Serenity in the Silence and Noise of Iceland

Iceland is a vast, mysterious realm carved out of sharp contrasts. While driving the paved Ring Road that encircles the country, the landscape transforms so drastically hour-by-hour it creates the illusion you’ve transported to a different dimension entirely. From towering cliff faces, crumbling and weathered, to oceans of hardened lava rock concealed by contiguous, impossibly green beds of moss, to a glacier the size of Connecticut, to thousands of miles of treeless landscapes, the whole island seems an experiment in the unlikely.

Other than some cursory research with my trusty travel buddy, Gabe, and a vague sketch of where we wanted to go, I had very little notion of the inspiration I was in for. I hardly reflected before grabbing flights to Brazil and Colombia in the past year and a half, an unfamiliar exercise for me, and both trips were fantastic. In fact, it was in no small part the very act of gliding uninformed into these adventures that I was able to frame my experience as one of learning and possibility.

As a person who too often over-thinks decisions, I’ve found it exhilarating to simply give into the whims of impulse and trust that, by unfolding my fear of uncertainty and getting entangled in the moment, I will find what I’m looking for.

I was once again rewarded on this trip. Iceland exceeded my expectations in every way. Trekking over and through its extensive and unimaginable beauty, I accessed a deeper piece of my earthen self. It sprang forth from some obscure depth concealed beneath untraceable webs of socialization threaded by years of high-tech existence entrenched in prevailing thought-paradigms.

And it wasn’t a conscious unearthing. The sensation seemed to simply seep out of my pores, flooding my brain drunk on northern lights and skyscraping fjords. I was but the medium through which this awareness sprang forth. Some renewed sense of purpose grounded my boots in the bedrock of geysers and mountain grass paths compacted by the habits of sheep.

I grew up in the woods. My mother’s house borders the Mount Holyoke Range in Amherst, MA and the house my parents built when they were together is set within the hills of Pelham, a neighboring town. For years, I chopped wood through harsh New England winters, set fires in a soapstone tulikivi, and chased full-grown German Shepherds though brush and snow. My pallet has an affinity for smoky flavors from cozy nights reading before an open fireplace, my skin a potent nostalgia for chilled hands in fall coat pockets from red and yellow leaf-strewn strolls on country lanes.

It is only now, in my mid-20s, having driven the length of our country twice and traveled to five different countries, that I realize how impactful my upbringing was on my sense of place, purpose, and belonging. My soul’s foundation is formed of pine and oak and maple, structural frames of moss and grass and lake water, roof of cumulus clouds and summer thunderstorms, insulation of wool blankets, warm cider, and humid afternoons.

By this nurturing, I was carved into a human of and for the outdoors.

I have always implicitly understood my kinship with the natural world. But in Iceland, I felt more profoundly animal than ever before, some new manifestation. Dry lips shrugging off the blistering winds of high mountain passes, nose aching for the smell of rock and snow, spine grown accustomed to the frigid soil and grass beneath my sleeping pad.

More than anything else, however, the impact Iceland had on me emerged from the juxtaposition of intense bouts of natural noise with near-absolute silence.

On our second morning, we arrived at the miraculous Dynjandi waterfall cascading over a cliff onto a face of moss-covered outcroppings, fracturing the flow into a hundred unique paths and thousands of individual streamlets. The streamlets then coalesced towards the base for one final tumble, collapsing into union with the pool at its base.

That afternoon, our senses were left untouched by quiet gullies that bore forgotten rockslides into beds of tranquil shards.

The next day, we were gliding along the foot of the 25-mile-long, towering West Fjords, taking 60-mph winds head-on. Two hours later, we were sitting on the precipice of a 70-degree bank falling off 150 feet to the next gravel switchback that would carry us on down a mountain to ever more switchbacks, and not even the tiniest pinch of dust was stirring.

As the sun set on our fourth evening, we ogled in awe at Dettifoss, in northern Iceland, the most ferocious, threatening waterfall imaginable. Preceding the fall were roaring rapids split into thousands of two-foot-long instances of absolute liquid tumult, the riverbed cluttered with so many angular boulders there wasn’t a single moment of calm for the bustling water. At the edge, 193 cubic meters of battered water per second went plummeting 150 feet to the bottom, smashing violently into the canyon river below, mammoth plumes of mist jetting at least 70-mph outward in a truculent battle charge.

I exaggerate none when I say I have never before felt fear like that of staring down the throat of Dettifoss. If I unfocused my eyes and took it all in at once, it actually hastened my heart rate and forced a sharp, involuntary inhalation. More alarming, if I zeroed in on a single pillar of water plunging into the depths below, refocusing on the ensuing pillar, and the next after that, I was overcome by terror and panic, forgetting to breath, my lungs jammed in place. From this followed a claustrophobic compression of time and light like a nightmare from which I’d never wake.

Though ten feet from the edge of the canyon where I stood, the site was so consuming I felt I might succumb to the gravity it commanded just by staring; that if I held my gaze too long, I might melt into its jaws and be swept away in the ravenous current.

Every other waterfall in Iceland, however impressive or powerful, provoked admiration more than fear, a sense of beauty more than danger, an origin more accidental than purposeful.

Dettifoss tore through the earth with such a terrible fury I was certain it existed solely to gobble every last soul in its path, a giant python in a world of fleeting rats and mice. Grinning wide with teeth like razors, barreling through rock and sand like butter, beating the canyon with such strength as to send reverberating warnings far and wide: a dreadful fate approaches with awful haste.

As darkness fell, we settled into our campsite but ten miles down a gravel road under a perfectly clear night speckled with thousands of stars not shrouded by light pollution, a hazy green display of northern lights accenting the black spaces of the cosmos. Still numb from the enchantment of Dettifoss, I wondered at how such peace could exist only a stone’s throw from the monster in the north.

Though it seemed impossible to top that experience, the most impactful moment of our trip came, in fact, the very next morning.

Our goal was to get to a hot spring high in the mountains before journeying on in the afternoon to Vatnajokull, Iceland’s greatest glacier. Our map showed a string of F roads — more treacherous passes often riddled with potholes, rocks, and fords that, at the very least, required a 4×4, but with our unimpressive Hyundai Tucson there was no guarantee of successful passage — that led to the hot spring. We hadn’t had much trouble yet with F roads, but Iceland is highly unpredictable, so we set off with reserved confidence.

Two hours in we crossed an enormous stone embankment, one of three damming a huge reservoir, and passed into what can only be described as a true moonscape. Surely we were no longer on planet Earth. Miles to the north and west stretched a flat, grey expanse, the view occluded in spots by the occasional rolling hill of silver sand. The only features giving away our celestial status were a distant snow-tipped mountain to the south, glinting in the sun, and little flecks of red and green moss sparsely dotting the plane before us.

To call what we drove on a “road” would be exceedingly generous. The car-width compressions in the damp sandy soil looked more like a careless jaunt on 40-inch wheels that a few dozen locals had recently followed than a road marked on a map. We had to double back twice before finding the correct turnoff to the hot spring. It was hardly noticeable, with no road markers and a set of tracks barely indenting the land. Compared to the “road” we were just on, the turnoff looked as though maybe three trucks had passed this way in the last year.

After ten minutes of crawling at 3mph over and around sharp rocks and sudden ditches in the tracks, we decided we had reached our first impasse. Not bad for four days driving Iceland’s mountain roads. I almost pulled a 3-pointer and immediately slithered us back out the way we came, but something stayed my hand. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but I felt a new aural sensation, even inside the car.

I put the car in park and beckoned quietly to Gabe to step out with me. We closed the doors. “What is it?” he asked. “I’m not sure…” I responded.

After a moment more, it became clear what I was hearing, something I had never heard before: nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I mean absolutely nothing.

No insects, no birds, no scampering rodents. No rustling brush, no distant water falls. No wheels grinding asphalt, no echoing voices, no car doors closing. No mechanical noise, no white noise, no background noise, no noise, nothing!

And most inconceivable of all: no wind. Not even a single gust or a delicate whooshing against the fringes of our ears. Not even the slight grating of distant puffs glancing off hills and spiraling through valleys.

There was literally no sound.

I stood in disbelief for a few minutes, mouth agape. I looked at Gabe and he was doing the same, grinning. I squatted down, straining my ears. I bent over and pointed my head in every direction, craning my neck as if that would make a difference. I lay flat on the ground. I knelt down. I stood up again. I sat atop our car. Nothing changed.

I found myself giggling at first, and then laughing. I was startled by how loud it sounded. I snapped my fingers, which cracked the air like trees splintering from strain. I whistled, which pierced the air like an ice pick. I stood 40 yards away from Gabe and had us talk at a conversational volume — I could hear him like he was standing five feet away.

I wish I could have stayed all day, experimenting with sound, standing, sitting, walking. I wish I could have stayed a week. A year. I felt I was at home. I was exactly where I needed to be. I found tranquility I’ve never known. In the belly of pure silence I desired nothing.

To be free from desire and longing and uncertainty triggered something deep within me. I didn’t want to leave. If I could spend every morning meditating in that spot, I felt I might rid myself of the incongruent aspirations and realities I burden myself with when surrounded by so much noise. How do you move on from such a revelation?

The rest of our trip was as astounding as the first half, perfectly rounding out our 7-day odyssey. We passed from that moonscape into planes of green moss and glass pools of water. We ascended a gradual slope for tens of miles, our transition into snow abrupt, marked by an unambiguous line of frost. We blasted Radiohead’s OK Computer on our 45-mile trek south toward Vatnajokull, car frame rumbling violently from contact with the round, golf ball-sized stones that laid our path. We were surrounded by perfectly white planes curving up to white hills and bending down to white valleys.

Yorke’s and Greenwood’s masterpiece was the perfect noise to match this otherworldly drive. The glacier was awe-inspiring, stretching up and away and out, the only sound a soft rush of wind over ancient water. It was difficult to tell just how high and how far it climbed, how many miles of compacted ice-river we were witnessing.

That night we watched deep green and red northern lights spiraling rapidly in the sky for ten minutes before disappearing. The next day, we sped down the southeastern border of the country in the shadow of giant crags running 150 miles. Later on, we cut toward the center of the country on F roads and gawked at lime green moss-covered mountains, sheep munching and ambling along steep slopes, our car finally unable to ford a river 40-feet wide and one foot deep. We were outshined by a brand new Land Rover that had another foot of clearance.

The last wonder we encountered was the Glacier Lagoon, Jökulsárlón. An ice-cold lake of salt water and glacial melt, the lagoon housed chunks of Vatnajokull that crumbled off its southern ridge where the glacier met the lagoon three miles north of the ocean. These chunks floated around like icebergs, the glassy water disturbed periodically by the ripples of seals.

To my great dismay, I departed from Reykjavik the next day, leaving me with a sinking feeling I couldn’t shake for weeks. I belonged in those wilds. Those lands totally alien and devoid of human interference rooted me in some unshakable existential certainty.

In the silence and noise of Iceland I found both peace and exhilaration that are already rare in our overpopulated world, and which become part of a rapidly expanding set of historic peculiarities every year. Iceland itself has seen an increase of 300,000 new tourists annually. This year, the tourist count reached 1.5 million.

I hope to venture to Iceland again in the near future, but I wonder with dread if the absolute silence I found in that moonscape for a mere 30 minutes of my life will be gone when I return. Will the F road still be a vague indent in grey soil? Will Vatnajokull have melted another 300 yards? Will the cozy campgrounds be overrun by flocks of foreigners like me? Will every valley be disturbed by the crunch of gravel under rubber tires? Will there be a single place left where a 360-degree spin reveals not a single other creature?

I just read that last paragraph aloud to myself and my cheeks are now coated in tears I didn’t realize needed shedding. How easy it is to stay numb to humanity’s destruction when it’s but another paragraph on a page, when discussions of nature are drenched in academics and economics and policy. How depressing, in comparison, say the words out loud to yourself in an empty room with nothing but your own company.

Somewhere along the way, we forgot that, as animals, we actually have a deep emotional connection to the world. Perhaps my own story did not move you. But replace my description with the natural spaces you hold dear, read it out loud to yourself, and see if you are not moved. Maybe if we all did this exercise we’d remember that we must preserve our planet for the sake of our livelihoods, not for our wallets or political power or anything else.

About most things, I am staunchly optimistic and idealistic. About the fate of Iceland, I am sadly skeptical and pessimistic. With little faith in scourging tourists, my surviving optimism rests in the apparent power of Iceland to transform one’s perspective. I hope every visitor is touched and inspired in at least some small way. Perhaps, so affected, these travelers from all points on the globe will return home and spread their own stories of wild adventure, and help spark a resurgence of respect for our universal home, this irreplaceable planet Earth.


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