Iceland, Part 3.

On Friday and Saturday nights in Reykjavik, Icelanders go wild. Channeling their fellow cosmopolitan Europeans, they stay up all night boozing, downing shots of the notorious Brennivín—Iceland’s signature schnapps—or the particularly tasty craft beers we sampled, like Akureyri Einstok White Ale. It’s messy and clubby and the youngsters love it. C and I learned we’re no longer youngsters (or never were), so it was a relief to spend the majority of our week in the company of very sober sheep and ponies.

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If you look past the razor-sharp mountains, ocean views, glaciers and occasional aurora, driving Iceland is a lot like driving Iowa: Miles/kilometers of highway dotted with hay bales and the occasional farmstead. The landscape is constantly changing, from the volcanic, moss-covered rocks stretching for miles in the south to eastern fjords to northern moonscapes.

On our big driving day up the east coast, we skirted the ocean and climbed into the highlands, pretending — in our clunky camper — to be James Bond cruising the Scottish roads to Skyfall. A tidbit in the guidebook indicated one of the mountain lagoons we passed was a sister lake to Loch Ness, with a related legendary monster. The mountains descend into black, forsaken land. A range of Tolkien’s Dooms loom over scoured plains, where we got out of the car to lean against the wind then trek down to Dettifoss, Iceland’s answer to both Niagara and the Grand Canyon — bleak and beautiful.

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Around another bend, we found a campsite near pastoral Lake Myvatn, ate at Daddi’s pizza (mine was topped with smoked trout and pine nuts) and, soon after sunset, got to experience the Northern Lights. Absolutely incredible. Green fingers of light reached out of the depths of the sky toward us then pulled back into darkness. The galaxy has never seemed more three dimensional. It was a quick show, beckoning us back for more with its hand motions. I’d love to oblige someday.

North of the lake and just south of the Arctic Circle, I popped a Dramamine and we boarded an old whaling boat in Husavik to chase humpbacks around the bay. The company provides passengers with cozy coveralls (I grabbed two at random from the pile, gave Chris the medium and put on the extra large) and hot cocoa. We got close enough to see the whales’ white fins glowing green under water as the curved against the surface.

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From there we started the descent home, physically and mentally. That seemed to be the week Iceland went from pleasant autumn chill to snow on the ground in the mornings, and although our van was comfy, it wasn’t well insulated. Ahead of schedule on our road trip, at an abandoned campsite in the fjord-side town of Borðeyri, we decided to book our delicious hostel room from the week before for the last night in Iceland, rather than roughing it. Another great change in the itinerary, another lesson in being flexible (and kind to yourself) while traveling.

So we spent the last day on the road on Snæfellsnes, a western peninsula with a name that sounds like a sneeze. I danced to an old house music mixtape on the road to nowhere; we hiked cliffs along the coast from the tiny town of Hellnar to the tinier town of Arnarstapi; we explored oceanside ruins and camped in an old farm field with a new goat friend, christened Fred.

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Reykjavik the second time around, on a Monday afternoon, was much more relaxed and we were much more awake. I shopped around Scandinavian design shops, we revisited the hot dog stand and the art museum and showered twice.

Now rewind and picture every meticulously documented scene written here in copper light. The sun rises and glides and falls again at such at angle in the fall this far north that it’s perpetually the golden hour, until it’s not and darkness falls and dancing lights replace the sun. Luckys.

Skál!

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Autumn stroll.

I found out where the ice cream man lives while walking the neighborhood this week. The discovery opens up new levels of dairy treat addiction after the local DQ closes Nov. 3 (at 9 p.m. Calendar: hella marked). Early dusk creeped up on me while I was busy downing pumpkin beers, and this morning’s maiden voyage of the city leaf-vaccuuming garbage truck can’t be ignored.

Fall is here. There’s no time to mess around waiting for walks in the evening; now it’s a sprint to get out of work and into play clothes in time for a blustery stroll before dinner.

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I grabbed photos of Tuesday’s gray 5 o’clock hour before that, too, goes dark for the next 5 months.

Iceland, Part 2.

Iceland presents two concentric options for road tourists: The highlight-reel Golden Circle just outside Reykjavik or the lonely, lovely Ring Road that circumscribes the island. The middle of Iceland is a roadless void, for volcanic reasons or because there just isn’t the population to fill it: 300,000 people total, 200,000 around Reykjavik.

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On our second day on the road, we explored the Golden Circle, starting with Þingvellir National Park. The Þ makes a “th” sound. Two cliffs butt up against each other to form a narrow path along one side of the valley. This was the site of the first Icelandic parliament in 920 AD, and the point where the American and Eurasian plates meet and drift apart, forming a rift filled with the clearest water, discarded coins and who knows how many centuries of wishes.

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The circle continues to Geysir, the original geyser, after which all those sorry others are named, and Gulfoss, a huge, angled falls that greets hoards of tourists with a good soaking before seeming to plunge back into that volatile earth again. We camped for free in a spooky RV park shrouded in cloud. In the morning, the sun cleared the morning fog for views of Eyjafjallajokull — “A-ya-fyat-la-yo-kull” — that volcano that shut down northern hemisphere travel two years ago.

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This day was all water. We got soaked navigating the path behind another falls, Seljalandsfoss, trooped to the top of mighty Skogafoss in search of the sheep rumored to camp out there (it’s true), then warmed up with lamb sandwiches in a cafe in Vik. Sheep everywhere. It was pouring cold, lashing rain, but we had one more stop at Dyrhólaey’s black sand beach overlook. I pulled my raincoat hood’s elastic tight. This pinhole navigation of the promontory lasted about two minutes before we sought shelter in the caves on the beach below. Then my camera gave up.

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Luckily, C had a spare (and my little trooper has made a full recovery) because the next day we woke up early to a golden sunrise and a solo trek to Skaftafelljokull glacier’s walls. We were alone there for most of the morning climbing the bruised-black fingers of ice on the moraine and filling water bottles from glacial springs — the beauty of planning the trip in the shoulder season and our reward for the whipping the previous day.

This day was all ice.

The drive took us along the border of Vatnajokull, the biggest glacier in Europe and 13 percent of Iceland’s land mass, to Jokulsarlon, the big blue bay where the mother glacier launched its baby bergs out to sea. Elephant-sized rafts of ice wash back to the black shore to sparkle and spike and slowly disappear in the barely there heat of the sun.

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That night, we stayed in an old, whitewashed farmhouse surrounded by herds of sheep and marsh. We met an extremely attentive sheep dog and came down with sleep-stealing colds.

Then we drove north.

Iceland, Part 1.

It’s been a distracting month…or three or six. But, C shipped out (and is waiting for word on whether he’ll be shipping back in—silly shutdown); I cleaned my closets and thrown out unnecessary tchotchkes in a fall cleaning frenzy; I’ve walked around in perfect weather mooning up at the autumn sun, trying to label that exact shade of sky blue (probably “damn blue”); now, it’s time to write about Iceland.

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Iceland had been a dream for a while because it was somewhere beautiful and remote and Sigur Ros made that gorgeous concert movie about it. Most credit to that last bit. C had the dream, too, so we booked it 10 months in advance, a month into dating. I don’t tell many people that because it’s insane, but we got a crazy good deal, y’all.

We threw in a camper van, some (one) manual transmission lessons to drive that camper van, and a couple of water-resistant road maps. That adjective is very important in Iceland.

Iceland Fact #1: It’s extremely friendly to foreign tourists. In fact, it relies on foreign tourists. Most of the population speaks impeccable English, and the airport is well-known as a hub for a couple days layover on the way to Europe. You can hop into the country for a few waterfalls and hot dogs, then hop back on the plane to Paris.

Fact #2: There’s a famous hot dog stand in Reykjavik we hit coming and going. I think they’re good. I ate both of mine too fast to give a definitive answer (cold + hunger), but I can tell you for sure they had fried onions on them. Great texture.

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Reykjavik is situated on a slight hill along a bay. The name translates to “smoky bay.” And it’s too cute. The city is easy to walk and to navigate, even jetlagged and running on zero sleep. We dropped our bags at the hostel (more on that later), walked down to the bay then up to Hallgrimskirkja, a modern hulk of a church that towers atop the hill over the generally two- and three-story city center. Quick rides to the top of the steeple afforded a good view of the bright capital.

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We also checked out the National Museum of Iceland to brush up on Viking history. The small population today descended from both Scandinavian and Celtic settlers. It’s a fun mix.

Over a happy hour beer, we decided we were too old and too tired to be sharing a hostel dorm with eight other travelers and lucked into a private room at a new place with an en suite bathroom, a view and some serious Scandinavian design chops. That was a lesson, after rolling easily through packed European hostels. I’m past that point. I need some quiet space while traveling.

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We drove the camper van to the Blue Lagoon the next day, dog paddled around in the milky blue water then ate sandwiches in the parking lot. Not a lot of glamorous meals on this trip because Iceland is a lot more expensive than Iowa.

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Fact #3: Campers have the run of Iceland. We heard various rules while circumnavigating the island: Campers can stay anywhere for one night, campers can stay anywhere as long as its public land, campers can stay outside national parks…

Confused, and interested in having an enclosed place to pee during the freezing night, we relied on the little tent icons on our (waterproof) maps, and ended up camping for free most of the time anyway because it was so late in the season. Most of those sites were spare fields next to farmhouses. The owners supplied a bathroom, and you could pay extra for showers or, that first night by the ocean, duck eggs. Also that first night, we shared the place with a handful of other campers. By the end of the trip, we spent each night solo. That was a brand new breed of quiet.

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Belated everything.

Happening: celebrated my 25th birthday with pizza and Iowa sunsets, went to Iceland, counted down to C’s ice deployment, and a goat nibbled on my shirt straight through an interview today.

Not happening: blogging. While those posts percolate, here’s a drop-dead track that’s caught my fancy.

Whitewater Canyon.

Late again. Two weeks ago…

Iowa has three officially designated canyons, and one is about 45 minutes from CR. We drove out not knowing what to expect and found a breathtaking walk through rolling prairie — views and wildflowers for miles — that eventually dipped down to the edge of the small, wooded canyon. That wasn’t much to speak of, but eating avocado and crackers as the sun set on acres of quintessential Iowa landscape afterward was a highlight of the summer.

Wherever I end up after this, I’m glad to have rolled around in the real Iowa.

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Sister visit No. 256.

So, going on three weeks ago, Kat stopped by on her quarterly pilgrimage to the City of Rabbits. We headed straight for the bright lights of the CR Kernels baseball stadium. Facts: The Kernels are a farm team for the Minnesota Twins, their mascot is an ear of corn shaped like man with a baseball for a head. No, it doesn’t make sense. His name is Mr. Shucks. The biggest draw for us was the rumor of a pretzel the size of a pizza box at the concession stands and it exists and comes with six cups of cheese.

The next day we explored the cement vastness of the Coralville Lake spillway, right next to a gorge full of Devonian fossils.

And last, one of my favorite tour stops, the Brucemore lawns (here and here) where Kat asked for a “Bigfoot” picture stalking around the pond and the algae grew like some kind of mad alien underwater hive.

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IMG_2062Kat’s visits, without fail, perfectly combine good food and lazy sightseeing. I’d been eager to take her to Clinton Street Social Club in Iowa City for classy cocktails and poutine. Every time I’m there — which is kind of a lot because poutine — she comes to mind. It’s a Kat Place. We also made our Sister Places on the warm Sunday morning grass at the mansion and under a trellis of grapes, where K popped a bitter, unripe berry into her mouth on a self-imposed dare.

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IMG_2081More family in town next weekend. In the interim, it’s been just delicious to have no plans. Fruit of last weekend’s aimless Iowa wanderings to come on this blog. Hint: It’s more flowers and prairie gorgeousness and one chubby bumblebee.

 

 

Baby J.

Something happens with nieces. You start creating mobile photo albums devoted to this little girl, watching videos of tummy time and waiting for your favorite part (that split second when she scrunches up her nose), making the 8-hour trip to see her with no thought to the time and travel, just for a chance to hold her for an hour or three.

My little June curls into a hot little ball against your shoulder and snoozes or squeaks or fusses. Her hair gets curly after a particularly sweaty nap, and one eye scrunches up more than the other when she grins — just like mine. She has her mama’s nose and her grandpa’s goofy facial expressions.

Sometimes she’s sleepy:

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Sometimes she’s sassy, telling it like it is:

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Mostly, she’s our chunky little goofball:

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And she’s the spitting image of her gorgeous mother:

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K + K.

This lady got married Saturday, the culmination of three straight nights of parties starting with the bachelorette festivities (Annie and I pulled out our pinkest heels for the occasion).

Katie and I met when we were little college babies — she was my first new friend at Truman — and shared tiny dorm rooms and plates of brownies. I was there for Katie and Kevin’s first date — we all had Forest Park ice-skating plans on the same night — and for their first dog adoption, so it was an honor to stand with her at the ceremony this weekend.

Here’s to firsts and forevers, Katie!

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Down to the river.

Yesterday was so steamy ice cream cones were smoking in the heat. The plan last night: Step 1, Wading in Indian Creek. Step 2, Ice cream for dinner.

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C and I went wading here last summer in the middle of the drought. We hunted mussels species with names like “Plain Pocketbook,”  “Giant Floater,” and “Wabash Pigtoe.” Mussels, fun fact, make curving paths in the creek bed, pulling themselves along with alabaster tongue-like appendages.

This year, the water and the jungle surrounding it were about two feet higher than last. We got dirty and scratched and C guided me through ankle- then knee- then thigh-high parts of the river to our secret mussel grounds. Pinkie finger-size fish were all over me, doing that head bump/nibble thing they’re wont to do when you’re in their turf and the food chain is topsy-turvy. C passed unscathed, King of the Creek.

IMG_1906IMG_1915You can kind of see one of my little mussel buddies scurrying along under water there.

We broke for ice cream at the best DQ in town (they’re liberal with the hot fudge), then a drive through Bever Park turned into a dip at the public pool there which is whoa — a throwback. I don’t think I’ve been to a neighborhood pool in a decade, the most memorable times being the year we lived in Indianapolis and went to the pool with cousins every other day all summer long. I was about 10. One thing you forget, they’re crowded. And shallow. And still, so much fun, especially with a belly full of soft serve as the sun sets.