“Where the glacier meets the sky, the land ceases to be earthly, and the earth becomes one with the heavens; no sorrows live there anymore, and therefore joy is not necessary; beauty alone reigns there, beyond all demands.” –Halldór Laxness, World Light, 1937-40
In the cramped airplane, I lean into Dan for a better view out the window. The pilot has announced the start of our descent. This last leg of the flight always causes me anxiety, with the way the plane flies, but I have to see. I have to catch a glimpse of a new country before I set foot on it.
But I don’t. I can’t. The cloud cover beneath us stretches to the horizon in all directions. It looks flat, and when I tell Dan this, he chuckles.
The airplane sinks into the clouds … and keeps sinking. The world outside our window is off-white, blank, empty — and for far too long. The plane turns before we break through the cloud cover, turning my stomach along with it, and I have to look away.
When we finally step onto Icelandic soil, I look up at the overcast sky. The faintest mist of rain falls over my face, and the cold bites into me. The clouds loom overhead, almost like they have always been there since the island’s formation, as ancient as the mountains and the ocean themselves.
Viking World Museum
We goof off in Viking World more than we should, but the museum shouldn’t have tempted us with sheepskin, a dulled metal sword, and a wooden shield. We walk through the exhibitions and marvel at the wooden longship suspended in the air. Panic seizes me when I realize there is nothing underneath the bridge between the ship and the second floor balcony, but Dan helps me across, and I find my breath again.
Tucked in a corner, we find caricatures of the Norse gods and their myths. I name all the gods for Dan, and I tell him about the time the thunder god, Thor, took two human children as His slaves when they defied His orders. I pronounce the name of the world-serpent, Jǫrmungandr, for him when we find a representation of the world-tree, Yggdrasil. He smiles when I tell him that the world-serpent encircles the world of humans, Miðgarðr, like a giant ouroboros.
We play hnefatafl for the first time at the museum. Dan wins our game, of course. I spend the rest of the week hunting for my own set, but I never find one that satisfies me.
We find the cairns behind the museum, where they face the open sea. I had never seen so many in one place before, set up on giant boulders like homages to Iceland’s ancient past. The boulders themselves remind me of hörgr, the flat stone that holds offerings to Iceland’s ancient gods.
We build our own cairns on the hörgr — make our own offerings — and look out over the sea to where the water meets the sky.
That is my first impression of the land as we drive north from Keflavík to Reykjavík. Desolate, in the way Arizona was. But it’s verdant, too, in the way Arizona never can be. The clash of green and gray feels alien and ancient, like we have traveled through time to a distant and forgotten past.
Reykjavík is the smallest city I have ever walked. No skyscrapers reach for the heavens. No traffic causes so much congestion. No sun sets in the summer, keeping the streets illuminated, eliminating the fear that comes with the night. I look up and the sky spreads out above me, undisturbed by modern steel and glass. Only Hallgrímskirkja cuts across my vision, its belltower a guardian, ever vigilant.
Our neighborhood is sleepy like its city. We survey it from our fourth floor balcony, where our host’s well watered, windswept violets keep us company. The stroll down to Melabúðin, the local grocery store, is short — but it is cold, and even though it isn’t raining, I feel the moisture in the air.
Þingvellir National Park
The drive to Þingvellir is isolating. A car passes us occasionally, and sheep dot the hills, but the landscape somehow manages to make us feel like we are the only ones alive in that country. Civilization re-emerges when we park at the park’s visitor center, but it is still nowhere, surrounded by nothing.
The rain pelts us and the wind bites deep as we trek to the heart of Þingvellir and our first waterfall, Öxarárfoss. We could have driven, but after a long flight and a long drive, we want to stretch our legs. The roadside gravel crunches under our heavy boots as we hike the two miles to the park entrance. Thankfully, we prepared well beforehand, and the water beads on our clothes instead of soaking through. The wind glances off our jackets, declawed.
Öxarárfoss is beautiful, but it’s the stone that draws me. Hard blackness clothed in mossy green, they stand like monoliths, stalwart guardians by the waterside. Dan tells me the landscape is a fissure, the land ripped apart by volcanic activity from deep beneath us. I look again at the dark faces of stone and I understand then why they call to me.
Geysir underwhelms me. I stare into the steaming pools and wonder if there’s more. A fountain erupts from one nearby, but it is the only one we see for many long minutes, and I feel sorry for its loneliness.
We descend toward Gullfoss, our ears filling with its ceaseless roar, our eyes drawn to the white abyss that hangs in the air beneath us. Our clothes keep us dry, but the water slicks our hair and skin, beads along my glasses and blinds me. We stand in the open maw of a niche in the cliff face, 4900 cubic feet of water surging past, unstoppable. The rocks pool with puddles; one misstep and I might slip. But I am warm, and we are laughing.
Afterward, we climb the steps above Gullfoss for a better view. How strange that the same waterfall feels so different from afar.
And then the sky opens up and hails on us. We run back down the path along the cliff edge, laughing and screaming, collecting tiny hailstones in our palms and wincing as they strike our upturned eyes.
Drinking a cold blackberry cider, wearing a cute bathing suit, and soaking up to my chin in 100°F water so clean you have to shower before you touch it.
That’s what the afterlife must be like.
Kerið Crater Lake
The crater is massive. My brain stutters trying to comprehend it. But it’s an easy walk around its edge, then down to its bottom, where the lake water is shockingly cold.
The sun breaks through the clouds for the first time since we arrived, and it paints the landscape a vivid gold. After a day of endless gray clouds, it is like a treasure to be hoarded and loved. I have never marveled so much at the sun in my life.
My calves complain when I get out of bed, but the city calls. We grab breakfast from the tiny bakery on the bottom floor of our building’s twin and set out in a sunwise fashion. Sugar melts in our mouths from the doughnuts, but it’s not sweet — not like back home. I know after the first bite that I will miss it.
The Sun Voyager is much bigger than I expected and much more regal. I know it’s meant to be a ship with oars and sails, but in my mind’s eye, a many-legged dragon comes to life. It leaps for the foamy swan-road of the Northern Atlantic and swims for distant shores.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum
There are so many penis jokes. There is even a gift shop.
At the end of our stroll through the museum exhibits, we find the painting called Landscape by Guðrún Kristjánsdóttir. I freeze where I stand, transfixed.
Of all the artists whose beautiful tributes to the countryside of Iceland hang in the museum, Guðrún is the only one who accomplished it: capturing the way the land feels.
“Desolate,” she whispers in my ear through the brushstrokes.
The church tower is a beacon, drawing us toward it. I cannot tell if Christians feel their God here, if they can see Him in the way the columns arch overhead. When I look up, I peer down the belly of a longship, a great beast upended. Perhaps for Christians, it is the arc of Heaven instead.
For the first time since arriving in Iceland, my Raynaud’s disease flares. The cold cuts through my protective clothing and settles deep inside me. My borrowed wool gloves are useless. Once my core is cold, my blood withdraws from my fingers, leaving them numb and clumsy. Painful. By the end of the hour-and-a-half ride, I can barely shift my horse’s reins in my hands without wincing. The last fifteen minutes are agony.
Back in the warm barn, I shove off my gloves and borrowed riding boots. Dan has to tie my shoelaces for me, and when I put my hands on his bare forearm to warm them, he hisses, shocked.
I don’t regain movement in my fingers for twenty more minutes.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
Do not underestimate the power of a $5 hot dog from a food truck at midnight. When you are unhappy, cold, and hungry, nothing is more rejuvenating. I buy my hot dog with everything on it. Dan buys two for himself. We chuckle at the drunkard making whooping noises as he zigzags harmlessly down the empty main street. In the distance, music pounds out of Reykjavík’s gentlemen’s club. The midnight sky softens to a slightly darker gray.
We climb the hill to our apartment, giddy on hot dogs, laughing.
Now the bottom of my feet ache, too. I wince my way down the hallway of the apartment, but the cold, hard floor is oddly soothing. I wear only sweatpants and a tank top as my pajamas, but even with the bathroom window open, I’m not shivering. It’s 44°F and I am acclimated.
We walk through the annals of history in the Saga Museum. We wine and dine throughout the day; lobster soup, Icelandic licorice liqueur, filet of lamb, and horse tenderloin — they are all delicious. We relax in a warm bar, entertained by soccer games in Russia and the company of friends.
I thought the beach of fine, black sand would impress me most at Reynisfjara, but in truth, it is the stone again. I don’t know enough about rocks to know why the stone is square, why it grew at wild and unimaginable angles. The black rock draws me back again and again, away from the hazardous sea and its alluring rumbles. I usually love the sea, but the signs outside the beach are clear: “Approach, and you might die.”
Clouds descend and withdraw at lazy intervals as we wander along the beach. I look up to watch the gulls wheeling overhead. The fog seems to roll down the mountain yet somehow also hovers out of reach. Here, the world borders on the edge of surreal, like I have stepped into Westeros or Middle-Earth and left my old world behind.
I have never climbed so many steps in one go in my entire life. I force myself to the top, though my lungs burn and my legs feel heavy and I worry I’ll trip on any one of the 500 steps. But there is an elderly woman behind me, behind Dan, and if she can do it, I can, too. I crest the top of the stairs, wheezing. I rest by the banister of the rusted waterfall deck while Dan takes photos, his enthusiasm eclipsing mine.
The descent is almost as bad, but in another way. The dizzying height threatens my acrophobia, and I cling to the handrail on the way back down. I look firmly at my feet and nowhere else. If I let go, or if I look up even a little bit, I know the fear would grip me wholesale.
Back on solid ground, we approach the waterfall like supplicants before an enigmatic god. The sheer force of its water blows away our hoods, whips my hair, soaks my skin to the bone. But I am warm under my many layers, and the cold mist soothes my timid heart.
Our second waterfall of the day is nowhere near as tall or thunderous as I imagined, but as we precariously pick our way along its trail, it’s certainly the most dangerous. The path of rocks behind Seljalandsfoss lie mist-covered, and more than once, I wonder if I’ll slip on one and hurt myself. I can barely see; the spray of water curtains my glasses. But we make it out the other side in one piece, more waterlogged than we’ve ever been.
Departure day. Dan and I pack our things with purpose, yet neither of us are ready to leave. Iceland has become something of a home for us, even though we could never be truly happy there. I’ve grown so used to the weather that as we take a final walk through Reykjavík, I grow hot under my layers and take off my coat. My legs and feet are used to the exercise; they’ve stopped complaining as I stretch them. I relish the butter on my bread and the last spoonful of lobster soup, knowing it will be another lifetime before I eat that same sort of richness again.
On our drive back to the airport, the clouds hang low over the ocean, and the land is long and flat, green on black. And as we pass into Keflavík, I say goodbye — to the sky that commanded my wonder and to the stone that called to my heart.
For more photographs of my trip to Iceland, visit my album on Flickr.