i’ve been taking a little break in nice, france between posts to rethink a little of my format and content in posts. over the next couple weeks i’ll be writing a few posts sporadically that talk more about state of mind and observation as opposed to destination-based. during this break, i had a chance to throw together a video of my time in iceland, where the whole trip started. have a look and enjoy the amazing scenery. watch it full screen to get the full “hd experience!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
unleaded gas is in the green pump, and diesel is in the black, and not the other way around like in the US.
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.
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.
…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.