Field Notes: Part 3

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IMG_3952Smoked arctic char (trout) served with geysir bread, which is a graham rye that is buried under the ground as dough and comes out 24 hours later cooked by geothermal magic.

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Myvatn thermal baths + snow. Take off your clothes and hop in!

~

Isn’t it strange how time passes?

It’s been four months since I came home. I have so much to tell you, but let me start where I left off: Northern Iceland, September. Snow was falling heavily in a premature winter storm, and the sky was low and grey as I pulled up to a farmhouse, hoping for a place to stay.

A room of one’s own.

The house matron Ásta showed me to a single room with a gable window flanked by warm birchwood walls, lace curtains, no art, a small bed with white sheets, and a writing desk; unexpectedly perfect. I sat and wrote for two days as the storm groaned outside the window, breaking my scattered focus with great, loud gusts. Snowflakes stuck to the glass, drawn to the heat, melting on the way down. The roads were icy in one direction and closed in another, and the news was reporting people stuck in the mountains, farmers losing entire herds to the freeze.

After three days, the road reports weren’t getting any better, and the few other travelers staying with me checked conditions at breakfast, talking about the weather in the way that you do when you don’t have any control over it (which is always, but you feel a lot more powerless when you’re trapped).

We lost electricity and running water, and a man who spoke quiet French offered me a ride to the grocery store. I accepted, and from inside his car we watched the snow melting on the windshield. I bought a loaf of bread, a cucumber, a lump of cheese and some wool mittens. With two sets of lungs and very little common language between us we drove in silence, the heartbeat of the wipers thumping, left, right, left, right. 

Dimmuborgir.

That evening, emboldened by the grocery store outing, I cleaned the snow off my car with mittened fingers, determined to go on an adventure. Nearby were the Dimmuborgir lava fields, and dusk was creeping in as I parked in the vacant, snowy lot, a kilometer down a dead-end road, stubbornly convinced I might get a decent photo despite the weather and the waning light. I climbed down slush-ridden paths with black lava formations rising around me like galactic clouds, crows flying backward on the wind draped in gnat-like clouds of clotting snowflakes.

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Feet getting wetter with every step in the sloppy ice, I imagined slipping and falling and busting up a knee and not being able to walk (and no one finding me until at least the next day, dead and frozen, because no one knew I wasn’t in my room). I berated my imaginary broken-knee self. “Who do you think you are, National Fucking Geographic? What are you doing out here?”

I kept with it for a while, and drove home in the dark, slip-sliding along as the road zipped itself up against the wind.

~

Hallelujah, the great storm is over.

On the first day of calm skies, it was time to leave. I caravanned through flat open fields and mountain passes with a sweet Canadian couple. The roads were still quite icy, and the drive was beautiful but frightening. Lava formations encrusted in ice watched us drive like frosty prairie dogs waiting for the danger to pass.

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And then, like it had never happened, I was through the mountain passes, walking on a beach with kelp & bird bones & matted feathers & split mussel shells straddling the wet sand. Waves crashed up behind the break wall, and I was on my way.

~

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.

~

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.