Iceland: Proposing by a Volcano

(Travel Blog Excerpt)

For as many months as I’d taken to plan my proposal to Christine, I only had two hours to execute it. This became alarmingly real the second she went to go dump our stuff in the foyer of our rental house and I was alone by the car. I was using the brief moment of solitude to transfer the ring box from the boot in my luggage to my puffy jacket pocket when it hit me: I was going to have a fiancé in about ninety minutes, assuming she said yes.


It was our final night in this wonderful country that had brought us so many unforgettable memories and I’d done a pretty good job of throwing her off my trail since I’d saved the best for last. We’d spent the day driving four hours from Kirkjufell, the iconic mountain that sits on the western peninsula of the country, back to our home for the night in Selfoss.


As I’m sure you’ve come to realize from my other posts, Iceland is a road-trippers paradise. Everything there is enormous, including the distances between towns. But, damn, if those rides aren’t some of the most soul-affirming peaceful moments I’ve ever experienced. It was all blue skies with the occasional cotton candy cloud, open road, rolling green pastures with a sheep every few miles and distant lava rock formations bigger than any of the California mountains I’d known (Yosemite, aside). I didn’t realize it until the last day, but I’d completely stopped biting my nails, something I did a lot when I was stuck in the car for hours-on-end in any other circumstance.


My favorite part about the drive into Selfoss was the giant green hill that led into the valley as we approached from the west. One minute we were a hundred stories up over the town, looking into the valley below and the next we were on one of the steepest inclines downward headed straight for it. This beautiful little hamlet was nestled in a wide trench left behind by a glacial river. Every now and again, like a fairy tale on another planet, plumes of white thermal exhaust would spew up from the ground and carry with them that rich sulfur smell I’d somewhat come to appreciate.


I’d coordinated with our photographer (Ann Peters of Your Adventure Wedding. Thanks Ann!) to meet at a waterfall by a volcano about two hours northeast of Selfoss. This took a lot of planning on my part and I want to take a quick beat of shameless self-congratulation, because I had to time out our day (in secret, mind you) three months in advance, coordinate when we’d arrive in Selfoss, pick a dramatic enough photo spot within striking range of a town I’d never visited in my life, call her parents during lunch to ask their permission (time zones, ugh!) and meet a stranger at a set of coordinates in the middle of nowhere.


My story was that we were going to meet “a personal tour guide” who was going to give us a private sightseeing experience around a waterfall. Maybe I didn’t cover my tracks so well because Christine’s response was definitely something like, “Oh you just know a guy? In Iceland? Mmkay.” To my credit: there are a bunch of websites where you can contract a local for unique tours and photography sessions, so my lie was couched in truth, to some degree. That said, I probably could have done better, but give me a break.


After we dropped off our stuff at the rental property, we realized we had no food for the night. All of the restaurants in town would have closed by the time we returned from our “hike,” so we scrambled to the local Bonus grocery store (their logo is hilarious, look it up) to grab some bread, smjör, mjölk, ice cream and dry soup with instructions I ended up guessing when Google Translate failed me.


We got held up in line behind a man buying a lamb and beans sandwich. I must shamefully admit that curiosity got the better of me and I had to try this before we left, so I picked one up at a gas station before arriving at the airport the next day. It was weird. Iceland is not a foodie part of the world is all I’ll say on that topic (their national dish is shark meat left to rot in the sand, so… you do the math).


We dropped our groceries off and I mapped our way to the coordinates Ann had sent me. The timing of it seemed like it was going to work. I played it cool as nerves shot through every fiber of my being. I wasn’t worried about whether or not I’d be making the right decision, but it was a little surreal to plan something for eight months that then got carried out in a matter of minutes. It didn’t give me a lot of, “Oh wow, I’m actually doing this,” processing time.


We arrived exactly on time and I saw the mountain Ann had sent me in our clandestine back-and-forth. There was just one problem: it was about two miles from the road and my coordinates had led me to a highway with no turn-off. The rental we’d purchased was all-wheel drive, but I wasn’t about to turn off onto craggy lava rock and rip up the underside of the car. Plus, it’s illegal to drive off-road in Iceland. The cops don’t have much else to do there because the crime rate is next to nothing, so they will fine you.


So, I did what any level-headed individual would do: I panicked. Part of my arrangement with Ann was that she was going to cover up the side of her vehicle that read “YOUR ADVENTURE WEDDING” upon arrival to maintain the facade. Once we got to this waterfall, we’d still have to walk a little bit to arrive at the actual shoot spot, and I wanted Christine’s reaction caught on camera. This meant that I didn’t want to call Ann, lest I get a voicemail such as:


“Hi, thank you for calling Your Adventure Wedding…”


After a few minutes driving up and down this lonely stretch of highway, I caved and called. It went to voicemail. I did the “excessively loud pretend cough” thing to cover up the first few seconds of her greeting, which played out exactly as I’d assumed. Ann didn’t answer, probably because there were as many cell towers out here as there were people: zero. As I placed the call, Christine saw someone turn off the road a mile or so ahead of us. We followed that lead.


I’m going to take a minute here to be the voice of reason whenever part of you wants to save a few extra dollars on the rental car insurance for the week you’re in a foreign country. Buy the insurance. Just do it. Your peace of mind alone will be worth its weight in gold.


Why do I bring this up? Because once we turned off the road to head in the direction of the mountain, the pavement gave way to rocks. Big ones. I misjudged the height of one of these little guys and drove over it like I would any other rock. This stubborn little piece of earth’s crust snared something under our car and crunched into it. It was so loud I stopped and it continued to make a horrible, grinding screech every time I lurched forward.

We bit the bullet and committed to driving over it. It sounded like a thousand nails on a chalkboard followed by a deep, hollow thunk. The noise was… harrowing. I got out and checked for any leaks or dislocated parts, but all seemed fine. Suffice to say: we had gotten the insurance when we first rented the car, and I regret nothing.


Fortunately, Ann found us right as I’d landed myself in this predicament. She helped move the boulder out of the way, we exchanged hellos, and both got back in our cars. Christine had no idea what was going on. To her, it looked like a random stranger had helped get a boulder out of the road, said hello to me then led the way for me to follow her. I had so much going on in my head I forgot to tell Christine that Ann was our “guide,” until she asked.


We arrived at Þjófafoss (Thjofafoss, thief waterfall) and the thunderous boom of metric tons of water falling ten stories hit us immediately. The air was cool with that kind of mist that sprays into the air near a gargantuan moving body of water. It was a perfectly clear day with a mountain in the distance to the north and an ice-capped volcano to the east.


Ann, who was supposed to have been at the site “taking pictures in the area” prior to our arrival, changed her plan a little to make sure we found the site. When she found us on the dirt road, it’d been because she realized the coordinates she sent led me nowhere and since I was late, she assumed we were lost. She’d left her post to drive back up the road to find us, but now that meant she was arriving at the falls the second we were, so she needed to get back to the place where she’d set up for the picture.


Again, what this looked like to Christine was that our private guide didn’t even say hello to us, slung a camera around her shoulder and paced off over the lava rock without so much as a word to us in introduction. I played it so cool by pointing over the edge of the cliff, twenty stories down into the lake below and said something incredibly clever like “Oh look, is that a… no. Never mind, oh let’s go over here!”


Christine was confused but followed after me on the jagged, porous rocks as I kept mumbling about things she couldn’t see that didn’t exist.


The last part of the puzzle that I realized I’d never hashed out with Ann was “Where should I stop and pop the question?” This waterfall was enormous, and Ann was about a hundred yards away from us up on a ridge, but there sure as hell was no “X” on the ground to denote where I should stop for her angle.


So I kind of kept walking until I decided I was in the right spot. I found a clearance close enough to Ann’s line of sight, worried briefly about whether or not I needed to take off my beanie since this would be memorialized for eternity (but it was cold), found my knee, popped the question, Ann got the shot, and Christine said “What?!” then, “Yes!” then, "Thank you!” which I constantly remind her is not something she needs to thank me for because she’s wonderful and deserves the world. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. All in all, it was a pretty damn magical experience.

On a final, hilarious note, Iceland is a surreal place because no matter where you are, no matter how remote it may seem — there will always be another tourist around to get in the way of your picture. Þjófafoss was no exception. Here I was living my major life event moment, having driven five miles off the beaten path to arrive at a waterfall only the locals knew about and when I stood up to kiss Christine, I was face-to-face with an old European lady sporting a big, fluffy ‘80s haircut staring at us with incredulity for getting in the way of her shot of this waterfall. For reference, we were the only other people at this place, it was about as big as six football fields stitched together and all she had to do was take one step to the right to not have us in her frame, but who am I to judge? I think she saw the angle Ann was getting and decided that was the only one to be had, so I took it as a compliment.