Magical thinking in Iceland [February 12]
The older you get, the less often you feel astonished. The shock of the new recedes and instead you see patterns and repetitions in every experience. Music sounds like other music. Mountain views are less breath-taking if you have climbed a lot of mountains. Last year, though, I spent a week in a state of perpetual astonishment – and I discovered it does funny things to your brain.
My friend and I had decided to travel to Iceland for a walking trip. We flew into Reykjavik and spent the next seven days driving and hiking through scenes that looked like a series of excellent Dr Who planet-scapes.
We climbed shale-littered volcanic mountains, skirting gingerly around holes from which boiling mud spewed at unpredictable intervals. We bathed in thermally heated rivers, lolling like pampered sprites in the warm water. We drove through vast fields of congealed lava that looked like the bilious vomit of a giant. We crept out onto a rocky ledge and watched as mammoth ice blocks crumbled from a glacier’s edge and floated downriver to the sea. Every day we found new sources of astonishment in the landscape.
Being perpetually astonished gives you a natural high, and being high leads to magical thinking. You start to believe you are the cause of every good thing that happens.
‘The weather will be fine for whale-watching tonight’, my friend predicted on a rainy day. It was. ‘We’re going to see puffins from the boat, for sure’, I promised her. We did. ‘Bjork will walk past us in Reykjavik,’ I announced. The Icelandic pop star duly strolled past us sporting an orange leopard-print jumpsuit, and we were convinced we had caused this event.
We were in the right place. Iceland has a proud tradition of magical thinking. According to legend, when the Norse founder of Iceland first sighted land from his ship he threw some wooden pillars overboard, believing they would float ashore at the place the gods wanted him to settle. His poor servants were sent off to search the coast, finally tracking down the pillars three years later in the bay that became Reykjavik.
On the day my friend and I were due to leave Iceland the magic evaporated. Our lift to the airport never showed up, and we almost missed our flights. Six months on I still miss feeling astonished. We’re already saving for a return trip.
(This column was published in the Sunday Age and Sydney Morning Herald on February 12th 2017)