Iceland, Mars, and Other Worldly Expeditions

May 21, 2017

Iceland is causing me to adopt new sleeping arrangements. The island’s placement on the globe and the resulting sunlight shift renders flashlights useless. At 1 am the light levels are similar to mid-morning in North Carolina, which means when it’s time for bed the sun is still trying to convince you it’s only 6pm.

IMG_3913The first night I started pulling my headband down over my eyes while I slept. At the campsite in Vik a colony of gulls nesting in the cliffs above cause me to add ear plugs to the equation, two routine parts of sleeping I will carry with me for the rest of the trip.

As much as the earplugs help block out the gull’s morning squawks once I’m awake enough to hear them I can’t un-hear them. I lay awake for a bit listening. Just when I feel annoyance creeping in I get up to start the morning. Even with the gulls, it is a beautiful morning.

Mornings camping in Iceland pretty much go like this. Get up, start water boiling for oatmeal, eat, attend to hygiene then begin packing up bags and car. This morning we don’t really have an end goal in mind but there are a few stops we’re anxious to hit the first of which being a black sand beach.

Sneaker Waves

It’s windy today. Parking at the beach access we are greeted by small dust storms whipped up intermittently with strong gusts. A sign along the path to the beach lays out a clear warning in 3 languages.

Forebodingly named “sneaker waves” are a life-threatening phenomenon on this beach. They occur after prolonged minutes of the tide drawing back and the waves calming perceptibly then a wave 5 times the size of previous waves charges onto the shore scooping up sand, wildlife and people and claiming them for the Atlantic Ocean. To avoid such ends the sign advises vacating the beach at high tide and keeping a sharp eye on the water.

IMG_2196At first the black sands are so disorienting, like looking at the negatives of beach pictures. Standing opposite the waves are jagged, rocky cliffs dull grey in color and spotted with bird nests and droppings. Looking closer at the cliffs reveals intricate rock formations completely distracting from potential watery threats. I can understand how one might get snuck up on.

Unexpected Guest

Similar to the Giants Causeway in Ireland, large hexagonal columns of rock bundle IMG_3970together in organized clumps. Even more interesting are the rock formations surrounding the bundles. There are sections with thin, cleaving layers like flaky baklava. Those gradually morph into small columns non-uniform in shape. Walking along the rock face the time lapse of rocks shift in a fluid pattern from unorganized clumps to hexagons and back to clumps.

The rocks create a written history of a raucous, violent earth seething with heat and energy that can shape rock with the same dexterity as a glass blower uncoiling miniature unicorns out of glass rods.

Absorbed in the cliffs I almost miss our unexpected guest. Thank goodness it’s not a wave but a puffin. Nesting just where the grassy tops of the cliffs meet the rock edges looking content.

IMG_2199I can honestly say that every animated representation of a puffin I’ve seen before this has been pretty accurate. Their noses and feet are just as vibrant, their faces and puffy chests just as comically round. Their features are so soft and endearing it’s hard to understand how they are made out of feathers and flesh instead of marshmallows and candy corn.

Nearby is a wide mouthed cave. Sally and I crawl across the sandy bottom into the cave. Sitting in the back where the sloping ceiling meets the beach. Tons of rocks are above us are kept in check only by laws of physics. Something about the dewy ceiling and uniform shapes makes me feel like I’m inside a rice crispy treat. Or maybe this is a sign I should have eaten more oatmeal this morning.

Rice Crispy cave

Climbing rocks on the shore and digging our boots into the dark sand we wile away more time than intended but we are non the worse for it. Our next destination is a short drive which it makes up for by being worlds away.


Pulling up in our second dusty gravel parking lot of the day the wind gusts are constant now. We are smack in the middle of a desert like flatland. Mountains to the East and West funnel extra gusts out towards the ocean. The sign says there is a famous plane crash here, but that remains to be seen.

It’s two kilometers across gritty sand to get to the wreckage. Sand and dust whip around on a highway of fast moving currents. I pull my collar up over my mouth and nose to defend against windburn. All I can do is quietly trudge onward humming a score from star wars to keep myself company and listening for the trumpets of sand men in the distance.

“So They Just Left it Here?”

Yep, they just left it here. Years ago someone flew a private plane over this barren

The plane, in all its “just left here” glory.

expanse and had to emergency crash land. They landed as well as they could, everyone survived, but afterwards it was too costly and too much effort to move the wreckage, so being practical Icelandic people they just left it there. A few years later they fenced off an area and called it a parking lot so people could come and look at the abandoned skeleton of a plane. Needless to say I was underwhelmed. I’ll admit it was cool, but not walk 4 kilometers, round trip, in a sandblaster cool.

The sandy walk back to the parking lot is as long and monotonous as the walk out.

Touristy picture on an unknown planet.

By this time we were all hungry. We drove another short distance to another parking lot the difference is this one is near a glacier. At the edge of the parking lot there is a square trailer that serves food.

While some go buy soup in the trailer a few of us stay in the car to perform the balancing act of making pbjs in the car. The stakes are high, knowing that anything you spill will either gum up vital backpacking gear or you’ll end up sitting in it for the rest of the day. The performance is punctuated by calls of “Where did you put that: lid, knife, spoon, bread, package, ect.” Inevitably followed by “umm…. Wait I found it.” Quiet, recuperative munching follows our risky stunts after which we join the others in the trailer.


My Irish coffee

While the rest of the group walked up the trail to get a closer look at the nearby glacier, I sat at a table in the trailer sipping coffee. From my warm vantage point, I watched the glacier peacefully.

With the restaurant’s reliable wifi I was able to use Whatsapp to call my parents for the first time since leaving Raleigh. They were pretty surprised at this feat of technology, that I could be speaking to them, for free, at the foot of a glacier, while they huddle together in the back of church whispering giddily.

Soon the group rejoins me. We sit for a bit, playing on our phones and chatting about what to do tomorrow. All the while collecting bits of non windy, sandy or car cramped moments to take with us.

Ferry Roller Coaster

The drives today feel so much shorter than previous days. Perhaps this is due to our tactic of driving as far out as we want to go then inching our way back stopping at all the sights we passed before. It’s a pretty good strategy allowing us to get lost a lot less than we probably would have otherwise.

Pulling up into the nicest parking lot of the day we mull through our gear, detaching day bags and accompanying snacks. Soon we are going to be leaving our trusty cruiser for a ferry to Vestmannaeyjar. We’ve discovered you can get away with calling them the Westman Islands and people will still understand what you’re talking about.

We buy our ferry tickets and wait in the sleek terminal with the varnished pebble floor

Thinking back to the tide washing over rocks on the black sand beach.

till boarding the first of many ferry’s along our trip.

Soon after clearing the docking inlet the boat goes approximately four feet up and four feet back down. The motion is repeated in short succession and we all realize our seats in the middle of the boat with no windows around, are the wrong seats. switching to ‘fend for yourself’ mode the group splits up, some heading for the roof, or the bathroom or a better window.

In the bow of the boat behind windows that wrap around the diner like seating area my eyes cling to the windows with a very particular type of desperation. The boat continues to move four feet up and four feet back down in short succession. The captain comes over the speakers announcing we are right on schedule and can plan to disembark in 45 minutes.

Solid Vestmannaeyjar

The line to get off the ferry is noticeably hurried, fueled by the prospect of surfaces that do not bob up and down. The island is striking. The inlet where we docked is rimmed by large swooping rises of cliff and grass. The concrete harbor buildings are painted with larger than life people cast in dark contrasting brush strokes.

It is after 6pm on a Sunday, none of the shops are open. The ferry passengers have dispersed to their sought after destinations and we do not pass anyone on the street. We are left in a oxymoronic situation of feeling lonely amongst all the trappings of civilization, but perhaps the unlighted houses make the feeling of solitude all the more complete.

This small town of blocky houses rests on the side of a volcano. In 1973 the Elfell volcano

Wesley at a playground in  Vestmannaeyjar.

erupted covering the island in ash as thick as I am tall. Walking uphill toward the center of town we can see Elfell sitting on the southern edge of the island, benign, but watchful.

We wander through this quiet, windswept city, admiring their soccer complex, stopping to eat trail mix on the court house steps that overlook a modest playground. This place is filled with a stoic beauty.

Walking down hill toward the harbor we come upon a faint trail leading up a rock escarpment. Dropping our bags at the base and scrambling up it we find a perfectly poised view of the city.

IMG_2213The boat horn sounds, its the last ferry of the day. Rushing back through the lonely streets we make the boat with a few minutes to spare.

Until next time.

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