No, not the movie. It’s a surreal thing to be in a moment where time literally stops, where everything around you — your thoughts, feelings, even the air you’re breathing — crystalizes into something you know you’ll always remember. That’s how it felt when I walked on the glacier. When I stood behind the waterfall, munching on greens plucked fresh from the muddy ground. When my toes disappeared into the milky warm water and I was gone. I was there. I was in Iceland.
Iceland. It’s so hot right now, isn’t it? Thanks to stopover programs with airlines like WOW and Icelandair, and win after win of Instagram tags, it seems like everyone is, was, or is about to be in the country Bjork and Jónsi hail from. To be honest, that’s why I almost didn’t go. I have a hard time doing what “everyone else” is doing, either out of indecision, my own pride or some combination of both. (Probably, the latter.)
But all of that changed when I finally realized that, one, it’s ridiculous to predicate your decisions in life based on what “everyone else” is or isn’t doing. You can always choose to make an experience your own, regardless of who or what has done it ahead of you. Secondly, how could I truly pass up an opportunity to step into something so wild as a country built on lava fields and glaciers — not to mention, the chance to also pull on boots, a hat and a sweater?
In the middle of July, with a fan recirculating hot air above me and sweat dampening the back of my jeans, I booked a ticket to Reykjavik.
After a four hour and twenty-minute flight from Chicago, there you are — touching down beneath a cool, pinkish-lavender sky while clouds seemingly puff up from the ocean. The airport is your first clue of normalcy, though elevated: Keflavik is paneled in light-colored wood, soft accent lighting dots the floor and glass window panes snake up the walls to tent the ceiling overhead. It could have been my imagination, the wool-outfitted mannequins in the gift shop or even my jet lag talking, but walking toward passport control felt more like a cozy hug than a herded international shuffle. Why rush? I thought. What is time, after all, but a tick-tocking of life’s nonrefundable moments?
Barely in the country for ten minutes and Iceland already had me philosophizing.
Our guide, a new but quickly-dear friend, picked us up in her car. A little rubber fish dangled from the rear-view mirror. Everywhere, I was soon to notice, were these kisses of the sea. Raindrops, mist, coastline, the cuisine; water framed your view no matter where you looked. And everything was captivating, I mean everything, as we sped by. The ground outside, mounded with ash, lava rock and a chartreuse-yellow moss, was rugged in an extraterrestrial way, causing intermittent gasps while we drove along Route 1.
Everywhere, I was soon to notice, were these kisses of the sea.
There were wide open spaces. There were far-off cliffs. There were picturesque churches, stationed perfectly in their clearings. There were low-hanging clouds and high streaks of blue sky. There were giant bundles of hay, wrapped up like candy. There were flags in the wind, promising vacant rooms within. There were tiny tin homes, painted rebelliously in bright colors. There were blankets of green grass. There were stretches of black sand. There were sheep running on stick legs. There were horses.
Oh gosh. Those sweet, sweet horses.
Why is it that when we’re out of the norm, even the granular turns grand? If these details seem simple, you could almost say generic, then you’d be right. I was surprised by how in my short, five-day stay, a majority of the Icelandic settings I witnessed (aside from those alien-like lava fields) felt like familiar scenes — the difference was just in their awe-factor. There was a new magic to it all. I wasn’t in Colorado, Kentucky or even northern California, I was choosing to be impressed in a place that I hadn’t been before.
I say chose, because I do think it was a choice. No matter where we are, we can decide to let life thrill us. We can allow ourselves to be wondered rather than stand back in critique; we can be open to the mystery, but first we have to believe we’ll find it. That’s always been a bit hard for me, a born skeptic, someone who’s always looking for how the trick was pulled instead of how the trick delights. But somehow Iceland stalled that process. It shifted me into another gear.
Especially at the waterfall.
Gullfoss is on the map. It’s on all the guide circuits and all the tours stop there. It’s a waterfall; essentially, it’s dirt, grass and water that, well, falls. But in its simplicity, it’s astounding. It’s mesmerizing and once there, I couldn’t look away. Walking down to it, there were crowds. There were backpacks and selfie sticks, group shots and a sea of performance gear, but I was determined to not let that steal me, to not let that steal the moment I had chosen to take in.
We can allow ourselves to be wondered rather than stand back in critique; we can be open to the mystery, but first we have to believe we’ll find it.
I edged out as far as I could, the rushing water misting my face and the roar deafening my ears. I noticed the flowers that had edged out farther than I, delicately perched, swaying back and forth in the breeze. I watched the water charge the rocks then, the rocks not moving, the water finding a different way. I watched it rush then dive – dive out finally over the edge. The spray rose up like steam, like a spirit from the heart of the earth. Little rainbows glimmered everywhere and the sun beamed proudly, as if showing off her work.
Now here’s the thing. The question. Is it worth it to trek to Iceland? I’m pretty sure similar details could be noticed at Niagara Falls, McWay Falls or Multnomah. I bet the horses are friendly in Texas, Montana and Tennessee. And flowers grow everywhere, don’t they? Next to highways, in neighborhood parks, wherever that same sun shines.
So, go all the way to Iceland to merely admire what I could back home? To stare at some rushing water? To be captivated by a daring bloom?
I didn’t see all of Iceland. I didn’t get deep into the Highlands or farther east to the glacial lagoon. I didn’t find the hiddenmost hot springs or get a clear view of the Northern Lights. I didn’t see a puffin (which, most locals laugh, you rarely do anyway). I didn’t “go off the beaten path” as much as my stubborn, contrarian self usually likes to.
But I still found the mystery. I still felt small. And I still came away with a deeper respect and appreciation for the earth than I ever have. So, yes. Go to Iceland, where you’ll see good ol’ rocks like you’ve never seen them before. Go to Iceland, where water, ice and snow will take on a whole new magnitude of meaning. Go to Iceland, where you’ll learn that “to preserve” doesn’t have to mean to exclude and that the most mysterious, most awe-inspiring places are actually the ones that feel the most familiar. Because they’ll remind you of how human you are and how crazy it is to be alive, sharing a view with a flower.