#27 Iceland Part 1: Fear and Awe
I went to Iceland, and now I’m back: Seven days.
My time was short yet more than enough to fall in love with the whole country (including the parts of it I didn’t see) and everybody in it (including the ones I didn’t meet). Sometimes you wonder if it’s the timing of a thing that creates the magic or the thing itself. In the case of Iceland, I am certain it was both. I needed it, and there it was: a floating, shimmering, wild refuge in the Atlantic Ocean, whispering sagas under glaciers and in caves of lava rock… and not giving two shits about me and my skewered psyche. It still doesn’t, God bless it.
At any rate, seven days: It seems both a lot and nothing can happen in a week. Everything that was a mess before I left is still a mess (except for my car, thanks to my dad). That’s the nothing. But Charlottesville also happened. That’s the a lot.
First, let me tell you about my hike
I Airbnb’d my first three nights in Reykjavík, and it couldn’t have been more perfect had it been biblically decreed to Moses at Mount Sinai. Thanks to a voice in my head that clearly wasn’t mine (because the voice in my head says “hide, cloister, and avoid” 99% of the time), I ended up booking a room in the home of a family who explicitly stated in their profile that the space was shared, full, and busy. A second Airbnb place within budget said, “Hey, we’re never around, so you’re on your own; but we’ll leave you a number you can call for help.” The voice that wasn’t my own said, Pick the busy family. And so I did. It was the first right choice.
The second right choice was the hike through Fimmvörðuháls Pass, southeast from Reykjavík on Day 2.
One of my Airbnb hosts recommended the trail. I didn’t have any other plans, so I booked a ride on a bus out of town to the base of the waterfall at Skógar. The hike from Skógar to Þórsmörk took me over 9 hours, on account of fear and awe.
I live in Iowa. I’m not a hiker. I’m a walker, but not a hiker. I bought hiking shoes (shoes, not boots—a wrong choice, please note) and a backpack two days before I left for Iceland. My mom made me take her gigantic blue rain poncho (which came in very handy when it started rain and hail). But I work out. I take care of myself. I’m in decent shape. I can walk all day. Pfft. I’ll be fine, I thought.
And I was (fine), except for the parts where I was terrified. Heights and I are not friends. I do not gaze wonderingly over railings 20 stories up. I do not stand or sit on ledges. I identify their presence then take about 15 generous steps back. On this trail, however, you walk those ledges—mountain on one side, death on the other (Or you get airlifted out like some kind of lily livered ninny, I suppose).
Incidentally, my third right choice was accepting the pair of thick, wool socks my host, B, insisted I take (after he looked at my inadequate hiking attire). I changed into those socks in no less than 10 minutes of the journey. (Another right choice.)
The scenery was stunning. “Stunning” is a stupid word, but I don’t have any others that fit. Every single word I know is stupid in comparison to what I saw and felt. I’m a writer; I’m always looking for the right words. And yet, the best magic happens when I can’t find them.
The hike was more than the beauty—to me, anyway. It was the land’s complete disregard for me, and it was my process within it.
I have never seen a place more beautiful than Iceland—especially on this hike. It was the kind of devastating beauty that doesn’t care about you. I was constantly struck by how insignificant I was in relation to it. I didn’t matter. Whether I lived or died on this mountain, by this waterfall, in this lava field, between these glaciers, at the base of this volcano, before the eyes of these sheep… didn’t fucking matter. A theme I keep coming back to in my life, over and over and over again, is: THIS IS A GOOD THING. It's okay to not matter (except to the people in your small inner circle). It's okay to be irrelevant.
There is such freedom in smallness. In modern American culture, we are taught that if we are ordinary, if we do not leave a mark and distinguish ourselves from the pack, we are futile and powerless and purposeless. Yet, consistently in my experiences, the smaller I feel, the more in-tune I am, the more inspired I am, the freer I am, and ultimately (and ironically), therefore, the more powerful I feel.
I know so many people looking so desperately for freedom (myself included)—who then become imprisoned, in a way, by their means to finding or defining it. What if freedom is no more than a small step to the left and the acceptance of your cosmic size (so very small)?
But there is a critical distinction between feeling small and feeling diminished. Diminished, to me, means feeling squished and inferior (destructive). Feeling small means understanding and accepting your place in the universe (alignment-real). I am always at my best when my desire to feel real is stronger than my desire to feel great. And I always find that powerful smallness when I plop myself down in a place I don’t know or understand. In comfort and predictability, we are greedy sponges. We bloat with the known and get a false sense of bigness and control. In the foreign, we must listen and learn.
I want to talk about a process for a minute—the lone traveler process. This single day’s hike gave me a microcosm of Life According to Traveling Alone. There seems to be a common cycle to travel and new experiences when alone. I feel like it has broad application. As I see it, it goes like this:
Phase 1: Where’s the bathroom? Nerves. This is new. Will everything go okay? What will happen? Easy does it, Gertrude. (I have a story about lingering around the base of the hike because I didn’t want to have to poop in the wild…)
Phase 2: The Exuberant Puppy. I’m in! This is amazing! What was I so worried about?! I feel so free! Wooooooooooo! (In the case of Iceland specifically: Waterfall… Waterfall… Waterfall… Waterfall… Waterfall… ad infinitum. Jesus, Iceland. Stop hogging the waterfalls.)
Phase 3: Oh Shit. This is harder than expected. Should I be doing this? I don’t think I should be doing this. I am an idiot. I am lonely. I can’t believe I haven’t died yet. I am going to die…alone. Oh my god, I feel so alone. Alone alone alone. Specifically to this hike, around hour 3.5, I hit snow fields and lava fields, glaciers, desolation, and a minor touch of hail and despair.
Phase 4: The only way out is through, Sugar. There is a lot of self-talk in Phase 4. If you have a harsh-but-helpful aunt, she will come online in your head. She’ll say things like, “You’re fine, Nimrod. One foot in front of the other. Stop being ridiculous.” I don’t mean to brag, but I peed in a lava field during Phase 4 of this hike, and it really turned my mood around.
Phase 5: Peace According to Old Dog Lying in the Sun. You’re tired, and you’ve earned some wisdom here. Old dog wisdom has brought you peace. See the journey through. Here, you find your joy again, but you don’t piddle down your leg with it. This is the classiest phase, obviously.
[I have another story about this hike—about crossing “cat’s spine” and encountering a quartet of French hikers, like marathon angels—but I’m going to save that for another post.]
On August 11, I felt gloriously small, appropriately in awe, precariously placed, and peacefully exhausted. On August 12, back in the states, Charlottesville went haywire, although I wouldn’t know it until August 13.
I spent August 12 in Reykjavík feeling off. I don’t blame this on any kind of psychic connection with my homeland. I think it was the aftermath of the Fimmvörðuháls spiritual blast. After so many hours alone in your head and in a heightened spiritual state, it’s hard to suddenly find yourself flat-footed on a sidewalk among people in jeans and hoodies. Add to that: In true American fashion, I speak nothing but English, anyway (and some very bad German), so conversation was limited, regardless. Thanks to my hosts, I had a lovely few hours at a local spa, but afterward, I took a wrong bus, made a few other wrong choices, and then called it a day.
[I have more to say about this off day. But I’ll save that for later, too.]
As my short tour through western Iceland continued, I kept returning to the land, its seeming disregard for humanity, humanity’s acceptance of and respect for this disregard, the land’s clear and undeniable superiority, and how the acceptance of that superiority and disregard might be a critical component of peace… and not acting like a giant asshole everywhere you go. (Because if the land is superior, that place is already taken... you can shut up about how super duper your race and ethnicity is... because you ain't shit, love.)
To be continued…