Land of Fire & Ice: Iceland, Part 2

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Part 2. Iceland. Sunday Dec 1, 2013

This is the Geysir area, one of the highlights of the Circle Tour. The weather was horrible this day, but the sites amazing.
This is the Geysir area, one of the highlights of the Circle Tour. The weather was horrible this day, but the sites amazing.

This is part two. You can see part one here.

Today we are signed up for the famous Golden Circle tour of Iceland and it will take all day. Our guide is Dede and she is way too loud and enthusiastic for this hour! I always enjoy jotting down the various facts that guides share (but her jokes were just terrible):

Iceland is the size of Kentucky with 320,000 people, fewer than the employees of Walmart. There are 3 sheep for each person. This is the most environmentally friendly country in world. Most famous restaurant is a hot dog stand (located near our hotel and we stop there a few days later). Dede also claims that Iceland has the happiest people on earth, but if their sense of humor is like her’s I never want to live here.

We didn't get to see much of the actual plant, just a view from a window.
We didn’t get to see much of the actual plant, just a view from a window.

First stop: Newest of 6 geothermal power plants, built in 2006. This is a publicly owned facility and it sends hot water and steam to Reykjavik, as well as electricity. It has approximately 4 times the capacity that it needs and this excess is planned not to support more population, but future business. There is a small exhibit upstairs, but it’s mostly a video–trying to subtly sell their services. Also, there’s a gift shop. The smell of sulphur is so strong I’m relieved it is a very short stop. If I worked here, I could never keep breakfast down. Still it is fascinating, even if we are not shown much. This area is part of the Helka volcano, which is very active, but not expected to erupt for at least 200 years. Let’s hope it is at least a week!

This may give an idea of the weather all day.....
This may give an idea of the weather all day…..

The weather is terrible today. And getting worse. They get 2000mm of rain a year (NYC gets 600, London gets 1200) and it’s the windiest country on earth. I completely believe it. Today’s winds are 40mph with gusts of 55. There are few trees to stop it, and no hills, but there are volcanoes. Today’s temperature is to get to the mid 40’s. The fog and rain is thick in the morning, which seems impossible with the wind. And it isn’t daylight yet at 10am. Despite 3 cups of coffee I can’t wake up. (Of course we were on the ill-fated Northern Lights Mystery tour last night and didn’t’ get to bed until after 1am.)

Our guide is completely over the top–an actress wanna be. I hate her. And she keeps breaking into song. She should not give up the day job. The guests seem split; they love her or hate her. It is one of the few times I will not leave a tip.

We pass small cottages on our long drive in the dark. 20% of Icelanders have a summer home, so these are empty now. Two thirds of the population live in metro Reykjavik and these are probably their houses. The rest of the population lives in small towns of less than 3,000.

On way to an old Lutheran church, Skelholt. This is the 19th church on this site and the current one was built in 1930s. There are excavations here trying to uncover the history of the area. This was the “political, cultural and ecclesiastical center of Iceland” from the 10th to the 18th century. It is quite small and neat inside, if sparsely furnished, but Lutheran churches are not ornate compared to Catholic churches. There was a First Day of Advent service at 11a, so we stayed only 15 minutes. This is a state run church and less than a dozen people were there. It is now dawn, but the weather keeps getting worse. The wind is brutal– I was almost knocked off my feet. I tried to help a woman with a cane, but I almost knocked her over while trying to battle the wind so I was no help at all. Pelting rain in my face. But we are told there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Right.

Skalholt Lutheran Church
Skalholt Lutheran Church
Interior, Skalholt Church
Interior, Skalholt Church
Outside the church was an archeological dig and a recreation of a small turf house, of the kind the original settlers used around 900AD
Outside the church was an archeological dig and a recreation of a small turf house, of the kind the original settlers used around 900AD

Only about a half million people in the world speak Icelandic. It has 36 letters. Klingon is based on Icelandic. The people learn English and Danish in grade school. Then they tend to learn at least one more language like German or Spanish. But the Icelandic language is strongly guarded and protected from foreign words, much like French is. Even famous people have their names translated into Icelandic.

I'd never seen a salmon ladder before.
I’d never seen a salmon ladder before.

We have a short photo stop at a waterfall, large enough to have a salmon ladder along the side, the first I’ve seen. But my photos are not clear. there is little light and I can’t hold the camera still in the wind for a longer exposure.

Gullfoss is the highlight of the Circle Tour. This is almost the size of Niagara Falls. But the wind, rain and hail were so brutal, I'm surprised my camera survived the trip.
Gullfoss is the highlight of the Circle Tour. This is almost the size of Niagara Falls. But the wind, rain and hail were so brutal, I’m surprised my camera survived the trip.

Gullfoss is a large, picturesque waterfall. As we drive to it the “farmland” we drive through is soggy. There are drainage ditches 6-8 feet deep along the road and perpendicular through the fields, but the ground is still saturated and you see much standing water. Most of these fields are grass for hay or grazing and seem to have been reclaimed from the volcanic rocks. Rich, though thin, soil if you can move the rocks out of the way. Mostly the trees were cut down to make fields, but there were never many of them and they were never tall.

People scurrying to get a photo of Gullfloss and then back to the safety of their buss.
People scurrying to get a photo of Gullfloss and then back to the safety of their bus.

105 feet tall Gullfoss is also called the Golden Falls and it is powerful. It’s like a small Niagara. It is part of a glacial river system. It is huge and lovely but the wind and rain so bad I take a handful of photos and run for the bus. I’m back before some have left it. Concerned I will ruin my camera.

This is our third tour with Grayline in 2 days so we are beginning to recognize other tourists. We give them nicknames. Chatty Girl for the woman who would not shut up last night so we could sleep on the bus. Crazy Chinese woman who was carried off the bus by a security guard two days ago. She was on the wrong bus and very unhappy that they wouldn’t agree to take her to the Blue Lagoon, where she wanted to go. But she wouldn’t come off the bus and change her ticket nor board another bus. She kept screaming that we didn’t like her because she was Chinese. Well, she was half right because we certainly didn’t like her! At one point on the tour she tells me to ask the guide to wait for her. I tell her I will do no such thing. The guide told us when and where to be and she will be left behind if she isn’t there on time. Then there’s Mimosa Man who brought champagne to breakfast to add to our orange juice. Large Unpleasant Rich Woman with Cane-her male companion is decades younger and soooo attentive. I’m sure he earns every dime he gets from her.

Lamb, as found in this soup, is the stable protein in addition to seafood.
Lamb, as found in this soup, is the stable protein in addition to seafood.

We stop for lunch of lamb soup and hot chocolate. We are reminded that it is unusually wet, but warm today. The weather is not always like this, we are told. There is an odd storm system. Tomorrow should be better. Let’s hope. My cold is getting worse and it’s been a miserable day.

 

Strokkur is like the Old Faithful of Iceland. it goes off about every 9 minutes. The wind was so strong, that the steam couldn't go straight up.
Strokkur is like the Old Faithful of Iceland. it goes off about every 9 minutes. The wind was so strong, that the steam couldn’t go straight up.

 

Isn't this the worst name ever for a hole in the ground that spurts out a phallic shaped column of steam?
Isn’t this the worst name ever for a hole in the ground that spurts out a phallic shaped column of steam?

 

Geysers Area with several hot springs: We go to see Strokkur, Iceland’s version of Old Faithful. I did get to watch it erupt. Once. My photograph wasn’t well timed and I’ll be lucky if I didn’t ruin my camera in the rain. What distracted me were the two young women, walking off the pathways, which are clearly marked. Naturally the geyser blew just as they walked perfectly downwind of the spray. They were not injured, which is a miracle considering the wind blew the steam 30 degrees off the ground instead of straight up. It was brutal walking into the wind to get back to the bus. I’m soaked and cold.

These two women were walking in a "no trespassing" area, downwind from a geyser that spouts regularly. And they had such bad timing. Didn't seem like they were hurt, fortunately.
These people were walking in a “no trespassing” area, downwind from a geyser that spouts regularly. And they had such bad timing. Didn’t seem like anyone was hurt, fortunately.

Thingvellir National Park: We drive to the national park while the guide gives us a few facts. Only 1 in 5 people in Iceland get married. Two in five marriages end in divorce. They have the highest births out of wedlock. Inbreeding is a huge issue, so genealogy is important. Our guide can trace her family back 1200 years.

The group is walking in the "no mans land," the small area between the continental shelves. This land grows about half an inch a year as the two plates separate.
The group is walking in the “no mans land,” the small area between the continental shelves. This land grows about half an inch a year as the two plates separate.

 

Thingvalla Park, the wall on the left is the edge of the North American plate. About a mile away is a hill that is the edge of the European plate. The land between doesn't belong to either.
Thingvalla Park, the wall on the left is the edge of the North American plate. About a mile away is a hill that is the edge of the European plate. The land between doesn’t belong to either.
This is a wishing Christmas tree.....
This is a wishing Christmas tree…..

While fascinating, today’s tour has simply been an endurance contest. We got little sleep because of the failed Northern Lights Tour last night. The drunken revelers outside our window woke me frequently. Today the weather has been horrible. The worst, however, is the guide. Her jokes are insufferable–she’s mentioned that we are a captive audience THREE times and she done half the routine from the Rita Rudner’s Born to Be Mild tour. And my stomach is upset from all the vitamin C I’ve taken to reduce these cold symptoms. This is not my best day ever, but Barbara and I remain as upbeat as we can.

....and one of the wishes was from Yoko Ono.
….and one of the wishes was from Yoko Ono.

This park contains active volcanos and the place where two tectonic plates meet, the Eurasian and North American. There are earthquakes every day here. They pull apart at a rate of 2cm (about an inch) a year. So there is a ridge that marks the edge of North America, perhaps three or four stories high. Then a mile away is a lower ridge that is the edge of Europe. We walk between in the “Neutral zone,” a flat plain without a continent.

The area has park has abundant fresh water and the president has a summer house here. An earlier summer house burned.
The area has park has abundant fresh water and the president has a summer house here. An earlier summer house burned.
This is the Assembly Plains area where the laws were read annually
This is the Assembly Plains area where the laws were read annually

This is where the parliament of the Vikings met annually and the name means Assemble Plains (I’m approximating the spelling since some letters of many of these words aren’t in my alphabet). In AD 930 the 35 chieftains gathered in this dramatic place for the Althing, the General Assembly. The entire population of 60,000 people gathered to hear the law and settle disputes. The last assembly was held in 1798.

The drive back is not quiet, as our guide talks nonstop. So glad to be back in the room, let my clothing dry and my feet warm. We have no idea what we will do tomorrow. It is an early night.

Monday, December 2, 2013

As I’ve said, I’ve been battling a cold. After yesterday’s short night and horrible weather Barbara and I went back to the room and took hot baths. I was asleep by 7p and she says she watched TV until 10. We woke at 11a!  But that’s just a bit after dawn here. But it helped me recover. Some.

The Laundromat Café
The Laundromat Café

We had a quick lunch at the Laundromat Cafe then hopped a bus to the Blue Lagoon. Sounds tropical, doesn’t it? Well the water temperature was. It’s thermally heated, mineral rich water, bright white-blue like the glaciers. The geothermal spa is set in a volcanic wilderness, a little like finding an oasis on the moon. The pool was formed by superheated saltwater released by the nearby geothermal power station. We took a long soak, had a lava mud scrub then an algae facial. It was the perfect thing for my cold. This has been the nicest day weather wise so far, blue sky! But the weather is so changeable here. While we were soaking it started to sleet, then snow which seems surreal for bathing outdoors.

Notice all the rocky volcanic terrain. It would be dangerous to walk along the edge. The steam on the right is from the nearby power plant.
Notice all the rocky volcanic terrain. It would be dangerous to walk along the edge. The steam on the right is from the nearby power plant.
It's hard to see through the steam, but there are people bathing in that pool, The outside temp is about freezing, but the water is around 100F.
It’s hard to see through the steam, but there are people bathing in that pool, The outside temp is about freezing, but the water is around 100F.

There was an inch accumulation of snow and sleet by the time the bus took us back to our hotel. It is supposed to snow the next two days with falling temperatures. The high tomorrow will be about 34F.

For dinner, at Cafe Paris, I had minke whale. It is red meat, grilled, served rare and was very tender and lean. It was served with a wonderful mushroom sauce, roasted root vegetables and baked potato. I am assured there are plenty of this type of whale and that they are not endangered. I thought it tasted like deer or some wild game meat.

Minke whale. Served rare.
Minke whale. Served rare. Though I know whale is a mammal, I somehow expected fish. This was definitely red meat.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Land of Fire & Ice: Iceland, Part 1

Iceland, 2013, Blue Lagoon & Leaving Iceland, 27

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Thursday, November 26, 2013 Thanksgiving Day

In place of my Thanksgiving turkey dinner, I’m going to Iceland! But 1st I have to get there. It is unseasonably cold in Atlanta, colder than Reykjavik. When I left my house at 6am it was 25 degrees F. I was bundled up and with no wind I actually got too warm on the one mile walk to MARTA. The train was on time, only about half full at 6:45a. No issues getting to Hartsville Jackson, but it really is the world’s busiest airport, especially during the holidays. It is literally a sea of people and the security lines are very long.

Apparently clean living pays off, at least occasionally. Without realizing it, I was put on a TSA pre-check list, which means I bypassed the longest lines and had a mini screening. Even got to keep my shoes on. I’m both happy and concerned. Somewhere my security file says “Mostly Harmless.” Happy and disappointed at the same time.

At the plane I was one of the last to board this Delta flight. No room for my carry on, so forced to check my bag. But it was at baggage claim as promised and there was no charge. I land at Newark airport and “technically” my tour with Gate 1 begins here. I had 6 hours to kill before the flight, but I’d left lots of time in case of delays. If I’d flown the day before 6 hours wouldn’t have been enough with all the bad weather delays.

Barbara, my traveling companion, is much better looking than this, but it's the best photo I have of her.
Barbara, my traveling companion, is much better looking than this, but it’s the best photo I have of her.

Icelandic Air is a small business and it took requests of three different airport employees before I found someone who recognized the airline and could send me in the direction of their check in counter. They, it’s a big airport! It was shortly after noon and they finally opened around 4p. My bag was over 11 kilos, which is one kilo over the airline’s limit and I was forced to check it. (obviously I should have checked this detail!) If I’d known that I’d be forced to check my bag on both flights going to my destination, I would have carried an additional bag or at least used the 2″ expansion zipper on my current bag. With the cold weather and bulky clothing, I had a very difficult time packing. I met 2 ladies from Arizona who are also on our tour. Since they are staying at a different hotel and are not signed up for any of the day tours, not sure I’ll see them (I didn’t). Most of my friends and family always think I travel so much, but these women have really seen the world and I am in awe of their stories. Makes me feel like a novice.

Clothing and food is expensive here. The exchange rate was roughly 120 kroners to 1 US dollar.
Clothing and food is expensive here. The exchange rate was roughly 120 kroners to 1 US dollar.

 

Barbara found me at the gate. So good to see her again. We have only met once, during a trip to China, and I was very pleased when she contacted me about this trip. There was a significant savings to share a room. She and I spent a day touring Shanghai and though I know it will mean compromises, I think she will be a good travel companion.

The flight was packed. I slept. Barbara read. It is only 4.5 hours to Reykjavik and a five hour time difference. We leave at 8p and arrive at 5:30am, Friday morning. Passport control is one simple question and a flip through my passport to find an open page to stamp (which is getting more difficult all the time). Baggage claim is simple and I never see a customs officer. The ATM is empty so we will have to find one once we get into town. We find our bus easily. It’s decent weather with clear skies and temperatures about 40F. It is almost an hour drive into the city, which is asleep and dark.

The Radisson Blu, Hotel 1919, Great location in the Harbor area.
The Radisson Blu, Hotel 1919, Great location in the Harbor area.

Our hotel, Radissen Blu 1919 does not have a room for us at this early hour of 7: 15a but they will hold our bags. We grab hats and scarves and go walking. It is “tourist central” near the harbor docks with lots of shops and restaurants. There are small cruise ships in port. It isn’t really cold, above freezing, and no sign of snow. This is a good way to orient yourself, before the traffic gets thick. Unfortunately, I am beginning to feel the effects of a cold and must face the fact that I could be sick the entire vacation.

After our walk, we have a big breakfast in the hotel, first rate too. Everyone speaks excellent English as well as Danish and Icelandic. We visit the Hallgrimskirkja Church, the tallest church in Iceland at 240 feet high. We take the elevator 8 stories then walk up two more to the highest view for photos. The inside of this Lutheran church is austere. My photos are at daybreak, but that’s roughly 10:30am this time of the year. According to the literature, the Tower is meant to resemble a volcanic formation, I think it beautiful, but don’t really see the resemblance to a volcano. It is lovely standing against the pink sky. I like the simple clean lines and we are told the pipe organ and choir is well known. I have a hard time with the idea of a state run church however.

Lutheran church, Reykjavik
Lutheran church, Reykjavik
The view from the top of the Lutheran church, dawn in Reykjavik,
The view from the top of the Lutheran church, dawn in Reykjavik,
The Radisson lobby. They are very "artsy" in Iceland and mostly I don't get it.
The Radisson lobby. They are very “artsy” in Iceland and mostly I don’t get it.

We take a short nap on the couch in the hotel lobby while we waited for to get in our room. By noon we pull our bags to the second floor. Barbara has had no sleep and she collapsed while I took a shower. But I feel a cold coming on and join her with a quick nap.

We go to the Settlement Museum, located on the edge of the square. It’s built around the remains of a longhouse from around 900AD, discovered in 2001. It’s believed to be one of the earliest buildings in Iceland, the original home of Reykjavik. The home was a large sod and turf house, so they must have been dark, dirty and damp most of the time. It seems everyone lived together and there are few interior walls for privacy. Not the best museum display I’ve ever seen, but it was interesting. It does give an interesting look at the people who lived here. While we think of them as Vikings, this group were just farmers. There was no one living here so they did not move here for trade or as a raiding party. There were few large, native mammals and the trees were short and scrubby, but there was grass for sheep.

The area was decorated for Christmas. Among the few cheap things in Iceland: heating and electricity. Both are geothermal.
The area was decorated for Christmas. Among the few cheap things in Iceland: heating and electricity. Both are geothermal.

We had a pizza on the square for a late lunch that was not very good, but everyone was nice and the place clean.

We do a bit of walking and window shopping. But we couldn’t stay awake and went back to the room. We skipped dinner and slept.

 Saturday

I woke several times overnight. This is a bar district and it’s a weekend. I could hear drunken people yelling on the street which woke me every hour or so. We were told by the hotel that it was graduation parties. But later are told that most bars don’t get going until 1am and this is simply a “hopping” place on weekends. People drink at home before they go out since alcohol (and everything else) is so expensive. There is lots of live music at the bars and restaurants here, but it mostly started around 10p during the week and 11p on weekends.

It was a great breakfast, but for $27 is should be. Food is expensive here.
It was a great breakfast, but for $27 is should be. Food is expensive here.

Despite the noise, I feel fairly refreshed in the morning. I dressed and woke Barbara before I left for breakfast at 6:45. I am the first guest in the dining room and the waiters try too hard to help me at the buffet. Such a big spread for breakfast, much better than I’ve come to expect at a hotel breakfast. I always try to have yogurt when offered. I’ve read that it’s the best way to get the local

Table with cod liver oil. Call me chicken, but I took the pills.
Table with cod liver oil. Call me chicken, but I took the pills.

gut flora and stave off any intestinal difficulties. In the center of the dining room is a table of cod liver oil with tiny shot glasses. The waiter assures me it will keep me “strong and healthy..oh but the taste…” he rolls his eyes and pushes the bottle of pills toward me. “This will be better.”  I’m sure he is right. I still feel a cold coming on and take the pills and drink juice.

We stayed in the Harbor area and saw fishing boats, small cruise ships and even a whaler.  They only hunt for the Minke whale, which they say is abundant.
We stayed in the Harbor area and saw fishing boats, small cruise ships and even a whaler. They only hunt for the Minke whale, which they say is abundant.

I go for a short walk to check the weather which Barbara eats. It will rain more today. The streets are already wet but it is unseasonably warm with high temps of about 41F. I find an ATM and am suddenly flush with local cash, the Icelandic Kronor. Foreign money always feels like Monopoly money, not quite real. Our tour pick up is 8:30a.

 

City tour of Reykjavik.

Selina is our tour guide. The tour office is a block from our hotel, though they picked us up in a large bus. Random sites and facts learned during the tour:

I took this photo because it was the worst looking building I saw the entire stay in Iceland. The standard of living seems high, buildings and roads are in good repair, and everything was very clean with little trash or graffiti,
I took this photo because it was the worst looking building I saw the entire stay in Iceland. The standard of living seems high, buildings and roads are in good repair, and everything was very clean with little trash or graffiti,

Reykjavik is the Capital of Iceland, a city of 120,000 (200,000 in greater area). It is the Northernmost capital city in the world. They are quite proud of their Viking heritage. Oldest building is located in the in the central market and harbor area (where our hotel is) and was once a prison. Now it is the presidents’s office. Which seems about right to our guide. Selena was not happy with economic situation of her country. They practically had an economic collapse, almost bankrupt in 2008.

In 874AD the first settler came, he was a farmer who lived in a turf home and had many slaves. Others followed. There is a statue to this man in the city square.

Harpa concert hall. It's supposed to be a conference center, but the hotel is still a hole in the ground. It's lit up colorfully at night, though.
Harpa concert hall. It’s supposed to be a conference center, but the hotel is still a hole in the ground. It’s lit up colorfully at night, though.

 

 

 

 

 

Lots of theatre and concerts here, considered a city focused on the arts. There are statues everywhere and a few statue parks devoted to a single artist. The Harpa Concert hall opened in May. It is too expensive and Selena says she doesn’t think they can afford it. It was supposed to have been a conference center too, but the hotel is still just a large hole on the ground. It is an unusual building with oddly shapped windows which are lit at night.

We pass the weekend flea market (which we enter later). The Old harbor is large enough for smaller cruise ships and fishing boats. You can go whale watching any time of year. It is best in summer, but minke and humpback whales can always be seen in the waters near here. One of the boats is pointed out as a whale fishing boats. You can have whale meat in Reykjavik. Minke whale is served in a few cafés and this is the only type of whale that is fished since they are not endangered.

Inside the Lutheran, state run church.
Inside the Lutheran, state run church.

Religion:  2% Catholic (mostly Polish workers). The Church of state is Lutheran and about 85% of the country considers themselves Lutheran.

The Mayor of Reykjavik is a professional comedian, a member of the Best Party. Apparently he ran as a joke because of the economy and was elected! He has announced he will not run for reelection. In the 1980’s Iceland was the first country to elect a female leader and she served for 16 years.

National Gallery is located across from the city lake. This lake freezes only about twice a year (which it did later in the week) Our guide tells us that a small section of the water is kept open using hot water (pumped from below) for the geese. National museum. Old burial grounds. 1911, Iceland University was founded. In 1940 Iceland was occupied by British, who built a small airport. Larger one built by US a year later.

This statue of Leif Erikson was a gift in 1930 from the United States on the 1000th anniversary of the "discovery" of North America. Since he didn't come from Iceland and people were already living there, I don't understand the statue.
This statue of Leif Erikson was a gift in 1930 from the United States on the 1000th anniversary of the “discovery” of North America. Since he didn’t come from Iceland and people were already living there, I don’t understand the statue.

We stop at the Lutheran church again (where we were yesterday). There is a Leif Erikson statue outside, a gift of US in 1930 to celebrate the 1000 year anniversary of finding America (Vinland). The pews have backs that switch so that you can face either direction. The art exhibit is called the Flora of weeds. It is just pots on a table under bright grow lights. The pots contain random samples of earth with grass, dandelions and weeds. This is not by type of art. The church Tower is 73 meters high and until recently was highest building in Iceland.

Reykjavik means smoking bay and was called this from the earliest days because of the steam vents. There is a year round enclosed swimming pool nearby with hot tubs on roof. It’s all thermally heated water.

We stop at a small white building on the harbor. It seems nothing special but this is where Gorbachev and Regan met near the end of the Cold War. We take a short photo stop here. One advantage for a tour guide this time of year is that if you say “five minute stop” it’s is only that. We are right on the water with nothing to break the wind and pelting rain. Glad I did not bother to style my hair. The wind does it for me.

This is the building where Regan and Gorbachev met near the end of the Cold war.
This is the building where Regan and Gorbachev met near the end of the Cold war.
It's a very colorful city.
It’s a very colorful city.

Liquor stores (the guide called them Booze stores) located outside the city are often open only 2 hours on Fridays for locals. Two thirds of the people live in the Reykjavik metro area. The rest of the people live in towns of less than 3,000.

Our guide says that this was a very difficult growing season. The parks and gardens were not as nice because didn’t really have a summer this past year. She blames it on climate change. We pass a large soccer field, but that’s not the sporting attraction. Handball is the big sport here. Several outdoor statues parks, plus statues in all the major squares and even along the shoreline. I’ve never seen so many statues.

 

The steam is coming from a pipe building, a hook up point for hot water, which is the major way to heat buildings.
The steam is coming from a pipe building, a hook up point for hot water, which is the major way to heat buildings.

We see small buildings with a steaming pipe along the streets. These are literally called Pipe buildings and they are used for heating houses. Plumbers connect homes via these buildings. There are two main geothermal systems: steam used to turn generators to produce electricity and hot water for heating homes and drinking/bathing water, mostly using a heat exchanger. It is expensive to live in this country, but electricity and heating is relatively inexpensive. There is no way to export this type of energy, but companies are building ore smelting sites here to take advantage of the low electric prices. There are 3 plants where bauxite ore is refined into aluminum and this provides much needed jobs. Along with refining, tourism, fishing (and specifically whaling), these industries are the biggest employers. Whaling was quite a controversial addition. It was approved by a president literally in the last hours of his term as he was leaving office. According to our guide they harvest the minke whale, which are abundant. There was an outcry at the time saying that tourists would no longer come here, but the guide says that it is the tourists that are eating the whale. Later, I give it a try.

This was taken at about 3p. In early December there's only about 5.5 hrs of daylight. Notice the volcanic rocks. Part of the scenery looks like a moonscape.
This was taken at about 3p. In early December there’s only about 5.5 hrs of daylight. Notice the volcanic rocks. Part of the scenery looks like a moonscape.

As we drive out of town I notice the open fields on either side of the road. The earth is dark, rocky but not in a way I’m familiar with. This is volcanic rock and it looks difficult to farm. I see very few trees and the area seems windswept. The weather has been bad all day with gale force wind and pelting rain.

Old church in front graveyard. Some areas can't have burials since the ground is hot at 5 feet under. Oresidential home behind.
Old church in front graveyard. Some areas can’t have burials since the ground is hot at 5 feet under. Oresidential home behind.

We pass the presidential farm. There are no walls or fences. No guards. Every day the president walks his sheepdog at the same time, completely unguarded. Protesters are rare, but during bad weather last year, the president’s wife invited the protesters in for hot chocolate.

This is the Land of fairies and hidden folk. Parents used to say that elves and fairies were dressed colorfully in reds and blues, but now the ones dressed colorfully are tourists. The “hidden folk” live among the volcanic rocks, often inside the rock in another dimension. Outside of city they are less likely to move boulders during a construction project. Estimated that over 80% of population still believes in elves, fairies, trolls and other hidden folk.

Entrance to the Black Pearl is between two huge water storage tanks.
Entrance to the Black Pearl is between two huge water storage tanks.

Shortly after sunrise, we go to our last stop: The Black Perl, or Petlan. It is a 4 story observation tower on high spot overlooking the city. It has art exhibit, a revolving restaurant on top and a Viking museum in the basement. The tower is surrounded by huge water tanks. This is our final stop before going back to the city center.

 

The view from atop the Black Pearl
The view from atop the Black Pearl
Inside is a fountain, styled like a geyser.
Inside is a fountain, styled like a geyser.
A man preparing our taste of "shark cheese". We also saw horse meat for sale.
A man preparing our taste of “shark cheese”. We also saw horse meat for sale.

Back in the city center we are released from our tour around noon. We check out the weekend flea market. Barbara buys a hat and I get earrings for my mother with real black volcanic rock and red coral. We try fermented shark which surprisingly tastes like pork fat. It has hung in the open air for 6-9 months and I find it interesting that wild animals leave it alone for so long. It’s cut into small cubes. They call is “shark cheese” which is better than the name I’ve heard: fermented or rotten shark. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, but I can cross this doubtful delicacy off my list for the rest of my life. We also walk to the Harpa building.

Harpa
Harpa

I am battling a cold and stopped at a grocery for vitamin C. Groceries are unable to sell aspirin or pain relievers of any kind. It appears they can’t sell any of our common over the counter drugs except at a “dispensing chemist’s” shop!

I fell asleep for a lengthy nap, partially to stave off this cold and partially to prepare for our Northern Lights Mystery tour. The mystery is where and whether we will find the northern lights. It starts at 8p and because we have a long drive out of the city we won’t be back until 1 or 2a. We drive east along the southern coast searching for a break in the cloud cover. We are in Bus 4 with guide Linda and driver Lulah.

There is no rain and outside the city we can see stars, even the Milky Way. There are 10 buses which is way too many. Most of these are visitors whose tours canceled last night and the night before. In the end it is a wasted effort. Our guide keeps saying that she sees the lights but they need to develop. I see nothing and wish we’d have quite two hours earlier. We make several fruitless stops. Most of what’s pointed out just looks like clouds to me. It’s cold and windy. All the lights are turned out and you can’t see your feet to walk safely. Often we just pulled over onto the side of the road. The ground is uneven and there are cars. The chance of injury is high and I’m surprised no one falls. The liability insurance would have been too high to do this in the US. We didn’t even sign a waiver!

Over looking the harbor during a busy shopping day.
Over looking the harbor during a busy shopping day.

Sites/facts on the tour:

We see the Imagined Peace Tower, a beam of light, put in place 8 years ago by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lenin.

The guide says there are four conditions to see the northern lights:

  • Darkness
  • No clouds
  • Solar activity
  • Luck

The northern lights are actually collisions between charged particles from the sun as they collide with the earth’s atmosphere. This usually happens at 90 to 130 km above the earth on average, but it can be much higher. Most common colors are green, but red, yellow, blue and purple also occur, depending on height, and chemical composition of the atmosphere.

This is what Greela and her husband look like. They are the parents of the 13 Yule Lads, the Icelandic version of Santas,
This is what Greela and her husband look like. They are the parents of the 13 Yule Lads, the Icelandic version of Santas,

Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses that live among the elves with their mother and father. The mother is Greela and she has a huge nose to sniff out naughty children. When she finds them she puts them in a big sack and then cooks them and eats them! The 13 are usually called the Yule Lads and they come to your home one a night and leave goodies in the children’s shoes, which are left on the windowsill. Bad children get a rotten potato.

People in families do not have the same last name here. Your last name is the first name of your father with the word “son” or “daughter” after. This is a holdover from the time of the Vikings. Everyone goes by first names, even teachers and the president. There is no Miss or Mister. Iceland has been so isolated that everyone is related, at least 7th cousins. There is a detailed family history online now to help people. This past April a new phone app was released and two people who are interested in dating now just activate the app and touch phones to find how closely they are related.

There is "art" everywhere.
There is “art” everywhere.

Bobby Fisher, the chess champion, is buried outside of Reykjavik. He was not allowed to return to the US and Iceland was one I the few places to agree to take him in. He had been here for the chess match with USSR.

We finally make a stop at about 11pm at a gas station for a bathroom. They had one bathroom for 5 busses so the line was well out the door. I paid for a hot chocolate from the machine but it didn’t work and I couldn’t get anywhere near the register to get my money back. There were so many people in the gas station that I just gave up and stood outside. It would not feel so cold if you could stay out of the wind. This is turning into a terrible tour.

I enjoy shops with interesting names, like this one.
I enjoy shops with interesting names, like this one.

The small town we are in passing has several greenhouses, lit up even this late. They are located on a steam vent that heats all the greenhouses and homes in this community.

The population has many magical beliefs. Trolls are popular, and it’s believed that if the sunlight hits them they turn to stone. Many people believe they can see the form of a troll in the large volcanic rocks. Elves live in another dimension and only those born with “the gift” can see them. Elves are believed to be the children of Adam and Eve. When God came to see the children, they were dirty and Adam and Eve were ashamed and hide them. This made God angry, so she made them elves. The hidden folk are said to be protective of their homes, which are large rocks and boulders. Recently in a Reykjavik suburb a large boulder was left in place and the road moved around it because it was believed to be the home of elves.

Reykjavik
Reykjavik

Lowest crime rate of any country. No handguns can be purchased here, only hunting rifles. Police don’t carry guns. We pass the one and only maximum security prison, which (we are told) is similar to a 4 star hotel. It is certainly lite up at night. Each prisoner has a private room, cooking privileges, flat screen TV, they wear their own clothes. They can work for pay or go to school at no charge. There is a 2 year waiting list to get in! Murder is rare, but it does happen once every 6-10 years. The usual violent crime involves alcohol and a knife. Three wks. ago all the prisoners had their computer privileges removed because inmates went on Facebook and made threats.

Though our guide keeps saying that we are waiting for the lights to “intensify,” I don’t think I’ve seen a single spark. So far it’s just and overly crowded bus ride that’s running quite late. It is 1am and we have a short brandy as a nightcap and head to bed about 1:30a. In the end we saw no northern lights. It is an early morning tomorrow.

Continue with Part 2 here.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Land of Fire & Ice: Iceland, Part 3

This is part three, but you can check out Part 1 or Part 2.

Sunrise over Reykjavik, which is roughly 10:30a.
Sunrise over Reykjavik, which is roughly 10:30a.

Tuesday December 3, 2013

Breakfast is the most important meal!
Breakfast is the most important meal!

We slept until 8a and breakfasted at the hotel–in this tourist area few restaurants open until lunchtime anyway. Barbara struggles with her Kindle reader until dawn (10:30a) while I overheat in silk long underwear waiting for her to get ready to leave. I’m just going to have to learn better communication when traveling with someone else. Travel with a partner is about negotiation, which is fair.

Not my favorite art. Let's just say "different."
Not my favorite art. Let’s just say “different.”

We walk to Listasafn Islands, National art Museum. This is not my favorite art museum ever. Never seen so many stitched & painted representations of vaginas in my life. Some with teeth. Others have flames coming from them. The artist clearly has issues! It costs 1000 kronor to get in (a bit less than $10US). Downstairs is a video installation of picnics in Paris. The shaky camera work makes my head ache. Paintings upstairs by Edvard Munch, the only artist I’ve ever heard of. This may be his worst work. Happy to move on, but Barbara seemed to enjoy it more. Perhaps she is more artistic than I am?

We got over an inch of snow, but no one was clearing the roads or sidewalks. I take it that's just not enough to bother with.
We got over an inch of snow, but no one was clearing the roads or sidewalks. I take it that’s just not enough to bother with.

The snow and wind have picked up. It’s not so much snow as tiny ice pellets and they hurt when they strike your face or eyes. We have to cross the city pond and of course that is when the wind is the worst. We are headed to Thjodminjadafn Islands, the National Museum. Amazing history museum. The best visual explanation of Icelandic history, with several computer screens to add additional information. All in Icelandic and English. This is one of my favorite museums of all time.

One of my favorite museums of all time.
One of my favorite museums of all time.
They keep a small portion of the city pond open for the ducks. Guess when heating is cheap you can do that sort of thing.
They keep a small portion of the city pond open for the ducks. Guess when heating is cheap you can do that sort of thing.

But the weather keeps getting worse. The wind is high and the temperature has dropped. Outside the window we watch a young student take a tumble on the slick sidewalk, knocked over by wind. Ten steps outside convince us that while the walk to the hotel is less than a mile, we should not risk it. They call a taxi for us at the museum desk. It is 1100 kronor. (Exchange rate. 120 kronor to 1US$). When we get back to the hotel we realize the temperature has dropped to 28F.

Snowy day....
Snowy day….

This is the first day it has been cold enough that all the windows in the buildings we pass are closed. Fresh air is very important and heating is cheap. Windows usually have a small pane at top that opens for ventilation. Also walls of most buildings are quite thick concrete, many covered over with corrugated steel on the roof and exterior walls–the better to deal with the harsh weather. The museum showed photos and layouts of the original turf houses, which seem quite snug.

Iceland, 2013, free day in Reykjavik 3

We have a pizza dinner, the most expensive of my life. $34. Each. For pizza, salad, one glass of wine each and we split a dessert.

Other random thoughts:

  • I didn't really get all the art.
    I didn’t really get all the art.

    The bathroom in the hotel is very European, including a deep tub, but not sunken. To step into the tub takes a dancer’s ability to lift your leg since it is almost a yard tall. Getting out of the bath and into the shiny tile floor with wet feet without falling always feel like an Olympic trial.

  • Iceland became “Christian” overnight in 1000AD, during the annual General Assembly, the Althing. The Norse king threatened to invade if they did not convert. The agreement was that they could continue to worship the pagan gods (Odin, Thor, Fraya…) as long as they didn’t make a big deal of it and pretended they were celebrating Christian rites when a priest walked in. For the next century, many pagan celebrations, art and practices had Christian names to use when needed.
  • Geyser area
    Geyser area

    The harshest penalty in Viking days was not execution, it was being banished.

  • It is believed that the waters of the Blue Lagoon will cure psoriasis.
  • The Geysir hot springs area gets its name from a particular spring, Geysir or The Gusher. It’s given its name to all active hot springs around the world. But it hasn’t erupted since the mid-20ith Century.
  • In 1550, Iceland became Lutheran in less than a decade. The Catholic Church’s property immediately went to the Danish crown.
  • Twice in the 15th century the plague, the Black Death, wiped out about half the population. In 1783 poisonous gases from a volcanic eruption killed a third. It’s a wonder anyone was left alive.
  • The only native mammal is the Arctic Fox.
  • DNA test show that over 80%of the original male population came from Norway. But 70% of the original female population came from the British Isles. These women were likely slaves and may have been captured during Viking raids.

Wednesday, December 4, 2014

The is the Reykjavik High School. Many high schools outside of the city double as hotels in the summer.
The is the Reykjavik High School. Many high schools outside of the city double as hotels in the summer.

I have a tough night because my sinuses are full. I keep waking up as they drain and I’m sure my snoring keeps Barbara awake. She lies and says I didn’t make a sound all night. Isn’t she lovely? I sleep until 8:30a Barbara sleeps until 9. With lack of daylight it’s easy to just keep sleeping! Breakfast at Laundromat Cafe. I had the “clean breakfast” of scrambled eggs, fruit, cheese, and skyr (a very thick yogurt that makes Greek yogurt seem thin). They served it with a bread basket with Chocolate butter—which tastes amazing, but I really don’t need another way to consume chocolate!

Downtown, Harbor shopping area. Clearly they have lost some artists.
Downtown, Harbor shopping area. Clearly they have lost some artists.

The temperature today is a high of 18F but continues to fall all day. With sunshine and no wind it doesn’t feel so cold. Barbara wants a down pillow. I’m not much of a shopper, but am game to help her find one. We hike up the top of the hill, about 8 blocks. Earlier in the trip we both commented how clean the area is and we saw street sweepers every morning. But we’ve had a couple inches of snow and it’s not been cleared from the streets. So they clear garbage but not snow? The sidewalks quickly become slush, then ice. No one seems to use salt or sand, nor do they shovel. Maybe 2 inches does not seem worth the trouble? You have to watch every step you take as it is slick. Shop keepers don’t clear sidewalks in front of their stores either. And about half have their doors standing wide open.

Glad to find this pharmacy.
Glad to find this pharmacy.

I’m finally able to stop at a pharmacy, a “dispensing chemist’s” shop. I’m concerned about flying tomorrow if I’m congested. But they cannot sell me a decongestant without a doctor’s prescription! They have no aspirin as it’s not used here. I buy a local version of Tylenol and a nasal spray that’s mostly saline and menthol–both of which are kept behind the counter and require a discussion with the chemist.

Reykjavik Harbor.
Reykjavik Harbor.

Prices are very high here, particularly for food and clothing. We saw children’s shoes that were more than $100US. And they were nothing special. Our breakfast this morning was $25 each. (This might be the way to get me to eat less!) The vegetables are quite fresh, if limited, grown locally in greenhouses. We see Bibb lettuce, tomatoes, red peppers and cucumbers. Almost nothing else though. They import fruit, since it’s less practical to grow these in greenhouses.

Iceland, 2013, iPhone photos, 27We have no plan today and just walk about. The bookstores are wonderful, but so expensive. We later notice that the exchange rate on our credit cards is horrible, much worse than when we pay with kronor. I have no idea what wages are here, but they must be high. All the houses and apartments we’ve seen are in good shape, no slum area. We’ve seen no one who appears homeless–suspect they would simply not survive outside.

We skip lunch, but for dinner go to Iceland’s most famous restaurant for pylsur–hot dogs. They really are quite good and we are told they are made with lamb. They are served with a mayo/mustard spread and deep fried onions. Tasty! And only 400kronar, about $3.60. But the temperature has fallen to 16F. We go to an upstairs coffee shop to people watch.

These High School students were dressed in their teams and doing a scavenger hunt. They were hilarious.
These High School students were dressed in their teams and doing a scavenger hunt. They were hilarious.

It is our last night in Iceland. Still no Northern Lights. We have decided to go back tomorrow after breakfast to the Blue Lagoon for a soak before our flight. It is very close to the airport and we can check our luggage at the spa. The trip to the spa and transfer to the airport from there costs about the same as a simple airport transfer from our hotel. That should help clear my head before the flight.

The entrance to The Blue Lagoon is all volcanic rock.
The entrance to The Blue Lagoon is all volcanic rock.

Iceland, 2013, Blue Lagoon & Leaving Iceland, 20

Realized today that the only large fast-food chain restaurants I’ve seen are Subway and KFC. Not one McDonalds. THAT I could live with.

Bye Iceland, even with a cold, it was great.

Did you miss Part 1 or Part 2?

November Shakedown: Springer to Neels Gap, Part 3

 

This is the third and final part of the three part tale of my shakedown hike on the AT. I start this section at Woody Gap (AT mile marker 21) on day four.

Wet leaves make for a slippery walk.
Wet leaves make for a slippery walk.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of rain. By morning everything is wet. The fog is so thick I can’t see across the road. At 6:30a I pull my backpack into the tent with me. The vestibule has kept the backpack and my shoes dry, despite high wind. There’s enough room in the two person tent that I can pack up inside, keeping key items completely out of the elements. The additional weight of the two person tent seems well worth it at this moment! While the clothing I hike in will certainly get wet if this rain continues, I can keep my camp clothes dry to sleep in overnight. And it’s essential that my down sleeping bag (Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite Rated to 26F for Women) and the air mattress it lays on (Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66) stay dry if I want to sleep warm tonight. Down is worse than useless if it’s wet. I keep these critical things that must stay dry in a trash compacter bag at the bottom of my backpack. I’m not carrying a backpack rain cover since I’ve had little luck with them. The backpack (GoLite, Jam 70L) sheds some water and all items are in Sil-Nylon stuff sacks, but it’s the trash compactor bag I count on.

A hostel isn't much really. This is the one at Mountain Crossing. But it's dry and clean. And both a shower and laundry facilities are available.
A hostel isn’t much really. This is the one at Mountain Crossing. But it’s dry and clean. And both a shower and laundry facilities are available.

In a perfect world, I’d like to make it to the hostel at Neels Gap tonight, Mountain Crossings. My AWOL Trail Guide says it’s 10 miles. The signs say 11. (But I trust AWOL!) The distance is bad enough, but the first 8 miles is almost entirely uphill, to the peak of Blood Mountain, the highest spot on the AT in Georgia. And I’m a flatlander. There is an historic stone shelter, built by the CCC, on top, but it has no water. To make matters worse, the Blood Mountain shelter is, IMHO, the coldest spot in Georgia, being very exposed. (Aside: I stayed there one clear Fourth of July night and nearly froze. Atop the huge boulder beside the shelter you can watch three fireworks displays from nearby towns, but by the time it’s over, it’s too dark to hike down the mountain. I had a summer weight sleeping bag and the temperatures had been near 90F at the base of the mountain that afternoon. Who knew?) I don’t want to stay there, so I either need to camp short of the summit, or I go all the way into the hostel. Since I’m trying to pace myself, I decided my goal will be the Woods Hole shelter (AT mile marker 28.1). That puts me at a leisurely (<cough>) 7.1 trail miles for the day, even if it is all up hill.

This was a safe and completely do-able plan. And I really, really should have followed it.

But first, I need to say goodbye to Fresh Ground and my new friends at the Leapfrog Café. There’s fresh coffee and new stories. There’s bacon and eggs and fried potatoes. I hate to pull myself away from these lovely people. This was my latest morning start yet, but the slowest hiker on the trail needs to get moving. The rain was slackening by the time I left, but it was afternoon before the first rays of sunlight came out.

It had rained part of two days, but it was still beautiful on the trail.
It had rained part of two days, but it was still beautiful on the trail.

Despite the hills, I make fair time. This is the section of the AT that I know best, having hiked it a dozen or more times. This summer, most of my overnight camps started from Woody Gap. But the woods are always changing with the seasons and the weather conditions. The rain brought out so many snails. I stepped over a dozen of them today, though I’d not seen a one earlier in the week. Other detritus feeders included huge, red millipedes and a couple slugs. I also saw a very tiny salamander. His waistline must have been an eight of an inch around. It was cold enough that he was easy to catch. He seemed to like my warm hands.

And there’s a surprising number of people to meet. I stood on the trail for 15 minutes talking to a southbound hiker, Pivot Dude, who would finish his thru hike the next day. There were three different groups of retirees out to enjoy the day and each talked for a few minutes with me.

I kept my rain jacket out the entire day, but not really to protect me from rain. I used it to stop the brutal wind. You are constantly moving from windward to leeward side of the mountain, from exposed to sheltered area. I quickly began wearing the jacket backward when needed, so I didn’t have to stop and take my pack on and off. Not a fashion statement, but effective.

These are a little difficult to make out, but most shelters in the south have cables like this. You hang your food, or even your entire pack, to keep it away from bears or other animals.
These are a little difficult to make out, but most shelters in the south have cables like this. You hang your food, or even your entire pack, to keep it away from bears or other animals.

By 3:00p I’d easily hiked my 7 miles and made it to Woods Hole shelter. Or should I say the path to the shelter, because it’s a half a mile off the trail. I’m not alone. There are three men already setting up space in the shelter. But they are a friendly group and offer to fill my collapsible water bucket for me while I set up my tent. Chivalry is not dead! Just as I get the tent set up, they come back saying that the water source is dry. I’ve had my main meal of the day so I don’t need a lot of water, but I’ve only got about 16 ounces. I consult my trail guide and see that the next water source is a half mile farther on. I decided if I have to walk a half mile out of the shelter and another half mile farther north, I don’t want to turn around and hike back here. I’m going to take down the tent and keep moving.

So that’s what I do. Except the second water source is also dry. At this point I’ve hiked a total of 8.5 miles with my pack. I’m roughly at mile marker 28.5 and my trail guide doesn’t indicate any more water between me and my final destination. This is one of those good news/bad news situations. The good news is that the hostel is just 2.5 miles away. It would be a long mileage day, but I could stay at the hostel in a bed tonight and even get a shower. The bad news is that it’s now about 4pm, I have only an hour and a half of daylight left and Blood Mountain stands between me and the hostel. I can hike 2.5 miles, but I just don’t know if I can hike uphill anymore today.

So here are my options: A. Camp near where I am now or B. start hiking and probably make it to the hostel after dark, using my headlamp.

I should have chosen A. I stupidly choose option C. There’s a side path called the Lemrock Trail, what we call a blue blaze trail. I consult my trail guide which says simply it “by-passes Blood Mountain” rejoining the AT past the shelter on the other side. Whoo Hoo! A shortcut! I don’t have to hike over the mountain!

Except it isn’t a shortcut at all. it turns out to be a FOUR mile, rock strewn, poorly marked, narrow path on the side of a mountain! But I don’t know that. YET. I start boulder hopping and it never stops. I’m trying to move carefully among the loose rocks and wet, slick leaves. I also need to move quickly because nightfall is approaching and I don’t know how far I have to go. (I only find out it’s four miles after I get home and look it up.) There is no flat ground on either side of the trail. It’s straight up to my left and straight down to my right. The path is hard to follow when it goes through boulders or where the leaves are thick. Those blue blazes are few and far between, too. I breathe a sigh of relief each time I see one. I’m grateful that a recent hiker had been eating pistachios. Whoever heard of following a trail of pistachio shells? I keep moving. This trail has to join up with the AT soon, right? Right!?!

Wrong.

I’m tired and my feet were tender before all these rocks. Now, every step hurts. I slip and scrap my leg. My hiking poles save me several times, but there’s one fall–entirely in slow motion–where I go completely down to the ground. Finally, I almost face-plant into a boulder. I’m relieved my arms are strong enough to brace me in a fall, even when wearing a backpack. But my thumb is numb for the rest of the evening.

This was so stupid. Nothing in my guidebook said this was a shortcut. I assumed it would be both short and easy. Idiot. Now I’m off trail and if I hurt myself and can’t walk out, no one will know where to look for me and this trail isn’t heavily traveled. I can’t fall again. And frankly I don’t have time to keep falling…..er….walking. I look at the sky and estimate I have 15 minutes of daylight. It’s time to make a new plan. Quickly.

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, set up on flat land.
Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, set up on flat land.

I can’t set up a tent on the side of the mountain because the angle is too steep. I can’t set up among these huge rocks either. I can’t hike in the dark through boulders and loose rock on a trail I can’t see, even with a headlamp, and besides I’m too tired anyway. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have a semi-freestanding tent and I find a 6 foot section of the path that doesn’t have any boulders on it. I move aside the loose rocks and set up right on the trail. The path is about the width of my shoulders, or roughly the width of my sleeping pad. I can’t stake the tent, but the rain fly attaches directly to the tent in three places. It’s not ideal, but it will work. I’ve never loved my portable shelter more! By the time I have the tent up it’s too dark to hang my food bag properly, but I take it well down the trail, away from my tent, in the direction I’ll hike out in the morning. I hang the bag on the highest limb I can reach without stepping off the trail into thin air. Or at least that’s how it seems. I’m using my headlamp but it’s the weakest link in my equipment. The light isn’t strong enough to reach the ground. It’s too weak to be useful except to read a book with.

I crawl into the my shelter, such as it is. The only level floor is my sleeping pad, but it’s enough room to sleep if I just don’t roll off.

And here’s the kicker: I’m not lost. I can’t see headlights through the trees, but I can hear the cars on the pavement below. I can hear people talking in the shelter above me. I’m safe. I’m warm and dry. I’ve got food and a little water. It’s actually a bit warmer this evening and I’m sheltered from the wind. And when I turn on my iPhone I have two bars and 3G! I’m able to send an email to my mother saying cryptically, “I didn’t quite make it to the shelter this evening, but I’m safe in my tent on the trail.”

Well, it’s true. I would never lie to my mother.

I drink half my water and save the other half for morning. My feet ache for 2 hours before I can fall asleep, but they are not blistered. The scrap on my leg is superficial. Even when it starts to rain, I stay dry, though the sides of the tent are quite damp by morning since the rain fly isn’t staked properly.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mountain Crossing, Neels Gap
Mountain Crossing, Neels Gap

I wake before dawn and pack up. I hoist my backpack and start walking. My food bag is still where I left it. And that’s when I realize just a few more steps beyond is the end of the blue blaze trail. It was too dark with my poor headlamp to see it last night. I rejoin the AT and stride the gentle 1.5 miles downhill to Mountain Crossing. I’ve made it! It starts to rain again, but I don’t care. I’m at the only section of the AT that’s under roof, the breezeway between the hostel and the outfitters.

The outfitters isn’t open, but the ladies room is. I clean up as best I can and change into my camp clothes which are marginally clean, or at least less sweaty and smelly. I eat the last granola bar. By 9am I figure it is not too early to call for a shuttle driver. Ron promises to be there in 35 minutes. Just enough time to replace that headlamp at the outfitters. As a reward, I buy an individual chocolate pie for breakfast.

What I Learned/Remembered

  • Don’t push yourself too hard on any individual day. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The key to finishing is moving forward consistently.

    DSC_0390
    Frogg Toggs. They are lightweight and cheap.
  • Don’t be an idiot. Stay on the trail.
  • I was carrying an emergency bivy sack and an extra set of clothes. I didn’t need them. Dropping these items, along with a handful of other small things, will save me about 3 pounds. This brings my winter pack weight (not counting the clothes I’m wearing to hike during the day) to 27 pounds (includes all gear, clothing, 4 pounds of water and 4+ days of food). I’m getting closer to my 25 pound pack weight goal.
  • I’m investigating some new rain gear call the Packa. I think this might be an improvement to the Frogg Toggs,
  • This thru hike will be difficult, but within my abilities. I can do this.

If you’d like to see my full list of the gear I’m carrying, check out my Appalachian Trail Hike tab. For the most detailed and up to date info, check out the backpacking spreadsheet on that page.

November Shakedown: Springer to Neels Gap, Part 2

AT, Springer to Neels, Nov 2013, 12This is the second part of my three part tale of my shakedown hike on the AT. I start this section at Cooper Gap (AT mile marker 12.3) on day three,

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I slept better and was up earlier. By 8a I’d had oatmeal and coffee, was packed up and had hiked a half mile to stand on top of Justus Mountain, 300 feet higher than my camp. It was a gloriously easy downhill to Justus Creek (AT mile marker 14.9) where I got my first water of the day at a stream wide enough (and cold enough!) to make me extra grateful for the footbridge. I drink until I’m bursting, fill my water bottles and hike on.

Moldering privy
Moldering privy

I make it to Gooch Mountain shelter (AT mile marker 15.8) by 11am for lunch. There’s no sign of people so far today, but someone has left a cache of ramen noodles, soap and other items on the picnic table. Trail Magic! I only take 2 pouches of spicy tuna that should make the ramen noodles I’m carrying more interesting. After lunch I investigate the shelter and find a great pair of sunglasses someone left behind. I decided to take them, too.

I’m walking better today and I’ve been able to stretch my legs on gentle downhill grades. But I still simply crawl when going uphill. Eight miles is a big day and will be for a while. It’s warmed to 50F so I take off my shoes and socks to get a good look at my feet. They continue to do well, but I reapplied duct tape to the inside of each foot where it always gets tender. I have mole skin, but duct tape is my first defense.

AT, Springer to Neels, Nov 2013, 11Hiking from here is uphill again, but there are always delights on the trail. I find a small stand of blue flowers in bloom (see left. Anyone know what they are?). The squirrels are everywhere, busily preparing for winter. I hear them rustling through the dry leaves. As I get close they jump to a tree to hide, but often leave their bush tails sticking out. If I have the patience to wait quietly, their little heads peer around to see if I’m still there.

Tonight I want to make it to Woody Gap (AT mile marker 21) and have to push hard to make it. At Ramrock Mountain (mile marker 19) I stop for my main meal and eat it while sitting on a rock overlook. The view is spectacular. The trees are in peak fall color, but it’s the narrow path of bright green grass well below that I’m drawn to. Except for the single farm house, the flat field looks like a slow moving river of avocado green, winding between the feet of two mountains.

Ramrock Mountain overlook is as mile marker 19 on the AT
Ramrock Mountain overlook is as mile marker 19 on the AT

I take time on this break to go through my belonging for waste. Woody is my first chance to throw away trash. I’ve been carrying all my empty food packaging. I discard a few items I now find useless and even cut out the tags of my clothes. Ounces add up to pounds and I want to be as lightweight as I can. Tomorrow is Blood Mountain, the highest spot along the AT in Georgia.

Woody Gap (AT mile marker 21) is a popular place for people to get onto the trail and I’ve started several of my weekend trips from here. The parking area is large and you can leave a car overnight (relatively) safely. It has a waterless toilet, ample tent camping space and the water source is reliable. When I arrive I scope out the area. The two picnic tables are full and it looks like someone is set up to feel a large group. It’s awkward to camp with a large group when you aren’t a part of them, so I consider hiking on. I know the area and can probably set up a mile and a half further on. If only it wasn’t uphill! I’ve done 9 miles today and I am tired. I drop my pack and decide to get water. Whatever I choose to do, I’ll need that. But getting water requires walking almost a mile back and forth on a rocky footpath on tender feet. The spring is .4 miles off the trail. When I finish and retrieve my pack, I’m spent. I remember that there wasn’t any dew this morning, so despite the crescent moon rising in a clear sky, it’s likely to rain before morning.

I’m tired. I’m sore. I think all I want to do is set up my tent across the road, away from the man with the picnic table full of food who is likely to be noisy. But I could not be more wrong. I’m in need of a little trail magic and it’s all around me. This is when I meet Trail Angel extraordinaire, Fresh Ground and his Leapfrog Cafe. It’s the best trail magic I’ve ever experienced. And just as amazing are FOUR thru hikers, all who finished this year. They have staged a reunion and I’m the recipient of the over splash of their joy and goodwill. Within minutes I feel like I’ve known them for weeks, not minutes.

Fresh Ground, cooking pasta at his makeshift (but perfect) Leapfrog Café. He's been feeding hikers since the spring and doesn't seem to want to stop.
Fresh Ground, cooking pasta at his makeshift (but perfect) Leapfrog Café. He’s been feeding hikers since the spring and doesn’t seem to want to stop.

I’ve eaten, but they invite me for hot chocolate and conversation. I get stories, clothing and gear tips and tales of hiking disasters–funny now that they have been survived. I forget about my aching feet. I’m no longer tired. I laugh and ask questions. No one seems to be sure of what they will do now that this big adventure is over for them, but they don’t really seem to care.

When you meet hikers, you seldom learn the names the rest of the world knows them by. Almost everyone quickly develops a trial name, their moniker for the trip and their alter ego for life. The most ebullient of the group is Roosta, a 20-something man from Rhode Island with wild strawberry blonde curls and full beard. He flip flopped, starting north from Georgia in early March, hiking to Damascus, VA. He took a break in the summer to work at a Boy Scout camp, then climbed Katahdin and hiked south until he finished. His love interest, Pancake, (who went through several monikers on the trail) is an exceptionally beautiful 24 year old woman with long, light brown hair. She finished the trail in about 4 months. She’s a marathon runner, great preparation for hiking. Shepard is a tall and thin fellow, His beard makes it hard to determine his age, but I’d guess he’s in his mid-20s. He is very self-contained and you can see he embodies the “hike your own hike” philosophy. Shepard hikes in a kilt and is devoted to sleeping in a hammock, even in the coldest weather. Rainbow Braid is quiet, but not shy. I suspect she is the one I’d have the most in common with and I’m sorry I don’t get to focus the conversation to her.

Left to Right: Rooster (from Rhode Island, finished the trail just days before this photo), Shepard (who sleeps in a hammock and hikes in a kilt) and Rainbow Braid (who was quiet and, to me, the most interesting and balanced of the group. Wish I'd have gotten to talk to her more.) At Woody Gap, November 2013
Left to Right: Rooster (from Rhode Island, finished the trail just days before this photo), Shepard (who sleeps in a hammock and hikes in a kilt) and Rainbow Braid (who was quiet and, to me, the most interesting and balanced of the group. Wish I’d have gotten to talk to her more.) At Woody Gap, November 2013

The thru hikers introduce me to down pants, the lightest, warmest clothing around. Perfect for cold March nights in camp. Roosta shows me his raingear, a “packa” that I instantly covet. (I’m in the process of ordering one.)

But the real mystery is Fresh Ground, our host. He’s done some AT hiking, but he’s not a thru hiker. He is from North Carolina and mentions that he started in spring feeding hikers and loved it so much he’s been doing it all summer, up and down the trail. After a few weeks, low on funds, he set up a donation jar which quickly filled up. He’s still working off that capital and won’t let me give him more. He’s here partly for a reunion with his four favorite hikers and partly to greet SOBO hikers who are finishing their thru now. There are far fewer southbounders, and because of weather, they start later in the year, typically June. He wants to make sure someone helps them through the last miles.

Fresh Ground has trail mix, fresh fruit, hot dogs, cookies, Rice Krispy Treats, sloppy joe’s, chips and lots of coffee and hot chocolate. He tries to feed me every few minutes. He promises eggs, bacon and fried potatoes for breakfast.

Though he doesn’t elaborate, Fresh Ground has had a personal tragedy. Feeding hikers is one of the ways he is dealing with it. I don’t get the details, but his brother has died recently and the circumstances may have been violent since the law seems to be involved. He’s single and I wonder if there’s been a recent divorce. His family doesn’t understand why he takes time off from work, living in a tent and the back seat of his car and spending all his extra cash feeding people he doesn’t know. They worry, but they love him. He looks like a happy man to me, though. And he is feeding and bringing joy to all comers: thru hikers, picnickers and casual day hikers alike. On the AT, we call him a Trail Angel and there is no higher compliment.

When I go to bed, it is long after dark. I’m happier than I’ve been since the start. My faith in my ability to hike the trail is high. My faith in the basic goodness of people, restored completely.