Gullfoss, Iceland

Iceland is up the Dial

I’m not sure what the latitude of the Arctic Circle is but it can’t be that far from Reykjavik, Iceland. Because it’s way up there. You would think it would be lock down frozen all year in Iceland but the ocean currents keep it fairly temperate. Days in September are sweater and jacket weather. On most days a parka is overkill.

Not to say that we didn’t wish we had one on several occasions. The squalls come at you fast and the temps can dive twenty degrees or so in a flash. Our last day there found us beaten and abused by an ice crystal blizzard after a hike up the hills behind our farm-stay guesthouse.

We noticed the approaching storm in the distance, gauged that the direction was bringing it our way but didn’t account for the rapid onset. We turned back downhill ten minutes after we should have and about five minutes before getting slammed.

Fortunately, Stef had borrowed a heavy jacket with a hood which put her if good shape. I had multiple layers under my rain jacket. We put our heads down and leaned into the wind which was now a sleet blizzard. We gingerly but rapidly stepped down the rocky path. A twisted ankle or broken bone would not serve us well in this situation. The front half of our jeans were now soaked from the icy mix and our faces flailed by the shards of frozen water.

I turned around regularly to be sure Stef was still headed down with me and every time she said “I’m fine, just keep moving!”. She and I both know hypothermia’s dangers. As a summer camp nurse, she saw it in a boy would stood out in a cold lake for too long.

I had a near crisis moment with hypothermia in the Cascade Mountains above Bellingham, Washington. Our decent from a day hike up to a lovely view peak became a very chilly evening hump back to the car. I was wet to the bone from sweat and the light misting rain. And clearly not dressed for it; no anorak or wool. I fell further and further behind the others and just lapsed into a kind of dreamy, careless mental state. I was shivering a bit and at some point I decided to just take a small break on a comfortable rock.

Fifteen minutes passed and I just sat there. My drive for forward motion had completely vanished. Normally, a five minute break would get me moving to catch up to my group. My only thought was a strange one; “If I just sit here and they will come back for me”. As if passivity was the solution. A half hour passed, maybe more. I stopped shivering and my mind went limpid.

And that’s how my returning friends found me a bit later. Serene and oblivious to my condition. My buddy had me strip off my wet cloths to put on a nice dry jersey shirt he had in his pack. He knew from talking to me that I was showing all the lack of motivation and unawareness of danger that characterizes hypothermia. Not to put too fine a point on it but it could be he saved my damn life.

That came to mind as we headed downhill… along with our situation. The frozen rain squall lashed and pounded us. Our core bodies were warm but our legs were icy. The storm went on for about 15 minutes or so, just long enough to make us wonder about how stupid we might have actually been. And then just like that, it was over. The wind and rain eased. The sun fought back through. The crisis vanished. It became something to marvel at. We had survived.

Iceland landscape

Iceland is a towering land. Desolate in the extreme with massive ranges of barren brown and black treeless mountains. On our drives we passed through long shimmering plains that stretched between those mountains to the waters of lake and ocean.

We would cross waterfalls and rivers filled with another kind of water, of a quicksilver blue, the most strangely scintillating liquid I’ve ever seen. Not creek water exactly but a substance closer to elfin elixir. Full of some elemental light packets that popped and churned and rascaled between lava rocks in an excited jig, transmitting and reflecting in small flashing panels and angles that diamonded up the light. The effect is still vivid to me now as I talk about it. I remember it because it was a strange thing that my eyes had seen.

Somebody turned up the intensity dial on this place. The slider bar was pulled way to the right and the scale jumped beyond the familiar. Beyond massive. Other mountains go up to where mountains go but Iceland’s go on. Now maybe my mind was working a trick on what I saw but what I saw was colossalness. And maybe if I looked at the hard numbers these ranges would just be measured in typical mountainous terms: “Three thousand feet above sea level”, or four or six. They didn’t seem just big. They made pure tininess out of everything that wasn’t them. Looming swollen burgeoning masses of geology lording over all. As large as all-ness.

We came to the National Park called Þingvellir and saw another place the gods had cranked up. The trolls guard these rocks jealously and allow only the reverent to participate in them. The rest can still come for a visit. The park headquarters is at the edge of the parking lot and and a overlook ramp rises beside it. The park lies just below. Our walk across this arching view ramp cracks open the vista and lays out this extraordinary place. The first settlers to Iceland formed a united parliament here called Althing around the year 930 AD. They instituted a common law and political organization to settle disputes. The site for all of this is a broad river plain spotted with pools and rock grottos leading to a lake.

Pingvallar, Iceland

The cliff edge that frames one side of the river valley turns to meet the lake, capped by this view ramp. Below is the huge lake of Þingvallavatn and the wetlands and ponds that break off north of it to become a rolling, vibrantly colored valley. Down in it we see the small church and the summer residence of Iceland’s Prime Minister in the green riverside. We follow the flow of people making their way downhill through a defile alongside the huge cliff face but break away from the crowd by taking a small side path that leads directly and sharply down to the valley floor.

Valley floor at Pinvallar

We toured the church and residence area before continuing on. The walk towards the waterfall was in a lava boulder field now covered with elfin vegetation; red huckleberry-like bushes, soft pale green lichen and brilliant mosses. Pools of turquoise water framed by the jet black lava rock provided the structure for this abundantly colored and textured vegetation. The skies were sharply blue with towering cumulous and cirrus configurations. We had truly entered a land of enchantment.

We were told by a wonderfully talented ceramic artist back in Reykjavik that trolls and elves lived here. She told us about people building houses in Iceland who regularly adjust their site plans to build around large rocks that are in the trolls dominion. Trolls are big, smelly, ill-tempered nature spirits. Apparently, they are also fiercely territorial and easily offended by human depredations. Elves on the other hand are lithe and tender; sweet spirits ready to spring to our aid. And not so jealous of rocks.

We didn’t meet either but my senses gave me distinct clues that they were about. The terrain was unspeakably strange and beautiful. If you were to discover that these beings exist you would first need to be in a place like this. The geology and topography and even the atmospheric conditions allow for the possibility of this impossibility.

We continued on through the valley into a snow squall and up to the waterfall. The water breaks through the cliff face there and crashes into black enchanted boulders of lava before rushing on to meet the river and the lake. We walked back as a gentle snow fell on all.

We had found a lost world. An island in a vast ocean. Even the coins say “Island” (“is” is “ice” in Icelandic). The isolation only adds to the its strangeness and feel of being other-worldly. The world play is rich: Isolation = Ice-elation.

Iceland makes for wonder. To travel into Iceland is to negotiate with pure astonishment. The perceptual capabilities of an ordinary human being like me are tested with this flow of outrageous beauty. Sitting here now surrounded by the familiar I feel as if this meager self was made to disappear in it somehow. The sheer volume of sensation coming in hours on end with no ability to adjust or frame it into a context based on my past experience has reduced me. A self that doesn’t matter was broken and dissolved. Something greater is replaced there.