Last week I went to Iceland with four of my friends.
We stayed up all night flying across the Atlantic and when the plane landed, we heaved heavy backpacks over stiff shoulders and wandered the airport parking lot looking for an unmarked rental SUV that was, according to the rental agent, “somewhere around.”
Welcome to Iceland: where it is normal to wander in the cold pursuing a treasure that is rumored to be somewhere nearby.
Mike pressed the keychain lock button for five full minutes until we discovered a gold-toned SUV flashing its headlights. We shuffled into the car, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and bobbing back and forth while looking for elusive seatbelts buried awkwardly beneath the groin regions of fellow passengers.
All week we drove desolate roads for hours without anything in sight but open fields and frosted peaks splintered by waterfalls.
Mike and Matt, the two Marines that organize logistics for a living, sat side-by-side, driver and navigator, spinning a map round and round while trying to pronounce Icelandic street names. The car would slow, brake, turn around, back up, and finally one of them would say, “Yeeaaah. I think this is it?”
My brother was very adamant about music selection, so he tutored us in cultural relevance as we traversed the frigid wilderness. My only complaint was that there was an extreme shortage of snacks. Also we didn’t see any trolls, polar bears, or Vikings. Mostly we just looked at nature.
At nighttime we turned off all the lights to gaze at the sky, hoping the Northern Lights would dance for us. They did one night, but it didn’t look like we expected. There were no neon brush strokes penetrating the darkness. Instead, on a late night drive in a valley surrounded by nothing, Matt pulled the car over and we watched a single milky band stretch wide across the sky like a rainbow, then condense to a stocky square, then disappear altogether.
We stood in the road, fragile and freezing against the punishing wind while cheering at the sky, thrilled that we didn’t miss something so subtle and significant as solar footsteps. The whole thing lasted less than three minutes and no one caught it on film. But the brevity of the moment made it all the more memorable, I think. Even if the lights would have lasted longer, I’m not sure we could have sustained the conditions. The temperatures pressed harshly against zero and the wind was so strong it felt like a tangible hand was dislodging you from the ground. The whole landscape howled empty and cavernous while the sky cast new shadows overhead. Over and over I thought, “My goodness. I am very, very small.”
One of our waiters told us that coming to Iceland is like experiencing the world 10,000 years ago. Almost no one lives here. The landscape is broad and wild.
I read in a travel book that many mountains on the Eastern coast went unexplored for centuries because the steaming, geothermal sites were misunderstood as the literal entrances to hell.
There is a lot of bizarre folklore in Iceland’s history specifically involving trolls and whale-men, but I can see how wonder could give way to cartoonish superstition. This place has so much extravagant beauty and natural phenomena that the mysterious, creative hand of God seems to hover close and active, as if He is cooking up something remarkable on an unpopular island with zero cell phone reception.
Iceland is astoundingly beautiful and unapologetically inconvenient. We drove hours upon hours. None of the scenic destinations were conveniently located. Every trail, waterfall, or geyser must be explored on purpose on a full tank of gas that, in our case, costs no less than $140.
Iceland in March also mandates a willingness to be profoundly cold, not as an exception, but as a general rule. Our ice-climbing guide Thorston told us, “The difference between ice climbers and regular climbers is that they are able to suffer for longer.” He told this with a proud smile as we hiked to the base of a glacier with pickaxes and crampons.
The most photogenic moments of the trip were equal parts magnificent and agonizing. We would reach a lookout point and pause in awestruck wonder. With cold hands in pockets, we would exhale foggy breaths and know deep down that God had been here before us, that He had created this scene, and that He inhabits all of the places He builds.
He was here with us.
Was He cold, too?
Then we would return to the car with cuts and bruises and burns inflicted by the trail, utterly depleted by exposure to the elements. I would feel desperately and tearfully homesick for Molly while longing in lesser degrees for warm weather and a daytime diet of anything other than granola bars.
At the end of our trip, our Icelandic friend Agnes spoke about the long, dark Iceland winters. The sun only rises for a few hours everyday. She said it is depressing and hard, but then added, “Yes, but people who have the sun don’t appreciate the sun. Icelanders, we appreciate the sun.”
She spoke these words to us at a bar over the pulsing beat of a Rihanna song while we drank expensive Icelandic beer that was not very good. And I reflected on the sturdiness of Icelanders, how they are unusually durable in cold and dark conditions. Maybe it is because they understand that uncomfortable seasons give way to beautiful ones.
Icelanders know how to appreciate the sun— what an inspiring core value.
I was definitely ready to come home, jumpy with excitement as we passed back through customs, newly refreshed in the precious value of warmth and comfort and proximity to my daughter.
And how appropriate it was to return home the week of Easter, knowing that beauty always costs something, that the whole purpose of darkness is to make a commodity out of light.
This weekend we remember how the bleakness of Good Friday gave way to the wonder of the resurrection. Jesus summited our sin at the cost of his life. What a captivating collision: the glory and brutality of Easter, the moment light miraculously danced on the grave of darkness.
Is there any greater spectacle? Any more beautiful scene?
Easter is a lookout point, a place to pause and stand in awestruck wonder. This year let us be more like Icelanders— people that acknowledge the cost of darkness to more fully celebrate the presence of light.
I will be celebrating in San Diego with the memory of Iceland; finally warm, reunited with my daughter, and blessed with unlimited access to iced coffee and Oreos.
The best part about travel is that it always ends at home.
The best part about Easter is that Jesus came to redefine exactly where that is.