with endless plains of gray rocks with a dusting of green moss extending far into the distance. A perpetually gray sky loomed overhead, starkly contrasting to the usually blue skies of my Colorado home. I could scarcely believe we were so far north, and yet this unique land was hardly cooler than the temperature back home.
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Even more fascinating than the alien landscape above the surface, however, was the land below. Iceland is one of the most geologically active places on the planet, the reason being that there is a tectonic divide bisecting the country. The North American and the European plates, which intersect longitudinally down Iceland, are drifting apart at a rate of 2 to 5 centimeters each year. Because of this tectonic movement, volcanoes are a very common occurrence in Iceland.
The volcanic activity in Iceland will occasionally result in a phenomenon known as a lava tube, which is created when a subterranean lava flow suddenly shuts off, leaving an underground tunnel where magma once flowed. Iceland is rife with these lava tubes, and I was fortunate enough to descend into one and see what it was like underneath the Icelandic surface.
Gorgeous. That’s what it was like. Absolutely stunning in its display of delicate stalactites and corresponding stalagmites, illuminated only by our headlamps. Tiny chips of reflective minerals winked at us from all sides, and the floor of the tube was covered in heavy rocks which each of us had to make a conscious effort not to trip over.
It was truly a paradigm shift, in a metaphorical sense just as much as literal. The floor of the system was at an approximately thirty degree angle, and balance, something we take for granted on level ground, became a struggle. Ventilation wasn’t great, so every breath was more laborious than it had been on the surface. There were points where the floor and ceiling of the tube drew together, and each of us were forced to crawl on all fours, our backs facing the floor. It was reminiscent of PE in elementary school, when we would “crab” walk across the gym, but in this case, we were crawling through a narrow tube created by the natural functions of the planet.
I looked at life a little differently, at least for the short duration we were in the tube. We were in nature’s domain, in the most honest sense of the word. Enclosed on all sides by rock, a system forged so many years ago, and which had been completely insulated from the ravages of the elements. Natural processes had created something that couldn’t be touched by other natural processes. For most intents and purposes, these tubes were immortal, and would remain for millions of years, perhaps, until a chance incident revealed it to the elements.
It was an experience, descending into the bowels of the earth, if only for an hour or two. It was dark, cramped, and cold. There were times when I tripped, times when I had to crawl, and times when I hit my head on the low ceiling. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
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