Alone in Iceland

When I first began to tell people about my plans to take a solo trip to Iceland, I was met with a lot of surprise, and even a little resistance. I expected some of this. Almost as soon as I announced that I had booked my flight, people began to voice concern over my traveling alone—a young woman—to a foreign country. 

I had my canned response readily prepared. “Iceland is actually one of the safest countries for solo women travelers in the world,” I told the worriers. I quelled fears with research and affirmation of facts and lists that could be accessed on a number of travel websites online. That seemed to abate most of the skeptics. 

Others had more personal concerns about my traveling alone. I have a few chronic health problems, which I write about rather unabashedly. I manage them fairly well, but it’s impossible to know when my pain levels might spike into unknown territory. Beyond that, I just have exceedingly bad luck when it comes to medical stuff in general. My medical history reads like a laundry list of “WTF?” My mother frequently tells people, “If it’s rare and you’ve never heard of it, she’s probably had it.” 

Just last year, I got a staph infection in a mosquito bite while visiting a friend in Israel and had to visit a doctor to get antibiotics. I was fortunate to be traveling with a local to help me navigate the healthcare system and find a private doctor with ease. Traveling alone in Iceland would be different. But, again, I felt confident in my own ability to figure things out, to solve problems as they might arise, and I felt that I’d be able to communicate freely enough with people to get where and what I needed in an emergency. I wasn’t worried. 

None of these vocalized anxieties surprised me. They came from friends and family, people who knew me and my situation well, people who were excited for me but also cared about me and just wanted to make sure that I had put some forethought into what I was doing and was ready to take this trip on my own. What did surprise me was the number of people who said things like “You’re so brave, I would never go anywhere by myself,” or “I can’t believe you’re doing this all alone.” For many, it didn’t seem to be about the international location, the uniqueness of my health situation, or anything like that. I can’t tell you how many people said some iteration of this. 

Then, came the most clarifying statement from someone, just a day before I left: “Don’t get too lonely while you’re there.”
This illuminated something for me. Yes, people had concerns about my health and safety and all that. But, I think, deep down, what was really hard and scary for people was the idea that I would want, that I was actively making the choice, to take this journey alone. 

I get that. I used to feel that way too. I used to think about all the things I’d like to do in this life when I had someone to share the experience with. Travel was at the top of that list. But then I realized something. I could wait a lifetime for that opportunity and never do any of it, or I could just go. 

Because here’s the thing. There is such a difference between being lonely and being alone. Loneliness is isolating. You can be in a room full of people and feel like you’re the only one there. I’ve been there. I picked up and moved from Denver to New York because I couldn’t pinpoint the feelings of sadness and unrest inside me and it took me walking around in a city with millions of other people to realize that I was lonely. I was lonely in Denver before I left and that loneliness followed me there. 

But I also had moments of connection standing in the subway station waiting for my train, or sitting in the park watching people come and go. That is the power of solitude, of being alone. When you can be truly alone with yourself, you can tune into what’s happening inside you, around you, and that’s when great discovery happens. My move to New York was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, admitting to myself that it wasn’t what I needed, it wasn’t the right choice for me. It gave me the strength to search out truths within myself I’d been avoiding. 

It also allowed me to come back to Denver and put my life back together. 

So, let me paint you a picture of what it was like to be alone in Iceland. I’ll fast forward to the last night of my trip. I have spent a week looking at waterfalls, hiking to glaciers and traversing black sand beaches, wandering the streets of Reykjavik, eating lamb and fish and skyr. I’ve had a few conversations with people here and there. Nothing lasting. Mostly I’ve kept blissfully to myself, taking photos and exploring on my own. Sometimes I find myself smiling. I have to stop and close my eyes and take a deep breath and appreciate the present moment. This is real. I am here. This is joy.  

I meet a couple of other young women traveling solo on my ten hour bus tour down the South Shore on my final day and we spend the day together. It’s nice to run into some other travelers my own age and swap stories, a nice way to round out the final day of my trip. One of the girls is going out on the same Northern Lights excursion I am and we make plans to meet up and get on the same bus together. That night, our bus takes us out into a field of lava rock to view the lights. The aurora is active before we even get to our destination, we can see it through the windows of the bus, and the energy inside is electric. 

When we get to the site, we pile out of the bus and my new friend and I climb out onto the rocks to stake out a view for ourselves. The aurora dances across the sky, a 360 degree view all around us. It is magnificent, better then I could have hoped for. Everywhere you look, you can see it. Every angle, a different view, a different shape. We stand out and watch for a good hour in the frigid Icelandic night and the lights move and change, trail across the sky, a celestial mist. 

It’s difficult to articulate the profound connectedness I feel to the people standing out there in that field. To share such an experience, such a vision, we are forever linked. To think my new friend and I, now Facebook connections, shared such a moment together after a day of conversation and sightseeing—what a powerful thing. This is the divine creative force of the universe exposed, love and life itself, and we will always have that between us. Had I not been here in that moment traveling alone, I am not sure I would have seen the union, the holiness even, in such a shared event. I could have so easily been closed off to such a glimpse into something so much greater than myself. Thanks be for the opportunity to be so open and so ready to receive this gift. 

-Stephanie Harper

Stephanie Harper received her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Fairfield University with an emphasis in fiction in July 2012. Her work can be found in The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, HerStories, The Montreal Review, Poetry Quarterly, Midwest Literary Magazine, Haiku Journal, and Spry Literary Journal. Her debut poetry collection, Sermon Series, is debuted September 2017 with Finishing Line Press. She lives in Denver, CO.