As night turned to day, a beautiful sunrise ensued. Being from California, I am used to watching gorgeous sunsets, not the other way around. I took a moment of solitude to enjoy the beginnings of a new day, and spend a few minutes of peace and quiet with God. I looked on as an array of colors reflected off a calm Atlantic Ocean, excited for the day’s activities, a hike on Vatnajökull (water glacier), but sad to be leaving Iceland on a red-eye later that night.
“Hey, Sam! Sam!” I heard faintly from afar. When I turned, I saw two of my travel companions waving to me as they walked up a hill to the dining hall at the Hali Country Hotel. I waved back and then went into my room to grab a few things before following them up for coffee and breakfast.
For whatever reason, I opened my iPad, and tapped the Facebook app. The first thing I saw was a #PrayForVegas flyer. A panic quickly flared from within. People I love dearly live in Vegas. I quickly closed the Facebook app and hit the internet to try to find out what had happened. It was still late at night in Vegas, the facts were murky, but I was able to find out that a shooting had taken place at the Route 91 Harvest music festival.
It was around eight o’clock in the morning (Iceland time), when I began sending out messages. Everyone I reached out to responded straightaway, which was a relief. As the day went forward, I continued to read harrowing stories from more and more friends that were at the concert. Thankfully, none of them were physically injured.
It was a strange feeling, very disconnected, being that far away from home when such a horrible event took place. I wanted to be there to mourn with my country, my family, my friends, to try to make sense of the senseless. Yet, I wasn’t. I was about to walk on Vatnajökull, and that felt awkward.
It was around 9:30 when two Glacier Adventure tour guides picked us up in a huge van. Twelve of us climbed in and we drove off the beaten path to a Vatnajökull area. When the van came to a halt, we piled out, and then stepped into a zodiac with a motor in the back. We needed to cross a relatively small glacial lake to get to the base of Vatnajökull.
At the base, we suited up – safety harness, helmet, ice axe, and of course, crampons. I stamped my spikes into the ice to get feel for my new footing; the sound of the ice crunching beneath me was a delight to my ears. I sniffed the air like a polar bear, trying to make out what I could. The cold, crisp air was as clean as anything I had ever sniffed.
As we started up the ice, I felt as connected to nature as ever. It was romantic. Everything I was experiencing was new; I was like a child eager to be taught. While I have toured Alaskan glaciers from above, I have never walked on one, touched one with my own hands. It felt oddly intimate being on Vatnajökulls level, at its mercy. The vulnerability was strangely comforting. It made me want to know all about my new beautiful friend, it’s rich, colorful history.
I had to consciously stop my mind to be able to listen to our tour guides as they began to shed light on the ancient glacier. Vatnajökull is the largest icecap in Iceland, and the third largest glacier in all of Europe. It covers roughly 8% of the entire island, averages 1,300 feet in ice thickness, and has multiple active volcanoes embedded within the ice. In actuality, we were walking on Breiðamerkurjökull, one of Vatnajökull’s largest outlet glaciers.
As we continued to climb, our guides drenched us in fascinating facts and history, and then abruptly paused. They wanted us all to turn and lookout, to see how far Vatnajökull had receded since 1900, its pinnacle. It was a remarkable sight. There was a river underneath the thick ice, draining out to sea. I saw constant motion, a glacier waning before my very eyes.
There were massive and deep holes in the ice. On our way back, we got to climb down into one of them. At the bottom, in an ice cave, I took a long step over a piece of ice, and ended up in water that was much deeper than I had expected. Frigid, glacial water was up to my knee. It was all I could ask for.
A few hours later, we were back at the Hali Country Hotel. We packed our van and made the long drive back to the Keflavík International Airport. We had seen a lot over our five-day tour of the southern part of Iceland. We saw the Blue Lagoon and northern lights; we drove the Golden Circle; we walked behind a magnificent waterfall and on gorgeous black sand beaches; we watched icebergs float through a lagoon; and finally, we hiked on Vatnajökull.
One of the many reasons I wanted to travel to the Arctic was to prove to myself that I could withstand a trip of that nature. I overcame a lot of fear and anxiety going to such a remote destination. I pushed myself physically, and had no incident. It was all a dream come true, a great psychological milestone. I had won a great victory in the redemption of my struggle with chronic illness. For the first time in a long time, I was proud of myself.
As we pulled into the airport, my travel companions, whom I had to bargain with to get them to Iceland, admitted that their expectations had been far exceeded, that nature had blown them away. I knew Spain and Portugal, where we were headed next, would exceed mind, too.