The waterfall, I was told, was called Oxararfoss.
It was not the largest waterfall I saw while I was in Iceland; that was Skogafoss, down in the south of the country, where I walked along the rocky beach below the cliffs until I came to the edge of the falls and let myself be drenched in the spray. Nor was it the waterfall I got to experience most intimately – that was Seljalandsfoss, where I walked up a flight of sturdy iron steps that leading behind the waterfall and found that on the other side, the trail’s improvements ended and all that awaited me were a series of sharp, water-slick rocks that had been worn away by the weight of other human feet.
By comparison, Oxararfoss felt small and domesticated. As, I suppose, it was: Oxararfoss had been sculpted by human hands during the settling of Iceland. The settlers diverted the river Oxara sometime in the 10th century and sent it tumbling over the continental ridge that forms the edge of Thingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament was established around the year 930. The resulting river traces a path through Thingvellir before emptying in Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland.
I didn’t know any of that at the time – a woman from Ásatrúarfelagið, whose midsummer blót I had come to see, told me of the waterfall’s history after I descended the trail back to the clearing where Ásatrúarfelagið had camped. The only thing I knew about the waterfall beforehand was that it existed: I had seen it, just for a moment, from the road leading out from Thingvellir, with only the crest of the falls appearing from behind the rocks. It seemed isolated from the rest of the valley at that distance, but in reality, a well-maintained wooden path led up a hill to the waterfall from the ground, and there was even a platform built out into the stream so visitors could get closer to the waterfall itself: another place where humans have altered the landscape to better fit our needs.
Still, fabricated, manufactured, artificial: these distinctions all disappear when one is in the presence of a waterfall.
A waterfall is nothing but water, rock, and gravity – three of the most unremarkable components of life on this planet. But their admixture entrances me like nothing else; the wonder of their constant movements, the calculation of how long and how much they have flowed, the study of the ways tiny clefts within the rock manifest later as massive columns of white water before they crash into the surface. Those things are harder to see with the massive waterfalls – they are too tall to observe easily. But as I stood before Oxararfoss, I could look for the details, could contemplate them, could empty myself of myself in their presence.
I stood there for ten or fifteen minutes, perhaps. Not much more than that. I was expecting my ride back to Reykjavik to arrive, and didn’t want to be lost up in the hills when he came, so I turned back. (He didn’t arrive for another two hours, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Rain fell in a lazy drizzle as I walked upon the wooden platforms leading back down to the campsite. Although I had been in Iceland for almost two weeks, cold rain in June still felt like a novelty; I closed my eyes and moved on with a smile. Oxararfoss still roared behind me.
Out of the wordless joy inside my mind, a thought surfaced: It will be wonderful to walk this trail again someday.
Then I stopped walking and opened my eyes, saw again the black and barren rocks of the continental divide and the wide gray sky. I saw the wet planks of the trail ahead of me, where I had been walking.
My grandfather had gone into the hospital just a few days before I left for my trip – he stepped on a nail and then, despite his diabetes, never went to the doctor until he couldn’t bear it anymore. He thought he would be in the hospital for an afternoon – a dose of antibiotics to knock down the gangrene in his foot and then he would be back home.
They cut off his leg just above the knee.
My grandfather was a carpenter, the kind who never really retires; as recently as two years ago, he got in trouble with the City of St. Louis for leaving a two-story-tall ladder propped against the rear of his house, just in case he felt the urge to go tar the roof again. There would be no more of that.
My grandfather will never see this, I thought to myself, that moment on the trail.
This shouldn’t have been a shocking revelation – my grandfather hadn’t gone anywhere more than a couple of hours away from St. Louis in twenty years, even before the surgery – but it was. He would never see Thingvellir. Even if I showed him the photographs, or explained to him the history of Iceland, he still wouldn’t understand what made this place important to me: that I had come here on pilgrimage, searching for gods hiding among the rocks and water and gravity. This was a part of my life I have kept hidden from him, and probably always will.
I began to walk again, and soon came back to the campsite, where there were hot dogs and cans of Egil’s Pilsner waiting. I opened one of those green cans, named for the poet and warrior Egil Skallagrimsson, and walked out a ways into the fields. It was nearly ten o’clock in the evening, but then, there is no such thing as nighttime during the summer in Iceland.
I looked back to the ridge above the clearing. I could see the wooden trail leading up to Oxararfoss, but it turned a corner near the top of the hill and vanished behind the rocks; the waterfall itself was entirely hidden. I would only see it again from the car as we left Thingvellir, tumbling over the rocks and down into a valley whose bottom I could not see.
(Author’s note: This column is the first in a series of pieces about my time in Iceland. I have chosen to anglicize the Icelandic names of places, though with a heavy heart, since I just spent two months learning how to pronounce them. For reference, the Icelandic names for the geographical features are Öxarárfoss, Skógafoss, Öxará, Þingvellir, and Þingvallavatn.)