Playing it Safe

safetysignWhat do you do when a dream comes true at exactly the wrong time? It took two years to save enough money to go to Eistnaflug. I bought my tickets six months in advance. And then, once I was committed to go, I realized I had to quit my job. Then the roofing project we’d avoided for years finally became unavoidable, and the contractor couldn’t start until the day I was scheduled to leave. The cat got sick and one week before I left, my dog had a stroke. It was hard to imagine him surviving until I got back. I have never come closer to canceling a trip.

But I packed my bag and hugged the kids. Then I hugged the dog, stroked his head and said, “Don’t die while I’m gone, okay?” Then I hugged the cat, stroked his head and said, “Don’t die while I’m gone, okay?” The cat didn’t listen to me.

I opened the front door and a bunch of asphalt tiles landed on the porch, followed by a piece of gutter. The roofers were scraping the front of the house. I turned around and went out the back, walked down to the hill and watched the bus drive by while I waited to cross the street.

It’s hard for me not to judge people who try to recreate their home environment abroad. We travel to grow. It is not supposed to be comfortable. Eistnaflug was proper travel.

I had planned to couchsurf in Reykjavik, partly to save money, but also for a new experience. As the time for my trip got closer, and the obstacles mounted, my energy for facing challenges evaporated. Trying to evaluate potential couchsurfing hosts began to feel overwhelming. A week before my flight, I decided to play it safe. I went online and booked all my nights in Reykjavik at my favorite hostel.

It was arranged that I would ride in a semi-official van from the city to festival. It turned out to be a great group of people and an unforgettable driver, Thorsteinn, who basically gave us a free guided tour of the best spots around the ring road. After the festival, Thorsteinn drove the north route so that we could see more. One of the places we visited was a hot spring known as Secret Pool.

This spring is hot, but it's no Secret Pool.

This spring is hot, but it’s no Secret Pool.

Secret Pool is not yet in any guidebooks. To get there you pull off the side road and park at what looks like the entrance to a ranch. Then you walk the fenceline through a lava field to a particular unmarked place, step over the barbed wire and cut across the lava field. It might seem like a straight line across level ground, but soon the fenceline disappears from view and you cross a natural stone bridge over what, if you were skiing, you would call a crevasse. Maybe that’s what it’s called. Soon you reach another crevasse, and when you look down, there are a couple of 2X4s laid across two stones. You can’t see the bottom.

Your friends will sit on the edge, grab a handhold and swing down so they are facing the rock face. They will slide their feet down the wooden boards, then turn around and step across to a large boulder in the middle of the crevasse. From there they will walk across the boulder to the opposite rock face and climb down the other side of the boulder, disappearing from sight. They will shout up at you that it is only about 30 more feet down, and the part you can see is the hardest part. It is beautiful at the bottom, the light can reach in, the water is perfect temperature, and your feet can just touch bottom through most of the pool.

This is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. But I am short. And I am a klutz. I stared at the crevasse and remembered a guided forest walk in Costa Rica. We were to climb the hollowed inside of a mature strangler fig where the original host tree had completely disappeared. The gaps between the roots of the fig were our handholds. It was only about 12 feet up to the hole where we would emerge onto an elevated walkway. As everyone else on the tour scrambled gleefully up, I hung back and invented a mantra I have kept ever since, “Don’t be a dork. Don’t be a dork.”

Then as now, I was a little afraid of falling, a little afraid of getting stuck, and a lot afraid of being that American who spoils a good thing for everyone else. In Costa Rica I imagined a metal staircase installed in the tree with a handrail, and the guide speaking to future groups, “We used to climb the tree itself, until an American girl got hurt…” Chanting my mantra, I climbed the tree with no more than a small scrape that I pretended didn’t happen.

But this was a long way down a route I couldn’t see. I sat on the edge and grabbed the handhold. Thorsteinn ran up and down the 2X4 bridge to show me it was safe. I tried to visualize myself swinging down to where he stood – and couldn’t. Instead I imagined a chain link fence barring access to hot spring where the American girl fell and had to carried out.

I probably could have made it, and I know that I will remember not-climbing for at least long as I would have remembered swimming in a secret underground pool. But I played it safe. And it must have been the right decision. While my friends laughed down in the cave, I thought about the blog post I would write, but I forgot to take any pictures of the climb I didn’t take.


I had one day in which I could drive to the farm at Stong. About two hours’ drive from the city, it is possible to see the archaeological dig and the reconstruction almost side by side. It’s a dream destination for a saga buff, and this was the first time I’d been in Iceland when it was possible to visit (the road is closed in winter).

But I arrived at the hostel around 3 am, and even sleeping until 10, I was pretty groggy. Two Icelanders had told me the farm is “on a bad road, but totally do-able.” Remembering the snow storm in April that made me head back to the city, I suspected the Icelandic do-able differs from mine. I’m not crazy about driving, even at home. My 2010 Honda has fewer than 8,000 miles on it. As I ate my morning skyr, I contemplated another long day on the road, this time with me at the wheel, alone. I sighed. I decided to play it safe, and took a bus to the botanical garden instead.


It was a lovely, peaceful day photographing flowers,shopping, and skipping dinner in favor of happy hour wine and Iceland’s famous dessert of skyr and berries (suspiciously similar to cheesecake).

When I was in my 20’s, I was always awed by the Australians, who had the wildest travel stories to tell. None of my adventures included their favorite line, “We almost died!” I made a point of finding and doing things that scared me, things that I would never consider at home. And I am so grateful that I did. I cherish memories of meals eaten in strangers’ homes, driving a motorcycle through South Indian villages, and flying in a four seat plane over the coast of northern Germany.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized two things.

1. You could die.

2. Australians lie.

Sometimes you just have to play it safe.




One thought on “Playing it Safe

  1. Pingback: August by the Numbers | gemma D. alexander

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