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The Sundlaug Road

Stay Wild

Getting Closer with Mom in Iceland 

Story & Photos by Alexandra Lev // @luckyalexandra


It didn’t take long for the busy winding roads to become empty as we left the south of Iceland. I found myself getting irritated with her comments about my driving and wanting space but not knowing how to get it. I was five days into a road trip of touring the Ring Road with my mom. The first four days blessed us with the warmth of the sun, but the sun was gone now and dark clouds loomed over us.


We hadn’t spent this much time alone together since I was a kid. Now we were in a campervan for eight days together. The two of us didn’t get along in my younger years—I’m not entirely sure why. When I moved away from home, it got better. And with age, we have tried to understand each other more, but we still fight at times. Taking the trip together was a chance to connect and, as cliche as it sounded, spend some quality mother-daughter time together while seeing a new part of the world. 

I had read that Iceland is rated as one of the happiest countries on earth. People in every village or town gather in the communal hot pools, or sundlaugs as they call them, and share stories and laughter with their neighbors, friends, and family. These steaming hot pools have brought the people of Iceland together for centuries, raising the question: Would Iceland bring my mom and I together?

Our first few days were perfect and felt effortless. On our first night, we explored the cobblestone streets of downtown Reykjavík, ending up at a bustling local dive bar with live jazz music. My mom has always enjoyed a good cocktail or two, and we seem to easily bond as if we were old girlfriends over booze. Towards the end of the night the band announced that the northern lights were making an appearance, so we rushed to the deck and looked up at the sky in awe. Streaks of light green danced across the dark Nordic sky as my mom grabbed my hand and said excitedly, “Can you believe we are seeing this on our first night here?” We walked home to our hotel that night arm in arm, the warmth of alcohol inside of us keeping the air from feeling freezing. 


From Reykjavík we drove south, counterclockwise around the country. The south of Iceland is touristy for a reason: It’s packed with incredible things to do and see. I’d easily call it the highlight of the trip. We visited a never-ending amount of cascading waterfalls, enjoyed champagne in the oldest natural hot pool in Iceland, and we even went ice climbing on the Sólheimajökull outlet glacier. A few little bickering moments here and there, but nothing worth remembering. 

As we drove north, it got colder and darker, and there seemed to be more moments of tension between the two of us. The rain and wind pounded on the car as I brought up questions about my childhood that had lingered in the back of my head off and on for years. Questions about my parents’ divorce, questions about the years that I lived with my dad during my mom’s two battles with breast cancer, questions about all the different schools they had put me in. Tears streamed down my face as I gripped the steering wheel. I had so many questions but she didn’t have all the answers and I knew it. 


Looking out the windows felt like looking out at another planet that was completely barren and unforgiving with no vegetation in sight. Every hour the landscape seemed to morph into a new country full of curious corners and random geological sightings. We both said aloud multiple times how strange the volcanic scenery was as if we’d run out of other things to say. She said she was sorry that it was so hard for me as a kid and I told her it was fine. As I said it I reminded myself how much I dislike it when people use the word “fine” to describe how they’re feeling because fine is not an emotion. Fine is just a way to end a conversation, and at that point, I was ready to end it. 

We made a stop at another hot spring in the north that was developed and had hot showers. I think we were both eager for a rest and a break from driving in less-than-ideal weather conditions. The air outside was frigid as we tiptoed our way over to the pool. As we slowly lowered our shivering bodies into the warm water, each of us took a deep breath and smiled at one another. I waved down an outdoor attendant and ordered us some sparkling wine. We deserved it. We sat quietly in the water together taking slow sips of bubbles while watching the pink sun descend into the valley below. 


Three more days of rain, wind, and Mountain House freeze-dried entrees for dinner, and we had reached the eastern peninsula of Iceland. It was less bleak than the north, but still not as lush and green as the south. Volcanic lava fields covered much of the landscape leading up to the palagonite tuff hills, and beyond the hills rose the Snæfellsjökull glacier. Those last three nights were the coldest yet. We huddled up in the van talking about our relationships with our partners and other places in the world we hoped to see one day. The sound of the rain drizzling on the windshield slowly put us to sleep as we were curled up in the fetal position in our sleeping bags. 

On our last day, I searched the map for another hot spring to stop at. I felt a sudden rush that we had to stop at one more. When mom noted the time and said we had to be back to drop off the van, I asked myself why—why did I feel the need to make it to one more sundlaug? Would one more make a difference in the trip? I realized that I didn’t need hot springs to bring myself closer to my mom, I already was closer. Through singalongs in the car to old ‘80s classics, through the mysterious labyrinth that is Iceland to disagreements and a few tears, I did become closer with her. We are interconnected, and when I look at my mom I am reminded that the woman who taught me how to ski and bake cookies is still teaching me about the world.