Iceland Gave Me Northern Lights and My Own North Star

Northern Lights in Iceland

Written by Lyssa Menard

March 30, 2022

As a nomad, I’ve explored 6 continents and my favorite country is Iceland, by a mile. I’m also pretty sure that Iceland saved my life. 

~~~~~

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

Martin Buber

When I arrived in Reykjavik, I was greeted by a guide, with whom I traveled to the other side of the country for glacial ice climbing. It was glorious! The drive across the country was filled with lunar-lava landscapes, shuddering waterfalls, twisted mossy knolls, and floating ice blocks. 

I’m not a brave soul, and ice climbing was simultaneously terrifying and transcendent. Feeling my cleats click into place in ancient glacial flows and hauling my body ever upwards, I felt connected with mother earth in a way a city girl can barely conceive. 

This was my first visit to Iceland and I was weary and burned out on arrival. My goals were to shoot northern lights and get far away from people. For weeks, I’d been saying, “I want to travel to the moon.” When I discovered that Iceland is actually where astronauts train, I was all in. And ice climbing was the perfect way to begin an other-worldly adventure. 

After two days, we returned to Reykjavik, completing the 7-hour drive in the wee hours of the morning. On arrival, I discovered my blunder: I’d left my Ambien in my hotel room on the other side of the country. Panic set in. 

At that point, I’d spent two decades battling an addiction to Ambien – a sedative/hypnotic drug. I’d been a lifelong insomniac. During a difficult spell, a psychiatrist (who eventually lost his license and was prosecuted for deceptive practices) convinced me that Ambien would solve the problem. He swore up and down that it wasn’t addictive. 

At the time, I told him that water is addictive to a parched desert traveler, but he went to great lengths to dispel my fears. Eventually, I caved. 

And once I started taking the magic pill that made me sleep reliably, I just couldn’t stop.

So, here I was in a foreign country, without my fix.

Ambien is a controlled substance in the United States. I wasn’t sure if I could easily get a new prescription locally. After a long sleepless night, I had a decision to make: find a doc in the hope of continuing my addiction, or see the sights I’d intended to visit that day. I chose the latter.

Something about this winter wonderland made me feel that anything was possible. I mean, I’d just climbed a glacier! And other adventures beckoned. 

My intention: just make it through the day.

~~~~~

Iceland Literally is Everyone’s Happy Place

Knowing I was in the world’s happy place somehow buoyed my mood despite my worry and exhaustion. Maybe it was aspirational because I was well aware of the World Happiness Report and its findings.

Since 2002, this report has produced a ranking of the world’s happiest countries. Iceland reliably ranks within the top four. 

The rankings are based on data collected from Gallup polls, assessing six particular categories: 

  • gross domestic product per capita, 
  • social support, 
  • healthy life expectancy, 
  • freedom to make your own life choices, 
  • generosity of the general population, and 
  • perceptions of internal and external corruption levels.

In other words, Iceland is a place where the power of community assures health, wealth, opportunity, and positive values. It’s also worth noting that Iceland has the highest feeling of social support and the second-highest generosity score of the top seven happiest countries. The people are extraordinarily caring and open, as are the communities they compose. 

For instance, when I was greeted by my guide, I was immediately embraced and welcomed into the fold. It was my first ice climbing adventure, but I was treated like an old hand, while literally being offered a hand up any time I got shaky. In the psych biz, that’s called ‘scaffolding.’ We encourage others to reach beyond their limits to learn and grow while providing support along the way.

Moving my body and connecting with nature effortlessly opened my mind to possibilities. I figured that connecting with people and communing with nature could get me through the day.

~~~~~

Northern Lights

I spent my second night of Ambien withdrawal chasing northern lights. Perfect distraction!

I’d been warned by mentors on TripAdvisor’s Iceland forum in no uncertain terms: Nothing guarantees a northern lights sighting. They don’t perform on command. And they don’t turn out all that often. 

The gentle and generous forum Icelanders helped me transform my “shoot northern lights” trip into a much more expansive adventure. They convinced me to assume that I actually would not see the lights at all.

But mother nature took pity on me and delivered…over and over. Did she somehow know I needed some celestial guidance?

My little tour group jumped in a van and scooted out from Reykjavik, into the deeply dark beyond. From time to time we’d get an intercom alert from other similarly situated vans with coordinates of a current sighting. Off we’d race in that direction, typically missing the show by minutes. 

Round about midnight, we struck gold.

Whipping out my tripod and ancient DSL, I watched the sky alight. Frozen fingers yelped and then numbed. I blithely disregarded. Shooting the Aurora isn’t trivial – especially for an amateur – but all my energy and focus were targeted on this one goal. This was mindfulness at its finest. I was tired, but I certainly was in the present moment.

If you’re going to be up all night, you might as well be chasing the aurora! 

~~~~~

Inspiring Politics: A Culture of Commitment to Values

‘Inspiring politics’ sounds like a conundrum, doesn’t it? Not so in Iceland, where people come together and stand up for their rights. 

Somehow, learning about Icelandic history, politics, and culture, made me feel like I, too, could stand up for myself. It was literally criminal that I’d become addicted to this drug. I thought, “If Iceland is the land of freedom, perhaps I can free myself here.”

My visit to Thingvellir National Park was eye-opening (and I certainly needed that by this time – literally and figuratively). 

First, I donned my scuba gear and dove the Silfra Fissure – the only place in the world where you can dive between two continents. Exhilarating! 

And, with that energy flowing, I learned about the equally exhilarating power of the Icelandic people. I toured the birthplace of our planet’s oldest functioning democracy.

The Althing (Parliament in Icelandic) is the governing body of Iceland and the oldest surviving parliament in the world. It was founded in 930 AD at Thingvellir, 28 miles east of Reykjavik, the eventual capital of the country. 

Icelanders take this heritage very seriously. Take, for instance, the Pots and Pans Revolution

The Great Recession began in the United States in 2007. In October 2008, Iceland followed with a collapse of its entire financial system. 

Iceland is the smallest country in the world to have its own currency, the krona, and this tiny currency wasn’t robust enough to absorb the economic shockwaves the US had released. But the primary blame for the collapse rested with Iceland’s investment class and the illegal practices they’d engaged in for the previous five years after privatizing Iceland’s banks. 

The governments’ lack of response to the crisis inspired the population to take the matter into their own hands. Icelanders marched on Parliament with rallies, speeches, and songs. And, yes, a symphony constructed of a pots and pans cacophony. The vast majority of the population showed up. 

By the end of January, the Icelanders won out. First, the major banks were allowed to fail and the remainder were left to clean up their own mess. Next, the entire government was forced to resign. New elections took place the following spring. Finally, irresponsible bankers and officials were prosecuted. Justice was served.

Iceland remains the only country in which the people made the politicians pay for the Great Recession’s economic collapse.

Now, that is power to the people. That energy was palpable and carried me through another sleepless night. I wanted to take a stand for myself the way the Icelanders had for their country.

~~~~~

The Pools: Rituals of a Connected Culture 

The pools of Iceland are another example of the coming together of community. And community is a salve for most ills.

Public and private “swimming pools” (most of which would be referred to as ‘hot tubs’ in the US) abound throughout the country. In the US, sports bars are a frequent place to congregate to watch a game and drink a bunch of booze. In Iceland, everyone retires to the pools in the evening instead. They make the rounds, from scalding water to cold dunks, but mostly relax in conversation with friends. 

In the happiness study, 99% of Icelanders said they had someone they could count on – an astounding statistic when compared with other western nations. Icelanders aren’t lonely. These rituals where communities come together to enhance their health and well-being are rare these days. The pools of Iceland ensure that community means something.

My fourth sleepless night was spent in Reykjavik, entering the community with strangers, and exiting with new friends. First, they regaled me with stories of Norse gods, politics, and the winning voice of the people. Then, we relaxed back and watched the aurora dance above us – a rare sight within the bright city confines. 

“I can do this,” I thought, as the aurora lit the way.

~~~~~

Excruciating Beauty

With 366,000 citizens, Iceland is the most sparsely-populated country in Europe. This, of course, is one of Iceland’s strongest assets. I like to say that every house has its own mountain, which is visibly confirmed once you leave Reykjavik, the largest city in Iceland, where 65% of the population resides. 

The remainder of the country is wide-open nature. This spaciousness is another of Iceland’s most prominent characteristics. It radiates an accessible yet unearthly beauty. 

After several sleepless nights, I finally became too irritable to spend time around others. So I rented a car and set out to see if spaciousness and grandeur could lift my spirits.

Thanks to the glorious Ring Road, it’s easy to travel the country and have a safe solo experience. If it’s isolation and room to breathe that’s desired, this is the ideal place to be. 

It’s easy to spend weeks here, driving a mile at a time. Repeatedly, I’d pull over to the side of the road, jump out and be greeted by a flock of sheep on a mossy knoll, a towering waterfall, a lava flow, or a deserted beach. I kayaked fjords, hiked glaciers, and basked in hot springs. Sleep eluded me, but I was able to rest in the embrace of nature. 

And when it was time to commune with others, the royal road carried me back to humanity with ease.

~~~~~

Resilience Personified

About a week in, I visited a farm for a horseback riding extravaganza. I rode with the small group’s leader, Helga, who told me a story of resilience, courage, and community that I’ll never forget. 

Icelandic sheep are special. Given the island nature of this country, these are pure breeds and are built for cold. They are double-coated for extra insulation and can survive the harshest climate.

A few months before my visit, winter arrived prematurely, in the form of a blizzard. The sheep – not this farmer’s sheep, but all of Iceland’s sheep – were still out grazing and were buried alive in several feet of snow. 

Everyone set out to disentomb the sheep, searching the grazing lands by foot and digging where radar and instinct picked up signs of life. The cavalry came. The double-coated sheep lived to baa again.

What to say about a people who rescue sheep in a storm instead of staying warm? About a people who spend evenings with their neighbors stargazing and chatting about life? About a people who force their government to resign when they deserve to be deposed?

There is one more thing to be said. It’s my favorite characteristic of Icelandic culture and, I’d contend, the primary reason for the country’s happiness ranking.

The concept of ‘failure’ is virtually nonexistent. 

This is a country that values experimentation. Multiple careers are common, and people there succeed by following their interests and passions. A stunning 1 in 10 Icelanders will write a book in their lifetimes and, appropriately, Reykjavik was named a UNESCO City of Literature. 

People work multiple jobs to explore their interests and not for financial gain. Almost everyone I met was in a band and the country produces many world-renowned, must-see music festivals (check out Secret Solstice, where performances are held outside in the midnight sun and also in caves and volcanoes).

The closest Icelanders get to the concept of failure is ‘failure to try.’ If there’s something you dream of doing, you simply can’t fail by trying, regardless of the outcome. The community will support your efforts, not your wins. Choosing not to pursue your ideas, interests, or goals is the only way to fail. 

Can you imagine how freeing it would be to know that ‘failure’ isn’t a thing?

I could. By this time, I believed that failure wasn’t going to be my thing. Determination set in. I was getting off this drug.

~~~~~

Iceland Isn’t a Vacation. It’s a Journey.

What about Iceland gave me the courage to end a decades-long addiction?

  • Was it the surreal beauty and spaciousness of this country?
  • Was it the cultural appreciation of strength, courage, and fortitude?
  • Was it the embrace of a community that’s accepting and welcoming?
  • Was it the absence of a concept of failure?

I still don’t know. But, during that first trip to Iceland, I kicked my Ambien habit for good, while this gorgeous country enveloped me in beauty, community, and freedom.

It’s probably worth noting that I was not miraculously cured. The hard work began when I returned home and had to learn to sleep without medication. But Iceland provided a spark and momentum. It also clarified the values I want to live by. 

Iceland gave me northern lights and my own north star.

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