Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Battle of Gettysburg

I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, visiting Gettysburg would have been pretty close to the top of it.

In 4th grade we were allowed to pick our own books for the big class book report. While my classmates choose books about candy factories, adventurous rodents, magic castles, and outer space, I choose a 300+ page novel following a young boy through his experiences in the Civil War.

 Far longer and grittier than any of the other choices, I dove into the narrative. I could smell the gun powder, hear the drums, and feel the bullets whistle by, a breath between life and death.

It was from that moment of opening that book that I wanted to visit the battlefield. Many years pasted and my memory of that 4th grade book report faded. Its descriptive passages joined by the speech in Remember the Titans, the documentaries on the History Channel, and a short lived musical on the Broadway stage. More romantic interpretations of the grit of war to be sure, but still filled with the same level of reverence and respect I knew the place, war, and stories commanded.

One thing I was not prepared for was the actual size of the battlefield. The clusters of so many separate events, so many days, and so many lives. To some this may seem like common sense, of course the footprint of the battle was so large. But even though I knew this to be true, standing atop the hills and looking down was the first time that it actually registered.

Even though the time flew too quickly and the winter light rapidly disappeared long before we reached the end of the maps, I’m glad we went at the end of the day.

Dusk brought peace, rest, and a kind of calm that was perfect for taking in all that the rocks, mountains, and monuments told us.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Iceland: Day 5

As with all good adventures, they must come to an end. I won't say that I was glad to see the last day arrive, but it had been an exhausting couple of days, with more walking, climbing, and bracing against wind than I was used to. So as my heart and head were not ready to say goodbye, my body could use some sleep. 

The morning of Day 5 we packed up our bags, had one more hotel breakfast of random Scandinavian delights, and piled on to the bus (which I'll admit is an overused turn of phrase, but it could not be more apt for how our wobbly legs propelled us up the bus stairs).

This was the day I can safely say we'd all been looking forward to. Not because we were leaving (never!) but because we were going to the Blue Lagoon. A little bit about the Blue Lagoon, it's a geothermal pool and spa located on a lava field that also operates as a research facility to help find cures for skin ailments. The warm waters are rich with minerals, such as silica and sulphur, which give the pool its blue-ish white color. 

It was easy to tell when we were approaching the complex. Traveling down roads that looked like the surface of a far off planet, we turned a corner and could see steam rising in the distance. Unknown to us at the time, the water in the pool averages around 98-102 degrees, in blissful contrast to the cold, wet 40 degrees the previous few days had delivered. There probably was a tour for those who wanted to go on one, but for Emily and me, we headed straight to the locker rooms and spent the next 2 hours bouncing from the pool to the steam room to the sauna, then back to the pool for a silica face mask and sunshine, perfect for unknotting each tight, spent muscle. 

It was there, floating around in a milky pool (it wasn't really milk though, ew), that Emily met some of the crew of Thor: The Dark World. No, none of the actors, but still. How cool is that? I still to this day have no idea where I was when all of this transpired, but great life lesson right there; you never know who you're going to meet and what singularly unique insight they posses. 

The two hours flew by entirely too fast and so, with fingers and toes insufficiently pruned, we ran back to the bus (last ones on...again) and headed for Keflavík International Airport. Those of us that had a few hours till our flights boarded hung around on the far side of customs/security. Even more Icelandic souvenirs were found and one last odd cafeteria meal was had. I was saving my krona though. During our bus rides together Argnr made it a point of introducing all of us to as many pieces of Iceland that she could. Shot of Brennivin, pieces of sheeps' head (cut off the actual head with a box cutter!), putrefied shark (I passed on that one), were all set to the music of an eclectic Iceland soundtrack. From Of Monsters and Men to random names I could not pronounce, I was determined to pickup on of her CD suggestions. With my seatbelt securely fastened, complimentary hot beverage in hand, I picked up an Icelandair compilation mix that is now frequently found in my car's CD player.

I'll end this set of posts by saying, if you ever have the chance to go to Iceland, do it. It is really one of the most beautiful, exciting, and welcoming countries. Skal!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Iceland: Day 4

Day 4 of our trip was scheduled as a free day from the trip package activities. With 7am till whenever we collapsed into bed entirely open, Emily and I decided on the Golden Circle Tour through Reykjavik Excursions. A 9 hour day of some of the natural highlights of Iceland; namely the Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir Hot Springs, and Þinggvellir National Park.

Our first stop, however, was not to one of Mother Earth's sights, but to something entirely man made. Rather frequently off to the side of the highway, greenhouses could be seen. With the abundance of geothermal heat available to Iceland due to the tectonic activities, Icelanders have put this energy to good use; harnessing its power to run year long greenhouse compounds in order to grow those crops that cannot survive the harsh climate. 

 For our tour we visited Fridheimar, a greenhouse cultivation center where delicious, pesticide-free tomatoes and cucumbers are grown. A fascinating example of the man and nature made powers coming together. Our host, accompanied by her camera shy and yet curious daughter, explained their growing process from germination to harvest. Special lights (thus the yellow hue in the photos) were used to simulate the sun, while geothermal heat raised the temperature to a balmy high ideal for farming. 
The most interesting part of the process, to me, though, was the pollination stage. Instead of using machines or another man made device, they order boxes of live bees. Once they arrive, the bees are released into the largest greenhouse to lazily roam from plant to plant, pollinating as they go as they would have in the wild. (I will concede that while interesting, being around that many bees did resurrect a few unpleasant childhood memories so I kept my distance from these fat, floating fuzz balls.)

On the other side of the main greenhouse was, as you would expect, a concession stand that sold some truly wonderful tomato soup. Nothing fresher or more local than highlighting what they had, they playfully dressed each table with herbs and scissors for each visitor to garnish their soup to taste.

Before it had cooled though, we were back on the bus and streaking past some more beautiful scenes. My trigger finger on my camera became quickly exhausted with the amount of photos I was taking. Today's cloud cover was particularly mesmerizing.

Next stop, Gullfoss. Often called the queen of Icelandic waterfalls, it plunges into a crevice some 32m (105 ft) deep as the River Hvita (meaning "White River") rambles on. While it may not have been as tall as the other waterfalls, it more than made up for that with its incredible breadth. The footprint of this waterfall was massive. You could hear is roar from the moment you stepped off the bus and feel the spray yards before seeing the falls themselves.

From the first overlook, you could see, well, everything. The two tiered waterfall racing from the top rapids portion into the incredible drop at the end. The wind was strong and the rocks were slippery. So when all that separated you from an incredibly cold and unwanted "bath" was a thin, loose rope, it was best to take caution and keep both hands free.  

Cleverly planned, our tour took us from the frigid water of Gullfoss to the scalding water of the geothermal springs, Geysir and Strokkur. We walked past steaming streams of expelled water is if we were in something of a backwards world. 

First along the path was Geysir, a little bubbling hole in the ground about the size of a manhole cover that was practically frothing with steam. It bubbled and hissed and spat incredibly hot water into the air. Probably in an attempt to be noticed when next to such a show-off other geyser. Strokkur is one of Iceland's most famous geysers and you can easily see why. Every 4 - 8 minutes, the geyser erupts 15-20 meters into the sky, getting sometimes as high as 40 meters (though we were not lucky enough to witness that height). 

When not erupting, Strokkur looked like a pulsing, broken kiddie pool, gradually getting deeper until you reached the black hole at the center. 

A thick ring of tourists stood waiting for it to go off when Emily and I arrived. Some, you could tell, had been there for quite a while. Their clothes were covered in a thick layer spray from each eruption they had witnessed. Others, like us were new and cautiously peeking over the shoulders of the people in front of us. We didn't yet know the signs of a soon to be erupting geyser. 

I now know that Strokkur liked to gather in its water before shooting into the sky. When the water level got to a noticeably low point, that's when you braced yourself. And up the water shot, not in a single column but in a wide slice of water, like someone below the ground pushing a mountain silhouette through using only the hot springs. I'll sheepishly say it startled me every time no matter how many times I watched or how certainly I knew it was coming. 

The final stop of the tour was to Þingvellir National Park, Iceland's best-loved National Park known for its exceptional beauty and historical importance. The Icelandic Parliament, known as the Althingi, was founded in this valley in the year 930 AD. It is also is a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (the separation of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates) and one of the only places on earth where you can see such a phenomenon above the ocean. Through the slow separation (2.5 cm/year) of these two plates, the park and Iceland's largest lake have been created. 

One fact I found particularly noteworthy was that the massive cliff walls of the plates provided a acoustic advantage to this site. With the speaker close to the wall, their voice projected off of the rock face and to the crowds of people gathered. 

If you asked me what my favorite part of Iceland was, I would almost certainly say this national park. It was stunning. It was enormous. It was so shockingly colorful. I couldn't take pictures fast enough. The large cliff face reminded me of the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride, the sweeping valley and streams took me to Middle Earth, and the over-saturated color (I cannot help but repeat that part) practically tattooed its hues on my heart. 

I know people talk about feelings of awe or speechless wonder with casual flippancy, even I in this series of posts may have been guilty, but standing at the edge of the crest really was a settled, perfect, meditative peace.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Iceland: Day 3

The morning of Day 3 started much like Day 2 did; an early, cold, and rainy climb on to a bus with some truly beautiful views. Today we ventured east through still more fields, under a beautifully streaked blue sky. Unlike the grassy fields of the day before though, these were the rough and shadowed textures of a young lava field. Maybe a few thousand years old, it was still considered young in the eyes of a countryside so accustom to their presence. 

At what appeared to be the side of the road, our bus slowed to a stop. Argnr told us that we would be visiting a cave today, but there were no mountains near by. Nothing but the jagged youthful lava on either sides from miles. Surely caves were buried deep into the hills on the horizon and not here. But as we waddled off the bus, warmly bundled and ready for our trip underground, there were our glacier guides from the day before; grinning and surrounded by dozens of brightly colored helmets. Well, I seem to have been mistaken. Somewhere around here, close by, was the Leidarendi Cave. Over 2,000 years old and NOT in a mountain. 

A short walk through the lava field brought us to the opening of the cave. What appeared at first to be a large, muddy crater in the ground, was actually the mouth of the cave. Here Argnr left us and, with the guidance of our other Icelandic pals, we switched on our lights to begin to walk down below. 

The cave was wet and dark as any of us would have guessed, but also jagged and small. At one point the tunnel got to small that our line of explorers had to army crawl in order to get past an incredibly large "boulder" suspended from the ceiling. The opening reminded me of the Cheshire cat's crooked smile from Alice and Wonderland. If only he would have laughed a little wider at the thought of all of us climbing through his front teeth. 

Our crawl brought us to a large open pocket, what could be considered the cathedral of the cave. A rock ledge ringed the outside of the space and provided the perfect place to stop and share some local legends. After making sure all of us were securely seated, the guides had us turn off our head lamps. In an instant, the world went black. Not the black that you experience when you first turn off the lights at night. Not the black of entering a movie theater or even of shutting your eyes in the dark. This was dense, solid, void of light, black. Dark enough to make you loose your balance if you were standing (even sitting for some of us). So black that you could place your hand on your nose and still not be able to see even a shade of difference as to where your fingers were supposed to be. Just a thick, velvety curtain of nothing that your eyes tried to convince you was not real. 

It was in this black that our lead guide told tales of people "saved by the bell" in graveyards after having been supposed dead because of being frozen in a storm, of lovers running away to the caves to escape unwanted marriages only to be pursued by an irate father or uncle. One of the guides then posed this question. When we all turned on our lights, would we rather one person be missing or one person be added?

Chilled by each option's implications (I believe most people chose to have someone join rather than be lost, but even that could be sinister), we moved on through the cave and eventually back up to the surface. The sky still blue, the cold still biting, we made our way back to Reykjavik for our free afternoon.

After a brief rest in the hotel, Emily and I decided to explore some of the sites Argnr walked us past on the first day. Armed with more breakfast buffet "sandwiches" and skyr, we trekked up to Hallgrímskirkja, the tallest church and sixth tallest structure in the country.

From the top of the 244 foot bell tower, you could see the entire capitol. Short, colorful buildings stretched out around the church as if it were the center of a clock. In one direction, expansive fields, sky, and faint mountains. In the other, the harbor and still more beautiful snow topped peaks. I can easily say that Midwestern me was confused and delighted to have such flat and spiked places all together. 

It was so peaceful up there. I completely forgot I was (am) afraid of heights and just stood there at the window's edge. Face pressed into the bars and leaning into the sky.

More wandering and some souvenir shopping later and it was time to head back for the night. Dinner at a local tapas place brought us to try some odd and all-together not that tasty local "catches of the day," bringing another wonderful day to a close. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Iceland: Day 2

What better way to combat jet lag than waking up very verrry early on a Thursday morning? I, the perpetual sleeper in-er, was not happy about this. But with glaciers and waterfalls awaiting, I lumbered down to breakfast in our hotel. A cup of strong black tea and a sandwich of what I presumed to be Scandinavian deli meat later and we were on the bus headed south. 

Like the day before, this morning was a rainy, windy one. Clouds hung low over the horizon as our bus glided along the highway, enough to make you feel held between earth and sky. Quite like the feeling of waking up in the morning under a mountain of covers. Not wanting to move...only this was much colder. 

It was in that misty bus ride that Argnr said my favorite quote about Iceland, "if you don't like the weather, just wait 15 mins." And sure enough, we didn't have to wait too long though for it to prove true. The weather did change in those 15 mins and the rest of the 2 hour trip was a lovely mixture of rain, sun, and the largest canvas of clouds I'd ever seen. We passed fields and sheep, barns and greenhouses, which should all have struck a familiar chord with me, but instead pulled me further into awe with the countryside that stretched out before me. 

These fields were more expansive, the wind more twisting, the sky more colorful, and sun more dazzling than I'd seen at home. It was then that my inner fan-girl had an epiphany, this was Rohan. This was Guilder and Florin. True, Hollywood has carved them out of different physical places than this, but for my mind's eye, this landscape rang true. 

Taking a left after our second rainbow, Seljalandsfoss came into view. An incredible, 200 foot waterfall with water so pale blue it matched the sky. What I was not expecting, however, was the immense roar coming from the water. A display of pure power, it filled the air. (By the end of this trip I would become accustom to the incredible sound of waterfalls, but in this first time, it was particularly deafening.) 

Shielding cameras and phones from the heavy spray, our group followed the trail around the back of the waterfall. From there, you could see for miles. The brave among us crept close to the edge, bracing against the slippery, green rocks for a truly breathtaking photo opportunity. 

A 30 minute bus ride later and we were at the second waterfall of the day, Skogafoss. This one even higher and more impressive than the last. Sheep accompanied a few of us up the cliff side as we climbed to get a better view. From our perch at 200 feet, we could see Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010, who's ash circled the globe. The grass had already begun to peak through the top of the lava beds, a volcanic cycle with which this country was all too familiar .

Climbing back down, Emily and I decided to stray during lunch and take our picnic to the base of the waterfall. Lunch of diet coke, sandwiches we snuck out of breakfast, and skyr (kind of like yogurt), was hosted by a magnificently peaceful view.

Rain soon drove us all back on to the bus however and we headed towards are next and final activity of the day: a glacier walk on Sólheimajökull. The rain continued through our ice pick and steel spike foot-ware fittings, then changed to heavy sleet and hail as we made our way to the base of the glacier. (Side note, four of the gentlemen from New York City had seemed to have forgotten they were in Iceland, several without hats or gloves to fend off the onslaught of water. I pitied them as I shivered from inside my gloved, scarfed, hatted, hooded, and ski-jacketed cocoon.)

But just as it had started, the rain, sleet, and hail ended as we placed our slightly scared, hastily safety briefed, and cautiously forceful first steps onto the ice. Shuffling into a single-file line, we snaked past ice sculptures, ridges, and got far too close to several deep crevasses. The part I remember being the most surprising, though now thinking about it, foolishly so, was the amount of pebbles and rocks, dirt and silt the glacier picked up as it flowed through the valley. Black bands of AstroTurf-like grains not only showed the glaciers age and strength but also protected the ice from the heat of the sun.

There were several times on this walk where I had to stop (mentally, not physically, that would have slowed up the line. Once we all got moving, we did not want to stop until the next place the guides wanted to point out. Trust me) and remember where I was. This was not a snowed in street in the Midwest, I wasn't anywhere close to the ground. I was walking on ice, hundreds of years old. Kind of, wickedly cool.

The hour long hike ended far too quickly and soon it was time to get back on the bus to start in on our, now, 3 hours drive back to Reykjavik. Exhausted from the day and perfectly content to watch the countryside fly by, I drifted.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Iceland: Day 1

Tuesday was a very long day at work. Not because of the endless e-mails, or the training issues, or even the looping water cooler talk, but because that evening, I was going to Iceland.

A spur of the moment purchase landed me a 5 day, 4 night trip to Iceland through Livingsocial. The words, “airfare included,” made the deal too good to pass up for me and my friend, Emily.

An overnight flight to Iceland’s Keflavik airport had us landing at the pitch black hour of 6:30am on Wednesday and in proper Iceland style, it was raining. Our group of now DC, NYC, and Boston flights was greeted by a bright yellow parka and blaze orange hat. Her name I cannot spell, but sounded like the title of a pirate manning the cannons: Arrrrr-guuunner. (she shall now be known as “Argnr”)

In that early and beautiful morning, we raced through the darkness; past what Argnr told us were lava fields, on the way to our hotel in downtown Reykjavik. By the time we arrived, the black sky and rain were replaced by a light grey sky and rain. From there, we had two hours to check in to our rooms, eat breakfast, and, for some, take a nap. The rest of us, on the other hand, set out on a walking tour of the capitol city.

The hotel and center of town were located just a few blocks from the harbor. In no time we were walking past Icelandic coast guard ships and little fishing boats, clustered along the docks. In the distance you could see a pillar of light from the recently lit Imagine Peace Tower, a memorial to John Lennon by his widow, Yoko Ono.

But to me, the most impressive sight on that harbor was Harpa, Reykjavik’s Concert Hall. The massive structure of metal and glass seemed suspended over the harbor itself, past the edge of its pier. Inside, the massive foyer spanned all 3 floors with tables and cushioned chairs circling up to the ceiling.

From the back of the hall, out some fantastically geometric windows, you could see the entire bay and to the mountains beyond before it opened to the ocean.

After the music hall, it was back out into the rain and up to Hallgrimskirkja, the tallest cathedral in Iceland.

Once the tour came to an end and it was back to the hotel to book optional excursions for our free day and a happy hour with our fellow travelers. With our excursions booked and feet exhausted, Emily and I sat down to be properly welcomed to the country, a Viking beer and a shot of Brennivin.