Iceland: Þingvellir and Þingvallavatn

The predicted high in Tucson today is around 109F/43C. Clearly, a good day for hanging laundry.

I find that after two weeks of observing another landscape, my own stands out in sharp relief as well, the habit of observing still there. The bright moon, the bright glow of sunset clouds, the warm night air. My home is an enchanted place, too.

June 11

(Photos here.)

Our last trip to Iceland, five years ago, we got around the island almost entirely by bus. We enjoyed travelling by bus, and we’d hoped to do that again this time, but as we looked at the places we wanted to go, we realized that wasn’t quite going to work.

So Monday morning, we packed up our backpacks, and took the local city bus down to the Reykjavík airport to pick up our car. A new car, as it turns out, with only 94 km on it. Given all the miles we planned to put on it, and the unpaved roads we planned to drive, we secretly wondered at the wisdom of giving us this vehicle, but said nothing. Later, we would realize that of course Icelanders know a rental car will be driving dusty, gravelly roads and pick up a bit of dirt–the only way to avoid doing so would have been to stay in Reykjavík.

We headed for the ring road (Iceland’s main road, which circles the island, then turned off toward Þingvellir and (Lake) Þingvallavatn. We had our choice of campsites–several near the visitor’s center, and one right one the lake. We went for the one right on the lake, of course, and pitched our tent. The lake–Iceland’s largest lake–stretched out before us, and a grassy, mossy heath slowly rose and fell all around. Dark gray and black volcanic hills edged much of the horizon, their upper slopes still white with snow. Across the lake, what looked like clouds rose from a gray hill–only as the day went on and the clouds cleared, it became clear that it wasn’t clouds, but steam we looked at, rising from beneath the earth’s crust.

It’s not uncommon, in Iceland, to be driving along and see steam rising from some random spot in the ground, actually. And steam and clouds do look a lot alike.

Only what clouds there were that day cleared off by mid afternoon, leaving us with a startling deep blue cloudless sky that turned the lake deep blue as well. Not the weather we were expecting–but we were camping, so we were hardly going to complain.

Truly, this was one of the loveliest spots I’ve camped ever. And we were the only tent there.

It was hard to pull away, but after a peanut butter and jelly lunch, we headed up the road toward Þingvellir.

Þingvellir is interesting for two reasons. One is that for hundreds of years, since 930, it was the site of Iceland’s Alþing, the oldest parliament in the world–and as such, also the site of numerous saga age events and battles. The other is that it’s located in a rift valley, along the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and European plates meet–meaning that the earth is, literally, pulling apart beneath your feet there, by an average of 2 cm per year.

It’s also one of the few places in the world I’d ever stood–during my first visit to Iceland–and known, really known, that I stood in a place of power. And–maybe because of that power–it’s the place where I wrote the opening of the novel I’m working on now.

The geology is the first thing one notices at Þingvellir. One walks along paths between walls of blocky gray rock, and one can almost see how those walls of rock must have once fit together. There’s a consistent pattern here–a vertical rock wall to the west, a slumped rock wall a few feet away to the east–slumped because it fell away at an angle. The rifting doesn’t just happen in one place; rather, it’s a pattern that repeats, over and over, throughout the area. Standing out on the plain, you can look off into the distance, and see ridge upon ridge of those gray rock walls.

The rifting also doesn’t only happen on a large scale, either. Looking at the ground beneath my feet, in places there were small cracks, and large ones. There were gorges and cracks of all sizes, really, from those large enough to walk through to those only as wide as my finger. Water runs through some of the cracks, much of it from the Öxará [River].

One very much gets the sense, here, that the land is pulling apart. Stand at Þingvellir long enough, and you can’t help but understand that geology, that the restless motion of the earth, is real.

As for the Alþing, one can see one of the sights where the parliament’s law rock might have been. Most of the package tours seem to spend time only there. The tourists listen with glazed looks to a canned history speech, make appreciative sounds as they look down into a single gorge and listen to a canned geology speech, and in a half hour, they’re gone.

Which means they also don’t see the remains of the old booths from the Alþing. These were pointed out to us by the park guide, Kristín, who gave us a brief tour of the grounds when we first arrived. Many of them look like simple depressions in the ground, but those depressions are actually the remains of sunken floors and low turf walls, which would be covered over by the various families who owned them when the Alþing met each year, like a sort of turf platform tent.

This was our first introduction to the ruins of turf structures, actually. There’s a rise or fall in the land, overgrown with grass, and it seems almost natural–until you realize it doesn’t quite fit with the surrounding land. If you don’t know what to look for, you can walk past turf ruins and have no idea what you’ve seen, because they blend back into the land from which they were built.

I also asked our tour guide what she thought of Hallgerður (of the bowstring incident), a question I would irregularly ask others throughout the trip. She hesitated, then told me Hallgerður was a “great woman,” like other women in the sagas, and gave me an Icelandic word for that that I don’t remember. (hildigunnur? theloa? Do either of you have any idea what word this might be?) I got the sense she meant great not in the sense of good or virtuous, but in the sense of formidable–formidable in a larger than life sort of way–but I’m not entirely sure about that, either.

Needless to say, we spent far more than a half hour at Þingvellir, lingering and exploring for hours after our short tour.

As for the power I felt at the place last time–I didn’t feel it in quite so powerful away this time as last. But I did feel a sort of stomach clenching uneasiness as a walked over the solid–the ultimately unstable–earth.

But only to the south. When I walked north, around to Öxaráfoss [Waterfall] (and beyond where the Alþing met), I felt something else–a sort of lightness and joy. If the land has power there, it has many sorts of power. I watched water send shock waves of spray into the air, took my shoes off and splashed around, listened as a visitor sat playing a small drum and singing in a language I didn’t understand, the waterfall too loud for me to make out what language it was.

South of the waterfall, we also visited Drekkingarhylur, the drowning pool, where women convicted of capital crimes were killed, and the southern edge of the pool looked, as it reflected the light, just a little like blood. (Women sentenced to death were drowned; men were beheaded; sorcerers were burned regardless of gender–until the 19th century, when Iceland abolished capital punishment entirely.)

That evening we discovered the fuel for our camp stove didn’t fit said stove, so had a meal of lake-caught trout, vegetables, and small potatoes (ubiquitous in Iceland) at the local hotel restaurant instead. Then we returned to our tent at the edge of said lake.

I lay back and looked up at the perfect blue sky, felt the green springy earth beneath my back. I sat leaning against what might have been the ruins of another booth. [But which we later learned were actually the ruins of a farmhouse.] I sat by the lake, too, watched the black-capped arctic terns hover over the water, wings flapping, making neat little head-first dives into the water when they found something they wanted to eat. The sound of bird calls was everywhere. The night sun cast a bright glittering path over the water.

A few picnickers arrived for dinner and left. Fishers arrived and stayed, silently wading out into the lake, taking advantage of the extended northern twilight.

But other than those fishers, there was no one there but us.

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