Looking Back, Looking Forward

On any given day, I can go onto Facebook and tell you what I was doing exactly one, two, or even nine years ago on that day. It’s both the joy and horror of social media: having a literal, day-by-day record of every overpriced meal, every happy hour, every stupid shared meme. On good days of nostalgia it can be a great way to reminisce – on bad days it can be a jolt in the stomach. A weird and sudden reminder that a year ago to the day, you were going hiking with someone you don’t talk to anymore, wearing a dress that doesn’t fit quite right anymore, sharing holidays with someone who’s now gone.

I know it sounds like a Pinterest quote board to say it, but it’s so easy to always look back and never look straight ahead. I spent a lot of time last year looking back, and I got mired in it. And that’s the thing about going through an uncertain time in your life: you can feel so unbearably alone.

It can sometimes be easier to retreat into yourself and fall into a routine of work, Netflix, bed. When you lose important people in your life, they leave big holes in your daily routine, which you are constantly skirting around the edges of during the daytime, and pulling yourself out of at night. When you question what you want to do with your career, or what city you want to live in, or what hobbies you want to dedicate yourself to, it can become an exhausting conversation you have over and over again with yourself for weeks. Months. It’s all-consuming and alienating.

I had a few months like that and uh…no fancy way to say it, it sucked. In some ways, it was easier to think I was all alone, because then I could feel sorry for myself and dramatically listen to “To Build a Home” by The Cinematic Orchestra while driving back from a solo hike, pretending I was at the beginning of some pathetic life actualization indie film.  

But I got sick of doing that. It was annoying, and repetitive, and I stress-ate way too much pasta. So instead I reached out to some friends. I made amends with a few others. I rebuilt conversations that I had let die a long time ago and I signed up for dance classes and made small talk with strangers in bars. I read books before falling asleep at night, rather than letting myself get sucked into the endless black hole of television. I started volunteering with the homeless and at animal shelters. I began working out consistently again, eating healthier, and hiking a whole lot more.

And I’ve realized that while I’ve gone through one of the more uncertain times in my life where I was questioning everything and thought I had lost irreplaceable things, I’ve actually gained so much. I was so stupidly blind to the amazing friends I had always had, that were just waiting for me to put in a little more time, and little more effort. Friendships should, of course, come easily and naturally, like breathing. But they also require just as much care and effort as relationships, and if I learned anything last year, it was that much like relationships, if you love and care about a person, you have to commit to them. Put in the time. Listen to their heartache, take them out for tacos, debate the species of sea turtle you’re watching swim on the screen of Planet Blue. Be willing to be there all the way, all the time.

I’ve learned to prioritize the people that matter, and I’ve learned that the people that matter will prioritize me. I know, I know – that’s brie-level of cheesiness. But anything less is a waste of time – efforts made to something that was a lost cause a long time ago. I am grateful for the FaceTime dates I’ve had with my friend Amanda, who is thousands of miles away, probably zipping through Thailand on the back of a moped. I would be lost without Kate, who indulges my late-night texts about where we should get on a plane to next. I am so lucky to have my roommate Laura, who is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met and also seems to always crave ice cream at the same time as me. I’m impossibly happy to have daily chats with Alyssa and Lisa and Erin. I love exchanging snail mail coast-to-coast with Lily and Katie. I laugh hardest with genuine, goofy people like Jay, I love getting my hands dirty while hiking with Camille and Lauren, and I find comfort in reconnecting with friends like Miriam, Jon, and Moira, who I’ve known since we were all fourteen years old.

The list of people in my life who I am thankful for keeps growing, these days. I used to put my own happiness on the line just to make others happy – or worse, just to make them like me. And now I’ve discovered the excitement and beauty and support of having it go both ways – to love someone and for them to love you back, unselfishly. To pull each other up. To celebrate little victories with excited phone calls and to send handwritten notes when there are disappointments. To realize that we’re all going through uncertain times, but that everything is less scary, and so much better, when you’re in it together.

This is just to say: it feels really good to no longer be stuck always looking back, and to instead start looking forward again. I have amazing friends and an incredible family (have I mentioned my incredible family? My parents are amazing). And, objectively, the cutest and most loving dog on the planet. I have traveled to 16 countries and counting, I live in an apartment painted the color of mint that is full of plants, and I have finally started writing again. Life is so, so good, and I have all of you to thank for that.

Last Adventures of 2017

Somehow, it’s the end of December and this year has whizzed by and long story short I’m going to be 85 any day now and screaming at children to get off my lawn. As I make plans for upcoming travels next year (Scotland, here I come!), I started to think back on where I’ve been this year as well. At first, I was a little disappointed with myself. I ended 2016 and started 2017 strong, in terms of traveling. Going on two international trips back-to-back within six months of each other while on a nonprofit budget is no easy feat, but if I could explore a new place every month, I would.

And because of this, I took the rest of 2017 easy, and stayed stateside. Although I initially was a little bitter that I hadn’t managed to squeeze another international trip into my schedule in the last six months of this year, I’ve come to realize that sometimes the trips that are based just as much in friendship as they are in adventure are just as important.

I spent summer re-introducing myself to D.C. I hiked a lot, took on new responsibilities at my job, and spent a lot of time on those iconic D.C. rooftop bars with friends. But by the time August rolled around, I wasn’t just getting antsy from a lack of new location – I was drowning in heat. Washington, D.C., had one of its longest summers yet, and we were sweltering in humid temperatures well into October. As someone who un-ironically loves autumn (minus the Pumpkin Spiced Lattes), this was not fun for me. So although my fingers hovered over purchasing a quick flight to the wilderness of northern Canada, I instead planned two trips within the United States to visit friends, save money, and escape the humidity.

In late August, I visited my friend Kate Hay – the tiny, fiery woman in my life who I was lucky enough to meet when living in Bath, England, as my housemate. Kate has more spark and personality than the next ten people combined, so a spontaneous trip to her family’s home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was the perfect getaway from baking in the marble and concrete-lined streets of our capital city. She is my go-to adventure buddy – the only friend I can rely on to immediately say “Where are we going?” when I ask her to book a plane ticket with me.

Almost as important as her love of international travel is Kate’s understanding of the important things in life. A.K.A., tacos. Get yourself a friend who immediately takes you to tacos and margaritas upon arrival after a hellish 4 hour drive that involved an entire tree hitting the side of your car in the middle of a storm. This, coupled with a long couple weeks at work, made Kate and her brother Elliott (and the entire Hay family, to be honest) my heroes for taking me in. And for bringing me to tacos.

Even though I claim a pretty small, historic Virginia college town as home to my alma mater, I have to admit that I’ve always thought of Harrisonburg as kind of just a tiny little farming town with a strip of bars that catered to James Madison University students. Harrisonburg is still surrounded by farms and does indeed have plenty of bars for JMU students, but it was also charming and had so much more to do than I expected and have I mentioned tacos?

We ate tacos and drank margaritas on the roof of Magnolia’s Taco and Tequila Bar and talked about Kate and Elliott’s upcoming plans to hike coast-to-coast through England’s countryside with their parents. We talked about Elliott’s life in the Philippines, where he goes to school, and we talked about all the places we all still want to go. Having friends who understand the constant need to board planes is such an incredible, refreshing thing.

We went to an arcade bar before calling it a night, and got up bright and early for Harrisonburg’s farmer’s market, which was predictably adorable. Here, we ate waffles out of a food truck which I, predictably spilled all over myself. We then for some reason decided to walk three miles across town with the entire Hay family to go to a co-op restaurant, where I had all the southern trappings of biscuits and sausage. I was in heaven.

Afterwards, we explored Harrisonburg and drank fancy things like lavender lattes. We then drove one town over for food and my first Escape Room experience! Kate and her entire family have a…special obsession with escape rooms. They go to so many that you would think they’re preparing for the apocalypse. But if the apocalypse comes, I want to be locked in a room with Kate and her family. Alongside a few friends, we managed to get out of a military bunker-themed escape room with ten minutes to spare, and I was way too proud of the ONE clue I figured out (it was a team effort, okay?).

The next morning we drove out to do two of my favorite things: drink wine and play with puppies. We got flights of wine out in the sunshine at CrossKeys Vineyards before heading to Gap View Ranch. And lemme tell ya – there is no better way to cheer yourself up after a rough couple weeks than to arrive at ranch full of Golden Retriever puppies in the sunshine while slightly buzzed on wine.

Gap View Ranch is home to a highly esteemed Golden Retriever breeder. I know, I know. Adopt, don’t shop. I’m all about rescuing dogs and I have to constantly restrain myself from driving down to my local shelter and taking every animal home with me (except for cats – what kind of monster wants to own one of those unloving creatures?). However, my family has always had Golden Retrievers, and there’s a reason why they’re one of the most popular dogs on the planet. Our current dog, Breaker, is the light of my life and literally exists just to love and be loved.

So Gap View Ranch, a large farm with rolling hills and pastures with horses and turkeys, is a dream. They allow people to make reservations to come and socialize the puppies, so they’re ready to live and interact with humans when they finally go home with a nice family. This means that I dropped $5 into a tin and got unlimited hours to be covered in big balls of fluff/excitement/love. It is one of the happiest places on earth, and it’s where I want to go to die. Honestly. I want to leave this planet just smothered in puppies.

It was a great way to end a quick, weekend trip. Unfortunately, I had to leave Kate and Elliott and their wonderful, gracious parents immediately afterwards because the entire family was leaving for Europe the very next morning.

 

Summer rolled into fall, but my God, D.C. was really owning up to our dear president’s claim of it being a “swamp.” The humidity and the heat were awful, and it was sometime on a very sweaty walk home in mid-September that I remembered I had a flight voucher that expired at the end of the month. So I, you know, got home and immediately bought a plane ticket to Colorado.

Four months is a long time to go without spending a full weekend with your best friend, so this free ticket to Denver was the perfect opportunity to reunite with my former travel buddy, Patrick, who had just moved to Denver this summer. We started my trip off in the most predictable way possible: we went to a bar that also had a dog park attached to it. Beers and dogs? Yes and yes.

Next up was Patrick’s local haunt, Fiction Beer Company. I was an English major in a literature-themed bar, with beers named after Winnie the Pooh and A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was perfect and I loved it (even though we lost spectacularly at trivia).

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The next day we explored Patrick’s neighborhood, got some Popeye’s (of course), and later I met up with my oldest friend since birth, Jessica Weathers. Jessica was born just three weeks before me in the exact same hospital in Naples, Italy, and our families have been close ever since. She had quite literally just moved back to Denver that morning, but still made the time to meet up with me and share a few beers (because I was in Colorado – what else was I supposed to consume?). I hadn’t seen her in years, so this was such a nice surprise!

Afterwards, Patrick and I went to a Colorado Rockies game with his friends and roommates, and although the Nats’ field is still my favorite, that sunset view of the mountains from those high seats wasn’t too shabby either.

Essentially eating and drinking my way through Denver, we hit up an empanada restaurant and then bar-hopped. I was eerily aware of how many white people were everywhere. Yeah, okay, I know I’m white. But Denver looked as if an entire congregation of Episcopalians from the suburbs moved into one city district. It was weird. After living for two and a half years in one of the most diverse cities in the country, it was a bit of an adjustment to be surrounded by a bar of people who looked exactly like me, but with slightly better shoes.

The next morning we did one of my favorite things, and one of the most obnoxiously Colorado things you can do: we went hiking. Unfortunately due to the altitude and the possibility of me vomiting and passing out, we couldn’t do anything crazy cool or with high elevation, but it was still incredibly beautiful. Everyone on the trail looked like a Patagonia model and had a dog with a customized leash. I heard at least five people complaining that their horoscopes didn’t match up with their Tinder dates’. Welcome to Colorful Colorado.

We planned to camp that night but unfortunately all the spots that Patrick had picked out were uh…covered in sleet and snow. I knew it would be colder in Colorado than back in D.C., and I had brought layers, but I was definitely not prepared for snow. It’s also hard to fit all necessary camping gear into one carry-on bag. The conditions were looking pretty terrible, so sadly, we did not get to camp. We drove back to Denver, but with the promise that the next time I visited, we would definitely make sure to spend a night on a mountain.

Coming back to Denver wasn’t so bad though! We ended up having an incredible meal out and then somehow ended up in another arcade bar, which I loved. We killed it at skee ball and I played my first game of Pac-Man ever, which was stressful. I screamed a lot and spilled my beer. People stared. We went to an excellent gay bar and some very nice but very intimidatingly tall ladies tried to flirt with me and I had to very gently turn them down.

The next day we drove out to Boulder to hike some more but while on the trail some sketchy-looking storms started to roll in over the mountains. Once again, my dreams of becoming the next Emma Gatewood were thwarted by weather. We instead uh…went back to the start of the trailhead and illegally drank some beers that were intended for the top of the mountain. Really felt like the outdoorswoman I’ve always aspired to be.

In a move that was beginning to feel very similar to our pub-hopping adventure in Dublin earlier this year, Patrick and I promptly found Avery Brewing Co. and ordered more beer. We also very ambitiously ordered a $50 plate of meat, which included at least 3 different kinds of brisket. The waitress led us into this trap and told us that it was “probably enough to share between two people.” The leftovers lasted through Patrick’s lunches for the rest of the week.

It was another short trip, but an incredible one. In an age where most people get distracted by the next swipe on Tinder, it’s nice to know that relationships with people like Kate, Jessica, and Patrick can withstand distance and time. And after months of being apart, it was so nice to finally be back with my best friend, falling into old patterns of staying up until 4 a.m. talking and watching Trainspotting.

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Both trips were also a nice reminder that although I’ve traveled to twenty countries (and am planning many more for next year), there are so many places in the United States that I still haven’t explored. My bad knee is still a little shaky from that ACL reconstruction surgery those years ago, but seeing the Rocky Mountains made me even more determined to get stronger, to climb more mountains, to push myself harder. Since returning to the rolling peaks of the Shenandoah, I’ve spent the past few months hiking more and more by myself, and I can’t wait to go back to Colorado soon and – pending adjustment to the altitude – hike some more mountains and drink some more beers.

I’m home now, back at the beach with my family for the holidays. And I love being near the ocean. I have always grown up beside it, and I somehow become magically graceful in the water, so it’s a nice, familiar thing to come back to. But I’ve come to really like the accomplishment of reaching a mountain’s peak. And most importantly, I’m grateful to have friends who are still willing to adventure with me, no matter where we are in the country. As this year comes to a close, I’m looking forward to exploring even more in 2018. Kate – get ready for Scotland in a few months.

The Land of Fire and Ice: Part 2

We drove through the late afternoon and evening to the southern coast. So much of this trip was spent in the car, but it never got old. There was just so much to look at outside the window, and to talk about inside the car.

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Our hostel was situated right in front of another enormous waterfall named Skógafoss, but by the time we got there, it was pitch black out, and there wasn’t a lot of street lighting, so you couldn’t see the waterfall at all. In fact, you could barely see five feet in front of you; I had to pull out my iPhone flashlight to get from the car to the front door of the hostel. I could hear the roar of the waterfall in the distance, and it was odd that I couldn’t see it.

We ate our incredible dinner of instant ramen and salami in the kitchen of the hostel before returning to our rooms, which had been upgraded to an oh-so-fancy guesthouse. We had found a brand of Citterio’s Milano salami in the grocery stories of Iceland, and it was addictive. We started going through almost 10 packets of the stuff a day, sneakily eating our stash of salami in the backseat when the other wasn’t looking. My sodium levels had never been so high.

In the morning, we popped over to the massive Skógafoss waterfall which was, of course, just casually sitting in the backyard of this hostel and small restaurant – the only civilization for miles. Because where else do you build your affordable travel hotel? In front of a massive waterfall, which you can just…walk up to, of course. After a few Patrick glamor photoshoots, we set out along the coast towards Vík.

The expanse of land in Iceland is indescribable. I can sit here and write that the horizon stretched for miles and miles – never-ending views of dark rocks and green moss and roads – but I can’t do it justice. There’s no way to really describe how it feels to drive with the mountains and glaciers on your left, and the coast on your right, and how it all seemed both incredibly close and impossibly far, at the same time. 

You could actually see glaciers! From a distance! We would simply drive to them if we wanted, along the way (and we did). Iceland has a way of making you feel extremely small.

We stopped along the cliffs of Vík, and then to its black sand beaches and basalt columns, which we climbed like kids on a playground. I loved these beaches, but was sad that we had missed Puffin season, when the clumsy birds would topple down the hills and flop around in their bright orange and black feathers.

The water at the beach was the coldest water I’ve ever touched. We laid down on the black stones and spread our arms and legs far, making “sand angels.” We stared up at the cliffs above us, where seagulls careened overhead, and said nothing. As someone who’s incredibly uncomfortable whenever there’s any kind of lull in a conversation, I was okay with not talking in that moment.

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We stopped in the city of Vík, where Patrick had, quote: “One of the best pizzas of my life,” and insisted on returning. I had a lamb burger, because we were in the land of lamb (SHEEP EVERYWHERE). We obviously stopped by the local grocery store on our way out of town to stock up on candy and salami. The teenage cashier looked mighty judgy as I placed 10 packets of salami on the conveyer belt and tried to pay with cash (apparently, credit is king in Iceland) but UGH that salami – it was worth the disdain of local Icelanders.

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On the drive to Jökulsárlón, the famous lagoon of glacial ice, we stopped at Fjaðrárgljúfur – a stunning canyon that would have been a lot more impressive if not for the weird model photoshoot that was happening when we arrived, 30+ cameramen included. I didn’t recognize the model, but also, the world of fashion is a mystery to me, so who knows! Maybe I was chilling with someone famous on the side of a windy cliff in Iceland. All I know is that she blocked a lot of photos that I was trying to take and she was not dressed very practically, considering the chilly weather.

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Jökulsárlón? Jökulsárlón was a dream. I’m glad we arrived just after dusk. The black sand, the eerie, almost luminescent ice – it was like nothing I had ever seen. Huge chunks of glacial ice break off from the source, floating and crashing into one another in the lagoon until making their way out to sea. Massive bodies of ice slamming into each other is an incredible sound – both deafening, and hollow in the way it echoes out across the water. I was so stupidly in love with the idea of walking in between huge pieces of glacier that had washed ashore that I started hugging the mounds of ice and mumbling, “I love you,” in a way that most people don’t talk to frozen water.

The next morning, we got up and got to see Jökulsárlón in the daytime. The sunlight was blinding, reflected through the glaciers, and the wind could almost topple you over. As we took photos in front of the lagoon, a British tourist mooned the entire crowd, and did a little dance without his pants on. Unfortunately, I was too busy laughing to snag any pictures.

We kept driving. It was just endless, straight roads, through hours of moss-covered lava fields. The road would stretch out until you couldn’t see where it ended. Patrick, to his credit, did all the driving and I got to cruise shotgun in the passenger seat throughout the entire trip, which meant I got to do a lot of sight-seeing. We alternated each other’s iPods when we got sick of each other’s music. We traded stories from high school, from both of us living abroad. The mountains and lava fields and sheep after sheep continues to roll by, as I got to know this friend I had never traveled with on a never-ending international road trip.

Somehow, miraculously, we didn’t kill each other. My apprehension of traveling with someone I had never been anywhere with before, was gone. Maybe I annoyed Patrick, and I’m sure he’ll be quick to tell you I did, but never once did I tire of traveling with him. I tried to learn to squash any feelings of awkwardness and instinctively babble to fill the silence, as I usually do when first becoming friends with someone or…in any conversation in general. 

We hiked out to a random waterfall because Patrick saw a dirt road leading off the highway that “might” lead to it, taking special care not to step on the moss-covered rocks (the moss takes almost 100 years to completely regrow, and is extremely fragile). We saw a glacier where multiple European tourists had disappeared (and, you know, uh…died). We made sure not to die, as that’s something that’s very easy to do in Iceland.

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We stopped along the side of the road to pet wild horses and eventually made our way to the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, where we stood under the roaring waters and got drenched. I almost slipped off the side of the path but luckily the only people who noticed was the large Spanish family that was right behind me. Through it all, I kept a careful eye on the volcano Katla, whenever she appeared on the road beside us. We had planned our trip exactly when Katla was set to erupt at any point over the course of the next two weeks, and we had to be ready to make a run for it if she did.


We were now on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. In the morning, we drove through lava fields to a location that Patrick knew only through GPS coordinates, which he had gotten from a local. The coordinates led us onto a rough F-road, through fields of lava and past an abandoned, collapsed barn, where a tiny hot pot was nestled between jagged rocks. The hot pot was only big enough for two people, with water over 100℉.

It was surreal. We were in the middle of a field of scraggly grass and lava rocks that had formed from a volcanic eruption, in our bathing suits. Outside of the water, it was around 40-45℉, with a sprinkling of rain and sun peeking out behind grey clouds, but the water was insanely warm. At some point in the two or three hours I spent there, I realized it was Monday. Somewhere, back across the Atlantic, my coworkers were starting their day at the office, while I was sitting in a hot spring in the middle of nowhere in Iceland, with rainbows arching above my head. This was, hands down, infinitely better than the Blue Lagoon. I liked this Iceland – the rugged, dirt-strewn, middle-of-nowhere-Iceland – so much more than my first impression of it at the Blue Lagoon.

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We had to make a brief pit-stop and pull over on the side of the road, because according to Iceland’s weather website that I had loaded on my phone, the winds that we were driving through were strong enough to flip a car over. If we were going to drive, we had to go at about 25 miles per hour, to reduce the risk of flipping on our side. Risking your life is just another great way to add a little zest to your next vacation!

I’m a masochist, so I insisted that we visit the Bjarnarhöfn Museum, which shows you exactly how the Icelandic delicacy called Kæstur hákarl is made. I’m using the term “delicacy” loosely. What’s hákarl, you ask? Oh, you know. Just fermented shark meat.

I don’t eat fish – it’s a big flaw of mine, which I’m working on. I recently had fish and chips and liked it, which I considered to be a huge accomplishment – I texted my parents and announced it like I had just gotten accepted into college. So please understand how difficult it was for me to actually eat the rotten flesh of a Greenland Shark.

Greenland Shark, when first caught, is brimming with ammonia, making it deadly to eat raw or cooked. The only way to safely consume it, according to some viking who figured this out thousands of years ago, is to slice up the shark (FYI: Greenland Sharks can grow up to 21 feet, weigh as much as 2,200 pounds, and live for over 150 years), and bury it underground. Rocks and sand are placed on top of the shark meat, to press all those yummy fluids out, for about 6-12 weeks as the meat ferments. Then, the shark meat is dug up and hung to dry for several months. After that, it’s chopped up into tiny cubes and offered to unsuspecting tourists with a piece of bread or shot of brennivín to wash it down.

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Anthony Bourdain called it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten. I…would have to agree. Our guide, a delightful man named Christian, gave us a great tour, explaining just how the hákarl was made, before offering us our own sample (“It’s gluten-free!” he proclaimed a little too proudly). I managed to chew and swallow half of it, before gagging at the texture of a line of grizzly cartilage, and spat out the rest. Patrick, true to form, ate two pieces just to show me up. It’s like eating an incredibly foul and chewy cheese, and although it’s no longer fatal, the ammonia levels in the meat are still high enough to make the average person gag.

The museum also had a large collection of things (a.k.a., animal and human parts) that had been found in the stomachs of the Greenland sharks that had been caught. Outside, you could stand in the shack of drying shark meat and revel in the stench. You could also pet some of the most beautiful wild horses against the most ridiculously idyllic backdrop. Iceland is unreal.

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Afterwards, we drove back along the coast, passing a few thousand more sheep, and finally made it back to Reykjavík. We treated ourselves to our third non-ramen + salami meal of the trip (and a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine) before coming back to Kex Hostel for our last night. There, we made friends with a crowd of Brits, Aussies, and obnoxious Canadians (yes, CANADIANS, not Americans, being obnoxious), and played our own version of the British television show, “Countdown,” with the magnetic letters on the wall in Kex’s common area. We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, yelling, “Can I have a vowel, please, Carol?” in British accents, and at least one of the Australians is now my friend on Facebook and has wished me a happy birthday from thousands of miles away.

The next morning, we roamed around Reykjavík in our final hours, eating our last hot dogs and ice creams in the freezing rain. We purchased postcards for friends back home and I invested in an overpriced Icelandic wool sweater with my leftover cash (I had calculated the exchange rate math incorrectly and had accidentally taken out the equivalent of $450 from an ATM). The sweater came with its own comb, to brush down the scratchy wool, and it is now one of my favorite sweaters.

We’d eventually drive the car back towards Keflavík airport, where reality would sink in when I finally made my dreaded first peek at my work email account. When we got home later that day, the heat and humidity of Washington, D.C., would feel smothering. In the days that followed, I’d try to explain the trip to my coworkers, to my friends, to my family, but it was nearly impossible. The loneliness of it, the quiet of it, the endless hours of talking – it just seemed too big to really explain over coffee in the break room. How do you summarize all of that into just one conversation? How do you squeeze it into one blog post, even? It’s been a year now, and the details are slipping away. I wrote this like a quick itinerary summary, in a hurried race against time before I forgot too many things.

It’s impossible to tell you all of it, to remember all of it. Only my mom really listened to every single detail; my friends, my coworkers, my other family members – they all lost patience after one or two long-winded stories that just didn’t do the entire trip justice. So instead, to give them a real feel for Iceland, I’d tell them this:

 

Two nights before we returned home, we were in a hostel on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Because of the high amount of sulfuric activity in the area, the water that came out of the faucets smelled like rotten eggs. On the entire drive there, I had been wrongfully blaming the smell of the air coming from outside on Patrick’s farting. We had finally gotten to a point in the drive where teasing each other about farting was a normal, routine conversation. Little did I know, the smell would cling to my clothes and my washed hair after showering at the hostel.

I often think of this night as the last night in Iceland, even though I can clearly remember that we had another two days there afterwards. But when trying to explain what Iceland and what traveling with Patrick was like, it always comes down to this. We went to sleep in a dingy hostel that smelled like farts and rotten eggs after another meal of ramen and salami, cooked in an ever-quiet hostel. The walls of the hostel were covered in maps, and the other guests all pattered around in their socks. Before going to bed, Patrick checked the aurora forecast and the weather doppler on my phone, and set an alarm. We fell asleep to the quiet mumblings of the rooms on either side of us.

At 2 a.m., the alarm went off. We groggily pulled on our hiking boots, our many layers of fleeces and sweaters and coats. It was unbearably cold, and my eyes were burning from exhaustion. I trusted Patrick blindly, allowing him to drive us away from the silent little town we were staying in, down a highway where the streetlights disappeared. We pulled off on the side of the road, surrounded by darkness, and got out of the car. We looked up – and there they were. The Northern Lights.

I didn’t try to take any pictures, or Snapchat us shivering out in the cold. I took a lot of photos in Iceland, but it was in Iceland that I learned not to care as much about them. What was important was this, right here. Parked along the side of the highway, beside miles of darkness of Icelandic wilderness, shivering at two in the morning and craning our necks upwards. Watching that ethereal, green glow streak across the sky against a backdrop of some of the brightest stars I had ever seen. My fingers went numb and I was shaking uncontrollably from the cold. Watching the lights shimmer was surreal. We leaned against the side of the car and just looked up for hours, not saying anything. Not needing to say anything. I was finally okay with sitting in the silence.

Eventually, the aurora borealis faded, and we drove back to our hostel. We crawled into our beds, bundling under the blankets, but when I closed my eyes, I could still see that green streak across the sky, now imprinted on my eyelids.

That night will always stand out to me as “the last night in Iceland,” and as the best example of what that trip was. It’s hard to put it into words – the impulsiveness of driving out to the middle of nowhere with someone who would eventually become one of my best friends, just to look up at the night sky. The bubbling excitement of realizing you’ve finally found someone you can truly adventure with. The thrill of buying tickets to a foreign country on a whim one evening in July, and having no idea how it’d turn out. My first trip abroad in three years, after feeling trapped at home, trapped at work. Wearing no makeup for days, living in hiking boots, eating salami in the car while screaming along to middle school jams. Petting wild horses on the side of the road. Looking up at an almost unnatural light dancing across the sky, and the world feeling so big and so small at the same time.

It’s been hard to put all of it into words, and these blog posts didn’t do it justice. But when I’m trying to explain it, that night is the story I tell them. This was Iceland, I say.

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