I woke this morning to a fog so thick, I could not see outside the campsite. Anxiousness overwhelmed me. Had I missed the opportunity to easily see the natural wonders? As I got ready for the day, fortunately some of the fog lifted enough to convince me to press onward. I decided to go arm myself with a cup of coffee and breakfast from downtown Akureyri then head to Goðafoss.
I drove through the thickest fog ever on my way to the waterfall. I imagine people who were not used to driving in fog would have turned back or something, but thanks to my experience with Bay Area weather, I just breathed and breathed to calm myself as I made my way through the engulfing emptiness.
So here I am sitting on a rock at Goðafoss. One of the plaques describes the history of the waterfall that this is the legendary site where the leader of the Viking tribe of the area Þorgeir Ljógvethingagoði had to decide whether to convert everyone to Christianity or not. He threw the statue of the pagan gods into the water thereby rejecting the gods henceforth.
I don’t understand how he could do it while staring at the power of the uncannily blue-green water cascading down the rocks that look like the wrinkled faces of gods themselves; does that make the act that much more defiant?
Iceland, your beauty does not disappoint. No wonder the people here believe in fairies and elves so strongly. I see them too in the magic of your landscapes. I see dragon’s scales in your rocks. The currents of your rivers mesmerize me; they feel as tumultuous as my heart. This kinship makes me feel at home.
Once again I press onward on the Ring Road headed this time toward Lake Myvátn. I decided to hit the sites I wanted to see through Myvátn and visit Dettifoss last since I have to drive through one to get to the other anyway. I headed to Dimmuborgir: “The Dark Fortress.” It was on my list that I made back home of sites I wanted to see in Iceland: the lava formations that looked like ruined cathedrals. Driving through more fog, I saw one lake and thought I had arrived only to realize it was probably going to be very obvious when I arrived at Lake Myvátn itself. Iceland has not exactly been demur with the majesty of its beauty.
It was obvious.
I pulled over at these craters overgrown with grass rising out of the lake. Little islands popped up throughout the body of water, and magically the fog had cleared to let the sun sparkle on the water. I did not spend much time at these craters because the walk was a few kilometers and there were still so many things to see. As I drove around the lake, I kept stopping to take pictures because the view grew more and more intricate.
The lava formations that stacked up like tall, dark towers started popping up in ponds of mottled green. Grasses, moss, and flowers overgrew the lava formations and I thought of the Ghibli film, “Laputa: Castle In The Sky” where they finally get to the castle and they walk through the ancient overgrown ruins. The pools around the towers were so clear you could see the volcanic colors turning the water into a patchwork of blues and greens.
I kept driving and the lava areas started to outnumber the greenery. That is when I saw the sign for Dimmuborgir, which apparently is a tourist attraction because it had its own café and gift shop. I pulled into the parking lot and armed myself with my water bottle and camera as I descended the path toward the area. It really lived up to its name. The lava formations formed a skyline of tall castles made from steam and magma pushing its way out of the earth towards the Earth’s surface thousands of years ago. They looked like many gods or demons frozen in lava staring down at the passerby. Iceland does not fail in conveying the magic in nature.
I walked in a trance, stopping to poke my head in a cove off to the side, doing double takes when the bushes rustled thinking that an elf might pop out. There is a moss that grows on all the rocks that gives it an alien appearance. It makes the rocks look alive. Several colors painted on sticks denoted path around the area where blue meant an easy path, yellow—medium, and red—difficult. There were two landmarks I was attempting to see. For some reason it did not click in my head when I looked at the information display back near the parking lot that “The Church” was the lava formation that I was trying to find from my research on the site. Instead I meandered various paths deciding I had enough time to go the yellow circle, but not the red path. I followed a family to the Yulelad’s Cave. The Yulelads are the fae people that live there in the wintertime. The cave was an opening in the ground where a growth in the middle made it so you could only enter from the edges. In the middle lay offerings: skis, clothes, and wood with markings painted in Icelandic. Or were they remnants of the Yulelads’ last stay?
I pushed onward following the yellow markers, feeling like the faces of many great spirits were watching me. I finally came to one of the landmarks: a rock formation that had carved a perfectly round hole in the center so you marched up a walkway of stairs to stand at the center of the eye. There were so many people coming and going that it was hard to take a picture of just the formation without someone posing there for someone else’s picture. I waited for the perfect moment as models exchanged places to capture a shot.
Incidentally, I gave in and asked a French man to take my picture as well.
I marched through the eye, which led to a path above the skyscape of lava towers. I continued following the yellow markers when suddenly the urge to use the restroom overcame me. Damn these days of PB&J lunches! I picked up the pace hoping that the ring would come around again soon. I breathed and tried to calm myself as anxiety began to surge and my stomach turned. It became apparent that the path was not in fact turning around. It seemed to be veering off towards the mountain of black sand where the people at the summit looked like ants off in the distance. I had just been thinking not too long ago about how people ask me aren’t I afraid of traveling alone and I say that common sense goes a long way in this world. Following said common sense, I decided to turn back the way I came since I at least knew that it got me back to the parking lot.
Suddenly I heard footsteps. Thank goodness! I could ask the person which way to the exit! A man with round glasses and a hiking backpack emerged from the brush, and I felt a bit like Alice asking him where he came from.
“The mountain,” he replied as he pointed to the giant mound of black sand.
I should mention there was one other group I encountered earlier that also said they were coming from the mountain, but seemed unsure that the path might veer off to the parking lot when I had come from. When this man affirmed that the path only led to the mountain, I turned around and made my way back post haste.
The urge of my bowels and my stomach fluctuated from “I’m not gonna make it” to the burning dog meme of “This is fine.” I was able to weave back to the rock eye and find the blue path back to the lot, booking it to the restroom at the gift shop. They charged 200 kr to use the bathroom and if you don’t have exact change, they have a touch screen machine that let’s you select your language and pay via credit card. I would have given my kidney to use the bathroom at that point.
Once relieved, I went to the gift shop to ask how to find the rock formation that looked like a walkway. I’ve noticed in Iceland that people seem taken aback when you greet them with a “Hi, how are you?” In America, we often ask someone’s state of being as a rhetorical statement in a greeting. I have come to realize that Icelanders find it awkward that a stranger would ask them this. The woman with her black hair pulled back in a tight bun said, “I was wondering what was going on” after I followed my awkward greeting with the question of whether she knew where the rock was.
“Ah, The Kirkja. You have to follow the red path. It is about an hour’s walk total. It is very easy, there’s markers, you can’t get lost,” she said.
I tried to tell her my story of how I had gotten turned around even following the yellow markers and she just could not grasp how I had gotten myself lost when it was all so clearly marked. So much for my common sense.
That’s when I realized that the fae had played a trick on me. I remember a dear friend telling me a story about a man who gets lost in the forest because some fairies change his sense of direction. Part of me wanted to go back and find The Kirkja or “The Church,” but I had already spent more time than I had anticipated there and I still had so much to see. I left Dimmuborgir feeling shaken up by the experience, and when I looked back at the Dark Fortress before I left, I had much respect for the spirits who lived there.
I visited a few more sites before heading to Dettifoss. I visited Grjótaggá cave, which I think was where they filmed the scene in “Game Of Thrones” with John Snow and the Wildling girl bathing in a hot spring. The azure-colored pool beckoned, but the water was forbidden to swim in. I also stopped by a lake the same color of blue milk as The Blue Lagoon that had a raging, bubbling vent of steam coming from a hole in its site. Driving up the desolate side of the mountain, I stopped at a vista point over looking Myvátn. Hayao Miyazaki could not have dreamed of a more beautiful sight. The volcanic landscape I stood on laid before me devoid of any vegetation and red like the mountains of Mars. Down the hill, the sun sparkled on the lake shining like a sea of shimmering, liquid diamonds.
As I descended on the other side of the ridge, I found the noxious smelling mud pits. I couldn’t stay there too long because the smell of hydrogen sulfide was making me want to throw up. The boiling pits of gray mud were something else entirely. The yellows, periwinkle blues, and grays the color of my friend’s lipstick back home made the landscape seem more fantastical like the markings of some animal where the bright colors let you know how poisonous the creature really is.
The ride to Dettifoss was a drive along the planes of the Moon: kilometers of land that held only igneous lava rock and nothing else. Sarah, the GPS in the rental car, said Dettifoss was 2 hours away. I had this wild ass idea to just continue driving all around the Ring Road to try and circumnavigate the entire country of Iceland in 15 hours. It seemed possible, yet would I really be able to enjoy anything? I told myself when I got to Dettifoss I would decide whether to turn back and camp at Myvátn tonight or say fuck it and push onward the long way round. Just then I saw a sign for a turn off maked for Dettifoss one hour closer than where Sarah was directing me. I pulled over, and decided to look at the analog map to see what was going on since she said I was still two hours away. The analog map saved the day because it showed that I could follow the sign to see the waterfall from this side of the river rather than going all the way around. The map had earned its 1, 672 kr right there. So I turned my metal wagon around and followed the marked road, which began taking me towards a thick layer of fog hanging in the sky. When I finally came to the parking lot, it was hard to tell if the fog was coming from the direction of the sea or gurgling from a point at the river that the other tourists were walking towards.
It started to rain as I followed the people walking amongst rocks. These stones were cut in perfect cubes that would have made a cubist painter envious. I could hear the roar of the waterfall as I drew closer. When I finally saw it, I understood why Shay had said back at the hostel that Goðafoss was the biggest waterfall, but Dettifoss was the most powerful in all of Europe. The waterfall roared and mist rose from its mouth drenching the western bank in what I had assumed had been rain from the sky above. I could have stared at it for hours, but the mist was soaking me from head to toe. The vision reminded me of a story: when I was a kid, I used to love this movie called “The Last Unicorn.” I remember that the wizard Schmendrick tells the Lady Almalthea that the reason unicorns no longer lived in the forest is because the Red Bull had driven all the unicorns to the sea. He tells her that you could see them charging in the crests of the mightiest waves trying to return to land, but they could never actually reach it. I stared at this magnificent beast and imagined the cascades like thousands of white horses running full-speed into the river below: unbridled power.
Signs on the path walking back toward the parking lot indicated that another waterfall, Selfoss, lay only a 0,6 km walk upstream. I got a sneak peek at the top of the vista from Dettifoss. It was enough to draw me in for a closer look.
The two waterfalls lie along the river Jökulsárgljúfur. Walking along the ridge overlooking the river, I looked down 50 feet to the water below where the banks of the river lined it with black sand. Off in the distance, a series of waterfalls cascading over the edge of the cliffs led to one bigger, frothing waterfall like Goðafoss off in the misty distance. It looked like a painting. I thought how amazing this is, to stand here in this very place. When I had last traveled to Europe in 2008, backpacking through various countries for two months or so, I had done so from the meager earnings of a few entry-level jobs. This time I had come from the hard earned efforts of my progress in my career. Yet in both cases, I had received an experience that altered the tangled fabrics of my mind. The fact that money was not the decisive factor in the level of experience gave me hope that no matter what path we choose, you can forge life from it. I felt a sense of hope and determination because there is so much to see in this world, so much to comprehend, that there is always another path, another life to live, should you lose your way.
I decided to head back and camp at Myvátn for the night. After eating pizza at a tiny hut of a restaurant called Daddi’s Pizza on one of the campsites near the lake, I ended up finding a place to stay at Hlið. I was overwhelmed and exhausted, and the strength that the waterfalls had instilled in my heart began to crumble away. My anxiety raised its ugly head when a friend had asked in a text message if I had met any cool people during my travels and I realized that I had barely interacted with anyone since being at the hostel. I felt a pang of loneliness turning my insides along with the first real meal I had all day. I couldn’t write all this until the following morning because I just wanted to rest. I had set my anxiety into full force looking for a space to park the car for the night and moved it three times out of fervent obsessive compulsive indecision. In one case, I had parked far up the hill to get away from people, but had parked next to another car when my brain decided to chime in that perhaps these travelers wanted to get away from other campers for some privacy. In my attempt to leave them to their peace, I had nearly gotten the car stuck in a dust pit had it not been for the all-wheel drive.
See the funny thing about anxiety is that there tends to be an absence of sensibility as reasons for action become the driving force in inane activities, i.e. “I must move the car so these people can be alone.” Who knows if that was actually what was going on with those people, but the correlation had become a causation in my brain that fed my anxiety that I had to move. The problem lies in what happens when every place to put the car suddenly has a reason why I cannot be there. Logic without sense becomes insanity.
I fell asleep swaddled in my layers of hoodies and a sleeping bag muttering to myself, “It will all be OK, it will all be OK…”