Field Notes from the Single Lady Pilgrimage Trip: Part 2

Envy.

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Sometimes I find myself comparing a trip to other travelers’ experiences. Meeting someone in a hostel some night who has biked a hundred miles and gotten back from their yarn factory tour just in time to go whale watching can make you feel like you’re just not making the most of your days. Trying to shake the feeling that I was missing out on something, I took myself on a last-minute horse-ride tour.

All alone with my guide, Pitla and Baelur the horses, the cold wind on my face, tugging at the collar of my jacket. Saddle jouncing between my thighs. We didn’t talk much, just breathed air in the shadow of the mountains, listening to the animals sigh and trot, closing my eyes.

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On a cold, clear night in Akureyri, I went aurora hunting.  Three women and myself, strangers, freezing under the stars, wind so sharp we could barely keep our eyes open.  We never did see any auroras, but we laughed until we cried, until it was time to give up and head back. I went dancing that night with another group of just-met pals, some Belgian boys on holiday from school. I danced until I was done and left without saying goodbye.

Earth.

There are moments

in moist love

when heaven

is jealous of what

we on earth

can do.

  -Hafiz

~

Before this trip was a reality, when it was an unformed lump of travel lust, I already knew I wanted to get to Mývatn, a lake in the Northern part of the country with a small, beautiful, less-touristed hot spring.

This day’s weather was predicted to be the best for the next week in Mývatn and so in the morning, I made a snap decision to go there immediately. I didn’t tell anyone. I packed my bag and got into my car and sat for a moment, wondering at all that, feeling like I was getting away with something.

I think I was.

~

I had about six hours of daylight and a lot of stops to make, my teeny tiny car bouncing dutifully down gravel roads, up mountain roads, and over crusty lava fields.

I went first to a hot spring inside a tiny cave, steamy and breathy and dark and damp. Its water was so clear and glassy I had to throw a pinch of sand to see where the surface of the water began before my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, a shocking little ripple of sparkles right at my feet.

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There was a sulfur field at the base of a low mountain range, with burping pools of blue-grey mud, teal and copper and ochre earth split with rivulets of hot water, steam vents screaming their constant hffahhhhhhh of release, the chokingly present stink of earth’s breath.

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Down the road, a turquoise floodwater lake in the crater of an ancient volcano. I ran up to the edge, breathless, scrabbled around the ridge circling the caldera.

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Nearby, a recent volcanic eruption (the year before I was born) left still-hot earth, steaming vulvar fissures in the mountainside, black rock like brain synapses.

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I made a little list in my notebook:

1. I never realized I was so afraid of volcanoes.

2. I believe in magic.

Folded over earth with decades-past drips under the overhang and milky blue water in unexpected pools.

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Light waning, I drove to the last stop of the night, a lake on a farm spiked with with bonelike lava pillars, surly sheep and shocked ducks. Midge flies hovering around my mouth and nostrils,  I tried to breathe through the down collar of my jacket.

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IMG_3880The entire day was so secret-feeling and wild and gorgeous; frantic and rewarding at the same time.

And in then, it began to snow, light, nearly imperceptible…..and I had no idea what terrible weather was coming the next day.

~

Field Notes from the Single Lady Pilgrimage Trip: Part 1

Genesis?

I am talking to a hippie crone with Swedish-blonde bangs, a straw fedora and a woven poncho. Her eyes are squinty from wine and weed, and she is telling me about authors she’s loved and thinks I should read: Oscar Wilde, Kurt Vonnegut. She rummages around in her huge bag looking for tobacco for what seems like a long time, rubbing and licking her thumb and forefinger, rolling a cigarette.

Everything has been fuzzy for the last few months. It is the last day of April in Minnesota and I am at a bonfire on an island on the Mississippi River, hidden between the dry brush of late winter and the freight train bridge. We are celebrating Valborgsmässoafton, the end of winter (though it will come to snow heavily in the next few days), and people have brought things to burn to welcome spring back into our world. A dry Christmas tree, wooden skis, an old chair, drum sticks go into the fire. I’ve brought a little prayer-on-a-post-it and I poke it into the embers, closing my eyes and holding my breath. A tiny yellow request for happiness, for a sign on what direction I should turn in the coming months.

After a long silence this woman tells me about an author traveling to a wild and barren frozen land in the late 1800s. Iceland. She says something about his observations on the human condition, about his use of language or cultural notes, but I am not listening anymore because I am only hearing the echoing clang of this country calling out to me again. Why does it keep coming up?

Iceland, Iceland, Iceland.

~

I have never traveled alone before, and I was drawn to the alone-ness of a country whose population is less than the city of Minneapolis, whose wild open roads offer waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and roaming sheep. The air is cold and there are long stretches of road with no other people for miles in any direction. I decided to drive the perimeter highway, to make a full circle around the country moving clockwise. There’s something clear about that, about coming full circle, about coming back to where you started with a lot of road behind you; completion, wholeness, something final and real and absolute.

Planning the trip, thinking about what I wanted it to mean for me, was a bit of worrying it was frivolous fun balanced with hoping that it would be soul-crunching and raw and scary and life changing. Healing, maybe. The single lady pilgrimage trip. I am afraid to be alone. I am excited to be alone. Suddenly, I am alone.

Field notes.

The reality of alone-ness hitting me in the tiny rental car. I sat and laughed with the key in the ignition, the kind of crazy, bubbling-up laugh that surprises you when it comes out of your mouth sounding more hysterical than happy. I was scared to leave the comfort of Reykjavik with its art museums and flea markets and bars, scared to leave the newborn familiarity of sitting in the municipal hot spring baths; the creamy lilt of the Icelandic language; heavy smoky clouds over the harbor.

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The first day’s drive was rainy, as many of them would be.

I passed lakes in isolation, simple churches and paint-peeling farmhouses with white sides and red roofs, horses with shy teenager hair and sheep with matted locks, slopes of hill that ached up into low cloud cover. Beauty building up on that path, slow burn like the black lava boulders cloaked in the tendril clutch of creeping moss.

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Reaching my first trail in pouring rain, berating myself for not having rain pants, for being under-prepared to hike in bad weather. The wind threatened outside the car like a hungry hound. I will eat you alive.

I cried. What the hell am I doing?

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I waited in the car as the windows fogged up, more because I didn’t know what else to do or where I was even planning to sleep that night. Eventually though, the rain stopped and I walked the coastal trail, muck sucking my boots, slipping in the rain’s aftermath, black cliffs plunging into the ocean crash.

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The light like perpetual dusk, even clouds and a pregnant sky. The feeling that something was about to happen was always present: pressure change, a storm, a break in the clouds or maybe the sun would fall straight into the ocean, slipping over the verge of the horizon. When the the clouds cleared from half of the sky, plaits of rainbow crashed down while sheep drank rainwater from potholes in the gravel road.

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(The car’s seatbelt sensor is going off. My seatbelt is on. It starts out as a present beepbeepbeep and works itself up to a deep breath and BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP and I’m yelling at the car, I know, I’m wearing it! Shut up, I’m wearing it!!! and I’m barreling down this gravel road in a tiny toy car and it sounds like being thrown down the stairs in a crackerjack box during the apocalypse and I think to myself, this is not the peaceful quest I’d imagined.)

Further North in Hofsós I soaked in a steamy pool almost level with the ocean, bitter snowy wind blowing at my neck, my face, my wet hair, watching the shadowy clouds snag on the mountain across the inlet. School age boys played the international game of steal-the-tube-and-drown-your-friends, laughing brightly under all the gray.

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A little boy in arm floats and an around-the-chest jetpack floatie sat in the shallow part of the pool until his young dad, ruddy cheeks and wet-straight hair, picked him up and carried him gently into the main pool. Hands cupped over the boy’s ears, he tilted his head back into the water. In the moment I think I might be witnessing a baptism of sorts, and I realize I’ve barely spoken a word for days.

~

Route 1 + Lovely Ice

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The past two weeks have been totally overwhelming, peacefully grounding, mind-spinningly wonderful.

Despite a snowstorm in the north and terrible road conditions keeping me in the Mývatn area for four nights, I’ve completed the full length of Iceland’s Route 1, the perimeter highway encircling this beautiful country.

I still have a few things on the To Do list, but I’m coming home in a few days and I can’t wait to share my trip with you.

 

Plane Tickets, Country Music and the Lonesome Wind of Northern Iceland

I’ve been listening to a lot of country music lately. It’s so lonely and romantic, and there’s something so terribly alluring about broken hearts on the open road, about horses and trucks and beer and pretty ladies.

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In the week leading up to my departure from Minneapolis, I found myself driving too fast, listening to country music as loud as I could stand, and crying on the highway with that bubbling-up-crazy, what-the-hell-am-I-getting-myself-into excitement energy.

I wasn’t nervous until I knew my ride to the airport was on his way, and then general travel anxiety kicked into full gear. What if I go to the airport on the wrong day? (I’ve done that) What if my credit card number gets stolen right at the beginning of the trip? (that happened once) What if I get food poisoning and can’t even keep water in me and almost pass out from weakness on the way through customs? (I’ve done that)…and, worst of all, What if I don’t have any fun?

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This is my first time traveling alone, without a host family to catch me, without a partner by my side, without even a friendly face to greet me at the airport.

People keep asking me, why Iceland? Why alone?

I chose Iceland for a few reasons. First, D and I had planned to come here a year and a half ago, and while that obviously didn’t happen, it sparked my interest (and also he’s pretty good at picking out awesome places to travel, so I knew it would be good). Second, MSP is a hub for IcelandAir (take note, Minnesotans!) and therefore it was fairly inexpensive to fly to Keflavik. Third, I was getting some little nudges from the universe (sounds crazy); mentions in books I was reading, overheard licks of conversation at restaurants, and not one but two of the relatively few internet dates I went on mentioned their trips to Iceland. Fourth and not least of all, I enjoy a good cold, desolate landscape. As for why I came alone, I wanted to make up my itinerary by the moment, to spend some time reflecting, and to meet people in the way that you don’t when you’re traveling with someone.

And so the Single Lady Pilgrimage Trip was born.

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I’ve been here for nine days and I’ll be here for nine more, hiking lava cliffs, soaking in geothermal hotsprings, riding moody horses, driving through mountain tunnels, eating smoked fish and applecake and drinking glacial water (also beer made with glacial water). After having one of the most magical days of my trip yet, I’m grounded in a snowstorm right now in the Mývatn area of Northern Iceland, listening to the bitter wet wind batter the lava fields.

Gorgeous Photos from the End of Summer: McMurdo, Antarctica

Deven is behind the lens again–check out these stunning photos from the end of the summer season and vessel offload.

The icebreaker vessel comes in at the end of the summer and is the main way cargo for all departments gets onto the continent. The lovely ship is full of all kinds of incoming cargo, from ramen noodles, beer and condoms to turbochargers and hydraulic hoses. The logistics folks (Cargo and Materials) are responsible for offloading and basically warehousing the cargo; at the beginning of the next summer, South Pole’s cargo gets packed up and sent in. This means the supply chain is really long: it takes a year or two for normal cargo to arrive at Pole.

stunning blue

 

cloud ice

 

floating ice

 

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You can see a storm front moving in on the horizon!

 

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Here’s the vessel, loaded up with milvans.

 

frosty cables
After a storm, everything facing upwind was covered in ice.

 

frosty loaders
…including the loaders.

 

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Hut Point Peninsula, just a short walk from MacTown.

 

mcm ice

 

mcm sound

 

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The Nathaniel B. Palmer (a science vessel, I think) and Mount Erebus

 

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The Pegasus Ice Runway as seen from Arrival Heights

 

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The rigging on the icebreaker, with Scott’s Hut (built in 1911). Deven says about this one: “Future past. I love the little Scott hut in the lower right. The things that place has seen!”

 

icebreaker and beautiful ice

The thing I love about these photos is how well they illustrate the different personalities of the sea ice: marbled and fractured and chunky and smooth.

If you want to see some amazing aurora photos from the same photographer, check out this post.

Walking in the Snow

One step at a time is good walking.
– Chinese proverb

It snowed last week. Pretty, soft snow that stuck to the trees and cars and sidewalks, wet and melty and cold and peaceful.

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Knee-high snow in my knee-high mukluks.

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Sometimes I can only take things one step at a time. Eight months ago, “one step at a time” was very purposeful, keenly directed, survival-mode walking. Get a job. Get a home. Get a car. Process. Grieve. Calm down. Breathe. Don’t forget to eat food sometimes. Once every few days, put on clean socks and get out of the apartment.

Things these days are a little more erratic and all over the map. Some days I feel so hopeful and have so many ideas, and I write really well and I run really hard and I feel so good that I think I’m maybe better off in some ways than I was a year ago. Some days I feel frustrated and sad. Some days I long so deeply for the life I left behind that it makes my teeth hurt. One step at a time means something different now. Go to work. Write poetry. Have fancy cocktails at fancy bars with girlfriends. Register for another creative writing class next semester. Cry and eat Nutella straight out of the jar. Walk around the icy lake drinking a latte, watching birds and talking with a great friend, dreaming about the future. Buy hiking boots for a trip that I haven’t even started planning yet.

My imagination of what the future will be, my 5-year “plan,” the fantasizing about travel and backpacking in Europe and going back to Antarctica and getting hired to work for a travel magazine, it’s going to my head. I find myself making plans that are loosely structured around things that I have no good reason to believe will ever happen. I guess that’s the point of dreaming though, right? What’s your 5-year dream plan?

Night Sky: McMurdo, Antarctica

When it comes to night sky, it seems like South Pole generally has McMurdo beat. It’s so much darker, so much further South, and the aurora activity seems more common. However, every now and then, MacTown gets a beautiful show, and on top of it, the landscape there is so much more compelling. These pictures are from Deven Stross, who worked with me as a Materialsperson last summer at South Pole, and whose website you can visit here; keep in mind though, he’s still stuck at McMurdo with not-so-great internet, so most of the new photography isn’t showcased just yet.

These photos are from July, before the sun had begun to rise.

Time lapse photo with a human subject: standing still for 30 seconds at -26F.

Here is a more recent photo, where the sun is illuminating the nacreous clouds over Castle Rock. It’s just so beautiful, don’t you think?

Antarctica on Google Street View!

Sometimes I seriously love the internet. This is so cool:

Certain parts of Antarctica are now available for you to visit from the comfort of your own computer. Despite the dorky  “armchair explorer” title given by the articles about this, it is really a pretty neat thing. My favorite was Scott’s Hut, which is a 10 minute walk from McMurdo Town and full of polar explorer artifacts–I never got to go inside while I was there but was able to look around here! I had never heard of the World Wonders Project before this, but it’s really interesting; panoramic, navigable, street-level images of world heritage sites. Seriously. Go check it out: http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/worldwonders/.

This is the Dark Sector on street view, the off-station site that is home to many of the research projects including South Pole Telescope, Bicep and IceCube a little further down the road.

Here is the Ceremonial South Pole view:

If you’re not familiar with Google Street View, when you go to the actual page you can click on the white arrows to move yourself around within the photo’s span.

Read more about this here, here and here. Well.. the last link is a bit sketchy, due to its photo caption “Penguins in the South Pole.” Do your homework, people.