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That Fire and Ice Feeling (Reflections on a Journey Through Iceland)

By Chad Gordon | September 18, 2023

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Bucket List.

It has always seemed like such a morbid, foreboding phrase to me - so final. And so trivial. A checklist of things to do before I’m dead. Dead!? A checklist? That feels like a chore, and I don’t need more reminders of my own mortality. I get it, the phrase is supposed to be a motivator. But it’s a bit uncomfortable for me to underpin things I really want to experience in my life, things that I hope to find joy in, with that hint of impending doom and the idea that I have to check as many things off a list as I can before I’m gone.

So, what is the first thing I’ve been saying when I tell people I went to Iceland? “Oh yeah, it has been number one on my bucket list for YEARS.” Oh well.

But the more I think about it the more I realize that I’m using that phrase because I don’t honestly know how to describe the experience. Bucket-listing seems to give it more gravitas than say “vacation”. But it was more than bucket list and it wasn’t just a vacation. It wasn’t just a break from work. It wasn’t just an escape. It was... hard to describe, which is kind of what I hoped for.

Why Iceland?

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland (Getty Images)

I saw a photograph of Seljalandsfoss (shown above) many, many years ago (the language proved to be impossible for us... but the “foss” at the end means waterfall) and was immediately entranced. “What is that?! It’s gotta be photoshopped or some hyper-real illustration.” It wasn’t. The more images I saw of this island with it’s glaciers, volcanoes and black sand beaches, the more I just had to be there. It was remote, barren, brutal but beautiful to me. There are natural features there that you can’t see anywhere else, at the least, not to the scale and quantity in which they exist in Iceland. There are places there that if you saw a painting of, you’d think “that’s cool, but a bit unrealistic” or, “Is that the surface of Mars?” It really is like another world.

It is not for everyone, but it is right in my personal aesthetic wheelhouse. It spoke to me as a person as well as a fine art landscape photographer. I’ve always been drawn to starkness and wide open spaces. I’m not what you would call an outdoorsman by any means, but I am happiest and most at peace when I am in nature. Iceland is nature times a thousand.

The opportunity and some company

Iceland for me was one of those dreams that you tell yourself, “I’m definitely going one day,” but in the back of your mind you have that “probably never gonna happen” thought. It’s too far away, overwhelming to plan, too expensive and most of all, I’ll never have enough time to really experience it like I want. While I was writing this blog my wife (Andrea) found an email from 2015 she sent to me with a link to Iceland airfare prices that said “some day!” It was just a nice thing to think about.

Then, I was given the most wonderful gift. Kelly hates when I mention the years (if she makes me edit this out, you will never know!), but I’m proud to say that 2022 was my 30th year at designRoom. Her gift to me was extended time off this summer to experience Iceland properly. I was able to spend 22 days in Iceland and a week off after to recover and process photos. For that I am forever grateful to Kelly for the opportunity of a lifetime and to Matt, Shaun and Anna for covering for me at work for such an extended period of time.

I’m used to planning solo photo shoot trips by myself. I’m very comfortable as a solo traveler. But those trips have typically been a weekend or a week at a time up until this, and only in the U.S.. I could have easily done this trip solo. Part of me wanted to, but that felt empty. I was imagining coming home with a bunch of stories and photos that those close to me couldn’t really grasp or understand. I really wanted an experience I could share with someone forever. This was too big to do alone.

The idea came about that maybe Andrea and my mom and dad could also go. They all said yes. My parents are both retired, but Andrea couldn’t get that many days off of work. So, I broke the trip into two parts. My dad agreed to drive the Ring Road with me for the first two weeks. Then Andrea and my mom would fly over and we’d meet them as we came back around the ring and all spend the last nine days together exploring the west and south of the island. Next up was the daunting task of how to plan this monster of a trip.

Obsessive Planning

I admit that I can be obsessive. Once I latch onto something that interests me I don’t let go. My obsessiveness worked in my favor in this case because one does not go into an Iceland trip willy-nilly, especially if you are planning on traveling the Ring Road. I planned this trip for nine months. If I wasn’t actively working on the plan, I was thinking about it every day for those nine months. It was clearly overkill, but as I told Kelly, the planning portion was like part of the trip for me. After a while I felt like I had already been there. It was fascinating reading about the culture, customs, geography, Viking history and so on. I read every travel tip imaginable. If you Google anything about Iceland in my browser you’ll find that you have to go many, many pages deep until you find a link I DIDN’T click on.

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Map of Iceland with planned stops. The Green dots are for when when I am with my dad. The red dots are my wife and mom together and the blue dots are when all four of us are together. The rings around each dot represent how many days we will stay in that location.

I’ve mentioned the Ring Road. It’s their main road that encircles the island. You can kind of get a sense of it from the map above. It’s roughly 821 miles around. I definately wanted to experience that since I now had the time. (For reference, Iceland is about the same size geographically as Ohio.) Just the travel logistics were overwhelming. I had no idea where any of those amazing pictures of Iceland that captivated me were located. I had to figure out where we should stop along the way, what attractions were around those stops, how long to stay at each location, driving distances, places to eat, etc. Then, how, when, and where we were going to meet my wife and mom.

And then there is the gear. What is the weather like? What should we wear? What do we need to buy beforehand? Which of my camera gear should I plan on bringing?

Anyhow, my obsessiveness resulted in me making a 42-page bound travel guide for the four of us. (If anyone is interested in a PDF copy, let me know!)

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My crazy 42-page travel guide that has a map, timelines, driving distances, daily weather averages, sunrise and sunset times, currency exchange rates, gas prices, road sign meanings, packing checklist for gear and photography and a full spread for each stop with lodging information and nearby attractions with photos (with driving distances from our lodging and hyperlinks to websites about each attraction for the digital version)... and more. Phew!

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Inventorying my camera gear for the trip.

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The trip by the numbers.

Being There

Have you ever been somewhere that you always dreamed of visiting that ended up being kind of disappointing once you finally got there? (That was the Grand Canyon for me. It was cool for a couple hours.) With all my research, I feared I had built unreasonable expectations. I didn’t. We got all the “wows” I expected, and then some.

The first little “wow” was when we landed and drove to our hotel that first night. We ended up arriving after midnight. It was still light out. Not mid-day bright, but kind of dusky. Being so close to the Arctic Circle, it never really got dark the entire trip. We were definitely not in Ohio anymore.

I’m not going to go through every stop, attraction or excursion from the trip because there are far too many to mention. They have the main tourist spots that everyone flocks to. But on the WAY to those attractions you’d see a random 400 foot waterfall in a farmer’s back “yard” that isn’t in any travel guide - a waterfall that might be it’s own attraction in many other places in the world. Or you’d come around a bend and see a towering, craggy mountainside shimmering in the misty sunlight on the left, the swirling Northern Atlantic on the right with only you and the winding road in between.

As we made our way around the Ring Road the “wows” just kept coming. Some “wows” came slowly and softly as we approached them from afar and we would often sit in silent wonder as we made our way to, and through them. Others came with a sudden jaw drop (and an expletive) as we crested a hill or came through a pass.

The landscape (and the weather) would seemingly completely change every 45 minutes of driving. It didn’t feel like a different planet. It felt like many different planets, only an hour away from each other. If you would happen to fall asleep in one area (not that you would) and woke up an hour later you’d wonder what the hell happened.

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Changing Landscape: All of these photos were taken along a 75-mile southern stretch of the Ring Road.

The Island felt like a living, breathing entity – with volcanoes, glaciers and earthquakes constantly reshaping it in real time. Like nowhere else I’ve been, you can really see and understand how the earth is formed. Seemingly right before your eyes. It felt as though once you left a place, it wouldn’t look the same if you turned back. It is front and center in your mind as you meander through these transformations.

There is what you see, and then there is what you feel there. I still can’t adequately describe that feeling. It sounds trite, but I can’t get past saying wonder, awe and transformation. It is such a conflicting place. It is brutal and unforgiving, which conjures feelings of respect and admiration for nature. Yet, there are parts where the scale and beauty just take your breath away. For me, it felt like peaceful turmoil. We actually did get the “waterfall fatigue” I had read others mention after seeing so many of them, but then we come across one like Dettifoss (the most powerfall waterfall in Europe) and we were “wowed” all over again.

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Dettifoss in Northern Iceland. Europe’s most powerful waterfall.

It is sensory overload and the feeling of being there is just too hard for me to put into words. So maybe some pictures will help:

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Photographing Iceland

Iceland was always first and foremost about photography for me. I mentioned that I am a fine art landscape photographer. It’s something that I’ve been doing for over 20 years. I sell prints and have had work in galleries. It’s more than a hobby, but it’s not quite a full-on business. Either way it is one of my biggest passions. What is different about my work is that I only shoot in infrared. Without going into details, infrared can give images a dreamlike, otherwordly quality (dark skies and water, brilliant clouds, foliage traditionally shows up as white, but can be monochromatic color as well). It is not true-to-life color. It will not look like what you actually see with your eyes.

My internal dilemma before this possibly-once-in-a-lifetime-trip was: am I really not going to shoot “regular” photos? On top of that, Iceland doesn’t have a lot of foliage. There are very few trees. The infrared effect really stands out when there is foliage. I had challenges shooting rocks and mountains out west before, but this was on another level. Was I crazy? Will I be wasting the one shot I had (pun intended)?

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On the left is one of my infrared photos from Ohio. No, that is not snow or ice on the trees. It was shot in Summer. That is the dreamy, surreal infrared effect. The image on the right is from my iPhone at Vestrahorn in Iceland.

But then I thought, I spent the last 9 months looking at thousands of amazing photographs of Iceland. Just wonderful work from professionals and amateurs alike. I can access those anytime I want by simply Googling. Do I really want to just copy what every one else has done? Does that make those photos unique or “mine”? Not that there is anything wrong with capturing a scene that others have. It IS a record of your experience. But for my artwork I’m not as interested in “accurately recording” places or things. I use settings to create a desired feeling that I have, either about the place itself or something that is internally within me. I wanted to translate Iceland into a feeling or mood that I could only get in Iceland. That peaceful turmoil.

The other challenge with a trip like this is that I would have very little time at each location. No time to scout for the best light of day for the scene. No time to wait for any rain to pass or the perfect cloud formations. We would be there for a fleeting moment and wouldn’t be coming back. Did I stretch this trip too thin?

So I went for the challenge. I only shot my fine art landcape images in infrared and I didn’t worry about how little time I was going to be at each location. I did use my iPhone to take “memory” or “record” photos.

My dad is also a photographer. He was an award-winning photojournalist for many years. It was a lot of fun shooting together and observing how we saw things the same or differently. He decided to get a drone for this trip and he captured some amazing video and still images. I think we covered what we saw from all angles!

Here is a sampling of my infrared images from the trip:


Back but Still There

Iceland wasn’t a leisurely trip. There was a lot of hiking and moving around. The longest we stayed at any hotel was 3 nights (once), so there was no settling in. It was constant pack up and go. The wind was relentless at times. Horizontal icy rain pelted our faces on occassion. Bugs swarmed around us at a couple stops. And for us, being young at heart isn’t exactly the same as being young. Like I said, it is not for everyone, so I was worried that I was leading everyone into something they weren’t prepared for, despite all my preparations. It was my idea to go after all. I voiced this to them a few times and they said I was crazy. But I still worried.

But in the end, we were ALL “wowed”. Most of those “wows” were shared, but we also were able to find things that interested us individually. Andrea had always wanted to see and ride the unique Icelandic horses. She was able to go on two rides, once with me on a black sand beach, and one solo by a waterfall (in horizontal freezing rain - but she didn’t cancel!). My mom loved all the different rocks, textures and patterns which is related to her work as a ceramicist. We’d all be looking at the vistas and turn around and see her taking closeups of the lichens on the volcanic rocks. My dad was grateful to see the glaciers considering we don’t know if they will always be there. He and I also talked a lot about farming as we saw the unique Icelandic farming throughout the drive. He was raised on a farm so it was nice to hear his thoughts while also learning more about his life growing up on one. I have already stated my interest: it was the feeling that Iceland gave me.

I can’t stop thinking about Iceland. We are a few months past our return and I don’t think any of us can right now. When all four of us have gotten together since the trip the conversation goes to Iceland. We still send each other texts with Icelandic news or cool new photos we haven’t seen before. Towards the end of the trip we all talked about it being an incredible one-and-done experience; that we’d probably never go back considering there are so many other places to see in the world. But, I don’t know. It seems we all still have that ‘fire and ice’ feeling.

That was what I had hoped for. I can’t put into words how grateful I am to have shared this experience with them, and for all of us to spend the time together. If we do never go back, it’s something we all will never forget.

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Our last night in Keflavic, Iceland. (No, I was not drinking wine! Our glasses were switched)

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