Iceland Part 4: Of Hotpots and Glaciers

This is the 4th (and final!) part of my Iceland trip summary. If you've missed the first or second or third part of our Iceland trip you might want to read those first.

I left of with us heading back into the wild after restocking groceries in Akureyri.

We weren't going to see the sun for the next 36 hours so we decided we'd try and hit up any hotpots that we could on our way. Hotpots to Iceland are like Saunas to Finnland or pubs to Ireland. Everyone, every age gets together to soak in hot water pretty much every day. It started in natural pools where water gushes from the earth already the perfect temperature for a relaxing bath and now every town has a pool/hot tub and it's a huge part of everyday life. 

Once the sun disappeared and the possible outdoor activities dwindled down due to crazy winds and sideways rain, we found ourselves understanding the Icelanders love of hot water pools. It's a great way to enjoy the outdoors even when the northern weather doesn't want to cooperate.

We headed along the northern coast of the island through the rain and decided to try our luck at Grettislaug, a hot pot I'd read about in the hotpot guide book our rental company had loaned us.

We arrived at the little cafe and dock at what felt like the end of the world. It was right on the coast and the only thing separating the pool from the stormy waves was a rock storm wall. We were the only ones there when we arrived. Everything was shut down and it felt like something out of an apocalyptic movie.

I honestly did not feel like undressing and jumping in. I was cold in my winter coat... and it was a good 100 yards from the changing hut to the warm water. But just as we were thinking about turning around and heading on our way, a car full of Canadian tourists pulled up and they ran hooping and hollering around. Their excitement energized us and we decided we'd regret not jumping in.

I wore a stocking hat with my swimsuit and my winter coat over it as we ran to the water and plopped in as fast as possible. Another car pulled up and for a short time we felt like we were a part of the funniest little pool party — a couple Canadian guys, a Dutch couple, a frenchman, and us Americans. Somehow we learned all about their travels around Iceland and their political opinions about the US and I remember thinking "I will never forget this."

We stayed in the water as long as we could and then bundled back into the car and made our way to our campground for the night.

That night we could feel the wind rocking the van as we fell asleep. Our hanging lantern swayed from it's hook and running to the campground bathroom was necessary to keep from being blown over. That night and that storm were insane.

The morning brought no respite from the rain and that day we had planned to head into the West Fjords. We were halfway through driving around the first fjord (fjord — a long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley) our van's clutch started giving out. We realized that each fjord would take 40-60 minutes and we had at least 6 more before we reached the first sight we were aiming for. At this point we decided it would be best to abort our west fjord plans. While this was the right decision, the next one we made was probably more questionable.

Iceland has rough, off roads called "F-roads" and while our van had 4 wheel drive and was technically rated for these F-roads, it also had tiny doughnut sized tires and we had already used our only spare tire. Anyway, for some reason we decided we'd risk heading through a pass we found on the map to the far side of the fjords were we could meet up with the main road and head back toward mainland Iceland. 

Oh, and the map showed that we'd have to ford 2 rivers, which we hadn't done yet and if we failed we'd end up with fines, not to mention we'd only seen one other car on the road all morning, so I'm sure we would have been stranded for hours before anyone could come get us. Though at this point we didn't have cell service, so I'm not even sure how we would have been able to call for help.

We did it anyway.

This is a shot of Dave crossing the first river. He made it, though he said he could feel some of the tires lifting off the riverbed and being pushed by the current. Also, while I was taking that picture, we forgot that the van was my ride and I was left stranded on the far side of the water. Even though I was wearing rubber boots, my feet weren't dry when I got to the other side.

The next river we crossed I stayed in the cab. 

Up until this point I would have said Grettislaug was the most at the end of the world I had felt. This jaunt through the pass was past the end of the world. We didn't see a single man-made sight except for the rough two track road for 2 hours.

We had the go pro mounted to the windshield for a while and I sped it up to give you an idea of what it was like:

When we finally saw the sheen of water on the other side of the pass and began the descent to the non-F road. The huge clump that had formed in my stomach finally began to loosen and I began breathing normal again.

The picture below is one of my absolute favorites from the trip. It's a farm that was the first sign of civilization after we emerged from the pass and it's amazing how relieved we were to see it. It sums up so much about that trip to me. The growth that I saw in myself — from scared to get out of the van to braving insane backroads and river crossings. It's one of the few pictures I took that might actually capture a piece of the beauty of the real life experience.

Anyway, the rest of the day we spent chasing the sun, albeit completely unsuccessfully. We did have a good stock of gummies and licorice (ew). 

We drove up the Snaefellsnes Peninsula to Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss. This is one of the most commonly photographed places in Iceland, but we were there in such howling winds and horizontal rain that we only dared get a picture with our go pro. The other cameras didn't even make it out of the car.

At this point Dave was car sick from driving through fog and rain, so we made a plan to find a hotpot on our way to the campground and call it a day. We hadn't found any sun and we admitted our defeat.

And just like that, once we admitted defeat the day redeemed itself. We wanted to find Landbrotalaug, a cute little hot pot, I'd read about and were worried it'd be hard to find. Most of the paths to hot pots feel like you're trespassing and headed off to a dead end and then all of a sudden you actually find what you were looking for.

We found the hot pot in all it's 1 yard diameter of amazing perfect 103 degree water. We even got it all to ourselves since the larger pool in the area had attracted most of the other tourists. We felt like we'd hit the jackpot and couldn't believe it. I even jumped in first, though I half expected to find a dragon curled up at the bottom or no bottom at all and to fall into a deep dark crevice of the earth.

The water flowed out of the rock so quickly that any water we displaced, refilled within a mater of minutes. Just imagine sitting in a hole in the rock in perfectly heated water looking around at misty landscape. It was magical. We soaked it up for as long as possible.

When we were done, we passed the hot pot on to a couple of German girls who were just as excited to enjoy it as we had been.

We arrived in Borgarnes and made it in time to visit The Settlement Center before it closed. We hadn't been able to fulfill a single part of what we had planned that day, but in many ways that's exactly why it's such a memorable part of the trip. The museum was actually a perfect idea for the end of such a rainy day. It was extremely well done and a wonderful summary of the history of Iceland. We left with a better understanding of the amazing island.

We made dinner under a tarp in a sodden campground and went to sleep praying for the rain to end.

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We awoke to answered prayers and a free morning before our afternoon plans. I've written about that morning before here.

We drove leisurely toward the Langjökull glacier, took a walk through a beautiful birch forest, visited another museum, and saw two waterfalls, Hraunfossar and Barnafoss.

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We had an afternoon reservation with Into the Glacier, a tour of the largest glacier tunnel dug through the Langjökull Glacier.

Our previous day's adventure had emboldened us and we drove the F-road to the basecamp ourselves. It was stunning to approach the mountains and glacier at our own pace. The sun glinting off the snow and the dark lava stone created a beautiful contrast. Another fascinating part of the drive was to see the landscape formed by the receding glacier. It felt like young ground, freshly exposed.

The tour began with a transport up onto the glacier and we goofed off as we rode through the pristine white landscape.

First I couldn't believe we were standing on top of a glacier when we got out of the truck/tank/bus (it's actually a decommissioned and refitted nuclear head transporter).

But the surface was nothing compared to what it felt like once we walked down into the tunnel. Inside a whole other world awaited us. 

I'd never had a context for what a sad thing melting ice caps and glaciers are. Glaciers are powerful and amazing. It's heartbreaking to think we're loosing them.

The ice lit up with lights and the different layers of debris frozen into the ice surprised me. I expected it to be pretty and a great photo op, but I couldn't believe how deeply moved a felt by a bunch of ice. It was a new type of natural beauty I am grateful to have experienced.

We left the basecamp and headed south along another F-road, F550. Obviously we thought we could handle anything in our mini 4x4. This road probably took us quite a bit longer because it was so full of potholes. But on our left a mountain range reflected the setting sun and we watched snow storms up on the peaks.

Our plan was to camp at Þingvellir and we reached it just in time to explore at sunset. I don't even have any pictures because we were jogging around to see it all before it was too dark. 

Our last morning waking up in the camper was a hurried one as we packed things up in our suitcases and made sure everything was in good shape to turn in to the rental company.

But before we did that, we had one more adventure planned: snorkeling.

We'd decided to splurge on two more expensive experiences, one was the Glacier tour and the second was snorkeling between the American and European tectonic plates.

Silfra Snorkeling is not for the faint-hearted. The water was a frigid 34 degrees. We wore insulation suits under our dry suits and I couldn't even get into my dry suit and literally had two grown men holding my suit shaking me into it.

With all those layers I couldn't bend my elbows or knees properly. I have never felt more like a penguin in my life.

In such cold water there is no wildlife, but the visibility is insanely far. The water is actually melted glacier and filters through lava rock for decades, so it's deliciously clean.

Our gopro battery didn't actually last long in the cold, but Dave got some pretty good pictures before it died.

I loved this experience. My face and hands went numb quickly, and after that I just bobbed along taking in the amazing blue hues and the underwater perspective of the rocks.

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By the end of our dip in freezing water, we were invigorated and grateful. This marked the end of our camper van experience. We drove back to Reykjavik and turned in our trusty vehicle. 

The rest of the afternoon we spent exploring Reykjavik and wandering the streets. It was fun to return to the same place our trip had begun. It felt so different only 10 days later, probably because I learned and grown so much. 

Dave usually dislikes cities pretty vehemently, but even he loved ducking in and out of shops, wandering aimlessly and exploring anything that looked interesting.

The one thing Dave wanted as a souvenir was a watch and he had read about a certain shop, so we struck out to find it. The JS Watch Company was easy enough to find and once inside the most charming, cliché watch shopkeeper showed us his handiwork and Dave walked out with a beautiful one he still loves.

We met up with an old college friend and her family for dinner. They happened to be in Iceland for a long layover and it was so fun to see them and enjoy Icelandic Fish and Chips with them.

The next morning we walked to a bakery for some coffee and pastries as we reflected on our time. As we drove to the airport and enjoyed the last bits of Iceland that we could, we left with an overwhelming amount of gratitude for the opportunity to experience such a unique and incredible country. We already talk about going back and are having a hard time coming up with a country we want to visit next. Every time we talk about where to go next, we just say "Well, we could just go back to Iceland." I'd be surprised if it takes us very long to get back.

Iceland Part 3: Of Mist and Steam

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This is the 3rd part of my Iceland trip summary. If you've missed the first part or second part of our Iceland trip you might want to read those first. It's taking me so much longer than I thought to write these up that we're already booking our 2017 adventures! 

By the sixth day in Iceland, we really hit our stride. It took us less than half an hour to pack up in the morning from our campsite. The cold in the morning may have spurred us on just a bit. That night, an Icelander was in the site next to us in a small backpacking tent. I couldn't have done that. It was consistently in the 30s during the night and mornings were brisk, to say the least. Icelandic camping was not like Michigan camp days with campfires and lazy brunches. 

We drove north that morning as the sun rose through the mist. I remember really, really wanting hot coffee, but now thinking back I don't think I got any.

Instead as we made our way toward the sites we had planned, we spotted a whole herd of caribou. At first we thought they were merely another herd of horses, then I thought they were goats, but Dave realized they were caribou. We pulled off the road at a little access drive and grabbed our cameras. They actually let us get fairly close and after snapping a couple pictures we took some time to just watch them.

We loved driving through the landscape as we made our way to Selfoss and Dettifoss. The moss was every bit as colorful as the fall foliage in Michigan, only way tinier.

Selfoss and Dettifoss are and easy walk apart. We took a look at Selfoss first and enjoyed how close we were able to get to it. 

Dettifoss is impressive in it's volume, but its appeal was mostly in its power. Also, there were lots of people around, so we had a hard time enjoying it.

After the waterfalls, instead of heading back to the ring road we took a back road further north to the northern coast. We loved this part of the day. It was so peaceful to see mountains, coastline, and farms nestled in between. 

We followed the coast west and back down until we hit Húsavík, a small fishing town. The charm in this place was almost too much. The harbor had a background of snowy mountains and the sail boats were taken care of so well that their wood and paint gleamed. The water was so calm, the whole time we were there it felt like we had discovered a place that had been asleep for a couple decades. 

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We found some fish and chips and sat, eating, and soaking up the scene. There wasn't much else to do. We wandered around and explored, but decided against the whale watching tours.

Dave touched the water. We chased a jelly fish. And we wished we could have stayed longer.

It was late afternoon when we headed back south toward Myvatn. As we approached the light started to glow. One of the best parts of this region was their trees. Iceland doesn't have many trees (though they are planting more every year) and the yellows and oranges of the trees around Myvatn were a special treat.

Our first stop was Hverfjall, where we had our biggest accident of the trip. The driveway into the parking lot for the crater was narrow and full of potholes. A car coming out wouldn't share the road and forced our right tire off the road where it hit a sharp lava rock. When we parked and got out I heard the telltale hiss of a punctured tire. Luckily the van had a spare tire on the roof rack and we had that tire changed in a jiffy. I think it was done within 10 minutes. I love that Dave understands and knows his way around cars so well.

We headed up the incline of the crater at sunset and hit the top during twilight. It was a huge round black sand dune with a hole in the center. It was such a other worldly natural formation. I don't think I've ever seen anything like that or probably ever will.

By then we figured we might as well go to as many other sites that we could in the area while we still had light. The Hverarönd/Hverir geothermal area was close enough that we zipped up the road and experienced the multi-colored sulfurous mud springs, steam vents, and fumaroles in the rosy post-sunset glow. It was pretty stinky, but we stayed for quite a while because the bubbling mud and hissing steam vents were so fascinating. I imagine this is what prehistoric earth looked like.

On our way to the campground for the night, we made the impromptu decision to check out Myvatn Nature Baths. We had originally decided against it to save some money, but we were sore and tired from such a long day and a soak in hot water was just what we needed. The last bit of light faded in the west while we enjoyed moving from the hot pool to the hotter pool and back. We even glimpsed a flicker of the northern lights while lounging in the hot pool. The perfect end to a wonderful day.

The sun rose stunningly over the little town of Reykjahlíð. We drove around waking up and soaking up the beauty of the morning golden hour. 

We finally felt up for a hike and drove up to the volcanic area above the Krafla power station. There we hiked into the heart of the area where nine volcanic eruptions happened between 1975 and 1984. If ever I felt like we were on another planet, this was it.

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Everywhere we turned cooled lava stretched around us and steam seeped out of the ground. I'd never realized how colorful and beautiful lava is. It was stunning and scary and insanely cool.

One side effect of all the geothermal activity in Iceland is that they produce much of their electricity from it. I love that the country puts such an emphasis on clean energy and preserving the beauty and integrity of the island. Something to aspire to! 

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We left the Mytvatn region behind as we drove west to Goðafoss. After seeing waterfalls left and right for days, we figured this one would be like the rest. But it really gave us pause and we took our time enjoying it. It's not the tallest or biggest, but the horseshoe shape and mist made it one of the most beautiful we saw.

Akureyri was our next stop. It's the closest thing to a big city that northern Iceland has. The population is oncly 18,00-ish, but after days of tiny villages, it felt huge to us. 

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It was rainy and kinda gross, so we grabbed some delicious fish soup for lunch and did some souvenir shopping, before grabbing some staples at the grocery store and heading back into the countryside. Akureyri left me with a really cozy and cute impression. And what I wouldn't give for another bowl of that soup!

Of Waterfalls and Rainbows: Iceland Part 2

This is the 2nd part of my Iceland trip summary. If you've missed the first part of our Iceland trip you might want to read that first. It's taken quite a bit more time and effort to do these than I expected, but I'm going to try and get them done. It's been almost 6 months since our trip after all! 

Days on our trip around the Ring Road began with the alarm going off in the camper van at 7 am. While we were there the sun rose and set about 12 hours apart, so we used up every last minute of daylight, even if that meant getting up earlier than we usually would on vacation.

On our fourth day, we woke up to sunshine for the first time. It was amazingly invigorating and our plan was to head out to Skógafoss first thing in order to avoid the hoards of tourists.

We arrived early, but not early enough. Despite the fact that we ourselves were tourists, we had a hard time with how overrun certain locations were with bus groups.

Luckily Skógafoss wasn't the only thing we had set out to see. Because of the lovely weather, we wanted to get some fresh air and hike. We knew there was a path above the waterfall and climbed the hill/cliff on the right to get to the top. The path was easy to find and once we had walked a mere 100 yards, we had it all to ourselves.

For the rest of the trip, this became our favorite way to avoid crowds. We loved finding the long way around and getting off the beaten path so that we could enjoy the sights without too much company.

As we hiked into the Fimmvörðuháls Pass, the Skógá river flowed by on the left. It felt like every bend hid another, more beautiful waterfall than the last. Our plan was to hike for an hour or two and then head back. However, once we got started there was no way to turn back. We'd say "after the next waterfall we'll turn back." At the next waterfall, we'd see the mist from another and we just had to keep going.

Before we knew it we'd gone 8km and decided we had to go all the way since we'd gotten so close already. Now this wasn't a hiking loop, it was a there and back again hike. So once we hit the 10km turn around point, we still had 10km to hike back to our car. We hadn't been prepared for a 12 mile hike, but it was worth every bit of soreness we paid for it.

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We got back to our car hours later than we meant to and dug straight into our cooler. Dave finally remembered to get the AUX cord out of the suitcase. We cranked our Fire + Ice playlist as we pulled out of the parking lot. We drove down the road high on fresh air and sunshine, belting out "Into the Wild" and scarfing down out well-deserved salmi sandwich lunch.

I felt the ball of anxiety I'd been fighting since we'd left home loosen and I finally felt like myself again. This was the trip I'd imagined and hoped for. Everything was Beautiful. Awesome. Wild. Amazing. And I was going to be ok. 

We stopped in Vik for a bathroom break and some Icelandic ice cream. My new found confidence and light-heartedness led to some really fun and cheery interactions with the Icelander who served the ice cream.

We took a windy walk on the black sand beaches below the Reynisfjara sea stacks. We stayed away from the waves since they're unpredictable and dangerous, but there was no need to get close, the beauty was all around us.

I also performed the most epic save when my ice cream fell off the cone and I caught it before it hit the beach. I'm still proud.

At this point we thought we could zip up the southern coast and quickly hit up a few sights on the way. However, our hike had eaten up a big part of the day and while we did make it to (2 million year old) Fjaðrárgljúfur Masjid Canyon, we realized we had totally forgotten about Skaftafell National Park and knew we couldn't just skip it. We pulled into the park's visitor center as the sun began to set and quickly found the campsite. 

Skaftafell is best known for it's huge glaciers and for it's famous black waterfall, Svartifoss. We took a sunset hike up to the falls and a sunrise one to check out the glaciers. We really wanted to hike more, but with a heavy rain and sore muscles from the previous day it really wasn't possible.

Instead we headed east on the Ring Road. It was drizzling and wet, but as we drove rainbows started popping up everywhere. We pulled up to Fjallsárlón, the first and smaller glacial lagoon, as a huge rainbow appeared overhead. I had never seen such vibrant or close rainbows. We could see both ends and felt like we could run up and touch them. (In fact I may have tried chasing the end of the rainbow.)

I had worn rubber boots which made wading to a floating mini iceberg easier. I can't begin to explain the beauty of the glacier flowing down from the mountains into the lagoon, the rainbows, blue water and green hills. In a land that felt other-wordly every day, this day especially felt surreal. The changes between sunny and stormy created an atmosphere of drama. It felt cinematic. This was one of the best days of our trip.

We continued down the road surrounded by rainbows toward Jökulsárlón. This is the more famous of the ice lagoons. The intermittent sunshine revealed the most beautiful shades of blue in the ice and water. I've never thought much about icebergs (except perhaps negatively in regards to the Titanic), but I was blown away by how stunning they were in real life. The easiest way to describe them might be as giant wild diamonds. 

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Across the road from the lagoon was a black sand beach scattered with ice chunks. A storm was coming in over the ocean and huge black clouds and waves came crashing in. If it hadn't been freezing cold, with a biting wind, I could have stayed on that beach for hours. Walking up to a huge chunk of ice and looking into it's depths didn't get old. It felt impossible to capture the shades of blue with my camera, yet looking at the pictures now, I can't believe the colors were even richer than that. This stop on our trip is one I'd love to do again. 

Sadly we had to leave the lagoons behind, but luckily the drive for the rest of the day were equally stunning. We were followed by the storm as we drove east. This meant that we constantly alternated between rain and sun, with a smattering of rainbows in between.

As we drove down the south coast, we saw many little farms nestled at the bottom of steep hills. Many had small waterfalls in their backyards. I can't even estimate how many different waterfalls we saw. I'd even go so far as to say we were never out of sight of one of some sort or another.

We made it to Höfn for a late lunch and found Hafnarbúðin, a little diner on the harbor. This small fishing town on the southeastern end of Iceland has a large export of fish and langoustine. We had read that it was one of the best places to get seafood. Iceland in general has a love of fast food and seafood, which can be a really great combo. We couldn't believe that langoustine were available alongside hotdogs and hamburgers. I probably could have eaten three times as much as we did. If only eating out hadn't been so expensive there!

We spent the rest of the day driving through the eastern fjords, surrounded by rainbows. It will take a pretty spectacular rainbow to impress me after the ones we saw there. After hours of striking colors and double arches, we almost got desensitized to them.

"Oh look, another double rainbow with full arches!"

"Yeah, but this one doesn't have all the colors like the last one did"

"Maybe we can drive through this one" 

We could have easily spend a couple days in the quiet towns and peaceful shores if we'd had more time. Instead we took a shortcut through the mountains and headed back over the mainland north to Egilsstaðir and the campsite there.

That night we had one of our fanciest dinners: noodles and red sauce. I don't want to call it Spaghetti, because that implies meat sauce and peppers and such. This was truly noodles, sautéed onions and red sauce. The food we made in the camper was so basic, that this seemed complex. Usually we ate ramen, perhaps with an egg cooked in the broth with the noodles to create a sort of egg drop soup. Once we even had sausages, but things had to stay simple at camp. The wind was too cold to stand outside while we cooked and ate, so things had to be fast, hot and cheap (groceries were expensive). If we ever go again, I'd pack a few things like spices and hot sauce to liven up simple ingredients. 

While I'm talking about the camper van, I might as well mention a few other things: 

  • We used Snail Motorhome Rental and got their Snail Micro with 4WD. This was their smallest (cheapest) model. We would definitely recommend Snail. They're a family run business and even though we returned with multiple things broken (spare tire, cooler extension cord) they didn't nickel and dime us.
  • Everything we needed (from cooler to clothesline and cooking supplies) was included. The only problem was they didn't communicate that before we arrived, so we ended up bringing an extra suitcase of camping stuff we really didn't need.
  • We choose to do the camper van instead of a regular rental car so that we didn't have to commit to spending the night at specific places since we had no idea where or what we'd actually end up doing. This worked out really well for us. We were able to follow the weather and take advantage of the sun. 
  • The bed/living platform was elevated behind the two front seats. Our storage was underneath. So the living space was only 2.5ft, maybe 3ft tall. I enjoyed having our own space every night and not having to spend the night in a new hotel, b&b or hostel every night. However, I'm almost a full foot shorter than Dave. When we got home Dave admitted that he wouldn't do the camper van again. I think other companies have better lay outs and set ups in their small vans, and I might look into those if we were ever to do a trip around the entire island again. By the fourth day we had a system down which included a clothesline in the back to dry our towels and swimsuits, teamwork in setting up and stowing away our bed, and putting up the privacy curtains.
  • The biggest annoyance about the camper other than the lack of space was the fact that we were constantly searching for things. Because we shifted from driving to sleeping in the same small space we'd lose track of simple things all the time. 
  • It was a bit chilly at times, but we only woke up with ice on the windows once. 
  • It was worth have 4WD if you're remotely adventurous, which if you're in Iceland, I'd hope you would be.
  • We had been told you could camp anywhere, but found that most places had newly erected "no camping" signs, which we assumed were due to the tourist boom over the past 5 years. Campsites were absurdly easy to find. I was worried and had marked them on our map which was totally unnecessary as campsites are as common there as McDonalds are in the US. 
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I was hoping to only write 3 posts about this trip, but I'm only halfway through, and this post is a monster already. Here's to hoping the next one won't take me 3 months to write. 

If you have any specific questions, I'd love to hear them and do my best to answer them! Let me know in the comments.

Of Anxiety and Adventure: Iceland Part 1

Note: How do I sum up our time in Iceland? Even while we were there I couldn't put much into words. Nothing can express the true experience. However, I am determined to write something, anything to remember our adventures. Please bear with my fumbling and the obscene length of this. 

Note: How do I sum up our time in Iceland? Even while we were there I couldn't put much into words. Nothing can express the true experience. However, I am determined to write something, anything to remember our adventures. Please bear with my fumbling and the obscene length of this. 

 

Our Iceland trip ended up being filled with paradoxes: on one hand rustic and on the other cosmopolitan, one second wild as can be and the next the epitome of cozy. It felt like a home-coming and like visiting a different world. It was the hardest and best trip of my life.

At takeoff, we were so excited, but also anxious. "Excited and anxious" is about the perfect way to describe that first part of our time. 

We landed so very early in the morning after a speedy red eye. As we caught our first glimpse of the lava fields out of the window (11% of Iceland is covered in old lava flow), it felt surreal that a trip we'd dreamed and planned for so long was finally happening.

Left:  Gullfoss. Day 1   |    Right:  lava field on Reykjanes Peninsula, Day 1

Left: Gullfoss. Day 1   |   Right: lava field on Reykjanes Peninsula, Day 1

Once we gathered our camper van from the rental company, we struck out for the grocery store at the end of the block. At this point my introvert-control-freak-type-a-don't-attract-attention tendencies started screaming inside my head. I'd planned, I'd researched, I'd mentally prepared. But all that couldn't protect us from the reality of the fact that we were in a country where we: 1) had never been 2) couldn't speak the language, and 3) didn't have friends or family to take care of us.

The tension may have bubbled out during that first grocery run and we may have had a few whispered squabbles about what in the world we were doing. We made it through, with the only lasting negative result being fewer groceries than we actually needed (a mistake we rectified before we struck out too far from civilization).

We stowed that food in our new home (the camper) and took off for downtown Reykjavik. Thanks to the maps.me app on my phone, my #1 co-pilot duty became official navigator. Without that app (with our planned locations pre-downloaded) I have no idea how we would have gotten anywhere. It was a life saver.

We ended up parked in the lot directly next to HallgrimskirkjaThis was when we found out that in 20 minutes the van had become my comfort zone and I had the strangest urge to stay in that camper for the next 11 days. (introvert problems) I had been dreaming of this moment for months and my anxiety had me convinced I wanted to stay in the car.

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This anxiety would follow me for the first leg of our trip.

I feared Iceland wouldn't live up to our expectations. I worried we'd wasted our time and money. I stressed that the weather would be terrible or our next stop would be a flop and Dave would blame me. I hated having to make a thousand decisions every day (where we'd camp, eat, go next, etc.). I fretted that we'd stand out like sore thumbs and the Icelanders would hate us for being tourists. All the while I felt immense pressure to "soak it up," "savor the moment," and "make awesome memories." 

This cocktail of negative emotion sounds silly now and I'm slightly ashamed to admit it, but it was a big part of those first few days. Fortunately, even while those feelings were running crazy around my head, I was aware of their irrationality. I was able to articulate enough of what was going on to Dave that we made decisions based on what normal Esther would do, not what "scaredy cat" Esther wanted. I'm so glad we powered through and didn't let it ruin our experience. 

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I can only describe that first day in Iceland like meeting an online friend or celebrity in real life. As we drove through lava fields, enjoyed our first Icelandic hot dog, and kept pinching ourselves, it felt surreal to encounter things we'd anticipated for so long. We'd seen so many pictures that the scenes seemed familiar, the real thing was like stepping into our dreams only 100 times better.

As mentioned before, we had done a good amount of research on where we wanted to go. However, we knew that once we landed the weather would determine alot of what we did and in what order.  The first couple days' forecast was a bit iffy, so we planned to stick more in the southwest corner of the country before making a decision about whether we'd go around the island clockwise or counterclockwise.

Gullfoss, Day 1

Gullfoss, Day 1

We did the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle on our first day along with a couple hours in Reykjavik. On our second day, we saw no chance of good weather in either direction around the island. Instead we decided to risk it and take our little 4x4 camper van into the Highlands. There was an F road (backcountry dirt road) that we read about that would take us to Landmannalauger without needing to ford any water. We figured we'd give it a try, promising ourselves we'd turn around if it got too treacherous. On our way there we ran into the annual sheep round up: Réttir. The horses and sheep of Iceland are famous for their unique gaits and fibers respectively. We pulled off the road multiple times to admire and photograph them.

Réttir, Day 2

Réttir, Day 2

At one point we were stopped by a huge herd of sheep being driven right along the road by group of local farmers on their horses. We were stopped for close to half an hour as hundreds of sheep streamed by on either side of the car. I've never seen sheep look so tired or pant like dogs! Poor sheepies had a far hike to make from their summer pastures to the farms where they spend the winter.

Left:  our Snail camper on the road into Landmannalauger, Day 2 |    Right:  walking the last bit into Landmannalauger, Day 2

Left: our Snail camper on the road into Landmannalauger, Day 2 |   Right: walking the last bit into Landmannalauger, Day 2

The road into Landmannalauger was a black volcanic rock washboard. I don't think we drove faster than 10 mph the whole way in. We felt like we were driving on the surface of the moon. There were stretches were all we could see was black sand and hills. It took us an hour and a half to get in. But once we made it through that crazy bumpy road, the destination couldn't have been more it worth it!

Landmannalauger, Day 2

Landmannalauger, Day 2

Once there, we asked for a hiking recommendation from the ranger. He recommended the "black mountain" route as the most difficult and longest. Dave's ears perked up at that and decided right then and there that's what he wanted to do. This was one of those times I wanted to hide in the car (silly scaredy-cat Esther!) and knew I would regret it. So up the black mountain we headed.

Left:  the picture our French friend took on top of the "black mountain," Day 2 |    Right:    Laugahraun lava field, Day 2

Left: the picture our French friend took on top of the "black mountain," Day 2 |   Right: Laugahraun lava field, Day 2

As we climbed, the sun broke through. Everywhere else it was raining, but for that hike, Iceland pulled out some sunshine for us. The higher we climbed, the further behind we left the hoards of tourists and the more spectacular the views were. We ran into the friendliest Frenchman on our ascent. He took our picture and gave us some tips. Then we proceeded to continue to run into him the entire rest of the hike until we finally decided to just join up with him. It was so fun to hear his perspective on the country (it was his 17th visit to Iceland in 5 years!) and find out some more insider information from him. He let us know how special it was that the clouds had lifted in the area and that Landmannalauger was one of his favorite places in all of Iceland. We had chosen our adventure for the day well.

Left:  Gjáin (you may recognize it as a filming location from GOT), Day 3 |    Right:  a typical scene along the Ring Road in the south, Days 3-4

Left: Gjáin (you may recognize it as a filming location from GOT), Day 3 |   Right: a typical scene along the Ring Road in the south, Days 3-4

Our third day, Saturday, was forecast to be rainy all day. But our consolation was that Sunday was promised to have beautiful weather. We headed back out of Landmannalauger and decided we'd try and do the South coast on Sunday, since weather in the south is the least accommodating. We stumbled upon some amazing random sights upon the way, thanks to our Iceland guidebook, stocked up on groceries, and committed to driving around the island counter-clockwise.

At one point while we explored a point of interest off the main road, we picked up a hiker who was walking in the rain. He happened to be from the States and he became a travel buddy for the next couple days. We just kept running into him and sharing stories and tips. I didn't expect how fun it would be to meet other travelers on the road.

Left:  Seljalandsfoss, Day 3 |    Right:  Gljúfrafoss, Day 3

Left: Seljalandsfoss, Day 3 |   Right: Gljúfrafoss, Day 3

Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss (above) are impossible to miss. We tried to enjoy them between the waves of tourists flooding off the tour buses, but it was a bit disenchanting to feel like these amazing natural wonders were being treated like amusement park attractions.

One thing I'd been really looking forward to was the "secret swimming pool," Seljavallalaug. When we arrived, it was so full of people, we turned right around and left without even stepping foot in it. The saddest part was seeing the trash and other signs of irresponsible guests on the path to the pool. I may have a new found rage towards litter bugs after our time there. 

Dyrhólaey, Day 3

Dyrhólaey, Day 3

As our third day began to wind down, the clouds began to clear. We had a feeling we might have a chance to watch the sunset and set out to find a good place to see it. We found the perfect place.

Dyrhólaey juts out into the Atlantic Ocean on the south coast. In fact at that spot, if you look south from there there is no land until Antartica. We almost got blown away as we stood up there (My beanie was literally blown off my head at one point). The power of the Atlantic wind and waves were undeniable even as we enjoyed their raw beauty. I wish our photos captured that sunset. It was the most beautiful of my life.

This is when the beginning of the trip seems to end in my mind. We'd gotten used to our camper life and felt more confident in how to navigate the country. After experiencing so many wonderful things and learning how to be comfortable in unpredictable situations, my anxiety started to fade. It would hang around for a day or two longer, but I'll get to that in the next post. 

After that sunset, we found some peace that everything was going to work out and that Iceland wasn't going to disappoint. And that was only the beginning.

Small Joys: IX

Gathering up things that brought joy this week and taking a moment to be grateful.

Needless to say the first week back after an epic vacation is hard. I call it "reentry" and it sucks. There's no way I could go back to sitting at a desk for 8 hours/day after one of the best adventures of my life without some let down. 

Since the most glamorous thing we did this week was go to bed at 9pm, I'm pulling yet another vacation picture (and probably will continue to do so for a while ;) ).

So without further ado, here are the bright spots from this past week:

-- It's been amazing to come home to a new season. When we left Michigan, it was still firmly in summer territory and we came back to the first blustery days. Sweaters! Boots! Leaves!

-- Veggies. In Iceland we just didn't have the facilities or budget to eat much produce. This week we've been doing lots of salads and it's been so great.

-- Space. After 10 days of living/driving/cooking/sleeping in the same 4 square meters as another person, our house feels like a mansion. 

-- Not paying $7/gallon at the pump.

-- Our new bedroom. We never really got a chance to truly enjoy our new set up before we left, so we've been reveling in it all the more now.

-- Vision. Leaving our home life for 12 days and experiencing new things gave us quite a bit of perspective both on hoe we're living and where we want to end up. It's been interesting to see those thoughts percolate and form new ideas about our future.

Here's to finally beating jet lag and getting a bit caught up (and unpacked) this weekend! Enjoy the coziest time of the year.