Travel + Struggle: How to Enjoy Iceland

Winter and summer meet at a geothermal hotspot.

Obsidian, broken to knife sharpness, clattered beneath our feet on the crest of the pass. The sun, never to actually set, dipping half of its golden orb below a ridge, cast shattered light on the flurry of ghostly mist dancing from the thermal pits that besieged us. We could see Hrafntinnusker just below — a moss-green hut laid on a plank deck for sanctuary above the melting, but still deep, snowpack. Its rooster-red roof and trim were sirens, promising warmth, friendly conversation and scalding water to warm our numb hands. But we could not heed its cozy beckon. The snow, with crystals reaching for the eternal sun waiting to become molten, was what we’d take as a bed on our first night of the popular four-day trek from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork.

It was a quick text that set our first adventure as fledgling adults in motion. “So we should actually go to Iceland.” The message from my childhood friend and pseudo-cousin, Livy Veazey, appeared while concentrating on one of my many futile attempts at an overdue college assignment. The concentration was obviously derailed. I promptly remembered I jokingly — and hopefully — entered an Instagram contest to win a trip for two to Iceland a few months prior. We didn’t win. So, my answer to the message was, “Yes!”

Months passed with the majority of our travel research consisting entirely of image searches of the island’s most cherished landmarks. Every now and then we’d volley texts back and forth from Colorado to Oregon in hopes some kind of plan might manifest. It didn’t. Our first concrete scheme developed seconds before boarding a Reykjavik Excursions bus, bound for the transit center in a location we walking, jet-lagged vegetarians found unpleasantly far from the city campsite. Of course our exhausted bodies and airplane-stalled minds could only find this early-morning trek through concrete neighborhoods hysterical. One of us would teasingly fall over, imitate a broken leg or move to step in front of a pint-sized, gumball-red Toyota Yaris whirring by, and we’d burst into hilarity like children watching slapstick. “What are we doing,” I thought every time we tried coming up with a butchered version of each street name’s pronunciation — Snorrabraut was our favorite.

By 8:00 a.m. we had made it to Reykjavik Campsite. The green patch of soft, ankle-deep grass looked like a child’s playroom with tents of every shape and color imaginable — some ludicrously vibrant, others unfortunately complicated. The associated compound offered a fragrant kitchen space, palatial bathrooms and covered living amenities that came with an especially generous, and often haggard, group of explorers. All of this was of course observed after a short pass out next to, not in, our tent on the sun-warmed grass — our bags’ contents trustingly spewed about the public area like the entrails of slain teddy bear.

Olivia trudges in icy wind and a cold drizzle after crossing a glacial river.

Two days later we awoke to whipping winds, a Gore-tex-advertisement-worthy deluge, polar temperatures and a 16-kilometer hike to complete as part of the Laugavegur trek from Alftavatn. I was not amused. Turns out I’m not Elsa, the Disney princess, and the cold did bother me anyway. Livy and I zipped up as much as our under-prepared wardrobes would allow and set off. 15 minutes into the soaked lush-green and onyx-black hills we came over a ridge to find a glacial river guarding the next segment of tail. Glancing below us, we could see a half-naked couple celebrate their crossing by running laps around their packs, though I doubt any amount of running could bring color to their snowy legs. I took the first step into the liquid frost. My body, likely rejecting the sensation, authorized my mouth to squawk, “It’s not that bad!” back to Livy, who had removed her pants in hopes of salvaging some warmth from the athletic fabric. My feet weren’t quite cold enough to be completely numb, which I would have preferred. My face, wind-battered and damp, was crippled into something akin to that of a Persian cat. And, according to the robin-egg color of my limbs, I could nearly be considered an honorary member of the Blue Man Group.

Struggling onto the blocks of gelid flesh I called feet, we pushed on. That tragic morning, however, is one of my fondest memories, because — even with a stupefied expression, cryogenically preserved toes and Las Vegas-act pigmentation — I laughed. I imagine my frozen features gave my chuckles a sort of too-much-BOTOX look, but that’s beside the point. Even if the landscape was a barren wasteland, our limbs needed amputation or our gear spontaneously combusted, we’d have great memories because all that time we’d be cackling about how ironically privileged and, at the same time, peril-ridden we were.

I hear it a lot. “We should go to X exotic location!” an enthusiastic friend exclaims, realizing — probably hoping — it’ll likely never happen. In actuality, there must be a part of us that registers the risk we’re putting our friendships in. I can only image that an excursion with many of my friends would end in us engaging in civilized conversation, sitting in (God-damned) neighboring seats on an eight-hour flight until the wheels touch down on the tarmac, a.k.a. the hell of awkward silence. Then, we’d exchange semi-friendly goodbyes, promptly driving to our respective houses, cringing at the idea of spending any more of our lives withholding our diabolical plot to dismember the other. Still I do it — the second an image, a phrase or a memory pops into my head suggesting a destination I’m the first to propose spontaneous travel arrangements. And — on the off chance some supernatural event of madness compels us to crawl out of our everyday murmur, gasping for air after drowning in the pool of rotting schedule we call a life and buy that plane ticket — all we can do is be our best.

That, I believe, is the recipe for great travel. Your companion might be a childhood friend, a college roommate, a coworker, a hitchhiker, a sibling or a parent. All have the potential to be great additions to your explorations. However, with struggle and pitiful brawls with life, you and your Sancho Panza have to learn to laugh, maybe even push toward hysteria. These moments of floundering chaos will become your most treasured stories. So, for your next journey, whether it’s to an in-state town or a next-door continent, forget that taxi ride un-booked, drop your phone charger, get lost or dip into some unfortunately cold water. Who knows, you might actually remember something other than your fairytale trip you posted to Facebook.