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Lucky to be dumb


When The Observer and a few friends picked up the Ford Escape with a tent on top after landing in Iceland, the renter called our plan "bold." Jet lagged, driving away, The Observer's friends laughed and said, "He means dumb. He's saying this is dumb."

It seemed a bit dumb, yes, but potentially logical, The Observer's friends had convinced him.

After the 2008 economic crash there, Iceland's approximately 330,000 residents smartly cashed in on the compacted beauty of the country's nature — mountains, lava field, caverns, craters, glaciers, all within hours of each other — as a massive tourist attraction. They made flights cheap and everything else expensive. Meals are decidedly pricey ($20 to $50 bucks, usually) and lodging steep (hotel prices there are similar to New York's, though the hostels are $35 to $50). Tours trudge through the constantly iced roads to all the beautiful sights for a hefty sum, often $200 plus. Tourism is only secondary to fish exporting. People often talk about how it saved the Icelandic economy.

But, there are two ways to get around most costs: 1) flights are always cheap but especially cheap during the winter months and 2) by renting a car with a tent, and camping, you cut out most of the cost of housing and transportation, hording your money away from the Icelandic people. If you go to grocery stores for deli meats instead of eating out, you're not going to move the GDP.

The "bold" plan was to combine the two for ultimate thrift. We picked around Thanksgiving to optimize days off work, and took the trip. What could go wrong?

Within the first few days, we learned: Tons of things can go wrong. From the very moment we picked up the Ford, it was too cold for the clothes The Observer packed (usually 25 to 15 degrees), windy (often 10 to 20 miles per hour, whipping our tent), hard to get to the things we wanted to see (iced over hiking trails with horrible boots made things inaccessible), and frustrating (the sun rises at 10 a.m. and sets at 4 p.m., not leaving enough time in the day). The Observer struggled to enjoy incredible things, thinking only: "I'm cold, I'm cold, I'm cold, I'm cold."

And then, in the middle of the trip, we learned a blizzard was set to hit most of the country. The focus point was where we planned to camp that night. The Observer thought: "Here comes the reckoning for your stupidity, you idiot."

We debated what to do and, after talking with some locals, discovered that we could make it through at least that first night camping there but should probably leave the next day. So we parked the camper (illegally; sorry!) near a glacial lagoon and hunkered down.

Around 11 p.m. we saw a light haze of green above the lagoon. The haze grew. Within a few hours, the Northern Lights appeared. The Observer, whose job is to describe to you things observed, almost does not want to describe it: the unbelievable amount of green light dancing everywhere, so much more subtle than pictures of the lights on postcards show. The way it fills the whole sky, the way it moves so tenderly across it and the way it is — simply — wonderful. If we had headed back that night to avoid the blizzard we would not have seen any of it.

It did not snow. We were fine.

As a journalist all the time, you think about how dumb decisions, even just slightly dumb decisions, may have harmed people. You talk to people whose slightly misaligned choices caused pain that lasted seemingly forever. You think about how the world punishes those who don't deserve punishment for their slight transgressions. This has made The Observer overly cautious. But, after making a slightly boneheaded decision to camp in Iceland during the winter, The Observer remembered that sometimes things work out for no good reason. For people totally undeserving — for random people — the world can just give. And you have to risk something to feel grateful that it worked.

The Northern Lights are, usually, only visible in the winter.

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