First Prize Winner of the 2016-17 Writing Contest

Greg Ross, Class of 2018 (Third Year International Travel Grant: Iceland, Summer 2016), writes about the Westman Islands, which lie just off the southern coast of mainland Iceland.


I tread my way down streets empty and gray. The red-black cinder-cone peaks bathe in a wet sky. Trawlers nod in the harbor, tall masts clinking in the wind.

My ferry-ride is now a few hours past its scheduled 9 AM departure. In the small waiting room of the ferry terminal, backpacks pile at the feet of napping travelers, waiting for the waves to give way.

The storm batters Heimaey, an island of 4,000 people in the archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar. The hour trip to the mainland port is unpassable in such rough seas. An Icelandic traffic jam. The ocean waves are sedans and semis. I can hear my dad’s impatience as his car slugs through interstate rush-hour. But here, just south of the Arctic Circle, all is well. The waves will subside. They always do.

Photo taken in the Westman Islands, on the island of HeimaeyOn Heimaey, the land tells a story. At the eastern edge of town, a black mass of jagged rock looms over single-story homes, green backyards, and the elementary school. Scraps of everything are scattered throughout this lava flow, sometimes clustered in such an arrangement to outline a neighborhood. A wooden backboard, on which basketballs once bounced on summer evenings, pokes out of the cinder. Fragments of steel, tires, and old refrigerators weather the passing of time. Battered stop signs sum it up: 43 years ago, everything came to a halt.

One January morning in 1973, a large crack opened up on the eastern half of the island, spewing lava and ash. The whole of Heimaey’s several thousand people were evacuated by boat and plane within hours. Then their homes were buried.

The sundlaug functions as Heimaey’s community center. Kids, moms, and old men congregate daily at the pool to swim, soak, and socialize. One evening, after a full day of climbing the island’s craters, I slide into a hot tub and soak myself into a semi-conscious state.

By February 1973, lava was quickly approaching the harbor. Filled with fishing vessels, the harbor has long been lifeblood of Heimaey. Houses could be rebuilt, but if lava plugged the harbor, all would be lost.

Muscles relaxed and mind at ease, I awake to a loud shout in Icelandic that could only mean “Cannonball!” A procession of boys ensues, each launching themselves into the small hot tub. With a nefarious look in their eyes, the kids tug me to another tub. They point to the tub; they point at me. I dunk myself in the water. It’s colder than the North Atlantic.

Eldfell—the name bestowed upon the newborn volcano, meaning Mountain of Fire—erupted for six months. To save the harbor, no time was wasted. In early February, a brigade of boats equipped with fire hoses was deployed from the mainland. As the lava flowed further into the harbor—the island would be enlarged by nearly a square mile—the boats doused the molten rock with seawater to cool and harden it, hopefully before it could cut off the harbor’s mouth. Smoke, salt, and steam filled the sky for months. By July, the brigade had done its job. The lava solidified, and the harbor was saved.

Like sand dunes, the cinder forms towering hills and valleys. On a sunny day, I trudge up these crests, sliding down a step for every two I take. My Nikes are soon filled with ash.

A year after the eruption, the islanders returned to rebuild. While hundreds of homes were buried beyond recovery, most of the island’s western half was dug out. Fishing vessels returned to their harbor, which was actually improved: the lava, once threatening the harbor’s destruction, had instead formed a new breakwater.

As I wait for the storm to subside, I circle the harbor. The low-lying clouds obscure the tops of the island’s jagged cliffs. After passing through industrial yards of containers, nets, and cargo, I reach the rocky coast. Above, puffins fly in and out of their crevices in the cliffs, flashes of orange amidst the mist. Sheep trundle along narrow footpaths, unshaken by the steep drop-off below.

Wandering back to the terminal, I learn there’s a chance the ferry will depart by early evening. I meet a German father and son who hope to arrive in Reykjavík by nightfall. We talk. I meet a Spanish family. I practice my broken Spanish, and they offer me a bocadillo in return.

Photo taken in the Westman Islands, on the island of HeimaeyAs Icelanders returned to Heimaey in 1974, the lava was still hot. Scientists schemed. Under the molten rock lay an opportunity. As lights turned back on throughout town, a series of probes under the cooling crust revealed that the heat could be harnessed. Geothermal heat warmed every home of Heimaey for the next several years.

In good grace, I eat the sandwich. With a satisfied stomach and a couple hours until estimated departure, I step outside the terminal. The wind rages on. I sit on the edge of the dock, put my hood up, and plug my headphones in.

In a town—in a country—in which people are few and the land looms large, community ties are strong. Nature is Icelanders’ most formidable challenge. Glaciers and volcanos spill onto a green, barren landscape. Waterfalls tumble over rock; an icy sea washes the shores of long fjords. Nature also lends a helping hand. One-hundred percent of Iceland’s electricity comes from renewable sources. Just outside of Reykjavík, steam erupts from the earth. Turbines whirl above geothermal vents, powering the capital city. Nearby, in the town of Hveragerði, I boil an egg in a geyser.

On the dock I listen:

And at once I knew I was not magnificent
Strayed above the highway aisle
Jagged vacance, thick with ice
And I could see for miles, miles, miles

And so there, under a misty sky, I spent my afternoon with headphones in-and-out, wandering back-and-forth between the sea, the terminal, and the docks. For many years, the residents of Heimaey have been doing the same. When a storm rolls in, all one can do is wait. But sometimes—when nature roars with all its might—Icelanders push back. And when the residents of Heimaey did just this, they proved worthy adversaries. In fact, after their armada cooled the lava, they returned to their island home as beneficiaries: with a better harbor and a free source of power, the town and its volcano settled on an appropriate truce. The fire may fly and the waves may threaten, but they always subside, and life goes on.

As dusk arrived, I boarded the boat with an eventful weekend under my belt. The ferry left the harbor swaying with the waves. In-between bouts of seasickness, I pulled out a book from my backpack. The gray waves outside the window raged, and I watched Heimaey recede as the ferry engine hummed.

Photo taken in the Westman Islands, on the island of Heimaey Photo taken in the Westman Islands, on the island of Heimaey Photo taken in the Westman Islands, on the island of Heimaey