The kitchen windows held views of snow-capped mountains and Stykkishólmskirkja, the largest church in Stykkishólmur, but I was absorbed in changing the password on my phone.
“Let me see it.” Sara said.
“I want to see what people said about our photo.”
I handed her the phone.
“You changed your password?”
She fell silent, and then, “you’re being selfish. You won’t let me see what people are saying about our trip?”
“Fine. Here, I unlocked it for you.”
She refused to take the phone and again accused me of selfishness.
“Please, take it, check on folks back home.”
She shook her head. We finished our breakfast in silence. This day had not started out as I had hoped.
It was a 15-minute drive to Mt. Helfafell. As the countryside flashed by, we ignored it. The silence and harsh mood of the car ride was a cover to my racing mind and pounding heart.
Helgafell translates to “Holy Mountain,” and is considered a sacred site, a portal to life after death. A temple to Þor was built on the top of the mountain, and an Augustinian monastery was here from 1184-1550. Icelandic lore, religion, and superstition state that those who hike up the mountain will be granted three wishes, so long as they follow simple rules:
- Start the hike from the grave of Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, a famous woman from the Laxdaela Saga, who died in 1008.
- While hiking up the 73m mountain, you must not speak, or look in any direction other than forward.
- When you reach the summit, find the ruin and make your wishes facing East. They will come true so long as they are made with a pure heart and mind.
When I learned of this sacred mountain and its historic role in Icelandic sagas, I knew this was the place I would propose to Sara, my girlfriend of six years, the kind of woman who wouldn’t like a public proposal. I sent a letter with my intentions to her parents before our travels, and timed it to arrive while we were abroad. The surprise in their letterbox and subsequent sharing on social media was the source of my un-vocalized reluctance and sudden secrecy.
The car turned the corner and approached Helgafell church, where the tombstone of Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir rested. Sara and I climbed out of the car and set off to find Guðrún grave.
I started hiking first, wanting to scope out the terrain. I had practiced this part of our trip in my head for the last three months, and so far it was working according to plan, except for the incident with the phone. In my head, it would be a nice casual hike with a great view and a welcoming ruin where I would propose. But thoughts resounded: what if she says no Because the summit is filled with strangers? What if she thinks the ring is ugly?
There are very few trees in Iceland, so the trek was cold and windy. I hadn’t considered that, nor how tough only looking forward would be. With the wind on my face, I wondered if she would even want to take her gloves off to put on the ring.
Stones jutted at odd angles, covered with a dark, wine-colored moss. Behind me were jagged snow-capped mountains and a landscape peppered with Icelandic structures hunkered down into the landscape. I wanted to turn my head to look, but I was determined to get to the top for those three wishes.
I reached the summit too quickly, a bit winded, as I needed time to prepare. I was so stressed, I couldn’t figure out in which direction I faced. The compass at the summit was supposed to help; it did not. Where was east? The town of Stykkishólmur, in the distance was directly north. My thoughts scattered on the wind.
I turned to face a direction I thought could be east, and made three wishes. Then, I turned a hundred and eighty degrees to face what might have been west, and made the same three wishes, just to be safe.
I bolted for the ruin.
I read that there would be one waiting at the summit, but didn’t know what it looked like. Whatever was once there was left to the imagination, as neatly stacked stones, arranged waist-high, were all that was left. As I waited for Sara, the mountains and structures I avoided on the hike up snapped into view.
Just outside these low walls was the Stykkishólmur harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, reaching towards the base of Mt. Helgafell. In the other direction were volcanic rock formations, said to be trolls turned to stone, and endless snow-capped mountains. Moss-covered stones sprawled for miles like an endless carpet. Despite all the beautiful distractions, I kept glancing to the hiking path.
She finally made it up the mountain, and despite the head start, I had mere seconds to find my words and the ring—hidden in my coat lining for the past three days, rolling about between the layers of fabric. For three days, I feared she’d find it, and I watched her closely each time she reached for something in our luggage. The ring was the same one my grandfather used to propose to my grandmother nearly seventy years ago.
My fingers were frozen and stiff. Three months of planning were coming to an end, and the bitter wind was making things difficult in a way I hadn’t anticipated. A lack of geological understanding could hamper the best of plans.
I made eye contact with her after she made her wishes. I fumbled the ring out from the lining and into my pocket, and beckoned her over to the ruins. She looked calm and in awe of her soundings.
The wind was really gusting, pushing up against us. We both stood facing one another in the ruin, rocks piled on all sides, each stone with a 1,000-year history—a history that has greeted an unknown number of visitors, and would add us to its story—as I asked her if she’d made her wishes.
She nodded yes.
I looked away for a moment, tried to get a good hold on the ring with frigid fingers. I bent to one knee and extracted a gold band with a single diamond. The wind and incredible landscape were now blocked by the ruin. All I could see was Sara, her eyes widened, and a pile of ancient stones embracing us.
“Sara, will you marry me?”
I felt those who walked these lands for the past 1,000 years leaning in, waiting for the next words.
Tears flooded her face. Was she upset? Elated? I could not even imagine what emotions welled up in her at that moment, as a trip to Iceland became paired with a surprise proposal. I imagined the history of people who stood in the ruin before me, and what they thought of the way in which I moved through their sacred space. I stood up to take in the view and this moment with Sara, until our extremities numbed.
On the walk back down Mt. Helgafell, Sara asked if she had even answered my proposal.
She did, and she said yes, so that I could confidently say the wishes made at Mt. Helgafell do come true.