I’ve wanted to visit Iceland ever since a friend passed me a DVD called Heima a few years ago. In it, the band Sigur Ros performs a series of free concerts in unlikely venues throughout the country, such as an abandoned herring factory, a community hall, and an expansive, grassy field. The landscapes and accompanying soundtrack in the video clips have a quality this is almost lunar in spirit, managing to make me feel both hollow and hallow as I sink in for a listening experience.
I want to learn more about this other-worldly place. I want to see its geysers and volcanoes, soak in a thermal pool, gaze at the Northern Lights, eat smoked Icelandic fish, hear the sounds of the Nordic language, wear a huge wooly sweater, and visit the far corners of the island that I watched in the film.
Maybe you, dear readers and friends, have a place like this in mind – a destination that has such a strong connection for you that the journey feels almost spiritual. Maybe it’s the birthplace of an artist or philosopher, the site of a battle or famous speech, the town where an ancestor once resided, or a park of striking natural beauty. The travel experience becomes personal, because the place reflects a certain truth about you, your beliefs, and your passions. What does my Icelandic fantasy reveal about me? I am not entirely sure. Either I am craving the ethereal or I have a thing for puffins (I hear that thousands of them hatch each August in a place called Vestmannaeyjar).
The topic of where we travel and why is one that spills over into my work often. We currently operate our environmental field studies programs in seven countries, and we have an eye on expansion. As we choose potential new sites, we weigh a number of factors, like the safety and stability of the region, the potential for partnerships with local institutions, and the availability of research opportunities. But, we wouldn’t stay in business for very long if we did not also try to select locations that were attractive to our clients, American undergraduate students. It can be a confounding and frustrating exercise to attempt to ascertain why, for example, the program studying whales and sea turtles in beautiful Baja, Mexico was consistently under-enrolled. Industry trends only tell you so much, and for the rest, you have to rely on your gut and some costly trial and error. But, how can we ever accurately predict something as subjective as study abroad destination?
Recently, I picked up a copy of Pilgrimage by Annie Leibovitz at the library and it reminded me again just how personal the decision to travel can be. Following the death of her longtime partner and facing severe financial difficulties, the photographer embarked on a personal artistic endeavor that stood in stark contrast with the high profile celebrity portraits that made her famous. She started making “crazy” lists of places she wanted to visit, like Virginia Woolf’s country home, Gettysburg, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s studio. Then, she traveled to these destinations and took digital shots of the objects and spaces found there. The resulting work, now on display at the Concord Museum in Massachusetts, is an eclectic mix of subjects including furniture, wall decorations, clothing, and even views out the window. It is as though she is trying to better understand these great minds that she admires through capturing the physical things they touched and saw.
At the end of the project, book, and journey, Leibovitz writes: “My list of places turned out to be arbitrary. Some of them have always meant something to me and some of them I went to out of curiosity and some of them were along a path I stumbled onto. But all of them made an impression. From the beginning, when I watched my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, this project was an exercise in renewal. Looking at history provided a way of going forward.”
Is all travel spiritual and meaningful? Heck no. Sometimes it is just plain fun. Last month, I hit up a beer festival, biked along the Saint Lawrence, and climbed the old fortified walls in Quebec City. It was a fantastic break from our daily routine and a chance to eat well, speak French, and spend time with family. I would not trade it for anything.
But Iceland, well, for me that’s a whole different kind of trip.