Choosing to Stay Young in Iceland
Nancy shivered, pulled off her wet bathing suit and quickly put her jeans on over her still-damp skin. Her teeth chattered as she smiled. “This is how you stay young,” she said.
I was always scared of aging. The years I spent in college were tainted with death. The first was not, however, due to aging. My friend of seven years, Paul, fell to his death while hiking in Colorado at the beginning of our junior year. His adventures were cut short. It was the first experience I had with losing a peer I was close to. I cried hysterically on the floor of my yet-to-be-furnished bedroom in an old house I was renting in Burlington, Vermont — states away from Missouri, where his funeral would take place. I hammered photos of the two of us all over the bare walls in my room. There was no bed or desk yet, but there was Paul.
In November that year, on my 21st birthday, my grandmother died. She was in her nineties. She had Parkinson’s. The last time I saw her I’m sure she didn’t know who I was, but I told her I loved her and kissed her on the forehead when my dad and I tucked her into bed. When I was younger she often took care of me, putting me to “work” on her cow farm — having me run up and down the cellar stairs to fetch jars of homemade pickles. And then she would make me Rice Krispies treats and help me sew my own stuffed animals. I did not go to her funeral either.
Four months later, my dad died. I made it home in time to say goodbye, but the coma had already veiled him. He could not say goodbye back. He was 64, the same age his father was when he died.
My dad often criticized others who strayed too far from their own dwellings. He scoffed at his sister, my Aunt Cathe, when she spoke of traveling to Europe to work when she was young.
But the end of aging — death — was not the scariest part of the process to me. Middle age and old age had never been set in the proper light for me. My parents, both alcoholics, were homebodies while I was growing up — bed and booze always in sight, fearful of showing themselves to the world.
My dad often criticized others who strayed too far from their own dwellings. He scoffed at his sister, my Aunt Cathe, when she spoke of traveling to Europe to work when she was young. “You’ll come back,” he told her. “You won’t do it.”
Other female members of my family always treasured youthful appearances, something that disappears with accumulated birthdays. More important than creating experiences was creating the illusion of being young with Botox and chemical peels. Tight skin was held in higher regard than laugh-induced wrinkles. When I was 17, I got “Forever Young” tattooed on my back in an apartment complex in Orlando during a spring break trip. I got it done by Brad, the then-love of my life who I had met two days earlier. I meant it in the simplest sense: I wanted to be 17 forever.
Living as an older adult seemed miserable.
When I was 23, my Aunt Cathe invited me to go to Iceland with her and a group of her friends. I had been waiting for an invitation to travel with her. For Christmas one year, Cathe gave me a gift covered in tissue paper with Euros glued to the entire surface. I don’t remember what was inside. “When you’re older, we will go somewhere together,” she told me.
At the apex of adventure, there is Cathe. She volunteered in Romania and biked through Provence. She contradanced in Japan and hiked to Machu Picchu. Some of my earliest memories are of her telling me about her journeys. I had gone places with Cathe before this. We visited New York City when I was a freshman in high school. We traveled to Guatemala with my sister, her husband and other healthcare professionals to work in a clinic when I was 16. She acted as my guardian at my college orientation in Burlington because my parents couldn’t attend.
But this was the travel I had been waiting for. I also desperately wanted to go to Iceland. Prior to the invitation, I had tried to inject some of Cathe’s adventurous spirit into my life by traveling alone. Shortly after I graduated college I went to Costa Rica on a whim with a group of random women for a travel writing retreat hosted by Pink Pangea. It was not exactly roughing it or exploring uncharted territory, but it was the first time I traveled alone to a foreign place. I made friends, though. And I learned about myself and what kind of wanderer I was — something I imagine Cathe did while she lived in Alaska for six months during college when she “did not know what to do with herself.”
At the apex of adventure, there is Cathe. She volunteered in Romania and biked through Provence. She contradanced in Japan and hiked to Machu Picchu. Some of my earliest memories are of her telling me about her journeys.
When I got back from Costa Rica, I was eager to do more. After inquiring with Cathe about where to take my first longish-term solo trip, I decided to backpack across Scotland for three weeks. I called her while I sat in a pub in Edinburgh on the first anniversary of my dad’s death. She assured me I was in the right place, even though I was once again grieving alone.
I had quickly agreed to her Iceland proposal, not asking about dates or details. I had met some of her friends that would be traveling with us — Nancy, Sandi, Cina. I grew up with Cathe, so I grew up with these women as well. They were all caring and warm, but at the same time exciting and independent. I would be the youngest by far, but that was a nonfactor for me.
The ten days in Iceland were spent on the western and northern sides of the island. We hiked through volcanic craters in Lakagígar, tried not to vomit on the bumpiest whale-watching boat ride in the Húsavík Port, bathed in artificial hot springs in Akureyri and northern lights-watched on a sheep farm in the middle of nowhere. It was a trial run for what would eventually be an official travel retreat group. It was misfits coming together, gambling on whether we would have enough time to see certain sights and attempting to save as much money as possible in one of the most expensive places on earth.
Cathe and I roomed together. We tried Icelandic beer and learned about the fishing industry at the museum in Siglufjörður. We talked about how much we both missed my dad and grandmother. Before my dad died, he told Cathe he wanted his ashes spread over Fox Creek, a small space of moving water behind his grandparents’ old house. He didn’t tell anyone else.
They came to her in dreams. Warning her and comforting her. Giving her final goodbyes and sometimes lingering for consecutive nights. They came to me too.
When I lost my dad and grandmother, Cathe lost her brother and mom. When she was younger, her little brother and father died only days apart. I wasn’t born yet when it happened. Cathe’s process of grieving was full of wisdom and understanding. As angry as she was about losing her loved ones, she had experienced death over and over, and was familiar with herself and how she best healed. She spoke about how much she missed all of them, about how sad she was that her once-full and abundant family had been reduced to just herself and her older brother, my Uncle Ron. And though she had been blessed in later years with many nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews, the losses were always evident, marked by holidays with missing places at the table.
They came to her in dreams. Warning her and comforting her. Giving her final goodbyes and sometimes lingering for consecutive nights. They came to me too. My dad telling me that he knew I was trying my hardest. Things he never said when he was alive.
My own grief felt less heavy when talking to Cathe. She exuded the grace that one can only gain from getting older. I hoped I could feel like that one day. She told me how she used to cut school when she was five and their family was living in Chicago. We rode horses in the cold, harsh rain and walked along gravelly beaches. We introduced ourselves to the Icelandic locals and learned that they vacationed in Tunisia during the especially cold months.
I got to know Cathe’s friends as an adult for the first time, with my own goals and my own ideas about the world in tow. Before, I had been “little Katy.” They included me in their grown-up conversations and challenged me to explore by myself.
Most of the women on the trip were not married. Some had children and were divorced. Most were there alone, as friends and thrill-seekers. One brought her spouse. Some had traveled to many different countries; for others, this was one of their first long-distance trips. But they were all there, fully immersed in a new place.
Cathe, Nancy, Sandi, Cina and I walked the streets of Reykjavik one late night toward the end of the trip. A man played music on the side of the street, and Cina and Nancy began to swing each other around, dancing among the mix of tourists and locals. They threw their heads back and laughed and the musician yelled in delight, playing the music faster and louder for his new accompaniment.
I expressed my fear of aging to the group. How intense it was before the trip and how much it had subsided since our journey began. Simply seeing how my fellow travelers had maintained youthfulness while they continued to gain wisdom made me feel relaxed. I started to fathom that just because so many adults in my life were not like them, did not mean I couldn’t be like them.
On the last day, the group took a miles-long hike up a mountain to a freshwater hot stream called Reykjadalur. After walking along the rust-colored trail for so long, we began to doubt the stream existed until we turned one last corner and it sprawled out before us, with tourists from all over the world sitting in its steaming waters. Changing booths were open to the cold air and modesty was not encouraged. Most of the group decided against a dip, which was reasonable in the circumstances. But Cathe, Nancy and I stripped down, ran as fast as we could and tried to find the hottest spot in the warm water.
I felt like I was with a group of my own friends. The spirit, humor and physical assertion were those of a gaggle of 20-year-olds. Yet gray heads of hair cascaded down and floated atop the water. Skin that had seen decades of sun goose-bumped from the cool air.
After our toes started to wrinkle, we got out and hurriedly put our clothes back on, falling on top of each other trying to shield ourselves behind the small, wooden structure that served as a dressing room.
“If you were wondering before,” Nancy said to me as she laughed, “this is how you stay young.”
I knew it was true, and my tattoo started to mean something else entirely — a reminder of the permanent state of my soul.