Iceland · travel

The Iceland Sagas: To the Heartland

In the interest of preserving memories and acting as a future guide, this series of posts reflects on adventures spent abroad- meaning, outside of my own community, wherever I might land. It serves not only as a record but also as an exercise in memory and language. 

May 17, 2015

In the morning, we packed up, paid and piled our tiny car full of our belongings. “Hullo!” a woman shouted at me and I turned to see my flight seat-mates waving from their off-roader. I waved back as they consulted their map. Part of me wished I could join them. Perhaps I would have a wholly different adventure. Turning back to my companions who were grumbling over half-filled water bottles and granola bars, I lumbered into my seat, examining the day’s map. We would head east and then wind around in the middle.
“It looks like our best bet is to skirt the edge of the city and hook right.” I traced the highway with my finger. “That should spit us into the park and out.”
Melanie nodded with the seriousness of a military pilot on a mission and turned the ignition. We waved goodbye to our sculptured roundabouts, each themed after a major global city. Kimberly tried to snap a few photos of the rock families stacked along the horizon and we cursed the outer city traffic as well as our GPS.
Soon, though, we were in the valley and out of what little smog Reykjavic possessed. The hills rose and fell before us, undulating like a dance with each mile. Rows of fettered miniature Christmas trees lined the highway. Each was stabilized by its own wooden corner-piece, blocking it from the high winds. Birch groves shielded small farms and birds swooped overhead. Melanie pointed to a church spire perched atop a hill. “Should we stop?”
“Sure!” Pamela chirped and we turned onto a rough gravel road which wound past secluded homes and pastures, over cattle grates and streams, up to a green and white sanctuary high above the valley. It seemed we were very much alone as we wrapped ourselves in long scarves and down jackets. The wind was quite strong and cold. Mosfell Church was clad in oxidized copper, thin bands of glass, and white siding. It jutted from the earth like an outcropping. Small graves surrounded it- each with a wintering shrub before it. Bronze birds and feathers dusted the tops of the stones. We paced around them, inspecting their names and dates for clues. I sat upon the mossy grass hill. The wind pushed me  back and I reached to tighten my scarf. The valley was beginning to green but snow still dotted the rocky nubs- their peaks had been weathered down to rough swells.
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We were headed to the flat-lands- between our two peaks, the land opened before us and filled the horizon. It looked like Kansas. Pamela napped in the backseat. Kimberly chatted about farming practices. Icelanders cut trenches around their fields at least two feet deep. We debated the possible reasons: drainage, land marking, fencing, irrigation. Soon, the land appeared rocky again. It crumbled into tan, frothy lumps, dotted with green moss. Kimberly informed us of our elevation as we dipped towards a massive lake. “I think we’ve made it,” Melanie announced. “This is Thingvellir.
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“And that’s Thingvallavatn,” Kim replied, gesturing to the blue waters. We pulled off at our next clover. I struggled to push the door open, the winds were so strong. Hundreds of rock stacks spread out before the lake. Japanese tourists lined up together and through mere gesturing, we exchanged photos and giggles as the wind pushed us about. The Laufskalavarda Cairns were erected in memory of farms lost to volcanic eruptions and stood for good luck. They seemed endless, stretching out on the barren land. Visitors created their own memorials before setting off for the lake. We were no different.

There is no official entrance to the park- you just go until it spits you somewhere that seems legitimate. Luckily, if you veer left or right, you’re in the Golden Circle- you can’t really screw it up. We opted for a visit with zero veering and landed at the visitor’s center where we ignored an informative documentary and where I (stupidly) walked away from hand-felted electric pink and grey slippers. There would be no 2,000 krona bathroom visits today, only starkly splitting lava fields and cascading falls.

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Little ant-sized travelers meandered before us and we followed them with our clunky steps, down the descending path and into the valley. The walls stretched up around us.

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Meandering down through the enterance

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Here, it is said, that Icelandic law was created. Swaths of people would gather at the tectonic split to hear the chieftan declare rulings and to enact decrees. His information would be passed down each wall by a town cryer of sorts until it reached the lowliest of subjects, like a large format version of phone tag. Scattered throughout were historical signs, describing ancient activities around each point of interest. Throughout history, they told us, this was a place of law and terror. Landmarks were primarily named after execution styles- certain styles being more suited (presumably) to particular genders. Men, we learned, were often careened off of cliffs while women were typically stuffed into sacks and drowned. The beauty of our surroundings shifted to bleakness. As I stood beneath the rocks and falls, I tried to hold my gaze as others drifted away. I wanted to honor the memories of those lost by not turning away.

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Oxrarfoss, where women were drowned for witchcraft to adultery

As much as I tried to simultaneously remember what this place was- how it brought together swarms of people, destroyed thousands of lives, altered geography and its inhabitants- and to be present in its simple, stark beauty, I couldn’t help but let the latter win out. I tucked my scarf into my coat and we forged our way through the valley.

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