By Natalie Neusch

I steadied my tripod on the dusty pavement, windblown particles of dirt and occasional flecks of snow hampering my vision. Normally I’d set up my photo equipment in a rush, my wife bellowing “hurry up” in the background, making me fumble as I swap lenses. She’d fidget impatiently as I tried to capture the right angle before a group of tourists moved into my frame or vehicle traffic created colorful blurred streaks in my shot. I thought about the latter for a moment, looking ahead and behind me at the long, seemingly endless stretch of road. This was the first time I’d set up in the middle of an active highway, and there was no one rushing me along—I was alone. In fact, I hadn’t passed a single other soul in the last three hours. But that wasn’t unusual when traveling the 190-mile two-lane artery of Iceland’s Golden Circle. And doing it on my own, recently divorced, was equally terrifying and therapeutic.

The Long Road to Reykjavik

Iceland’s sparse countryside.

It was April 2015, and earlier that morning I shared hugs and teary goodbyes with a group of six friends with whom I had been traveling for the past two weeks. We covered Paris and Amsterdam, and made our final destination Reykjavkik. It was this group of friends—more an army—who held me, supported me, cried with me and just sat with me in silence nine months earlier when my marriage and relationship of five years fell apart. With a single call the summer before, my world imploded and I was left drifting.

My ex-wife broke up with me over the phone while she was traveling abroad, a month before our one-year wedding anniversary. In a cryptic babble of vagaries, she declared we weren’t right for each other, she wasn’t right for me, and she had found herself—or at least it was some version of that. Three weeks before that call, I was laid off from my job of five years as a managing editor of a major magazine. Paralyzed and shocked by grief and the utter lack of a roadmap for the foreseeable future, I spent weeks tracing the shortest distances from my bedroom to my kitchen and bathroom.

While the immediate emotional fallout was devastating, the actual separation and subsequent divorce proceedings were gut-wrenching. I couldn’t take a walk down my block without being inundated by memories which led to tears. To avoid crying in public, I chose to move into my parents’ South Florida home for the rest of summer. Hours melted away as I fantasized of far off places to which I was still too overwhelmed to travel. I started by driving to our local mall. Then the beach. Then Miami. Then on a particularly humid August day, curled up on my mom’s outdoor lounge chair unable to distinguish the sweat from tears on my face, I thought, “It’s time to get back.”

Silence Is The Golden Circle

The haunting black-sand beaches in Vik, Iceland.

Months passed and when the opportunity to travel with some of my closest friends presented itself, it was a no-brainer to join them. But the real challenge awaited beyond the group itinerary—traveling with them would create memories of a lifetime, but the spot decision to stay longer and drive southern Iceland by myself would change my life.  

My rented VW Polo and I started off toward Þingvellir National Park where splitting tectonic plates create the deeply fissured landscape. During the drive I occasionally glanced at my empty passenger seat, a quiet reminder of the events of the past year and why I was on this road in the first place. The scene around me was desolate, nature’s sharpest edges slicing into rich blue skies. At the geysers at Haukadalur, natural steam erupted through the Earth’s crust, releasing clouds of malodorous sulfur that both made me cringe and laugh. My laughter was my own seismic release—splitting my cheeks and sending convulsive giggles down my body.

Miles past the rocky volcanic terrain, the road revealed picturesque landscapes of towering snow-capped peaks that gave way to moss-laden lowlands spotted with solitary homes in the distance. Mountain ranges rolled into glacial fields where temperatures dropped and exploration required an extra layer of clothing. I grabbed my coat from the back seat. I found I only needed myself to remind me of these kinds of things.

I crawled behind thunderous waterfalls that looked like giant white satin curtains ruffled by the wind. The sun illuminated the landscape like a Flemish Renaissance painting and rainbows playfully bounced between the frothing falls and mossy ravines. I stood with my camera hanging by my side, transfixed by the tableau a few feet in front of me—it was one of many times on my trip I actually asked out loud, “Is this for real?”

I welcomed a quiet dinner at my modest accommodations—occupancy one. Aside from the check-in pleasantries exchanged at the front desk with whom I can only assume was both the concierge and owner of the premises, I hadn’t uttered a single word to anyone for 16 hours. I slept in my dorm-like room that smelled of moths and cedar feeling grateful that I was by myself, and I looked forward to that feeling for the days and months to come.

Winding Around Southern Iceland to Wind Down

“I landed on a picture of my lone footprints on the black-sand beach at Vik – while my presence had been surely washed away, I knew Iceland had left its mark upon me permanently.”

In the following days my nimble Polo and I swerved around the lunar-like region of Landmannalaugar, down towards the black-sand beaches of Vik which I imagined resembled the edge of the world if there was one. My tripod almost blew away at my pitstop in Dyrhólaey, a popular nesting place for puffins in the summer. Even with the bird’s seasonal absence, I sat tightly wrapped in my jacket, absorbing the panorama—I deleted all the photos taken from this cliff, this sight was just for me.

There was something different about heading back to where I started, driving toward the airport and the end of my trip. I stopped stealing glimpses of the passenger seat and kept my eyes on the road ahead where breathtaking vistas unfurled around me. I blasted the Billboard 100—and Bjork, of course—in the car. My body tingled and I felt like I’d downed a dozen energy bars. Maybe it was the Smurostur með rækjum (shrimp cheese spread) I had for breakfast? I stopped several more times in the middle of the road to take pictures. I loved that no one was calling my name.

The Iceland Air plane I boarded was called Hengil, named after an active volcano in one of the country’s geothermal areas. As I stood in line for Hengil on the jetway, gusts of cold blasted through any opening possible, forcing me and the other queued passengers to bundle up. While my body shivered in the last of Iceland’s wind-kissed farewell, my core felt warm and calm.   

Sitting aboard the plane, I flipped through photos I had taken on my phone, my Canon now stashed away. I landed on a picture of my lone footprints on the black sand beach at Vik—while my presence had been surely washed away, I knew Iceland had left its mark upon me permanently.

Natalie is a Director of Content and freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. Share her penchant for travel, eating everything, and Pomeranians – @natalieneu and @outofherebuhbye.

Interested in experiencing Iceland with a group of like-minded women? Join our Iceland Lesbian Summer Escapade!

All photos courtesy of Natalie Neusch.

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