I once saw a series of maps of the world done from the perspective of various groups. The maps, while they looked like real maps, didn’t have country names. Instead, countries were called by something they were known for. Something that expressed the perspective of another group. A map of China, from a US perspective, might be labeled “cheap stuff.” The US might be labeled “That War We Try to Forget” in the British version. Iceland was labeled “Björk” in one. “Wikileaks” in another. These maps picked idle things that had gotten Iceland in the news, idle things that reminded the rest of the world that Iceland does, in fact, exist.
When the incomprehensibly long named volcano went off here, planes all around the world were grounded. This reminded us that Iceland is sitting on a literal hotbed of geothermal activity.
The hot water in the country is free, brought up full of sulfur and natural heat. It’s used to generate power. To heat homes.
It’s also used for play.
Natural hot springs exist within the country. Some of them have been turned into tourist spots. Some o f them have been left alone. There are really too many to exploit them all in a formal way.
Some of them are just good hiking spots.
After being told about a creek that formed at the confluence of a cold stream and a scalding hot geothermally heated stream, we knew we had to go. We rented two cars for a few days. The contract was handwritten on a piece of torn out notebook paper. In one the radio didn’t work. In the other, well, I’m not sure what was wrong with that one, but it wasn’t insignificant.
We followed route one out of Reyjkavik. The landscape passed as the Moon: grey,
rolling, cold. We parked the car. The world outside looked cold and I wanted nothing more than to not be a part of it. Questioning why I even left my bed that morning, I forced myself out of the car. As a group, we crossed a small bridge over a trickle of water that we called a stream and set off.
Partway across the wooden bridge, NS paused and began to jump up and down on it. As the bridge rocked up and down, I shook my head, pleading for him to stop.
“It’s not far,” he told me. That was the problem, I explained. If it was deep, I would have fallen in and swam. With it being shallow, if I fell in I would have hit my head on a rock and drowned.
This sort of city kid mentality is a theme in many of my outdoor excursions with friends. My friends, lovely people, have a tendency to be lean people. They’re the kind of people with thin limbs and tight muscles that move underneath the skin, independently from bones and veins.
I was not designed for this sort of activity. Longtime readers may remember the fact that I have “a slightly round, soft-and-squishy shape
.” In spite of nearly a lifetime of vegetarianism, a new found and serious dedication to my bike, I am what is politely referred to as “plus sized,” “full figured,” or “big.” However, my response to these outdoor adventures does not end there. I am scared of nature
. Really, that’s it. Nature is scary. The countryside is scary. I do not know how to walk on ice. I do not know how to climb up things. I am physically ill equipped to deal with these extreme physical challenges, and emotionally and mentally unprepared for them as well.
My friends spend their childhoods climbing rocks and paying soccer. I read books and, uhh, read books.
While my friends, with their strong legs and sure feet, set off on an exciting adventure throughout this valley, nestled by mountains, dotted with heated pools, and full of everything they had dreamed of in Iceland, I trudged on behind, taking a slow steady pace with small useless steps. I weaved back and forth, between patches of mud to try and steer clear of the ice. Cold, unbalanced, and deeply afraid of falling, I slowly meandered forward, following the footprints of my friends.
And then EG noticed me, far behind.
My favorite person to go on outdoor adventures with is my father. When I am with my father and we’re hiking, I am his baby girl. We might talk about Serious Adult Things, but I am his little girl. He lets me set a pace. He takes every opportunity to teach me something new, either about the world around us, or about how to maneuver through it. He holds my hand if I am having trouble climbing down or over something. He talks me through things that seem impossible and scary to me. He sets a trail.
When EG slowed down, waiting for me, and talking me through difficult crossings, I looked at him and saw a man much like my father. He was concerned about everyone getting though this event.
And it was an event to get through. The weather was warm for January in Iceland.
The ground, wet from the air and recent rain, was an ongoing mud pit that sucked in your shoes and tried to swallow you. Our feet became caked with mud, covered in mud. It clung to our pants and shoes, catching a ride and trying to escape the ground that was holding it.
We reached a point where the path diverged. We could continue down the river of mud, or we could cross the stream we’d later swim in to a gravel path.
I sat down on a rock and took off my shoes and socks. I rolled up my pant legs. Nervously, gingerly, I placed one foot in the water.
And it was pleasant.
While I shivered and shook, my feet were warm. That warmth spread up and I enjoyed a leisurely stream crossing.
Putting my shoes and socks back on though, that was cold.
We celebrated my river crossing (as I was the first to do it barefoot) with squares of chocolate. As it melted in my mouth, I felt rejuvenated for the next part of the hike.
When we got to the stream, there were already people swimming there. We argued, all suddenly scared. Cold. Some people went for a walk, a few of us stayed, eased ourselves down by the water, and stripped down to our bathing suits.
Okay, I stripped down to my bathing suit. Everyone else still needed to change into theirs.
Through acts of careful balancing and towel manipulation, the flashing was kept to a socially acceptable minimum. When I stepped into the water, it was warm. It was warmer than downstream.
The creek itself was fairly shallow. People would find a spot deep enough and sit or lie down in the water. They would crawl up and down
stream. They would stand and move, shivering as they looked for new spots. In parts, we moved up to the confluence, where the two rivers met. One leg would be too hot, one foot too cold, but the rest of you would feel just right. A slight shift in position brought on new temperature sensations. As the water flowed and mixed, the temperatures changed. Pockets of warm and cold water would hit different parts of you at different times. Centimeters would make the difference in a part of you being comfortable or uncomfortable.
As it got closer to three, I got myself out of the water. I knew I would be slow going back, and I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of the hike back being in the dark. I would take the close to two hours of twilight and make my way back to the car, I announced. Everyone else was content at the idea and kept swimming.
In collecting a set of car keys I misstepped. The mud, in general, was so thick that it would go over the tops of your boots if you weren’t careful. This happened and my shoes filled with a slick, cold mud. I sighed and wiggled my toes, hoping this would be enough to keep them from freezing.
It was getting colder already at this point. Water was becoming ice along the path back. The wind picked up. As I went down a hill, I realized that I was not going to be able to stop if I wanted to. The wind was pushing me so strongly, the mud and ice lacked so much purchase, that I just tried to steer myself.
For not the last time time, I wished I was a kite with the ability to tack in the wind.
When I got to the stream that needed to be crossed, I looked at it and looked at my feet. Without taking off my shoes, I walked through it, allowing the warm water to clean the mud off and out of my shoes, filling them instead with a slight warmth that I hoped would help me enough. The rest of the walk, my toes stayed not painfully cold. The warm water coupled with the heat of moving, the insulation of my shoes, kept me going.
Along the rail, there had been a patch of snow, sloping down hill to a long drop down into the valley. By the time I reached it on my way back, it was ice. For several minutes I looked at this problem. I began different approaches to getting across it and always stopped, scared at how slippery it was. My feet wouldn’t find purchase.
Finally, having climbed up hill a bit, over rocks and moss, I found a place where it was rougher and I could ease my feet onto the ice and make my way, hesitantly, across. After I passed over it, I looked back at it. Suddenly it was much smaller. Undaunted by this, I raised my arms in the air.
“Celebratory drink of water and song!” I cried out to no one but the air.
After my sip of water, I started hiking again, singing to myself. The wind picked up, but I didn’t care. Suddenly the world was beautiful, in the twilight. I knew I would not die on the way back, I would not slip and fall and die. I would not freeze or lose consciousness, my friends unable to find me.
It was a liberating feeling.
I paused often, looking back over the hills and the way they came together. The way the sky and the colors mutated into one another. I realized, for the first time, that Iceland itself holds the myths in the ground. I could see where they came from.
In climbing into the valley, after you get past the first set of hills protecting it, the world transforms and opens up. It goes from the barren wastelands people talk about to a fairytale.
Before I left the fairytale, I stood, looking over the valley and internalizing the moment. I was alone. I didn’t have to share it with anyone. It was, in its entirety, mine. The wind, the sky, the way the mountains reached up, the way the green moss clung to the rocks and the rocks clung to the ground–all of this was mine.
Turning away from it, I walked back to the car, slowly, pausing to look at all the steam vents and interesting rocks I had missed on the way up.