By Rachel Montgomery '12
May, 2012. As I drive to work, I cannot help but notice how closed in the roads are. I’m back in Connecticut and summer is in full swing already, although officially, it doesn’t start for another few weeks. The lush green leaves of the trees along the path blind my view of the landscape behind. I know, in turn, that behind the trees and shrubs I drive past are more trees and more and more. There is no view of the ground, none of the horizon.
Iceland is openness. The vast tundra gives way to the horizon of the cold sea or the distant mountains. The giant clouds in the sky cast blotchy shadows over the fields. A fully grown man can touch the top of the trees. In short, there’s nothing to shelter you from the cold winds that sting like winter but smell like spring.
We had local tour guides show us around for a couple days out of the trip. Emma, a grad student at the University of Iceland, took us around the Golden Triangle, the places in Iceland where most tourists go, in the shape of a triangle. Another day, Jon, a doctoral student, took us to see where the Eddas were written. The Eddas is a collection of Scandinavian myths involving the Norse gods. He also took us to see local sculpture and told us about a legend involving Snorri the Strong. Snorri could take a boulder and run it up a mountain and back. The same boulder lay on the ground where we were. About half the boys in our group tried to lift it! In the afternoon, Jon’s mother invited all of us into her home for coffee, probably one of the most heartwarming experiences of the trip.
“Jon’s mother invited all fifteen of us into her house and fed us until we were about to pop,” Kim Harman recalls. “Sitting in her living room was an overwhelmingly relaxing and reviving experience. It came in the nick of time, too, right as the halfway burn out was setting in.”
The afternoon was spent back at wherever we were staying. We’d go out and take photographs. In Snaefellsnes, we walked around the cliffs and took pictures of the seagulls. Our professor, Robert Rattner, has a lot of experience taking photos of birds in flight. He could sit all day and watch birds. When we were on the cliffs, I took the opportunity to ask him how to capture birds in mid-air. He let me borrow his telephoto lens, which magnified subjects from far away. He told me to latch my view on a bird flying towards us and wait. Soon enough, the birds would fly overhead. Once they got close enough, I’d quickly focus the lens and snap the photo. After enough practice, I began studying the rhythm of their wings flapping up and down. Each bird is different. The seagull waves its wings up and down a few times before gliding across the sky. An eider flaps frantically to get out of the water before sailing up. A raven moves its jagged wings deeply through the air before hulking over the ground. I began to know what it meant when their wings were arched up, or curved, and be able to tell when they were going in for a turn.
In the evening, we’d have a scrumptious dinner prepared by whoever hosted us. Mainly, they fed us what Americans like to eat: burgers, burritos, French fries, but with a twist. We got traditional Icelandic food such as salmon, lamb stew, and Greenland Shark, a shark that’s eaten after rotting in the ground for months. We had to work extra hard to keep the last one down!
After-dinner hours were reserved for typing narratives or class time. Classes would run until midnight, and the sun would still be up with us. We’d look over the work we did for the day. Each day, we were given an assignment as to what to capture. Usually, we had to show four to six each of the landscape and narrative photos. Sometimes, we had to write a few paragraphs of our narrative and share them. Personally, my notebook was always out, ready for my words. I’d write down description after description of many places and how I felt about them: the wonder and curiosity of the salt rocks, standing like a fence over the vast space we were in; the roar of the numerous waterfalls we visited, even the pungent overwhelming smell of Greenland shark which swam around the class well after we ate it.
Some nights, we’d stay up extra late to watch the sun set and take photographs in that light. One evening, I walked down to the wharf with Professor Rattner and my friend Kim in Reykjavik. The sunset was unreal. The cirrus clouds swirled over the blinding orange-sherbet sky that warmed up the cold lavender mountains across the bay. A contemporary sculpture of a Viking ship caught the light in a radiant glow, turning it into a little lighthouse.
In spite of our tight schedule, we found new friends and bonded as a group. We laughed together, swapped stories, and still keep up with each other on Facebook. YOLO, meaning “you only live once,” became our rallying cry as we scaled lava rocks, climbed cliffs, and explored a cave. We still keep a weather eye out for the next big adventure and will remember our time in Iceland, always.
The author graduated from University of New Haven in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. She anticipates graduating in August, 2012 with an additional Bachelor's in Art, with minors in history and photography.