Both our flights landed in the dark of midnight, one from London and one from Boston. We quickly headed out under the cover of night in our rental car. We squinted out of the shadows of the lights on the two lane road from the airport, trying to make out the landscape... only seeing more darkness.
We were in Iceland. The land of fire and ice. But until the city lights of Reykjavik twinkled on the horizon we were left to our imaginations fed by travel guides and dreams. Nothing was visible through the dark. We chattered about our flights, our daily lives, our jobs, our friends, our thoughts on our weekend adventure ahead. Checked into the Loki 101 Guesthouse and headed out to explore the nightlife. The city’s restaurants turn into bars and nightclubs after hours. Wandering down the narrow streets with their two story, weatherproofed buildings, music tinkling out of doorways and laughter echoing in the alleyways we tucked into a nightclub for a drink. We quickly entered a conversation with a local. Well, not quite local. A young man from the east side of the island. It was my first, and certainly not last, introduction to the warm, engaged and welcoming people who live on this island. We spoke of careers and travels, of families and free time. I asked my favorite question: “What is your favorite place you’ve ever been?” “The East Side of the island,” he answered. At first I thought our communication in English was breaking down. “Yes, I know that is where you live, but what is the most beautiful place that you’ve ever visited?” He quickly corrected me, “Yes, that IS the most beautiful place in the world. I live in the most amazing place I’ve ever visited. You should go!”
His passion for the beauty of this land deeply impressed me. We made a short visit of the city the following morning, taking in the exciting street art, sculpture gardens and strongly brewed coffee... and headed out to explore.
Our first stop was Þingvellir - where the North America and European continents divide. We hiked down into the park and wandered among waterfalls and jagged cliff edges, taking in the late summer heathers and soft mosses, thinking about how these two continents we were living in were slowly pulling away from each other... drawing our lives in different directions.
We drove along the golden circle mostly in silence, punctuated by the occasional gasp and “wow” as we rounded another curve in the road, and another breathtaking view greeted us. The earth here is... unearthly. It looks like a different planet, something you would see as a set in a fantasy Hollywood film. I found myself laughing as my entire linguistic ability was whittled down to one word: wow. Wow. WOW.
It took us a while to find our Airbnb near Laugarvatn. A long while. Unmarked roads and landmarks like “there will be a horse pasture on your right and a creek on your left” left us scratching our heads (there is ALWAYS a horse pasture on your right and a creek on your left). But eventually we made our way up the side of a mountain and found our beautiful home and hot tub. We had already stocked up on some basic supplies, shopping mostly from the pictures of the food on the labels, and tucked in for the night. Some nibbles, a hot tub under the cloudy sky, and a good sleep.
We started off the morning with some skyr and berries (if you haven’t had Icelandic skyr - do it - rich and thick and tart like a Greek yogurt) and headed out to uncover more adventures. Continuing along the Golden Circle, we watched Geysir bubble and boil from the ground, exploding high into the sky. The smell of sulphur thick in the air gave more proof of this otherworldly landscape. We jumped back on the road towards Gulfoss, finding our conversation wandering down the rabbit holes of mystery and wonder. This land evokes legends of faeries and trolls and magicians...and it is quite easy to see why. Each turn is a sight you have not yet imagined. The earth bubbles, the cold streams turn hot, the volcanos erupt and suddenly change the entire landscape. The mountains are sharp and new, not the low rolling hills of long quiet earth. Everything is changing. Violently changing.
And suddenly we were at Gulfoss. The breathtaking waterfalls. And even more shocking was realizing that we had, for quite a while, been driving alongside the canyon carved out by this rushing water, completely unknown. From the road it was invisible. And just like that, the vision opened up, and we were on the edge of the canyon. We hiked down to the edge of the cliff along the falls, the power of rushing water vibrating me to the core.
wow. Wow. WOW.
In the distance we saw a glacier and we pointed our car in that direction. After waiting for some wandering sheep to clear our path, we came upon the end of the paved road and the start of a dirt path. Clear signs indicated that rental cars were not allowed. That only off-road 4x4 vehicles were able to continue. So we pointed to another spot on our maps and headed down towards the black sand beaches of Vik. Back roads turned into dirt roads. Dirt roads into single lane paths. We started talking about hopes and dreams. Of ideas yet to hatch. Of heartbreak and vulnerability. The big sky, the unstable earth, the troll huts built by the villagers into the side of the cliffs, the waterfalls that you could hike behind, the sea rolling in and out... somehow had dimmed the internal chatter of the small, everyday thoughts. My focus shifted from the micro of my daily life into the big picture.
We followed every sign that promised camera-worthy turns off of Route 1, and we were not disappointed. The path behind the roaring waterfall Seljanlandsfoss, the ocean carving out the dramatic cliffs at Drholaey, the birds swooping through the fog rolling along the black sand beaches at Vik all woke something primal and deeply connected. My heart cracked open. I started crying. Not that pretty-cry that leaks out at the sight of something beautiful... that jagged, choking cry that unlocks the truth of yourself. My vision of myself simply opened up under this big sky. And in the open space, joy flooded in.
We tucked into a tiny restaurant in Vic and warmed our damp bodies with soup and house-made brown bread with butter. Nothing has ever tasted so much like home. We were surrounded by locals and people passing through, in a foreign land where 'thank you' was almost the full extent of my grasp of the language. But I felt home. After a long day, and the sun slowly climbing into the west, we made our way back for a hot tub and rest. (Key tip: make sure - before you get in the hot tub - that you have unlocked at least one door to your cabin before you get in, or there will be a very awkward climb through a high window in your future, too)!
Our last morning was spent in the Laugarvatn Geothermal Baths. These pools and steam rooms were built on the natural hot spring overlooking the lake. The mist rising over the water (which is warmed by the same spring) is calming and beautiful, the spa itself is beautifully built, and they have a bread experience - warm baked bread inside of the spa. Hands down the most relaxing and revitalizing experience.
The ride back to the airport was just as stunning as the ride out. I kept turning around to look out of the back windshield. Was this the same road I had been just two days prior? Is that possible? It looks so different! Perspective. It changes everything. And the same road you may have traveled before can look completely foreign.
I wish you journeys. Into the wild. Into yourself. Iceland unlocked something unstoppable and wild within me. Something magical. Something boiling with fire and carved by ice. Maybe it will do the same for you.