Iceland is a tiny country. There are just over 300,000 people living on 40,000 square miles of volcanic land. Thus far our trip had been wind-swept, gray, and rainy. Often we would drive through a misty smattering of rain and be content with the hint of a mountain range, the tops covered by a persistent and low lying cloud. It was a forbidding landscape, like the (infinite) descriptions of the Yorkshire moors from Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; empty and morose. It lent a quiet and meditative quality to the trip.
As we drove north along the Ring Road, two things began to happen: the clouds rose to their accustomed height and the mountains seemed to follow. We found the road wove up and down mountain passes and we imagined them snow covered and impassable; we squinted at the sun and rolled down car windows to feel the warm air rush past us. We’d climbed some mountains and found the sun.
Our destination for the day was Mývatn, a lake centrally located in North Iceland. Auden described the lake as being “surrounded by little craters like candle snuffers and most attractive.” What is most funny is that every time I read that quote I think he wrote “critters” instead of “craters.” See, Mývatn can be broken up into two words, mý (midge or fly) and vatn (lake); Midge Lake. For the uninitiated, a midge is a small, persistent flying bug. They don’t bite, but they buzz and are, apparently, attracted to any sort of thing that resembles a mouth, eye, nose, or ear. They also seem to love two things more than anything in the world; water and my mouth, eyes, nose, and ears.
Don’t get me wrong, the lake is stunning and “most attractive,” but I was largely unprepared the army of bugs that attacked my person every time I opened my mouth or was alive. We camped that night at a public site right along the lake. It was beautiful, and there is hardly anything better than watching the sun brush the horizon at midnight and light the water and sky on fire. But, along with the beauty is the ever present buzz of a trillion tiny bugs. PRO TIP: if you hope to remain midge-free for your night’s sleep you have to simultaneously leap into your tent whilst zipping the flap. It’s fairly easy with practice and will save you a lot of intimate buzzing throughout the night.
The next morning we packed up our tent amidst the furious buzzing of a myriad of midges and did our best to come up with valid reasons for transporting so many bug corpses across international lines. SPOILER ALERT: Customs doesn’t care about bug corpses, and no matter how amazing a story you’ve concocted, they will simply shoo you away.
The advantage to waking early is that we were on the road and pulling into the parking lot of the most powerful waterfall in Europe well before the caravan of tour buses descended on his like so many midges. Auden offhandedly mentions that “one water is extraordinarily like another,” but the raw strength in Dettifoss’ water was enough to awe even the most seasoned of waterfall-watchers. Getting there early was key as it allowed a brief moment to be (relatively) alone with the water before the cascade of people came flowing over the hill.
Though it was awing to stand next to the seemingly infinite flow, my favorite moment came along the trail that lead up and away from the falls. There, among the jagged lava field the roar of the water was muted somewhat and we were left with a dull drone and the mist showering over us as we watched the midge-sized people below. It was humbling, quiet, and beautiful.