Iceland: A land of magical beauty and indescribable landscapes that lift the spirits. We’ve seen proposals happen there, and have imagined ourselves on a road trip around the Ring Road. Now, photographer Whitney Justesen takes us along on her own journey, sharing some of her favorite shots of the country and describing what she calls ‘authentic travel’.
What drew you to Iceland?
At the risk of sounding completely cliché, it was the unknown that drew me there. You grow up learning all about the popular tourist places to visit—Paris, London, Rome. Iceland was somewhere new and I hadn’t really ever heard of people purposely visiting. I began to see pictures and videos pop up of this strange and beautiful place over time and it intrigued me. I so clearly remember the day I saw the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty; I walked right out of the theater and told my friend with conviction: “I’m going to find a way to go to Iceland!” I couldn’t have ever imagined that just 6 months later I would really be going.
It’s popular for tourists to rent a camper van and drive the Ring Road. Is that how you traveled around?
It probably would have been slightly more comfortable to do that; however, my friends and I wanted to make our experience as adventurous and genuine as possible, and so we decided to literally camp our way around the Ring Road. Sometimes that meant setting up our tent in negative degree, snowy, or rainy weather. Luckily though, the ground in most places had pillow moss covering it, so it was like sleeping on a thick memory foam mattress most nights.
We rented a car from the airport and used that to drive around the entirety of the Ring Road. It was the perfect vehicle for our travels over the harsh landscapes, from mountains and glacial passes, to black sand and volcanic desert roads. We stuffed all our bags, food, gear, and camping supplies in the trunk, strapped props to the roof, and took off on our road trip around the country. The great thing about Iceland is that there is a “Law of the Land”, which basically states that anywhere in the country is pretty much free reign for campers. We could literally camp on top of a waterfall or inside a cave if we wanted. Iceland is awesome like that.
What were some of your favorite sites or destinations?
One of my favorite places we visited early in our trip was Reynisdrangar Black Rock beach. It’s the most incredible place, with freestanding rock formations out in the ocean, basalt columns lining the cliff wall, and gigantic waves crashing regularly onto the black sands. It was bitterly cold when we were there, but it was so worth it. Another incredible place was Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. It felt like I was in the lost world from King Kong or Lord of the Rings or something. It’s a canyon with freestanding cliff walls over 1,000 feet high and a cool blue river running at the base.
A few of my other favorite places we visited were Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, the abandoned plane wreck near Vík, and Skogafoss. (And no, I can’t accurately pronounce the names of half of those places!)
You describe your experience as “opening your eyes to real, authentic travel.” What do you mean by that; what does authentic travel mean to you?
I have traveled a decent amount and I have seen a lot of incredible places; however, most of my travels have been family trips or school-sponsored tours, and as such, almost every minute of every day was scheduled. It was always “go here, go there; stay with your group and spend only this much time at each place; be back by dinner.” You know the drill.
My time in Iceland was completely different. Of course we had plans to see certain places and do some very specific things, but we were also completely open to changing our plans at any moment if something different or seemingly more exciting came along. We didn’t stay in fancy hotels or drag heavy suitcases around with us, and we didn’t read brochures or go on expensive tours; instead, we made friends with locals and other travelers we met along the way, frolicked with wild horses, and walked on ancient glaciers without a guide. Our daily schedules were completely up to us, and I loved that. I never want to travel any other way for the rest of my life.
You traveled with two friends. How did this experience impact your relationship(s) with them?
I had known these two friends, Elizabeth Gadd and Rob Woodcox, for several years prior to our trip. We had met each other through Flickr and we bonded through our shared love of photography and telling stories with our art. We had gotten together multiple times for short intervals and I always loved the time I spent with them. We three have a lot in common, so we always create awesome things when we’re together.
Our time is Iceland was a new way to experience this shared friendship, and it strengthened it in so many ways. Of course, it wasn’t always easy;:Rob and I butted heads over a lot of things on our trip and Lizzy was always our quiet mediator. Rob and I both have very strong personalities, and although we care for each other deeply, spending more than a few days in a small car hashing out itineraries and fighting over who was right was difficult to say the least (and at the end of the day, we always came back together, apologized, and moved forward, and everything was fine again).
It was really cool to get so close over those few weeks in Iceland; both Lizzy and Rob became more like family to me, and it affirmed that we have a friendship that is not soon to dissipate. We even have some upcoming travel plans that I can’t wait to develop more fully!
How did this trip inspire you emotionally, artistically or otherwise?
Iceland inspired me in more ways than I could fully describe. For one thing, it opened my eyes to this incredible world we live in by showing me places I had never even dreamed about. It showed me a new perspective on “authentic” traveling as I talked about, and gave me the desire to explore more places in the world like I did there. It made me feel small; which I think is a really good thing. When you’re living your day-to-day life, you tend to get wrapped up in yourself, and in a way, you think of your life as the only one that matters. When you get outside of yourself, however, and see that there is really so much more to experience beyond the four corners of your own bedroom, your life changes forever. Of course, I think that can be the case with anyone who really takes their travels seriously. Traveling opens your eyes, and your heart, to a whole new world—and I don’t just mean that literally.
Personally, I have always had a desire to see the world, and I couldn’t be happier that I have taken the opportunities I’ve been given to do so. I never want to stop traveling, and I honestly don’t think I ever will.
Why should other travelers put Iceland at the top of their bucket lists?
Because even though I am so proud of the images I took while I was in Iceland, they don’t even begin to do the country justice. Iceland is such an incredibly gorgeous and otherworldly place; you have to see it with your own eyes to understand what I mean when I say that. There were so many times I stood there staring in awed silence at landscapes, attempting to convince myself it was real. I felt like I was in a dream I didn’t want to wake up from.
Just go. You’ll know what I mean when you get back.