The Northern Lights

I was already drifting off as the tour bus pulled away from the hostel, my head bouncing against the cold window. I was arguably insane for attempting to see the Northern Lights that night – the last 36 hours had included flying across the ocean, a walking tour of the city, riding across lava fields on a surprisingly fiery Icelandic horse, and absolutely no sleep. Fatigue was beginning to harden in that particularly soft place behind the eyes, and the cold was settling into my bones. But the Northern Lights are unpredictable. There are so many factors that go into them appearing. The weather, the cloud cover, the light pollution, and dumb luck. I would never forgive myself if the only night they were visible was my first night in Iceland and I didn’t go.

The excited chatter of the other tourists decrescendoed as the tour guide picked up the microphone. For the next hour or so, as we drove out of the city into the wilderness to find a place with minimal light pollution, she would regale us with everything from the early mythology of the Lights to the modern science explanation. I closed my eyes and listened to her tell the tale of ancient peoples revering and even fearing the Northern Lights, as they believed it was an opening to another dimension. As she spoke of Thor and Odin and the mythology of old, I slipped into a dream state, those old gods becoming giants in my consciousness, never making it to the scientific explanation.

Where we saw the Northern Lights

The tour guide announced that we had arrived, and I woke with a start. We were, for all intents and purposes, at the ends of the Earth. Outside the window it was dark, and I could just make out the lava fields stretching out on all sides. We were on a peninsula that shot out of the south western coast of Iceland into the cold Atlantic. Sleep was thick in my mouth as I bundled up and stepped off the bus. I could hear the waves crashing onto the shore in the near distance, but other than that, there was nothing but the loud sound of an empty cold. I looked up and could just make out a thin, fuzzy green band crossing the sky. Our tour guide excitedly called out that we were in luck – they were out. She instructed us to take care walking over the lava rocks, and suddenly, as if on cue, the buses all turned off their lights, and we were plunged into darkness.

The Northern Lights clipped into focus. Long, pale green waves crossed the midnight sky with an otherworldly glow. I stumbled across the lava rocks to get away from the mass of people, and made my way to the point farthest away from the group, out on the lava field and closest to the sea.

The Lights played with us, alternating between smooth undulations and little tickles stabbing downwards. They danced in whorls between the clouds, and as we stood and watched for those few hours, they would come and go, fading away every now and then but suddenly coming back sharper than ever before. I had the strange thought that the Lights looked like what happens when you throw a handful of flour, or powdered sugar. The flour or sugar bursts forth and seems to hang in the air, then slowly falls to Earth at different rates making up thicker lines in some places. It may be a hint that I bake far too much, but I was struck by the similarity.

You could see thousands of stars, and the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. There was a plethora of shooting stars as a meteor shower began, and you could watch them shoot across the sky behind the Lights. I can see why people of old believed the Lights were an entrance to another world. The way they shone with a power of their own, and how they peeked out from behind dark clouds over the sea. Having slept through the scientific explanation, I was seeing them as the ancients did. No explanation, just magic. At one point, the Northern Lights swept towards us in a great wave, looking as it they were falling out of the sky down to Earth. Directly above us, one ray of Light pierced the sky, and as the greater wave came to join it with the motion of a cracking whip, we were immersed in the universe, looking up through a tunnel to God.

We stood staring up into the sky, the sound of icy waves at our backs, for over two hours. I stamped my feet in futile attempts to remain warm, and wrapped and re-wrapped my scarf around my face. My mind wanted to stare into the universe forever – this great unknown that was Heaven touching down on us. My body knew when to quit, however. That shockingly effective survival instinct is difficult to ignore, and I soon found that my subconscious was leading me back to the buses. And not before time – each step felt like a shooting dagger of ice on my numbed feet. My back and neck were screaming in protest, having been frozen in place looking straight up for so long. When I finally differentiated my bus from the rest of them, I found my tour guide beaming and exclaiming that this was one of the better shows she has seen. Given she was an Icelandic native, I was elated that I too had seen it.

As we trundled back to Reykjavik, the fatigue that had plagued me hours before was temporarily vanquished by the memory of dancing Lights. I kept going back to the idea that the Lights look like throwing flour, that something so spectacular and magical and heavenly could look like something so mundane and … ordinary. Or is it that something so ordinary can look like something so magical? I see flour in the Northern Lights, and I see the Northern Lights in flour. It’s like the universe is repeating itself, giving us a taste of miracles in everything we do. Just as we are fascinated by the fascinating, we can be fascinated by the mundane. The entire universe is in it. The universe repeats itself, and it is in the ordinary everyday that we can see it.

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