For lifelong residents of the mid-latitudes, the aurora borealis, or northern lights, are elusive; their otherworldly beauty is accessible only to those who brave the Arctic winter climes. As a New York resident, my only experience with the aurora was in advertisements for inexpensive plane tickets to Iceland. Being the sort of person who is highly influenced by glossy travel offers, I decided on a whim to book the five-hour jaunt from New York City. My quest to catch a glimpse of the northern lights in person had begun. And like the hunt for any elusive beast, the happenstance proved adversarial.
DAY ONE: BANGS & BACKPACKERS
Upon my arrival to Reykjavik, I rented a car and began to drive the Ring Road, the main highway that runs around the circumference of Iceland. I took my time exploring the route, stopping to walk carefully through fields of bubbling geysers and embracing the icy spray of waterfalls misting my face. After a long soak in a mud bath and visit with the Icelandic horses (who can resist their boy-band bangs?), I pressed on through the volcanic mountains with my sights on the lights.
To maximize my likelihood of a successful aurora sighting, I decided to spend two nights in the quaint southern coastal town called Vík, which would offer the requisite darkness for optimal aurora viewing and is so small that as soon as you drive in, you are already on your way out. My hotel was just beyond Vík and so I pressed on, not before spotting two backpackers looking for a ride. Iceland is a remarkably safe country with one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world and many tourists (and locals) travel via hitchhiking, and being the sort of person who is highly influenced into trying local customs, I pulled over to let the backpackers in.
“Where are you headed?” They asked through the window. That’s when I realized a good hitch is one probably traveling a distance farther than five kilometers, which is exactly how far I had to go. On top of that, I realized my car was too small to fit both hitchhikers and their packs, even for the two-minute journey for which I could offer to take them. I apologized for the mistake and wished them well before pressing on. This would not be the last time that my excitement to experience all things Icelandic would cloud my judgment.
NIGHT ONE: BOOTLEGGED BOREALIS
On my first evening in town, I was in the hotel restaurant enjoying a delicious bowl of Kjötsúpa, a traditional Icelandic meat soup made with lamb, carrots, potatoes, and rutabagas, when I overheard a British tour guide telling his group that, Tonight is the night! The aurora is coming! Conditions are ideal! Not only that, but We have a great viewing spot! As a person who delights in great aurora viewing spots, I decided to become an honorary (yet unauthorized) new member of this tour group. I gulped down the rest of my dinner and got ready.
I waited in the parking lot, eyeing the tour group’s minibus from my driver’s seat, ready to follow their lead. We left the hotel and headed east, eventually turning onto an unmarked road where a vast plain stretched beneath an expanse of sky, mountains and plateaus rising far in the distance. The bus continued on, but I hung back as to not perturb the tour group who had actually paid for this insider knowledge. The night was clear, dark, and cold: the perfect conditions for an atmospheric spectacle. My eyes were fixated on the sky so long that when the first glimpse of the lights appeared (and quickly disappeared), I second-guessed what I saw. But as the night went on, bright green lights began to swirl overhead, wafting like illuminated smoke, glowing and darkening.
This was why I had come to Iceland, to see this dazzling light show with my very own eyeballs. While photos of the northern lights are certainly beautiful, a static image is not the same as being present, and the aurora truly is something that needs to be seen in the moment. Later, as I made my way back to the hotel, I resolved to return the following night to stock up on as much aurora as possible before my time in the Arctic was up. I suppose I should have been satisfied with just a taste of decadence.
DAY TWO: TROLLED AT BLACK SAND BEACH
There is plenty to see and do in and around my chosen aurora hunting grounds of Vík, even during the cold winter months. One of those things is a day at Reynisfjara, Vík’s beautiful black sand beach. It’s less for swimming than for contemplating your current location on the planet—standing at the bottom of Iceland, looking south over the rest of the world. Dramatic rock formations line the coast, and one of these jagged outcrops, Reynisdrangar, is visible from the beach.
The folklore regarding the formation of these rocks tells us that two helpful trolls were pulling a ship to shore when they were caught in the first rays of morning light and subsequently turned to stone. Not unlike the trolls, I misjudged the distance and timing of the tide. In my splendor stupor, I was suddenly thigh-deep in water.
Wet pants and Iceland do not mix, so I returned to the car to warm up and to continue on to the stunning views at Dyrhólaey. Only a 20-minute drive from Vík, Dyrhólaey greeted me with a charming lighthouse and then slapped me in the face with beautiful gray cliffs that towered sharply above a rough sea, playing host to thousands of nesting birds. Facing Vík, I watched the relentless forces of water and wind as they continued to shape the massive rock faces. To the west, the cliffs disappeared, leaving nothing but a lonely black and white coastline fading into a foggy horizon. As it grew darker, I returned to Vík to prepare for pursuit.
NIGHT TWO: NORTHERN LIGHTS OUT
After a dinner of pink salmon and hot lamb stew, I was still hungry for more aurora and so I set out for my lucky spot. The tour bus was not there and the evening was much cloudier and windier than the night before. As a newly seasoned aurora expert, I knew this was a bad sign but decided that I would be ready to watch just in case the weather cleared. The wind was so strong that I was forced to remain inside of the car, which was positioned behind some tall grasses that obscured my view. If I moved the car perpendicular to the narrow road, I’d face a larger swath of sky.
After waiting for over an hour, I became sleepier and sleepier as the clouds rolled in to stay. Ready to call it a night, I put the car in reverse and pressed on the gas—like you do when you want to drive somewhere—but the car stayed put while the tires spun uselessly below me. I shifted into drive—back to reverse—back to drive—but the car wasn’t budging, only sinking, lower and lower into the dirt along with my heart.
The wind blasted as I got out of the car to assess the situation. I struggled to close the door and felt something fly out of my pocket. I’d been using my coat as an all-purpose storage facility and thus I didn’t fret, assuming one of many receipts or tickets stuffed deep in my pockets would have ended up in the trash anyway. I got to work pathetically wedging whatever rocks I could find under the tires, succeeding only in creating the illusion of stability, which was not enough to fool the car into driving out of its hole.
I climbed back into the car, the wind slamming the door shut. The world outside was suddenly much more intimidating now. What was I capable of without this machine? How useful a car is—until it isn't! I contemplated sleeping where I was overnight and waiting until daylight to find help, but by this time I was cranky. My bed was waiting for me 13 kilometers away and I wanted it. I remembered that kilometers are shorter than miles, so I decided that I would make my way back to the hotel on foot. I had only driven 10 minutes and I had stayed on the same road—the only road—so all I had to do was follow it back, right? I hoped that maybe I wouldn’t even have to walk the entire way, that when a car drove by I would hitch a ride, fulfilling another Icelandic custom successfully.
I put on every piece of clothing I had in the car—a sweater, scarf, two pairs of gloves, hat, and leg warmers—and set out in the dark, accompanied by the LED glow of my phone’s flashlight. With the wind blowing head on, I walked down the center of the road, periodically turning around to search for the phantom headlights of my potential ride.
To my own astonishment, I wasn’t fearful during this journey. Walking alone in the cold darkness of a foreign country sounds like a situation that might cause me to worry, but the Iceland I had seen from the car window was vast and uninhabited and left me feeling not just alone but very incredibly alone, which to me was preferable to being maybe alone. I had read in the guidebook that no deadly animals live in Iceland, so unless I managed to get pummeled by a puffin, I would probably survive the long, dark journey.
After a mere three and a half hours of walking through the dark night, I reached the hotel feeling very proud of myself and eager for the sweet reward of my bed. My ride never did show up, but I imagine they were probably driving a very small car only a very short distance anyway. As I took off my coat and emptied my pockets, I realized that the missing item that had fallen from my pocket was not a useless receipt but my credit card, my lifeline, my only source of money as I sat car-less at the bottom of Iceland. This was a problem, but so was what to do about the car, and I was tired enough to decide to go to sleep and worry about all of it in the morning.
DAY THREE: RESCUED AND BEYOND
As soon as I woke up, I went to the front desk of the hotel and told the woman there my predicament. While I was convinced that my problems would not only be expensive but potentially insurmountable, she seemed hardly surprised or even concerned. She informed me that her husband would arrive soon to help, so I waited, thinking of every possible way this already bad situation could become worse. It didn’t take long until two burly Icelanders arrived to help me rescue my car. I hopped into the cab of their large and beautiful truck, drunk with horsepower.
Sitting between them, I was thrilled by the serendipity that brought me these two capable men who would pull my ship onto the shore, securing their place in the legends of my Iceland. During the ride, the men asked me what happened and laughed when I recanted the story, reassuring me that tourists get their cars stuck in the dirt all the time. Even so, I felt very silly next to these tough and experienced Icelandic men who were brought up in this harsh environment, who could move cars like toys and save me from myself.
We arrived at the car and the men got to work. As I waited for my moment to be of any use, I skeptically glanced around for my credit card. Less than a minute after my search began, I spotted my card, wedged halfway in the soft dirt, wet and scared but in one piece. Ten minutes later, my car was also freed from the earth and back under my command. I couldn’t believe how well everything had turned out, even after walking 13 kilometers in the middle of the night.
Rambling around Iceland spurred on by my own solar wind, I was humbled by the beauty and power of nature and grateful for the remarkable friendliness of the Icelandic people, who like the electrons and protons crashing against the magnetosphere, gave off their own beautiful light. I thanked the men many times over and with my car and future debt securely in my possession, I raced up the road and out of Vík, hunting down my next aurora.
Plan Your Trip: Visit Fodor's Iceland Travel Guide