I flew to Iceland on an early morning flight from Paris. Just days before, en route to Paris, an airline lost my luggage, so I had none of the warm layers that I had packed for the trip. I was left only with what I’d been wearing in the European summer from which I’d just come: shorts, sandals, and a light sweater. I wasn’t exactly adventure-ready, but I was going to Iceland. Iceland! Being woefully under-prepared wasn’t about to keep me from exploring a country that I’d been dying to visit for years.
I shivered through almost the entire flight, but when the plane began its descent, my shivering ceased. I was too excited to worry about being cold. I pressed my forehead against the window, and watched in rapture as we slipped through thick, downy clouds into the brilliant white sunshine below. A flat, gray-green land stretched out beneath the plane, punctuated every so often by mounds of black rock. This sparse, desolate moonscape sprawled away into the distance, where the colorful, squat buildings of Reykjavik were just visible.
Once we landed, I hurried through Keflavík International, eager to reunite with Max, my go-to adventure buddy. Max and I had planned to meet in Reykjavik, rent a car, and spend ten days traversing the country. Aside from that, we didn’t have much of an itinerary. This turned out to be the perfect amount of planning though, as we had the freedom to spend as much or as little time somewhere as we liked, and there was plenty of time for pointless, scenic detours.
After hitting up a few supermarkets and shops around Reykjavik to buy food and other essentials, Max and I hit the road. (When I say ‘hit the road,’ by the way, I literally do mean the road. There is one main highway in all of Iceland- aptly named Route 1- that loops around the entire country, connecting its main towns and cities.) We had decided to camp near Þingvellir (pronounced Thing-Veller) National Park for the night, about an hour and a half east of Reykjavik. We spent our entire drive pointing out one stunning landscape after another, each of which we were sure was one of the most beautiful things we’d ever seen, until we passed something else that was, for real this time, the most beautiful thing we’d ever seen.
And later that night- purely by accident- we awoke to a sky lit in silent, resplendent beauty by the Northern Lights. We lay on the ground, staring up at the vivid banners of emerald and violet that rolled and stretched and faded and brightened across the stars. There was nothing to hear but the quiet, and nothing to smell but the cold. We were observers of the utter isolation that often accompanies extraordinary natural beauty.
We marveled at the muted splendor of Iceland’s damp, rainy mornings as we crawled out of our tent each day. We bundled ourselves up against the sharp chill of the wind at Sólheimasandur, where a US Navy plane crashed in 1973 and lay in rusted ruins next to the sea. We paused during our hike across a glacier to listen to water heave and creak through its icy depths. We explored thermal pools and waterfalls, and stood in the steam of geysers as the pungent smell of sulfur hung in the air around us. We drove through verdant pastures dotted with sheep, through steep mountain passes, and across fields of black volcanic rock covered with moss. We swam in hot springs at sunset and ate bread baked underground by a geyser steam.
Flat farmland rose suddenly to meet the shoulders of mountains and volcanoes. Glaciers, some covering areas of hundreds of square miles, stretched up and away from the road and sent rivers of brown water unfurling toward the sea. Gray mornings gave way to driving rain gave way to sensational blue skies gave way to thrilling pink sunsets and starry black nights. Desolation became natural wonder and circled back again.
Max and I discovered that visiting Iceland isn’t just something to tick off your bucket list. It is so unforgettable, so damn beautiful, that you may rewrite your bucket list altogether. But while Iceland is indeed a stunning playground for the photographers, the adrenaline junkies, the outdoor enthusiasts, the foodies, and the take-it-easies, what really makes it so wild and so wonderful is, more than anything else, a very simple sentiment. It is a welcome and revitalizing relief that you did not know that you needed. It stirs up in travelers an inexplicable contentment brought on by exploring one of the most untouched and unspoiled countries on Earth.
Iceland offers travelers something that most places no longer can: an emptiness that is beautiful, and a mystery that is thrilling. There are few places, if any, like Iceland, where the journey alone seems like a daring escape from familiarity. In a world where just about everything is captured and shared and liked and re-Tweeted and liked again, Iceland feels like that last little bit of the undiscovered; it is a frontier, the Wild West, Mars.
If what you seek is the sense that you are part of something lonely and untamed and pure, you will find that in Iceland. All you must do is go.