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  • Writer's pictureChuck Cusumano

The People You Meet on Vacation

By Jillian Broaddus

Over the July 4th holiday, as I was somewhere over the Atlantic on my way from JFK to Reykjavik, I finished a novel I’d started earlier in the week: The People You Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry.

It’s a chick-lit book about two best friends who travel together every summer for twelve years. Certainly no literary masterpiece, but an enjoyable beach read – or, in this case, plane read – nonetheless. The moral of the story was that despite every amazing destination, the point of traveling is really the people you meet, the stories you uncover, and the lives you cross paths with along the way.

I closed my book with a fleeting thought: That won’t be pertinent to this vacation.

Sure, my trip mirrored the plot of the book in some ways: I was visiting Iceland with my best friend, who I’d taken annual international trips with for three years counting. However, we had no intention of meeting other tourists – or locals, for that matter. We rented our own campervan to explore the island for five days, and only had our sights set on the volcanoes we wanted to see, the mountains we wanted to summit, and the glaciers we wanted to walk across.

And, by the end of the 4th of July weekend, we’d accomplished everything we wanted to! We drove nearly 1,000 miles – (you can cover a lot of ground with 24 hours of daylight!) – and trekked through lava fields, glacier lakes, active volcanoes, snow-capped mountains, lavender fields, natural hot springs, towering waterfalls, and so much more. We camped near black sand beaches, watched the sun (almost) set at breathtaking canyons, and only met locals in the form of friendly sheep and neighing wild horses.

However, for our final trek, we were determined to visit Landmannalaugar: an area in the Highlands famous for its rainbow mountains, geothermal pools, and unique hiking trails. It’s also the starting point for the Laugavegur Trek, which – according to National Geographic – is rated as one of the most beautiful treks in the world. The only problem? Landmannalaugar was in a remote part of the middle of the island, inaccessible by most vehicles. Getting there required crossing rivers and hours of dirt road terrain. Therefore, we returned our campervan and booked an organized tour through a company that I can’t rave enough about: Arctic Adventures.

As we were all waiting for our bus pick-up the morning of the tour, my friend and I met a family of four – two parents and two daughters, close to our ages – traveling from New Jersey. We never even officially exchanged names, but rather engaged in friendly conversation about all we’d accomplished while in Iceland thus far. They were also traveling home the following day, so we swapped stories on what we saw, where we hiked, and how much we were looking forward to the trek to come.

We separated throughout the 4-hour hike – a well-deserved title of one of the most beautiful in the world, by the way! – and reconvened after to soak in natural thermal pools at the mountains’ base. Again, we exchanged enjoyable small talk, shared pictures, and laughed at the unpleasantness of the “relaxing” springs we were bathing in: the thermal waterfall didn’t quite mix with the glacial pools, so we alternated between freezing and scorching. But, still, a quintessential Iceland experience!

At the end of our bus ride back to Reykjavik, we said goodbye and wished them safe travels home.

However, that wasn’t the last time we’d see them. The next morning, my friend and I awoke at 5am to wait at the nearby bus stop for our airport shuttle. The shuttle had given us a 30-minute pick-up window. So, we waited those thirty minutes. And then thirty more. And then another thirty… All in 40-degree weather in the only clean clothes we had left – my friend, in shorts and me, in sandals and a long-sleeved t-shirt. The airport was at least a half hour away, which – in Iceland prices – meant a nearly $200 cab ride.

Just when we’d given up on the bus, bitten the bullet, and were searching frantically for said expensive taxi, we heard a car honk our way. There, in a red (albeit extremely dirt-covered) sedan, sat our trekking companions from the day before. They waved happily out their windows, while my friend and I probably looked entirely distraught. “Are you going to the airport?” was the first question out of my friend’s mouth, before we saw the interior of their car: jam-packed with people and luggage, clearly no room for two more people and two more bags. So, we waved goodbye and continued our taxi search.

Seconds later, we saw them U-turn. “Get in,” the younger daughter said, smiling. “We can make this work!”

With a little suitcase Tetris and everyone’s limbs pressed against the tiny car’s interior, we did, in fact, make it work. And, better yet, we got to know each other on the ride. (Because what else can you do when your face is squeezed against someone’s shoulder, and your feet form a puddle of dirty hiking boots at the center console?). We learned the parents were from India, the oldest daughter worked in a cancer immunotherapy lab, and the youngest daughter was in between medical school and getting her PhD at John’s Hopkins. We talked for the entirety of our journey until our new friends dropped us off. We said goodbye (after a momentary scare when the jammed trunk wouldn’t open despite minutes of prying and praying) and thanked them immensely.

I boarded the flight home with beautiful pictures, blistered toes, and a newfound outlook: Maybe it always is all about the people you meet on vacation. Because despite everything we saw in Iceland, the natural wonders we checked off, and the hikes we did but couldn’t pronounce, I think the most vivid and happiest memory I’ll always look back on will be hitchhiking to the airport with our friends from Jersey.

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