An Unlikely Comparison

19 07 2013

I was sitting outside this morning, eating my breakfast on the back porch beside by garden, and couldn’t help comparing my poor efforts at gardening with those at the Akureyri Botanical Garden in Iceland.  Okay, so I’m a sucker for punishment.

Regardless, here’s a little photo quiz to keep you on your horticultural toes, so to speak: Akureyri or Aiken?

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OR

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Did you guess correctly?  The first one is in my garden in Aiken: a bee balm, attracting lots of bees as well as butterflies and hummingbirds.  I’m not sure what the second flower is, but it must have been the inspiration for flowers in Dr. Suess’s  Horton Hears a Who.

Try this one:

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OR

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Again, the top one is from my garden in Aiken: a common zinnia.  These reseed every year, making it the perfect flower for a lazy gardener such as myself.  And again, I’m not sure what the one from the Akureyri Botanical Garden is. Names escape me.  Beauty doesn’t.

On to number three:

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OR

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The top one is from Akureyri.  The bottom is of an Easter lily in my garden who decided to wait until well into June to bloom.

Next:

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OR

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Did I get you?  These are both from Akureyri.

No more tricks (just treats):

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?

OR

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The bottom picture is in Aiken, where a voracious anise swallowtail caterpillar was chowing down on my fennel.

How about this?

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OR

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The top picture is from Akureyri, but could have been from Aiken.  It is a type of mint, which apparently will grow just about anywhere.  The bottom picture is a canna I just transplanted in my garden this past spring.  You wouldn’t find this one growing outside in Iceland; he is happiest in a more tropical locale.

Here’s my last unlikely comparison:

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OR

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Sorry.  I did it again.  Both these pictures are from my garden in Aiken.  The top is a hibiscus that has grown about 15 feet tall.  The bottom is a double day lily.   Both plants grow back every spring and provide bright and easy color for my lazy garden.

It may be a while before I can get back to Iceland.  In the meantime I’ll just have to enjoy the scenery from my back porch.

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Iceland Saga 2013: You know You’re In Iceland…

19 07 2013

IcelandWe needed to make an early departure from the Hótel Skógar to get to our Blue Ice Experience tour at Skaftafell, some two hours away.  Since I knew we needed to be out an hour before the breakfast buffet at the hotel was opened, I asked the receptionist the night before if it would be possible to have a little something available for us to eat before we left, thinking we might be able to grab a roll and some coffee at least.  “Sure, no problem,” the receptionist replied.  The next morning, we found the entire spread laid out: meats, cheeses, pastries, breads, yogurts, fruit, coffee, juice, the entire buffet freshly put out and ready just for us.  I figured out later, although no one ever said as much, that this meant the receptionist had to come in an hour earlier since they didn’t have an overnight receptionist as is common in U.S. hotels.  This is Icelandic hospitality, and it is not uncommon.

The friendliness of the Icelanders is just one of the many reasons I can’t wait to get back there.  This trip far exceeded my expectations.  The ease of travel around the island along with the ease of communicating, the freedom from crowds, the fantastical landforms and features, the feeling of a new discovery around every bend, the sheer beauty and majesty of this place…I could go on and on.  And I didn’t realize it until I got back, but the almost complete lack of commercialization was almost as refreshing as the air.  There were no billboards along the roads, no gift shops next to every waterfall.  My husband is not a big fan of travel.  He usually is quite happy to let me go off exploring on my own.  Yet even he fell in love with Iceland.

If you want to do some background reading on Iceland, I can recommend two books.  One I picked up at a gift shop at þingvellir: The Zenophobe’s Guide to Icelanders by Richard Sale.  This book gives a light-hearted look at the people of Iceland and what makes them tick.  Who knew that during the long winter, the fire brigade’s main task is to knock down the huge icicles hanging dangerously off buildings?  Or that golf is the fastest growing sport in Iceland, in part because it can be played 24/7 during the summer?  The other book I can recommend is A Girl’s Ride in Iceland, by Mrs. Ethel Tweedie.  I’m pretty sure this book is not still in print since it was never a best-seller and was originally published in 1894.  It is, however, a free download on an e-reader.  This short book tells the true tale of a young woman and her small party who explored Iceland on horseback in the late 1800s.  Her descriptions of their adventure gave me insight into the hardships of living in Iceland during that time. And apparently, it caused an angry controversy during the day: whether or not women should be allowed to ride astride rather than side-saddle.

I love my home in Aiken, South Carolina.  It is a great place to live and raise a family.  I love the tall pine trees that sway dangerously in the afternoon thundershowers.  I love the huge oak tree with the tire swing in our front yard.  I love Hitchcock Woods with its sandy paths, Spanish moss-draped lanes, and cool creeks, meeting up with horseback riders or families taking their dogs and kids out for a Sunday afternoon walk.  I love the caring people, always willing to lend a hand or a dollar to a needy cause.  I love the fact that although Aiken doesn’t have a beach or a mountain or any other major attraction, I still see people walking downtown taking pictures, admiring the simple beauty of our town.  But now I have a new love in my life.  A land of fire and ice.  A land that in places looks like Mars and other places like heaven.  A land with people as friendly as their land is unforgiving.  An island.  Ísland. Iceland.

I didn't write this.  But I could have.

I didn’t write this. But I could have.

And just so I don’t get the reputation of being too sappy, here are my final thoughts on Iceland:

 

You know you’re in Iceland when…

 

The smell of rotten eggs makes your heart race.

You can write your destination on the back window of your car.

You prefer the wind-blown look (simply because there are no alternatives).

You don’t flinch when a simple hot dog meal costs $15.

You can see over 50 waterfalls simply by turning around.

There are more waterfalls than trees.

There are more sheep than people.

There are more people than trees.

A three-hour drive takes all day.

50% of your pictures are of sheep, 50% are of waterfalls, and 50% are of rocks.

You run out of synonyms for amazing.

Before you even leave, you are trying to figure out how to get back.

Iceland, where else?

Iceland, where else?





Iceland Saga 2013: Between a Rock and a Hot Place

18 07 2013

Beth on the rocks

Beth on the rocks

Iceland is a geologist’s dream.  And a volcanologist’s.  And a glaciologist’s.  Matter of fact, just about anybody with an “ist” at the end of their profession would get excited about Iceland.  (Except maybe a poltergeist.  That would be weird.)

Iceland is young, a mere baby in geological time.  Formed 16 to 18 million years ago from a hotspot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, it is rife with rifts and accompanying earthquakes, volcanoes, and geothermal activity.  mid ocean ridgeAdd to that that Iceland is topped with glaciers covering over 11% of its area, and you get some pretty amazing landforms and features.volcanoes

Think waterfalls.  In one fjord alone, (we’ll call it Sven’s Fjord) I turned around and counted more than 50 waterfalls.  There may have been more, but there were a couple of buildings in the way. 

Hey, look, a waterfall!

Hey, look, a waterfall!

All this water comes from glaciers melting, which, from the sheer volume of water, you would think would all be melted by now.  Apparently that’s just not happening, though.  On our trip around Iceland, we stopped at waterfall after waterfall.  We hiked up mountains to see waterfalls.  We walked across sheep pastures to see waterfalls.  All this activity was totally unnecessary, as we could have seen a lifetime of waterfalls from our car. 

another one

another one

This one had a name.  I think it started with an H.

This one had a name. I think it started with an H.

I don’t know exactly what draws people to waterfalls.  Maybe it is the power of the water or the contrast of water against rock.  Or maybe it is an attempt to see how close we can get to certain death.

Look ma, no guardrails.

Look ma, no guardrails.

Have I mentioned the Icelanders’ total unconcern with people’s safety?  In the U.S., there would be fences, viewing platforms, and signs everywhere letting people know that a waterfall is inherently harmful to your health.  Not so in Iceland.  They are a Survival of the Fittest type of people.  It was refreshing, in a hey-look-at-that-fool-over-there, would-you-back-up-just-a-little-more-for-a-picture kind of way.

yep

yep

I doubt anyone has ever counted all the waterfalls in Iceland.  But I do know that I have pictures of the vast majority of them.  And I really need to invest in a new thesaurus.  I’ve run out of synonyms for “gorgeous.”

It all begins here.

It all begins here.

beautiful

beautiful

amazing

amazing

stupendous

stupendous (note the tiny specks of people on the other side)

 

awe-inspiring (the waterfall, that is)

awe-inspiring (the waterfall, that is)

Then there are rocks.  My rock identification ranks right up there with my bird identification, that is to say, pretty abysmal.  I just take it for granite that rocks are gneiss.  Sorry, I just had to get that out of my system.  I feel much better now.

Actually, you can impress a lot of people by hefting a chuck of Icelandic rock, sniffing it, and saying, “Yep, that’s basalt.”  Because basalt, according to my good and wise friend Wikipedia, is “a common extrusive igneous rock formed from the rapid cooling of basaltic lava.”  Even I know that this means it is volcanic.  I even can point out columnar basalt like an expert because, duh, it forms columns. 

Them R columnar basalt.

M R columnar basalt.

more columnar basalt

more columnar basalt

A double whammy

A double whammy

Mr. Wiki goes on to say that “the crustal portions of oceanic tectonic plates are composed predominantly of basalt, produced from upwelling mantle below ocean ridges.”  Ding ding. That’s Iceland all over.

So here’s a few exciting pictures of rocks.

jigsaw puzzle rock

jigsaw puzzle rock

holy rock

holy rock

rock man

rock man

rock woman

rock woman

rock cairn

rock cairn

inside a rock

inside a rock

The game Rock, Paper, Scissors ought to include a hand motion for glaciers, because glaciers can put a hurting on some rocks.  Glaciers roll rocks, they round them, they gouge them, they crush them, they turn them into piles of gravel big enough to keep a road crew happy for decades.   Although glaciers are not very nice, they can be very pretty, except when they are covered with ash.  I guess that’s the way volcanoes get even with glaciers for messing with their progeny. 

beautiful glacial lagoon in front of beautiful glacier

beautiful glacial lagoon in front of beautiful glacier

dirty glacier

dirty glacier

Sitting on the crack of the world is not without its advantages.  Yes, there are hundreds of earthquakes each day and volcanic eruptions constantly threatening your vacation plans.  But think of all that free energy. 

free stuff

free stuff

Geothermal energy heats indoor plumbing and public pools all across Iceland.  The only energy crisis in Iceland is having too much all at once.  Enough energy to run televisions, video games, appliances, hair driers.  A teenager’s dream.  You just have to watch the voltage.

Brian on a rock

Brian on a rock





Iceland Saga 2013: Other Fauna and Flora

17 07 2013

There is more to life in Iceland than sheep and birds.  But not much.

 Seals off the coast of Látrabjarg

Seals off the coast of Látrabjarg

The ocean around Iceland is teeming with fish, seals, and whales, but when the Vikings got there in the late 800s, the only other land mammal was the arctic fox.  We were fortunate to have seen three of them, although they disappeared before I could whip out my camera.  The few mammals inhabiting this island today are all imports: reindeer, Icelandic horses, and mink being the main ones.

Icelandic horse

Icelandic horse at HestaSport

It’s easy to fall in love with the Icelandic horse.  They are not so big as to be overwhelming.  They are smart, hardy, and sweet-tempered.  And, like sheep, they are just so dad gum cute.

cute horse

cute horse

Apparently they taste good, too.

Unlike Alaska, in Iceland you don’t have to worry about bears.  I have read where occasionally one will drift over on an ice berg from Greenland, but apparently they don’t like Iceland enough to stick around.  Go figure.  Iceland also has no amphibians or reptiles (other than those kept in cages).  Yet another reason to like Iceland.

The midge is about the only insect of any consequence.  Even it doesn’t bite, although it will drive you to distraction by getting in every available bodily orifice.  Icelandic horses have figured out a way to combat the midge by chewing on each other. 

Although I didn't ask them, I'm pretty sure they are biting flies off each other.  Gotta love symbiosis.

Although I didn’t ask them, I’m pretty sure they are biting flies off each other. Gotta love symbiosis.

I didn’t have that option, so I spent my midge-pestered time praying for a stiff breeze, which fortunately are nearly constant.  Midges were even the inspiration for this

Bad Poetry Composed on Bumpy Gravel Road Somewhere in Iceland

 

Oh my, there’s a midge in my eye.

Oh dear, there’s a midge in my ear.

It’s cold and sunny and my nose is runny.

Oh gee, Iceland’s for me!

 

Obviously, Iceland is known for its fishing.  We saw quite a few fly fishers standing in cold rivers trying to look like they were enjoying themselves, but never saw them catching anything. 

Don't know if he caught any flies, but we sure found a bunch.

Don’t know if he caught any flies, but we sure found a bunch.

The fish were probably full from eating so many midges.  The fishing boats on the ocean had better luck and also provided beautiful photo fodder. 

These looked like toy boats out on the water.

These looked like toy boats out on the water.

These looked like toy boats out on the water.

Note the church in the background.  Every village had one.

more boats

more photogenic boats

The little fishing village of Isafjörður had quite a “green” industry going, making use of every part of the fish, including fish heads which were sent to Africa in exchange for luscious fruits.  Pretty smart on the part of the Icelanders, I thought.  Also smart was their practice of drying fish outside during the winter, when midges and all other pests were keeping warm in their own little dens.

The holes wouldn't keep out midges, but would keep hungry birds out.

The chicken wire wouldn’t keep out midges, but would keep hungry birds out.

Just for the tourists...

Just for the tourists…

Not sure what kind this is, but I know I don't want to swim around it.

Not sure what kind this is, but I know I don’t want to swim around it.

I got stung by a ray once, so I didn't have much sympathy for this one.

I got stung by a ray once, so I didn’t have much sympathy for this one.

 

Like I said, all parts of the fish were used.

Like I said, all parts of the fish were used.

But enough about the fauna.  On to the flora. 

 

Upon their arrival, the Vikings quickly cut down most of the extensive forests of Iceland, prompting Leif to head to Vinland for wood. (Icelanders are proud to tell you that at least he had the good sense to come back to Iceland and leave America alone.)  Between the Vikings and the volcanic ash, a tree just couldn’t make a decent living in Iceland.  There has been a concerted effort to encourage trees, planting birch and spruce, but they tend to grow slowly.  Consequently, Icelanders have a saying, “If you get lost in a forest in Iceland, just stand up.” 

 

Grass, on the other hand, grows quite well, especially in areas not covered with rocks or ice.  Farmers try to harvest at least two crops of hay and were busily at work while we were there, making use of all the long daylight hours to bring in their crop.   Hay bales were wrapped in white plastic, making the fields look like they were studded with giant marshmallows.

 

This was about 9:30 in the evening.

This was about 9:30 in the evening.

hay bales

hay bales or maybe giant marshmallows

Hay there!

Hay there!

Grass is so prolific that it was even used to build houses out of.  And having no ready supply of lumber, this was a really, really good idea.  What we on the American prairies called soddies, they called turf houses. 

The priest's house at Laufás

The priest’s house at Laufás from the late 1800s

Turf was cut and dried until it was hard as a brick, then layered sometimes six feet thick. 

Note the herring bone design

Note the herring bone design

No frigid blast of arctic wind stood a chance against a turf house!  They were, however, dark and smoky inside, but I would take dark and smoky over freezing any day. 

inner hall of a turf house

inner hall of a turf house

At least the view in the summer is lovely.

At least the view in the summer is lovely.

You can still see turf houses around the island today, although they are mainly inhabited by sheep.

sheep shed turf house

sheep shed turf house

 

You have to admire the attitude of plants in Iceland.  They have to make the best of a bad situation, and really do an admirable job.  Mosses and lichens have it rough.  They grow straight out of the rocks, frosting the lava fields with foot-thick layers of a sponge so soft I was tempted to nap on it.  All they ask is for a little water, and they are happy.

Lava on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Lava on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Moss and lichen going on the basalt lava rocks

Moss and lichen growing on the basalt lava rocks

Rock eaters!

Rock eaters!

Lichens: what's not to like?

Lichens: what’s not to like?

Other plants flourish where no self-respecting American plant would be caught dead.  They grow out of black volcanic sand, rocky cliffs, and between cracks in the lava fields. 

a very determined succulent

a very determined succulent

flower another flower

Although I tried to find their names (it was the least I could do since they were doing the hard work), I only learned a couple: poppies and lupine. 

wild flowers growing by the creek

wild flowers growing by the creek

And lupine, well, lupine is like many things in Iceland, an alien.  It was originally introduced to curb erosion, which it did.  It grew so well that it covered the ground, making it difficult for native plants to get a foothold.  I wonder if it has ever met kudzu?  Regardless, it is beautiful.

lovely lupines

lovely lupines

So there you have the flora and fauna of Iceland.  Just keep those midges away from me.





Iceland Sage 2013: Taking a Tern for the Worse

17 07 2013

Iceland is for the birds, and therefore the birdwatcher as well.  There are so many interesting species of birds in Iceland that it is hard not to become a bird enthusiast.

Possibly the most popular is the geisha girl of the bird world, the puffin.  And since early July is prime puffin nesting season, there were plenty of puffins to peruse.  Photographing the puffin is not for the faint of heart.  At the Látrabjarg cliffs in the West Fjords I lay down as close as I dared to the crumbling edge, some 440 meters from the pounding sea below. 

Látrabjarg cliffs

Látrabjarg cliffs

Life on the edge

Life on the edge

In the village of Vík í Mýrdal in southern Iceland, I climbed the cliffs west of the black sand beach for a chance at a puffin picture.

bird cliffs near Vík í Mýrdal

bird cliffs near Vík í Mýrdal

(Lest you think me foolhardy, I will say that I observed many other tourists while assessing my chances of traumatic injury or death.  Seeing no life-threatening events, I proceeded with extreme caution.  Although I do have a bit of an adventurous streak, I ain’t stoopid.)

Iceland has your safety in mind.  Note the sign indicating birds on one side, people on the other.  Note also the faint white line.

Iceland has your safety in mind. Note the sign indicating birds on one side, people on the other. Note also the faint white line.

No sign of tourists within

No sign of tourists within

Here are my picks of the puffin pics:

puffin

puffin and razorbilled auk

puffin and razorbilled auk

posing puffin

posing puffin

puffin perch

puffin perch

yet another puffin

yet another puffin

In sheer numbers, the arctic tern rules the roost during the Icelandic summer.  The arctic tern has a circumpolar migratory pattern, breeding in Iceland and other northern locales during the summer before heading south for another summer in Antarctica, a round trip of 44,000 miles each year.  The average tern lives about 20 years, traveling over 1.5 million miles.

arctic tern

arctic tern doing what he does best

arctic tern carrying fish to nest

arctic tern carrying fish to nest

arctic tern nesting grounds

arctic tern nesting grounds

food for the family

food for the family

We learned by experience not to mess with this bird.  He is fiercely defensive of his nest, becoming quite aggressive if you happen too close.  A rapid clucking sound as he swoops over your head warns that you are about to be pecked on the head if you don’t run for cover.  We heard that you could fend off an attack by simply holding a stick in the air, but only ended up looking foolish and irritating these arctic athletes even more.

This guy was banding the babies.  Sure hope he had a helmet on!

This guy was banding the babies. Sure hope he had a helmet on!

Ducks and swans were also common, although I wasn’t as excited about these as other, more exotic species.

duck crossing

M R Duks

harlequin ducks

harlequin ducks

The redshank was one of my favorite meadow birds, making a distinctive call as he flew in wide circles around me. He too was probably defending his nest, but was much nicer about it than the tern.  There were plenty of plovers as well, although for the life of me I couldn’t recognize them on sight, always having to look them up on the Internet when I got back to the guesthouse.

plover

plover

Oystercatchers, on the other hand, were just as prolific and were easy to identify with their long pointed red bills.

oystercatcher

oystercatcher

While I struggled to identify some of the many birds of Iceland, I had no trouble identifying the birders.  They were the ones lugging cameras with two-foot-long lens up and around the steep cliffs, only one of which died last year.





Iceland Saga 2013: Here’s to Ewe!

17 07 2013

Although technically the gyrfalcon is the national animal of Iceland, by all rights it should be the Icelandic sheep.  There are more sheep in Iceland than people.  Sheep have a deep cultural and historical background:  the Vikings brought sheep with them from Norway during the Age of Settlement from 874 to 930 AD.  Lamb meat from Iceland is known the world over for its delicate flavor.  Knitting is a national preoccupation due to the demand for wool products.  And they are cute.

I had a hard time not stopping to take a picture every time I saw a sheep.  Of course if I did, I would still be there, snapping photo after photo.  As it was, I managed to get a fair number of shots before my husband became too irritated at me.

sheep on the rocks

sheep on the rocks

in the grass

sheep in the grass

posers

posers

ghost sheep

ghost sheep

shedding

sheep shedding

Three billy goats gruff?

Three billy sheep gruff

sheep in road

sheep in road

sheep running

sheep running

windblown

windblown sheep

time for a new coat

sheep needs  a new coat

I've got my eye on ewe!

I’ve got my eye on ewe!

double trouble

double trouble

two cute

two cute

the end

the end

“I’m glad my husband is a patient man,” I said sheepishly.





Iceland Saga 2013: From Here to There, All Around, and Back

16 07 2013

I have already alluded in previous posts to the troubles we had in getting to Iceland.  A brief recap:  our Delta flight from Charlotte to JFK was cancelled due to weather and the next available flight out was two days later, causing us to have to shorten our time in Iceland.  Ironically, as we were milling around Charlotte for the extra day, I made the comment, “Could be worse.  We could be stuck in JFK.”

Image

Traveling to a country known for its waterfalls, this was our first, in the Embassy Suites where we had an unexpected delay of our trip.

Dang.  God does have a sense of humor.  On the way back we got stuck in JFK.

The flight Delta finally put us on to get to Iceland had us going through Minneapolis, a seemingly strange route.  However, if I ever have the good fortune to go back to Iceland, I will go this route.  The Minneapolis terminal was state-of-the-art, with lots of room and row after row of tables with iPads available for travelers to easily access the Internet.  Not only that, we flew IcelandAir from there, and a nicer airline I have yet to find!

iPads in MN airport

iPads in MN airport

Fast forward to the trip home.  The Delta flight from Keflavik airport in Iceland arrived in JFK on time.  That was the start of a long downhill slope.  You would think a layover of almost two hours would be enough to catch a connecting flight.  Of course not.  Fifteen minutes to board and ride a bus on the tarmac to our terminal.  We had to get our checked luggage to go through Customs but the baggage conveyor belt wasn’t working correctly: lost 25 minutes.  Long lines through Customs and then Security: another 25 minutes.  Okay, it was my fault that we lost another five minutes as the Customs inspector inspected my sand, rocks, and bones.  Then a long, fast hike through the airport to our gate: 20 minutes.  When we arrived at the gate, we lost another five minutes trying to figure out where to go as three other gates were crammed into one little corner and masses of people milled around like so many confused sheep.  Even so, we got up to the gate a full ten minutes ahead of departure time.  So sorry.  The gate was already closed.  (in Airline Speak, this translates to: We sold your seats to somebody else.) 

Compare this Delta gate at JFK to the one in MN...

Compare this Delta gate at JFK to the one in MN…

Delta rescheduled us for another flight departing that evening, about four hours later.  We settled in, counting the pigeons that flew around the terminal who helped Delta with Crumb Control.  Almost constant loudspeaker announcements kept us on our toes, as we had been told that our gate could change at any moment.  Half an hour before departure, with no indication that our flight was yet boarding, I happened to look up on the departure board to notice that our flight was cancelled, apparently caused by mechanical difficulties this time.  We called the Delta Help Line and after being put on hold for about half an hour we were given a flight the next morning to Atlanta and then to Charlotte, getting us there almost a day later than originally scheduled.  Not being happy campers, we got back on the phone and persuaded them to get us on a USAir flight leaving at 6:15 am.  Of course, they wouldn’t give us back our luggage, holding it for ransom, forcing the hapless suitcases to make the trip to Atlanta, Charlotte, and then Augusta before being hand-delivered to us at our house. 

JFK Crumb Patrol

JFK Crumb Patrol

Since at this point it was getting late and we would have to leave whatever hotel they put us up in at an obscene hour, we opted just to camp out in the airport.  We hurriedly spent the food vouchers they gave us as all the restaurants were closing up shop and left the gate to find the USAir terminal.  Bad move.  USAir had closed up their check-in area for the evening, so we couldn’t get to a secure area.  (Wouldn’t have been able to bring our drinks there anyway.)  The only area available for us to hunker down in was the international terminal, so that is where we went.  Apparently, JFK has something against people sitting down, so we walked around seemingly for hours before snagging some seats.  And there we sat for the next six mind-numbing hours, alternately dozing and playing games on my iPod, which was rapidly losing battery power because JFK had so few outlets available for recharging.  Oh, and did I mention that JFK does not have free wifi?  Future archeologists will shake their heads in wonder at the primitive conditions we endured there.

Back at the USAir check-in area by 3:30am, and finally on the plane at 6:15 and out like a light.  When my eyes opened, we were on the ground in Charlotte.  I felt like kissing the tarmac.

I’m glad Delta cancelled our flights.  I wouldn’t want to fly in bad weather or in a jet that wasn’t working right.  And I shouldn’t complain.  Lindberg would have been ecstatic to get across the ocean and back as easily as we did.  However, it did seem like Delta and JFK could have arranged their systems and terminals to be a bit more people-friendly.  Only the pigeons seemed truly happy.

But our trials getting to and from Iceland only served to highlight the wonderful time we had driving around Iceland.  Although plenty of alternative methods of travel were available (hitchhiking, bicycling, RVing, and bus tours of every kind imaginable), we found that our rental car and arrangement through IcelandGuest gave us the freedom and flexibility we enjoy along with the structure of a planned tour.  And no, we aren’t paid to say that.

Driving in Iceland, to my mind, is not nearly as intimidating as driving in England.  Icelanders drive on the right side of the road.  (Britains, of course, are on the wrong side.)  There is very little traffic.  So little, as a matter of fact, that the only places we found with actual stop signs and traffic lights were in the three largest cities (Reykjavik, Keflavik, and Akureyre).  Everywhere else there were traffic circles or yield signs.

traffic circle sign in Iceland

Traffic circle sign in Iceland, pronounce at your own risk!

There are some things you have to understand about driving in Iceland.  First, when your GPS says it will only take three hours to get to your next destination, don’t believe it.  You will want to stop numerous times to pick your jaw up off the ground. 

Snæfellsnes Peninsula

The core of an ancient volcano on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Also, outside of the three aforementioned cities, there are no highways.  The best you can hope for is a paved two-lane road.  Iceland requires vehicles to drive with headlights on at all times.  There are few guard rails to block the view, even down steep 12% grades.  Reflectors set on poles 50 feet apart on the sides of the road help keep you on the straight and narrow during the winter.  Areas with greater snowfall get taller poles. 

Gravel road, steep grade, no guard rail: how much more excitement could you want?

Gravel road, steep grade, no guard rail: how much more excitement could you want?

Bridges are built cheaply and are almost exclusively one-way, making them easier to replace when periodic flooding crushes them beyond recognition.  First come, first served. 

All that is left of a bridge after the 1996 flood caused by meltwater from an eruption

All that is left of a bridge after the 1996 flood caused by meltwater from an eruption

Sign for a one-way bridge

Sign for a one-way bridge

We went through a tunnel 3 km long that was one lane.  Periodic pull-out sections were for the lane that had to yield.  This tunnel had an actual intersection in the middle, making it even more hair-raising. 

Here it is: the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel!

Here it is: the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel!

Sheep are another driving hazard.  Farmers put up fences, but the sheep view these as mere suggestions, preferring the grass on the other side of the road.  Sheep always have the right of way. 

They just kept walking toward us!

They just kept running toward us!

“Blindhæð” means watch out for oncoming traffic, there’s a hill where you can’t see what’s coming. 

Blind Hill

Blind Hill

Speed limits range from 90 km/55 mph out in the middle of nowhere and sometimes even plummeting down mountainsides to 50 km or less per hour in towns.  Roads often change to gravel with little notice, which can cause your vehicle to fishtail if you’re not careful (yes, chalk that one up to my driving).  And by all means, stay off the F-Roads unless you have a four-wheel drive and know what you’re doing.

Entering town limits

Entering town limits

Although driving can be challenging at times, the drop-dead beauty and exotic surroundings make it all worthwhile.  At times you’ll think you are traveling through Mars (and indeed NASA did do lunar module training here). 

Not Mars

Not Mars

At other times, the contrast of green and black and white and blue will bring tears to your eyes.  How is it possible to have so much beauty concentrated in one area?  roadside beauty

Even as we took the shuttle from Reykjavik to the airport, the most vivid rainbow I have ever seen showed itself, gone before I could get out my camera.  Slow down and enjoy being in the moment.  After all, the journey is the destination.