I’ve publicly voiced my belief that travel is not an agent in finding oneself – that happiness and self discovery are internal journeys, and I still stand by this. But I cannot deny the finding of reason and clarity, the exploration and lessons learned. I cannot deny the unrivaled experience it offers, no matter what corner of the world you decide to turn. And while I can honestly say I’ve wandered into some incredibly life-changing odysseys, nothing can truly top the peaks (both personal and literal) I reached in my short stay in Iceland.
I had originally planned for a three day stay in Reykjavík; a short stopover between Dublin and New York City. It rained all three days. Which was fine, because neither the wonders of the Blue Lagoon, nor the Golden Circle, lose their magic in the presence of precipitation. I explored waterfalls, geysirs and hot springs – filling every existing moment with a memory, taking in the condensation as a travel companion.
But then, like the beginning of most any captivating film, a twist of fate: My flight gets cancelled, and I’m allowed an extra day.
It’s Monday. I should be at work. But I’m waking up to my powder white hotel sheets on a sunny day in Iceland. Not a cloud in the sky. Not a mist in the air. Upon learning of my extra admitted time the night before, I booked a solo helicopter tour for the morning, just as a "last hurrah" before my flight home, unknowing of the beautiful day I’d be greeted with come sunrise. Funny how things work out.
I quickly got dressed and threw any remaining clothes in my suitcase, skipped breakfast, and rushed outside to greet the driver (who would also be my pilot) as he pulled up to the hotel. We talked about life and piloting and Norway, followed by the very general exchanges between local and visitor: “What have you seen? What have you done?"
About 35 minutes later, after the drive and the payment and the co-piloting rundown, we were airborne. This was my very first time in a helicopter, and I was honestly pretty stunned at how normal it felt; how naturally I fit. There were none of the expected knots or butterflies in my stomach upon takeoff. It felt like I’ve flown plenty times before. Unbeknownst to me, both the knots and the butterflies were just miles away.
We started flying over the first set of peaks and I will never be able to put into words, or show with any photographs, the color of the morning sky as we ascended. I very honestly believed such hues were only granted to sunsets in remote, tropical islands. I didn’t even think to reach for my camera. The sun rose so quickly and the moment promised was so fleeting, I simply took a deep breath and soaked it all in. And the higher we glided along, the further I came to the realization that this flight was going to reach far and beyond anything I have ever experienced – that the world, and all that it held, if for just a few hours, was going to turn in my favor.
And it did. I saw some pretty incredible things: I explored natural hot springs and stood between two streams of ice cold and boiling hot water, both on the same plane within ten feet of one another. I, for a short second, was in two continents at once as we flew across the two tectonic plates. I flew through and between famously captured movie scenes, and my pilot was very eager to tell me stories of Tom Cruise sitting where I had been sitting, flying through the same course as we had been flying.
We flew across the black sand beaches of the South, where my pilot directed me to put my camera away and to simply experience the moment – a moment in which he plunged down to the ground, tip of the aircraft first, and sped through along the water as it danced frantically with the wind, the nose of our machine grazing and kissing the shore.
Words cannot explain the thrill of such an experience. But the greatest, most eye-opening moment was Eyjafjallajökull. (I still can’t properly pronounce her name. You can try to here. But I've called her Eyja – a beautiful, befitting, albeit shortened, version of the name.) Eyja, to me, was arguably the most climacteric moment of my life.
If you had done any traveling in Europe around this time six years ago, you know of Eyja. You may not have been too happy with her, but you knew her nonetheless. Eyja, the volcano and star of this script, erupted in the spring of 2010 and is most notable for her large-scale disruption of air travel across Europe at the time. Her eruptions spanned from the 20th of March and weren’t officially declared over until October, impacting ten million travelers and devastating surrounding Icelandic farmlands.
I stood on top of Eyja.
We landed on the peak and I walked away from both the aircraft and pilot, keeping enough of a distance as to not raise concern, but far enough to where he was out of both my optical and auditory range.
Every step I took was a new footprint in the snow. I was walking on a sheet untouched, on a floor walked upon by no other before me. She fostered absolutely no living thing. No vitality, no vegetation, no wildlife. Not a single microorganism. Not a single pulse. Not a single soul. It was just the extraordinary earth, all on her own, sharing a moment with me.
I broke into tears.
And upon composing myself, wiping the chilled salt water from my cheek, the question presented itself immediately: "What does it matter?”
Leading up to this moment, I had so many worries and concerns and quandaries about money and the future and every last one of the unknowns that threatened my stability and security and comfort. What does any of it matter?
The air was clean and silent. Light and seemingly undetectable, but impressively strong once you acknowledged its presence. The space was uninhabited, but held by the magnetism and enchantment of the highlands. Everything stood still with the exception of my heart beating – the only movement to dance upon the portrait of the earth.
“This," I thought to myself, "this exists."
The world is plagued with so many pressures and so many disturbances and so many trivial details that stress us out and rob us of our time and mental wellness. It has so much clutter and so much corruption. But the world also has this. The world also has Eyja. Beauty. Divinity. A pure, unadulterated stillness. A stillness that rests on the same plane as our pandemonium. A heaven in the same shared space as our dystopia. Time didn't exist here. And standing in a place governed by neither life or time, I was able to see both for what they really were: beautiful and elusive wrinkles in space that fit the molds of our minds' choosing. Where, if I didn't allow it the room or freedom to hurt me, it wouldn't. Eyja, as vast and wide and free as she was, didn't give it the opportunity to hurt her.
I stepped onto Eyja, and felt what it meant to be weightless. I felt the embrace of her majesty; the equally silent and strong force that she was. She cooly danced around me and ignited the soul within me.
And then I left. And then I returned to the real world where conformities and complexities actively distribute their weights on our backs and on our minds. And every time I’d get overwhelmed, or caught in the grasps of dilemma or disorder, I come back to Eyja.
Eyja exists, and she is both breathtaking and otherworldly by simply existing. She is untouched and unscathed by human thought and assumption and sin. She does not let time define or dominate her. She very simply, just is. Unapologetically.
And that’s something she taught me to do. To just be. When life gets difficult or when it feels like time is running out; when people become unpredictable, when predicaments corner every habitable space in our minds: just stop, and just be. Exist. Let it happen. I learned how to become the air of Eyja: silent and strong. Raw and authentic and unapologetic. All without effort. All without trying to be something else, without trying to make something happen, without trying to twist and turn and tangle situations beyond their remedies. To just be, and to let the life that conceived Eyja, take hold and take care of me. To believe that if the world can paint snowy hills and trust mankind do not destroy them, then I can just be as the world painted me, and trust mankind does not destroy me either.
Life can be beautiful if we allow it to, and Eyja can exist within us all. She’ll erupt and she’ll devastate you. But as designed by nature, she will come down and she will rest and she will just be. She will be the most beautiful spirit in the entire world. You will be the most beautiful spirit in the entire world. If only you just let it happen.
You, her, me. We are all Eyja. We all exist. We are all here. And for that, we are all beautiful.