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 only a few kilometers from the Arctic circle, summer as we know it is long over.
I’m 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 less exciting. I spent a weekend in Reykjavik that left me angsty, feeling somehow 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.
I’ve never traveled alone before, and the anxiety of new experiences is overwhelming, but that all changes as soon as I leave the city, boarding a bus bound for Akureyri, Iceland: the second largest city in the country with a population of 18,000. I plan to spend ten days working at Kaffi Ilmur, a small yellow house, converted into a cafe. As I step off the bus, Rebecca, who is to be my roommate, greets me immediately and I know I’m in the right place.
The next ten days are 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 step outside my comfort zone and hitchhike to Lake Myvatn, a geothermal area about 100 kilometers from Akureyri. I’m filled with nerves but after my first ride I realize how easy it is and how freeing it feels to only have my two feet and my heavy pack, able to set up camp anywhere I like. I have everything I need to survive and I can go anywhere or do anything I desire. The short trip fills me with confidence about my upcoming two weeks of hitchhiking.
Over the next two weeks I receive 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 are the same, some want to chat about my experiences and their own, others are reserved and we sit in silence for much of the journey. Some take me to see sights, both popular and out of the way, some give me tips for my own journey, others ask me for my advice on where to go. Every person who picks me up is genuinely nice and interesting, and shares their car and their lives with me for anywhere between ten minutes and six hours.
The most remarkable part of the trip arrives when I finally leave the ring road and head to the highlands for a four day, 55 kilometer trek from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork.
I hike through mountains that looked like paintings dappled with greens and reds and blues, past bubbling hot springs, over glaciers and black sand, in sideways rain, through frozen riverbeds, and into lush green valleys in the warm sunlight.
The varied landscape and the company of two lovely French travelers, also on their own, pushes me further and further into the wild volcanic deserts of the highlands.
I will forever remember the people I crossed paths with during those four days.
Romi, the French guy whose 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.
After leaving the highlands, I spend the weekends exploring the south of Iceland, returning to spend time on the black sand beaches of Vik, and the waterfalls near Skogar. I’m tired, and ready to go home, but all I think about are the beautiful sights that I have been able to experience over the past month, and all the growth and learning that came from traveling on my own.
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 want to live like this forever, but to be able to drift in the wind, alone and without expectations, and land wherever life takes you is a gift. If you ever have the opportunity to travel solo, take it. You will never be the same.
Ilana Newman is a photographer based in Portland, Oregon and Bellingham, Washington. You can view more of her work at ilananewman.com and find her on Instagram.
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