This is Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir (Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir), an Icelandic saga hero. More than 1000 years ago, she was among the first settlers from Iceland to explore and settle in Greenland with Erik the Red. She then traveled to North America, where she became the mother of the first European child born in North America, Snorri. In her lifetime, she was probably that most traveled woman in the world — she made eight ocean journeys, crossed Europe twice on foot, and explored and settled new lands. During her lifetime, Iceland and Greenland became Christian, and in 1010 she made a pilgrimage to the Pope in Rome, then returned to her son Snorr’s farm in northern Iceland, where she had a church built and ended her life as a nun. (I hope to see her settlement at L’anse aux Meadows National Historic Site when we do our bike trip in Newfoundland in July — you can read more about her here and here).
I came across the statue of Gudridor when I was traveling in Iceland with my niece on the long weekend in May, and she became my instant hero — a woman who clearly embraced life with gusto and courage and defined her own terms.
Coming across Gudridor — feminist traveler — while I was traveling with my almost-13 year old niece made me reflect again on my identity as a solo traveler. I travel alone a lot, literally and throughout my life. I’ve written and reflected about it a lot, this embracing of the solo that I’ve evolved over the past decade or so.
For a lot of people, traveling alone is the novel, the thing that they are experiencing anew out of busy family lives. For me, it’s just a given now — a part of my identity that I’ve cultivated and a thing that I seem to really need for restoration, alone time.
I genuinely have to be reminded that it isn’t the norm for a lot of people. Back in January, I was in Melbourne, Australia, sitting with my book in a crowded trattoria, happily enjoying a pizza and a glass of wine, when a woman came up to me and said how brave I was — that she would *never* eat in a restaurant alone.
I was truly taken aback. I didn’t think I looked like I was bravely pretending to read while blinking away lonely tears — I was actually bemused that it was even something anyone would notice about me. I chalked it up to Aussie extroversion and left it at that. (I wish I’d had Gudridur to toss into the conversation there as a true example of intrepid-ness. Not, you know, eating a pizza in an English speaking, super-safe western city).
Traveling alone is easy for me. It’s comfortable. It’s flowy. I can follow my bliss blah blah blah. (Most often, that bliss is a long bike ride or hike followed by an excellent dinner and bedtime before the sun goes down). But traveling with my niece, I had to consider whether maybe — just maybe — my foregrounding solo travel (and my joy of living alone) might mean I’m maybe — just maybe — not as good at making room for other people as I could be.
My niece is awesome, and we had a wonderful time. We made up car games, and co-wrote a long, winding magical story out loud that started with some elves that lived inside a mountain, and we had floating massages in the overpriced but luxe Blue Lagoon. We hiked up magical mountains where we made wishes, and to waterfalls, and to old lighthouses, some of them in the rain. We chased the geysirs and made up a song about the baby lambs and laid on the ground revelling in the glory of Kirkjufell mountain and waterfall. We chased down bakeries in search of excellent bread and doughnuts.
But throughout the trip, even as I was having a great time, I had a little sotto-voce story going on that I wanted to go for a much longer hike, wanted to do more things in a day, wished I had more time to stop and just get lost in this amazing world by myself. A sense, almost, that our hikes “didn’t count” if they weren’t long enough or push me to my limits.
My niece is, you know, Very Much Her Own Person. (Being a person and all). When I suggested we do a planned hike up a mountain even though it was raining, she just looked at me in genuine disbelief. The lukewarm promise of a hotspring just wasn’t an allure. (“Wouldn’t we already be wet?”). Her rhythms are different than mine — she doesn’t love committing to a long hike while we’re still in the car, but when we landed in places that she liked, she frolicked with absolute joy, lying on the ground, finding every angle, crawling down into holes — and wanting to stay far longer than I normally would have, once I’d dutifully trudged up to the top and back down again. When she told me to lie down on the ground in front of Kirkjufell and feel — just FEEL! — how soft it was, something clicked.
Later, hiking to an abandoned farm in Thingvellir national park, where I planned the hike and was the only one with the map, my niece asked me how far we had to go. And something clicked again — I was marching this girl along based on my own internal vision of the afternoon, and she was compelled to go along with my rhythms. I’d tried to pick a route I thought was doable and interesting — but I’d basically been the orchestrator of the whole experience.
Paying attention to my niece’s rhythms made me realize that in most of my life, I have a self-defined rhythm — how fast I walk, when is the “right” time to walk or ride vs. driving, when I want to go to bed, when I want to eat, how long I want to spend on decision-making about where to eat. I’m very dug in — and highly resistant to following other people’s routines or movement agendas.
Turns out, that’s not really the most relational way to operate. And it took thinking about that experience from my niece’s perspective to really get how much I tend to either expect people to match my movement agendas, or just withdraw and do things on my own.
I had another pivotal moment when we came across the Gudridur statue. It was about 5 pm, and we were on our way back to our hotel after a day of exploring the Snaefellsnaes peninsula, getting blown about and generally having a great time.
On this side of the peninsula, it was less windy, and the sun had just come out, the Icelandic golden hour. Behind Gudridur, there was a beautiful beckoning trail I could have walked on for two or three hours, mostly along the edge of the sea.
If I’d been on my own, this would have been exactly what I did. But I knew my niece didn’t have it in her (she was tired from our windy walks, and Gudridur did not get her all fired up the way she did me). I had a pang of regret — I wanted my little Gudridur walk!
But I also had my niece in the car, and we were both hungry. And I had another instalment of our magical train-making elf saga to make up. So I got back in the car, waving at Gudridur.
I had been to Iceland once before, by myself for a few days about four years ago. That time, I had a completely self-directed, what-I-feel-like-in-this-moment trip. I got lost on non-existent trails on the tundra, nearly blew into the ocean on the western tip of the Snaefaellsness peninsula, nearly lost the door of the rental car to wind, drove around the most amazing landscape in the world listening to podcasts and stopping to take photos whenever I felt like it. And when I got tired of the wind and the rain, cuddled up under a woollen blanket in my favourite inn in the world.
Being in Iceland with my niece, there was less flow and more negotiation. But there was more joy, more singing and more doughnuts. And we have something shared we both gave to each other.
It’s a lesson. Aren’t they all?
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto, and travels around the world with an open heart.