On Iceland’s Glorious Nothingness

Andra Watkins

Iceland exists where the Eurasian and North American continental plates crash together. Earth hiccups lava and ash as they pull apart. Magma hardens into rock and is sculpted by glaciers. Liquid violence below, frozen patience above: both shape the barren wonder of Iceland.

Twenty-twenty was a yawning crack in the landscape, Earth’s reminder of its power to unhinge us in an instant. Like most humans, I gazed into my soul’s void. Loved ones sick, others dying. Was I the only one who saw those beyond my household as potential grim reapers, even dear friends I longed to hug? Seven days steamrolled the most lucrative year of my career, speeches canceled, travel halted. I stared at an empty calendar, a pile of bills to pay, and I marveled at Earth’s sudden shift.

Eyes long dry and outrage exhausted, I slipped through a fissure of decimation. I fluffed my flattened ego with the opportunity to be writer-in-residence in a remote Icelandic village, one more desperate person changing scenery to avoid another dead end. At least I have an option, I told myself. From 35,000 feet, a seat on a plane, the world looked like 2019. Ocean and cloud. Miniature whitecaps and coasts reduced to grade-school dioramas. I closed my eyes and pretended to be a time traveler.

Reykjavik was closed shops, abandoned restaurants, a panoply of absence. Strangers appeared at random and scooted to the other side of silent streets. No one made eye contact with me. After months without access to strangers, why say anything when nothing is safer? At Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s central church, I held a one-way conversation with a Viking statue and imagined how the square hummed against the cliff-like facade when the world was not on pause. Along the waterfront, a jumble of boulders separated land from water, man’s clumsy imprint on Earth’s timeless order. Weak sunlight glinted within granite like a million ancient eyes and spotlit the vertiginous peninsula across the fjord, the spine that reached toward my destination, my residency, my get-out-of-jail-on-bail card.

I fled the city and drove north through tunnels, tundra and mist. No other cars bumped along the usually jammed Ring Road. My Toyota shuddered against the shriek and slap of northern wind. Arctic rain pelted the windshield like machine gun fire. In my empty husk near the top of the world, I processed the otherness of the landscape, rumpled like a bedspread gods shook over a mattress. Every turn revealed another vista stretched into a void, a fresh tableau of vacancy.

The human psyche panics when forced to sit with emptiness, the solitary process of creating something from nothing. As I toiled alone in my studio, I studied Húnaflói Bay though a diamond-shaped window above my desk. The Westfjords chewed into the horizon like uneven teeth and gnawed my lonely edges. Gravity tugged water every which way and sculpted my shattered soul from above, beneath and all sides. Frigid pools swallowed my grief as I hiked along sea cliffs and beaches strewn with black rocks. On my way to the heated pool and hot pot, a fixture of every Icelandic town, a wet wind left me eroded, polished, smooth.

Spewing and hardening, grinding and melting. Iceland is a juxtaposition of upheaval and time. Fewer places illustrate this co-existence better than Iceland’s Dettifoss. Europe’s most powerful waterfall plunges over a basalt kink and races along a widening crack. How much water would it take to fill the canyon’s emptiness, a continental chasm Earth’s fingers cannot bridge and hold? Mist dances in the void, an illusion, a cipher, a shimmering rainbow trail to heaven. Once I understood how I related to the landscape, I was ready to witness its muscular power. I navigated Iceland’s windswept northern passes, leapfrogged Myvatn’s burbling cauldron of lava, ash and steam, left the Ring Road and plunged into a moon-like desert. The gravel track jostled my car’s tires like a washboard, a testament to the fortitude of Iceland’s engineers. Over a rise, a parking lot hugged the canyon’s east rim. Where did one park when every space was empty? Choice was its own set of handcuffs. Beneath the glare of sunshine, I emerged expecting to be unable to breathe, an alien on a foreign planet orbiting a different star. Charred gravel crunched beneath my feet, its echo amplified by nothingness, air thinner and light weaker. But gravity’s tug was familiar, reliable. I inched toward the canyon’s edge, afraid of surprises lurking beneath rocks and rubble, always on my guard. If 2020 taught us anything, it is that quiet is sometimes ear-splitting.

Through basalt twisted like slinkies, a path unspooled, the ghost of a million footfalls stilled by the worldwide pandemic. A raised scar wove along stone steps and switchbacks, testimony to Earth’s furiousness. Stone, twisted and hardened and uneven, ferried my boots toward the edge. Did the landscape swallow everyone, make them disappear, a toll for the carnage wrought by hyperactive looking and bucket list pictures for Instagram? Black earth stretched and strained and buckled, a pandemic-scarred soul in tableau.

At the top of Dettifoss, I found comfort in the void, texture in negative space, depth in the waterfall’s thundering symphony. My life is a picture of Iceland with its eruptions and erosions, cracks and sulfuric steam. Earth’s ferociousness yields beauty much like trials sear us, body, spirit and soul, with resilience and gratitude, patience and peace.

And just as a thankful tear slipped down my cheek, I glimpsed two aliens near the top of the falls on the opposite side. One short, the other tall, clad in neon green and hot pink. Were they real? A trick of the light? A mirror in this otherworld? The shorter one raised her hand, flashed her palm in greeting, our thoughts free to merge above water and rock, mist and memory. A reminder that in the wasteland of nothingness, we are never alone.

BIO: Andra Watkins is the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace. andrawatkins.com

Photo by: Andra Watkins

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