At the Edge of Nowhere: Iceland
8 Feb 2008
There are no postcards sent from Iceland in the winter because there are no tourists. But travelers, like Seanie Blue and I, can be found here in January maneuvering a 4 wheel drive truck with nail studded tires straight across a blizzard.
I suppose it's possible that one might not be drawn to the idea of Iceland in the winter at first mention of it, nor think it appealing to be wrapped helplessly in the arms of a stark and infinite landscape at the brink of the galaxy, easy prey to the pounding wind. But who wouldn't want to escape into a wild place mapped out by curiosity and desire - where beach chairs, cruises, tour guides and large groups of obedient tourists could never possibly be found? Who wouldn't want to trade that nagging thought "there has to be something better than this" for something that far surpasses ones expectations? Who wouldn't want to trade their inner tourist for a traveler? Who of those who have seen it all and done it all and known it all and spent and earned and climbed and searched and found and succeeded and triumphed and failed, wouldn't want to feel the crisp clean air of nowhere? Well, i guess it's obvious that there's always someone who wouldn't ...
By the time we hit the road, it was little more than a black vein blurred by the drifting snow carrying us along the surface of Iceland's brutally beautiful body. The distance between traveling these hills and what so many people call a vacation is a seismic sized gap. In this place nothing and everything collide in the form of inspiration. I felt it slipping in already, underneath my skin and dropping down down down into the black rabbit hole that I've been finding and losing again and again for years.
Sean and I drove from Reykjavik to Borgarnes along a winding ocean highway. We stopped several times along the way to take some photos. There appeared to be more light than there really was due to so much reflecting snow so getting a decent exposure was no easy task. Dawn came around 10AM and my hands had frozen twice by then. As we finally approached Borgarnes the highway narrowed to a bridge 5 or 10 feet above the furious waves. Winds blew the salty waters across the highway in puffs of white ocean spray and our voices were drowned out by the sound of water slapping hard into the windshield.
We pulled into Borgarnes in the early afternoon, and the town was silent except for the howling wind. Our hotel was locked up and dark. Daylight was already fading and we weren't sure if there was another hotel in town. And just as i was lamenting the thought of backtracking to Reykjavik for the night's lodging, the wind hit me in the back and threw me across an icy parking lot. I had gotten enough taste of the road beyond Reykjavik to understand why Sean generally refuses to spend even one night there. But continuing north at this hour toward Laugerholl just might land us trapped on an impassable road after dark, stranded in a blizzard. Traversing the lonely northern highway is an at your own risk proposition which Sean wasn't willing to attempt, at such a late hour with a borrowed car, and without knowing for sure what the weather would bring. But as luck would have it, a lovely ocean-side guesthouse appeared. And for 6000 Kroners (or roughly $100), it had a room with a kitchen, packets of soup and hot chocolate waiting in the cupboard.
I suppose $100 doesn't sound like too much for a hotel room, especially one that sits on the edge of a wind blown Fjord, but in Iceland in the winter, without 1 tourist on the entire island and almost no people to be found anywhere, the sensation must be similar to that of landing on the moon, discovering this other planet for the first time. Without your space walking vehicle and proper space suits, you will be blown into space. So i guess the traveler in you wants a medal and the tourist in you wants a discount, but neither one wants a reality check.
A few hours later Sean was happily drinking his yogurt. I smelled it from across the room. I liked feeling hungry so i didn't join him, and I welcomed the cold weather and the long night. I didn't want to sleep, I wanted to be tired and awake, making this first day last. So I wrapped up an old poem, and began a new one, attempting once again to look into my own black mirror.
Eventually, I headed out into a freightening and inspiring wind with my camera and a tripod following a yellow and hazy light. It led me to a deserted wide open lot, surrounded with mounds of ice-capped dirt. And I was pleasantly surprised to recognize the desolation here matched my own, and at 1AM in a frozen landscape, I felt entirely at home.
My friend Mr. Blue - photographer, philosopher, writer, force of personality, world traveler and fount of unbelievably good ideas, has either been everywhere or at least read about being everywhere. I would bet 50 bucks on it. And every time I'm convinced he's gone completely insane, he says something out of the blue that wraps my whole world up into a ball and tosses it out the window like it was no big deal.
We've known each other for 8 years and traveled together to India in 2000 with a handful of others. And out of habit of language i call him my friend, but for years and on this trip to Iceland he has been more of a guide and a sounding board and a catalyst. And the truth is he doesn't exactly feel like a friend and our connection to one another doesn't feel familial as much as revolutionary. I could hardly call him a comforting presence in my life and if anything, he's like a scar from a knife fight that every once in a while still stings whenever i forget that I'm the one creating every single piece of my life.
The next day we headed for Laugerholl where a French Icelandic mathemetician-chef named Mati, who claims to have found a way to convert CO2 to Methane Gas, runs a hotel in a converted school building. On his property sits one of the only natural hot springs in the region so Sean insisted on staying there.
That evening, I languored in the hot pot, gazing up at the stars while my pink bikini froze into a little heap on the ground 3 yards away. I thought of nothing and let the snow fall gently onto my face, flake by flake, like tiny kisses from Orion, while Seanie was off having his first brush with the Borealis. A few hours later he came back high on adrenaline and flush with purpose and stories and life.
The next morning we slept late and didn't get going until after noon so there wasn't much daylight left for photographs. But the little light we did get was 4 hours of brilliant clear bright light and we stopped frequently to shoot the hillsides, fjords, the beaches and volcanic rock formations. "Beautiful isn't it?" He said after a long and lovely silence. "Like, duhhhh," I felt in response. I was experiencing wonder and my brain was deeply disturbed by its inability to produce phrases other than "that's so f@*!!-%ing cool," to reflect upon an awe inspiring sight. So I ended up with this sort of canceled out feeling like an inner buzz. Eventually I realized that this was a job for "I'm speechless. . . truly." Not to mention, humbled, engaged, thrilled, sad, excited, dumbfounded, moody, remote, poetic, serious, philosophical, still, giddy, disturbed, sober (much too sober), deep . . .
Sean and i had different reasons for going to Iceland. He has been there 6 times in the last 2 years and he already knows that he's crazy about the Borealis, holding hands with mother nature, and the bigger story that he feels unfold every time he steps foot in that country. I was curious to know what the end of the planet looked like and i hoped to find a place that could feel like a blank slate, where its emptiness and desolation could be felt as pure potential and a release from the burden of our culture or any sort of tourist environment. And I think for both of us the trip itself could be summarized by a pivotal conversation around a book Sean had read by Phillip Fisher called, Wonder, The Rainbow and The Aesthetics of Rare Experiences which explores what wonder is and the role it plays in the human experience.
So here we were in a constant state of wonder over the sky, the landscape and the light, without a soul or a boundary to trample it. And what were we doing with all this wonder? We were creating, staying up all night chasing the Borealis, recording our conversations and writing. We were standing out in the wind for hours at a time filming the stars and landscape. We were editing and trying to get to the bottom of questions like curiosity. What was it? Where did it come from? How do we get it, keep it and make it grow?
Taking pictures of the Borealis ranks pretty high on the scale of legendary experiences for photographers. And i think the reason is not because it's a difficult technical feat to get a great shot, because it isn't really that hard with a few basic pieces of equipment. In fact the spectacle itself is so beautiful that it does most of the work for you. Not to say that experience and creative ideas don't make photos of the Borealis stand out, but almost every shot, even the most accidental ones, can make jaws drop. However, there is this obstacle of the weather and the mysterious surprises that so often accompany any dealings with mother nature.
To film the Borealis, the sunbursts have to coincide with moments that the blustery, blizzard prone winter sky is actually clear. And it's impossible to know or say when the two events will coordinate. it may not happen until 4AM on your last night after a week of staying up watching and enduring the cold and then recovering from it time and time again- each time giving that cozy bed more power over you. But Sean was extremely vigilant with his finger on the pulse of the Borealis's mood swings. And she made him wait several nights, maybe showing him an ankle now and then but he never missed an opportunity to ask her if she'd come all the way out to dance for us until finally the first big night arrived.
I first noticed some streaky looking clouds lifting straight off the horizon while we were escaping a snow storm that would have had us trapped in Djupavik. And before long these clouds became a little brighter turning from greyish white to a pale milky green and we could see that they actually streaked all the way across the entire sky, getting greener and more vibrant by the second until they pulsed and shifted like an alien rainbow. Eventually Sean stopped the car, jumped out, and began whooping and hollering in the biting wind, shouting straight to the sky. "Come on you tease!" "Don't you disappear! You're beautiful! You're UNBELIEVEABLE! That's it! That's it! YES!! That's it! Gimme some more! Thank you!!" And the more he shouted, the brighter she got until the entire sky was spinning furiously in pinks greens and whites like nothing i could ever have imagined.
She seduced us with her long arms and her continuous transformations. And we just watched and laughed and pressed the shutter button beneath her show until finally the snow whited everything out and chased us off like dirty old men grinning with delight at what we had seen through the peephole. And from that moment on, we saw her again and again. Sean never gave up his vigilance, coaxing and passionate pursuit. So it's possible that getting great shots of the Aurora Borealis and who knows - probably getting everything you truly desire in life, depends completely on your devotion to and conversation with Mother Nature.
The whole experience made me think of the old saying about how the universe responds to someone who knows what they truly want, by giving it to them. Sean's intent to see and film the Borealis was so clear on this trip that we were always in the right place at the right time mostly due to his persistence. But there also seemed to be such luck involving details beyond our control that it was hard not to notice or comment on it. Time and time again, we evaded blizzards and closed roads and got to our destination every time even when we weren't supposed to be able to. We shocked the Icelanders because it really did appear as though the skies opened up for us when we needed them to. In every case, we slipped through our one little window of opportunity into the lap of what we were hoping for without fail. And even though I didn't feel comfortable concluding that the universe responds to individual requests, neither one of us could help but notice that Mother Nature seemed to be cooperating perfectly with our fully focused, pure intent time and time again.
I know more clearly now that pure intent, curiosity and a devotion to awe inspiring experiences must be the fuels in my tank now more than ever because as much as i have jumped over the past 8 years of my life, i haven't yet jumped big enough. And how else does one take leaps like that in this world without a fuel that's pure and that's not gonna run out in mid air. You know, sometimes i feel like i've come so far and others i have to wonder if i really jumped at all or just toed the ledge over and over again - wanting to be braver. I realize now that i have a calling to a much larger freedom than i've ever actually known, and it's living in me, reminding with every tiny pang in my gut, that i could go deeper and dive further and to keep pushing. For some reason, Iceland had a direct line to that voice in me and somehow i just knew it would before i ever left. And I don't think that a trip to just get away - to anywhere - could have accomplished such a tuning of my insides. And i don't think it's a coincidence that Iceland happened at a moment in which i needed to be tuned.
So even though I can safely say that I have fallen into Iceland's desolate, cold and brutal bed, and that my body, my cells, and my mind are still gratefully meandering through the vast basins of white powder, across the barren hilltops, and around the edges of blowing fjords, i still don't know if it's the place for everyone. And with the way windows of opportunity open and close in life, i'm not even sure that i will end up returning myself, even though i was so moved by it this time around. But I do think that my experience getting lost in Iceland with Seanie Blue should be taken as a reminder of the way life can unfold magically when we act as travelers instead of tourists, choosing destinations and surroundings that suit our curiosity and keep us humming to the tune of (or screaming madly to) our purest intent.