For the 50+ Traveler

In January 2017, I visited Iceland for the second time. I went for two days in 2015 but didn’t get to see the northern lights, so I was obsessed with returning. And 2017 was also the year I committed to quitting my job. I was tired of living a life filled with regret about not living the life I wanted. I’ve always loved international travel and have always regretted coming home after a wonderful vacation. I yearned to travel full time.

For my second Iceland adventure, I booked a week. My main goal was to see the northern lights, and I knew the changing weather could make that a challenge. On my flight over, I met a lovely woman, Valerie, from Long Island. We became fast friends and agreed to try to meet up while in Reykjavik.

Thermal baths in Reykjavik, Iceland.

During my week there, I was surprised at the growth in tourism in the two years since I had last visited. Instead of the Blue Lagoon, I visited Laugardalslaug and Sundholl, the municipal baths in the center of Reykjavik. I found them much more authentic and less crowded and would happily return to both.

The dog sledding trip in Iceland.

I went dog sledding, and, of course, I booked a tour to see the northern lights. This time, I decided to go with Pall Jokull, a photographer who could teach me the camera settings I’d need to use to capture the northern lights on film.

When Pall picked me up for what was predicted to be a good night for seeing the lights, I was ecstatic. He took five of us out to a lighthouse in Reykjanes and we waited. At first, there was nothing, and I was getting worried that, once again, I’d spend an entire night waiting and not get to see them. Pall then pointed at the sky and said they were starting! But, when I looked, all I saw where wispy grey clouds. In Iceland, to the naked eye, the lights appear grayish-white. It’s your camera that adds the colors.

The Northern Lights, as seen from Iceland.

In a short while, the sky became alive with these angelic ghosts that, through my camera, were magically green and blue and glowing. It was like being on the beach (albeit colder), staring at the clouds and watching them morph into different shapes with a magical feel. I practically dropped to my knees and began crying when they intensified. The experience, for me, felt like I had just met God. Pall said there’s always one person in the group that has a viscerally emotional experience. With his help, I captured some of the most spectacular sky views of my life.

The Northern Lights, as seen from Iceland.

Eventually, we had to leave, and I returned to my hotel around 2 a.m. Something sparked within me. I was supposed to fly home the next day, but I didn’t want to, as usual. Only now, this feeling of not wanting to leave felt more intense than ever before. I had to see those lights again. I struggled to decide whether to change my flight. I had never, ever done that in my life. I contacted Valerie because she was flying home the day after me, so I thought I could grab a seat on her flight. I contacted the airline and with the change fee, I’d be paying about $1,000 for the new ticket -- and my hotel was full. I reluctantly decided to return home on schedule, hoping there would be a weather delay. There wasn’t. I regretted my decision for the entire flight. I wondered what would have happened if I’d stayed. I felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Adding to this awful feeling of being displaced, a flight attendant asked me to change seats so that two teenagers could sit together. Regret clouded my mind and my heart, haunting me all the way home in the taxi, all the way to sleep. It was still with me the next morning.

I looked at the forecast for the northern lights in Iceland for the next night. It was spectacular -- clear skies and highly active. I knew I’d regret not seeing them again. I began realizing that if I was going to have the guts to quit my job, I better do some things that scare me to test my resolve. For once in my life, I booked a return flight to Iceland departing eight hours later. I called my boss and told her I wouldn’t be in for a couple more days. I called my mother and let her know what I was up to.

As the taxi sped back to JFK, I was filled with a thrum of excitement. I had just taken control of my own life and destiny by radically changing my actions. Instead of prioritizing duty to others, I made what I wanted the priority. When I phoned my mother to let her know I was off to Iceland, after having just returned, her reaction of incredulity was okay because I wasn’t letting it stop me. This was the first time in my life that I had turned regret into something positive, and it forever changed me. It’s the trip that paved the way for me to have the nerve to quit my job. It’s the adventure that encouraged me to push past my comfort zone every chance I get.

Some spooky things happened as a result. On my return flight, thinking I was the craziest person on it, I met a gentleman in the row behind me who had booked our flight three hours before departure for the same reason as me (though he hadn’t just been in Iceland). Upon arrival, the day was looking perfect for seeing the lights, and then, just as night fell, clouds rolled in. I panicked. I spoke to Valerie, who left on the flight I would have been on had I just stayed in the first place. Her flight had mechanical issues and had to make an emergency landing. Happily, she was fine, but I felt blessed not to have been on it.

When we finally made it out to see the lights, the entire sky, except for a tiny peephole, was covered in clouds. The small green streak we could see was like torture, and then it was gone, underneath the clouds. I couldn’t believe I had followed my heart, been more daring than ever before, and it wasn’t going to pan out. I decided to make one final go. My tour guide chuckled as I said, out loud, “Clouds, could you please open up so we can see the lights?” Within a few minutes, a hole opened up in the clouds! Several more minutes passed, and, unbelievably, the entire sky cleared up.

The Northern Lights, as seen from Iceland.

I took tons of photos. Then, I did the unthinkable. I turned my head up to the top of the sky, and I asked, “Aurora, would you dance for us?” In case she was shy, I did a dance myself. The tour guide just about lost it. And then, guess what happened? The lights began dancing. If I thought the wispy, magic clouds were phenomenal, this was beyond comprehension. It was like watching God use an Etch A Sketch across the sky. I wanted to watch and snap photos simultaneously.

Because I dared to follow my heart and stepped wildly outside my comfort zone, I ended up having one of the most magical experiences of my life. It gave me the courage to quit my job and create magical travel adventures over the past two and a half years. And, of all the places I could be in the world at this time, my heart led me to New Zealand. So, perhaps I needed all that regret to finally choose a life that makes me happy and live more authentically.