I’m finding it incredibly difficult to put into words the meaningfulness of my trip to Iceland. My emotions have been just shy of spilling over for most of the time I’ve been in the country, and I’ve found myself choking up more than a few times as I made my way across one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit
When I left, I was tired, worn down, and full of stress. Life had lost its shininess, feeling a bit like a cloud or a shadow was hanging over everything. I’d lost sight of what brought purpose to my getting up every day. Slogging through work, without any single thing to work toward besides a paycheck. Even my relationships felt less warm - without knowing my own way, I felt lost around others. I’ve always been good at hiding my worry, anxiety, apprehension, and what’s brewing inside me at any give time. That stoicism, however, was crushing me from the inside out.
As I boarded the plane to Iceland, I finally felt like I could take a breath. I had a smile on my face as I got ready to set out on my Icelandic adventure, and fond memories of traveling Europe, China, and Tibet all came flooding back. I knew this trip would be meaningful from that moment.
Arriving at Keflavik, walking toward the “Exit to Iceland” sign, all of my solo adventurer instincts instantly came back. I had a plan that I’d meticulously crafted, and blasted past the other tourists en route to the bus to pick up my camper jeep. Stepping out of the airport into the cool air, I took a deep breath, and felt that I’d arrived in a special place.
One happy dude in Iceland
After picking up my jeep, my first stop was Glymur, a waterfall I’d read about online, but had no concept of how to imagine in reality. The trip to the trailhead, only a short drive from Reykjavik was filled with a roller coaster of scenic landscape after scenic landscape - this didn’t end until I came back into Reykjavik 4 days later.
Getting out of my jeep and walking toward the trailhead, I saw that it would be a 3km hike up to the waterfall. No big deal, I’ve hiked that before - but I should have paid attention to the elevation a bit more!
Walking the initial part of the trail, I couldn’t stop smiling. I didn’t listen to music; I took in the sounds of my boots crunching the ground under my feet - grounding me in nature as I made my way toward the waterfall. Through a cave, across a log laid lengthwise over a river, the terrain started to get more difficult to traverse, but the lactic acid in my muscles reminded me where I was, and kept me present through the hike. Up steeper and steeper climbs I went until the waterfall was in sight. From afar it looked beautiful, and as I made my way closer, higher up the sides of the canyon it plunged into, it was truly awesome.
I pushed myself to the top of the falls, despite my quads burning, feeling a bit competitive with a photographer from Florida I’d met. We talked for about 15 minutes before hiking together for a bit, until we chose different directions down — he was there to be escape too.
Arriving at the top, I took a few minutes to sit and listen to the water crashing almost 200 meters below. For the first, but not the last time in my trip, I spoke to God and the universe at the same time, giving earnest thanks for being able to see and experience the magnanimity of Glymur.
The View from the Top, Into the Canyon
My spirituality has always been deeply personal, but over the last few years, especially unpacking the self-loathing that organized religion baked into me, I’ve put increasing distance between myself and Christianity. The more I read, experience life, consider doctrine and the power structure that the church creates, the less I want anything to do with it.
I have, however, been undeniably in the presence of what I still call “God,” too many times to give up on the personal connection I feel to something greater than myself. While I no longer believe a single path to God exists, I do believe that God (pronoun free) has an imperative to help us find peace and meaning in our lives. My continued quest for that peace still causes me to converse with God from time to time, and I felt closer to God in Iceland than I have for a very, very long time.
Many faith practices keep basic tenants of charity and compassion. Being good to one another is how we both extend to others and arrive at ourselves, peace with God. I believe time invested in charity, compassion, and meaningful reflection all are vehicles through which God communicates with us, and we communicate with God.
That meaningful reflection, however, must be cultivated, or we risk losing ourselves to a world that is focused on getting ahead of others, pushing people down, and keeping us in a circle of stress, anxiety, fear, frustration, and anger. I’d lost my ability to have that communion with myself, but found it again as I sat and experienced the majesty of Glymur.
After hiking back down, I jumped in the jeep and was off again, headed for the first “hot pot” (natural hot pool) of my trip, a little 2-person getup called Landbrotalaug. Arriving at the remote spot, however, the mini-pool was already being used by one couple, with another waiting. Somewhat disappointed, I considered sticking around, but eventually decided to skip it - there would be other opportunities on the trip for sure.
I continued on toward Kirkjufellsfoss, giving myself permission to stop at anything that looked interesting: a particularly beautiful part of the landscape or a waterfall on the side of the road. I got out of the car, I hiked around, I took time for myself to let my mind wander as I photographed beautiful scene after beautiful scene.
Upon arriving at Kirkjufellsfoss, I was disappointed to find it overrun with tourists. Glymur had been well hiked, but fewer people were willing to traverse such aggressive terrain to see the falls at the end. Kirkjufellsfoss was accessible right from the road, and while I had grand visions of recreating some of the photographs I’d seen from there, I still needed time to myself.
I took photos from across the lake that the falls sit on - it was as close as I needed to get before moving along to my campsite for the night. While I’d planned to go much further, jet lag finally caught up to me. I pulled into a restaurant in the town of Budardalur to take a break, treating myself to mussels and fries before turning in at the campsite across the street.
Reflecting on the day in the back of my camper jeep, I could feel my anxiety and stress, the baggage that I’d brought along, blossom into joy. Shutting my eyes on that first night put a period on the sentence, “this trip will be healing.”
My Trusty Steed
I got an exceptionally early start the next morning, intent on beating the crowd that I anticipated on my next scheduled stop at the Hellulaug hot pot. While I was disappointed that it had rained all night and continued into the morning, I shook off the idea that weather could ruin my trip.
Waking at 5am gave me time to move through my morning routine, but to be more mindful about each step in it. Without others awake and rushing around me, it helped me to begin with a centered mind. I finished up and headed out into the mountains of the Westfjords in near total blackness. A gift that Iceland imparts, the clear black nights give you access to beautiful stars, and, if lucky, the northern lights.
As the sun behind the clouds lit the landscape more and more, the “otherworldliness” of the Westfjords came into view - it was like being on an alien planet, completely untouched by people. While I’d move through the occasional small fishing village, or pass a single car here or there, I’d come to find the Westfjords very isolated, which cut down on the tourists I wanted to stay away from. It was incredibly peaceful, as I was allowed to experience a part of Iceland not many people do. I got so lost in it, that I actually drove right past Hellulaug, well hidden from the road’s view.
Once I backtracked and found the hot pot, I was blown away by how clear and warm it was, dipping my hand in to make sure it was worth braving the cold, windy air (luckily the rain had stopped) in nothing but a pair of trunks. It was about 8:45 a.m., and there wasn’t a soul in sight. I quickly changed in the jeep and descended the stone steps that led down to the pool — getting in immediately made apparent how relaxing this dip would be. The rain stopped long enough to allow me to enjoy the entirety of that time without a drop - a nod of you needed this from the universe.
I sat in the warm water and watched the wind whip cold waves in the fjord, just over a low rock wall from the hot pot. I took time to close my eyes, again thanking the universe and God for bringing me to this place. The lingering tension I’d brought melted away over the next 45 minutes, as I let myself stay in until I wanted to move on. I was completely uninterrupted even after changing again in the jeep - it wasn’t until I was pulling out that the next car of three people arrived.
The rain started again some 45 minutes later as I continued across the untouched landscape, which brought a touch of uncomfortableness to the gravel roads that make up a large portion of the Westfjords’ infrastructure. I pressed on, a bit slower, toward Dynjandi, one of the largest falls in the West.
As I pulled in, it was again riddled with tourists, but I had the solitude that I’d wanted earlier that morning in the hot pot - this was an experience I was willing to share. I made my way up the first and second tiers of the waterfall, getting some great photos despite fighting the spray on my lens. Again, the universe came through - I unzipped a pocket of my North Face to find a microfiber cloth attached to the inner lining of it - just the tool I needed to keep taking photos of such a beautiful spot. I was again in the presence of a powerful piece of nature - taking it in gave me another moment of meditation, once I put down the camera and experienced it for what it was.
Dynjandi from the foot of the highest waterfall
As it was still sprinkling, I didn’t stay excessively long at Dynjandi. I jumped back in the jeep and took off again, this time toward a waterfall I’d read about that was, like Glymur, off the beaten path. The rain and wind intensified as I got closer to Valagil, and I was seriously contemplating skipping it - how glad I am that I chose not to. I made the last minute decision to stop despite the rain, as I recognized that I’d be passing up on an opportunity for the sake of comfort. As I pulled into the gravel parking lot, the only vehicle in it, the rain died off completely, and the wind slowed just enough to make the 2km hike seem doable.
I thought that Valagil was the falls I could see from the road, but as I walked across the craggy moss-covered lava rock field, broken only by muddy marsh spots, I saw an opening in one of the hills to the right of me, not visible from the road. The path began to make its way toward this opening. On my approach, I saw a pole sticking out of the ground with a metal box attached to it. Thinking it might be some sort of geocache, I walked up to it, realizing that it was, instead, an urn. It was a little unsettling, but then I considered the place the former person’s body had been interred - a beautiful view for as long as their ashes remain undisturbed.
As I crossed over a bridge that looked like it ought to be rebuilt, I was rewarded with a stunning view of Valagil in full frame. The falls come from very high above the stream that flows below it, stair stepping down in a series of about ten smaller falls. Absolutely beautiful. After snapping a few photographs, I trudged on toward the falls at the far end of the valley, the ones visible from the road, until the blaze stopped and I felt uncomfortable continuing across the terrain, having left my emergency kit in the jeep.
I let the camera dangle as I walked back, the wind starting to pick up as I retraced my steps on the path. Looking up and to the right in the valley, breathing in the cold air and thinking about how long the cliffs above had been looking over the ground far below them.
At that moment, I had an epiphany. A voice inside me simply said, “You are small.”
Lesson One: You are small
I literally stopped in my tracks as I heard, “You are small” echo in my brain. Not to be confused with, “You are insignificant,” my inner voice was giving me permission to let it all go. Standing in a deep valley, surrounded by towering cliffs, the solitary hiker willing to venture out to Valagil, you are small made sense an instant, as if the cliffs themselves were talking to me. They told me that my problems, my stresses, the anxiety of anticipating the next client frustration, or agonizing over the details of my next sale at work were and are insignificant as they relate to meaningfulness and time.
Our time is limited here, and the concept of eternity being something to look forward to is less and less aligned with my belief system. Instead, this realization of you are small temporally places one in the universe. It has continued, and will continue until it too has run its course - with or without me in it. We are blips in the vastness of time, and the ridiculousness of our stress and worry, which keeps us from experiencing a joyful life is underlined when that temporality is considered.
You are small was a gift to me. As someone who often feels like I carry the weight of the world on my shoulders, despite the fact that I have little to actually carry, that phrase put my mind in a completely different place. I felt free as I walked the rest of the way out of that valley. Emotional weight I’d been carrying was lifted, and I choked up as I felt it removed from me with that phrase.
The wind began to pick up pretty heavily, and just as I arrived back to the jeep, the rain started again. Despite the rain, I continued on, moving in and out of fjord after fjord, coming across quaint villages and (even in the gray, cold weather) beautiful scenery en route to some other hot pots I’d read about on the East side of the Westfjords, in a town called Drangsnes.
I had some apprehension after reading about the Drangsnes pools again the night before, as some reviews said they were often overrun by rowdy tourists. However, still feeling the emotional high from earlier in the day, I considered temporality - you know, “YOLO,” so I decided to go.
Genuine perk of most swimming pools and/or hot pools in Iceland (that aren’t completely natural, like Hellulaug was), especially for campers, is the required shower before you enter. Arriving at Drangsnes, I saw quite a few cars near the pool, but decided to enjoy it anyway; and, I got a free shower out of it. Hooray for not stinking!
As I got out of the shower and crossed the street to the pools, I could see two were filled with 5 people each, and one was completely empty. As I descended the stairs near the pools, I was told the third was the “cold” pool, but I decided to chance it. Clearly, my new acquaintances and I had different opinions on “cold,” but after moving from one pool to the next (once some folks made space for me), I agreed that it was the “cold” pool.
Being welcomed into the warmer pool, I was invited into the group’s conversation, meeting a duo traveling from Spain, a family from Malta, a solo trekker from California, and a couple from Israel. We chatted about plans, work, where we were all from, and told jokes. There were no barriers to us communicating, and as we chatted and laughed until the family and Spaniards eventually left, another tap from my inner voice came into my head.
Lesson Two: Life is better with friends along.
When I booked my trip to Iceland, I didn’t even consider trying to align my schedule with anyone else’s. This was my trip, what I needed, and I was selfishly seeking some alone time to not have to speak, answer questions, or entertain anyone else. I’m self-sufficient. I’ve backpacked plenty. I know how to get around in a foreign country. Just like my home life, where I’ve had a “I don’t need someone to complete me” attitude, I wanted this trip to be for me.
That said, the pool in Drangsnes reminded me that having people to share the journey of a trip or other life experience with absolutely enriches the quality of life as a whole. While times of solitude have their place, Drangsnes put a point on the notion that I could have had an equally awesome time sharing it with someone else.
Often, I’m so guarded or stubborn (see stoicism at the beginning), that I take a “my way or the highway” approach to life. If you’re not on the same trajectory as me, you’re not adding value - get out. Life's reality is, however, much more complex.
Friends and family help bear the weight of real problems, can become sounding boards, give earnest advice for our betterment - if we’re open enough to let them. While life can certainly be shuffled through on one’s own, making time for people and valuing the work it takes to cultivate strong relationships, even when challenging, is time well spent. Bringing people along for my life's journey will make it better, and I now feel much more open to share myself with others in a meaningful way after having this second “mini-epiphany.”
After about an hour in the pools at Drangsnes, I drove on to my campsite in Hvammstangi for the evening. Getting in super late, I swung by an almost 24-hour N1 (one of the larger gas station chains) for a bacon-wrapped hot dog with crispy onions and mustard - a must in Iceland. After finishing my meal, I got to the site, rolled out my sleeping bag, and crashed hard for an early start the next day.
The next day began my travel on the “ring road,” route 1 in Iceland. I anticipated everything from here on out to be pretty heavily tourist-traveled, save the F road I planned to travel partway down later that day. After an unsuccessful attempt to find another hot pot that morning, I headed to the north of the country for my reservation at “The Beer Spa.” Not everything in this travelogue has some spiritual meaning! As a beer connoisseur, even though I expected this to be a complete tourist trap, I booked a ticket for noon that day.
The premise of the Beer Spa is pretty straight forward: you disrobe, lounge in a warm bath that includes unfermented beer, yeast, hops, and malt, along with other good-for-your-skin additives, then go to a 25 minute rest in the “relaxation room.” Mind blown. It was actually an incredibly rejuvenating experience! While bathing, you have access to a bath side tap, from which you can drink as much of their craft brew as you care for (and it was pretty good beer).
Following the soak, I had one of the best burgers of my life in the spa’s restaurant. Not sure exactly what they did to make it so good, but their house sauce and custom-blended patties were a home run. As a “fun” experience on the trip, it was a blast, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone planning to be in the north of the country.
Following the time at the spa, I sped on toward Goðafoss, another very large waterfall, which happened to be perfectly situated for my heading south through the F road and getting to see the highlands. Goðafoss was worth seeing for sure - it reminded me of a much smaller version of Niagara (the Canadian side).
Because it had started to drizzle after a nice morning, I decided I ought to get on the road, expecting the F road to be long and boring. It ended up being anything but boring.
I turned left onto route 842 in the north of the country, just before Goðafoss, actually believing it to be the F road. I naively thought, “This isn’t bad at all, it’s just gravel like in the Westfjords.” How wrong I was.
As I came to the end of 842 and passed through a gate, then across a bridge, a large sign stood in front of the entrance to the F road. It warned of the terrain, how one should absolutely not attempt it with a two wheel drive car (check - I had a 4x4), and how there were parts of the road that required fording rivers, which weren’t covered by any of the rental car insurances. Interestingly enough, the sign was sponsored by all of the rental car agencies in the country.
“Well, here we go!” I said to myself, as I passed the sign and got onto the road, engaging four wheel drive, and readying myself for some serious trail driving. I was basically on a “generally suggested path” more so than a road. There were massive rocks to hurdle, it was very poorly maintained, and it was incredibly bumpy for 3 straight hours until I reached the mountain hut I’d planned at stopping at that evening.
An idea of what I was driving on/through
The highlands are just as otherworldly as the Westfjords, if not more so. I drove across plains, lava rock deserts, snow drifts, and through five separate river crossings. While it was bumpy as all get out, I felt relief when I saw the mountain hut in the distance. I was tired, and ready to wrap it up for the day - quite frankly, my butt needed a break from the road too.
Only one small problem with that plan - the Mountain hut was completely deserted.
I’d expected there to be a ranger or warden, at a minimum. The “hut,” actually a series of a few small house-like buildings, sits within one of Iceland’s national parks - its intended to be a refuge for hikers, and idiots (ahem… people) like me who decided to drive F26. Driving up to the hut as the rain began again, light was fading fast from the sky, I had to make a decision. I could stay and camp there, not knowing what the weather might do, and be completely isolated, or keep on the last 100km of the road and find a campground near my anticipated starting point for the next day.
In the end, I went with the latter option, though in hindsight, I would never recommend it to anyone. Nor would I particularly recommend taking the F roads - rental vehicles just aren’t built for them, no matter how chunky the tires look or how much clearance you think you have. I drove in the pitch black - there is absolutely zero light pollution in the highlands - hitting bump after bump, unable to see anything beyond my lights’ beams.
The constant stream of prayer began when I got to the final river crossing of the road for me. As I approached it in the blackness, it looked significantly deeper than I believe it actually was, though it was at least a foot deep (which is certainly enough to carry a car away if the flow rate is high enough). I inched toward it, begging God to keep me safe through the crossing. As my front tires entered the water, I stupidly gunned it (being afraid of getting stuck in the water, in the dark, with no one around).
If you’re ever crossing a river, you should go at about a walking pace, keeping a constant speed - it creates a wake behind you that prevents both the intake (if deep enough) and exhaust from getting much water in them. That’s your primary concern when fording a river - not letting water get sucked up into the car's engine.
Tires spinning, however, I shot through the river while water blew up on both sides of the jeep. The rear tires started to lose traction, and I panicked, pushing harder on the gas until the jeep was up on the other bank. While I’d made it through safely, I’d also head a sound that concerned me, like I might have hit a bigger rock than I wanted to with one of the tires.
Shortly thereafter, I noticed the back end of the jeep had severe understeer, and the bumpiest parts of the road had become extra bumpy. I decided to stop the jeep and check - sure enough, I’d completely blown out a sidewall of one of the tires, and while it was still attached to the rim, if I’d have gone much further, it would have surely fallen off.
Cursing, I began to panic and pray. I knew I had a full size spare, but I wasn’t confident about changing it on a mountain, in the dark, with 40 mph winds. I got back into the driver’s seat and sat there for about five minutes while I ran anxious scenario after anxious scenario in my head. It had to be changed. I had to get off this road. That was my decision and my imperative at that point. So, with only my iPhone light to change the tire by (I’d lost my headlamp earlier in the week), I unbolted the spare from the rear of the jeep, jacked the back up, replaced the tire, and threw everything back into the rear of the vehicle.
As I started off again, I half expected the wheel to fall off. While one usually can feel pretty confident about the tightness of lug nuts after a tire change, one isn’t usually driving a rock-crawling trail immediately afterward, without a usable spare. I traversed the remainder of F26 (60km) at a pace of about 30km/h, squeezing my leg so hard my hand hurt, and I had to stop to shake it out. Finally I spotted paved road, signaling the end of the F road, and my successful navigation of it.
I found the very first parking lot I thought I wouldn’t get towed in, and quickly readied my sleeping area. I’ve not mentioned, but as I had finished changing the tire in the highlands, the sky cleared completely - I had an incredible view of the stars with absolutely zero light pollution. As I’d not seen the northern lights, I was whispering to the universe to make this the night, especially given what I’d gone through. Ask, and you shall receive, they say — just before I got back into the jeep, I saw a green spot in the sky start to grow brighter and larger. Then a second to its left - I actually got to see the northern lights. I found them to be eerie, haunting, and sadly short lived - the two streaks I saw lasted about five minutes before they disappeared.
Once they’d passed, I got into the jeep and passed out, setting my alarm very early, so I could be gone before too many people were moving around the lot to notice me. Day three, done.
I woke early in the parking lot as a few off road tours in super jeeps (lifted Sprinters with oversized tires) were getting ready to leave into the highlands. “Have fun with that,” I said under my breath.
I waited until they’d left, then set my GPS for Gjáin, one of the valleys that lies just above the “golden circle.” Arriving just before 8am, I had the entirety of the valley (which you approach from the top) to myself. It was stunning.
Four separate waterfalls terminate into a river, flowing until its beyond eyesight. There's beautiful color on the grasses and flowers in the valley, so I walked it at a leisurely pace, thanking the universe and God for getting me through the previous night to see something so beautiful. After taking a bunch of photos, I headed out for a recommended hot pot, the Seljavallalaug Pool in the south of the country.
On the way, I drove past a few of the well published waterfalls. While pretty, they didn’t have the same untamed wildness of what I’d seen the previous few days. I was equally disappointed by the swarms of tourists around them, especially with September being a shoulder season - I didn’t expect nearly as many as I saw. This played a part in my skipping them (taking photos from afar), as I didn’t think I’d really get any time to “experience” them, like I had at Glymur, Dynjandi, Goðafoss, or Gjáin.
I pulled up to the parking lot for Seljavallalaug, grabbed my trunks, and marched off toward the pool. To get there, you make about a fifteen minute hike until you round the side of a mountain, jutting out into the valley. Just beyond it, lies a very large pool, which has become (unfortunately) very full of algae. Figuring I had to say I did it, I changed quickly, then jumped in.
Tepid was being nice to the water's temperature! Especially in comparison to the previous pools I’d been at, Seljavallalaug was lukewarm at best, and slippery as all get out. When I got out, about ten minutes later, I had algae all over my trunks - it took them drying to be able to scrape it off… less than ideal.
After the pool, I jumped back in the car and did as the tourists do! Lunch was at the Friðheimar tomato farm - a delicious cup of their fresh tomato soup, washed down by a tomato beer (gimmicky, but you’ve got to try it if you’re a beer junkie). I then drove past Geysir (personally, I felt like Old Faithful is more interesting) up to Gullfoss, which one ought to see.
Gullfoss is gigantic, and truly gives you an appreciation for just how big a waterfall can be. While I would have liked to see Dettifoss (the most voluminous waterfall in Europe) in the north, I decided to save that for another trip.
Leaving Gullfoss, I headed to a place I was again expecting to be a bit of a tourist trap. I’d pulled up Laugavatn Fontana online, and it looked like a beautifully relaxing spa - but it also had great marketing, so I expected it to be teeming. Getting there in the mid afternoon, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find it only moderately busy. I paid the entrance fee, took my obligatory shower (with some spa-quality products), and enjoyed a soak in the hot lava rock pool (about 102 degrees) before taking the “lake plunge” in a ~45 degree lake. They say its good for the circulation… it certainly wakes you up!
Once I’d warmed back up in another outdoor shower that pumps hot water, I jumped into the geothermally heated steam room before hitting the lava rock pool one last time and grabbing a beer at the bar before I left.
The Lava Rock Pool
While Laugavatn Fontana was a primarily tourist destination because it’s not free, I met people from a few different countries there (see lesson 2) and had some amazing conversation with an older solo traveler from New York, who was experiencing her fourth trip to Iceland, this time on her own. Sometimes, the solo trip is what one needs. I found this spot to be a fantastic respite from the night before, and the perfect break in a long day of going place to place.
After a quick stop by a horse farm to feed some horses “candy,” I made my way down to Selfoss for my final night of camping. While I’d planned to stay at Þingvellir National Park and see another waterfall, I’d had my fill for the day, and decided to turn in earlier than planned. I swung by a restaurant up on the golden circle that had amazing bread, cured lamb (almost like a pate) and a fantastic Seafood Pasta, then headed to the campsite. I wanted to make the most of my final day, planned to be in Reykjavik, so I found a dark corner of the campground and went straight to sleep.
Waking about 7am, I headed to the gas station to grab coffee and a croissant, something I made a regular morning tradition while in Iceland. Fuel for the jeep and fuel for my brain in hand, I headed off to one of the most traveled tourist sites, The Blue Lagoon, at which I had a 9am reservation.
I took the southern route to get to the Blue Lagoon from Selfoss; winding roads along the coast take you through some beautiful lava rock fields, past a few old lighthouses, and bring you right to the Blue Lagoon. As I was running a little early, I made a stop in a town just before the blue lagoon to get another cup of coffee, at which I spoke with the owner for about fifteen minutes about the business climate in Iceland.
It’s always been valuable in my travels to interact with the local population as much as one can, especially in more populated cities — not in some “do you have directions,” type way, but finding out where they eat, drink, and play. While this may seem counterintuitive to my whole “solo travel,” philosophy for coming on the trip, by this time, I was feeling recharged, refreshed, and excited to learn about how the people live in Iceland. The owner was incredibly informative, interesting and genuine. He mentioned that most Icelanders are somewhat cold to foreigners — not a sign of disrespect, they just keep to themselves. He was the opposite, and I appreciated it!
A short five minutes after leaving, I was at the blue lagoon. Pulling up, you don’t actually see the lagoon, but you do see a relatively full parking lot. For having the first reservation of the day, I was surprised by the number of cars. Choosing to go with the flow, however, I parked the jeep, headed toward the entrance, jumped in the line, and breezed through. I chose to go for the premium package over the standard - an included bathrobe and flip flops, towel, first free drink, and a glass of champagne at the restaurant were all included. If you’re going to do it, do it right!
Lesson 3: Indulge in the best things, rather than trying to have everything.
Something I’ve continued to wish for in my own life is getting rid of my “keeping up with the joneses” mentality. The concepts of minimalism have always appealed to me in design, but the practical application to materialism in my own life has been evasive.
I like nice things, I have the means for them, so I’ve generally had a “why not” attitude about acquiring “stuff.” Over the last 6 months, especially since selling my house, I’ve attempted to be more mindful when making purchases to acquire multipurpose things, or things that actually add value to my life. I watched a YouTube video recently on decluttering where the guru suggests piling everything of a certain type (i.e. clothes, books, dishes) together, then picking each individual item up to question, “Does this bring me joy?” If the answer is no, it’s donated or discarded. If the answer is yes, it stays.
While this may seem like an oversimplification, I’ve begun to use it as my litmus test for buying new things. I’ve purchased far fewer clothes, shoes, books, and other trinkets over the last few months, but it pains me to know things are still sitting in a storage unit outside my apartment. It frustrates me that my own apartment is as cluttered as it is, even today!
Iceland showed me that there’s a lot of stuff to do, buy, and see there. Its a consumer driven economy just like the US. Even if being frugal, however, you can choose to “invest” in the things that will bring you joy, relaxation, or be experiences you can take with you forever, rather than things that you have to haul with you as long as you keep them.
In the aforementioned case, making an experience of the Blue Lagoon was putting an exclamation point on my trip - a final hurrah to focusing on myself, and being away from work. Yes, the Blue Lagoon can be expensive, yes, the set priced menu at Lava, the adjoining restaurant was more than a hot dog, but they were both experiences that centered me, that I was mindful in consuming, and added joy to my life.
Rather than just using the “joy” test, I hope to carry forward the additional benchmarks. Does a thing/experience help me either learn something about myself, or help me expand my breadth/depth of experience? If I invest in it, will I be mindful of the intention I had when I purchased it? Will it ultimately make me more joyful, or be something that brings joy when I use it?
This will be an ongoing practice of mine, but I’m glad that I didn’t choose to attempt everything in Iceland - I’ll now have the opportunity to see new things with someone when I go back!
The Blue Lagoon, for being a tourist destination, is really special. From the silica-rich lagoon that offers free silica and algae masks (which took years off my face) to the hobbit-house looking steam room, every part of the experience was relaxing, refreshing, and brought me joy.
The amazing lunch afterward at Lava, their on-site restaurant, furthered that experience, where I had a fantastic “Icelandic Tasting Menu” featuring an arctic char dish, a beautiful lamb dish, and a wonderful traditional style dessert. The service was impeccable, and it was truly the “icing on the cake” of the Blue Lagoon.
Following the Lagoon, I headed directly to the Sun Voyager, breezed past the Harpa, and saw the Hallgrímskirkja Church, with beautiful views of downtown from its tower. The church itself is both simpler and smaller than I thought it might be, but features an organ with 5,275 pipes, and is super interesting from an architectural perspective. It reminded me of a much newer church resembling that of the one in Cologne, Germany (albeit, Cologne wins, in my humble opinion).
The Sun Voyager
Hallgrímskirkja and the views from the top
Once I’d seen the church, I checked into my hotel for the evening, an amazing little property on the main shopping/restaurant drag called “41, a Townhouse Hotel.” I’d strongly recommend it - again, not the cheapest option, but I wanted to have a relaxing night and be close enough to everything, while still a walkable distance to the shuttle (Flybus) back to the airport.
Returning the jeep, I had to swallow the hard pill of paying for the tire - expensive problem in Iceland, but not as bad as I expected. The folks I rented from, GoCampers, whom I’d highly recommend, were kind enough to give me 500 ISK cash for bus fare and drop me at the right bus stop - very much appreciated, especially after the great week of renting from them! Kindness goes a long way in creating repeat customers or lifelong friends.
Once back in the city, I decided to cut loose and live my best life - the version of me that Iceland had taught me to be! I asked for craft beer bar suggestions and ended up having a great conversation with a Missourian and my Canadian physicist-turned-geothermal-power-engineer bartender. I ate the rotten shark, did a shot of Brennivin, then peeled out to find where the locals hang.
When In Reykjavik...
I swung into the hot dog stand in the main square (where people were skateboarding despite the ridiculous wind) and got a quick bite, after which I asked the girls working for some recommendations (again, always do this when traveling). They wrote out a list of six different bars to try based on what I was feeling, they even suggested a concert going on that night, which I took them up on!
I walked into Húrra not knowing what type of music I signed up for, but the universe was smiling at me as an Icelandic hardcore band (with a female signer and a saxophonist) got on stage. I was totally feeling it, and couldn’t help but get into the music. When you’re feeling joyful, people notice!
While I didn’t come close to seeing everything in Reykjavik, I felt like I was back to being my true, authentic self, while I was there. I was gregarious, I tried new things, I got back to the things I love, and I put the perfect bow on an amazing trip to Iceland.
As I got up this morning to head to the airport, all of this reflection happened in a heartbeat. My heart went straight to my throat, and I had to choke back joyful tears that were just below the surface more than a couple of times. As I finish writing this, now many hours later at JFK, I feel renewed.
Iceland was everything I hoped it would be, everything I needed it to be, and more impactful than I expected it to be. When I say it healed me, I mean it. I was badly broken before this trip, but I’m on the mend thanks to it. I’ve learned about myself, about life, and about what I need to stay mentally and spiritually happy going forward.
Lessons 4 & 5: Travel Often and Be Still.
I kept a running list of things I felt like this trip taught me, and there are two last things that I’ve hinted at, but haven’t put solidly into words.
The first - Travel Often. At the beginning of this tirade, I spoke about how I didn’t know what I was working for, why I do what I do. I found it again here. Personally, I need to work as a means to a traveling end. I’d like to sit down with a map soon and start to put pins in places I want to visit, then begin earning my way to each of those places. Not working to work, working to live. Travel is so enriching, so fulfilling, and so restorative; do it, and do it often.
The final - Be Still. Spending meditative, quiet time with oneself is a path to self-discovery and healing. I must make this part of a daily practice, ensuring I stay centered, and not letting my stress/anxiety levels get near where they were prior to this trip. Being centered without being self-centric will require me saying “no” more often than I do now at work, but will equally require me to say, “yes” when opportunities present themselves to grow, learn, and live.
If you venture to Iceland, know why you’re going, and make it a place with meaningful memories. I’ll always treasure the six days I spent there, and I look forward to spending many more in the future.
Vegvisir for Guidance