Why Writers Should Travel (Especially to Iceland)

Writers rely on routines. They need them. A regular, steady, even “boring” life is for many writers absolutely essential, the prerequisite – paradoxically, I suppose – for imaginative flights of fancy and – less surprisingly, I guess – for the usually slow-going work of revision.

I have tons of routines, and sometimes – if, say, I’m in the middle of overhauling a long manuscript – I take them as seriously as someone else may take the routines of religious worship. Some mornings, sitting down in my corner of the dining room table with any coffee cup other than my usual, brown-and-amber-striped one feels like showing up to work utterly unprepared – like an electrician arriving at a site without a screwdriver and a pair of wire cutters.

The cup!

The cup!

However, while I might not know much about what an electrician needs in order to do his job properly and efficiently, I do know that a writer now and again needs to ditch their routines. Some days, you’ve got to sit down at your desk with a different coffee cup. Or – over on the opposite end of the routine-ditching spectrum – toss the things out the back of a speeding airplane.

I mean travel, of course. Going somewhere – preferably somewhere far from home – is a fantastic way to violently upend every single one of your routines, even those you may not have been aware that you had. Taken away from your neighborhood and your bedroom, your corner of the dining room table and your coffee cup, all you can hope to do is imitate and approximate your routines. But you will never be able to wholly and precisely recreate them. They will, at best, be pale versions of themselves, reflections glimpsed in a cloudy mirror. You’ll notice, in other words. You won’t be able to write quite as smoothly, just as you might not be able to sleep quite as well in an unfamiliar room or get around quite as easily in a city mapped out differently than your own.

There’s another way to travel, though. Instead of trying to pack your routines along with your t-shirts and your toothbrush, you can give up and give in, give yourself over to a stretch of big, blank, routine-less days.

To certain writers – and to those of us with obsessive-compulsive tendencies – this prospect doesn’t sound so much like a vacation as it does “torture in a foreign land.” Take a banana, for instance. A banana is the first thing I eat every morning, and I’m pretty sure it has been the first thing I’ve eaten every morning since I first discovered that divine fruit at the age of two. If I don’t consume a banana within a couple hours of waking up (coffee goes in first – I’m not even going to bring the importance of coffee into the discussion here), it takes what is frankly an absurd exertion of willpower in order for me to keep this absence from throwing off my entire day. Seriously, seeing me on such a morning, you’d never guess that I simply hadn’t had my usual dose of sugar, carbs, and potassium – you’d think I’d been woken up with a two-by-four to the face.

Yet even I know the benefits of a banana-less day. Which is why I occasionally decide to wave goodbye to my tendencies and routines and take a plane to a place far from home – such as Iceland, land of Vikings and volcanoes (and, it turns out, tons more). I just got back from a trip to the country, and I feel pretty confident saying that, for a writer – especially a routine-bound one from Boston, Massachusetts – there may not be a greater place to visit.

If travel provides us an opportunity to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel new things, then Iceland offers the traveler a veritable feast, a smorgasbord of new sensations. Moving about the country, you feel like you’re flipping through a database of National Geographic spreads. One gorgeous, strange, awe-inspiring landscape after another rolls on by, vast stretches of land for which your only real reference point is the moon, or maybe even another planet – and what with the lava fields and smoky waters and sulfurous scents, maybe even one out of sci-fi story. The fact that such variety exists in such a relatively small space is, in a word, unbelievable.

You encounter other things, of course. If you’re brave enough, you can try the hákarl – fermented and dried rotten shark meat, which chef Gordon Ramsey couldn’t swallow a single bite of, and which chef Anthony Bourdain described as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever put in his mouth. You can hear strange birdcalls and new music – my fiancée and I wandered into the concert of a duo that blended the slow, croaking eeriness of whale songs with the blip-and-bleep technological complexity of the most-talented electronic artists.

And then there are the stories – the narratives of history and culture and individuals, ones nothing like those that you take for granted back home as being “normal” and even “sensible” or “right.” Looking, listening, and reading, you can’t help but find different, new-to-you possibilities for lives, odd and exciting shapes to stories.

For a writer, a string of experiences so rich with new sensations is kind of like sending a billion or so volts of electricity straight through your brain. You can feel your mind grabbing at things, reaching around for the words needed to accurately describe all these new sights and sounds, all these strange smells and tastes and feelings. And your imagination – it’s constantly stretching itself, pretzeling into wonderful new positions and shapes.

Traveling – by which I don’t mean traveling to a resort to simply sit by a pool or on a beach (which, of course, can be awesome and necessary in its own right) – is like putting your brain and body through a sort of writers’ boot camp. While away, you might not actually do any writing, but if you open yourself up to the countless new experiences available to you, you will, in a way, be preparing to write, and to write better than ever.

Traveling can be a restorative and productive process – which is great news for the writer who gets anxious just thinking about abandoning their desk for a few days. If that’s you, it might help to think of a trip abroad as a time to gather new tools and sharpen the ones you already have. And then, when you get home, when you sit back down in your usual spot with your same old coffee cup, when you return to all your routines – and believe me, they’ll be waiting right where you left them – you might just find that your descriptive skills are a bit keener, that your imagination is a little more flexible and agile, that you’re better able to tell your stories, to tell them richly and well. And who knows – perhaps you’ll also find yourself aching to tell a few brand-new ones.

. . .

Below are some photos from my trip. You should keep in mind, however, that the iPhone camera failed to do the sights of Iceland true justice. Driving about, I saw countless photographers with limb-sized lenses and suitcase-sized gear bags – yet talented as these folks probably are, I kind of doubt even they could completely capture the strange and stunning beauty of this country.

There are more than twice as many sheep as people in Iceland – a stat that begins to seem pretty conservative as soon as you start roaming around outside of downtown Reykjavík. Here’s a pair of sheep hanging out and having a snack on the side of the highway. While driving around the country, it’s not unusual to have to stop and wait for some sheep (or the occasional cow or horse) to finish crossing the road – which, of course, is a brand-new experience for someone used to the car- and pedestrian-crammed streets of Boston.

There are more than twice as many sheep as people in Iceland – a stat that begins to seem pretty conservative as soon as you start roaming around outside of downtown Reykjavík. Here’s a pair of sheep hanging out and having a snack on the side of the highway. While driving around the country, it’s not unusual to have to stop and wait for some sheep (or the occasional cow or horse) to finish crossing the road – which, of course, is a brand-new experience for someone used to the car- and pedestrian-crammed streets of Boston.

The one thing Iceland might have more of than sheep? Waterfalls. Here are a handful of those that can be seen along the country’s southern coast – and often unannounced, just around a bend in the road – including Gullfoss, which along with Þingvellir and Haukadalur (mentioned below) form Iceland’s “Golden Circle” of jaw-dropping tourist sites.

The one thing Iceland might have more of than sheep? Waterfalls. Here are a handful of those that can be seen along the country’s southern coast – and often unannounced, just around a bend in the road – including Gullfoss (above and in the three photos directly below), which along with Þingvellir and Haukadalur (mentioned further below) form Iceland’s “Golden Circle” of jaw-dropping tourist sites.

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A field full of rock-towers (or cairns) spotted along the side of the road.

A field full of rock-towers (or cairns) spotted along the side of the road.

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A not-so-bad view of the hills and water behind one part of the cairn-field.

A not-so-bad view of the hills and water behind one part of the cairn-field.

Þingvellir is one of the most popular tourist spots in all of Iceland, and is so justifiably. It is the site at which the first Icelandic settlement occurred, and where the country’s first parliament was formed in 930. It remained the seat of parliament until 1798. Þingvellir, incredibly, also happens to straddle the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The ground is riddled with cracks and faults, and finally gapes open into a vast canyon overlooking the country’s largest natural lake. Not only can you see the continental drift – you can get down and walk around in the gaps between the plates.

Þingvellir is one of the most popular tourist spots in all of Iceland, and is so justifiably. It is the site at which the first Icelandic settlement occurred, and where the country’s first parliament was formed in 930. It remained the seat of parliament until 1798. Þingvellir, incredibly, also happens to straddle the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The ground is riddled with cracks and faults, and finally gapes open into a vast canyon overlooking the country’s largest natural lake. Not only can you see the continental drift – you can get down and walk around in the gaps between the plates.

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Haukadalur, another popular tourist site, is home to numerous hot springs, geothermic pools, and geysers – including the Geysir, whose name was adopted and adapted to become the English word “geyser.” Geysir doesn’t erupt much anymore, but Strokkur (above), just a few yards away, goes off every five minutes or so. First the warm water begins to boil and bubble, then a large dome of it forms and begins to rise over the pool’s surface. A split second later, the geyser erupts – the gush of hot water ripping through the dome and surging high up into the sky.

Haukadalur, another popular tourist site, is home to numerous hot springs, geothermic pools, and geysers – including the Geysir, whose name was adopted and adapted to become the English word “geyser.” Geysir doesn’t erupt much anymore, but Strokkur (above), just a few yards away, goes off every five minutes or so. First the warm water begins to boil and bubble, then a large dome of it forms and begins to rise over the pool’s surface. A split second later, the geyser erupts – the gush of hot water ripping through the dome and surging high up into the sky.

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Here you can sort of see just how deep into the ground some of these geysers reach. For instance, after Strokkur erupts, its center is hollowed out, and if you stand close enough, you can watch a new surge of water fill it back up.

Here you can sort of see just how deep into the ground some of these geysers reach. For instance, after Strokkur erupts, its center is hollowed out, and if you stand close enough, you can watch a new surge of water fill it back up.

A black sand beach replete with puffins and the distant “troll rocks” (directly below) – which, legend has it, are the petrified, sunbaked corpses of a trio of trolls and the boat that they were trying to drag ashore.

A black sand beach replete with puffins and the distant “troll rocks” (directly below) – which, legend has it, are the petrified, sunbaked corpses of a trio of trolls and the boat that they were trying to drag ashore.

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Here’s a beautiful vertical shot of my fingertip. Rest assured that just beyond the finger is yet another, absolutely stunning sight.

Here’s a beautiful vertical shot of my fingertip. Rest assured that just beyond the finger is yet another, absolutely stunning sight.

Jökulsárlón (which translates literally to "glacial river lagoon") is a large glacial lake that sits just below the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which is an outlet glacier of the larger glacier of Vatnajökul – which is, in fact, the largest glacier in all of Europe. The lake shows “a ghostly procession of luminous blue icebergs” – blues so vividly electric you may not have ever thought you’d see them in nature, or at least not in ice – that have fallen off the larger glaciers. The bergs are studded with arctic terns and skuas (basically big seagulls) and surrounded by seals, all there to catch the salmon, herring, and trout that drift in on the tides of the nearby sea.

Jökulsárlón (which translates literally to “glacial river lagoon”) is a large glacial lake that sits just below the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, which is an outlet glacier of the larger glacier of Vatnajökul – which is, in fact, the largest glacier in all of Europe. The lake shows “a ghostly procession of luminous blue icebergs” – blues so vividly electric you may not have ever thought you’d see them in nature, or at least not in ice – that have fallen off the larger glaciers. The bergs are studded with arctic terns and skuas (basically big seagulls) and surrounded by seals, all there to catch the salmon, herring, and trout that drift in on the tides of the nearby sea.

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Some shots of the black sand beach directly across the street from Jökulsárlón. Seals hang out on the rocky shore and in the shallows, which are strewn with chunks of ice both small and large.

Some shots of the black sand beach directly across the street from Jökulsárlón. Seals hang out on the rocky shore and in the shallows, which are strewn with chunks of ice both small and large.

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Icelandic waffles – so delicious that I snuck a couple bites before I could even snap a picture.

Icelandic waffles – so delicious that I snuck a couple bites before I could even snap a picture.

Here are some shots of the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in the middle of a giant lava field, a place sometimes also called (by me, at least) “the most relaxing place in the universe.” Surrounded by saunas, steam baths, cool mist showers, caves, private massage coves, and floating bars, the water in the main bathing area averages about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and is super-rich in minerals such as silica and sulfur which work wonders on your skin and – wait for it – help cure skin diseases. Tubs of silica mud are planted about the property, there for you to rub on your face and neck and shoulders as you relax with a cocktail or a smoothie in the giant hot tub. As mentioned above, the camera couldn’t quite capture the unique milky blueness of the water – not to mention the soothing drift of the steamy vapors constantly pouring up out of it.

Here are some shots of the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in the middle of a giant lava field, a place sometimes also called (by me, at least) “the most relaxing place in the universe.” Surrounded by saunas, steam baths, cool mist showers, caves, private massage coves, and floating bars, the water in the main bathing area averages about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and is super-rich in minerals such as silica and sulfur which work wonders on your skin and – wait for it – help cure skin diseases. Tubs of silica mud are planted about the property, there for you to rub on your face and neck and shoulders as you relax with a cocktail or a smoothie in the giant hot tub. The camera couldn’t quite capture the unique milky blueness of the water – not to mention the soothing drift of the steamy vapors constantly pouring up out of it.

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