Aurora Borealis

A lot of my “adventures” are never fully planned before their birth. I sort of waltz into them and escape relatively unscathed with some new anecdotes that will leave my coworkers or course-mates with a smirk.

Iceland was half planned in the sense that the flights were booked weeks in advance, but as far as specific things to do… well, naturally, that was still in question as we were hurtling towards the island at a few hundred miles per hour.

After a rental car agency worker gave me the scare of my life about sandstorms (who knew that even practically in the arctic circle your car could be severely damaged by sand?), we pilled in the four-door and were shot on our way down the pitch black stretch of highway. The notable paucity of streetlights and traffic left my senses swirling.

The hygge-styled flat with its white wood panelling and minimalist decoration would be our base camp, and the silver car, served as our means of exploration.

I believe almost everyone has heard of the Northern Lights, but it remains this kind of intangible mystical elemental entity that lives far beyond the grasp of reality to many. They materialize on cold winter nights as dancing colors in the sky, miles away from civilization. Growing up in Florida I had only known of them from their occasional appearance in Christmas films or seasonal nature documentaries. Little did I know that one night soon I would find myself driving along gravel roads chasing the thrill of seeing the lights flutter across the horizon hanging in front of me.

Our friends booked tickets on a Northern Lights bus tour complete with guides promising to find the best viewpoints far from the light pollution of Reykjavik. Being savvy, independent, and maybe a bit stupid, we opted out of the organized tour. Instead I packed a thermos of tea, queued a playlist, pulled on a trusty cable-knit jumper, and plopped back into the driver’s seat. Sam followed. We were off.

our trusty little adventure vehicle

There’s this feeling that comes with pushing boundaries that I’ve become very well acquainted with over the years. It introduces itself suddenly and is scary and welcoming all at once. It seems as though the sense of danger is both beckoning to you with open arms and bearing its teeth simultaneously. Maybe to me the teeth just look a little bit crooked or even endearing, but whatever it is, I find myself back in these situations time and time again.

So there we were, speeding off into the night on unmarked roads lacking streetlights, humans, and any sort of marking that might indicate these routes were well-frequented.

Our friends were texting us updates on the forecast for the lights as it was being relayed to them by an Icelandic guide. Sam, steadfast in his responsibilities, trustily read them off as I drove.

After a long forty minutes down blackened gravel stretches, Sam shouted. Suddenly I could see a blue-green haze moving across the windshield. All I could think about was how desperately I wanted to see what was going on and yet not wanting to crash the car. I pulled the car into the first place I could: a closed National Park parking lot.

I shifted the car into park and threw up the emergency brake before bolting out into the night.

It was like something out of a film or maybe just some artist’s wildest imagination. They wove across the sky, flirting with the stars and delicately negotiating the clouds that hung low.

Aurora borealis from Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

No camera could have done them justice. Mine certainly didn’t.

When the display calmed down and faded into the black of the night dotted with stars, we slumped back into the car. The hot thermos of tea sat waiting eagerly for us, anticipating our craving for its warmth.

My mind spun as I sat behind the steering wheel. I questioned how I would put this down into words in my battered journal or how I would tell other people about it.

This theme is a common thread that runs between a lot of my life experiences. There are these incredibly beautiful, glittering experiences that present themselves and yet, just as frequently, gut-wrenching unavoidable gullies jump out.

Depression, anxiety, and personal problems are always going to rear their ugly heads whether I like it or not. But, if those tethers are somehow also tied up in midnight drives down gravel roads and dips in hot springs off the beaten path and brilliantly gleaming sunny days, well… I’m okay with traveling miles through the dark for the glittering display of light.

It will all be worth it.

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