I’m standing on the side of a road, Icelandic wind cutting through my sweatshirt and twisting my hair around my face. I stick my thumb out, smiling through the chilly air at each and every car that passes until one pulls over. I hitch my backpack onto my back, and run over to see if they can take me farther down the road, towards my ever changing destination. It’s the end of August. In the north of Iceland, where I stood only a few kilometers from the Arctic circle, summer as we know it was long over. The days rested somewhere around 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit, and nights, me snuggled warmly in my sleeping bag with infamous winds battering my tent, dropped to nearly freezing temperatures. I was on a month long trip around the island, a country smaller in area than my home state of Oregon, with only 332,000 inhabitants, but the most varied geography of any place I have ever been. Driving down the Ring Road, the main road that circles the entire island, you may be passing ocean cliffs on one side, rocky mountains covered in green moss on the other side, and fifteen minutes later passing a geothermal hot springs, and hills flecked with reds and golds.
My first impression of the country was honestly disappointing. I spent a weekend in Reykjavik that filled me a general feeling of angst and the feeling of being in the wrong place. Clouds blanketed the city, and I spent the weekend roaming the streets in the cold, too broke to buy anything special, or even a nice meal. I had never traveled alone before, and the anxiety of new experiences was overwhelming, but that all changed as soon as I left the city, boarding a bus bound for Akureyri, Iceland: the second largest city in the country with a population of 18,000. I was to spend ten days working at Kaffi Ilmur, a small yellow house, converted into a cafe. As I stepped off the bus, and was greeted immediately by Rebecca, who was to be my roommate while I was there, I instantly knew I was in the right place. The small town was not overwhelming in any way, like the capital had been, it was welcoming, and quaint. Later in the day after having my first cafe meal, delicious soup and bread, I wandered through the botanical garden, which claims to be the most northern botanical garden in the world, and knew that I was home.
The next ten days were filled with days of strolling around town, berry picking with the other employees, afternoons spent at the local pool, and evenings washing dishes and clearing tables at the cafe. On my day off, I stepped outside my comfort zone and hitchhiked to Lake Myvatn, a beautiful and diverse geothermal area, about 100 kilometers from Akureyri. Although before my first ride I was filled with nerves, once I realized how easy it was, and how freeing it was to only have my two feet, and my heavy pack, and to be able to set up camp anywhere I like. I had everything I needed to survive right there on me, and I could go anywhere or do anything I desired. That short trip filled me with confidence about my upcoming two weeks of hitchhiking.
Over the next two weeks I received rides from ten cars from Iceland, two French, two Danish, two Canadian, one Swiss, one Swedish, one American, one Indian, one Spanish, and one Austrian. No two rides were the same, some wanted to chat about my experiences and their own, others were quite reserved and we sat in silence for much of the journey. Some brought me to see sights, both popular and out of the way, some gave me tips for my own journey, others asked me for my advice on where to go. Every person who picked me up was a genuinely nice and interesting person, and shared their car and their lives with me for anywhere between ten minutes and six hours.
The most remarkable part of the trip arrived when I finally left the ring road and headed to the highlands for a four day, 55 kilometer trek from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork. Starting in Landmannalaugar I spent the evening in a hot spring before rising early the next morning to head out. I hiked through mountains that looked like paintings, land dappled with greens and reds and blues, it felt like a different planet. Past bubbling hot springs and over glaciers I hiked, in sideways rain one day, and through riverbeds and into lush green valleys in the warm sunlight the next. The varied landscape, and the company of two lovely French travelers, also on their own, pushed me further and further into the wild volcanic deserts of the highlands. Day three felt as though we were hiking across the moon, black sand under our feet, mountains rising up all around. Day four brought us finally into the valley. We hiked in the rain once again, crossing freezing rivers and descending finally into a forest of small, fantastical trees as we entered the Thorsmork area. I will forever remember the people I crossed paths with during those four days. Romi, the French guy who’s positive energy was infectious, even in the constant rain and seemingly never ending kilometers. Adelaide, the French girl who stuck by my side, even as we both literally tumbled around both of our first solo trek, falling into rivers, breaking through ice, and discussing our own paths through life. Max and Louisa, the German couple who brought me so much comfort during the long first day of hiking in the rain, hiking just a little ways behind me and making me feel as though I wasn’t stranded alone on mountaintops in a country so far from home. We all formed a family of sorts, celebrating Max’s birthday the fourth night, pooling together all of our leftover trekking food and feasting on rice and lentils, mashed potatoes, stew, and a little bit of chocolate for each of us.
At first I was scared, but only of the unknown, and that fear turned into a freedom that is impossible to feel when tied down to a house or even friends.
After leaving the highlands, I spent the weekends exploring the south of Iceland, returning to spend time on the black sand beaches of Vik, and the waterfalls near Skogar. I was tired, and ready to go home, but all I could think about were the beautiful sights that I had been able to experience over the past month, and all the growth and learning that I had created while traveling on my own. Since I’ve been home, everyone has asked me if I was ever scared, scared for my safety. It can be completely safe to travel alone as a woman, as long as you listen to your gut, pay attention, and act like you belong. At first I was scared, but only of the unknown, and that fear turned into a freedom that is impossible to feel when tied down to a house or even friends. I don’t think I would want to live like that forever, but to be able to drift in the wind, alone and without expectations, and land wherever life takes you is a gift that if you have the opportunity to experience; take it. You will never be the same.
Photos & Words by Ilana Newman
Originally published in Pulse Spikes’ Fall 2016 Issue – No. 004. The issue is available to read digitally and purchase in print at pulsespikes.com.