Aug 21 2010


We’re back in Reykjavik. In a glorious hotel with satellite TV and too many pillows. It’s grand.

It’s the point in the trip where we cross over from present tense to future tense, to thinking about things that need to get done, people we’ll get to see, about home. Emails have gone out and a dinner reservation’s been made, concert tickets have been purchased. The September of a new school year approaches.

Yesterday at dinner we both exhaled and said we were ready to come home. I think we were both a little nervous to admit it and maybe devalue what we had been doing and were doing. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or to appear less than fully present as we still had several hundred kilometers and a long weekend ahead of us. But an agreement was made that it is a good thing to be ready to come home. And it feels good to be homesick, though I wish there was a word that didn’t imply sickness. We need a milder diagnosis. It’s not a yearning or a desperation. It’s an anticipation and a swelling sense of the next. It’s a good feeling. One we’re relishing as we think about all that will be done on the new house in the days after the plane lands.

It feels good, too, to be back in Reykjavik. We know the street names, we know where we are. We aren’t trying to get anywhere. We’re in a transition for these next few days. If we’re working with the sick-ness trope, this is the quarantine. Thank goodness we’re not Icelandic ponies or we’d be here forever.

Aug 20 2010

# 8197

Despite my best efforts to cuddle with a puffin, two other animals have dominated our Icelandic experience. Brett pet a cow yesterday and we were followed by an overly social group of chickens, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

The first is the Icelandic horse. It is really lovely. We were told by Mosel, this odd-duck, Bluetooth-wearing woman we met who also randomly trains horses all about how special they are. They are gentle and friendly. They show well, but if you take one abroad for a competition you generally have to leave it as the quarantine period for a horse’s return is prohibitive. A very sad thought indeed. Since they are such an isolated species, they have limited immunity to all the grossness of less-magical ponies.

Pretty cute.

They are also magical because they have five (or six) gaits. Most horses only have three (or four) (walk, trot, canter/gallop…canter/gallop are sometimes separated). The Icelandic horse’s fifth gait is called the tölt, known for explosive speed and a comfortable ride.  This link is so, so worth the 19 seconds (they’ve turned off embedding.)  The sixth is very rare.  It’s the skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace”.

Here’s what it looks like:

Not as awesome as the tölt, but pretty sweet.

The other animal that we see, as there are far more of them than people, is sheep. Seriously, they are everywhere. If you look to the left or right, there are sheep. If you look on the craggiest hillside that looks steeper than steep, they’re there too. The Ring Road is a two-land highway. The threat of sheep attack is constant. They loom on the side of the road.

They glare at you to remind you that you are invading their space.

They run in front of your car.

The speed limit on the good bits of the Ring Road is only 90km/h. That is still very fast when dopey sheep are in the way. If you suffer the misfortune of hitting one, it is your responsibility to track down the owner and offer compensation. Considering the sheep don’t seem to notice the electric fences (Brett can tell you how he knows they’re electric), it seems a much realer possibility than I had given credence to initially.

Oh, what’s #8197?  That’s the big ram staring us down.  His ear tag told me so. He’s one of just under 500,000 potential speed bumps out there on our last two days. Fingers crossed.

Aug 18 2010

On the Road.

Tonight we arrived in Akureyri in northern Iceland. The town is cute as a button and quite a nice place to rest five days into our Ring Road adventure. We’ve survived some pretty foul weather. We’ve seen some pretty incredible things.

Here’s a sampling.

Clouds rolling in on the ring road

black sand beaches of vik

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon

Sænautasel Farm


Krafla caldera

we made this ourselves, outside Mývatn

Dimmuborgir lava field

Ásbyrgi canyon


Aug 17 2010

Operation Fork

Clearly, our walks around this city provided ample time to talk about very important things.  Future plans, big dreams.  And RISK!

I’m sorry?  Yes, I mean the board game.

thanks A Lefty on Flickr

I picked that photo because it has the armies that were roman numerals.  Now they’re all soldiery and stuff like this:

RISK! came up because I remember playing it and always debating the strategic importance of Iceland.  More accurately, I remember hating playing it (Brett loved it). Why is it too much for me?  Because I do not have a mind for strategy and things like this exist.

Most of the Icelandic history we’ve been regaled with has been of a fairly ancient sort.  There are Vikings and Sagas.  Tales woven with runes and the marks of early Christianity.  Modern Icelandic history was a bit sketchier.  I knew Iceland had been under the control of the Danes up until World War II at which point they declared their independence.  The Danish were under Nazi occupation so they weren’t really in a position to protest.

Over the course of our month here I’ve tried to learn a bit more.  In general I like to believe history comes easily to me.  I have a facility with dates and a pretty good memory.  But the complicated names and nameplaces have made me a poor, poor student.

The one thing I’ve taken away for sure was being quite surprised to learn about the joint British/US invasion and occupation of Iceland.  Yes, you heard me right.  We occupied this place.

Much like a game of RISK! (gotta get that exclamation point in there), Iceland’s strategic importance wasn’t lost to the Axis or the Allies.  Germany tried to play nice with Iceland, which seems surprising since the Nazis are not remembered for their ability to play nice.   Apparently, this playing was confined primarily to friendly soccer matches between Germany and Iceland.  Yup, soccer.

Iceland stayed decidedly neutral once the war started.  It did manage to declare its independence (easier since its ability to communicate with Denmark was considerably hampered as Denmark was occupied).  Still, the lack of the usual wild hostility of the Nazis worried the British.  They attempted a few times to get Iceland to join the Allies.

And when the Icelanders refused, the British invaded.  Yup, they invaded a neutral nation in 1940.  It was called Operation Fork, which is just about the worst military name ever.   It was also terribly planned.  No one in the expedition spoke Icelandic and some of the maps were drawn from memory.

The British then turned the occupation over to the US in 1941.  Right, when we were still technically a neutral nation.  So we occupied a neutral nation while we were a neutral nation.

Nope, I never knew that.

Aug 16 2010

The Sporting Life

Wikipedia declared knowingly that “Sports in Iceland are very popular.”  Ahhh, insightful!

We learned early on that swimming is big.  And that handball is considered the national sport.  I must admit, I don’t know what that is (except something you are not allowed to do in soccer).  I do know that the entire Olympic Silver medal winning 2008 team had their penises cast in silver and are hanging in the Icelandic Phallological Museum (which has models of every mammal in Iceland, even those that don’t win medals).

Anyway, let’s focus.  Iceland is also currently the top ranked nation in the World’s Strongest Man competition with 8 wins.  Feats of strength (not sure about daring do) are right up Iceland’s alley.  They also excel in the more cerebral sporting world.  Chess (this is a nation that granted Bobby Fischer citizenship when no other one wanted him) and contact bridge are also considered sports here, and Iceland a world leader.

And of course, the sport that thrives world round, soccer.  There is evidence, thought, that Icelanders do it with a bit more funk.

First, early each August Ísafjörður (we were there Friday and just missed it) in the Westfjords hosts the mud soccer championships.  Curious as to what that looks like?

And even if they are going to just, you know, win in penalty kicks, they’re going to do it with style.  This is courtesy of my favorite soccer fan, Trish Oberhaus.  Thanks Monster.

Aug 15 2010

Ring Road

You might notice the header photo has changed.  Well, that’s because we’re leaving lovely Reykjavik for paths less traveled.  We’re off on our trek around the island.

Yesterday we picked up our car from Geysir rental cars.  Why?  Because they advertised a “Tin Can du Jour”.  Rental cars here are insanely expensive (mandatory collision coverage and you need to factor in gravel protection as the roads get rough).   Tin Can it is.

The adventure is a week-long circumnavigation of Iceland on Route 1, the Ring Road.  Completed in 1974, Þjóðvegur 1 or Hringvegur (Wikipedia also told me) connects all the “habitable” parts of Iceland.  Erm.  Not totally.  Because that weird blob on the top left?  That’s the Westfjords.  We went there.  And there were houses.  More, the Ring Road facilitated transportation around the country which was often made difficult because the interior gets pretty gnarly.

The other best part from Wikipedia?  No, I’m not even going to paraphrase this gem: “The south part of the Ring Road is sometimes destroyed by sudden massive floods caused by geothermal heat and volcano eruptions melting ice under Iceland’s inland icecaps (usually Vatnajökull)”.  Our first night we’ll be right by Eyjafjallajökul!

Here’s a map I found with big blue dots on the places most people stop for a night.

Those big white blobs are glaciers.  Yup, there are some huge honking glaciers here.  That really big one, Vatnajökull, makes up 8% of the country and has seven volcanoes under it.  That is awesome.

So, we’ll be driving the 1339km in the next week.  One lane in each direction, and huge stretches of highway that see less than 100 cars per day.  Our heads are just about to explode with excitement.

Camping is popular and easy here. Almost every town has a campsite and many folks simply ask the nearest farmer for advice on flat land.

Since the banking crash last year, many farmers have been struggling. Getting clever, many turned their barns or extra buildings into guest quarters. You can help out on the farm or sample their home made ice cream! We’re excited to stay in a farm out on the East Fjords Monday night (we’re trying a category II).

Fear not fellow travelers, I’ve planned ahead.  Posts have been set up even as we’ll be camping and staying in farm houses.  They’ll be a little bit different from the last month, but I think you will enjoy them. So, do come on back and check.  You never know when a special treat from the road will appear!

We’re back in town on Friday in time for Brett to run the Reykjavik Half Marathon on Saturday!

Aug 14 2010

Saturday Evening Post

Here are a few select photos from our week.
Taken by me, curated & edited by Brett.

Near Nesjavellir Power Plant

Lake Þingvellir



Vigur Island

Vigur Island

Vigur Island




Aug 13 2010

How we defeated Friday the 13th and wound up having a pretty great day.

Today we flew up to Ísafjörður. It’s in the largest town in the Westfjords, the fingery extensions of land in the north west of the country. They aren’t easily accessed from the Ring Road (as they believe trolls tried to separate the Westfjords from the island, duh) so we figured we should get on up there before we head out.

It’s the red dot at the top (Reykjavik is the red dot at the bottom.)

The early portion of our day pointed to an epic disaster in the making. I woke up around 6:20 (before the alarm went off which I always do). As I was cursing my personal clock I began thinking how impossible it was that our plan was to leave at 7:30. This is because our flight was leaving at 8. We both knew this and yet somehow in planning yesterday that became the plan. So we rallied as best as one can rally that early. Then we realized it was pouring. Our trip was to a hard to reach airport for a day of kayaking and hiking. Pouring rain was not going to do us any good.

We bolted into the early morning streets of Reykjavik and began a mad search for a cab. We’re about a block from the cab stand and were furtively darting between the empty stand and the busier block (this is after a cab drove away as the stand came in view). Standing in the pouring rain, running late we both started making jokes about how it wouldn’t be so bad to just stay home. Neither of us could tell if the other person was joking. I don’t think either of us were.

So yes, we got a cab and yes we got to the airport in time. In fact, we got there an hour early because our flight was delayed. We had a discussion about what would happen to our guided kayak tour as we were not there.  We had a discussion about how nice more sleep would’ve been.  And we agreed that we were going to fight the day back. We weren’t going to budge an inch. And you know what? We. Won. Take that stinky pretend bad luck day.

The Ísafjörður airport is not for the faint of heart. You land in a terrifying u-turn in between the mountainous pieces of fjordiness.

If you don’t think that’s a good representation, it is apparently very popular to video and put on YouTube.

We landed (obviously safely) and were absolutely taken with just how lovely the town is.  Home to about 3000 people, Ísafjörður takes picturesque to insane levels.  After a bit of confusion regarding who was picking us up we got to the heart of town.  At the information center they told us to hustle to the kayak center.  It was now 10:30, when our kayak trip should have been ending.

Our hustle was one filled with hypotheticals about how it would all work. Would they shorten the tour? Was it going to rain and we should just kind of skip it?  Our guide was waiting as was a cute puppy and two French people. Looks like they waited and looks like we were going. Our guide said his name was Arrow.  I google translated and got Arrow.  So, that’s what we’re working with.  As Brett thinks I tend to pick silly pictures of him, here’s me in my haute kayak skirt, jacket, and life vest finery.

And then we began a kayak trip on the most placid water I’ve ever been on with some of the most stunning views surrounding us.

Just how placid was it?
I even got a little panoramic going.

We were very happy.

Brett ranked it in the Top 10 experiences he’s had traveling.  Agreed.

Arrow told us all about the troll that sat on the mountain and left a big butt print.

He also told us about when Mick Jagger came to Ísafjörður and it was apparently a very big deal.  Some day I will own one of the t-shirts made to commemorate.  They read “Jagger was Here.”  He also told us about the petition to close the incinerator used to burn trash which then heats the water.  The locals don’t like it.  It makes for good pictures though.

We tried gently asking about time as we needed to be at the ferry for Vigur at 2.  Arrow was on his own schedule that clearly defied the laws of physics. At 12:45 we were still on the water, bellies grumbling.  Lunch, when we finally got back to shore, was ham and cheese sandwiches on the run from the best smelling bakery ever.  Oh, but they forgot the ham.

I’ll forgive them because the bakery uses this truck to deliver special cakes.

We also saw a knitting cafe.  This is, I suppose, where you go to knit although Arrow told us that wasn’t required.

We clearly didn’t have time to sit or knit so we trotted down to the dock. The ferry ride out was lovely.  Fjords make for some good views.

There was even snow visible still!

We were headed to Vigur, a 40ish minute boat ride. Hello, charming.
That’s about it.  Vigur is tiny.  There is one farm on the island, lots of sheep and not much else.

Oh, but wait.  There are two things.  The only windmill in Iceland.

And the tiniest post office ever (or at least the smallest post office in Europe).  We decided it was this building, based purely on thinking it was cute.

We ambled around, saw lots of birds and avoided sheep poop.  There were some seals out on the rocks and beautiful views.  After walking for a bit everyone was served delicious treats by the farmer’s family.  I ate my weight in pastries.

Then Brett and I wandered off on our own.  Since I now hate puffins and love sheep, we decided to walk closer to the grazing herd.  That was a bad decision. As we got to the edge of the higher grass we locked eyes with a ram.  The ram apparently wanted to play chicken.  It would not look away and the real possibility of being charged by a fluffy animal with terrifying horns began making my feet move.  Brett played it cool to only say later “Yea, he was not happy.”

That’s the one.  This is a shot from earlier so you can’t quite get the feel for it staring us down from far too close for my taste. Oh, the joy of having to explain how we got gored by a ram.  But we weren’t going to lose to today.

After not getting ham but also not getting gored we decided to stop pressing our luck and call it a day.  We wandered back to the ferry.  Hopped aboard.  Got to the airport.  Hopped aboard.  Landed, got a cab and were home safe, sound, happy, and exhausted.  Not bad for a day that started like a Friday the 13th.

Aug 12 2010


Puffins, vikings, and ponies aside, some of Iceland’s most iconic imagery comes from corrugated iron houses.

Being a volcanic island doesn’t leave many options in terms of building materials.  Trees tend to be shrimpy, there isn’t a lot of non-volcanic stone.  After reading a bit of “Corrugated Iron:  Building on the Frontier” by Adam Mornement & Simon Holloway (and by a bit I mean what popped up on Google Books.  How cool is Google Books?) I learned the British brought boatloads of the stuff over starting in the 1860s.  The durability and fireproof-edness made the corrugated iron a big winner for homes, businesses, churches, and anything else you didn’t want to fall down, blow over or be eviscerated in flames.

Not content with standard iron colors of gray or gray, Icelanders got creative. There are lots of whites and browns and blacks.  But here’s a little rainbow trip through some of the other houses we’ve seen in Reykjavik.

Aug 11 2010

Deep, deep breaths.

This is untouched.

Well, it’s cropped, but you know what I mean.

That kind of sky is fairly common here.  It feels good to breathe here.

Yesterday at lunch I was reading a little blurb in a paper about geothermal energy.  The blurb told me that there is as much geothermal energy available as there is energy available from coal, oil, gas and uranium combined.  As we were walking home from our post-lunch trip to the Vöffluvagninn (think perfect waffles with cream and jam), I looked down towards the harbor and the mountain across from us and took a deep breath.

Iceland is incredibly proud, and rightfully so, of its geothermal power.  Photos of Reykjavik in past decades show a city besmoked with coal.  Now, while only 25% of its current electricity comes from geothermal (the rest comes from hydropower) geothermal energy provides all the heating and hot water.  The place is so awesome that they heat their streets to prevent snow and ice from sticking.  The source?  Geothermal energy.  The result?  Clear skies.

How do I know Iceland is proud?  On our trip to the Golden Circle this Sunday our first stop was none of the golden things in the circle (Þingvellir where the first parliament Alþingi was established in the year 930 AD, the geyser Geysir from which all others get their names, and Gullfoss, which literally tranlates to Golden Falls).  In fact, it was to a powerplant.

Before we drove in we saw the piping that brings insanely hot water (over 200º Celsius) to the city.  That water isn’t hot water used directly by Reykjavik’s 200,000 residents, it’s used to heat the water they drink and use.

Where does that awesomely hot water come from?

You know, the hot earth and stuff.

The Nesjavellir Geothermal Plant is the second largest in Iceland.  I learned all this in a powerpoint presentation given in the station.  Then, we pretty much got free run of the place.  The 10-15,000 people on the bus with us viewed all the machinery and other cool stuff (sorry, I don’t know much about geothermal power plants).  The place was eerily empty, minus the small city of people with us.  In fact, the guy giving the presentation (which included shades lowering over everything, including a small conical skylight which Brett described as “awesome”) appeared to be the only person working there.  The shades clued me in that this is a country that is excited to share what it knows.

And it seems like the world should listen.  Here’s a map similar to the one we were shown in the presentation.  It, um, has the hottest geothermal regions marked.

When we saw that map I was all huffy and “So we’ll drill up there in the ANWR and ignore all that hot earth?  What about the porcupine caribou!? Grumble, grumble.”  I had a vision that this post was going to be a gentle screed at why the US lags behind.  Why we ignore the obvious.  Why we want to debate drilling off shore when maybe we should just copy these smart Icelanders.

And then I read some more.  Turns out the US is the largest producer of geothermal energy in the world.  Shame, shame Julie.  In fact, the 2009 power plant of the year (I know, right?) is a Utah geothermal plant built in just six months.  Since 2005 geothermal energy has been given all the tax breaks of the wind energy industry.  Now, most of these plants are in California and we’re probably not going to generate enough power to keep all the TiVos running on just geothermal energy.  But, we generate 15 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of geothermal power per year!  That sound impressive!  Oh. Wait. We use 29 PWh per year.  (What’s a PWh?  It’s big, that’s what it is.  If Kilo is 10³, Peta is 10 to the 15th power.) Crap, that’s a whole lot. And although the US population has doubled since 1950 our energy use has tripled. And, in fact, renewable energy only comprises about 7% of our energy capacity. Huh. Maybe a screed is needed indeed.