Weeping Volcano, Hot-Plate Earth: Day 5 on the Laugavegur Trail

I awoke with one of my last first breaths in Iceland. I reached my hands towards the bunk above me, I yawned, I took another breath. I started contemplating each breath, wondering which would be the last one here in Iceland, wondering if it was even worth it to count, as an effort to remember how many times I had breathed in the fresh Icelandic mountain air. I figured that the more I would breathe in the more my lungs would remember. I was leaving in two days. How could I not want to store as much as possible into the memory of my form?

DSC_1510Day 5 on the Laugavegur trail. The last hike, the largest hike. Today we were going to climb to the Fimmvorðuháls pass, the path between the two adjoining glaciers Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull, which had been our guiding end posts since the beginning of the trail. It was strange to think that after so many days watching these two giant glaciers peeking out behind the mountains, we were finally going to set foot on them. They seemed unreal, as if they had been mirages the whole time, allusions of the mind to keep us moving along the trail, to induce a sense of hope at an end goal. We were going to climb them. Ah, we were going to climb them. Eyjafjallajökull was a national phenomena, having erupted less than four years ago in April of 2010. This mountain was alive, it was breathing hot air on the inside. Everything was becoming more and more real as I tied my shoes and pressed my feet into the moist ground once more.

As of the day before, our numbers had dwindled until only half of the group was left. This had been sliced and reduced to even less than so, as some of our trek mates hiked around the huts at þórsmörk instead. Eight of us set off, making the long trek from the hut Básar at þórsmörk to Fimmvorðuháls at the sites of the volcanos Móði and Magni, an intense and dangerous path of scaling mountainsides and trudging through snow and a volcanic wonderland.

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We began in a lush green canopy of birch trees, peeling bark lining the sides of the path as we scraped our muddy boots along the trail. Today was unlike the rest of the trip, it was a salt-shaking of sprinkled rain dotting the tops of our hats in speckles. The fog far outreached our swaying hands, lying over the peak of the glaciers like the most intentionally covered furniture. The petrichor was strong on the trail, it made the moss pleasant to walk alongside (not that it wasn’t already pleasing to accompany). Svavar, our guide, picked blueberries along the way from the bushes near our feet, crowberries were crushed between the teeth. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed, flora silently making a spectacle of our attempt.

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Once we reached a high enough peak to look over into the valleys below us, we were able to see the giant carvings of the glacier river. Black tarmacs of flowing water etched themselves out of the earth like an etch-a-sketch on a mad dash to express its purpose. The skies grew even closer to us, My hands could all but grasp the overhanging, melancholy clouds.

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As the terrain changed, the trail thinned. The path up the mountain was letting go of the parts of itself it didn’t need; foliage, stability, grace, all gone. It was becoming more vulnerable, more honest. It had shed its green to uncover a harsh under-layer. But the moss persisted, just like we persisted as we sought to cover it with our footprints.

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While balancing ungracefully on the trail, we encountered a strange phenomena making a show of hands from beyond the edge of a mountain. There were these rocks jutting up from the summit to our right, and one that significantly looked like the silhouette of a giant hiker. From a distance, the scale was distorted and looked as if it -were- a backpacker, but it remained unmoved for an eerily long time. Svavar pointed up to the peculiar form and said enthusiastically, “hey, there’s a troll!”

Wait, a troll??

Well, for those of you who hadn’t known, Iceland has a long past associated with the belief in elves (called Huldufólk, or “hidden people”) and trolls, which turn into stone by daylight. The theory is, if they don’t get to their caves before the sun comes up over the horizon, they immediately take on a statue-like form, forever frozen into the landscape. Some even claim that entire mountains resemble giant trolls. In the Westfjords, one of the most remote parts of Iceland, it is believed that a troll created small islands off the coasts of the fjords by digging into the mountain and throwing pieces of it into the sea. One might find this silly and a bit maniacal, but if you end up in the Icelandic wilderness alone for too long, it isn’t difficult to start seeing things that aren’t seemingly there. In fact, on a bus ride to the town of Ísafjörður a few weeks before the hike, I stumbled upon a strangely convincing site. On the side of the mountain in the distance sat these giant sheep, geometric-like and such, and I saw them resting intently like sheep…wait, they couldn’t have been sheep. They weren’t moving, they looked so harshly outlined. But then they did move, or perhaps the shadows moved, I saw limbs, maybe a figure curled over. It took a moment for me to realize that these things really were boulders, fallen from the mountain above. I thought, if I could consciously assume these rock formations were alive and breathing in the most human-like sense, then so could Icelanders over the past few centuries. I was amazed by the similarities to the human figure that these formations possessed. A few chuckles rang out from the group at the site of this “backpacker” frozen at the top of the mountain. I stood in a sort of awe, realizing that the landscape had more life to it than one could ever imagine.

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Our cerebellums came into play more and more as we focused on balancing through the terrain. One endeavor to reach the top involved the use of chains that we had to grasp onto. They were held in place by long metal poles that were drilled into the rock. The only thing was, these poles were wobbly and unstable, which made the prospect of falling quite terrifying. Lory, a member of our expedition, experienced a strong sense of vertigo during these moments which made our steps even more careful as we all felt the anxiety settling in. I felt like the rock would fall beneath me like the crumbling of a burnt candle wick, but luckily the mountain had practice with this one, and persisted despite our weight.

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Once past the most structurally unsound parts of the path, we were able to look at the new land forming below and around us. Evidently effected by the most recent volcanic eruptions a few years ago, the landscape was covered in an ashy black. It streaked in muddy browns and grays down the side of the mountain like rain pooling and cascading down the debris on a dirty car window. What was interesting was the moss that had attempted to reclaim the landscape. It seemed to have crawled right through the pores of the volcanic wasteland, making its presence known in lush, tennis ball greens and dirty golden, hazy browns. I had never before seen a color combination so present and juxtaposed before. It seemed to fit together like a complimentary color duo, yet so oddly out of place and uninvited. And the more we climbed, the sooner our forest green grasses turned to neon mosses, the sooner the neon mosses turned to muddied patches of volcanic rock with little to no life left inside of them.

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We were about to enter a land of monochrome, but we didn’t know it yet. The fog was prevailing over the tops of the two glaciers, obstructing our end goal and also sending godlike forces of wind and rain at our faces. At one point I tripped and fell, cutting open my hand on an inconveniently muddy, porous rock, and the wind licked at it until my fingers were stinging. Strangely the pain felt good, I felt more directly than ever the strong forces of the earth effecting my body.

We all must have looked like a silly bunch, covered head to toe in rain gear, bright red ponchos and wind stricken faces. The air was getting colder and we had finally entered the heart of the fog.

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We crossed the barrier between this world and the next. With red faces we entered a monochrome realm consisting of volcanic waves and unbroken white snow. Not a speckle of green was to be found, not a single notion of life left before us. In the distance, two giant black mounds rose from above the fog. We had reached the beginning of the Fimmvorðuháls pass.

These giant black mounds were Móði and Magni, two volcanos that recently erupted previous to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010. These mountains were like children, we were walking on fresh land. For a little history into the naming of these two mountains, I’d like to mention that Móði and Magni are the sons of Thor (the supreme Old Norse god). Knowing this made walking among them even more ethereal and lively. As we climbed through the snow, the temperature dropped and the fog fell even more aggressively than before. My cheeks felt red, and somehow the mounds of volcanic rock mirrored that and became red too. Yes, the rocks, they were changing color! Out of the corner of my eye I could see pink patches, lavender, a little orange. Upon closer inspection, I realized that the rocks really were vibrantly colored, as if the lava hadn’t yet cooled. The texture of them indicated movement, there were air bubbles strewn about within them, swirls where the lava settled. I was in a fleshy, iridescent wonderland. I couldn’t have foreseen this less than five minutes ago, every indication led to less color and more of a hazy black. But this, this was extraordinary. The changing colors of the rocks reminded me of the swirling of hues in a soap bubble.

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The closer we got to the top of the volcano, the more rugged and crimson the landscape became. When we reached the point where the small crater showed itself, Svavar told us to sit down and feel the temperature of the ground. We pressed our hands to the sharp earth and a wave of warmth ran through our arms. I pulled my hand back and my entire palm was filled with red smudgy powder. Immediately Svavar sat on the ground, and the rest of the group followed. It didn’t matter anymore that our faces were being eaten alive by the wind and the rain. because we had found comfort in the warmth of the earth. I felt like I was sitting on a hot plate that had just started warming up, and the longer I sat on it, the warmer my entire body felt. I could feel waves of dull heat working their way through my legs, up my chest, to my face. I was glowing, the rocks were glowing, the smiling faces of Allan, Morgan, Peter, Svavar, Lory, Judit, Dave, all glowing.

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Since there was still some terrain left to climb to get to the very top of the volcano, I set out alone to explore. The rock became like scree beneath me, and I found myself scrambling in pure red, scraping my hands as I grasped onto rocks. I couldn’t tell if my hands were bleeding or they were just full of powdered rock, the red smeared across my palms like bright blood. The mountain was leaking all over the place, my shoes were bright maroon, hands red, fingers tinged a little golden from some of the various yellow rocks amid the crimson. I stood at the top of this peak and looked around at my surroundings. Black, volcanic rolling meadows, snow topped, fog laced, misty. I stood here for many moments, feeling like I was witnessing an ocean, once frozen in anger and now approaching a snowy calm.

One of my favorite photos of the trip is one that Lory snapped of the group excluding myself, since I was slaving away to the peak in the background:

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The way to the pass was one of hard laborious climbing and dedication, while our descent became one of exploration of that which we had passed up. The group trudged along the snowily landscape once again, but a little more distanced this time. Allan was falling behind in the back, picking up rocks and feeling them within his hands. The way he looked at each one was a notion of awe, a manifestation of “wow, this is all too beautiful.” Dave was between us, pointing out giant chunks that he considered bringing back to his wife Peggy, who decided to stay in Þórsmörk. I was shuffling the red rocks around with my hands, choosing the ones I was most drawn to, hiding them away quietly into my pocket. One of us would hold up a rock and the others would circle around it to examine it, in awe and fascination of its existence. It was becoming colder again, but I hadn’t wanted to leave.

Further and further back to Þórsmörk we went, descending from crimson warmth to black ash, monochrome to neon green, moss to berry bushes. Life grew around us again at a rapid speed.

Svavar stopped in front of a canyon-like enclosure and told us to hush. He let out a loud whoop with his hands cupped around his face, and then fell silent. But his voice carried on, it bounced off one side of the mountain, fell to the next, then crumbled along the side of another, then fell to the bottom. He had produced a synchronized chain of echoes, four to six loud shouts into the earth! This made me think of the Icelandic word for echo, “bergmál” which is a compound of “berg” and “mál” which translates to “rock face language.” Enthusiastically, we asked him to do it again, and so he did it again, and again, and we could have listened to a voice bouncing off a mountainside for hours.

where each echo fell

where each echo fell

But Svavar had other intentions. He was stopping here and there on the trails to pick blueberries, an endeavor that required a good eye and a quick hand (Everyone was after these berries after awhile, and no bush was safe). Avoiding the more tart, darker crowberries, it was a mad dash for the blue berries, and we collected them with little sandwich bags we had been recycling along the hike. For every blueberry picked, about two went straight into my mouth. The whole mountainside was littered with them, and we were collecting them so Svavar could add them into our dinner for that night, leg of lamb.

Svavar looking all too excited with his berries

Svavar looking all too excited with his berries

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Photo by Anushila Shaw

When we got back, stories of the hikes were exchanged between the groups while we awaited Svavar’s authentic Icelandic leg of lamb cooking. The dinner proved to be excellent, and we all toasted to the small family we had gained over the past week of hiking. It was coming closely to an end. One more day and our lives would ultimately fall out of place with each other, and we would go about the world knowing we had bonded with each other through the extravagance of the Icelandic landscape.

Photo by Dave Beaman

Photo by Dave Beaman

Some of the rocks I collected on the volcanos

Some of the rocks I collected on the volcanos

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Gilded Forests, Yawning Chasms: Day 4 on the Laugavegur Trail

I woke up on a mountain.

No, scratch that, a bunk bed, but close enough.

The mountains visible out the window of the hut were my Siren song of the day, except I wasn’t resisting them and following them only led to the bad conclusion of falling further in love with them. I felt myself pulling towards them, I could hardly think about breakfast, I had climbing to do.

I was unlike the rest of the group, who couldn’t resist the slow process of waking up in the morning: the creaking of feet ascending the ladders from the top bunks, laces to boots to socks to feet. Jackets? Check. Trekking Poles? Check.

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Today, the fourth of our six day trip through Iceland’s famous Laugavegur trail, was the last trek for a little less than half of the group, since some opted only to do the four day trek from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. It was also the last day for one of our guides Nonni, who had been taking our gear and food from hut to hut every day. Our numbers were dwindling, but we were persisting. The hut they would be dropped off at was a little out of our way, but in it was the promise of a nice can of beer and a rest. Shoelaces were immediately tied and the herd had rounded itself up in the hopes of a rewarded hike.

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Nonni protecting the gear with his life (photo by Anushila Shaw)

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The hike of the day was a rough 20km from the hut Emstrur to the hut Húsadalur, and then to the hut in Þórsmörk where we would be staying for the next two nights. According to the map the route seemed deceptively downhill, and a rare Icelandic forest awaited us (Þórsmörk does mean “Thor’s forest,” after all).

With green tents contributing to the moss behind us, we set forth across a fresh landscape.

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The trek today was much of what it had been before, but the freshly-lit awe of our surroundings ceased to fade. The sky was so deeply blue that it set the a mountains ablaze in a thinly colored haze. In much of Icelandic art, both past and present, the mountains were and are depicted as giant blue-violet spectacles. It was claimed that yes, the mountains were indeed made of blues and violets despite their true brown/black coloring. Even if the cool colors were illusory based on distance in time and space, the reality depicted by the artist was the one that their eyes spoke of in those exact moments, and this was what they painted. So a hazy blue the mountains were, cloaked in atmosphere, reflecting the aura of the celestial gods.

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With the the glacier Mýrdalsjökull growing slowly nearer in the distance, we came to a bridge crossing. Obviously no makeshift path, the bridge extended sturdily across the shallow yawning chasm of the river. I’ve found through many bridge crossing in Iceland that there is a particular, reoccurring feeling that arrives while standing on each bridge. I see the water below me, a parade of liquid silk bubbling and lapping onto the waves of itself. I stand on the platform in a direction against the current and feel as if I am being pulled by it, as if I am pushing against the direction of the wind with my entire body. But the thing is I’m not really being pulled by anything, but my mind thinks otherwise. It is begging me to accept a reality where the water is able to physically move me while i stand on this bridge. I enjoyed this reality, and I stood on the shaky, suspended walkway for awhile.

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Within me had grown this inkling to escape from the group, I had this desire to communicate with the earth again, privately, alone. I unweaved my headphones from my daypack and began Sigur Rós’s Valtari, an album that had been following me throughout the landscape, quietly playing in the far recesses of my memory, stringing its way along the curves of each passing peak. Our group took a break on top of a high rock face overlooking a river carved deep into the mountains. I walked a distance away and sat on the edge. I crossed my legs and put my hands up in the air like a bird, I had transparent wings, they felt no wind, I was still, stationary. I was free. I listened to Varðeldur (“campfire” in English) and trailed my eyes along the lines of the canyon the wind and water had eaten away. They seemed to dip and rise like the steady flow of the rhythm, I could feel the piano welling up in my chest and my lungs were tightening. I realized I was crying.

DSCN1945My tears fell down my cheeks as if gravity was happily pushing them towards and into the river beneath me. I laid down on my stomach over the cliff face and cried, I let the music dictate how aggressively they fell. They were the slowest, smallest waterfall in all the land. I felt part of myself integrating into the earth. I was shedding tears that the sky lacked, I was giving the earth something that it had missed in those last three days. I felt like I had belonged to a process, like I had as much to say to the earth as the rain did. Perhaps not as noticeably, perhaps with less impact, but I still had something to say and I said it. Thoughts of having to leave Iceland welled up within me: In my head I could simulate the feeling of having to walk away from the mountains, from the island, from home. Each step forward on the trail was another step away from Iceland. I was leaving the day after the trek and the moment was yearning closer and closer to me. It was amazing and I was astounded to think that each step closer to home was also a step through something beautiful. I was thinking that perhaps the pain of leaving was going to be a beautiful ache; perhaps the pain of leaving was going to acknowledge that I was here, begin impacted by something so beautiful that it just had to bring pain. Something was happening here, I was falling deeply in love with something, the mountains, the essences of them, the earth.

The time had come to leave our rest stop, and so we continued on further towards the black sands. What began as a rhythm of Sigur Rós transitioned into a melody of piano and violin from the Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. The album “Living Room Songs” made its way into my ears as the rolling landscape harmonized with the instrumentals of “Tomorrow’s Song.” I was walking alongside Peggy, mountaineering extraordinaire, and she noticed that I was tearing up. She had asked me what was wrong, and all I could do was open my arms out to the landscape and say “this is all so beautiful, I don’t want to have to leave this place” through tears. She immediately embraced me and held me for a moment. I felt like she was holding me in the same way that she held her own daughter; She understood, I felt that her and I were experiencing beauty on similar levels. She had this sensibility about human beings, she was delicate and soft towards other’s emotions. I was very thankful for this moment, and when it was over I walked along with Ólafur playing against a vibrant sky.

I knew we were approaching closer and closer to Þórsmörk because the vegetation started to appear. A previously naked earth gave way to speckles of plant life, flowers, trees in the distance. The giant glacier Mýrdalsjökull intimidatingly rose above all in a blue haze of itself. The streaks of white snow and ice were the only substance resembling clouds that we had left in the sky that afternoon. Over the course of my stay in Iceland, I’ve come to the conclusion that Iceland is one of those places that doesn’t call for over saturation when photos of itself are edited. You can snap a brilliant photo of the mountains and not have to edit a singles aspect of it, it lies perfectly in a flame of color. In fact, I think if any editing must be done, the saturation has to be lowered. I guess Iceland is one of those countries that just likes to show off. It has a nice photogenic ego, it bathes in the camera lens without any intentionality.

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Before we could enter the forest, an immense hike was demanded of us. Plants taunted us from the sidelines, growing more and more in concentration the closer we got, but the trail also became steeper and more strenuous. Our eyes, being accustomed to staring in awe at the glacier, had to change gears and focus on the ground as rocks tried to divert our path. Single file we zigzagged up one of the steepest climbs on the trail, each step bringing us higher and higher, bringing us closer and closer to the elevation of the glacier. Bright red grasses greeted us halfway up and as the incline receded, fields of flowing maroon shone in broad daylight. I was brought back to my college Psychology class and a discussion on the Young-Helmholtz theory, which theorizes that are three photoreceptors (cones) in the eyes that corresponded to the colors red, green, and blue. Red grassed, green vegetation, bright blue skies and deep blue mountains. Everything felt so vibrant and complex, with an underlying simplicity that spoke volumes.

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After we approached the top, we realized in a matter of moments that we had to descend right back down on the other side, straight into the final river crossing of the trip. As mentioned in previous posts, I’ve found that descending sharp inclines is much more difficult than the ascension. You have to use different muscles and your knees are more apt on giving out from underneath you the further and faster you descend. You slide much more easily, and often you’re sent tripping right into the person who is also tripping in front of you. Luckily there were no games of dominos down the sides of the mountains, but there were plenty of messy falls and yelps from uncoordinated hikers above and below me. This didn’t last long, and before we knew it we had approached the river crossing. Our gateway into the forest.

One thing I haven’t mentioned largely on the trail are the river crossings that seem to want to throw us off course. These are perhaps the most inconvenient attributes to the hikes, but if you’re falling asleep or exhausted, they’ll be sure to wake you up. After a few crossings, you get the hang of things: take off your backpack, roll up your waterproof pants (yes, even those), roll up your long underwear, take off your shoes, your socks, your sock liners, tie your laces and wrap your shoes around your neck or attach them to the bag. Put on your water shoes and your bag but don’t clip anything the straps together (if you fall in or downstream, your heavy bag better not be coming with you). Then the fun begins. Our last crossing turned out the be the longest and deepest crossing, since this river was coming straight out of the glacier Mýrdalsjökull. Before you step in, the anticipation vaguely terrifies you: you know it’ll be mind-numbingly cold. You can hear the sharp intakes of breath by your trek mates as their feet plunge into the water. You watch them scout out the shallowest parts of the river, some failing as they end up splashing their feet in above their knees. You can tell whose feet are probably shaking and whose toes are braving the water like champs.

Photo by Anushila Shaw

Photo by Anushila Shaw

You take that first step in and your body flickers off and then on again from the shock of the cold. Even thought it isn’t that cold, it’s still really damn cold. You feel the magnetism of the current pulling you off course, but you perservere. If you’re lucky, you’ll have trekking poles to seek out the shallowest ends. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have spent 10 minutes in the same freezing spot contemplating how in the world you’re going to do this without getting water up past your ankles.  This is unnecessary thinking because it’s too late and half your legs are already submerged. Silly you, you expect too much out of this river. When you do get across though, you can poke fun at the people who came out much wetter than you. That is, until you put your shoes on your bag and realize they’re going to be dripping all over you for the next hour.

Needless to say, the river crossings are both amusing and awful. The cold shock of water on your feet wakes them up, and refreshes you for the rest of the walk. It’s like a nice shower for your feet, and you don’t have to pay 500 Krónur for it (showering at the huts is about a dollar/100 Krónur a minute, ouch).

DSC_1454With the river crossing behind us, it was time to enter the forest. Or rather, what Icelanders call the forest. A mixture of small vegetation, ferns, and birch wood, we zigzagged through the low-lying thicket. Icelanders have this joke that’s become popular among tourists: “What do you do if you’re lost in an Icelandic forest?” “Well, just stand up!”

This was one of the first moments during the trip that I could not see the mountains. It was as if we had entered another world, something so unlike the Iceland we had gotten to know. This was almost mystical. The sunlight speckled throughout the low trees reminded me of the fairies and sprites I had gotten to know in fairytales as a young child. The forest was also unlike any other concentration of vegetation I had ever seen in the states; it was void of all life. Not an animal, reptile, bird or insect was to be seen. The occasional swarm of small flies reminded me that not all was gone, but the eerie reserved nature of the forest was surreal and outstanding. This forest was for the trees.

After the forest cleared, we finally entered the campsite/hut where the 4 day trekkers were to be dropped off, and more importantly, where there would be snacks and beer. After a few sad goodbyes, we huddled into the eating area, cracked open a few Viking Gylltur’s (Icelandic beer, “gylltur” meaning “gilded”) and handed around bags of M&M’s over conversation. Our guide, Svavar, went into depth discussing the process of herding Icelandic sheep for the winter, and we got a fulfilling lesson on how to brand sheep with the help of a few of Svavar’s novice illustrations. After a few beers it suddenly hit us that we couldn’t stay here, and we felt we’d cheated by retreating back to a bit of civilization before our hike had completed. The hut we were going to was an hour’s walk away, and nobody wanted to be drunk on the way there.

Into the forest we retreated once more, eventually coming to our final hut for the duration of the next two nights. Here we were in Þórsmörk, a collection of huts hidden away in the trees near the edge of two glaciers, Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull, which we would be hiking between the next morning.

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Photo by Anushila Shaw

Photo by Anushila Shaw

After a long day, we had finally made it to the end checkpoint of the trail. Two days still awaited us, and even before that was the surprise of a lovely campfire at the hut that night. A group of Icelanders was there to celebrate the birthday of their friend, and all of the trail-goers were invited to the giant bonfire. Since it was nearing the end of August, the midnight sun was nowhere to be seen and it was black by midnight. We sought our way through the forest and out to the fire, following the voices of Icelanders as they gathered around with guitars and loud, passionate singing. I jumped at the opportunity of having a beer and chatting with Icelanders, in Icelandic of course. I’ve found that a few beers always makes speaking another language easier. You lose all inhibitions and the anxiety of not speaking well fades. I’ve realized that I’m much better at Icelandic when I’m drinking, and my true breadth of knowledge on the language shows. I ended up chatting with another mounta10563026_10202692371966538_7527702438226940085_nin guide who was incredibly intrigued by my interest in his native tongue, and was more or less quizzed with question after question about where I was from, why I was learning, how I felt about the trail, etc. An Icelandic song I vaguely knew was echoing throughout the group, and I sang along as best I could as Icelanders acknowledged my attempt and joined in with me by cheering me with their beer cans to mine. I felt for a moment that I belonged in some way, that I was appreciated because I made an effort to understand a culture that these people held so dearly onto. Of course, that isn’t to say I wasn’t entirely incomprehensible in my Icelandic at some instances, but I tried. And I think that moment was a good way to start ending my trip in Iceland. I came there to study Icelandic and I learned more than just the language. I learned how to communicate, I learned how to reach out to people in another culture, how to understand others and the medium upon which they express themselves. In ways I became part of the culture, in every way I fell in love with it. I felt like I was finding the things which made me happiest. I felt at home for a moment.

All these mountains gave me a home.

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Black Sand Wonderland: Day 3 on the Laugavegur Trail

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Lake Álftavatn soaked the sky in with a giant yawn. Hikers followed suite by unzipping their sleeping bags, testing their knees, stretching their fingers out like obnoxious sun rays. Day three on the Laugavegur trail. Day three, further and further into the giant outstretched hands of the mountains. I got out of my bed and walked to the singular window in our mountain hut. I stared out at the mountains and they stared back, they understood. We were both ready for this.

The routines fell into a repetitive rhythm: put on overused camp clothes, eat muesli, “who wants to cut the apples??” pick which tea you want, accidentally over-steep (in my case), make your sandwiches of the day, “can someone pass me the salami!” “who has a knife?” clean up your mess, brush your teeth outside at the sink, make sure not to sit on the frost covered benches, lace up your shoes and get outside. Put on your backpack. Soak in the landscape with two eager eyes. Start the day.

nice little bathroom hut

nice little bathroom hut

Today’s trek consisted of the flattest part of the trail. Our guide, Svavar, mentioned that there were a few ups and downs in the valleys towards the beginning of the day, but we knew better. Svavar has this Icelandic mentality of claiming things aren’t as bad as they usually are to everyone else. He’s also a trained guide, taking this trek multiple times a year, so anything is easy to him. “A few ups and downs” to him is quite the incline. At the start of every hike he mentions a difficult part and says, “TOO easy!” which sends all our eyes rolling, because we know that means expect the worst. After these ups and downs we were going to be entering an Icelandic desert of sorts, mixed in with a few river crossings and a giant canyon before we got to the hut Emstrur. Yeah, TOO easy.

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So for the third time, we set off. Every time I begin something, I think of the album by Sigur Rós, “Ágætis Byrjun,” or “Alright Beginning.” This in turn was much more than that, it was a beautiful, fantastic, clear-sky start. We attained great weather for the third day in a row, something quite rare for anyone staying in Iceland for more than a day. I was reminded of the three weeks of rain I received in July towards the beginning of my trip and hoped I wouldn’t be revisiting that anytime soon. There is a popular, overused phrase in Iceland: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. This didn’t apply for the consistent sunshine during the trip, which sent Svavar saying “this isn’t actually weather.”

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We weaved our way through the weather-less landscape, feet into green moss, minds into the mountains. The giant rock formations rose like waves bending towards a shore. I wanted to be the shore. We were the lulling footsteps of waves in motion, we created the motion in the waves by our descending and ascending. Feet up this curve, down this curve, fluid movements in the toes, zig zagging across the landscape.

The location of our break was at powerful waterfall which tunneled under a set of two rainbows, both of which were delicately hanging in the mist. Cookies were passed around and sandwiches eaten, mist was settling and water was churning. I took a walk out beyond the fall and laid down in a nice patch of moss.

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Photo by Judit Serra

I was alone with “Varuð” by Sigur Rós playing through my headphones. In my trips through Iceland I came to find that moss is one of the best things to lay against while in contemplation. The right Icelandic moss is soft and sinks a little when you put your weight on it. It also retains the warmth that it soaks in from the sun. You feel as if you’re lying on a warm carpet of, well, soft moss. I wouldn’t have any other way of describing it. Perhaps it’s like a heated carpet, but more alive and more comfortable. I had taken off my jacket so I could lay my bare arms against it, and it held me up with its complex, internal support structure. When you lie on it, theres never a though that you’re crushing it, it retains itself well. And so I stretched out, stomach down on this bed of moss. My body molded ever so slightly into it and I began to doze off, cheek pressed into the green earth. I watched the mountains from the side of my vision, I felt that they was moving, that time was slowing down for me and speeding up for them until we reached the same equilibrium of time and space. My eyelids became heavy from the rays of sun beating down on them, and I saw beauty beneath them as they closed over me.

When I felt that it was time to leave my tranquil surroundings and return to the group, I found that our guide had dosed off more successfully than I had, and we had a great time poking fun at him for sleeping on the job.

Photo by Anushila Shaw

Photo by Anushila Shaw

Once woken, he led us on to the last bit of our 15 km hike: the Icelandic desert. Of course, this wasn’t actually a desert, but it came close. We were warned that if we wanted to use the bathroom, we had better find a rock now or we’d be peeing in front of a large audience in the middle of the black sands. And black sand there was, tons and tons of it whispering away between the lone mountains.

Trekking through desert-land is mentally dampening, no matter the distance which you’re hiking through. It does things to your mind, you feel you lose track of time as you carry on hill after hill after similarly looking hill. The sand contributes to the dragging of your own feet, you have to lift your leg more purposefully to tread through the fine desert graininess. Every few moments I would channel my cupped hand down at my sides and gather some sand in my hands. It was of the purest grey-black, varying from finely grained to a soft power. Memories of this odyssey become blurred with the grains, they become muddled in a black summer wonderland. It was the mountains that took over and guided us, and we calculated our distance based on our location relative to each singular peak. I found that this was the one part of the trip where I had my camera out and failed to take any pictures of the most barren parts of this hike. Perhaps at the time it felt dull compared to the backdrop of lonely green mountains.

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This last mountain had a base that resembled a peculiar patter, almost like wrinkles brushed along it’s surface. All these mountains were aged indefinitely by the impact of the rocks pervading over it. Through the elements it was actually weathering itself. It was beautiful, to think that the mountain was eating itself away, crumbling over itself.

After a few hours, we reached the last incline in our voyage through the black, grainy depths. A warden nicknamed Nonni (short for Jón) from one of the huts (who was also cooking for us and taking our food/luggage to each hut) raced by on his bike to greet us, indicating that our hut was near.

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Before heading to the hut, Svavar had one last surprise phenomenon to show us. Right in view was a giant drop to a large gorge/canyon a short distance from where we would be staying that night. It’s called “Markarfljótsgljúfur,” lying 200 m deep into the earth and carved out by the Markarfljót river. According to the Katla Geopark website, the river is 100 km long (one of the largest in the South of Iceland!) and is sourced from the two glaciers Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull which we would be hiking between on the fifth day. Even though it wasn’t nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon in the states, it still felt like Iceland’s Grand Canyon.

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My favorite part of the canyon was a lone bird gliding about against the red cliff sides. It seemed isolated, having the entire canyon to itself. Without the bird, the true immensity of the depth of the canyon couldn’t be fathomed, even while looking at it. The stark whiteness of the bird further brought out each color on the walls of the gorge, and I watched in awe as the creature glided along the eroded rock. I wanted to be this bird, I wanted to reach up close to the rock and delicately brush my hands along its sides, like a painter adding the final thin details to his work. I was vicariously living through these fragile feathers.

Upon treading back, a single Icelandic flag fell into view: an indication that we had made it home, albeit a temporary one.

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Exhausted from the sand making refuge in my shoes, I tiredly enjoyed a nice meal of Bolognese and a dessert of canned pears drizzled in chocolate syrup (much to my surprise, Svavar’s idea of dessert was actually delicious, in the strangest way). I set my sleeping bag out on a top bunk once again, feeling like I had reached a high enough summit to fall asleep on. I knew I would blissfully reach further to the sky in the morning.

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Textured, Snow-Blind Iridescence: Day Two on the Laugavegur Trail

The first texture of the morning was the dust and water stained window out my top bunk. It had evidently rained that night, yet the mountains behind the glass showed no signs of being washed away. Here I was in Hrafntinnusker, the first mountain hut in our 6 day trek through Laugavegurinn, Iceland’s most famous trekking trail. I felt the muscles in my legs begging to be stretched, I lifted my hands high above me in the bunk and let out a huge yawn. I stared out the mountains and breathed then back in. I came to think that I couldn’t remember a time I slept more deeply. I think it had to do with the lingering clear air overhead, the giant natural phenomenon watching over me as I slept. One stretch led to another, and then the person off to a lower left bunk began to stretch. This created a chain reaction of yawns and stretches, a Jacob’s Ladder effect of people waking up in the morning. Judit on the bunk to my left slept soundly amid the rustling waterproof pants and coats being put on. Shoes were being laced, people chattering among themselves, people asking what in the world we would have for breakfast. I noticed that I had fallen asleep with my iPod by my side, it was lying down, nearly dead, as I remembered I had drifted away to the sound of Ólafur Arnalds through the speakers. I asked myself how my life could be so beautiful. I was ready for it to get even better.

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Our guide Svavar mentioned to the group that we couldn’t leave the huts until we had pronounced the name of the hut correctly, “Hrafntinnusker.” All eyes looked at me and I was instantly excluded by Svavar from partaking in this personally easy task. Rounds of “hraPtinnaskare,” “hraFtinnuskeer” trailed around, showcasing the daunting difficulty of the Icelandic pronunciation. I prided myself on my ability to see that the “fn” in hrafn was said more like a p with a nasal stop and a quick breath out the nose. (hear it here). I was getting good at this stuff.

And so our journey began once more. Clothes were packed back up, teeth were brushed (with much hesitation, as the toilets were not flushable and it smelled pretty horrible in the bathrooms. So much for mountainside resort luxury). We stopped at the map to see what our hike would be like today: the shallow ups and downs across crevasses in the earth, small valleys, a steep descent at the end, and then the beautiful lake Álftavatn (literally “swan water”) that was the location of our next hut. 12 more kilometers, alright, we could do this.

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We began across the valley, following the small thin line of a pair of bike tires as they streamed across the terrain. Mountains lifted their heads high above us, constantly watching us, making sure we were in our places, but never interfering. Mountains seem like the hiking deist’s dream: they create the landscape but play no part in directly dictating our lives after such the occurrence. But despite this, we let them impact us, we want them to, all but need them to, then need them to. And each and everyone one of us was looking afar in awe at the extremity of beauty surrounding us.

DSC_1226My favorite part about walking into each valley dip was the snow at the bottom. Often the valley was carved out with ice that covered some sort of stream. Once the stream caught enough momentum, it began to eat away at the ice, leaving these beautiful shelves of snow where the water couldn’t reach. The shelves hang there against the side of the valley for dear life, they look like solid clouds hovering over the hillside. I found this extreme urge to walk on all of them, but surely they would have crumbled out from underneath themselves, from underneath myself. The goal here was to tread lightly, impact as little and only let nature impact us in the way it wished to. There is this feeling one might get about which aspects of nature to impact. Some mountains look untouchable, preserved so peacefully and roughly that one intuitively wishes not to disrupt them. Others seem inviting, practically begging to be lain against. I picked my steps carefully, consciously. Yet even when unconsciously, my body still knew where to step. Some might interpret this as distinguishing danger from the less dangerous, but it happened that some of the least dangerous paths were the ones that I would have preserved, risking more of my life for the harsher terrain. It was just a matter of connecting with the mountain, understanding it, knowing the soft fragility of the earth’s skin.

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Our guide directed us away from the main trail and right to the foot of a lovely mountain glacier, Háskerðingur. If anyone thought the trail was tough up to this point, they quickly had to change their thinking. Rising up above us was a beautiful 1281 m peak of pure snow and sharp, cluttered rock, so called the summit with the most beautiful view in the area by our guide Svavar. The trip was voluntary, some decided to stay at the hot springs and vents at the foot of the glacier to explore the ice caves, while others set forth to conquer the snow-blind peak.

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And so we set off in a line, Svavar kicking his toes into the snow to create steps. Snow is more difficult to walk on than it looks. If your feet cant dig into the snow, you’re sent slip sliding on your ass across the surface. Luckily, it is quite easy to stop on snow: all you have to do is sit down. The most difficult part is the attempt to walk diagonally across it, where you aren’t quite walking straight up the peak but you aren’t walking down either. You have to lace each foot around in a straight line and hope the sides of your feet can hang on to the ice. It’s mentally daunting, looking below you at ice crevasses and rock with the false notion that you’ll slide right down the glassy surface.

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DSC_1255 copyOnce we reached near to the top, the snow was no longer. Instead we were walking on shards of rock, shattered and broken all over the surface of the mountain. When you stepped in between them, stones hit each other and rang out like a pile of interacting shattered plates. In fact, the field of rock felt like one big pile of shattered china, as if someone had gotten so mad as to throw her dishes across the kitchen floor. They mountain had gone through turmoil here, being broken and rolled over and broken some more. I like to think it was happy we were here to try and rearrange it.

Once we neared the top, my breath gave out beneath me as I beheld the view in front of myself. I was here, on this mountain, staring at fields of topology in patterns, distinct affects between competing peaks, rolling valleys. I fell even more in love with the summits of mountains. There is something ethereal about the stillness on top of them, this waiting, this lack of judgement, a nothingness in movement. Solaced in meditation was the mountain. We involuntarily joined in on its center of calm.

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After having lunch at the summit, we began the trek down. One thing they don’t tell you when you’re climbing up is that climbing down is much easier…if you’re sliding. When walking down snow, it seems much easier to lose balance and send yourself falling. Every few minutes walking down I could hear the flat impact of an ass to the snow, the frustrated groans from my trek mates as they tried to get back up, the digging of trekking poles back into the earth. At one point a friend Morgan fell and instantly started sliding across the snow towards the bottom. Another hit to the snow and there went another trek mate. It seemed like a good option, they were skiing on their asses in a much more effective way than stair-stepping. I free fell with my trekking poles in the air and propelled myself forward, waterproof pants breaking my wet, snowy descent. It was a bad idea to not have gloves on a this point, because to avoid sliding into Morgan I attempted to halt myself with my own hands. Skin hit harsh snow and together they scraped each other. Our group was a mess. What once began as neat foot imprints up the mountain ended as snow sloshed all over the place, indicating signs of misuse and imbalance. I heard the shouts of Morgan, “race you to the bottom!” and so it began. Luckily there weren’t ice crevasses along the way down, or this surely would have ended in trouble. And so we set off, using our hands and my trekking poles, unsuccessfully sliding down as the incline tapered off into a flatter space. I held my trekking poles at my sides and used them to ski along. We were trying all different methods, walking backwards, sliding backwards, running, moving our feet as if rollerblading through the snow. By the time we got to the bottom, we were in such a fit of excitement that I can’t remember who got there first. I sat down at the edge of the hot spring in a flurry of adrenaline, alive as ever. My body was content.

It was then that we set out to explore what our other trek mates had seen at the bottom of the glacier. Before us were small concave ice caves and rivers filled with the most beautiful orange textures. This is where the term “texture” resonated the most with me during the trip. Every step led to another burst of color and surface, from iridescent shards in the water, to bright orange rock and neon green algae feeding out of the mouth of the cave. Or rather, straight into it.

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I was surrounded by these pools of iridescence, these tiny houses void of initial life yet beaming with energetic hues. They all had significant emotions within them. I could stare into the crumpled bright orange and feel energy on all levels, I saw the hazy whispering of periwinkle mixed into sherbet orange and felt delicacy. Everything around me spoke, and with such individuality. Yet there was a system here, they collectively ran into each other and impacted one another. One color blended into the home of another, they played a game of tag around themselves until they understood fusion. My favorite pool of water was the one with small iridescent golden particles inside. I couldn’t explain what they were, but just that they pooled in areas and reminded me of small glittering shards of tinsel. When disrupted, they swirled around in a plume of excitement, like a celebration of sorts.

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After pulling away from the small explosions below me, I followed the group towards the hut for the night, only a few miles away, which seemed like no big deal unit lee realized it was entirely downhill at quite a steep incline. I pressed on ahead and ended up far in front of the group, isolated enough to soak in each passing mountain alone, with my own uninfluenced contemplation. It was a moment when a trekker was neither in front of me or behind me, and I could finally intimately communicate with the landscape. I spoke to it silently, voicelessly, my mouth wasn’t moving but I pressed my hands into rocks and suddenly we were having conversations. My feet danced on its surface and it responded to me. The language with which we spoke wasn’t a voiced one, it was solely based on speaking in essences, energies. I shared my energy with the mountain and it responded with its own, a pure back and forth of frequencies. My foot pressed into one rock, I felt a response, foot gently into a different stone, another response. We were mirroring each other. It had the right rock to place under my feet and I had the right step to meet it. I had been staring at the ground for a long time until I realized I was leaving out the mountains beyond me, they wanted to speak to me as well. As soon as I looked up, there was the lake Álftavatn, in all its glory, waiting patiently for me.

Photo credit to Anushila Shaw

Photo credit to Anushila Shaw

Once we reached the huts, we collapsed in exhaustion, excited to see a place where we could finally lay down (bunk beds being only second best to a nice nap in Iceland moss!) It was then that we clambered into the kitchen and were all served a nice bowl of Kjötsúpa, an Icelandic lamb stew. Most people went to bed and the rest stayed up that night drinking and playing the American card game Go Fish! by the cabin heater. Svavar mentioned that perhaps we would be able to see the Northern Lights, and we stayed up with high hopes. The Northern Lights don’t usually come out in the summer, but it was nearing the end of August and the weather conditions were absolutely perfect: not a cloud in the sky, not a dash of wind or rain, no fog. The sky was open and waiting for us. We were waiting, patiently, all night for those damn northern lights.

It was nearing midnight and we still hadn’t seen them. We decided it would be best to sleep for the trek tomorrow, so some people went into the hut. We stayed in another hut and waited with cards and beer while a few hikers stood outside awaiting the lights. Around 1am we heard a giant yell from outside the cabin, “THEY’RE HERE, THEY’RE HERE!” shouted our trek mate Ido, “QUICK!” He had been drinking that whole night, so we all assumed he had been seeing things. We rushed out in a flurry of excitement and there they were, in all their brilliant lit glory, the northern lights.

Green streamed across the sky in slow moving waves, a collective of brilliance and translucency like a silky fabric. It felt less like the northern lights and more like a northern light, a singular strand radiating with a bright, sea foam aura. It danced above the lake, moving in and out of transparency, streaming across the entire sky like an arch over our heads. We all stood in awe, we were rising up to each other and going, “WOW! Look! The northern lights!” as if no one had actually seen them as we all stood on a platform outside of the cabin. “The northern lights! We did it! We saw them!” They started fading a bit, but still we waited. They faded in and out, indecisive, like a dimmer switch being toyed with by a young child. It was another ethereal moment of stillness, we couldn’t believe our eyes. Svavar, being Icelandic, had seen the Northern Lights plenty of times during his life. We asked him if he had ever felt desensitized to them, if he ever got tired of them or if they had lost their appeal. He said he likes being out with foreigners when the lights appear because within him is an excitement that is brought back. He feeds off of our surprise and enthusiasm at the natural phenomenon. It makes him remember what a rarity these are for those who cannot always access them. I think my whole trip up that point was part of an exploration of re-introducing native Icelanders to their own land. They see excitement in tourists and foreigners in general and it pushes them to see the own beauty in the land they grew up in. I think it is exquisite to give someone the ability to look at their consistent surroundings in a new light. I was happy in this moment, I was feeding right back off of Svavar’s awe, we were all feeding off of each other.

That night I slept soundly again, I fell asleep with the northern lights guiding me through my own dreamscape. I was endlessly in love.

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

“Brennisteinsalda”

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. 

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“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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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 Views from the top!

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And Seljalandsfoss!

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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.

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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.

 

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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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