Velkomin heim. Welcome home.

These two words greeted every eager passenger who touched down on Icelandic soil. I laugh upon reflection of this moment, as my definition of home has always been convoluted at best. The phrase conjures feelings of elation, exasperation, contention, and comfort. What other phrase could so simply represent the conflicted feelings I hold for Iceland?

The Land of Fire & Ice.  

A country where the harshest landscapes produce the kindest people. A treacherous territory that seems otherworldly, but also makes me feel right at home. And now, due to circumstance, I look upon Iceland with an additional contradiction — it is a destination I in which I have experienced profound moments, but I still feel I was barely present within its borders. My favorite country is the backdrop for my most unfortunate exploits. And I always yearn for the chance to return.

Einstein wisely stated that, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” and I believe that is why we, as a society, are drawn to places like Iceland. The mysteries within this barren, beautiful country evokes both crippling fear and gleeful wonder.  My time in Iceland revealed this dichotomy.  

Our initial days of exploration were filled with awe-inspiring, squeal-inducing, soul-awakening hours.  We straddled continents and applied mineral masks with countless strangers. We followed our whims down unmarked roads, scampering through vast landscapes in blissful solitude.  We swam, ate, rambled, slept, breathed, and lived deeply. I embraced these early days as I often do, fully present, attempting to preserve the feelings somewhere deeper than even images are capable of reaching. Unless something truly moved or delighted me, my camera remained stored away, allowing me to savor the quiet grace I was experiencing. Resting. Waiting.  The landscapes I hoped to document were coming. There would be plenty of time for photographs.

At the halfway mark of our journey, we left our hotel en route to the wilds of the Southeast, toward everything I was so earnestly awaiting. Then our plans, along with our bodies, were literally flipped upside down. Those winds that you see dramatically whipping through young beauties’ hair on Instagram? They also have the power to force you off the road.

Instead of snowmobiles, we rode in ambulances. Our tripods brushed hotel carpet rather than black sand beaches. Luxurious soaks in hidden hot springs were replaced with therapeutic massages in sterile establishments. The open road that once made us clap our hands and cheer was now cause for knee-jerk gasps and white knuckles. What once was bright and beautiful quickly moved into shadow.  My relief over walking away from the destruction was contradicted by a feeling I couldn’t shake — I was still missing something. Instead of being able to accept g the experience for what it was, I couldn’t stop nagging sensation that it could have been so much more.

How deeply do the effects of a trip like this reverberate through a soul?

For many months after returning home, I observed the sound and trembling of heartache increase — sometimes in steady but perceptible stages, and then by sudden, swift degrees. The last I spoke about this was shortly after the full roar, that climax of emotions, when the calm of release created a safe space to move forward. For the most part, the trauma has softened and what remains is the maddening joy of adventure. But I am still conscious of the murmurs, the whisperings of disappointment and longing, and the swell in volume when I recall what I missed just beyond that fateful, wind-swept valley.

On the morning of March 30, 2016, for the first time, I felt ready to sift through the imagery I collected in Iceland. I simply wanted to share my photos. It was like any other day. That is, until my travel companions interrupted my blog preparations with the revelations that our car wreck had been exactly one year earlier. The whispers grew louder.

Truthfully, writing this story was something I intentionally postponed. Not because of the effort it would take to write these words, but rather because the lack of images draws attention to that final, lingering ache. I feared that, in viewing them, I would be reminded not only of what is missing, but of a time that a feeling of defeat made my camera seem too heavy to hold. I am gratefully surprised to say that, while those feelings did rumble through me (repeatedly), I have closed this chapter with an encouraged spirit.

I want to share my heart, even though it does not carry the usual cheer of my travel reflections. I hope to encourage people to still seek out beauty in a difficult situation, even when it hurts. Most of all, I needed to remember how important it is to be honest. I can preach authenticity, but I am aware of how tempting it is to touch-up and polish an experience in the name of business. To paraphrase my wise friend over at Sounds Like a Movement, I want to tell a story, not sell one. This is me, trying to push beyond witty captions, quirky emojis, and all the lights and buzz. I’m showing my scuffed edges, my bruised heart (and ego).

They say Iceland speaks differently to each individual soul that it touches. I choose to have faith that our next conversation will be a stark contrast to the first, and look forward to being welcomed home once again.

Some photos provided by fellow traveler Karen Kelly (@karenkellyphotography).