Those who travel a lot—or at least travel to the same place often —forget what it is like to feel scared and strange and alien and foreign in an exotic land. It is not at all the kind of feeling you might call “pleasant.” If you could bottle the feeling, and then try to sell it, no one would buy it. It is one of confusion, tiredness, and anxiety, in which you just want to go hide and be left alone.
I had forgotten this feeling myself. I had it at 19, when I first went abroad, but as I have returned to England and Italy almost every year since, and now speak Italian, that strong feeling has been more and more diluted with every trip. But when I went to Iceland it all came back: anxiety, disorientation, confusion, excitement.
Iceland is, indeed, very foreign. Major highways narrow to one-lane bridges, and paved roads end in gravel lanes, with hardly any warning—just a sign, “Malbik Endar.” In the western part of the island, the landscape is strange, apocalyptic, open, and void of all but a few emaciated and shriveled trees. Channels of steam break out of the ground and shoot up. In the south, the skies are open, like they are in Texas, but flocks of fat geese and tiny little sheep—they look like small dogs—move in a grass that is as intensely green—almost blue—as it is in Gloucestershire. And water is everywhere: falling, cutting through gorges, steaming from the ground, leaping off of steep cliffs in hundreds of unnamed falls that would serve as the heart of a state park anywhere else.
Then there are strange birds, like the Icelandic oystercatcher. He is black on his head and wings, with a long, thin orange beak. But when he is startled, his first seconds of flight look like an explosion, because when he stretches out he reveals a white belly and underwings.
As you try to take all of this in together—ugly, steaming boulder fields; startling explosive flights; cutting and falling of water; roads suddenly plunging into nothing—it creates a bizarre experience of confusion and foreignness, not unlike nausea. It is not pleasant: it is related to what romantic poets and painters called the “sublime,” that “pleasant horror” or heaviness you experience at the foot of a lofty and aloof mountain, or the oppressive awe you experience at the top of a waterfall that remains indifferent to your small presence. To tell the truth: after I had been in Iceland for a few hours, I wanted to go home. I felt sleepy and nervous and confused.
But travel is akin to listening to concert music: you pass through landscapes like you pass through soundscapes, in time. If you have ever found yourself sitting in an organ concert, you sometimes wonder to yourself, what am I doing here? Why am I listening to these strange patterns of sound? But then the organist comes upon some delicious passage: it arises and then melts back into the ocean of sound whence it emerged, like a wave that returns into the sea. The point is now clear: the whole composition was made to provide the context for that ten seconds of glorious transparency. It is a breakthrough, a falling, a gliding.
We do not travel in pursuit of anxiety, of course, but you cannot have the breakthrough without the prior disorientation. As your trip unfolds in time, as you move across the landscape, and slowly become less anxious of the new and strange, you have a moment in which the radically foreign emerges and presents itself to you in all of its distant glory. This happened to me, as I was hiking up through a gorge toward a geothermally heated pool in the mountains, or again on the shores of Vik, or again at Skogafoss.
And that is exactly why I came to Iceland: to be alone, to wander, to reflect, be still, see things that would make me look within for words I had not known were in there. To have a moment of breakthrough. What I had not expected was how much care I would have to take to make sure that this would happen. After Walter Mitty, Sigur Ros, the unanticipated success of Iceland’s national soccer team in the 2016 European Cup, and Icelandair’s promotions, the country has been drowned in waves of new tourism. My innkeeper—a turnip farmer and rancher in the south—told me that a few years ago there was a busy season and a slow one. Now they remain booked every night throughout the whole of the year. I avoided, for the most part, reading guidebooks, and simply arrived unannounced at sights I thought I might want to see. When I arrived, big tour buses were already there. Even when I came to Iceland’s “hidden gems,” there were no locals, just 100 folk from France and Australia and the UK and US, all of whom made the same comments. I was swimming in a geothermal pool in the mountains, and a young Australian said to me, “I thought this pool would have been warmer.” Ten minutes later, I heard the same comment made in French.
When I was driving through Thingvellir, I pulled off the road to enjoy a long look, eat lunch, and think. During that time, three different parties arrived, pulled into my view, jumped out of the car, snapped pictures, huddled against the wind, rushed back to the car. One woman spent 60 seconds on the view. I counted. Boom. In and out. Another did not even look at the view with her eyes—only at it through the mediation of the screen: panoramic, two times . . . just to get it right . . . a couple of quick ones—gone—back to the car. Two minutes. Why do we feel the obligation to perform such strange tourist rituals? There are no lack of images available via Google. Why do we need our own?
In this context, the selfie is even stranger. When I was at Thingvellir, one glowering woman came dutifully up to the view, lumbering forward with loose, bored limbs, stopped, posed, smiled brilliantly, took her picture. As soon as that was over, her downcast look returned, and she moved back toward the car to drive sullenly away.
When you hike in Iceland, you see people from all over the world—that is, from everywhere but Iceland—coming along the trail in the opposite direction. They carry the same backpacks, wear the same shoes, carry the same phone, are covered in the same brightly colored GORE-TEX, and then wait in line to take the same picture. So here we all are: we have come to Iceland for inspiration, depth, discovery, only to look at ourselves. Perhaps we take so many selfies because we want to reassure ourselves that—despite the hundreds of people more or less like me—I really am in Iceland? The selfie then is a kind of melancholic proof to yourself that you are actually traveling.
This is surely part of it. The dangers of mass tourism are obvious: when we travel in herds, we trample the destination with our imported expectations and crop the exotic to fit our own dimensions. What was foreign becomes a reflection of me. Here is me in front of a waterfall. Here is me in front of a lake, me in front of a funny sign, me in front of . . . Me! Me! It obliterates the possibility of travel—immersion, suspension, confusion, awe, and breakthrough. We falsify the spots locals used to come to. They will not come again.
But the greatest offense of all was at Skogafoss, the mighty waterfall in the south. The river Skoga flows down through mountain highlands, and as it descends, it picks up speed by tumbling down two dozen minor waterfalls. As it rushes through its gorge, it gains additional water, contributed by innumerable small streams that tumble over the walls. But then, the Skoga, with added volume and new speed, approaches the end of its river bed, holds its breath for a moment, and then recklessly hurls itself over the edge of its known world.
Millions of gallons—imagine an olympic swimming pool falling from a skyscraper, every second—precipitously fall, gaining ever more speed, before magnificently smashing into the rocks and water below. The water is pulverized into a fine mist, and so the site of impact is hidden in spray, veiled, like some natural liturgy. But then the mist is lifted upward by a steady wind off the ocean. It rises in immense, spiraling turbines, that ascend all the way back up to the top of the fall, like clouds of incense. No wonder Iceland recently voted to rebuild temples to pagan gods!
If you climb to the top of the fall you will see two things: if you look down, you will see that thousands of birds roost in little crevices in the rocks, like hermits in cells who want to be close to the source of power. Every now and then, they leap out of their little caves, in imitation of the waterfall, and let themselves fall before spreading their wings. They do not have to flap, because the spray-filled shockwave from below sustains their flight.
If you look up, you will see a mountain face, so peculiarly chiseled by rain and wind, that it looks like a visage. It exerts—there is no other word for it—a sense of weight, psychological weight that pushes down on you. Overwhelmed by this experience, you feel silence impressed on you and so you go wandering off through the mountain highlands, walking on a bouncy, spongy turf—over hills and into hollows, protected by wind, where—I am happy to say—you can look up at the mountain’s face, being seen by none.
As I said, the Romantics would have called this an experience of the “sublime”: an experience on the edge of your vocabulary. You cannot stop looking, suspended wordlessly in a long gaze. At some point, you know, you must go away, but you do not want to leave. And so in a feeble effort to remain there forever, you snap a picture, disappointed with the results, and then look one more time, longingly, hoping somehow that this sight will imprint itself on your mind forever. But you leave, knowing the truth: this cannot be.
This, then, is the experience travel can offer to those with time, a sense of quiet, and eyes to see. But down below, at the site of impact, the weird tourist rituals continue. For whatever reason, one of two pictures is required:
- stand on a rock 200 feet in front of the site of collision; jump up and violently extend your limbs in all directions. In this way, with waterfall safely behind you, it might look to the eye of the camera that you are falling.
- lean to the side and stretch out your arms, holding them vertically: in this way, you will look like you are holding the waterfall within your hands.
Why would you travel 3,000 miles to act like you possess, control, and dominate a creature that veils itself in a screen of mist and is attended to by aerial acolytes, who hurl themselves from rocks in perpetual adoration? Why can’t we just be still?
But my favorite tourist photo of all was of a young woman who crept out onto a ledge—terrible idea, those things break—lay back on the rock, craned her neck to the side like a swan, arched her back, like Gaia waiting for Ouranos to inseminate her. It was an appropriate pose, I guess, with the mist swirling around her and the sun’s lights penetrating the spray. “Did you get it?,” she said to her bespectacled boyfriend, who, with wide eyes, had been avariciously looking at her through his screen and taking dozens of shots.
Such gestures domesticate the site we profess admiration for. We conform it, as I have said, to our own image. But, at the same time, I would like to suggest that these shallow gestures hint at something more profound. The woman on the ledge betrays a secret desire to become a part of the landscape. She does not just want to be in front of it, but to be one within it, to plunge into it, to melt and be liquified within it. She lies there and imagines herself as seen from the vantage of the camera, and in so doing, she briefly imagine herself as absorbed into the world that stretches out behind her. She does not want just to see beauty; she wants to be beauty.
Briefly contrasting our tourist on the ledge with one of the great observers of nature—nineteenth-century English painter, J.M.W. Turner—is helpful. Romantics basically invented the kind of tourism we still do, even if they did it more attentively and probably better. For example, when you look at Turner’s Walton Bridges, you realize that you are looking through the eyes of a great observer, who looked deeply and gazed lovingly, for a long time.
Turner depicts an ordinary, country scene: cows have descended the banks into the shallow river, where merchants move with their wares. But Turner has made a special study of the reflections: images of boats and of cows on the Thames. Some of the reflections bleed into their originals, so that the boundary between object and shadow is not clear. The sweeping landscape is deeply satisfying: soft borders create a serene haze and muted colors lull you into a state of rest. Most interesting of all is his use of light. The idyllic world is suspended in morning’s air, and Turner has devoted an exceptionally large swathe of canvas to sky: the whole landscape melts into the illumination above. In other words, the picturesque countryside rises upward and dissolves into the sublime brilliance of the sky.
Turner edited this view of the river banks. He removed many of the humans and all of the houses along the bank, rendering the scene more idyllic. In a sense, then, Turner did the opposite of what we do: he wanted to look through the landscape, into it, beyond it. We look at the “me” in front of it. Turner’s painting is about breakthrough: not just of the sun shining through the atmosphere but that richer moment of depth, when it opens up and opens out into infinity.
Just two years before Turner completed his painting, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was on vacation in Malta, where he, sad and melancholic, looked up at the huge moon hanging over the sea at night, and wrote:
In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking, as at yonder moon dim-glimmering thro’ the dewy window-pane, I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing any thing new. Even when that latter is the case, yet still I have always an obscure feeling as if that new phaenomenon were the dim Awaking of a forgotten or hidden Truth of my inner Nature.
In other words, for Coleridge, and Turner, the natural world is composed of “symbols,” that is, natural phenomena that resonate with some inner part within us. When we look at the moon over the sea, we sense a depth within. The natural symbol draws it out. Inspired by what we see, we reach down into that inner depth and try to pull out words or images for it, words or pictures we did not previously know we had. Thus, for the Romantics, my journeying about the world, is an occasion for me to discover the inner continent of my own self. What is out there is not just a landscape: it’s a window into my innerscape. If I don’t truly travel, though, if I don’t give myself time to “internalize” the experience, then what is within remains undiscovered, just as it would if I had never gone anywhere at all.
In conclusion, it is this chain of thoughts that makes me want to travel better, slower, and be much more still. Talk less. Look more. Know more of the language. Maybe we could put ourselves on a ration system: for every one local I meaningfully speak to, I get a quota of five pictures. For every sketch I attempt, lovingly tracing the lines and drawing from the well within, I get three pictures. For every nap I take in a high mountain landscape, on turf so spongy I find myself wishing I were a ruminant: two pictures. Perhaps, before long, I will find myself free of that itch to reach for the camera or phone, and just find myself staring down at the waterfall, feeling that peculiar desire . . . to jump, to float down and into . . . to immerse . . . submerge. It is the same feeling, in reverse, you have when you look up into a vault of a Gothic cathedral and feel like you are floating upward. But here you feel like you are being pulled downward, and your footing feels unsteady. And this is good.
EDITORIAL NOTE: All the nature photos in this essay were taken by the author, all rights reserved.