I made a lot of promises to get to Seljavallalaug Pool. It was off road, it required a trek to god knows where, it was unpromised. It wasn’t in the guidebook. “I swear it will be worth it, you guys. I’ve read about it- it looks really cool and hardly anybody knows about it.”
Seljavallalaug has gained more and more notoriety as the tourist flow to Iceland increases. The locals will no doubt disapprove of my throwing gas on the fire. But Seljavallalaug was and is worth it. Melanie turned our little silver sedan off lonely Highway 1 and onto a gravel lined road that snaked its way towards the mountains. The glacial caps dusted the tops of it in dabbles of white and grey. As it neared the base, it trickled into a heavy flow which cut through the rocky debris. Not quite river, not quite creek, I traversed it nimbly with my borrowed DSLR. I tapped every deceitful, mossy rock as I went, not trusting their often unsteady setting.
The others lagged behind me as I went. We had disputed in the car whether or not it was a valuable use of time. “I think it’s better spent elsewhere,” Mel sniffed.
“I guess I’m willing to go but I’m not sure I’m going to swim,” Pam added. Kim nodded. I fumed. I was going, I stated. I was damn well going. As I clamored over the small hills of boulders and gravel, I became more and more determined to see this almost mythic pool, nestled into the mountains, fed by glaciers, heated by lava.
When I reached it, I had ten minutes of silence to myself. The pool itself was carved into the face of the mountain. The glacier tickled its edges just behind as its liquid fingers fed into the creek. A long pipe wrapped the rock’s face, feeding heated water into the vessel. Travelers’ graffiti lined the pine interiors of the mens’ and womens’ changing rooms. They were charmingly barren and abandoned. The water itself had become an opaque, glossy forest green. My mind wandered to folktales of nefarious beings- trolls, elves, sprites- anything that could lurk beneath the surface, waiting to hook my toe. Despite this, I felt compelled to lean towards it as though daring any creature below to reach up for me.
“We don’t want to swim,” my companions announced.
“What?” I turned with a shock. “But…that’s what you do. You come here,” I gestured, “and you swim.”
“People could see us,” Pam offered.
“There are changing rooms,” I pointed.
“Those look…” Mel made a face. They were a bit decrepit to be honest.
“Look, we’re completely alone. Nobody else is here. You’re all sisters, we all have the same parts, we can just change and swim.”
“No, somebody will see us.”
“WHO?!” I tried to regain composure. “Nobody-” I glanced the horizon. “Nobody will see us.”
“I just don’t think we have time,” Mel said, crossing her arms.
“I’ll put my feet in,” Pam compromised.
“Alright.” I gave in. I had been defeated. We pulled off our sandy boots and damp socks and rolled up our pants legs. The water was just slightly above tepid. I grumbled to myself: we would have been miserably cold had we gotten in. Still, I felt like a full experience had been missed. As I swirled my feet, waiting for a water sprite to drag me in, I thought about Mike and what kind of adventure we might have had. Surely we would have undressed without a proper amount of Lutheran shame, we would have flopped into the silty water and waded about each other until marauding hikers joined us. And we would stumble back to the car, kiss, and fall asleep in a down-stuffed bed after a hot shower and tea. But this was not that trip. This was a girls’ trip.
Somehow during our foot soak, the creek seemed to deepen. It took me twice as long to hike back as the others as I struggled to find low, steady enough points to cross with my dad’s camera. I kept seeing myself falling face forward, crushing the camera into the icy water in my wake. And then I saw myself explaining to him what had happened. And then writing checks. I trudged on. We had two more sites before sun-down.
We headed back towards the coast again. The wind whipped around our tiny car and the sky spit mist and rain upon us. The clouds lowered against the jutting rocks so that all around us was gloom and grey with our little strip of black and gold-lined road leading us through. In the distance of the lowlands, I could just make out the lapping white-crested waves of the North Atlantic and the solemn Vestmannaeyjar. The GPS guide moaned about the Irish slave and Viking battle on the island as we curved towards Skogar. “Why can’t people just get along,” Kim opined. “Why’d they have to keep killing each other- what’s the point?”
Skogar boasted an outdoor museum of traditional homes beside the large Skogarfoss Falls. The museum itself was small so we opted to meander through it, hoping the rain would subside before we reached the falls. Supposedly, we were to pay a small fee to enter but no one seemed willing to accept any payment so we headed back outside into the mist. The homes were half boulders and half wood paneling with a layer of sod for roofing. We ducked in and out of their miniscule blackened frames to find ingeniously decked out intimate rooms. A small chandelier hung in one dining room while a miniature piano nestled into the nook of another- the hallway held handmade iron hooks for heavy coats between the beams. Up a nearly verticle set of narrow stairs was a series of beds whose frames looked like boxy sleigh beds. They were said to house up to twelve people with three per row in the main room, two in the master suite (which was smaller than the average American walk-in closet), and a shoebox version for baby. I thought of my American demands for personal space and privacy. It seemed that here, out of necessity, people huddled together for warmth from the elements and went on walk-about for privacy when the weather allowed.
Skogar Folk Museum also offered a large indoor collection of housewares and sailing related paraphernalia. Fascinating as it was, it was all in Icelandic without translation. The rain trickled into a heavy mist and we took our chances for Skogarfoss.
The sound of it met us far before the sight. It thundered down onto the black volcanic bed in white, billowing clouds and sea birds drifted around its churning trail.
“Should we climb it?” Pam asked, pointing to the rusting staircase winding to the top.
“Absolutely,” Mel replied.
It was 467 steps to the top on slippery, honeycombed steel. One side had a handrail; the other was open to the cliff side- wide enough for two to scoot past each other. Had we gone in high season, I surmised, it would be a torturous climb- the pace set solely by the slowest, struggling, climber. In all fairness, I would have likely been that climber. My thighs and knees quit several times along the way while Pam and Mel, still nimble dancers, stomped higher and higher as I paused to rub my legs down and stare out at the fields. When we reached the top, it may have been the chilly air or my wobbly, screaming thighs, or just general fatigue but I found it remarkably underwhelming. It seemed so placid at the top- totally devoid of the power of gravity and weight. I became focused on the birds whose white bodies floated and dipped about the falls, stumbling to gain a footing on the rock and tipping back into the drafts.
I looked out onto the plains that sunk into the black sands and into the steel water lapping its edges. I thought about the tiny boats that would have washed up on its shores, full of explorers hoping for a better life- a better land. Were they happy with what they had found?
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