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Guardian Of The Red Sands

Guardian Of The Red Sands

Published July 23, 2012

Every day, Ástþór Skúlason hears the buzz of the electric lift that helps him climb into his tractor. That momentary whirring—a noise that means the paralyzed sheep farmer can get to work—is usually one of the only sounds in Rauðasandur, a blip in the corner of northwest Iceland.
But new sounds echo on the small Westfjords farm on July 6. Musicians strum their guitars and a crowd of 300 people dance into the early morning in Ástþór’s barn, strewn with hanging lights—the site of the Rauðasandur Festival.
“It’s definitely fun to see change, even if it’s just for one weekend,” Ástþór says. The 38-year-old, who is paralyzed from the waist down and uses a wheelchair, is lending the land to his younger brother Hjörtur to host this folk music festival, which puts artists like Snorri Helgason and Lay Low on stage.
From his window, Ástþór usually only sees his farm and the 10-kilometre reddish beach that stretches endlessly under the fog—an anomaly in a country known for its black sand. This weekend, grey, blue and purple tents, along with grills and portable toilets, also dot his view.
The festival brings a diverse group to his backyard, from 20-something year olds who sip cans of Tuborg to mothers who hold their babies while waiting for the next band to play. “These are very good people,” Ástþór says.
People thought I was crazy coming back here
This weekend, the festival is good company for Ástþór. He enjoys the folk music and the hums of the crowd—a change on a farm that’s typically just him, a farmhand and whatever group of tourists rents out the cabins next door.
Ástþór still runs the farm himself despite the car crash that paralyzed him in February 2003 when he was driving on the narrow road to Patreksfjörður, his birthplace and the largest nearby town, 40 kilometres away. “The road was very icy. I slid on the ice and fell from almost the top of the mountain, all the way down, and got stuck under the car,” he says.  
Ástþór was back on the farm in six months—just in time for the summer season. “People thought I was crazy coming back here after the accident but somehow I couldn’t think of quitting,” he says. “It works, so I’m going to keep doing it.”
He’s had to make some adjustments—like making the sheep barn more accessible for him and installing the electric lift on his tractor—but he says the daily tasks are still the same. In the winter, he feeds the sheep and takes care of them. In the summer, he collects grass to stockpile for their food. In his free time, he fishes and hunts foxes. “It’s the freedom. I can control everything by myself and most of the year it’s really quiet and peaceful,” he says.
It will always drag you back
Ástþór’s 33-year-old brother Hjörtur Skúlason used to resent the quiet.
He grew up on the Rauðasandur farm with his three siblings—some of the only children in a 40-kilometre radius. From when he was seven to 18 years old, he stayed at a school near Patreksfjörður during the week and came home to the isolated farm on the weekends. “I didn’t appreciate it at that time. It was kind of a prison in my mind,” Hjörtur says.
Now, the farm is a haven for him. After moving to Reykjavík and studying at Goldsmiths’ College in London, Hjörtur started managing a nearby coffee shop last year and spends his summers close to his brother. “I think the landscape is so powerful. It will always drag you back, that’s the thing,” Hjörtur says.
Hjörtur also wanted to drag his friends, who were moving away and inching into their 30s, to Rauðasandur. He and three others—Kristín Andrea Þórðardóttir, Jónína de la Rosa and Björn Þór Björnsson—organised the festival’s first instalment last summer for friends and friends of friends. “It was just a Facebook event,” he says.
This year’s version, with 6,500 ISK tickets and sponsorships from Tuborg and Vodafone, is a step up. The festival, which features a bonfire, a beach yoga session and a sandcastle competition, sold out. “I didn’t expect there to be anyone up there when we played but it was a nice turnout,” says Ryan Karazija of Low Roar, who taps his feet onto loop pedals as his voice reverberated in the barn during a Sufjan Stevens cover song.
The organisers won’t take a cut of the profits and lured touring acts like Low Roar and Prins Póló to play for free. Any money left over after costs will go to help refurbish Ástþór’s farm. “We really want to help him do something more and we want to do something for the area,” Hjörtur says. “This is just so beautiful.”    



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