At 6am, I arrive in Keflavik wearing leftover shorts from New York and a newfound, unfamiliar edge against jet lag and Benadryl (stemming only from anticipation and utter attraction). The airport here is quiet, letting light and wood do all of the talking. At customs, a woman wearing an inscrutable smile presses the first stamp to my passport. I study it carefully, immediately giving myself up, I’m sure.

The Bucket List Initiative, arriving in Iceland

On the road to Reykjavik, I pass endless rocky plains and hills capped in spongey, green saxicoline. I can’t wait to feel them with my fingers. Though otherworldly, everything here feels oddly familiar, and I start to sincerely believe that my ancestors must have made this place home at some point and properly passed down this quality to me by way of DNA. Or maybe I’ve just been on Instagram for too long.

It is a straight shot to Reykjavik, and I instantly adore the city. I park off the side of a one lane brick road and let the sweet smell and mellifluous sounds of a corner café suitably named Café Paris pull me inside of it. At a table lined with tiny, emptied coffee cups and pulled apart pastries, my pesky human need for sleep sets in all at once like a Boeing 747. I head to my Airbnb accordingly.

The bucket list initiative, driving through Iceland
The Bucket List Initiative, Iceland backroads, discover Iceland

The Bucket List Initiative, reykjavik accomodation

I fight a quick nap and lose. When I wake up, it’s late afternoon and I am ready. With a map and a generally bad sense of direction, I head south.

The Bucket List Initiative Seljalandsfoss waterfall Iceland

Before I arrived in Iceland, I was warned about one thing that I’ll call “waterfall complacency.” Iceland is bursting at the Nordic seams with waterfalls–each one more powerful than the last–that it’s allegedly entirely possible to grow used to seeing them. Eventually, I might even forget to stop and stare. It’s not long before I catch sight of Seljalandsfoss, my first Icelandic waterfall. I arrive and carefully trace its edges, making sure that I properly remember every inch. I find it hard to leave, but don’t make it far before I hit Skógafoss when I do. Seemingly still untouched by waterfall complacency, I am captivated. Even more than I was at the last. Moody light pulls me across a rocky path and leads me to its hem. In its dark corner, water splashes over and all around me. Soaked, I press towards Vík.

The Bucket List Initiative Skógafoss waterfall Iceland, discover Iceland
The Bucket List Initiative DC-3 airplane Iceland, Iceland landmarks

Given a specific set of instructions, I turn onto an unmarked dirt road and follow it to Black Sand Beach. Here I’m not surprised to find, like so many before me, remains of a wrecked DC-3. I investigate it, shoot it, step on it, and leave it, heading toward the coast. This is the first time I feel far away from home. It’s the first time nothing around me feels familiar or even earthly. I’m on another planet, watching the sky wave pink and blue around me.

The Bucket List Initiative Black sand beach, Iceland airplane

The drive home is surreal. It’s past 11pm and the sun has just set, but not really. Light holds onto the sky like it’s not ready to let this day go, and I feel comradery in my sentimentality. I wind around hills and cliffs and falls, and eventually get lost in the city. I find what is probably the Icelandic equivalent of a 7-11 and make my first international purchase (water and paper towels). I’m relieved to find my way home, though I’d be content to continue surveying this sleepy 3am city just the same.

In the morning, I wake up in the capital and really like the idea of that. Nothing feels foreign to me (the lack of language barrier and my time spent soaking in the Pacific Northwest help, I’m sure), but everything feels undiscovered. It’s a quick walk downtown, and I stop at Reykjavik Roasters. There’s something very familiar about this tiny coffeehouse, but it’s probably just the Bon Iver. An old, stacked church called Hallgrimskirkja sits a few blocks away, and it’s easy for me to find. I take the elevator up to a room wrapped in windows and stools. The 360° views go on for miles, and I’m left to consider every brightly painted home and the infiltration of glorious Swiss and Scandinavian design.

My itinerary is full today, and the first stop is Blue Lagoon. Here, I find steam gently rolling across a milky, blue pool. I bask and bathe and breathe in air that tastes like Bentonite clay. I’m warm from the inside out. When I leave, I feel new.

The bucket list initiative reykjavik coffee, backpacking Iceland
The Bucket List Initiative Hallgrimskirkja church Reykjaviuk Iceland

The Bucket List Initiative, Blue Lagoon Iceland, Iceland hot spring

I take the long way toward the Golden Circle with Gullfoss and Geysir in mind. I glide past red dirt roads, lonely houses, and seemingly endless patches of evergreens. I pull up cliffside at Gullfoss and catch a fraction of the view. I’ve got shivers, but it could just be the cold. When I approach the massive, sharp edge, I’m the smallest version of myself. I quickly find that there are relentless, overbearing things and people and ideas that don’t exist here in this country and moment. Only I and Gullfoss remain, but I am a speck compared to it. I feel new again, but in a different way.

The Bucket List Initiative, Gullfoss waterfall Iceland, Iceland Waterfall

I stop at Geysir on my way out. Ominous steam hovers over four small pools. I’ve never seen a geyser up close, and only half know what to expect. Twice on my walk to the pools, the surprise is spoiled. Water bursts through the earth intermittently to the collective sound of shutter clicks and crowd fascination. Nature’s Jack-in-the-box. It marks the end of a very good day.

The Bucket List Initiative Geysir Iceland

Catch up on the rest of Rachel’s trip:

Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6

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Rachel Gulotta
My biggest dream has always been writing. My pipe dream has always been photography + video editing. It's pretty neat that I get to do both, and it's more than pretty neat that I get to do what I love with my best friend.