“To Iceland” By Mary Oves

I am leaving Iceland today, returning home to my sons, my dog and my life in New Jersey. I’ve been on this Adventure Woman trip for nine wonderful days.

But I’ve been on trips before. This was more than just a trip.

Mary and her Icelandic horse she rode for a week on her Iceland adventure with AdventureWomen

I am a pragmatic person, not one prone to sentiment. I know all good things must end, but leaving Iceland breaks my heart. Only the birth of my sons and the death of my husband has reduced me to abject emotion like the leaving of this volcanically active patch of land that is reputed to have the happiest people in the world.

Now I’m one of them.

A traveler takes great emotional risk.  Like lovers, travelers intentionally insert themselves into precarious situations; a traveler is vulnerable because as in a love affair, travel most often leads to abandonment. And when the time arrives for a traveler to leave a place that has joyfully filled a space in his soul, only dearth remains. And though he will try to fill that maw, he will not be successful. Because that hole can never be completely filled again.

As my flight from the Keflavik airport taxis, the past ten days I spent on my Adventure Women tour fill my mind. I think of the locals. The topography. And the horses. The beautiful horses who carried my travel group safely through the mountains in rain and mud, horses who very easily begin to occupy a special place in the heart. When we would stop to rest, I would stare into the brown soulful eyes of my horse Máni and I could see the centuries of past Vikings and Icelandic warriors who traveled courageously on the backs of these regal Icelandic horses through war and Icelandic winters. And now, Máni was proudly willing to serve a spoiled Jersey girl, just as his brothers and fathers served centuries before him. Who would not feel humbled? I like to think that Máni loved me. That he wanted to please me. And I will never be the same because of it.

I want to articulate the visceral magic of Iceland and how Adventure Women changed my life before normality reigns again. Because sadly, the magic will recede with every passing day. The human soul needs replenishment, and consequently, the person a traveler was when he left home is never the same person who returns. The traveler’s DNA has rearranged, and things that seemed important to her before her journey run the risk of seeming silly and vacuous afterward. And it is this loss, the loss of who the traveler was, combined with the realization of who she has ultimately become, which adds to the heartbreak.

For what is the traveler to do with this new vulnerable stranger she has become? She must come home and pay bills, of course. Feed the dogs, drive the children to school, go to work, take out the trash. For what else can she do? A traveler cannot stay in the place which provided her with magic, for part of the magic is the leaving of it. It is the thrill of knowing that she is taking something with her, and leaving something as well. The traveler leaves her carbon footprint in the world, and imparts her wishes, dreams and desires to the heavens, the seas, the mountains and the deserts. She is a shape-shifter, and even if she will never in her lifetime see with her own eyes the ways she has changed the earth and humanity with her words and thoughts, it is essential that she understands that indeed, she has.

Iceland is a living entity, and every day, as our Adventure Women group set out with the horses, the land would come alive. Careful to not disturb the sleeping giants who fostered and emboldened the land before us, land on which we felt undeserving to trod, we heard only the horses’ hooves on the ground. This is land so magical and mystical that it tells stories of ghosts, trolls, elves and sorcerers. Land practically untouched by the hand of man, land so pristine that it breathes and speaks in Icelandic folklore. Were we truly deserving, prissily clad in our expensive Mountain Horse jackets, to walk among the Icelandic sprites and fairies?

Iceland welcomed us with an open heart. In the lagoons, the waterfalls, and the hot steams. In the museums, churches, and restaurants. In the homes of proud Icelanders who farm their land, keep Icelandic costume alive, and tend to their animals. We reveled in the beauty and ease of the tölt, the bread, the sweets, the perfect water. In the startling glacial beauty of the women, the shockingly rugged good looks of the men, and the innocent elfin beauty of the children.

We were a beautiful motley crew, the women in my Adventure Women group. Some whole, some broken. Some fearing their limitations, others staring them down. We were women looking for our inner warriors. We were women in mourning, battling depression, contemplating divorce. Women lacking self-actualization, or fine-tuning it. Women from all over the country who by some miracle arrived in Iceland together because they read the same magazine ad.

There was a lot of great stuff during the week. Life-changing stuff. Raucous laughter, cathartic breakdowns. Hugs, hot tubs, sharing of clothes and ibuprofen, strong drinks, black coffee, sleepless nights. Muddy boots, morning stretching rituals, sore muscles, and exhaustion so complete that fastening seatbelts at the end of the day was often ignored. Card games, music, bus rides and laughter, always laughter. Laughter that began when we arrived in Iceland as strangers, laughter that didn’t end until we boarded our respective planes as lifelong friends. A group of women who never descended to cattiness, meanness, one-upwomanship or cliques. Women who formed a bond that was strong and true, and will remain so when we travel together again.

Ah, the people we met. Steinnun, travel company owner, bus driver and photographer, and self-proclaimed “hobbit with the camera.” Sophie, the beautiful 19-year old German horse trainer who plans to be a lawyer. Our country house proprietor who resembled Helga from the Andrew Wyeth portraits. The rogue dour-looking German couple staying in our guest house who proved to be good sports with a great sense of humor. The Icelandic landscape artist who showed us her work during one particular heavy drinking night, and was rewarded with our drunken generosity. The Icelandic costume mistress. The farmers who let our horses rest at their farms for the night.

And our beloved guides.

Meike, our makeshift mother, best friend and brilliant Icelandic historian. Who every day handcrafted the perfect blend of caution and challenge. Who reminded us that although we were in charge of the ride, we should let the horses do their jobs. Meike, she of the easy laugh and “Já Já Já,” reminding us every day to not be afraid; but that if we were, it was o.k. Meike, who made us stronger. Meike, who made us better. Meike, who hopefully right now is planning our next trip to Iceland.

Then there was Arna, the beautiful ethereal tough-as-nails Icelandic princess who indulged our every whim. Arna, who when not serving up hot coffee and hot chocolate, helped run her father’s company. Arna, seamless and lovely, always with a smile and a camera, telling us we were amazing. Arna, who knew every quirk of every horse. Arna, always ready to check your gear. Arna, always close-by in the truck, ready to offer a ride to the weary. Arna, the heart and soul of the operation.

Finally, Steini and Jón William, our two ridiculously good-looking and charismatic guides. Two rugged Icelandic cowboys in a sea of squirrely women, real cowboys who knew how to handle horses and crack a joke. Steini and Jón William, never forgetting that their priorities were the horses and our safety, who pushed us just enough but never too much. Steini and Jón William, most humbly, modestly and assuredly thinking that what they were doing was all in a day’s work, never realizing they were changing our lives.

Meike, Arna, Steini and Jón William selflessly shared their country, land, beloved horses, homes and families to give us the best week we have ever experienced. These four people, who lack darkness in the summer and light in the winter, made a decision to love us. And when magical people who live in a magical place decide to love you, you become part of the magic. And you bring it home to the people you love.

And so it goes.

So as my plane begins its descent, I ruminate on how Adventure Women has changed me. I feel like I’m tougher, for sure. I have taken to using the affirmative “Já Já,” and I have made new friends. But I think the most important changes will reveal themselves slowly. Maybe I’ve gained more patience. More respect for my little corner of the earth. Less likely to pass judgement, slower to anger. Perhaps being around my new friends, the amazing Icelandic horses and our amazing guides made me become a better version of myself? I will have to get to know this new vulnerable stranger. Because she is most certainly not the person who boarded Icelandair ten days ago.

Pórdur Gudnason once said that “whatever comes to pass, the mountains stay in their place. Life goes on.” And while it may be difficult to leave Iceland and our new friends, we can hope to return. And we must remember that long after we are gone from this earth, the land will continue to speak and breathe, and provide for the animals and for those who come after us.

Thank God for you, Adventure Women.