minding the gap: welcome to london

My final reflections on Iceland I think were pretty obvious.  A magical place of outdoor wonder and beauty beyond compare.  A place with colder temperatures but warmer experiences, it sometimes felt like i may as well have been walking on the moon. I often felt that the Icelandic culture had a quirky sense of humor, but it was not always easily detectable, as the personalities of the local people I met were usually reserved and on an “even keel.”  This could probably be misinterpreted by travelers as “cold” or “unwelcoming,” but I don’t think that is the case.  I think the culture is just a little more straightforward and practical than what an American might be used to.  Their sense of humor is quirky and playful, if you can get to that level of comfort with a local.  The food wasn’t always mindblowing, but I never had a meal that made me lose my appetite.  Plus, you don’t go to Iceland for the food.  You go there to get outside, to see breathtaking spectacles of natural, untouched, ever-changing elemental earth.  I met quite a few people in Reykjavik who had 3 or 4 day weekends in Iceland planned with no intention of venturing outdoors and were content to just explore the city.  If this could be you, let me save you the trouble: don’t bother.  You will be doing Iceland wrong.  Bring a pair of hiking boots and at least take a guided bus tour of the “golden circle,” which takes you around the pingvellir park, the famous geyser, and beautiful waterfall gullfoss.  Even if you’re not outdoorsy, you can handle this 5 hour loop by bus with minimal physical activity.  Trust me.  Also, sack up and stop being such a baby.  Learn to go outside and appreciate the world you live in!

here are a couple final pics from iceland, taken by a writer/photographer friend i made on the eyjafjallajökull volcano hike, named jonathan vandevoorde.  a very talented and fun guy to hike with, and very knowledgeable about getting outside and back into the wild…

2014_IJsland_099 courtesy of jonathan vandevoorde


London would prove to be an entirely different beast. I think it definitely tested my resolve and emotions in different ways, especially because it would prove to be the polar opposite of Iceland for me in experience.

When I arrived in London, I was a little weary, but I still had a lot of excitement built up.  I had always been interested in the history of this great city and had always wanted to visit. I landed at heathrow, collected my bag, breezed thru customs and then began stumbling around trying to figure out how to locate the correct subway train, colloquially known as “the tube,” to get to my hostel.  I am supremely convinced that new york has the most chaotic and difficult subway system (but also the most useful when you consider how many people it services each day and how effective it is) in the world, so I felt confident that if I could figure out that one, I could figure out London’s. I purchased my ticket and wandered around a few tunnels before finding the appropriate platform to board my train.  I had around 20 minutes to wonder what to expect and hope to god that I could wander aimlessly to find my room in the soho neighborhood.  Unfortunately this time I was navigating completely blindly; I had no map, no gps, no navigation, and only a vague memory of the google map I had tried to commit to memory before my flight left from Iceland.

The longer I rode the train, the more I began to worry about how I was actually going to find my hostel.  It was getting late.  It was now 10pm, and while London isn’t exactly Iraq, there most certainly are areas you don’t want to be stuck in after dark.  And I didn’t know how to avoid them. Furthermore, I didn’t even know what stop I needed to exit on.  I had simply guessed when I was looking at the map, but once on the train, I realized it wasn’t that simple.  I didn’t know the directions from any of the 5 train stations that were seemingly equidistant to my hostel, and to get to all of them I would need to switch train lines.  I didn’t know if that meant I would have to buy another train ticket, but I wasn’t interested in paying more so I resolved to just get off at the next stop and find my way on foot.

i started off on my obstinate pace and immediately walked down the wrong tunnel, going the wrong way to exit. great start.  i turned around and decided to just follow everyone else.  as i was laughing at the irony of finally being back in a country where I spoke the language, and still not being able to get around adequately, i had been slowly ascending the stairs when I was met with a blinding light that knocked me back, honestly putting me off balance on the stairs with my heavy backpack eagerly trying to drag me end over end back down the flight of stairs.  I regained my footing and looked back up:  I had just exited at the Piccadilly circus station in the middle of what I could compare to times square in nyc.  Bright lights, theaters with rolling marquees, people hustling and bustling by, I had randomly chosen to exit the train at seemingly one of the busiest intersections in London.  Welcome to England, brandon.

I wandered and wandered, no longer caring about whether or not I was going to find my hostel.  I was too busy staring at the lights.  Watching the frenzied pace at which people were scurrying down the streets, in a rush to get to or from somewhere, phone in hand and held high enough to be able to read their facebook notifications and simultaneously use their periphery to prevent themselves from an introduction with a pole or telephone booth (yep, there’s still plenty of red telephone booths around London. very cool) or oncoming car. it was actually quite impressive. Not that I was envious. i listened to all the conversations around me in 3 second increments, picking up whatever I could before the person passed me and the story was gone forever. But the dialect, the british accent, made everything sound so much more elegant. Everything seemed more interesting, no matter how mundane the tidbits of conversation I could pick up were.

Eventually, after a couple hours of stumbling aimlessly, my pack was getting heavy and my shoulders beginning to hurt.  I asked a couple for directions and eventually settled down in my new home for the next 4 nights.

on seal parties, blue lagoon zombies, and being “in tune.”

I headed back to reykjavik and made one last stop in Jökulsárlón for just a little more magic.  I went to a less traveled parking lot on the west side of the bridge so I could avoid the crowds this time, and it was well worth it.  I hiked over the little hill and almost had the embankment to myself, when I saw a seal fishing around the corner in a secluded little enclave near the shore. I walked over to investigate and saw a large rock a little way into the water that I could stand on.  I waded in with my waterproof shoes and jumped onto the boulder.  I turned to look at the seal who was now looking at me and i noticed that he now had a friend who was poking his head out of the water as well.  they were both checking me out, trying to figure out what I was up to.  after about 10 seconds they both dove down below the surface and disappeared.  they were gone for another 10 seconds and I began to wonder if they had decided to leave after I crashed their party, when one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to me with wildlife happened:  they resurfaced with 3 friends.  I was now in a staring contest with 5 seals, and suddenly a 6th and a 7th, and then an 8th, and then seals 9 and 10 popped up out of the water, and then an 11th seal jumped up with a splash.  all this was happening less than 30 feet away from me!  I was in paralytic awe.  I could not believe this was happening.  I started to get nervous.  what if they all decided I was breakfast?  surely I could outrun a bunch of waddling seals.  oh wait, there was about 7 feet of water separating me and my perch above the stone from the shoreline.  and I didn’t see 11 of those damn things down there, who knows how many more there were and how close they might be without me knowing.  before I could get further paranoid, one of the seals mischievously slapped one of the other seals with a flipper and submerged, trying to escape retribution from his tomfoolery.  the rest of the seals followed suit and most of them swam away, save for 2 or 3 stragglers, and the moment was gone.  but I will forever savor it.

jokulsarlon sunset skaftafell black & white

I got back to reykjavik and headed for the airport with a short stop at the Blue Lagoon before takeoff.  If you’re not aware of what the blue lagoon is, you’ve probably seen a picture of it somewhere and just not realized what it is.  It is a giant “pool” with natural water warmed by the volcanic activity below the surface of the earth of Iceland.  so yes, it’s basically just a hotspring, as we would call it in the US, however this is on another level. first of all, the décor and attention to detail of this hotspring is flawless in execution. they’ve thought of everything here, and the luxury is quite enjoyable (especially after a week of arduous hiking and frigid temperatures). It is definitely an expensive excursion, pricing in at 35 euros (probably a little less than $45 US dollars) for their cheapest package, but everything in Iceland is expensive.  one thing that is really disappointing about hotsprings locations in the US is that they typically just look like a swimming pool at the ymca, but instead of smelling like chlorine and kid urine, it smells like farts.  I mean sulfur.  not the blue lagoon.  this place looks like a volcanic oasis, and the water has a naturally sky-blue color to it that is really spellbinding. And instead of a clearly defined pool structure with a rectangular shape of sorts, the blue lagoon has a very “natural” look to it, with a wandering boundary that shoots out into independent inlets and sharp jagged rocks jutting up along the outside of the pool to let you know where the boundaries of the property are (as if the wide expanse of nothingness beyond the pool wasn’t enough to hint to you that you’re enjoying the pool incorrectly).  there are also cool little footbridges leading you to other enclaves of the lagoon that people are usually swimming underneath, as well as little hidden huts with steam baths in them or showers.  there’s also a swim-up bar as well, which I of course loved.

I waded out into the water and marveled at the spectacle.  the air was crisp outside above the protection of the heated waters, so I stayed mostly submerged as I drifted around the pool, relaxing. The steam vents pushed a white fog out that settled low on the water and drifted across the further limits of the pool, creating an ambiance of blue and white colors with the typical bright green mossy background beyond the pool that made you wonder if you weren’t dreaming you were trapped in a lost scene from the movie “avatar,” on a planet far, far away.

In specific spots around the lagoon, there are boxes with a white silica mud that you can scoop out and put on your face and body.  It acts as an exfoliant and dries up to form a hardened mask, similar to something you might see in a fancy spa at a luxury hotel or something.  The effect this has on the guests of the lagoon is actually pretty funny.  It makes the lagoon look like it’s full of pale-faced zombies.

After donning my zombie mask, I noticed a couple of attractive girls nearby so I struck up a conversation. turns out they were from America and were just wrapping up a 2 week trip to france (and I think Italy?) with a short 8 hour layover in reykjavik.  I eagerly asked questions about their travels, hoping I could pick up some tips on where to go and what to avoid.  They had spent some time in the french riviera and said it was magnificent, and that I must go.  how fortuitous!  I had just made friends with natives of the Nice area only days earlier, so I now had further confirmation that it was a place I needed to visit (greg and thomas, start looking out for me in either late october or late november!).

It wasn’t long before we all discovered that we call home to the same great city:  denver.  what a small world.  not only that, but one of them was involved in a couple organizations that had caused her to recently make the acquaintance of my good friend micah.  too funny, the world truly is a small place sometimes.

we were really enjoying our conversation (well, I was anyway.  I can only assume that since they weren’t trying to float away from me that they were as well) about travel and cultural experience abroad, but the time was quickly escaping.  We all had flights to catch.  we agreed to meet back and take the same bus back to the airport so we could continue the conversation.  unfortunately for everyone, I am a dumbass who gets distracted easily, and on my return back to gather my towel and backpack, i noticed a steam room hut that I had not noticed earlier and I popped in for a few minutes.  those minutes proved to be the difference, as I quickly walked out to the parking lot to see the bus pulling out of the parking lot headed for the airport after I had finished showering and making myself presentable. I had just missed my ride.

after spending the equivalent of $65usd on a cab, I found my way to the airport and sprinted through security and barely made my flight.  luckily the airport is a pretty small one, and I miraculously ran into my 2 mystery girls from Denver again, and I was able to exchange information with them.  I wished them well and do legitimately hope that I’ll meet them again someday when I return to Denver.  they are the type of people that I like to call “in tune” (of course it’s a reference to music).  they get it.  they have perspective on life.  they know what’s important and what has real value.  they aren’t mindless consumers.  they don’t simply shop when they travel. they seek experiences over “things,” and they go to real places when they have a travel opportunity, instead of going to places like las vegas and spending 15 times the amount of money they should on things they don’t need or won’t remember.  They’re in tune with the important things in the world around them.

My airplane broke the chains of gravity and I nodded off to sleep.  Soon I would be in the land of harry potter and big ben and high tea.  A place that couldn’t possibly be any further in experience from Iceland. A place called London.

without wifi

i arrived in Höfn in a mix of relief and exhaustion.  i’ve been on marathon roadtrips before where i’ve driven 30 hours straight without sleep and this was definitely not that, but i also stopped at every attractive turnoff or side road for 300 kilometers this time and that sort of behavior really starts to wear you down during a full day, especially when you don’t know exactly where you’re going. so when i pulled into town, i was running on fumes.  so much so that i didn’t even realize how small the town is (less than 2,000 humans.  i can’t count the elves because they never show up for the census, but iceland knows they’re out there…  (no but seriously. i’m not joking. click here if you don’t believe me).  after doing a few laps around the town before finally finding my nondescript hostel (i’m pretty sure this place was a hospice center or rest home for the old and dying previously.  seriously it was a very sterile place, not a lot of charm, and it had a weird vibe to it.), i settled in and went straight to bed.  the next morning, i awoke and plugged my wifi code in to my little trusty laptop/tablet hybrid to see what the world was doing.  i had about 5 minutes of facebooking under my belt before the tragic occurred:

the wifi went out.

and it stayed out.

look, i know my last post did a nice job of waxing poetic about getting off the grid and not being connected to technology, etc…  but dammit, i love the internet.  it’s maybe the most amazing thing ever invented, so to be completely unplugged from something that you hold in such high regard… it requires a little patience.  i was losing mine quickly.  i needed the wifi to at least look up a couple fun things i could do in the area, and to make reservations for guided tours of the national park skaftafell or the glacier lagoon i previously wrote about.  so when i couldn’t do that, i sorta just threw my hands in the air and just went for a drive.  yep, you guessed it, i put the pedal to the metal and burned a couple pounds of rubber along the eastern coastline of iceland.  more scenery, more random stops, no real goal in mind and nothing really accomplished.  I did manage to make friends with some Icelandic horses on the side of the road though…

hofn horses

when i got back to the hostel that night, i noticed something odd.  i couldn’t understand anything anybody was saying. i know i’m in europe (and in the country with arguably the weirdest language of all), and in a place where there are different languages being spoken all the time, but this was different.  all the languages sounded the same, but none of them were in congress with each other.  i looked around as i ate my peanut butter and jelly and nutella sandwich (meal of champions right there, and i am obviously aspiring to greatness), and i started to notice the pockets of people in the common areas of this hostel.  groups of 2s and 3s and 4s, but nothing larger than that, and all speaking the same language.  a language with an interesting treatment of the “R” sound. and an a lot of “sh” sounds. and… yep. germans.  germans everywhere.  in the middle of nowhere iceland.  it was strange.  but there was no big bus full of organized tour-goers here.  these germans were all randomly here in the same middle-of-nowhere town somehow at exactly the same off-season time.  what twilight zone episode had i landed into the middle of?

at first it was funny.  i mean imagine this scene. you’re the only person who doesn’t know what the hell is going on.  and german is sort of a funny sounding language to me. it’s not really “harsh” sounding like i consider some languages, but it’s also not exactly a “romance language” like italian or french. and sometimes german sounds a little angry or uptight to me, so i get confused on the social queues. so i just sat there taking it all in, listening to a bunch of verbal distortion that i had zero ability to decipher. eventually some of the groups started to realize that they weren’t the only ones speaking german, like they probably usually assume when they are in a country as far away from theirs as iceland.  their conversation groups started to merge.  i watched as one by one, a majority of the room started to enthusiastically converge, and eventually i was the odd man out.  it slowly went from entertaining to disappointing, as one of the reasons i embarked on this trip was to explore human connection and interaction, but i did not want to selfishly interrupt this case of sociology developing before my eyes, so eventually i just went to bed.

but i realized something as i lay in bed, trying to sleep.  the wifi was still down.  these people were being unknowingly coerced into interacting with each other due to lack of options.  and they were having a blast! i wondered if they ever would have made these connections if these certain set of circumstances hadn’t lined up to provide such an opportunity. and then i found myself jealous that i couldn’t really be a part of it. and this continued for 2 nights.

One of the nights, I didn’t really feel like sleeping, so around midnight I went outside to see if I could see the northern lights (typical season for this starts in October and runs til march, so I wasn’t expecting anything). There had been a major solar flare 2 days prior and there was a possibility of seeing them, but unfortunately most of the sky in my area of the island was covered in clouds.  After about an hour of searching, I did manage to see an aurora form in the distant horizon, but it was very faint. It’s not really even worth describing because I then noticed something even more fantastical.  The volcano barabunga, which has been in the headlines recently for a rather weak but steady “fissure” eruption (a long crack in the surface with lava flow, instead of your Hollywood volcano that features a monolithic triangular mountain with volcano spewing from the top) was on my side of the island, but on the far side of the vatnajokull glacier that separated us.  The clouds above this volcano were low enough, and the night dark enough, that the glow emitting from the lava was actually reflecting off of the low-hanging clouds over the glacier.  The effect this was producing was similar to a vibrant red and pink sunset over the rocky mountains back home in Denver, but the difference was that this was localized to one peak on the mountain ridge and it was well past midnight.  The rest of the sky was black as space.  It was awe-inducing.  I stared it this phenomenon off in the distance for an hour before retiring for the night.

lucky for me, on the final night of my stay in Höfn, after a couple days of exploring around by myself and then returning to my temporary solitude, and after a few failed attempts on previous nights at trying to ease my way into conversation with some mildly attractive german girls, everything changed again.  i came home and everyone was gone.  almost the entire hostel was empty.  with the weekend starting that night, everyone had moved out toward the capital or onward toward other adventures in other areas of the island. before i could lament what was lonelier, new occupants started to slowly trickle in from the road. and each time i watched comically as they expressed their disgust at the fact that the wifi was down.  i started offering small jokes to voice my relation to their plight, and my sympathy began to build connection.

Eventually a group of Israelis came in who were particularly friendly.  Finally, someone who wanted to interact.  We made a couple jokes back & forth, and then at one point they were looking at the brochure section in the lobby, obviously trying to figure out what they were going to do the following day.  I ventured some advice, seeing as I was getting pretty familiar with the area, and they were very grateful.  They went back to their rooms and returned about 10 minutes later, walking out to the back patio with a box.  On their way out the door, they leaned back and looked my way. I caught this out of the corner of my eye and looked up, to which one of them said “friend, would you like to smoke some hookah with us?”

I love hookah. For the uninitiated, it’s basically tobacco flavored with fruit preserves and powder, and it is smoked through a traditional middle-eastern water bong. it is much less harsh-tasting than cigars or cigarettes and tastes wonderful. it isn’t particularly good for you, but what vice is?  The best part is that it is a great tool to bring people together.  This is a regular thing in the middle east, in fact, in many Lebanese or Moroccan or middle eastern restaurants that you’ve been to in the US often use these hookah bongs as decorations, but you may not have even noticed.

So there i was, an American smoking an Arabic hookah with Israeli friends in nowheresville Iceland, sharing travel stories and enjoying the night air. and then the magic started again.  Two guys who were traveling the ring road together whom had just met each other in a hostel in Reykjavik on the 1st day of their trips and decided to rent a car together, one from mexico city and the other from Switzerland, came outside for a cigarette and joined us, thanks to the Israelis’ generous invitations.  The group then expanded further when another couple came outside, a polish male and an Australian female, the polish guy offering to share some of his vodka after partaking of the hookah.  I think there may have been a Brazilian in there somewhere too, I can’t remember. the conversation waved to and fro, people sharing stories from their backgrounds, comparing worldviews on different subjects, comparing notes on what to do when you find yourself in this country or that city, and every person trying to convince the others that someday you should come to visit my country, it is a great place I will show you around, etc.  it was incredible.

And I still couldn’t help but come back to that realization from the other night.  None of this would have happened if the wifi had been working.

getting off the grid

after the volcano adventures and the whale steak hijinks, I awoke the next morning with the intention of hopping on a bus to the remote fishing town of höfn in the southeast corner of iceland.  simple enough, right? not for ol’ miquelon, it’s never that simple. after the front desk person at my hostel attempted to book a ticket for me, she hung up the phone and gently informed me that on that very day, bus service to a majority of the island had shut down until the spring time.  I was either out of luck and stuck in reykjavik, or I had to now rent a car and strike out on my own.

this is what I had been hoping to avoid. renting a car in iceland is roughly 3-4 times as much as you might pay in the US, and to make things worse, the last thing I did before I left denver was cancel my cellphone bill.  my iphone has become nothing more than an ipod, which means no gps, no navigation, no google maps, no texting, no calls.  no nothing, just music (which I could probably make a case is more important than navigation in my life).  the thought of venturing off blind into the unknown in a strange country without any preparation or real knowledge of the laws or landscape was minorly terrifying to me. i had been hoping i could just jump on a bus and they would magically take me where i wanted to go and i could just sleep the whole time. I’m ordinarily a very prepared person in day to day life, and especially on trips, I usually have everything planned out to a T so that once things start happening, I don’t have to think about anything, it’s just automatic. I just roll from one thing to the next and life is smooth. That’s the way I look at it. Other people don’t always see it that way, however.  I’ve had girlfriends leave me because I wasn’t spontaneous enough, and I’m “too much of a planner.”  there was probably more that went into their decision.  I hope there was.

but here’s the real truth:  I knew this was going to happen eventually, I just figured it would be later on in the trip. I get very frustrated when things don’t go the way I’ve prepared or planned in my life, and often times I let these things bother me so much that it can change my temperament or ruin my whole day. so one of the key things that I wanted to do on my journey was address this. I wanted grow and learn patience through trial and error by “going with the flow.”  one thing I did in order to force myself into this style of thinking is I have not made any plans for after amsterdam, the 3rd stop on this trip.  I have ideas, but no reservations. one effect that I’ve noticed but did not anticipate was that I find myself living more freely in the moment.  I’m not paranoid about making sure I’m in the right place at the right time.  I’m trying to enjoy life in the present tense, and I think it’s actually having a calming effect on me.  I’m sure the stress will creep back up when something goes wrong again, but each time it does, I work to create new habits, and I start to get a little better at handling them. I’m not always sure what is harder: building new habits or breaking old ones.  Or maybe they are the same thing, I don’t know.

hyundai i10 escape pod
hyundai i10 escape pod

so I went and rented a little Hyundai economy class escape pod that looks like it was ejected from the rebel spaceship on star wars. seriously, this thing barely fit me, and I’m not even a big guy.  at first my distaste for the car led me to produce the nickname “whitey,” and i would yell “kill whitey!” whenever i would floor the accelerator, but that slowly evolved to “whitney” after i started liking the car the more i drove it. I fueled up and then guessed my way out of the city.  Luckily, once you leave Reykjavik, there is one main road that you follow, the “ring road” it’s affectionately called (or highway 1), and it will take you to about 95% of your destinations elsewhere in Iceland.  not only that, it is a gorgeous drive.  as mentioned in the previous post, the landscape has such strong contrasts that you can’t help but be mesmerized and wonder if what you’re looking at is really there.  It’s as if nature decided to snap a selfie of a beautiful coastline and put it on facebook to impress her friends, but she didn’t feel the photo was impressive enough so she photoshopped a fortress-like wall of deep, black volcanic rocks with iridescent green moss covering the first 800 feet of elevation.  Pretty good, but not good enough, better add some low drifting fog and a setting sun off in the distance.  okay that should work, nature will get a thousand likes for this one.  actually, more like 50, because there’s NO ONE around once you get outside the capital city.  okay sorry, i’m getting lost inside my own ridiculous metaphor.
porsmork canyon
actually, speaking of the remote loneliness of the countryside… I’d be lying if I didn’t say that one of my unexpectedly favorite things of Iceland was pushing my crappy rental car to its top speed of 160 km/hour (100 mph) and whipping through the country roads with the only threat being the occasional wandering sheep in the middle of the road. I think I saw one cop the entire time I was out there. It was fantastic.   I definitely got my money’s worth out of that car.  Especially after the first time I tried to fill up the gas tank.  things to remember in iceland:

  1. unleaded gas is in the green pump, and diesel is in the black, and not the other way around like in the US.
  2. your rental car will still run like a champ when you absentmindedly pump about .2 liters of the wrong fuel before realizing what you’re doing.

but the car took me wherever i needed to go, even offroad a couple times whenever i’d get the sudden urge to turn off the highway and follow a random trail to see where it went.  those sudden impulses almost every time yielded some incredible undiscovered gem that was certainly not in any guidebook, be it a waterfall, or a different view that hardly anyone else had discovered of the massive glacier Vatnajökull.  all in all, halfway through my roughly 300 mile drive, i started to enjoy being “lost.”  it was sort of liberating, not knowing exactly where you’re going.  not having a female-ish cyborg direct you turn by turn to your destination was somewhat calming, and i stopped caring about when i would get to my hostel.  i would just stop wherever i felt like and enjoy what the world would send my way.

the massive waterfall of Skógafoss

that night i landed höfn, on the far southeast of the country.  it wasn’t quite what i expected, but i was open to possibilities…

And lastly, your earcandy for the day.  This is a new track from Delta Sprit, the title track, Into the Wide.  I find it particularly fitting for the Iceland portion of my trip.  Here are the lyrics:

“Into The Wide”
At the end of the last road in town.
At the edge of that wall of trees.
Further in, past any trail or sign.
Back to the wide open arms of the Earth.

The wind whispered no name,
but it’s voice cracked off the cliff.
Almost see it rush right through you.
Back to the wide open arms of the Earth.

It’s a grind, the business role.
Every new year, a new bell to toll.
Before it’s too late, I’m gonna save my soul.
Back to the wide open arms of the Earth.


(sorry, i am unable to embed this song in the post, you’ll have to follow the link for the song)

“it is like a disease, you know”

…aaaaaaand we’re back.  as soon as i landed in iceland, i disappeared.  i caught a red-eye departing at 7pm and arriving at 630AM local time, during which i did not sleep one wink (i wrote my previous post on the plane). i also only slept about 3 hours the night before so i could definitely sleep on the plane, so that didn’t work out. once i landed, i took a bus straight to my hostel where i dropped my bags off in a storage closet, then boarded another bus bound for a volcano hike.  the bus ride was about 1.5 hours outside the city, then the hike was only about 1 hour across desolate terrain up to the Thrihnukagigur Volcano, located in a very active system of volcanos, but which is itself dormant right now. it is the only volcano in the world for which the lava chamber has remained intact post-eruption.  the group was divided into 3 teams of 6 and then each team took a turn descending down 400 feet into darkness via a modified german window washing high-rise contraption/death cage.  i did manage to get a lot of this on video, but unfortunately the quality is not very good, as you can imagine the lighting quality was pretty poor. nevertheless, when i have the time to do some editing, you will see it!  in the meantime, check out some of these images to see the crazy colors down below that formed after extended periods of time with an active lava pot just baking the ground around it

the next day i awoke very early to hike up the fimmvörðuháls trail to the site of Eyjafjallajökull, commonly remembered as the volcano that erupted in 2010 and wreaked equally as much havoc in the european air traffic industry (due to expansive ash clouds covering all of europe for weeks) as it did among news anchors around the world having fits trying to figure out how to pronounce it.  this was a long day.  it involved about 15 miles of grueling hiking combined with extreme cold and rain with temperatures in the high 30s (Fahrenheit), along with winds up to 50 miles per hour on steep, unforgiving volcanic rock. it was a struggle to get up there, and our group had set a blistering pace (one that i admit i wish we had gone slower. partly so we could appreciate the hike, but also so i could give my burning quads a rest).  again, i got a lot of this on video, so i won’t bore with details here and save surprises for the film, but i will say that this hike offered some of the most amazing backdrops of starkly contrasted scenery that must be available to see on this earth.  beautiful green moss fields that emitted an almost eerie glow as they blanketed the rocky landscape, breaking only in areas where the harsh rocky terrain refused to let anything live, allowing the color void to create black canvases that made you wonder if you were staring off into space itself. as we edged higher and closer to the volcano, the terrain seemed to shift even more, offering red hues of volcanic leftovers hinting at the destruction that not so long ago completely obliterated anything within its reach, and warning us that it could just as easily do it again if it so pleased.

once we reached the top, we dug our hands into the ground and, despite the cold elements all around us, the volcano beneath us was still very, very warm.  it was spooky.  there’s still activity down there.  we decided to get down the mountain and out of the wet cold to our SuperJeep, where we did some offroading to get back to civilization.  bouncing around the inside of one of those things while we forded rivers and created our own road was really, really fun.  if you don’t get motion sick, definitely try it some day.

that night, i went to dinner with a couple of my hiking trail friends to this little hole in the wall place called the “Sea Baron.”  my new french friends were very funny and agreeable and they invited me along to try this place out that “had whale steak.”  i had yet to have an authentic icelandic meal so i joined them.  on our walk to the spot, they entertained me by talking about how much their friends back home in the french riviera didn’t understand why they would leave the comfortable banks of the french coast to journey to the harsh climate of the land of fire & ice.  they joked about how they wanted very much to break out of their circle and see something entirely different, something new and exciting and kind of scary, and something not french.  honestly, despite my french heritage, i think french culture intimidates me the most, but once my friends gregory and Þómas began sharing these thoughts, i knew i was among friends.  we joined another french girl they had met on their flight named Anaëlle and, as we walked across town to the restaurant, they joked and poked fun at typical french travelers and how they seemingly complain about everything. it was all in good humor, and they were being very self-deprecating, but in some weird way, i think it really did help me understand a little of how to interact with people when i eventually get to paris.  i was thankful for that.

when we arrived at the sea baron, a dingy little place on the docks by the edge of the city with its own earnest charm, we placed our order and then wandered around aimlessly for a seat.  the place was packed, and they were to close within an hour.  the only seating available was in the upstairs area, and, in what was to be the funniest part of my time in iceland, there was only one table left available to sit at.  i quickly and triumphantly strode over and claimed the table for my new friends, but when i turned around, my 3 new french friends stood frozen in the doorway with a look of something that can only be described as dismay.  i asked them what was the matter, to which Þómas replied in disgust with a thick french accent “everyone in this room is speaking french. they’re all french.  it is like a disease, you know.”   he said this with no refrain or care that someone might hear him.  i laughed uncontrollably, and as he and the others approached the table, i urged him to use a little tact so that he doesn’t offend anyone.  he replied “brandon, the thing you don’t understand is that people from france don’t speak anything but french. they have no idea what i’m saying.”  (obviously he was slightly exaggerating for humorous effect, but not a single person in the room seemed to understand or care about his less-than-cautious barbs.   i still couldn’t stop laughing.  we spent the rest of the meal laughing like we were sitting at the kids table at christmas, snickering at a word a grownup had said.  greg and Þómas interpreted the various different complaints or statements that qualified as “stupid” to them, and the whole situation just kept getting funnier and funnier, until finally a gentleman from the group of french tourists came back into the room and spat out (in french) to his friends: “they only have ice cream for dessert.”   the 4 of us lost it and made a scene, laughing over our meals, causing a few of the group to look over and wonder what was so funny before losing interest after a few moments.

after dinner we parted ways.  my french colleagues were returning to the french riviera at 6am the next morning and it was getting late.  meanwhile i had to find a bus and make my way to the southeast corner of the island to do some exploring in the ice. we said our goodbyes and they extended the invite to look them up if i should find my way to the city of Nice.  i just may.

the next morning i awoke to bad news. the season had changed that very day, and there were no more buses going the direction i needed to go until april. in order to find my way to the remote fishing village of höfn, i would need to rent an expensive car and follow a map to find my own way (i have no cell phone or gps or data plan at all. i rely solely on wifi in hostels for connection).  and so the journey continues…

here’s a picture of a big cliff:




guide companies used:
fimmvörðuháls hike:  http://www.adventures.is/Iceland/Hiking/VolcanoAlley2days/ 
experience rating:  A+    difficulty rating:  4/5   guide company rating:  B- (tour started late due to problems with the Superjeep, and guide was somewhat impersonable, not very talkative. very skilled guide however, and an incredible athlete. showed no fatigue at all on the aggressive hike.

Thrihnukagigur hike:  http://www.insidethevolcano.com/  
experience rating:  A+   difficulty: 2/5    guide company rating:  A+ (guides were knowledgeable, friendly, and passionate.)

and of course, your daily listen…


we all die trying to get it right

yesterday i left denver.  i was fortunate enough to get a few hours of sleep despite all the nervous energy coursing through my body, and even more fortunate that i was able to spend my last couple hours hanging out with one of my best friends, micah.  a seasoned traveler himself, we chatted about where my head was at and what sorts of ideas i had for route options, etc.  over burgers and milkshakes (i wanted to make sure my last meal – for the foreseeable future – in america was thoroughly american). a very intuitive being, micah could sense a slight unease within me, so rather than dumptruck me with typical advice about where to go and what to do and what to see, the usual things people offer when they find out you’re going somewhere they’ve been, he opted for less-traversed but just as – if not more -important topics. things like how to combat feeling like a tourist. how to get away from the things your guidebook tells you to go see, and how to escape the crowds. how to find peace and natural experience off the beaten path in the random and unexpected.  it’s something i greatly value about micah and about our friendship. he has the ability to move the conversation past the easy, routine topics and provide thoughtful insight in a way that others may not even notice.

micah dropped me at the airport and as i approached security, i was selected for the TSA pre-screen, where you get to go through security without taking off your shoes or belt, you don’t have to remove your laptop from your bag, or any of the other annoying but necessary security procedures.  it’s never happened to me before, and i must admit, if i was traveling a lot more in the US, i would probably spring for the cash so that i could do that from now on. it’s worth it.

anyway, being selected for pre-check distracted me from all the thoughts that had been barreling down the wide hallway of my mind all morning. a distracting amalgamation of last-minute paranoiac gut-checks like “oh man did i forget my headlamp?!” or “i definitely forgot underwear,”  mixed with bigger picture contemplations on the significance of this trip in my life, or whether or not i was going to find what i was looking for, or if i was going to waste my hard-earned money and fall flat on my face and somehow end up on an episode of “locked up abroad” or some youtube video demanding a ransom, hoping that liam neeson would come to my rescue.  i’d like to say that i’m competent enough that my confidence wouldn’t even entertain such doubts, but i can’t.  also, i really hope i didn’t forget my underwear.

after i gleefully skated through the pre-check, glancing over at the poor souls removing their shoes and begrudgingly searching for their laptops in their oversized backpacks, i slung my own small carry-on pack over my shoulder and headed for the steps down to the denver airport shuttle train to take me to my departure gate.  as i stood at the top of the first step (i have a rule that i do not allow myself to use escalators or elevators if the option for stairs is present… within reason though.  i’ll not be running up flights of steps to get to the top of the eiffel tower in paris), a sudden overwhelming wave of emotion gripped me and knocked me back.  a thin, icy cold thread of confused adrenalin snaked its way down the veins in my arms and legs, the hairs on my neck and arms were suddenly standing on end, and my skin began to tense up and form “goosebumps.” my stomach formed a small knot in it, the same sensation i used to get right before my first trip to the plate in an important baseball game when i was younger. the same reaction i’d get right before taking the stage to play a show or an open mic night back when i was still performing.  the same feeling i’d get right before painfully attempting to ask a girl that i really liked to prom in high school (or really on any date ever in my life. even today. it’s hilarious).

i paused at the top of the stairs, confused by what it was that i was feeling. was it uncertainty? was i suddenly regretting my decision to venture out and leave behind everything comfortable in my life? there was a vague recognition of these feelings, as though my body was telling me that this had happened before, but it had been so long that we had completely forgotten what it meant.

i’ve heard people describe me as unshakable before, and often, especially when i am working, i play that card well. unflinching, i make decisions and i hold to them. i try not to show emotion. a boss of mine once pulled me into a room and gave me the worst verbal brow-beating i’d ever received because he wanted to see if he could rattle my cage and get my attention. he wanted to get a response. i didn’t break. i spent the entirety of his shouting tirade trying to calm him down, confident that he had made a mistake.  (in fairness, there was more to the scenario than just this, but the point is still there).  in my life, i’ve become very good at controlling my emotions and not letting them betray me, especially in public.

and there i stood, flummoxed by these strange new feelings i hadn’t felt in so long. i didn’t know what to do with them. i couldn’t even define them. as i stood paralyzed at the steps, people all around me rushing to get to the escalators to make their flights (nobody ever takes the stairs anymore!), i became aware of my surroundings and the fact that people might be looking at me. i immediately forced myself to push forward and down the stairs.

as soon as i took the first step, the dam broke. the emotion rushed over me, and everything changed.

the icy adrenalin in my veins quickly turned over into a warm rush of blood to the head, my face became flush.  the knot in my stomach suddenly burst into “butterflies.”  the same sensation when that heavily anticipated at-bat in the important baseball game results in a double in the gap, standing on 2nd base triumphantly looking back to your teammates in the dugout and your family or friends in the stands, seeking their approval and wanting to celebrate with them, but maintaining composure with the knowledge that the game is still going on. the same reaction when the performance on stage results in applause, and people voice their approval, acknowledging and confirming the hard work you put into your art.  the same feeling when the date is over, and the chaotic internal war of schizophrenic dialogue in your head over what-to-say-and-how-to-act-and-maniacally-and-desperately-hoping-that-she-is-really-liking-you-because-you’re-really-liking-her-and-she’s-way-too-hot-to-be-going-out-with-you has all subsided because you just jumped off the ledge and leaned in, and she kissed you back.  and you confidently help her into her car and walk back to yours, calm and cool like it’s no big deal, when inside your heart is exploding and all you want to do is splash puddles and swing from street poles and dance down the street like a rhythmless gene kelly, because you know she likes you.

i tried my best to hold it all together as i slowly descended the steps. i suddenly had tears in my eyes but i refused to let them escape onto my face. i got to the bottom of the stairs in a dizzy relief, and realized what i was feeling.  it was joy. it was a nervous euphoria that my body and soul were creating to tell my mind that for once, finally, in a long time, i was doing the best thing for me.  i’ve wanted this trip for years, but i’ve also been terrified of it.  i’ve made plans but pushed them off for short vacations with friends because they were safer and easier, or i’ve abandoned them altogether because i couldn’t work the courage enough to quit my job.  for years i’ve been both tempted by and held captive by the same idea, and now, today, at last, i was doing something about it for better or worse.

i don’t know what’s coming next, and that’s okay.  i’m learning how to let go.


today’s ear candy:

Why Europe?

last night i was having a drink with someone and we were having this wonderful wandering conversation, drifting from one topic to the next without any specific direction or goal.  it was a refreshing interaction for me, and one that surprised me.  over the last 5 years i’ve allowed myself to fall into a sort of manic style of conversation that you get when you’re trying to arrive directly to the point of the interaction.  you cull the talking points, distill them down to actionable directives, and then you try to do the same for whatever your takeaways from the meeting should be so you know what productive actions should come from the interaction,  all in the interest of saving time and boosting efficiency.  this is extremely important in the corporate world, but the effect this habit produces on the rest of your interactions is similar to removing the color from a painting;  it’s all still there, but you’ve likely lost the very thing that made it beautiful.

as we were talking, we aimlessly drifted to the topic of my upcoming travels. the type of trip i’m taking tends to draw a general routine of questions to which i have my normal “canned” responses.  but this time around i was asked a different question that no one had asked me yet:  “why europe?”

the funny thing is, when someone says they’re going to europe, there’s never a question of “why?”  among most modern, intelligent, forward-thinking americans. i think it’s just generally understood that most people would like to go to europe some day, so when someone says they are going, we just sort of look at them and think “man, that lucky bastard is taking my vacation.”  and then we carry on with the conversation and communicate how jealous we are and how excited we are for them.  but the person i was speaking with likes to play devil’s advocate and challenge opinions to test the strength (something i usually do) of statements, so when i said europe, she challenged me. not in any rude way, but the implication was that europe might be an easy destination for someone to go on a soulsearch, and if i was indeed looking for experiences and answers to specific questions mentioned earlier in the conversation (something i won’t go into detail in this post) then my mission might be better served on a different continent.  and it is a good point.

but the fact is that there is a lot more than history and art that i hope to explore in europe.  and europe is actually something that i’ve passed up multiple times for other destinations, other relationships, other opportunities that in retrospect never really amounted to much but they seemed like the responsible thing to do. the fact is the older you get the more reasons you can find for not doing something outrageous (in my case, going on an extended backpacking trip), and so you handcuff yourself to duty and responsibility, and you find other distractions or other things to spend your money or time on that are easier and safer.  And it’s not until much later in your life that you start counting your regrets, and often by that time, it’s too late.

so part of this journey is reclaiming something that i’ve wanted to do for 10+ years.  i want to see where the civilized world started, and what people are doing with it now.  i want to see how people live their lives, how they appreciate the things around them, or even learn what  they appreciate.  i want to learn, i want to be overwhelmed, i want to be the stupidest guy in the room.  i want to watch a play in Shakespeare’s Globe. i want to stare at a real Michelangelo ceiling and be crushed by a true labor of love.  i want to wander a Prague street after drinking a few too many pilseners.  i want to trek all day to see an active icelandic volcano and be awestruck by the naked power that doesn’t even care if i exist. i want to dance like a fool (and look like one too) in barcelona.  i want to see the things that were in my history books and on my tv, and i don’t want to see them from a facebook post.  i want to experience it all in the 1st person.

and somewhere along the way, i hope it changes me.  i leave for Iceland in 6 days.  i do not have a return flight.


Peter Gibbons: What if we’re still doing this when we’re fifty? Samir: It would be nice to have that kind of job security.

the quote above is from one of my favorite movies, Office Space.  it’s a movie i’d watched often in college, but i never had a true appreciation for it until about 5 years ago when i got my first “real” job working as a tech support phone rep at a company called Intuit.  those days were interesting for me. i had been homeless (living out of my rusty ol’ toyota 4runner) for a couple months after the girl i had moved to Denver for on a whim had broken up with me and left colorado for an ex of hers. i had been sleeping on friends’ couches as long as i could without wearing out my welcome, bumming meals, smokes, beers, and any kindness people could offer until i could figure out what i was doing with my life.  it was 2009, nobody was hiring, and i had basically given up on my dream of being a starving musician in a band somewhere.   and then somehow i got an email back from intuit, scheduling an interview.

i didn’t know anything about tech support, or sales.  they were hiring for a hybrid role where i had to do both.  i sat across the table and lied my ass off, tried my best to make them laugh, employing my best self-deprecating personality, and tried to convince them that i was a perfect fit (which was probably not the case).  my goal going in there was to just make them like me enough that they wouldn’t mind sitting next to me at a bar somewhere if there was nothing else going on.  i must have done something right because i got a call back before i even got home (or whomever’s couch i happened to be crashing at the time) and they offered me the job.

fast forward through the next few years, through a lot of sales awards, a couple promotions, a wave of outsourcing, mass hirings, mass firings, divestitures, acquisitions, site relocations, and now, ultimately, a site closure.  and now, here i am, i’ve come full circle.

or have i?

today marks the first day in over 5 years that i don’t actively have a job to go to at any point in the near future. i have a clean bill of health, i have no kids, no significant other, no mortgage, no demanding responsibilities anchoring me where i stand. my employment at homestead, where i have been a manager for the last 3.5 years, and sales & support rep before that, has come to an end. i am, quite literally, free.

the scene in Office Space that is quoted above obviously is one heavy with sarcasm. but also honesty. some people look at their job and they find a safety and an identity that allows them to live their life with a comfort and security. some of those folks are lucky enough to be doing something they don’t even consider work, and they draw all of the energy of their life from it, while others… (to quote George Carlin)

“…work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit”

i found too much of my own identity in my occupation these last 5 years. i allowed myself to think that my internal value was tied to my job, my title, and my paycheck, and i eventually grew weary and complacent. instead of growing and learning and creating and inspiring, i gradually and slowly devolved, and sought fulfillment in anything that would give me a temporary release, without success.

i am now determined to “undo” as much of that as possible.  this place here will serve as my documentation. today i begin a quest to relentlessly evade the mundane.  to find a way to live this life extraordinarily. to go against the grain of the american worker bee mentality of working and saving and preparing for the inevitable demise that comes with age, and instead i will wholeheartedly commit to being present and living now. adventure will be my creed, and discovery my motto. i will not wait until retirement to live. i will live now.

stay with me, friends, i have a lot of big things coming up. music, video, travel, pictures, and of course, the dissection and recollection of my mind.  it’s time for me to get back in touch with my creative side, and i want to share it with you.

it's okay to not know where you're going