Ogunquit, Maine, USA
Welcome to my first travel post from the good ol’ USA, my home country, which is beautiful and grand but often neglected in my travel tales. Recounted for you here are a handful of the sights we saw in southwest Maine, where Erik and I visited our friends for a week. Kelly was our most excellent guide who planned 7 days of fun activities for us.
As I’m writing this, I’m dipping pretzels into dark chocolate orange sauce I brought home from the Stonewall Kitchen in York, Maine, an evil little establishment that gives out loads of free samples all over the store so that before you know it, you are standing in the check-out line with an armload of jellies, sauces, dips, etc., licking your lips in anticipation of eating them in your own kitchen (or office, as the case may be).
Though it would be pretty to see Maine in the summer when it is full of leaves and blooms, we also learned the Ogunquit area will be similarly full of tourists. We saw the huge beach parking lots and heard the tales of hours of waiting for popular restaurants. But we had the pleasure of walking the beaches in near solitude, spending quiet time with the seagulls and waves … always a refreshing activity.
Also took the time to watch the snails make tracks in the sand. I found this very entertaining. In Mexico I like watching the crabs skitter around on the beach; I don’t think I’ve ever taken time to watch snails lumber along. They made an extensive network of paths, and watching one individual for awhile, I found they moved a little more quickly than I might have imagined. It’s interesting watching their little antennae things move around, their strange squishy foot glide through the wet sand. Ocean critters are really so fascinating.
A small tide pool in the rocks containing what I thought was a rather artistic array of plant life …
As well, we were mostly by ourselves walking a variety of nature trails. This one around Mackinaw Island has an area designated for fairy houses. Anyone can build one, but it has to be out of only natural materials less than three feet in length. I’m kind of inspired now to go build some in the forest next to my house where I take my kitties for walks. (If you are a Facebook friend of mine, you’ll know this is a regular activity my felines and I engage in.)
Also on this trail is a small pet cemetery where a former governor buried his beloved horse and a large number of dogs.
Another unique stop on the itinerary Kelly planned for us was a Lithuanian monastery, St. Anthony’s. The outside of the building was quite traditional, but the interior was beautifully and tastefully modern, abstract and complex. So much more contemplative than your typical cathedral rose window. I didn’t take any photos inside … there was a man praying in the pews and I felt it would be intrusive, especially since I had the DSLR which makes such a resounding shutter click. (My beloved little G9 bit the dust and I have to get a new one.) There is also a lovely nature trail on the grounds which includes several grottoes and statues, ponds, benches, and contemplative spots. In the midst of a bustling tourist mecca along the southeast coast, it really seemed a quiet spot of refuge.
If you read my blog posts with any regularity, you’re surely aware that beer and I are very good friends. Trying new beers and enjoying my favorites are two of my most beloved activities. Maine is an excellent location for a person with such an interest in beer. Many local breweries serving up a nice spread of different types, provided ample tasting opportunities. Of the ones I tried, I settled, as did Erik, on Gritty’s out of Portland as our favorite, both in the grocery store bottle and the draft in the pub.
My favorite activity in Portland was the Portland Museum of Art. For a relatively small city, it’s an impressive collection of top-notch art from the most famous masters to Maine locals. My favorite was a featured exhibition of black and white photography documenting the lives of migrant workers on blueberry farms, harvesting by the traditional method of “raking.” Though the photos were taken in the last several years, they are spookily reminiscent of Dust Bowl era photos. The Blueberries of Wrath, instead of The Grapes of Wrath. The blueberry rakers lead a life of back-breaking labor for the privilege of existing in near poverty. I’m not entirely sure I can enjoy blueberries the same way I used to.
Naturally, we visited a variety of lighthouses.
We also took a day trip by train to Boston, a city I had never visited. My friend, Cindy, was our most excellent and competent guide here, bee-lining us to her favorite features with an efficiency that allowed us to see much more of the city than we would have wandering around on our own.
These are from the Boston library, my favorite of the buildings we visited.
From an exhibit in the library composed of dioramas. A dying art, I think.
Of course, we had to swing by the “Cheers” bar of the television series fame. Cindy and I pose with a huge post of the cast.
My favorite sight overall was this small cemetery in the middle of the city containing the graves of several famous Revolutionary historical figures and many graves from the early and mid-1700s. Interesting to me was some of the spelling … as some words were still spelled in an older English style, for example, “Here lyes So-And-So” rather than “Here lies.” At first I was a bit creeped out by the tombstone iconography, which I had not realized was the traditional graveyard iconography of the day, the skull-and-crossbones and the skull with wings. Now everything is all froofy angels and lambs. Maybe I have a darker soul, but I rather like the simplicity and the acknowledgement of the stark truth of our earthly existence exemplified in the skulls.
The most amusing thing to me was the Old State House which once would have been viewed as a somewhat grand building but now is almost comically dwarfed by the modern buildings surrounding it. Outside the state house is where five people were killed in the “Boston Massacre” of 1770. Honestly, I didn’t know five people constituted a “massacre.” But the funny thing, which I cannot really explain to you, is the hand-painted sign of an 1800s feel inside the state house on the second level above a window which overlooks the area where the colonials were killed. It says, “Boston Massacre Site. View it here!” It’s like an old traveling circus sign pointing to the side show freaks. Maybe the humor is all manifest in the exclamation point, I can’t really say. But, rather tastelessly, I couldn’t stop chuckling (at the sign, not the historical event).
But back to Maine, we took some lovely walks along the beaches, both sandy and rocky, including this one along "The Marginal Way" not far from where we were staying in Ogunquit, ending at Perkins Cove. Lots and lots of seaweed, piled up at low tide in extremely thick, squishy masses. I was fascinated again with the snails, this time making their way up delicate strands of seaweed. Also lots and lots of seashells here. It happened that I'd bought myself a little birthday gift in Perkins Cove and so had a bag with me, into which I dropped a few fistfuls of shells carefully chosen from the piles among the rocks ... collecting seashells is one of my favorite activities. To some degree I don't even care if they make it back to Colorado with me, I just enjoy looking, finding and inspecting, and there is something important about the actual collection into a bag or bucket or what have you. But after that, it doesn't matter so much what happens to them.
Knowing how much I love waterfalls, Kelly was determined to show me at least one. A very short walk through the woods near Westbrook brought us to this sweet tumble of water called Jewel Falls.
Many thanks to Kelly for planning a lovely itinerary for us in coastal Maine.
As a round-up from Iceland, I present you some more shots from the road, most of them taken from a moving vehicle, either through the front windshield or my passenger window, which Erik usually kindly rolled down when he saw me raise my camera.
The only other country I’ve driven through with comparably lonely roads, void of vehicles for miles and miles, is Lesotho. The difference is in Lesotho, there are people everywhere – tending cows or sheep, plowing fields, washing laundry in the streams, kids walking home from school – there are no cars simply because no one can afford them. Iceland, on the other hand, is a fairly well-off country. (We never saw a single beggar or anyone vaguely like one; theft is nearly unheard of … in Reykjavik city we were told we should maybe consider locking the vehicle and put GPS in the glove compartment, but anywhere else, we were told, we could pretty much walk away and leave the car running with no worries.) So vehicle ownership isn’t the issue, it’s simply a sparsely-populated and sometimes desolate country. 330,000 people on the whole island, and most live in and around Reykjavik. For a comparison, the USA state very comparable in size (approx. 40,000 square miles) is Kentucky, with a population of 4.3 million. It may seem a subtle difference between a place like Lesotho and Iceland … the roads lack vehicles either way. But it’s a very different feeling when you understand you’re in a landscape trespassed by few. In Iceland, you’re on an island dominated by inanimate geologic forces, hostile landscapes of volcanoes, lava fields, and glaciers. Many describe it as "alien," but I'm more of mind to call it magical. (that word again!) In any case, you are acutely aware of the monumental geological forces that have shaped our planet.
The few people who live sprinkled around the island outside Reykjavik, either in coastal fishing villages or on farmland, seem a bit heroic in their lonely and harsh existence. This heroism was continually accentuated by how tiny the houses and barns looked against the dramatic landscape looming all around. For example, I’ve point out here, in the first photo below, the house and barn, little specks below the mountains.
In Iceland, like no place I’ve ever been, a farm or a hotel literally makes a village, at least according to road signs and the paper map we carried. The existence of one or two buildings can warrant a placement on the map. We eventually worked out that many road signs must indicate individual homesteads rather than an actual village. The road sign in the first photo below won’t be appreciated by everyone … but for all you Star Trek fans out there, we found it amusing (a cross with Austin Powers).
Many of the farm buildings looked rather abandoned, but being winter, I couldn’t really ascertain if they truly were or not, as there was no activity on the farms, regardless. I have a fondness for architectural abandonment as it is – abandoned buildings draw my attention and my emotions more than the inhabited – and the ones in Iceland which had this look were particularly appealing, set in such a vast and empty land.
We always catch up on our pop music whenever we rent a car in a foreign country. They’re the most ubiquitous stations, and though we never listen to that kind of thing at home, it’s what we listen to in other countries who have radio reception (we also spend some time with dead air, the places we travel). It comes in handy when we visit a club or something, to be a little current. Icelandic radio stations, however, are often completely random, with an incredible variety of every kind of music on one station. For example, songs from musicals such as The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins backing up to some rock n’ roll song which leads to country, morphing into gospel, then some news, then back to rock n’ roll. Never a dull moment on the radio dial. Well, except when there’s no reception on long empty stretches of road. But I had the astute foresight to bring some CDs with me from home to fill what I anticipated would be some reception voids.
Most of the population outside Reykjavik is found closer to the coastline. We passed through this city (“city” by Icelandic standards) several times on our travels to take advantage of the public toilets (few and far between) and fast food restaurants located in the gas stations (the cheapest food options in the generally fabulously expensive country … pretty much any large gas station also has a fast food joint in it).
A couple extra shots from our adventures around the Golden Circle (“adventures in water”). First, a lake and island within the Ϸingvellir (Ϸ = “th”) park. After that, a couple shots of the interesting little water streams we were looking at when the Geyser at Geysir came raining down upon us.
Here’s a full shot of The Church in Reykjavik. It lacks a little pizzazz in the bland gray light, but you get the idea. It towers over the rest of the city. This is the primary landmark in the old part of the city. It’s like the compass for the whole tourist sector. People give you directions in terms of “walk toward the church,” “just north of the church,” etc.
I posted only Erik’s photos of the Northern Lights which we experienced outside Reykjavik on St. Patrick’s Day. Though I was largely disappointed with mine … I came to find out later their dimness/vagueness was largely due to the fact I didn’t think to remove the polarizing lens from my camera … after I got home, I decided some had merit. The first ones I think help give a sense of scale to how much the lights fill the sky (like, completely). You can see a road in the first one, a low range of hills in the second (next to the ski area), our car in the third. After that, a couple with interesting shapes … starting a swirl, and the last one reminds me in some way of a butterfly. The white dots all over are stars.
Lastly, I would like to point out one interesting note of Icelandic history … Over and over, when we read plaques in museums or at churches, ruins and sights along the road we stopped to investigate, the hero of the story was very often in fact a heroine. Not through feats of physical strength, rather, Icelandic ladies seem to be very stalwart and determined, and they stick to their guns. In other words, they get things done. A model I can only hope to emulate.
Thanks for following me on yet another remarkable journey. How often do I get to take photos while wearing crampons? How often do I cross a river on a cable wire? Hang out with seals and the prettiest horses? See the Northern Lights?!! All this and more was mine in Iceland ... a truly wonderful country.
The legs are mine; those are bruises. The caption that accompanies this photo is Erik’s quote of the day, uttered with genuine sadness: “Spider Shark only lived one day.” Spider Shark’s life is so short because she will never again try crossing a wire by the same method that so impressed Erik, looking, apparently, like a spider. (Shark is one of, and the most popular of, my nicknames.)
So how did I acquire these rather painful beauties? I might as well start at the beginning … the guidebook said Glymur Falls was the tallest in Iceland. It wasn’t a far drive from Reykjavik, and though you must hike several kilometers to see it, we had until about 1:00pm before we needed to head for the airport (from the trailhead) to go home. So we decided to spend the morning before our rather important flight undertaking a hike that others had described (online in blogs) as “challenging,” “not for the faint-hearted,” “dangerous,” etc., as well as taking more time than we had. (Because that’s the way we roll …) So we were aware of the cable-wire river crossing, that if you wanted the full view of the falls you had to take the path that crossed the river, and I warned Erik that when we reached it, I might wuss out.
It was a cold (about 32 F/0 C) and very windy morning, and when we arrived at the crossing, it was clear that falling in an icy river and getting wet in this weather would be extraordinarily unpleasant.
We hemmed and hawed, both of us feeling nervous about it. I didn’t know it at the time, but Erik was apparently feeling even more trepidation than I was. I have an unfortunately dainty and flawed build in much of my body (I often tell people I was built to be a couch potato), my hands in particular regularly suffer from tendonitis and are very wimpy. My primary concern was having the strength in my hands to make it across the wire. But I knew I would regret turning back, so I stood patiently at the river’s edge until my courage built up to a sufficient level, then said, “OK,” and clung onto the wire. After I was across, Erik followed.
The bruises come from my rather ungainly method of crossing, hooking and unhooking my legs from the wire, moving them one in front of the other in a way that Erik exuberantly insisted looked like a spider crawling across the wire. “You look just like a spider! That’s so cool!” This way made me feel the most secure because I didn’t have the strength to just lock my legs around the wire and pull my body weight across with my hands. It was a bit of an uphill haul crossing that direction and honestly, I barely made it. It actually took more courage for me to cross going back home because I knew then how difficult it would be for me. But that direction was downhill and it turned out to be easier. The sorest part of Erik’s body ended up being the muscles in his arm because of what he said was his “death grip” on the wire while crossing.
As we predicted, it was worth the unconventional river crossing. Once we climbed uphill to the top of the plateau, we had marvelous views of the valley to the ocean.
The cliffs oozed water everywhere, now frozen. I’m sure it’s lovely in summer, but truly I think it’s more of a uniquely magical place in winter with everything frozen, taking up far more space than running water, creating glassy shapes, and standing out boldly from the rock. Sometimes it looked like frosting on a cake.
So … steeply uphill across snow and skree and frozen rivulets, fighting a wind that sometimes almost knocked me over. (Are we having fun yet? Well, actually yes, we are in our way.)
To be rewarded with a full view of the waterfall from top to bottom. The lighting was (again) miserable, and I can’t claim to have captured much of its essence, the colors are funky, but there is my shot at it. This is the first view we came across of pretty much the whole fall (disappears a bit near the bottom into the narrow box canyon). You can pick out the thin stream of still-running water far to the right in the bottom third. The photos I’ve seen of these falls in summer show a fairly narrow strip of water falling down all silver and shimmering and obviously lovely. But look how wide the fall is in winter, with the spray frozen onto the rocks all around. I'm really quite a champion of these winter waterfalls. In case you wonder about the consistent blue hue, it comes from the glacial water and the color comes from "glacial flour," basically sediment in the water. It always has a kind of cornflower-blue tint, sometimes darker blue, and sometimes almost a sea green. You'll find this in any large body of glacial water ... rivers, lakes, waterfalls. I don't know what causes the change from bluish to purplish at these falls.
You can ultimately hike all the way to the top of the falls, but we didn’t have the time, and had already succeeded in getting perhaps the most rewarding view … the entire length. One particularly fun feature along the trail is a tunnel you have to walk through, with one entrance from the top and two exits, like the eye sockets of a skull, at the bottom.
The other point of amusement this day was while we were driving around trying to remember where the trailhead was, we met the fastest little dogs I’ve ever seen. We had found the trailhead another day when it was too late to start a hike, and thought we remembered the route without consulting the map. Turns out we were wrong, but it was pretty much worth it to have gotten temporarily lost for the pleasure of witnessing these dogs. We clocked them running beside us at about 55 km/hr (34 mph). They chased us on our way in for a long time. After we finally lost them, it wasn’t long before we realized we were on the wrong road and had to turn around. Those dogs knew we would be coming back and they were literally waiting to ambush us as we drove by again, springing from the bushes in the ditch and chasing us maniacally.
We changed clothes back at the hotel, though we had checked out they let us dress in the changing rooms in the spa, as the hotel was right on the way to the airport. Arrived with plenty of time to check in, so we finished off the last of our duty-free beers in the truck with the radio on. Turned the car off and politely popped the hood and reconnected the battery wire so the rental people could start the car to move it back to their lot (we were to park in the public parking and they’d retrieve it).
Making our way through the Reykjavik airport, both on arrival and departure, was the quickest, smoothest international airport/flying experience I’ve ever had. I would almost say it was a pleasure, but I can’t bring myself to go quite that far; it was still an airport.
One more post to come with miscellaneous photos from the road.
This was a day in which we started out early but with no particular agenda. We looked at the map and decided what was reasonably accessible to us, and decided to head for the north. Owing to a mention in the guidebook, we aimed for the town of Blönduós as our first destination. We arrived there a bit peckish, right around lunch time. The town is printed in large letters on the map, generally indicative of a sizable place. But everything is on such a small scale here, and it’s all relative, so in fact large letters on an Iceland map indicate only a small town. The guidebook mentioned the modern church here was worth looking at. I was thinking, how will we find the church? But actually the better riddle is, how could we not find the church? We drove around through a little cluster of buildings and noticed one was a guest house advertising meals. It looked just like a regular private home, and I felt a little odd just opening the door and walking in. In a small front room a handful of tables were arranged, so we seated ourselves. Ended up having a delicious lunch. The lady proprietor told me even though it wasn’t on the menu she could make up an omelet. As I normally live on eggs for breakfast at home, when she said that, my mouth watered, having been subsisting on instant oatmeal for the past week. A shot of the thriving metropolis of Blönduós:
We had decided we might drive around the peninsula which this town was at the base of. We selected a town on the far end as a destination to put into the GPS unit that came with our rental car to see how long it would take, but the GPS would not secure a signal. So we decided to ask the lady how long it would take and if it was a worthwhile endeavor. She was Polish and decided her Icelandic husband would be better suited to answer the question, and so called him out from some other room. Initially annoyed with the GPS, we were ultimately grateful for its weakness, as it did us an enormous favor by forcing us to ask the proprietor and consult our paper map.
The man clued us in to the real draw of the local area, for some odd reason neglected in the guide book, which was the wild seals and also orca whales. And these were to be seen around a different peninsula that we hadn’t considered touring. Well, when we heard “seals,” we obviously changed plans to go try to find them along the coastline.
After thanking our hosts perhaps overly profusely, we got in the truck, turned the key, and found the battery dead as a doornail. Nothing at all transpired when the key turned. Flabbergasted at this turn of events, Erik went back inside and asked for jumper cables. The man sent somebody else to find a jumper cable “kit,” as he didn’t have any. We waited only a short period of time and soon a fellow drove up in a truck, and in the process of hooking up the cables noticed that the wire to the positive terminal on the battery had come off. He fixed that up quickly with a wrench and we were good to go. For the rest of the trip, though, the wire came off every time we drove. So each time we started the car up, we had to first pop the hood and Erik would reconnect the wire. But we were so thankful that happened to us where it did, as we might not have noticed that wire ourselves and freaked out if the car didn’t start when we were in the middle of nowhere, as we often were stopping to take pictures or investigate a point of interest indicated by a sign on the road. Most of Iceland, for the record, is "in the middle of nowhere."
For example … we stopped at a sign indicating ruins, photo below. We would have had to walk for ages in bitterly cold wind to find a house and hope someone was home to help us. (we opted to travel per our modus operandi, without a cell phone) They were ancient ruins from the 900s AD, their function somewhat contested. Their location on a high bluff seems to me like evidence for the theory of a fort.
Some scenery along the empty roads in the north.
I didn’t get many photos of the horses we rode earlier in the trip. Though we passed many herds while driving, it was difficult to capture them in focus through the car window … getting a picture of a huge mountain while moving is one thing, of a small horse while moving is another. So I asked Erik to stop near a herd and I got out of the car and walked toward them to get some close-up shots. With my 250mm lens on, I didn’t have to get very close physically. But as soon as I got in the range I wanted, the horses came up to the fence like they wanted some attention. I couldn’t resist them, so I walked over, and sure enough they all wanted to be petted. I hadn’t thrown a coat on or anything, I didn’t anticipate being outside long. So I stood there shivering and petting all the horses. They are seriously the sweetest, gentlest creatures you could hope to meet.
And their shaggy manes and thick-furred ears are so pretty. The ride-master (as I call her) told me their hair continues to grow longer as they grow older, so if you see a particularly shaggy horse, it will be an old one. A lot of the horses have their manes cut short in the front … I would presume these are the ones that are ridden the most.
This fella, though, needs a hair cut. Look at how beautiful his ears are, outlined in black. I love him! (or her … didn’t look to see which)
These two seemed to be particular pals, standing next to each other the whole time and nuzzling one another in addition to me.
Such small horses (more like the size of ponies) in such a large and dramatic landscape of looming mountains somehow makes them even more picturesque. And their long shaggy manes were always blowing in the persistent wind, giving them an almost heroic presence, standing bravely in the arctic weather. When I import my Icelandic baker to bake their delicious bread for me each day, I'm going to have him bring an Icelandic horse for me to keep in the yard and pet each day.
We were wondering aloud to each other how we would spot the seals or know where to look for them. Eventually we saw a little sign with a blue icon of a seal. Bingo! We parked at a farmhouse and followed a rather lengthy path … I was beginning to wonder if the path went on forever and there were no seals out today, when finally I could see a small hut on a rise. Just before reaching the hut, I heard some barking noises just like seals make. A worm of excitement crept up my neck ... I don't know if you get these, but when I have a sudden knowledge that something I've been greatly hoping for is imminently about to happen, I get this peculiar feeling in my neck.
I looked around, almost frantically, and spotted them just off the shore, lounging on rocks and clumps of seaweed.
The hut is a little viewing hut with a couple pairs of binoculars and everything. Really nice to step into now and then to get out of the wind. There were some seals very close on the rocks, some further out, and some swimming playfully in the water.
I like this guy because of his flippers ... first he looked like he was scratching one with the other. Then he just held them together, one on top of the other, looking so prim and proper like a human might sit with their hands folded.
We watched them for quite awhile, but eventually the cold got the best of us and we returned to the car. We decided to get adventurous and take a “highland” road to make a loop going back home rather than simply retracing our steps. Our adventure was cut short after about 10 kilometers, though, by a rope with a neon piece of material around it stretched across the road. It seemed pretty obvious we were not to continue. Slightly disappointed, we traced back to Reykjavik the way we’d come. But the elation of seeing the seals in the wild did not wear off.
Here's a little secret about myself: sometimes at night when I'm in bed but can't fall asleep, I picture all the animals I've seen in the wild as a way to entertain myself in the darkness. Now I have sweet little seals to add to the reel.
It may not have been clear from my posts so far, but we are stationed in Reykjavik for the duration of our stay. As I booked this trip because of the great deal offered by Icelandic Air, it was a package with restrictions … a limit on how many days we could stay and had to stay at one of two specified hotels the whole time in Reykjavik. This actually hasn’t restricted us at all, but should I have the good fortune to return to Iceland, I would want to travel around the island and get to all the nooks and crannies, and move camp each night. But for this trip, a single home-base worked perfectly fine, there is so much to do within reach of Reykjavik.
So we decided to stay “home” on St. Patrick’s Day and spend another day in the city of Reykjavik. Slept in late. We had already scoped out where we wanted to end the day, at an English pub we’d found the first day that had advertised 300 isk Guinness and Kilkenny (my favorite Irish beer). This exchanges to around USD$2.50 a pint. That, my friends, is a darn good deal.
But first we made our way around the old town in wickedly cold, strong wind to see the last couple sights on my list … going to the top of the tower in the church for city views. Sufficient to call it The Church because it’s the tallest thing in the old part of Reykjavik by a long shot, and it’s the one thing you can see from miles away. Locals will direct you around town using that feature as your compass (walk toward the church, walk north of the church, etc.) Here are some views ... such a pretty city, I think.
Next I wanted to check out the “culture house” which is the former national library where there was an exhibit on ancient manuscripts, some of the collection is on loan from Denmark. That was a worthy experience for me. Icelanders are very keen on their sagas, or “eddas,” which are epic tales kept alive mostly by a very strong oral story-telling tradition. Sometimes they’re written down and illustrated. Their illustration style, which is fairly consistent, is unique and reminds me somehow of drawings in old fairy tale books … almost a subtle comical element.
In addition to viewing the old books, there was a room showing the Icelandic manuscript production process … how they made the paper-thin sheepskin pages (yeah, they’re animal skins, not plant-derived paper), how they made the ink dye of various colors and quill pens, insights into the life of a scribe and the physical ailments they tended to acquire, etc.
The old manuscripts have been a source of animosity between Denmark and Iceland regarding their ownership. A few decades ago, Denmark repatriated several of them to Iceland. The ceremony was recorded and you could watch it on a TV. The solemnity with which it was conducted gives you an idea of how seriously these items are respected and treasured in this culture. Here’s a photo I snapped of the television screen, showing the presentation the Danish made to the Icelanders of the largest manuscripts. Imagine having those things on your bookshelf ... a little light reading in bed before going to sleep, perhaps.
Unexpectedly, the top floor of the building contained a modern art exhibit. Though some of it was a bit too avant-garde for our little minds, we enjoyed it and were subsequently inspired to visit the national gallery to see their art exhibits. We felt the national gallery was a bit of a disappointment, but it was a small entrance fee, and of course that’s just our personal taste. My favorite part was looking out the upper level window at the swans gathered on a partially-frozen pond. And kind of a crazy thing we saw, was this guy striding across the pond, at first glance looking like Jesus walking on water. The ice didn’t appear to be very thick at all, and this illustration of faith in it rather impressed us.
And here's the kitty cat of the day, citizen of Reykjavik.
Then to our pub where we were crowned with St. Patrick’s day Guinness hats and beads while I swilled an undisclosed number of Kilkennys. One thing that amused me that I’ve never encountered in America and probably wouldn’t … I think we’re a little uptight about this kind of thing … every time I went to the Ladies room, there were men in it. They were just employees working … refilling toilet paper, getting bar supplies from the storage unit that was accessed through the full length mirror, which was actually a door, etc. But nobody paid any mind to anybody else, just business as usual; once one of the guys was chatting with one of the ladies telling her how Guinness is a very low-calorie beer (true), and that if she were to be on a diet she should drink Guinness. She was close to busting some seams on her leather pants … I wondered if he was giving her a hint or just unaware that’s a pretty stupid thing to say to a girl. She didn’t seem put out.
And THEN … we were walking back through the city to go “home,” when I looked up at the sky and noticed what I first thought were airplane contrails. But as I studied how they moved yet never dissolved, and then discerned a pale green hue, I began to suspect an aurora. A minute later, a girl from across the courtyard (we were walking in front of The Church) shrieked into the night, “Look, it’s the northern lights!” (in English) Goosebumps rose up underneath my sweaters and heavy coat and scarf.
Let me give a wee bit of back story. The Northern Lights is something on my Top 10 list of things to see and has been there for ages. When I saw this great deal to Iceland, though I’ve always wanted to see the island, the first thing that went through my head was “northern lights.” So it was a huge motivating factor in booking this trip. We’d been in Iceland since Tuesday morning, it was now Sunday and we were leaving the following Tuesday night. We had checked the aurora forecast (solar flare activity) every day to find disappointing numbers of 1 or 2 out of 9, meaning very quiet on the sun, and hence no lights. So I was quite surprised to see those lines above the church. We hurried back to the hotel and asked the front desk staff about it. We said we thought we’d seen a trace of them and wondered if we drove out of town if we’d see them better. (we already presumed this and had done so the night before with no luck, but decided to double check) The guys said, “Yes! It’s the best forecast of the year! You should go out.” This seemed highly improbable to me given the “2” on both aurora forecast websites. “They just changed it,” the hotel guys said.
So we grabbed some camera gear and extra clothes and bee-lined to a place we’d already scoped out in our driving as a good candidate for watching – a ski area not too far out of town. And there, I got to cross off another item from my list, lucky little devil that I am. That makes 5 crossed off of my Top 10. Green lights on St. Patrick’s day could hardly be more appropriate. I can’t really gauge Erik’s reaction to and assessment of the experience because I was so overwhelmed by my own. I squealed like a pig in excitement (no joke, I really did) and was jumping up and down outside with glee. It was so cold that we spent a lot of time inside the truck … the lights sort of come and go – they’ll be filling the sky very brightly and morphing quickly into discreet shapes and lines, and then they sort of dissolve into a general green mist. Sometimes they wavered almost like a curtain of light in the sky. During those misty times we’d sit in the car waiting for them to build up again into shapes and then go outside. I can see why people get addicted to tracking them … such a tiny little taste, I definitely am not satiated. My photos didn’t turn out well, as I was woefully unprepared for the shooting conditions and got frustrated trying to operate the camera, so I just gave up. Honestly, it's one of the few occasions I'm not really even bummed I didn't get photos, because they can't remotely capture the feeling of having this light fill the sky above and all around you. (Though now I'm super inspired to see them *again* and be better equipped to photograph them!) But here are a few glimpses anyway of what we got in our cameras. The big white thing is the moon.
So here’s what happened: it turns out that on Friday an unexpected large flare (coronal mass ejection) happened on the sun but it took until Sunday to reach Iceland, and the forecasts hadn’t been adjusted. It arrived during the daytime, unfortunately, but fortunately we caught them just as darkness fell, so we had the maximum time available to see them, which turned out to be only a couple hours, before they faded away. We talked to some folks the next day on our travels up north who described an incredible display, illustrating that the further north you go, the more intense. But I’m just pleased as the fruitiest, sweetest punch that I got to witness them at all. Mission accomplished.