Presented by Visa
Huffing and puffing my way up Hverfjall, a tuff ring volcano in northern Iceland, the only thing I could think about was the first run I attempted after having COVID in March 2020. Terrified of potential side effects left behind by the virus taking over headlines, I set off on my usual route, focusing less on my eerily people-less neighborhood and more on the pace of my own lungs. In a world where visiting the doctor’s office was suddenly risky, my runs became my own tracker of how the virus had impacted my life. And almost three years later standing mid-way up one of Iceland’s most-visited craters, I felt deep gratitude for a different kind of silence, punctuated only by my tiny gasps for air—so similar but different than before.
I’ve traveled to Iceland more than most will in their lifetime—I consider it one of those special places that feels like home despite not having a single family tie to the country. I’m drawn here for the solitude. It’s not singling myself from others—I often have a loved one with me—and it’s often not completely free of noise. But on every trip, there is always a moment of realization that hits me like a brick wall: no sirens, no overheard phone conversations, no honking cars. The noise of my daily life is overwhelmingly absent.
But it’s the history and stories of the first settlers that provide me with a true sense of calm and escape. I can’t help but paint my own mental images of the strength and fortitude of those attempting to work with such a forceful climate as opposed to against it. On the more personal side, there’s something about the wildly unpredictable weather patterns and the sheer scale and quantity of the mountains that puts me at ease, like a little nudge and a whisper in my ear: “Guess what, you are not the most important factor in this environment.” Nothing can be controlled and there is so much beauty for a New Yorker on the constant hunt for domination in that very fact.
Understanding how these places came to be, whether it’s truth or lore, always makes me feel like a character in their stories—even if only a bystander. My favorite place to find these tales: the Icelandic Sagas, a set of narratives following the families who lived in the country between the years 930 and 1030; Icelandic folktales, less based on history and more mystical; and the locals, many of whom are passionate about the stories surrounding their homes.
On this particular trip, I gave myself the space to revel in the tales I’ve read in the past. For instance, on the way from southern Iceland to Akureyri, our first stop, we opted for a route that hugs the coast. One of the big themes within the Sagas is how often trolls get caught in the sunlight, causing them to instantly turn into rock. I’m reminded of these hulking tales as our tires climb a hill overlooking Húnaflói Bay. On the shores of Vatnsnes Peninsula below, a rock formation looms—I love to squint my eyes and seek out the much-discussed dragon shape of its silhouette. But you could also call it Hvítserkur, a troll who hated the nearby town’s church bells so much he attempted to cross the water and destroy them before the sun rose. These behemoths never fail to draw me toward the scenic route, a physical reminder that there are unseen layers to the reality around me. Even as we enter Akureyri, blanketed by the stillness of the 7.4-kilometer Vaðlaheiðargöng tunnel, I challenge myself to transform the now-urban cityscape into what Irish Viking Helgi Magri Eyvindarson, the area’s first recorded settler, must have felt as he lit fires along his journey to ward off evil spirits.
Later on in our trip, this time in Husavik, I learn of a different kind of story: more recent, much less lore, but delightful. The owner of a local restaurant told us of the former “cheese baths” just outside of town. It’s not uncommon for local communities to have their own unknown-to-the-public hot springs. What I learned is that Geosea—one of the newer and more luxe hot springs in the country—was once a bare-bones set of buckets: massive bins used for, you guessed it, cheese-making. Full of healing, geothermally heated water, Icelanders would gather here to soak their feet and catch up with their neighbors. My visit to Geosea felt different with this information in hand. I meditated over the infinity pool views, focused on the lapping of water in the bay over the nearby chatter, and hoped these were the same sounds the cheese bathers found solace in, as well.
A 50-minute drive from said hot spring, I revisited one of my favorite places, Dimmuborgir, and it reminded me of the first Icelandic folklore I learned about. This area is one of the most dramatic landscapes in the country, with colossal lava rock towers reaching toward the sky and manmade hiking paths forged among them. The story goes that this is the home of the 13 Yule Lads—the sons of vicious trolls who live in the nearby caves—who emerge out only to wreak their own special havoc on passersby. With names like Spoon Licker, Skyr Gobbler, and Candle Stealer, it’s not hard to guess what each one’s crime of choice is. Dressed in hiking gear, I felt like an unlikely character to join the park’s cast of personalities, participating in this rugged landscape, blanketed in stillness, and pretending that every single shadow is a Yule Lad mid-nap.
The last stop was a town that frequents my daydreams: Siglufjörður, home to what I consider the best museum of all time (the Herring Era Museum). But this isn’t my favorite thing about this region. Just south of Siglufjordur in the Skagafjordur area, is Sauðárkrókur. It was here that the culmination of the Grettis Saga took place, my favorite of all the legends, which tells the story of a particularly unlucky 11th-century outlaw. It’s believed that the cursed Grettir Ásmundarson, known as Grettir the Strong, hid out in this area from the kin of the men he had wronged for many years before being killed by a witch on the nearby Drangey Island. Grettislaug, a small hot spring on the mainland that Grettir supposedly used to visit to escape the darkness of his island prison, remains and is open to the public. More often than not, the howling wind surrounding the pool will take precedence over any attempted conversation, forcing silence and contemplation. And as I gazed at the foggy shape of Drangey, I started a ritual I’ve come to love on my trips to Iceland. Breathing deep, I focus on harnessing the moment of introspection—full of folklore and silence between the breeze—into a physical feeling, one I can revisit over and over again when the sounds of home get to be too much.