Sulphur Wave, Obsidian Ocean: Day One on the Laugavegur Trail


The letters linger in my head for a bit, they roll around in an Icelandic accent, but my American accent gets in the way when I speak them.

“Brennisteinsalda” my Icelandic guide says between the mountains, “brennisteinn and alda,” with an accent of melodic perfection, “together they mean ‘sulfur wave.’”

I can see what he means. In front of me stands a ribboning of multi-color, rocks of sea-foam green, salmon pink, golden yellow cascade silently off the side of this poetically named mountain. 


“Brennisteinsalda,” I whisper the word under my breath as I climb. One foot into red, the second following in orange, hands pressing into soft green. I’m climbing upon volcanic ash, moss tinted rocks, iron stones, a sulphur wave. I can smell the hot springs below me, the volcano is active as I summit its iridescent shell. At the top I press my hands into my own hands, powdered chalkiness between fingers I take in the view. I am surrounded by the dips and bends of a sulphur wave community, they lap against my eyes like waves, I feel them moving. I take a deep breath and hold it in. I am here, witnessing something unbelievable. I am here, witnessing the echo of my vision as it bounces off the colored phenomena and back to my own eyes.  


I see the feet of my trek mates making way below me, they climb up just as I clamber down. Each step down the mountain is another step into an even more fascinating reality: the earth, I see it breathing. Steam makes a show of hands across the valley. 

Photo credit to Anushila Shaw

Photo credit to Anushila Shaw

I have just entered day one of the Laugavegur trail, Iceland’s most famous trek through the mountains. It just so happens to be named after the main street “Laugavegur” in Reykjavík, the busiest street in all of town. I see 16 of my trek mates scaling the suphur wave, mixed with the random trekker here and there, and I finally understand the method behind the naming. The beginning of this trail is packed with hikers. After a long bus ride through the south coast, we come to the beginning of our trek- Landmannalaugar, the North end of the 4 day main trail. Tents of all colors bloom from the ground, talk of a natural hot spring travels around amid my unknown hiking friends as we bond over the though of escaping the cold. Peggy and Dave, both in their 70s, talk of trekking Mt. KilimanDSC_1056jaro, Mt. St. Helens, Pikes Peak, El Camino. A wonderful girl named Breezy smirks into her dad’s camera as he tries to snap a candid photo of her. Anulshila, barely woken up from the bus ride, contemplates whether or not she’ll be able to finish the trail. Allen hides an arm tattoo of the chakras underneath the sleeve of his blue coat. Kirsten and Ester round up their trekking poles and glance around, beaming at the thought of starting the trail. I stand among these people, curious to soak in their life experiences and various cultural backgrounds.

Our guide Svavar leads us to a giant painted display of the full route. We stand huddled around it, unable to imagine what it must look like in person. We can barely see over the hill, and what waits behind us is as mysterious as we are to each other. The route begins at Landmannalaugar and within 4 days ends at Þórsmörk, a natural forest, a rarity in Iceland. What awaits us are river crossings, glacier climbs, desert walks and mountain huts we’ll share along the way.


We start our trek by treading harshly over lava, softly over moss. The trail is particularly carved out of the landscape, but this doesn’t make it any less difficult to find particular openings in the rocks to press our trekking poles against. Each step is a small challenge to find where the foot fits best, and I contemplate where my feet feel inclined to go. I have an inkling for the sharp rocks that have smooth surfaces at one edges. There is a particular comfort in knowing which rocks one’s feet will fit best against. My toes propel off the edge like a diver extending his knees to push off the edge of a lap pool, I create a small ripple my foot follows until it touches the next stone, then the next. My walking is a ripple effect interacting with the poles and feet of the people rushing up behind me. I have to find which internal path will create the least amount of disturbance. It takes a moment to think less about my body moving and more about the way my body moves within the atmosphere of this landscape held in front of me. These colored mountains lie everywhere, pulling themselves to the ground, raining in diagonal patterns to the earth. A step into them is a showering of rocks underneath me. I have to remember that all this colored powdered wonderland is a whole lot of scree before I can continue to climb it. Stepping on smooth surfaces isn’t an option. My ripple effect becomes larger and more effective, I move not only my own self on Brennisteinsalda but the self of the mountain, the small atomic parts of each stone and the colors they create when I blend each of them with the force of my own feet.

It takes the shout of one of my trek mates to startle me back to the path at hand. I am disoriented by the immensity of each color exposing itself around me. I am disoriented once again when I realize a small cloud of my vision has become entirely colorless, completely empty! A small cloud, literally, a cloud, lying naked on the ground, moving in a plume if its own self. I sit there puzzled in the stark void of my own vision while my mind behind to process the vents trailing around the valleys at the edge of each hill. We were entering a hot springs land mine.


Smoke began working its way out of the earth like an active factory. The smoke signal was from one hill to the other, they spoke in a vaporous echolocation between themselves. If you froze these moments, you wouldn’t be able to tell whether the earth was breathing or whether it was consuming the clouds from above. Stepping through each cloud brought a strong smell of sulfur, the air was warm and damp as if traveling through a desert mist.

Upon closer inspection, we could see where the entrance to each natural factory was. It was difficult not to step over these holes, they were hidden and sometimes not at all seeable under the rocks. But once noticed, they pulled your eyes in with their magnificent colors. A young girl and close friend in our group, Morgan, noted that this entire trip felt like an exploration of texture.


Each hot spring was harshly framed in outlines of bright orange and yellow which drained through the water like a used paintbrush being dipped into liquid for the first time. The colors pooled under the water’s surface and trailed their way around the rocks like a glowing aura. Certain holes were more defined than others and bubbled with a thick grey liquid. It looked like clay (which was apparently irresistible for my trek mates, because they kept sticking their hands into it. It made your hands soft and silky). Each hole looked like an eclipse against the yellow stained surface around it, an entire moon creating an entire sun.


A trek mate even heat up some herbal tea in one of the hot springs!


Once we passed the living and the breathing, we entered the dead. In front of us was the mountain Hrafntinnusker, or in English, “Obsidian Skerry.” Rising high above the valley, a giant endless mound of black rock and dust faced us. You could almost say we had entered a mine field of moon rocks. Shards of reflected grey-blue soaked in the clouds overhead, the entire mountain was speckled with bright glints of sunlight soaking into the rocks. You could tell which stones were sharp just by observing the way light hit the edges from afar.


The trek through this land seemed endless. Feet made a game of stepping in between each glassy shard, a misstep sent an obsidian edge pressing harshly against the bottom of your shoe. Some stones were like oceans waves, their surfaces curved smoothly. Others were a mess of swirls, cooled rapidly once the volcano spit the material out to harden. As we neared the end of the mountain, snow began to emerge as a sharply contrasting force; black edged against white starkness, they remained distinct and independent. It was only when the sun came out that I was able to see the phenomenon of an interaction between the two opposite colors. As the sun revealed itself behind the clouds, it breached upon the surface of the obsidian, and the obsidian soaked it in. This lit up the entire minefield into a glowing, shimmering ocean of solar activity. Glints of light shimmered as if staring at a mirage of glowing star stuff. The black obsidian landscape soaked in the light from the snow and together they created a balance, a silent equilibrium within nature.


It was then that we pressed on over the last hill and into the wide expanse of land that would be the view from our beds when we woke up the next morning. We had reached the first hut, Höskuldskali, one of the most remote mountain huts in all of Iceland. Overhead, a bright sky matched the color of the melting snow. Tents speckled out over the valley and a giant Icelandic flag had trouble falling asleep.




And so here, in a flurry of exhaustion and awe, our first 12 km day on the trail had come to a close. For the first time in my life, I slept within a few hundred feet of a mountain, I slept soundly.

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Fjöll, Fjöll, Fjöllum og Fjalla

I somehow found a way to make up for my lack of climbing trees as a child by climbing the mountains here in Iceland. There is something deeply ethereal about the summits of them, as if you’re breaching upon the surface of some alternate realm. It enables your senses to occur with more saturation, more intensity than a dream. I came to this realization I can never claim that only one reality exists; reality is altered at the tops of mountains, and it shares itself exclusively only to those who seek it.


In the moment I climbed Sandafell, the small mountain rising above the small fjord town of Þingeyri, I found a settling and a heaviness in myself, as if I was being pulled down into the mountain. I found truth in the most insistent gravity; my feet met the rocky peak like a finger touching a mirror, we mimicked each other as my feet pressed into and off of the surface. There was a moment of stillness on the summit where all sounds lacked their own lingering presences and all wind held its breath. They were hanging in the air above me like a quiet glass chandelier, I was watching in awe, I was watching the exquisite stopping of time, I was watching, all awe, everything.

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There was another moment near the summit where I stood on this large cement pedestal jutting out of the ground, and as I stood there overlooking the quiet landscape, I lost all present and future10605553_1555228708034451_1535542062_o urge to remove myself from this height. My feet were firmly ground into the structure and I felt like I was an extension of it, we experienced the stillness together. I had considered it something to be thankful for because in all its manmade glory, it helped me inch a little closer to the true elevation of the peak. It was a false elevation compared to the true unkemptness of the mountain, but an elevation nonetheless. I thought about the word “elevation” for a long time on that pedestal, and couldn’t tell who was more elevated: myself, the mountain, or the small pedestal frozen in its attempt.

I saw this mountain across the valley from my own, it was shaded by brilliant violet shadow, and in it I saw a strange personification. It looked as if someone had taken a multifarious sunflower and spread its petals back, so that the highest point was the heliocentric center of seeds, formed to a point, reaching the furthest to the sun. All the rest of the petals fell back into an inconsistent triangular prism of sorts, represented by the channels in the mountain that had been eroded by rock and water. It felt like a dreamscape unlike dreamscapes.


The opposing mountain across the valley also took on a strangely particular form. It looked as if a giant hand had dug its fingers into the earth and then had given up as it tried to pull itself out of the ground. There is this theory about certain mountains being trolls in Iceland, and the stories go that trolls who hadn’t reached their caves before nightfall froze into giant landforms like this one. Perhaps the wind finally eroded the rest of the troll away leaving only the trapped hand, a reminder of tension and struggle. Each mountain seems to personify both a delicacy and a harshness in juxtaposition.


I was conversing with an Icelandic friend about genders of nouns (all nouns in Icelandic either take on a feminine, masculine, or neuter form) and it had occurred to me that I couldn’t decide whether the mountain in front of me at the time on a farm at Hænuvík looked more masculine or feminine. Many Icelanders have said certain words in their language just feel naturally inclined to a specific grammatical gender, but it’s something that I haven’t found as easy to grasp yet. I was torn between the two; the mountain here held such a softness of feminine energy in the light and a deep masculine harshness in the shadows, as other things did. But even further than that, the shadows held this haze of blues and purples that felt more soft in femininity, and the light showcased a harshness in the mountain’s design. Either way I looked at it the mountain was fluid and contained all essences of form. In the masculine energy was the feminine, and vice versa. (Note here that by masculine and feminine I am referring to the idea of energies rather than of human genders).

I found another mountain in one of the fjords that I’ve been thinking about constantly since leaving it. It’s the type of contrasted landscape that sticks in your mind after you close your eyes. It’s like the notion of staring at the sun for too long: you can see the impression of it’s blazing orb on the back of your eyelids. I can see the harsh curling outlines of shadows forming patterns in the mountainside, the twisting endlessness of rocks cascading, frozen, against each other. The entire mountainside was a crowd of jellyfish holding onto dear life with tentacles wound around each other. It was collective, an entire assimilation of decisions brought on by nature itself.


There is something profound about the intentionality of nature’s intensions. I am reminded of my own acts of creating fine art. An idea creates itself within the mind, desiring to be executed into material form. The idea is a thought within itself that must be committed to be solidified, and much like the mountain, it attempts to express itself through trial and error until the idea finally bursts through into an epiphany. Once committed into the material world, it works at modifying and rebuilding itself until it has understood that it cannot fully represent the initial idea which it came from, at which point it lets go and allows the freeform of progress work itself out. My art comes from ideas which I manifested into paintings and drawings on surfaces, but the final result never portrays the initial thought. At that point, I teach myself to let go of what I intended, and let the intension itself follow a new path as I unfold more layers upon the artwork. I see mountains as things that paint themselves. They are the artist and the art, the painter who takes the paint from his own material self, picking rocks out of his skin and putting them in new places, creating patterns, letting them fall away, creating new patterns, letting them fall away. The impermanence is outstanding, a craving.

And so I take out parts of myself and press them into mountains, let them fall away, take parts of the mountain and press them into myself, watch the rocks crumble from my hands, fall away, create new patterns at my feet. I climb to the top of the summits and I am part of the mountain, I have raised it to new elevations as it has raised my own self. I fall away from the mountain in a flurry of a descent, feet stepping into patterns, I fall away, I fall away, away.

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A Soft Newton’s Cradle

I watch a bird in the distance as it befriends the wind. Long, slender feathers reach up to touch the breeze, like jet clouds cutting into the sky’s periwinkle flesh. The bird whispers into the sky, the breeze dips down and the bird glides with it, a crescendo made of cumulous and feather. The wind then averts its eyes towards mine, I can feel its invisible reflection on my glazed pupils, it rushes against me and plays in between the rungs of this swing I’m sitting on, a wooden construction. Its rusted metal chain link supports are a playground for the wind. Wind in Icelandic is “vindur” and therefore a masculine noun, so thus I will refer to it as “he.” And so, he rocks me back and fourth delicately as if asking to dance with me. He knows the answer before I know the answer: “já, takk”

Yes, thanks, please.

He weaves through the spaces of the bench beneath me, and I watch with keen eyes through these spaces. They are large enough to glimpse the way the grass underneath my eyes darts back and forth as I rock back and forth, a blending of green hues in the form of elongated slices. I haven’t moved myself in many moments, yet I still rock. I hear the ocean frolic around the rocks just beyond my reach. Yes, the ocean, I am staring at the ocean, the ocean. I almost feel like the waves are the ones pushing me, they way they roll back and forth along the surface, I move with them. They dip back, I dip forward, they press on, I press back, we move endlessly like a soft Newton’s cradle. I am the song “Near Light” by Ólafur Arnalds, I am the violin swaying along the curves in the spaces of the fjords. I am in Ísafjörður. I am in the Westfjords. I am here, staring at a brilliant, powerful body of water as it beckons me.

I am also alone. But what does “alone” even mean? Surrounding me is a phenomenon: mountains with curves that make them look as if they’re rolling into the ocean, as if they want the ocean, need they ocean. They know this, they know this feeling so well. They cautiously roll away from themselves, a crumbling of fragments, a few at a time, tumbling over their larger selves. You can tell they want this. They’re like rain rolling down glass, they can’t help themselves, and so they roll. And I spend a lifetime watching in awe, two lifetimes watching, three, four, more, until the whole mountain ends in the sea.

The mountains look like longing.


I wonder if they see that I see what they yearn for, and I wonder if they see that I yearn for it too. I wonder if they’ll take me with them, if the surface of the ocean will kindly accept my own passing through. The surface is a giant gate, the entrance to the breathless.

But again, what does “alone” mean? What does alone mean as I rock towards a seemingly empty harbor of life rebuilding itself into other things?

They say rocks aren’t living things but I beg to think otherwise.

I look at them and I see parts of myself I didn’t even know I had. I see parts of myself crumbling away in methods less than a pattern, I see the exterior and wonder how much more beautiful the interior is. There is something deep within the mountains that no one may ever see. Something hidden, something private, something unimaginably exquisite. I want to press a piece of paper to a mountain’s surface, whisper “it’s okay, you can write about it” and watch where the rocks indented between each loose-leaf line. It will be a rough code but someday soon I will decipher it.

My one goal in life is that my atoms may one day separate and become part of these mountains. I am content with my own death if there is a chance.

I close my eyes again and wait for the crashing wave to rock me back to a new space. As it lulls itself back into itself, I listen to it pulling me back with it. Everything points out there, out to the unfurnished landscape. The town of Ísafjörður kindly waits behind me, waiting for me to turn back around, but I’m not ready yet.

I’m afraid of turning back around.

I am so afraid.



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Ég Anda, Ég Anda, Ég Anda

I stare out of my window into a surreal white sky, knowing the mountains of Mount Esja lie just behind me, soaking in their glory and in the clouds which they so kindly wrap around themselves. This place is a dream. I have been here for nearly two weeks and time has ceased to exist, it fell away from me during my flight across the cloud-ridden ocean. All that’s left is the rain and the sun and the wind and the rain again and the sun and the rain once more and the sun and the fog and the rain, and yes, you guessed it, the rain once more. What better way to introduce you to Iceland than to speak of its personified weather?

Within a week I have gone through more layers of clothes than I think I own. The weather here likes to dance around in the sky and play tricks on its observers, it waves its hands around and alters the flow of energy as it pleases. It’s caused me to repetitively put on and take off layers. Yesterday I had to walk to class in a sweater and a jacket, and by the afternoon even a t-shirt felt too warm.

IMG_8258I purchased a wonderful Icelandic sweater, hand-knit of the most beautiful, itchy wool, and I’m worried I’ll never be able to wear it throughout the entire day without feeling like I need to take it off. Needless to say, this weather truly has an overwhelming personality. But it’s beautiful, the way it pushes the clouds into Eyjafjallajökull, the way it melts the fog with its glowing orb of warm light. I took a trip towards Skógar last weekend for a trip through all of Njáls sites (Njál being the subject of Njáls Saga, one of the most popular Icelandic Sagas), and I was fairly disappointed that it had been raining during the first bit of our journey through otherworldly landscapes. I would gaze out of the rainy, crying window and see the clouds drape themselves over each landform, as if on cue to announce, “sorry, show’s over.” When I walked off the bus, I could feel a light haze pass through me. Our first stop towards Skógar was on sort of hill overlooking the town of Hveragerði, which stood silently and unusually still as the wind played with my face.




The sky stayed with us as we carried on, the windows of the bus fogged from the outside and I could hardly fog up the window anymore with my own breath (which tends to happen the longer you press your face against the window in awe at the landscape). Iceland was doing its job for me, and it was doing it well.

The next stop in our trip was the Oddi, which is the site of one of the first churches built in Iceland around the 11th century. It took climbing out of the bus to see that the sky was the most unusual color I had ever seen: stark white. When you think of a sky and its natural color, the immediate answer is a blue, perhaps an orange, a yellow, golden rays streaked through purple, sometimes grey. But no, the sky was whiter than every one of its clouds: it was a collective of vapor lingering and crouching over the bright panels of the church at Oddi. It felt like the atmosphere came straight out of a song by the composer Ólafur Arnalds. The sky was literally so white that my eyes were lost within it.


Inside the church were these beautiful colored stained glass windows, simple and minimalistic but I was drawn to them for their exuberant color. They resembled the landscape outside the window, but in a pixilated manner, green mountains amid a white sky.


Just over the hill was a wonderful field containing little white cloth barrels/bales of land (I don’t know what to appropriately call them, and this poetic definition sounds much more intriguing). They stood against the green field like their own clouds, perhaps to declare that the land was also synonymous to the sky in that it could produce its own white ether, with the help of human hands. I suddenly fell in love with the white sky, and watched it melt over in its own melancholy grey. At this point in the trip, I began to feel a sort of longing in my chest, to be out in those fields, face to the grass, cool breeze to help me forget where I was going. I felt the word “need” roll around in my head like a glass marble, and every time I bent my head towards another field, the weight of the marble would follow with it. I was being pulled. I am being pulled. I keep thinking to myself, how can I ever leave this place?


The feeling came back upon the visit to another church further towards the mountains. To get to this church there was a bit of a climb, as it was situated on a nice hillock surrounded by fields blotted with quaint sheep.

DSC_0069I had a hard time figuring out where to look during the ascent: Off to the left was a small, treasured waterfall, to the right the mountains clouded by sleeping fog, and right below me a rocky path dotted with the worst part of the journey: the sheep shit (haha). I ended up spending ten minutes perusing through a small maze until I reached the top, where I found this:


I had always considered myself a person of self-isolation before I saw this view. I have the personality of someone who likes to curl up in the midst of things, alone, to introspect upon the world. But as I saw this lovely church lying hidden from the rest of the word, I realized I wasn’t isolated to the extent that I had assumed I was. This old, withering church was stranded on a hill amidst magnificent rolling mountains, flower-speckled grasses, wind upon extravagant wind: I had never seen anything so isolated in my life. And yet it was so beautiful, it held itself with such grace among the overwhelming atmosphere around it. It was isolated yet it had all of these lovely things it could soak into its chipping paint. It was going to die there, and it was going to die well. I suddenly wasn’t insecure about my own self-isolation anymore. If this church could do it, why couldn’t I? It had withstood the company of the weather with grace, never faltering, always watching like a lighthouse without legs, and with a much more topographical view.


It revealed itself to me as I was looking out into the landscape, this thought, something I had never really considered: I had to die somewhere. There was going to be a place, whether ugly, whether ethereal, where I was going to die. I wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it, except watch the world fall away around me. I thought to myself, “I have to die here.” Whenever it may happen, whenever it may be, it had to be here. How could any living thing want to die in a place less beautiful than where I was this very moment? I envied the sheep who had died in these fields. I envied the rain for being able to soak into these grasses before reincarnating back into the sky again. It’s a strange thing, to spend your life living in the same place that you want to die. A manifested fate within your own hands. I now think back to my Icelandic tattoo which says “endalaust,” or “endlessly” in English, and attribute it to the water that gets to fall out of the sky and float back into it at the same time, a cycle of endless reincarnation, never dying. If living here means dying here then perhaps I can become endless, like the rain.

I can imagine this one song by Ólafur Arnalds named Gleypa Okkur, in which rain patters on the cobblestones behind the sound of violin; a lovely embodiment. The song name is fitting because it translates to “swallow us” or “absorb us.”

Just after reaching the church, an extraordinary thing happened. The clouds began to subside off the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in the distance, and a vivid image of the layered landscape was exposed beyond the curtain. I had never seen mountains so close to me before, they were so large and otherworldly. I had asked an Icelandic professor of mine a few days ago where he would live if he had to move to the United States. He said that he couldn’t live anywhere where there weren’t mountains, he had to have them. He had lived with them out his window all his life, so how could he abandon that? There was such a certainty in his voice as he said this, as if it was absurd to think that one would not be able to live near extravagant landforms, or to think that one would not want to. I didn’t really know what it felt like to long for the mountains until I saw these. They made me feel small and insignificant, and I liked that. It’s a comforting feeling, a shudder throughout the body that makes you feel sheltered and secure. Most people I come into contact with can’t stand the idea of being insignificant. They spend their lives with religion and spiritual practice, blindly fumbling for purpose. The mountains teach those who long for purpose that there is no purpose. There is no significance, except the significant between the interaction of two objects, like that of a mountain and a human being, that of a giant mass of atoms interacting with a very small mass of atoms. I like to think that one day I will fall away from the earth and my atoms will somehow be the atoms that make up these giant creatures, if they may be called such.


All throughout my adolescent years, I believed that I was meant for the city. I would gaze up into the sky in the middle of downtown Chicago and feel a sense of security that no other human being could give to me, not even my own parents. I saw these buildings towering over me like giant beings, they were getting smaller the further up they were from me which gave them the illusion of curling in over my head. I felt this safeness, I was protected from the elements, I was secure from the unknown around me and outside of myself. The sound of the city sang with motion, I felt like a whirring consciousness of movement and ebbing and flowing. These manmade structures looked taller than mountains. I didn’t think I would feel comfortable with anything else. I spent years longing for the city again.

And then I found Iceland.

I discovered camping, hiking, volcanos and mountains. I’m just now realizing that nature was all it took to make me realize that those buildings simultaneously acted as a cage. I was being protected from elements I was afraid of, only because I had never known what they were, I genuinely feared the unknown. But these mountains, how could I fear them when they rose so delicately into the sky, and how could I fear them when they disregarded me and went about their own business? The mountains don’t care about anyone, they grow on their own and reclaim anything that falls in their way with motive to alter them. The skyscrapers in the city, well, they’re regarded for us. They’re meant for only us, they’re constructed so that we feel more secure, fit to our every need. But do those who build skyscrapers ever think that maybe we’d all live a little more freely without control over the elements? And maybe we would fear less if we were to live and die knowing that our atoms would first become mountains, and not skyscrapers.

I admire my professor for dedicating a part of his life to the mountains, and I admire the mountains for not letting human influence get in the way of their beauty.


Other sites along our trip included the lovely Seljalandsfoss and Skógarfoss, two ethereal waterfalls crashing their bodies into the earth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen water so aggressive and dedicated, it was like martyrdom was manifested in the way they fell.

Here is skógarfoss:


 Views from the top!

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And Seljalandsfoss!




Throughout this trip, I was surprised with myself. In most situations of such overwhelming beauty I tend to start spilling over with tears as a way to express the emotions that well up within myself. Internally and unconsciously I was awaiting it. Intuition told me that eventually it would come. I was contained, and I had a feeling it had to do with the fact that I was with a group (my Icelandic class) the whole time. My feelings were all internalized, not purposefully, so as not to disrupt the order of things. But a moment did find itself and it happened where I least expected it. I cannot recall the exact location, but we had ended up driving far out into a barren field to visit another one of the stop in the Saga trail for Njáls Saga. It was quite remote, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place so open and flat in my life before. The bus stopped at a small house in the middle of the fields, and the group gathered around our professor to hear about the historical significance of the site we were at. I had been one of the last people to gather around, and instead of huddling in with the group, I decided to press myself into the ground and sit down amid the openness.


My initial reason for sitting was because I wanted to know what the grass felt like underneath me. It was slightly damp when I pressed my hands into it, and my fingers were able to lose themselves in the long green strands. It smelled of something other than grass, it was of earth, more of soil and pure growth. It was nothing like the neatly cut lawn-grass smell I experienced while growing up. This felt more genuine and wild, unruly, untamed. I sat in a daze with both my hands out to my sides, pressing down into one slice of a grass carpet that was miles long. I hadn’t really looked up yet, something held me back. Perhaps it was a fear; I knew that what I would see wouldn’t be anything like the city I grew up in, and I was afraid my eyes wouldn’t be able to take it in. Slowly I lifted my face up, I felt the grass fall away from my line of vision, felt the sky take hold of my eyes as I tried to contain it. There was more sky than earth, I was deluged, lightheaded. And that’s when it hit me, the overwhelming

feeling that I had fallen away from myself, and I was nothing any longer, just an amalgamation of atoms whirring around in all of this space, these endless spaces and the spaces between those endless spaces. Endalaust. I couldn’t tell if I was the space contained within all of this solid air or the solid entity disrupting the space around me.

DSC_0143 copyI started to cry. Whatever I was, I was beautiful, and the spaces were beautiful, between my fingers, between my my endless lines of vision, between myself and the people around me, I was isolated, alone, like that church who held itself with grace.




The whole way home after that, I stared out the window in an overwhelmed flurry and cried. Sigur Rós was playing in my ears and I knew in that moment that my heart was going to be buried here. I was already testing the ground with my hands for places where my heart might like to reside. I’m still searching, but I will find it. And it will be buried, and it will feel every last earthquake and movement in the earth, as if the earth was beating with it.

Svo ég anda, og ég anda, og ég anda

So I breathe, and I breathe, and I breathe



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Ágætis Byrjun


Playing: Ágætis Byrjun by Sigur Rós

“Fjarlægur draumur fæðist…”

“A distant dream is born,”

And by born I mean alive, stretching out like the first golden rays of light pressing through the surface of the ocean, like the small budding streaks of grass pushing past their earthly dirt cocoon.

Fjarlægur draumur fæðist, but it isn’t distant any longer. This dream is here, pressing against my cheek like condensation kissing the window.

Ég er að fara til íslands,

I am going to Iceland,

I Am Going To Iceland.

Wow, the moment is finally here,

loksins, loksins, finally.

If the time is a “freckle past a hair,” then surely these freckles resemble the number tveir, tvær, tvö, two more days until I set foot in the distant dream Sigur Rós induced many years ago. It is immense to think that a year of dedication has built itself into this moment. I can still remember the piece of paper I wrote my first Icelandic words on. I never thought much of the blank back of my high school Government notes, but my not-so-ardent teacher made it possible for me to zone out and explore what a blank piece of paper could offer me. I was obliviously staring at the stark whiteness of possibility, and suddenly I knew exactly what I was going to do. It started with the curve of the letter E, then the I, the dot to the I, the double N. Einn. I watched the blue fountain pen ink pool at the ends of each letter. I had written the number “one” in Icelandic. It was foreign, it was beautiful, einn, einn, einn, it reminded me of “eye,” “eyeing.” Before I knew it, my ocean of an einn was followed by a tveir, a þrír, fjörir, fimm, sex, átta, níu, tíu, an einn again, a tveir, and so forth. I had no clue what the letter þ sounded like, but I wrote it anyway. It was beautiful. It was a foreign creature I had manifested on the paper with my own hands. I was sitting in my government glass with the numbers 1-10 written nearly 20 times on the back of my notes, silently. When I turned my paper over, I realized my fountain pen ink had entirely soaked through the back of the page, and all my writings on the recent chapter in government were ruined. Somehow this felt right, and I ran with it.

I spent that afternoon during my lunch period in the library, frantically searching for neat Icelandic words that I could collectively fill into the margins of all my previously concise Environmental Science notes. With reckless abandon I wrote down hundur for dog, rós for rose, haf for ocean, and so on. I went home and found the words for wind, mountain, glacier, hot spring, beauty, moonlight. I looked up the names of songs by Sigur Rós, I started to question what all these beautiful songs actually meant when they were understood for their lyrical context. I came to this realization that I could experience an entirely new set of emotions just by understanding the foreign words in the songs I had already fallen in love with. And thus, my exploration of Icelandic truly began.

In the past year, my life has undoubtably dedicated itself to a quest of attaining beauty, a quest for a better understanding of how a band like Sigur Rós can use spoken language to express the immense frequencies of beauty and emotion that our atoms permit us to experience-

In April 2013, I set up a change jar in dedication to a trip the the homeland of this beautiful language, Icelandic, and within a month’s time I had a little over a hundred dollars in my hands. I set a reasonable goal of $3,000, and hoped that maybe in a few years I would be able to reach it. I didn’t realize until the middle of the summer that I was going to stop at nothing to get to Iceland. Within a few more months I had upped my work schedule to 40 hours, had saved about $1,000, and was set on getting to $3,ooo. I then stumbled upon an Icelandic course for the summer of 2014 when browsing Icelandic culture online, which set into effect a chain of events leading to my submitted application to the course. The prerequisite for the three week course in Modern Icelandic was the completion of a 3 part online icelandic course, which was to be tested upon by February the next year. I immediately got to learning, and would spend hours upon hours after late shifts at work studying the online course and making flashcards of vocabulary, diagrams on white boards of grammar. I used to take receipt paper at work and write down Icelandic words off the top of my head, I would mentally count each customer’s change in Icelandic while reciting it back to them in English. I caught myself sporadically writing Icelandic words in my Psychology notes amid the english ones, like sálfræðingur for psychologist and hugi for mind. I got up at 6 am every morning, went to school for a few hours, went to work for a full 8-10 hour shift, and then fell asleep reciting Icelandic dates and numbers and colors and landscapes in my head. I repeated this process for months, in between ordering books in Icelandic, the Icelandic Sagas, the Eddas, films in Icelandic with English subtitles. I started this blog, I began translating poetry, reading up on Icelandic news, listening to the Icelandic news channel even though I hadn’t a clue what was being said. I fell asleep crying to Sigur Rós, dreaming of attending college in Iceland. It was the most bizarre thing to fall in love with a language and a country that I had never been to. I was questioned about it, put down for it, “how can you love a place you’ve never  even felt?” Oh, but I did feel it. I felt it in the music, the way the language of soft volcanos was procured with the lips, chiffon glaciers with the violin. I felt it in the Icelandic friends I spoke to online, the melancholy films amid the Icelandic landscape, the linguistic purism in the language. I felt it in the words of my parents when they told me they wouldn’t let me pursue my Bachelor’s degree in Iceland, I felt it in my own quivering pain as I fell to my knees in disbelief. I felt it on a plane to Georgia, when the plane dipped to the side and I saw the vivid blue sky, hoping Iceland would be there when the plane dipped the other way again. It wasn’t there, and I felt its absence as I uncontrollably teared up in the Savannah airport bathroom. I felt it all, overwhelmingly so, especially in its absence.

When I found out I had passed the Icelandic test and was accepted into the course, I pushed my dedication even further. My three week trip turned into five after hearing about a second course. That in turn grew into six weeks after realizing I couldn’t possibly miss out on a chance to live in the landscape as a trekker for a few days. My $3,000 goal was met and I was aiming for $6,000. $6,000 turned into $8,000, and before I knew it, I had a plane ticket for a two month trip to Iceland. I couldn’t recall a time I had ever been happier, knowing that one day in certainty, I would breathe in the air of a place that already consumed me from a distance.

Ég var að læra íslensku á hverjum degi, I was learning Icelandic every day, taking off work just to sit home and spend days teaching myself the art of Icelandic declension and conjugation. I went on my first camping trip in preparation for the course, I started buying hiking gear with all the money I had saved up. What started off as a small backpack for a day trek through the highlands turned into hundreds of dollars worth of waterproof gear, trekking poles, gaiters, hiking boots, wool base layers, hats, gloves. I booked a six day backpacking excursion through the famous 55km Laugavegur trail, my first mountaineering trip up to the summit of mount Snæfell/Snæfellsjökull (the entrance to the center of the earth according to Jules Verne!), and a trip into the only volcano in the world that you can tour inside of.

These developing plans not only changed my view on Iceland, but they changed the development of my own perceived future. I’ve realized that language learning is something I desperately need to pursue, because in each language is an entirely new aspect of expression, and within each act of expression is the root of how one culture perceives the world. How can one understand a culture without speaking in its native tongue? How can man be so selfish as to live as if his language is universal? How can he, when there’s so much out there? It just doesn’t seem plausible to me, to accept one’s culture as the superiority over the demise of all other cultures. In seeking out Iceland, I’ve developed the desire to attain a level of communication with other forms other than that which is most familiar to me. I recently chose to abandon my six year dream of design school to pursue linguistic studies and anthropology, which I wouldn’t have done if not for my exploration of expression outside of the visual design sphere.

Through all of this writing I’ve realized that I’ve reached a point where I’ve been invested in this for so long that I could never justify how it developed with mere words. Everything I explain accounts for a moment in time that felt like five moments, and ultimately the language of words finds a way to fail me in expressing this. Instead, I have to use a different language. I have to express myself with my hands as they gently press into volcanic sands, my eyes as Icelandic wind brushes lightly up against them, my legs as they maneuver their way through metamorphic landscapes. All I have to account for is my mind and the way that translates to my body, the way my lips form a foreign language which is less foreign and more familiar, more comfortable, more natural.

By the time I post this, there will have one day left until I board my plane to Iceland. Whether I’m ready for this or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is happening, I did this, I built my own language which I like to call ardor, and I have mastered it to fluency.

Here’s to Ágætis Byrjun, a good beginning.

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Word of the Day

blævængur (n)

“handheld fan”

This word comes from blær meaning “breeze” and vængur meaning “wing,” taking a simple fan and defining it as a “breeze wing.”

Speaking of blær, I want to note that Iceland has a stunning array of words to describe wind. This may certainly come from the fact that Iceland is all about their sea, and those sea breezes stop at nothing to keep fisherman focused on finding as many words as possible to describe them. Various sources I’ve found insist that there are about 56 different words for wind, others state nearly 100 or more. Here with us are a few examples from a fellow Icelander Jóhannes Benediktsson to get things flowing, from his post Counting Icelandic Words for Wind:

“The Beaufort wind force scale defines 12 different classes of wind, ranging from “calm” to “hurricane force”. Let’s compare Icelandic to English. Other languages return similar results.

The Beaufort scale:

0. Logn (Calm)

1. Andvari (Light air)

2. Kul (Light breeze)

3. Gola (Gentle breeze)

4. Stinningsgola (Moderate breeze)

5. Kaldi (Fresh breeze)

6. Stinningskaldi (Strong breeze)

7. Allhvasst (Moderate gale)

8. Hvassviðri (Gale)

9. Stormur (Strong gale)

10. Rok (Storm)

11. Ofsaveður (Violent storm)

12. Fárviðri (Hurricane force)”

My favorite here is the word gola. I like this word in Icelandic because it means “breeze” but the word “gola” makes me think “gondola” and suddenly I am picturing a light breeze pushing a gondola across the horizon.

Sigur Rós seems to take a strong influence to the wind, since two of their songs take on familiar titles from our list: Andvari and Stormur. It is amazing how well each one embodies it’s title.

Here is the first, Andvari:

And the second, Stormur:

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Word of the Day

pollagalli (n)

“rain suit”

The first thing this word brought to mind was English’s way of naming the pill bug: the roly poly. Often this word is also spelled “rolli polli” like “pollagalli.” Although this word has nothing to do with small rolling, grey-shelled bugs, it does have a very playful connotation as well. The word is yet another compound coming from pollur meaning “puddle” and galli meaning “outfit” or “overalls.” A puddle outfit!

I loved this word because it brought to mind one of Sigur Rós’ most esteemed songs “Hoppipolla.” Hoppipolla isn’t actually a word at all, but a combination of words meshed together. Split apart, it would become “hoppa í polla” or “hopping into puddles.”

The song is a beautiful, lighthearted and optimistic song with a childlike innocence. It’s catchy and one doesn’t need to understand the lyrics to feel those emotions within it. This was one of the first songs I heard by Sigur Rós, and the way the Icelandic was spoken made me attach English words to those that were in another language; there’s a familiarity in it that I think most people can capture.

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Melodic, Silky Pillars of Rock

Halló! This just in: SUMMER HAS STARTED. What does this mean? Well, it most certainly leads into the fact that I have a month and a half to go until I am breathing Icelandic air. I’ll be preparing for this trip in the next month, learning as much Icelandic as possible and unfortunately packing as much as I can into a camping backpack and a few duffels. On the other hand, I will also be at work listening to all the bands featured in this summer’s ATP Iceland festival, or All Tomorrow’s Parties Iceland. This is a music festival happening over four days at Ásbrú, a former NATO base in Keflavík, Iceland. This year it will feature bands and artists that do not hail from Iceland (Slowdive, Portishead, Interpol, Mogwai, and more!) as well as those that are Icelandic, which I want to highlight in a bunch of posts before I set out for Iceland.

I thought it would be appropriate to start off with a group playing at ATP that has just realized a wonderful album called “Silkidrangar” or “Silky Rock Pillars” in English. This group is Samaris, a band with a beautiful reputation of being deeply moving and gracefully melodious, like a small bud slowly blooming into a flower.  One reviewer referred to them as “glacial,” moving slowly, coldly and with purpose. The album title “silkidrangar” seems to be an accurate portrayal of the soft, haunting element in their music. Imagining rock pillars, basalt columns, as silky and still stoic like stone is somewhat of a contradiction. This contradiction translates into the music by expressing the softness in melodies that reach deeply into oneself and anchor themselves like stones. Take for example, the single “Ég Vildi Fegin Verda,” the first released single off of the album:

Even if you don’t know Icelandic, the lyrics become so melodious that the mind lets them blend into their environment of instruments and digital constructions. Their lyrics actually revolve around the influence of 19th century Iceland poetry, and even if one cannot translate them, the poetic nature of them is undeniable and plainly showcased.

It is easy to imagine Samaris as a wonderful portrayal of the Icelandic landscape, as most often do with the music of Sigur Rós and Ólafur Arnalds, among other Icelandic artists. Ólafur Arnalds once said he found it funny that everyone said he must have been so inspired by Icelandic nature, because a few of his songs have nothing to do with Iceland (One, “Ljósið,” was initially made for a commercial about bathtubs!). Even if Samaris didn’t pull all of their songs from the landscape, that “glacial” feeling still remains as a key element in their work. The haunting melodies can be equated as music for the black sand beaches, the slow moving glaciers, quiet and mysterious highlands and volcanos.

Nonetheless, they are melodies that pull me into a culture that I have not yet experienced, and I will be terribly excited to feel Iceland all around me as they play in their native land.


I will leave you with a very popular and exquisite song of theirs, “Góða Tungl” or “Good Moon.” This song gives me all sorts of chills.

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Word of the Day and Lullabies Sung to the Waterfalls

rúmföt (n)

“bed linens”

A lovely combination defines this one: rúm meaning “bed,” and föt, meaning “clothes.” Aha! You bed linens are literally bed clothes, clothes for your bed!

Speaking of beds and implying sleep, the verb for sleep is a rather amusing one that can’t be left untold. It is literally just “sofa.” This one was easy to remember, because a sofa is a great place to crash when you can’t keep your eyes open any longer.

And what better way to fall asleep on your sofa than to listen to a soothing Icelandic lullaby?

This beautiful piece of music, sung in this version by the popular singer Ragnheiður Gröndal, is a traditional lullaby that is used by many parents today. It is called “Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín,” or “Sleep my Young Darling.” It seems to be commonly noted as one of the most beautiful Icelandic lullabies out there. But theres a catch…

If you remember my first post on Icelandic lullabies, you’re aware that most Icelandic lullabies sung to children are actually quite terrifying, and express negativity and fear to induce a strange sense of comfort. In the lullaby Bíum Bíum Bamabló, the lyrics describe a terrifying face looming at the window, watching the human beings lying inside. What seems terrifying about this though is immediately quelled when one considers that the comfort and security inside the house outweighs the small fear lying beyond the window. These lullabies were lessons, securities being defined by the subsiding fears.

Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín tends to reach beyond this realm of security, though. It was written by Jóhann Sigurjónsson, a playwright and poet in the early 20th century. In 1911 he wrote a play about the famous outlaw Fjalla-Eyvindur which included the song in it. To understand the song, let’s give a little background:

Fjalla-Eyvindur was born in 1714, worked as a farmhand, and escaped to a remote area of Iceland after being accused of cheating. He ended up at the farm of a woman named Halla, whom he fell in love with and eventually married in the mid 1700s. It is said that they were outlawed for 20 years, although the exact reason for this seems to be unknown. It is supposed that Halla had drowned a child who stayed with them, and Eyvindur had to pay for her crimes. They decided to run off again and leave the farm, abandoning all of their children. Halla wanted to burn the farm down but Eyvindur prevented this, saving their children in the end. As outlaws, they moved constantly, avoiding those who were hunting for them. The couple had many children, and Halla seemed to always become caught when she was pregnant, but managed to escape and give birth to them. It is said that Halla always killed the children at birth, or shortly after. Why? Well, while on the run, children surely would have been a burden for this couple, so they had to make the decision to leave them behind, helpless, or kill them to save them from dying alone on their own. In one instance, Halla and Eyvindur were caught unexpectedly. Halla had a daughter with her at the time and knew that this baby would burden them on their escape. This lullaby, Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín, was the song that Halla sang to her daughter to lull her to sleep before throwing her off of a waterfall.

Tragic, yes, but in a very aching, beautiful way. The lyrics seem to really capture the pain of this woman who chose to sacrifice her children for her own life:

Sofðu, unga ástin mín,
úti regnið grætur.
Mamma geymir gullin þín,
gamla leggi og völuskrín.
Við skulum ekki vaka um dimmar nætur.

Það er margt sem myrkrið veit,
minn er hugur þungur.
Oft ég svarta sandinn leit
svíða grænan engireit.
Í jöklinum hljóða dauðadjúpar sprungur.

Sofðu lengi, sofðu rótt,
seint mun bezt að vakna.
Mæðan kenna mun þér fljótt,
meðan hallar degi skjótt,
að mennirnir elska, missa, gráta og sakna.

And condensed/roughly translated in English to understand the gist of the song:

Sleep my young love. Outside the rain cries
Mother keeps your gold, old leg bones and chest of stones
We shall not be awake on dark nights
The darkness knows so plenty
My mind is heavy
Often black sands I gazed at
burning green meadows
In the glacier lives dead deep cracks
Sleep well, sleep tight
Better to wake up later
Mother will teach you sooner
’til the sun reaches the horizon
That men love, lose, cry and pine for.

So as you can see, these seemingly horrific lullabies have deep-rooted histories and stories in them that everyone can pull from. They are sung mournfully as well as in awe, and there is a reason they are still sung today.

I will leave you with a second version by the lovely musician Svavar Knútur, which you can listen to and purchase here.

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Word of the Day

halastjarna (n)



Here we have another compound, which is comprised of hala, coming from “hali” meaning “tail” and stjarna which looks like it sounds: “star.” That leaves us with the idea of a comet being a “tail star” of sorts, trailing through space like an eel swimming through dark waters.

Halastjarna isn’t the only interesting compound involving “stjarna.” You also have “reikistjarna,” the word for planet that breaks down into reika and stjarna, collectively meaning “wandering/roaming star,” much like early astronomers described the planets before they realized they weren’t actually the massive, luminous spheres of plasma that we call stars.

pleiadesA third one is “sjöstjarna,” broken down as sjö (seven) and stjarna. This “seven star” is the word for Pleiades, a cluster of seven stars named as the “seven sisters” of the solar system. This word also happens to be the name of a plant called the Chickweed Wintergreen, although its etymology and the beginning of this usage is unknown to me.

While on the topic of space, let us not forget to add a new word to our long list of compounds containing steinn or “stone.” In addition to dropasteinkerti, brennisteinn, augasteinn, and steinþegjawe have the lovely “loftsteinn,” meaning “meteorite” but containing loft (sky) and steinn, or “sky stone.”

If you dare to challenge yourself, here is a lovely wikipedia article in Icelandic about the reikistjarna.

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