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The Things That Bind: a week in Iceland

The Things That Bind: a week in Iceland

I'm not entirely sure what I expected Iceland to be. I am entirely sure that I got something else altogether.

We got off the plane in Reykjavik at a blustery 10:00 am. It was still pitch black. I'd read that in the winter months, the near-arctic island only gets 4-5 hours of sunlight a day, but experiencing it in person brings a feeling of disorientation I couldn't have anticipated. Watching the sun come up more in the south than in the east, get a hand's width over the horizon, hang there for a few hours and slowly retreat the way it came is profoundly odd. My internal clock never really adjusted and it's a battle to claw your way out of bed before the sun comes up around 10:30. 

The first day was largely spent exploring the city, a low slung but picturesque metropolis of 330,000. We would turn the corner by the massive church in the center of town, and meander down the street to a bakery, get a couple of pastries and some coffee, and continue a few blocks down the avenue to the bay, stopping to eat our breakfast at the Sun Voyager, a modern sculpture of a Viking longship launching into the harbor. 


After spending some time with our noses buried in the obligatory Lonely Planet companion, we got into our little Toyota Yaris, unsure of whether the tiny little car could handle what we were sure would be treacherous weather, and set off. A mile outside the city, nature throws a switch, and you're no longer on Earth. 

Start with the landscape. No feature has any sense of build up or connection. We live in Atlanta with the lower Appalachian Mountain range less than an hour drive away, and as you get close to them, you enter beautiful foothills that roll gently upward until you find yourself in the mountains. Iceland isn't like that. You will drive through miles of tundra when suddenly and without warning, the frozen plains abruptly terminate into the side of a craggy edifice that soars impossibly high into the clouds, then just as suddenly drops back off into flat frozen wasteland. Giant plateaus will loom out of the fog, like a frozen Ayers Rock with waterfalls that seemingly come from nowhere.

Next the weather. In Georgia we have a saying that goes something like, "if you don't like the weather, wait 5 minutes and it'll change." Here, it actually does change on a 5-10 minute basis from one extreme to another. You may have clear blue skies at 2:00 and by 2:10, you'll see black clouds like an oil fire in the distance, and by 2:15 you'll be in a blizzard. Ten minutes later it'll clear up, only to start hailing five minutes after that. Clouds move through the sky as if you're witnessing a real life time lapse, crossing from horizon to horizon so rapidly they don't have time to accumulate in the cotton candy formations we're familiar with, instead rippling through the sky like multicolored sheets of silk.

Oddly enough, the first thing that comes to mind in comparison is the desert. Instead of the baking heat, there is a crushingly brutal cold. Rather than rolling cracked sand and dirt littered with scrub brush punctuated by dunes, you get frozen tundra rolling endlessly on and on, broken up only by glaciers and volcanoes. In lieu of the indomitable camel, Iceland has instead shaggy horses, incredible animals that look through you more than they look at you, like they know everything about you in an instant.

Iceland and the various deserts I've visited in my travels have that same undefinable beauty that seems at first to come from the exotic landscapes but after spending an extended time there, you realize that it instead comes from it's desolation. It's inhospitable nature. It's willingness to kill you for being careless. It's beauty doesn't come from it's outlandishness. It comes from being completely unattainable and untamed. It is truly wild.

As an explorer, the name of whom I can't remember, once said in regard to Alaska, "it is not a place you go for oooh aaaah moments. It is a place you go to get humble."

I see now why the Vikings were so captivated by this place and how their religion and beliefs were further cultivated by it. It's the same reason why so many Icelandic natives still believe in elves and trolls, giants and fairies, golem and spirits. This place is magical, a junction of Ley Lines, the Watchtower of the North. It physically feels ancient, like the Redwood forests in the Pacific Northwest, or the Sahara, or the open ocean. It is a place that whispers, "watch, listen, but do not disturb me." It is a place you are not welcome, but have rather stumbled upon unexpectedly, like a wardrobe with a whole world tucked away just behind the overcoats.


It is a place, like the others mentioned above, uncensored, not yet mangled by humans, made up of the very fabric of time, the things that bind everything together through the ages. We are privileged that we get to glimpse it, however briefly, because there is an invaluable lesson to learn from the Old Places in the world; that we humans are a blip in history, a tiny spec in the saga of the universe, that we will have come and gone unnoticed, a smudge on the pages of time. That the briefness of our time here is why it's so valuable. That maybe if we spend less time worrying about having the next iPhone, what our thoughts on politics and religion are, or how many likes we have, and spend more time listening to and appreciating the slow procession of life in all its beautiful and terrible splendor, we would find a real truth and happiness. 


We came home from Iceland almost three weeks ago, and I feel like I'm still trying to process the experience. It is arguably the most meaningful trip I've taken to date, and one that demanded I step out of the shadows to write about. Tiffany usually handles the blog as I tend to be a selfish traveler, unwilling to share more of my experiences than a few scattered Instagram pictures, most of which pale in comparison to her talents as a photographer. I don't know if I'll write here more regularly or not. More than likely it will be only in the rare occasions such as this, when the subject matter is too big to contain and must be shared.

Until then, safe travels.


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