Mæðgur á ferðalagi, 1. dagur: Snæfellsnes

After my mom bought her ticket to Iceland, I started thinking about how we should spend the two weeks she’d be here. We would spend half the time in Reykjavík, I figured, and the other half traveling, but I was torn between two options: the Westfjords or the Eastfjords, the two regions where our family has roots. On the one hand, I thought, it would be fun to see the Eastfjords since I haven’t yet been out there, but on the other hand, it would be nice to visit the Westfjords for exactly the opposite reason – because I have been there so it would be familiar. In the end, I decided that someone who spent 28 years of her life with the last name Westford had to see the Westfjords, so I planned a six-day road trip from Reykjavík around the Snæfellsnes peninsula and through a good portion of the Westfjords. This was 110% the right decision. Choosing this route meant that I was familiar with the majority of the places we visited and also meant that we got to meet up with relatives. It also meant white-knuckle driving over unpaved mountain passes with sheer drop-offs on both sides of the road, but luckily the weather couldn’t have been better and the wild beauty of the region more than made up for the heart palpitations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We began our journey by walking a few blocks from the house to a rental car office downtown. Now, here’s the thing about downtown Reykjavík: I know my way around quite well – on foot. But when I’m on foot, I pay minimal attention to things that don’t apply to pedestrians, like one-way streets and dead ends. This meant that traveling from the rental car office back to the house (a straight shot up Laugavegur on foot) was decidedly more challenging as a driver. Not to mention, I had only ever driven once in Iceland before this – from Patreksfjörður to Tálknafjörður with my host pabbi in 2012 – so encountering different road signs and having to think in kilometers was a bit disorienting. Anyway, we managed to get back to the house and after an hour or so of disorganized packing, we finally left the city behind.

It was serendipitous that I went on a 24-hour Snæfellsnes road trip with the girls a few weeks ago, because that meant that I actually sort of knew what I was doing and where I was going. More importantly, it meant that I knew which places along the way were worth a stop and which ones were more accessible for my mother (who is not a fan of long distances, steep trails, etc.).

We stopped at an N1 station somewhere along the way for a parking-lot picnic, then chased the glacier clockwise around the peninsula, stopping at a church here, a beach there, Mom squealing delightedly every time we saw sheep.

Anyway, here are some of the highlights from our trip around Snæfellsnes:

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Arnarstapi

Arnarstapi is an old fishing village that sits along the southern coast of the peninsula in the shadow of Stapafell (which apparently has been greatly diminished due to quarrying and some of it lies under the runways at Keflavík Airport – thanks, visitreykjanes.is). We didn’t make it to Arnarstapi on the last trip because a car accident closed the road, so it was nice to get a second chance. Apparently there’s a lovely trail that runs along the cliffs between Arnarstapi and Hellnar, but we didn’t have time for that long of a walk. Instead, we just admired Gatklettur (the large stone arch in the photo below) and the lovely views.

Arnarstapi
Arnarstapi views

We also admired this odd and intriguing work of art, which I later learned depicts the saga character Bárður Snæfellsás AKA Bárður Dumbsson, a name which makes me giggle immaturely every time I see it.

Bárður Dumbsson
Bárður Dumbsson

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Djúpalónssandur

The black sands at Djúpalónssandur and Dritvík are expansive and beautiful. Mom didn’t want to walk down to the beach, so we admired the views from the nice even wooden walkways above, which was fine with me since the girls and I spent a couple hours exploring the beach and basalt columns and cliffs just a few weeks ago.

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Ingjaldshólskirkja

Built in 1903, Ingjaldshólskirkja is the oldest concrete church in Iceland. According to kirkjukort.net (a nifty website that provides location, photos, and historical information for every church in Iceland), Christopher Columbus once spent a winter at Ingjaldshóll and there exists a painting of him poring over a map with the priest, with the church and the glacier in the background.

In any case, this was one of mom’s favorite stops around Snæfellsnes, and I understand why. The church stands on a hill (hence the name Ingjaldur’s Hill), fields of lupine billowing in a breeze that comes off the ocean and across ancient lava fields, Snæfellsjökull looming above.

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Ingjaldshólskirkja flags

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Grundarfjörður

If you drive clockwise around Snæfellsnes, Grundarfjörður is the last town you’ll see before you arrive in Stykkishólmur. The distinctive, imposing peak Kirkjufell stands majestically over the town, and across from her is a charming waterfall named after the mountain (Kirkjufellsfoss). The girls and I didn’t take time to see the waterfall on our trip, so it was nice to have another chance.

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Stykkishólmur

Around dinnertime, we arrived in Stykkishólmur, our home for the night. I’d booked a guesthouse and figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to find in a town so tiny. Well, I was wrong. Using directions from the website, the map app on my phone, our eyeballs, brains, and common sense, we still spent about thirty minutes driving in circles not finding the guesthouse. Stykkishólmur is tiny, yes, but it also has a very odd layout with dead ends and weird little alleys. My mom and I were both tired and hungry and I was getting irritated when all of a sudden I saw something blue out of the corner of my eye. I know that blue, I thought. “Mom, I think that’s my nun!” I exclaimed, pointing across the street. Sure enough, there on the front porch stood “my nun,” an American classmate from HÍ who just so happens to be a nun and live in Stykkishólmur. I had hoped to meet up with her while we were in town, but I didn’t expect to run into her like that (although I really should have, because Iceland). Anyway, she appeared in all her blue-nun glory at just the right moment. We explained our embarrassing inability to locate our guesthouse, and she asked us for the address. When we told her, she pointed behind us to a house about two doors down and said, “That’s it right there!” Yes, I managed to book a guesthouse with a view of the nuns’ home.

the view from our room: Catholic church, nuns' house, Catholic hospital
the view from our room: Catholic church, nuns’ house, Catholic hospital

American Nun kindly invited us over for dinner, and I think I may have said yes without even consulting my mother, because when a nun invites you to dinner, you say yes, you just have to.

American Nun lives in a home right by the church with Brazilian Nun, who had just the night before made a huge amount of homemade pizza, which we gladly helped them eat. The nuns told us about life in Stykkishólmur and there was never a dull moment in the conversation. I particularly enjoyed when American Nun told us about an Icelandic friend of hers who uses the expression, “I stone forgot!” (which is a literal translation of the Icelandic verb “að steingleyma,” to completely forget, and now that I’ve taken so long to explain this, anyone who didn’t laugh immediately definitely won’t find this funny).

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Anyway, after pizza, we enjoyed Icelandic ice cream bars and American candy (in honor of July 4, of course). The guesthouse had screwed up our reservation and given us a room with one bed instead of two, so the nuns kindly invited me to sleep in their guest room. I didn’t want to impose, but I also really wanted to sleep well, so I accepted, and slept in their basement guest room next to their basement chapel.

Takk fyrir okkur, nunnurnar mínar! Það var ógleymanleg heimsókn til ykkar!

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dagsferð til þjórsárdals

In the spirit of my newfound spontaneity, what did I do after returning from my 24-hour Snæfellsnes trip and sleeping eight hours? Turned around and left the city again, but this time just for a day trip. Steffi and her friend Emil were planning a day trip to Þjórsárdalur, a lush valley speckled with waterfalls in The Middle of Nowhere, South Iceland. Steffi invited Hanna and me to come along, so around noon Emil fetched us one by one and we headed out. We road-tripped in true Icelandic fashion: with no strict itinerary, stopping wherever we felt like it along the way. Emil (the lone True Icelander among us) was extremely patient with our constant touristic ooohhing and aaaahhhhing, and although we left the sun in the city, it never rained and was not windy and cold, which for Iceland means the weather was beautiful.

Kleifarvatn

Seltún geothermal area

sometimes in Iceland the rivers are hot
sometimes in Iceland the rivers are hot
“how to be a stereotypically stupid tourist,” exhibit A

Litla Hraun Fangelsi

Litla Hraun
Litla Hraun
not the ugliest surroundings for a prison
not the ugliest surroundings for a prison

Okay, so we didn’t actually stop at Iceland’s largest prison, but we did see it from the road and admire the lovely surroundings. Not a bad view to have as a prisoner, eh? Emil works in the film industry, so he was constantly pointing out locations that have been used for various films. Our final destination, Þjórsárdalur, has been used as a location for Game of Thrones, which I have never seen, but I know it is a Big Deal, so I mention it for those of you who might be intrigued and impressed by this fact. —

Þjórsárdalur

Þjórsárdalur is located down a long, windy, one-lane bumpy gravel road that almost gave Steffi a heart attack when we met cars coming the opposite direction. When you arrive at the parking area, all you see is nothingness, but then all of a sudden, a big beautiful valley appears out of nowhere like something out of Middle Earth or, yes, Game of Thrones, filled with waterfalls and striking rock formations. IMG_5356 We descending into the valley and spent the next hour or two exploring. We had to wade across the river four times, which was a bit challenging for the less coordinated among us (not to mention chilly), but it was more than worth it.

Steffi og Hanna, vel klæddar
Steffi og Hanna, vel klæddar
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nörd

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zen
mountaintop meditation

I can always string more words together, but I think I’ll just leave it at that. The photos speak for themselves.

Snæfellsnes

Warning: The following post is chock-full of photos. If you like photos, you will be happy. If you are on a slow internet connection, you will probably be angry. If you are not in Iceland right now, you may experience jealousy. Consider yourselves warned.

Sometimes I let my fears and my dislike of spontaneity ruin opportunities for me. This was almost one of those times. My friend Steffi wanted to take a road trip to Snæfellsnes, a beautiful peninsula not too far from the Reykjavík area, and she invited four of us to come along. We met Thursday evening at a coffee shop to plan the trip. We would be gone for twenty-four hours. We would camp somewhere even though we only had one three-person tent for up to five people. We would send an inquiry to the rental car company that night and count on them having a car for us the next day. We would all get our stuff together by 5 pm on Friday, even though most of us were working that day. It would all work out. Þetta reddast.

The “þetta reddast” mindset does not come naturally to me. Spontaneity makes me nervous. I left the coffee shop unsure if I would join on the trip or not.

On the way home, I ran into my friend Elliott (for the second time that evening, actually). He asked what I was up to and I told him about the maybe-trip. “Well why wouldn’t you go?” he asked. “Well, because it’s tomorrow. And I don’t know if I have the right clothes and shoes. And I don’t have a warm enough sleeping bag. And there might not be enough room in the tent. And I just don’t know.” “Excuses excuses,” he said. “You live in a city the size of a postage stamp. You need to get out of it sometimes. Stop making excuses and just go. You won’t regret it. Trust me.”

I needed that pep talk. I listened to Elliott and went, and he was right. I didn’t regret it for a second.

It was a magical 24 hours where even the things that seemingly went wrong ended up turning out right, starting at the very beginning. When we picked up our teeny tiny rental car, for instance, we could hear a noise that definitely didn’t sound right. We were frustrated to lose time going back to the rental office and waiting for them to decide what to do, but when we ended up with a huge 4×4, we were nothing but gleeful.

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amusing ourselves while waiting for our replacement rental car

After stopping for provisions at Krónan, we hit the road and within minutes were in the middle of Iceland’s beautiful nowhere. Continuing the theme of things that could have gone wrong turning out right, we also ended up taking a wrong turn somewhere on the way, but that detour ended up being a beautiful road through the mountains.

If we were a girl band, this would be our album cover. Also, look at that big car!!!
If we were a girl band, this would be our album cover. Also, look at that big car!!!

Steffi, armed with her Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland, was the tour master. Dörthe and Hanna were our fearless drivers (although if the rental company asks, Hanna never sat behind the wheel. Never.). Flor’s stuffed dragon was our mascot. And I was along for the ride.

drekinn
drekinn

We set up camp under the midnight sun in Grundarfjörður (that is, after asking a drunk man how to get to the campground. To his credit, he gave good directions even in his inebriated state). Grundarfjörður is a tiny town west of Stykkishólmur with a glorious view of Kirkjufell, this striking peak:

Kirkjufell
Kirkjufell
not a bad view to wake up to
not a bad view to wake up to

With Steffi giving the orders, we managed to pitch the tent pretty quickly. Three of us squished into the tent and two slept in the car. Usually it takes me hours to fall asleep in a new place, but once we stopped taking awkward selfies and laughing, I fell asleep almost immediately and woke six hours later when the bright morning sun had heated up the tent so much that I was actually hot.

Pretending like I know how to pitch a tent
Pretending like I know how to pitch a tent

We wandered over to a little waterfall next to the campground to fill our water bottles, took the tent down, packed up, and headed west to Ólafsvík. We stopped at the gas station for coffee, ice cream (Flor’s breakfast), and wifi, then got back on the road. For the rest of the day, we basically just drove the ring around the peninsula, stopping whenever the Lonely Planet guide told us there was something to see or whenever we felt like it.

Among our stops were:

Ingjaldhólskirkja

A classic red-roofed Icelandic church under the glacier. Steffi and Flor may have sort of broken into the church and allowed two other tourists to enter as well. Maybe.

Ingjaldhólskirkja
Ingjaldhólskirkja
eternal rest under the glacier
eternal rest under the glacier

Skarðsvík

This beautiful little red-sand beach reminded me very much of Rauðasandur, just in miniature.

Skarðsvík
Skarðsvík

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Öndverðarnes

On Snæfellsnes blocky yellow-orange lighthouses seem to be all the rage. Öndverðarnes is at the westernmost point of the peninsula and was apparently populated until 1945.

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never far from poetry in Iceland
never far from poetry in Iceland
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Iceland needs no filter

Vatnsborg

I mean, does this lighthouse not look like a loaf of Tillamook cheddar cheese?

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There are bird cliffs at Vatnsborg and everyone was excitedly searching for puffins, but alas, the cliff seemed to mostly house seagulls.

Saxhöll

It was a short but rocky walk up to the crest of this ancient crater, which offers a 360-degree of the surrounding lava fields (Neshraun) and of course ubiquitous beauty Snæfellsjökull.

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Saxhöll crater

Djúpalónssandur

Djúpaslónssandur was our longest stop. We took our time wandering around the beach, climbing around the lava columns, mustering our strength to heave the lifting stones and see which of us is seaworthy, and resting on a grassy knoll in the sunshine. Everything about it was blissful.

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Our planned route back was disrupted by a serious car accident which completely shut down the road that runs along the southern coast of the peninsula. So instead of taking that route, we had to turn around and take a road that cut across the peninsula somewhere east of Snæfellsjökull. It was a minor kink in our plans. For the most part we were just grateful to have had a marvelous day and to be safe, knowing that there were two children and two adults who were not. But our one big concern was getting the car back to the rental before they closed at 7 pm.

We arrived in town about 6.45 but still had to fill the gas tank, so while we were stopped at a light on Sæbraut, the other girls basically pushed me out of the car (okay, a bit of exaggeration) and told me to run ahead to the car rental place and explain (in Icelandic, because they thought it would go over better) that they were on their way. So I arrived at the car rental all out of breath, only to find out that they close not at 7 but at 8 and are completely unconcerned about us being a few minutes late. Of course. Við búum á Íslandi.

Twenty-four hours of sunshine (really, since it’s almost summer solstice). Twenty-four hours of friends old and new. Twenty-four hours of gas station coffee and pylsur. Twenty-four hours of spontaneous exploring. Twenty-four hours of wonder and awe and thankfulness.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, thank you, Elliott. And thank you, Iceland.  ❤

fjórar af fimm stelpum í Borgarnesi
fjórar af fimm stelpum í Borgarnesi
Takk fyrir yndislega ferð, stelpur
Takk fyrir yndislega ferð, stelpur

sigur/victory rós/rose

Over Memorial Day weekend, my sister and I took a road trip to Central Oregon to see Sigur Rós.  Neither one of us is really more than a casual fan at this point, but we figured they’d put on a good show and it was a great excuse for a road trip.  We were correct on both counts.

We started out Sunday morning and headed up the Gorge.  It was sunny and breezy when we made our first stop in Hood River for a little bookstore shopping and café snacking.  A little further east, then it was more or less a straight shot south to Bend.  The scenery along US 97 is lonely and striking, the deep greens and tall trees of the Gorge quickly giving way to the muted greens and browns of the high desert.  The quaint town of Maupin, sitting on a ridge overlooking the Deschutes River, was the only sign of civilization for a stretch of many miles.  Just south of Maupin, 97 winds back and forth sharply, clinging to the edge of the steep canyon wall.  Did I mention there are no guardrails?

We reached Bend mid-afternoon, checked into our hotel, and listened to the clerk’s glowing and lengthy description of the complimentary continental breakfast, then headed to the amphitheatre.  While walking from our car to the gate, the wind carried our tickets away and it may have taken me a minute or two to realize they were gone…  Luckily, there was a kindly security guard with good reflexes who caught them and, after a bit of teasing, returned them to us.

Despite a forecast of thunderstorms, it was sunny and warm.  We staked out a spot on the grass, got some grub from the row of food carts (definitely not the alligator meat, however), and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Eventually, the opening act took the stage.  Julianna Barwick has a wispy, ethereal voice, and I’d like to say the performance was captivating, but… it was really just boring.  I honestly don’t know if there were lyrics to any of the songs.  In fact, I don’t know how many different songs she performed, because they all sounded the same.  That’s not to say they weren’t lovely, but they would have been a lot lovelier in a small, cozy venue rather than a huge outdoor amphitheatre.

During the intermission, we met up with cousin Davey.  Remember, I met him for the first time last autumn before his trip to Iceland?  He and my sister met for the first time, we met his girlfriend and a couple other friends, and we reminisced about our respective trips to Iceland.

After another long (but sunny) wait, Jónsi and co. finally took the stage.  Now, to be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect with this show.  I’ve never seen any artists remotely like Sigur Rós in concert.  In fact, I can’t even name any artists remotely like Sigur Rós.  If you’ve heard their music, you’ll know what I mean – it’s not exactly sing-along music (especially because it is entirely in Icelandic), and it’s not clap along music, and it’s certainly not mosh pit music.  It’s more like sit-back-and-let-it-wash-over-you music.

Several songs in, the sun was sinking and the temperature dropping and I decided to venture up front and shove my way into the standing-room crowd to get a closer look.  I squeezed through and found a little spot to stand, close enough to see the stripes on Jónsi’s signature jacket.  Whether it was the stage lights or just collective body heat, it was a lot warmer up there, which was nice, except that it also reeked of pot, which is not exactly my thing.  It was worth the shoving and the stink, though, because I happened to be up there when they played Hoppípolla, one of my favorite songs (and definitely one of their most well-known, as the opening elicited quite an enthusiastic response from the audience).

In an effort to spare my nose, lungs, and brain cells, I returned to my seat after Hoppípolla.  At one point Jónsi commented, “It’s so cold… it’s just like being in Iceland.”  And those were the only words he spoke all evening, save for a couple “takk fyrirs.”

I should probably mention the people sitting in front of us.  There was a couple, likely husband and wife, 30ish, and then a separate group of 5-6 adults.  They arrived separately, that is, but after discovering that a couple of them were from the same area of Nevada, they quickly became best friends.  Their friendship was further cemented by a shared bottle of red wine… and then five more.  About halfway through the concert, the young woman had become quite noisily drunk, prompting some other nearby concertgoers to shush her, which didn’t bother her in the least considering her euphoric state of mind.  She and one of the women from the other group became more and more demonstrative as the night went on, swaying to the music, intertwining their arms and holding cups of red wine to each other’s lips.  But perhaps my favorite moment was when the older lady asked the young man, in a loud drunk-whisper, “Do you think he’s singing in HIS NATIVE TOGUE?  Or is he just MAKING UP WORDS?”

The evening ended with the slow-building, sweeping Popplagið, a bow and a final “takk fyrir.”

Overall, I feel like I would have enjoyed the show more had I been more well-versed in the band’s discography; however, I also feel like it would be impossible not to enjoy a Sigur Rós concert.  Their music is haunting, Jónsi’s piercing voice is just as strong and pure live as it is recorded, and the band just has a strong but laid-back stage presence that draws you in and holds your attention.  As many a journalist has pointed out, it seems impossible to separate Sigur Rós from their homeland.  And it’s not just about the language.  There’s something about Iceland’s harsh, striking, bold, haunting beauty that seems to settle into every phrase.  Beauty that transcends language barriers and makes six hours in the car and numb fingers more than worth it.

postscript: The continental breakfast consisted of canned biscuits and gluey sausage gravy.  We declined.

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(I apologize for the lack of photos; I posted quite a few to Instagram but I can’t figure out how to transfer those here.)