The possibility of a trip to Iceland appeared in my inbox out of the blue. A few minutes later, I was already texting Jane back, mid-evening-walk. I had very little practical knowledge about Iceland then, though I had seen a lot of photos from people who had been there. It wasn’t anywhere on my current travel list, but it had been when I studied in Germany for a year in college. So Iceland was a wildcard, but not completely unknown.
(Okay, practically everywhere was on my list that year, when budget airlines and high-speed trains, not to mention open borders, made anything seem possible. The big destinations I missed out on during study abroad—not that I’m complaining—were Morocco, Turkey, Scotland, and Scandinavia, including Iceland. I also failed to see large parts of Germany, which I regret more. Hamburg and Bremen and the North Sea and Dresden and the castles on the Rhein; I barely even saw the Schwarzwald, the Black Forest, which surrounds the city I lived in.)
At that point, late May, our big plans for the rest of the year were nil: Cooper and I had, yet again, ruled out the possibility of a trip to Italy and Germany. Too expensive, too ambitious, and Cooper now had conflicting obligations for September. We weren’t sure what we should do instead. Jane, who’s been friends with Cooper since middle school, was preparing to move from Atlanta to Minneapolis with her husband Ed. I was preparing to invite myself to Minneapolis, hopefully en route to Lake Superior’s North Shore and a road trip home through a more northern Ontario than I’d previously encountered (another harebrained idea I wasn’t sure we could pull off in the time we had). Jane wrote back that they were thinking of Sweden, Denmark, or Iceland for a vacation before her job started, since she had never been to Europe and flights weren’t too bad from MSP. Did we want to come?
Staying away from mainland Europe quelled my instinct for extended, multi-country trips. The flight to Iceland from Detroit was cheaper than any other European destinations for the summer. Plus, it’s a small country. Michigan is almost two and a half times bigger in area, and Detroit has far more people than Iceland does. We thought it would be manageable, and rewarding, since it’s bursting at the seams with beautiful and unusual scenery. How often do two of your closest friends offer to meet you in Iceland? Of course we wanted to tag along!
I looked into costs, plane tickets and car rentals and accommodations. We panicked, a little, since by this point Cooper and I were expecting more of a drive-your-own-car trip, not a journey to a much more expensive continent (okay, technically, tectonically, Iceland is on both the North American and European plates). I worried it meant we wouldn’t be able to afford Europe proper next year.
I clicked through slideshows of the top Icelandic sights and got overwhelmed by how much there was to see, all over the country. I narrowed in on southwest Iceland and still found more than we could do in six days. I definitely wanted to go. A week after Jane first mentioned it, Cooper and I bought tickets for $860 each, to fly to Keflavík International Airport via Minneapolis. Emma, my oldest and most adventurous friend, decided to meet us there too, on her way home from Ukraine. So we rented a two-bedroom apartment, plus sofa bed, in Reykjavík, and a little automatic car. Cooper and I traveled around the Great Lakes region, worked, read about Iceland (mostly me), bought hiking boots (Cooper) and a rain jacket (me), and waited for July 30th.
Absolutely, 100% Worth It
I love Iceland. I expected and hoped to enjoy the trip, of course, and I knew the company would be great no matter what. But there’s a lot of hype about Iceland—everyone seems to return enchanted—and I wasn’t sure if it could be as good as people say.
But for us, it really was. The blue, sunny skies that graced the majority of our visit complimented the cute streets of the small capital city and the wide-open-free feeling of being on vacation perfectly. Icelanders are committed to afternoon cake and coffee; their sheep are scattered about all over the countryside, offering frequent refills of heartwarming cheer; and there are mountains (and volcanoes) to sigh over everywhere you go.
Before we went to Iceland, I dreamed of immersing myself in this landscape that seems so wild to outsiders, yet is so well known to those who live there. As I learned more of Iceland, it seemed to me that this is a place where every rock and tree does have a life, or at least a name. Travelers are blown away by this rugged, unspoiled world; some feel that this almost-forgotten island on the edge of Europe could be part of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, sparsely populated and widely untouched.
But under the fields there are sod longhouses built by Vikings; on the farms handed down over the millennium, some still bearing the names chosen by their first settlers, there are rocks that saga heroes leapt over. Basalt rock formations on the shoreline were once trolls, who, caught by the rising sun, will never move their limbs again. Elves and dwarves live in hidden places, and supernatural forces inhabited the mountaintops where people didn’t venture. But on the coast, on the edges of the country, humans have walked all over and cut down the small forests; their sheep still keep the woods from returning to this fragile volcanic land, newer and geologically unsettled, but continuously inhabited for so long.
None of us had read the sagas, so we didn’t try to seek out these famous spots. Still, I was more prepared for this trip than for any previous one, and so I had a sense for where we were much of the time. I knew that Gudrun the Fair and Snorri of Helgafell were from Snæfellsnes, that Eirik the Red had a farm near that peninsula. As we drove the south coast of Iceland, eastward to Vík, I knew that the country of Njal’s Saga was to our left—that somewhere north of us, tragedy is said to have struck two best friends, and that a spiteful woman let herself die alongside her husband, rather than lift a finger to help him. I knew that far distant from us, off the northern coast of Iceland, Grettir the Strong hid out on the weird, fortress-like isle of Drangey until bewitchment and betrayal did him in.
It was satisfying for me, to feel so well-oriented in this northern land. The five of us were able to orchestrate a perfect introduction to Iceland, an over-the-top initiation into European travel for Jane and Cooper (albeit completely different from any European trip I’d ever planned before; more on that later). And although I hadn’t planned to go to Iceland, nor did I mention it in my meditations on the far North, the island settled by the Vikings (and possibly even earlier by ascetic Irish monks) was a natural answer to what I was looking for. The Canadian Shield and the Alaskan bush still await, as does Newfoundland and L’Anse aux Meadows, where Leif Ericksson and then maybe Gudrid the Far-Traveler and her husband Karlsefni first reached Canada. Most of Iceland is still waiting for me, too, and I look forward to seeing it someday.