Every journey is a quest of sorts but, as we leave the familiar behind, what are we looking for?
Perhaps it is the enticing prospect of the unknown. Perhaps we are in search of the simple pleasures of immersing ourselves, however briefly, in another way of life. Perhaps we just want a break from the monotony of the daily grind, where the act of leaving is more important than the destination. Perhaps it’s all of the above.
Whatever the reason, when we return home we do so with a greater understanding of the world around us and with an insatiable need to see – and feel – more of it. And, whether we realize it or not, we also gain a greater understanding of ourselves along the way.
As we accumulate more and more journeys to look back on, we recall the enthralling cities and the intoxicating views. But we know it was the chance encounters, the wrong turns, and the obstacles – often self-inflicted – that defined the experience.
The awe-inspiring has us reaching for our cameras. The unexpected can change our lives.
And it had all started so well.
On a gloriously sunny day in late November, we were driving east along the southern route of Iceland’s ring road.
After stopping for lunch in Vík, we chose to enjoy the unseasonably pleasant weather by taking a quick stroll along the town’s adjacent beach before continuing our journey.
The Atlantic Ocean was lapping gently at the beach as it advanced towards its high tide mark. The sun, which at that time of year seems to run on a rail just a few feet above the horizon, was already casting long shadows. It was a beautiful scene.
What could possibly go wrong?
As we returned to our car, I had the vague sense that something was missing. As nonchalantly as I could, I checked all of my pockets (there are a lot in a multi-layered winter coat). It wasn’t there. I had lost the car key.
It was a standard car key with a dull, silver-colored business end and a black rubber head – with the rental car company’s clear plastic tag attached.
To summarize, I had dropped an almost entirely black key somewhere on a black sand beach that we’d been walking around for half an hour. And the tide was coming in.
Apologizing profusely and repeatedly to my traveling companions, we set off in different directions, trying to retrace our meandering steps, heads pointed downwards. Some of those heads may have been uttering words unfit for mixed company.
As panic descended, the “needle in a haystack” analogy mocked me. But it was worse than that.
That parallel would only be accurate if the needle in question were hay-colored and the haystack itself were positioned on a shoreline close to an advancing ocean that was shortly going to wash it away. Maybe it already had.
I felt distraught; that I had let everyone down. I could not see beyond the feeling that, in one single act of carelessness, I had ruined the entire trip for everyone. Consequently, my initial contributions to the activities of the search party were somewhat less than effective.
Seeing my anxiety, my wife, Sarah, added some much needed calm and focus to the situation.
Even if we don’t find the key, she said, even if it has already been washed out into the ocean, there are other solutions. Yes, our plans for the day will change. So what? We can call for a replacement key. We can stay here overnight if we need to. This is not the disaster you think it is. We will sort it out.
Returning my attention to the search, after around 30 minutes and with my eyes beginning to see a car key shape in every grain of black sand, I stumbled across the actual car key. I will never forget the relief.
For the remainder of our trip, every time I left the car, I placed the key on its own in an inside zipped pocket. Three other people watched me do it. Every time.
As I thought back on the incident and Sarah’s timely counsel, her perspective was reflected in the people around us.
Icelanders are a wonderfully optimistic and resilient group of people, with a gritty determination built on enduring long, harsh, almost perpetually dark winters.
If climatic injustice were not enough, less than ten years ago the country stared into the abyss of economic disaster precipitated by the global financial crisis. Iceland was on its knees – and on its own.
Their journey from the brink of catastrophe to becoming a leading global travel destination is one of the world’s most remarkable transformations. That kind of thing cannot happen without massive quantities of optimism and resilience.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the country’s unofficial motto is “Þetta reddast” – which roughly translates as, “it will sort itself out in the end”.
As if chance were wielding a great, bold underlining pen, later that same evening we arrived at Jökulsárlón.
It is a glorious place to end any day. From the icebergs floating silently in the lagoon to the fragments that wash up on to the nearby beach, the scene is always breathtaking.
Before we departed, I looked across at Sarah. She was lying with our friend, Jane, on one of the larger blocks of freshly-stranded ice. They were giggling like schoolgirls.
The memory of the earlier frantic search faded as I laughed along. With a huge sigh, I realized that I had found more than a black key on a black sand beach today. I had found a new perspective and with it, a new understanding that, even if our plans take a wrong turn, the path we follow may just lead us to where we need to be.
Had I known the expression at the time, I would have said to myself, “Þetta reddast”.
Maybe I’ll get a t-shirt made.
10th June 2017