The Pact of the Waterfall of the Gods

The waterfalls in Iceland are awesome. Not “Awesome” in the sense that I used the word in high school (basically as a synonym for “Really good”) — but “Awesome” as in genuinely awe-inspiring, awe-inducing.

Reading through all the guidebooks, I’d thought the waterfalls in Iceland would be sort of interesting but sort of redundant or tiresome after awhile, like, “Yeah, yeah… Blah, blah, blah… Another waterfall… How many different ways could you possibly combine water, rocks, and a change in elevation?” But I was wrong with that way of thinking.

All the major falls I saw across Iceland were mesmerizing. Truly awesome and amazing. Some were slender and graceful, threaded between hillsides and rocky outcroppings. Some were shockingly broad, like the length of a football field of falling water. Some were incredibly powerful, with mist curling way back into the air, thunder filling our ears — but perhaps the most impactful thing about the falls was just how close we could get. The squareness and solidity of the rocks at Dettifoss allowed us to get within a foot of the main flow of the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The “responsible parent” in my friends and I would later look back and shake our heads, that we would ever allow ourselves to take such risks, at the edge of such powerful falls — but it was so fun and so awe-inspiring that our systems for processing fear or risk were overwhelmed. The awe overwhelmed us.

The Waterfall of the Gods, the Godafoss, was one of the last waterfalls we visited, on our last evening in the rugged northern parts of Iceland. The falls are reportedly so named because of its role as a dumping ground for pagan idols, in the days when Iceland first converted to Christianity, back in the Middle Ages. In the twilight, the falling water was silver and white — reminiscent indeed of liquified religious statuary — but at our feet it was as clear as a diamond. So we stooped and drank deeply from the ice-cold water. With wet chins, we fixed our gaze at the ring of falling water and started picking our way across the rubble to get closer.

While gazing at the falling water, we decided we needed to make a pact to mark the end of our trip. But what exactly? As we considered our options, we got out Cuban cigars purchased at the duty free shop and a lighter borrowed from our AirBnB host. The lighter didn’t work well, but we managed to get one cigar lit, and from that one we managed to light the other two: Three spots of glowing orange embers in the deepening darkness, like coals placed in our mouths by angels. The pact crystallized as we puffed and pondered. It went something like this:

We’re there for each other. We’ve got each other’s backs. We won’t let each other fall victim to the idolatry of wealth, or power, or sexual immorality, without doing our best to maintain accountability and purposefully intervene when necessary. If there ever is a stumble or fall, however, we’re still there for each other. We won’t turn our backs or disown each other in times of disgrace or difficulty. We’re brothers. We love each other. And if God allows us to keep our pact for another twenty years, we will come back to this place — to these waterfalls, or their emotional equivalent — to solemnize the occasion and re-up for as long as we may live.

After we affirmed our love and commitment for each other, we put out the stubs of our cigars and stooped for another drink from the river. We walked away from the Waterfall of the Gods and into a future of unknown opportunity and opposition, together as brothers.

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