Published September 13, 2013

“Oh, it’s rough being famous in Iceland. Can’t even escape into the mountains without being followed by the paparazzi and appearing on the front page of the newspaper,” I posted on my Facebook not long after moving here in ’09.

It probably goes without saying that this was a tongue-in-cheek post. I had barely been in the country for three months and I was hardly famous, yet. I really just happened to be hiking a mountain called Hengill as Morgunblaðið photographer Rax flew past and snapped a photo.

When I mentioned it to him the other day, he recalled that he had just been out flying for fun when he spotted us looking like a row of ants on the mountains. Upon returning to Reykjavík he learned that we were spending the winter and spring training for Iceland’s tallest peak, Hvannadalshnjúkur (2,110 metres), and that was enough to give his impromptu photo some context for the paper.

So that’s the story of how the renowned Rax took my photo, and how I made it onto the front page of one of Iceland’s main daily newspapers.

I remember being rather amused when I saw it, as it probably wouldn’t have been front-page material in any of the other cities that I had lived in, and certainly not in Los Angeles, where I had spent the last four years studying.
Everything in Iceland seemed so refreshingly simple and down-to-earth like this, which is definitely a big part of what’s keeping me here today (despite the terrible weather (see “Betrayed By The Jet Stream: How one nation’s happiness in summer hinges on a fluke,” page 10)).

Also part of what’s keeping me here is the fact that there are, contrary to what I posted, seemingly endless possibilities of escaping into the mountains, away from the paparazzi and civilization altogether (See mountaineer Ari Trausti Guðmundsson’s “Hiking in Kerlingarfjöll: The Home Of Giants” on page 50 for some a nice hike in the highlands).

Sometimes I get the sense that Icelanders take this for granted, not all Icelanders of course, but some of the ones making the big decisions, the ones who for instance decided to all but dismantle the Ministry for the Environment not too long ago.

We have to realise that the decisions being made today will have a permanent effect on the future long after we’re gone. Building a road through the Gálgahraun lava fields is not something that you can undo. Damming the Þjórsá river and drying up waterfalls is not something you can undo. You just can’t undo these things.

Take it from Rax, who has spent the last thirty or so years documenting majestic landscapes that he fears might not be around for future generations to enjoy (see “Getting To Know A Known Man,” page 21).
“When you’ve travelled all around the world, you come to realise how stunning this country is and how valuable that beauty is. A stupid man observes the world through his window. There are too many people like that, talking down to those who are trying to point out how valuable the landscape is,” he says.

“There’s no point in holding a grudge against what has already been done, one has to accept and forgive. But in the future, we have to bear in mind what sort of a treasure Iceland is, and…you would never scrawl all over Mona Lisa.”
Rax preaches forgiveness and of course we can’t go around seething with rage every minute of the day, but at a time when some of Iceland’s most impressive nature is being put on the chopping block, perhaps some more vigilance is in order.

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