For decades, Iceland's tourism consisted mostly of brief but surreal stopovers. Jetlagged travelers en route to better tread parts of Europe would disembark their planes for two hours only to be convinced by the tourism board's offer to pay a flight change fee so that they could float in the warm siliceous water of blue lagoons for a few hours and then pass out in a nondescript hotel in Reykjavik, leaving the next morning pleased by their spontaneity.
Then Game of Thrones began filming there and people all over the world were treated to the tiny island nation's myriad natural wonders on a weekly basis. Our party was drawn to Iceland not by a deep desire to explore Westeros but rather by dirt cheap round trip flights and the promise of frolicking on Icelandic horses with manes blonder than our own.
Upon arrival, we were advised to find the Snaefellsjokull Glacier, widely believed by a certain kind of person to be one of the highest sacral chakras of the earth. One guide advised us that the farm of Iceland's most notorious serial killer, Axlar-Björn (noted equally for his outstanding hospitality and penchant for disappearing weary travelers), would make an amusing stop on the way. Coming from the land of the Zodiac Killer, the Night Stalker and the Grim Sleeper, discovering that Iceland's most notorious killer was active in the 16th century proved somewhat anticlimactic.
The glacier though, defrosting as it is, did not disappoint. To even the least hippy dippy among us, the energy emanating from all over the small island nation was undeniable. From the steam that rises from the hot springs, bringing with it the assaulting smell of sulfur, to the twinkling of the ever-elusive Northern Lights, every part of Iceland's natural landscape seemed to be in constant dialogue with those lucky enough to come across it.
Environment is everything in Iceland, though many of the landscape's most engrossing aspects are more felt than seen. Here, citizens take that which can't be seen so deeply for granted that elves are accounted for on a daily basis — from construction sites relocated to appease angry elves to shoebox-sized churches built to convert the tiny race to Christianity.
We visited fjords believed to be haunted by bitter men cursed to spend eternity as angry whales and caves said to be inhabited by trolls forever repenting for crimes of passion. "You're standing on the troll's dinner table!" a tour guide yelled at us as we stumbled over stone masses buried deep underground.
Our days were spent mostly in transit. We drove for hours through fields of volcanic rock covered in undulating green moss, we rode horses up mountains and across black sand beaches and slept on ferries as they navigated through ever tinier islands with populations maxing out in the hundreds. Driving was always the hardest because there were simply too many natural wonders to stop and gape at. Five-hour car rides stretched on endlessly as we pulled over and got out to climb another waterfall, to chase more sheep, or to run down another endless stretch of road.
These stops, more than anything, are what I'll hold onto most about our 11-day trip. Not in a cheesy, it's about the journey, not the destination sort of way but because they gave me two painfully pragmatic bits of travel wisdom: take full advantage of every minute free of rain; and most importantly, do whatever it takes to learn how to ford a river before your next road trip. There are undoubtedly countless tutorials on YouTube.