Traveling Iceland's Ring Road by Paper Map
In defense of road maps & wrong turns
On my second night in Iceland, I accidentally saw the Northern Lights from a natural hot spring.
Epic is an understatement, but let me back up.
When we arrived in Iceland on the last day of August, jet lagged beyond belief and less psyched about our road trip than we were desperate for a nap, we bought a massive paper road map for the purpose of emergencies. I had thought we could use navigation data I had downloaded onto my phone, but it's surprisingly complicated to ask a cellphone to take you where you want to go when you don't have a destination.
We had no plans. We didn't know where we were going to sleep, eat, hike, gawk at waterfalls or go to hot springs. We didn't even book the Blue Lagoon.
But we had a car and a country full of too many waterfalls for any guidebook to name. So we put our phones away for everything but photos, and right-turned and wrong-turned our way to Route One, the Ring Road.
We measured time with sunsets and missed sunrises, and kilometers in thumbs leapfrogging across the map. We drove for hours and for eight days straight, over mountain passes and one-lane bridges, past glaciers and steaming earth. Sometimes we’d hear of something beautiful, not to be missed, and we’d see on the map that it was behind us. Too late. But we wasted nothing. There wasn’t any time or space for disappointment.
I’d be lying if I said this was how I had wanted the trip to go. When we first booked the flights, I spent hours flipping through magazines, scouring websites and saving links to blogs with pretty pictures. I was told, by people who live there, that Iceland is better without a plan. And I shrugged it off. Yes, I did want to take the same pictures as everyone else, and stand in the same spots and see the same beauty.
But as it always seems to, life managed to get in the way of planning this vacation. So we arrived with an idea, a few postcards in mind, but nothing remotely close to a plan.
The internet has no shortage of mock itineraries, top-10 lists and can’t-miss tours. But my favorite places were understated or skipped over entirely by a lot of what I had read.
On our second night, we misread the map and took a wrong turn looking for something that wasn't there. It was getting dark, and so we went back out to the main highway and followed the road signs marked with a tent and a hot pool. We parked in a field with other camper vans, and saw steam rising from a river.
We heard there was a hot spring up the hill, so we followed the signs to Gudrunarlaug. The small, hot spring-fed pool is said to be the bathing spot of one of the few female protagonists of Iceland’s legendary sagas. When I got tired, I put on warm clothes inside the stone “house of modesty,” insulated with turf.
I walked back outside not five minutes later, and the edges of the sky had started turning green. It was faint, at first, and then streaks started glowing bright and dancing all around me. I remembered reading about the Northern Lights in Phenomenal, by Leigh Ann Henion, and how people often cry when they see them for the first time. I came pretty close, laughing and beaming and twirling around like a fool trying to see everything at once.
We saw the Northern Lights three nights in a row, from campsites we saw on the map. They are every bit as incredible as you think they will be, and then some.
We winged every day like this, and we were never disappointed.
On the ninth day, we packed our map safely in its plastic holder, protecting it from the rain. It was worn at all the creases, with a few holes and messy handwritten notes and lines and circles. But it was beautiful to us, meaningful in the way a smartphone never could be. It is a souvenir unparalleled by any trinket, and it’s proof that we did it. We traveled a whole country. And we loved every minute of it.
Thanks, road map.