Walking for Love of a Mother: Rocamadour

Fourteen days into my sojourn on a Camino de Santiago route starting from Le Puy (close to Lyon) in France, already stunned by language barriers and surprise blisters and a rainstorm, I decided to scare myself even more. I turned off the customary Camino route to take a six-day walking detour to the cliff-side city of Rocamadour. Essentially, I completed a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage.

Situated in a canyon on a tributary of the Dordogne river, in the midst of the region of France with prehistoric cave paintings every few miles, the tiny town of Rocamadour boasts a chateau, a Black Madonna, a sanctuary built into a cliff, many local legends and relics, famous goat cheese, and a huge crowd of international tourists. It is said to be the resting place of St. Amadour. According to legend, he was also St. Zacchaeus, the tax collector who climbed into a Sycamore tree to see Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. They say in Rocamadour that after his conversion, he came to France with his wife, St. Veronica. At the end of his life,  he became a hermit, renaming himself Amadour—lover—and coming to the canyon of Rocamadour to dwell in a cave.

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“That sounds beautiful, Rebecca,” you might have told me, “but couldn’t you save that for another trip? I mean, you’re already hiking a zillion miles in a foreign place on a path with many other beautiful towns, all on your own. That’s already hard. You could just skip this place.”

I agree. It was crazy to go there, if you look at it practically. But I had far more important reasons to go there than just sightseeing or school.

In the December before my trip, I told my Grandmother, another lover of travel and stories and grappling with doubt and trust, about my plan to walk the Camino from Le Puy. She walked into the other room and brought out a guidebook for Rocamadour. “I went here,” she said, rattling off the history of the place. “Go here,” she said, as if in her sentimental stupor she had forgotten the other nine hundred miles of my journey. But I told her I would go.

Three weeks later, I stood in the hospital room as Grammie Lu, the traveler, laughed excitedly about her last journey—into ashes. She had a heart attack, and she sat on a hospital bed for three days, waiting for her children to come and say farewell. Her nine children, their spouses, and most of her eighteen grandchildren huddled around her, sobbing and staring, walking in and out, pacing the halls, mindlessly buying food from the cafeteria. On January 6th, the traditional date for Three Kings’ Day (also called the Epiphany), she faded out and went to join her stars. She died on what I think should be a favorite day for a pilgrim, because it celebrates one of the most significant pilgrimages in all Christian lore—the journey of three powerful and rich and wise men to a homely stable to visit the miraculous birth of a baby. When she died, the pilgrimage felt more than ever like something more than a school trip or vacation. It became a quest to fill the void that she left in all of us.

I was talking to my friend Jane the other day about our shared love of the Epiphany. She says she likes the three kings because they did not just cross territorial boundaries to see a tiny baby—they crossed faith boundaries. Pilgrimage is the ultimate experience of being an outsider, of crossing cultural and linguistic and territorial and often religious boundaries, and searching still for a feeling of attachment and home.

I came to Rocamadour, paradoxically, to find a home, doubting every moment and every turn in the trail. There is nothing like the pull of family and friends—the pull of  a birth, the black vortex of a death—that draws people into a quest. The Cid, however brutal and violent and filled with the hatred of his time for moors, ultimately sought an end to his exile and a home with his family. The Three Kings gave up all their riches simply in order to see a newborn child. Perceval sought to rectify his actions in living up to his knightly legacy and understanding his family’s story by searching for the Holy Grail. Margery Kempe, a fifteenth-century pilgrim and mystic, mainly meditated on scenes involving the relationship between Jesus and his mother as a way of finding ultimate spiritual comfort. John McFarlane, a British environmental writer who sought to map out in a book the remaining wild places in the British isles, dedicated a significant portion of his writing to commemorating not only his experience on various islands and heaths, but also his relationship with a deceased nature lover and colleague. His book not only maps out physical locations, but also outlines the relationships and stories that make those places meaningful to him. The core lesson of pilgrimage, of all journeys with any sort of meaning, is that we are meant to do more than walk this earth. We are meant to find in it love, meaning, an antidote to doubt and loneliness, and a deeper relationship with all creation.

The whole week on the Rocamadour detour, for me, was one of wrestling between the extremes of doubt and trust. I could write you a book of testimony advocating both. On the first night after walking off the normal Camino route, I arrived in Lacapelle-Marival, a sizable town that had once been a site of tremendous power and wealth—as shown through its castle—that now only has two restaurants. I was greeted by a true ghost town as I myself walked through the ghosts of my past. I walked with my three new hostel companions for an hour until we found an open pizza place on the outside of town. I ate the “pizza mexicaine,” with green peppers and beef, and yearned for true Mexican food. “Well, this isn’t very magical,” I said to my Grandmother, wherever she was. “This is just eerie.” Then I looked up, past the city limits, to see an understated but elegant pink sunset. I chatted with Agnes and Denis, a recently retired couple from Paris, and Marie, a woman working on a doctoral thesis on the philosophy of biology.

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The sleepy town of Lacapelle-Marival boasts a chateau!

I realized also that evening that the pilgrim hostels I thought would be available on my walk out of Rocamadour, as they were everywhere else, were well beyond my budget. I had almost no French skills, no companion, and no guide for this section. The women at the tourist office spoke no English and knew of nothing beyond their town. I had every right to feel deserted.

Everything about the walk to Rocamadour reminded me of my grandmother. Perhaps I willed it out of sheer desire to find her. Perhaps I saw her there because I was walking to a place she loved. Regardless, it was what I needed. When I left the Camino route to start on the variant to Rocamadour, I was escorted to the turn by an eighty-six-year-old woman—the exact age my grandmother would have been. In the mornings, walking through misty pastures of sheep enclosed in old stone walls, I saw into the photographs of the same scenes she hung in her house.

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On the walk to the next town, the owner of the donation-only pilgrim hostel where I was headed had hung little signs on the Camino beckoning us to his place. One read, “the joy of the search surpasses the pleasure of the conquest.” I imagined Grammie Lu meditating, collecting the peace that had met her in those final days, led her through the ultimate transition. I thought of my own search, looking for that same peace. When I arrived at the hostel, I was greeted by opera music and violin concertos. I imagined my grandmother in a seat at a concert hall, binoculars aimed at the silk-clad and cashmere-voiced soloist with singular attention.

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The next day, on the final short walk to Rocamadour, I left excited and humming, walking alone, waving to the cows and horses and sheep that stared at me on the side of the path.  I did not expect the descent. That’s the only way I can describe it—a descent. As I went farther into the canyon outside Rocamadour, the route started to feel longer. I walked alone, shrouded by trees from the sky, past old abandoned mills and caves where early pilgrims might have slept. “Your grandmother is dead.” That is what the canyon told me.

I climbed out of the desolation and into the bustling park at the foot of the Rocamadour canyon. A crowd of motorcyclists revved their engines. Hordes of children ran from picnic tables to lawns. I climbed the stairs up into Rocamadour, staring at tourists from everywhere in Europe who in turn stared into leatherware and pottery and soap shops. My grandmother would have gone into every one of those shops, but I just sat down to eat. Some British tourists sat nearby as I took out my pear and Rocamadour cheese and salami and chocolate–treats, to celebrate my Grammie Lu day. I wanted to speak to them, to finally speak a language fluently, but I could not bring myself to speak. I had been silent and terrified for too many hours.

It was hours before I could check into my hostel. I wandered around the town, toting my backpack like the vagabond I was, images of abandoned windmills and the shaded canyon seared into my head. I collapsed onto the bed in my rare single room at the hostel and turned straight to the WiFi connection, breaking the three days of no contact from home that I thought I would find empowering.  I shook as I recounted the story over the phone, and listened as it sounded more and more abstract. “Nobody will get it,” I told myself. “You’re just alone in Europe, and scared, and freaking yourself out, and nobody will ever understand this.” I looked out the tiny skylight window.

Denis, from the night before, rapped lightly on the door. “Would you like to have dinner with me and my wife?” He asked. “We are preparing dinner here in the kitchen.” I was not invisible. We settled into a slow evening, Denis and Agnes and I, I with little French, they with a bit more English, and inaugurated a friendship that lasted past our destinatuon point of Santiago de Compostela and continues in email inboxes. Staring out the skylights at hot air balloons crossing the canyon, cooking spaghetti on an old match-lit gas stove, I came home for the night.

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I woke up late the next day and put on the one light dress I had snuck into my pack. I sat through a French mass in the sanctuary that seemed vaguely to be about Mary and yearned to play the violin I heard in the back. I ate an omelette slowly, trying to write something meaningful at the table, and ended up just writing about loneliness. I tried to shop like Grammie Lu would have. I tried to people watch like Grammie Lu, find something interesting to observe in the crowds. But everybody around me just sat there, smoking and eating, lost in their own conversations. I tried to find my grandmother, but all I saw was an empty plate and two tired legs.

So I walked out of the town, just a little bit. I walked up a footpath, intending to see the view from the castle at the top, but stopped a hundred feet up to walk into the ruins of an old stone house, impelled to sit. From it, you could look across the canyon at two caves high in the rock. I started to breathe, then started to write. I wrote about Amadour, the man who loved the world by sitting in a cave and cooking meager meals alone. I wrote about my grandmother, the woman who loved and loved and loved and then left the world, left nine children and their children. I wrote about her absence from me now, and her absence in her life–from bad events, from fully comprehending the struggles of a scary marriage and nine children. I wrote about idealism, how sometimes it wrecks your legs and leaves you defenseless in a canyon after days of smiling at sheep pastures in the hopes that the smiles will wipe out your isolation and anxiety. I wrote about how love sometimes makes you reckless. I wrote out my anger. I wrote fragments. I wrote entire paragraphs. I wrote words into circles. I drew stars. I wrote about the disillusionment of love. I wrote about being bereft. I wrote about a grandfather I never met, an angry one, who wrote poetry in secret late at night as my mother watched under a table.

I decided in the ruins of that house to remain an idealist and a lover, despite the shade that drowns us, that seems so all-encompassing and enclosing, in the canyons of our lives.

I stepped out of the still-intact doorway, breathing more deeply now, and walked slowly to the sanctuary with the Black Madonna. I sat down in front of the wall of flickering candles set against the actual wall of the cliff, lit as a prayer to a mother, and thought about my own grandmother. In the main sanctuary, an organ played one of her favorite Bach pieces–Sleepers Awake. I had awakened, left the canyon and, for a moment, found her.

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The ornate but tiny chapel of the Black Madonna (Vierge Noire). The Black Madonna is the tiny figurine at the top of the altarpiece.

Works Referenced:

MacFarlane, Robert. The Wild Places. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Kempe, Margery. “The Book of Margery Kempe.” The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Lynn Staley. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.

The Poem of the Cid. Ed. Ian Michael. Trans. Hamilton, Rita and Janet Perry. London: Penguin, 1975. Print.

de Troyes, Chrétien. “The Story of the Grail.” The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Trans. David Staines. Bloomingdale: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.

Hello from Braunschweig, Germany!

I still can’t believe this is really happening. I’m studying computer science in the historic city of Braunschweig. I even get to live directly downtown, where I can nearly hear the noise from the nearby Christmas market.

When I first arrived, I was tired, shocked, and then it hit me… no amount of language courses could have prepared me to live abroad. I had applied for a peer student before I left, and she was (and still is) so welcoming. She and her friend picked me up by car from the train station, and took me to her place where I could stay the night, as I wasn’t able to get the keys for my apartment for the following 2 days.

I thought I was arriving early, about 15 days before classes started, but I discovered this was the perfect amount of time to get everything in order. The university system in Germany is completely different than in the US. This along with the language barrier made my first time in Braunschweig pretty stressful. I had to apply for health insurance, open a bank account, sign in at the University, get everything sorted with housing, sign in to the city, and get phone service all without getting lost. I only got lost a few times.

One thing was clear. My main focus was to be able to understand people when they talk., All my lectures are all held in German, and it is exciting for me to say that this past week I have reached the point of understanding most everything everyone is saying. I write this on the 15th of December- 2 months and 6 days and 20 hours after my arrival.

Lectures are all in German, but as I am studying computer science, many of the diagrams on the powerpoints, as well as the code, are all in English. This really helps my understanding. I have been taking classes, which all seem to be focused on algorithms currently. In addition, I am taking an English course titled “Scientific Writing.” Most of the students in this course are master students, and as I am a bachelor student, I feel the most under-qualified to take this course. This says a lot, as I am the only native speaker in this course (excluding the teacher, of course). For most of my classmates, this course is to help them learn english, but I have learned equally as much in this course from them.

One of the current tasks is to perform a piece of research in my field. I have chosen the same (or similar) topic as my capstone project, and it excites me that I get to explore a little in that area before I go home and perform the capstone project.

The German culture is really interesting. I have already mentioned the Christmas Market near my apartment. I have gone 3 times, and it has been amazing each time. It is dark, the square in front of city hall is wall-to-wall people. There are cookies, Gluehwein (Mulled Wine- the traditional Christmas market drink), Bratwurst in any form imaginable, many cabbage type food, fries, and many more tasty things! I definitely believe I will be gaining weight while abroad. I have also made some German friends here, and I spend a fair amount of time at their house. In this manner I have also experienced German cuisine. One thing that I’m told I really need to try is called a mettbrötchen. This is a roll with raw seasoned ground pork on top. I’ve heard it described as “German Sushi”

This week is the last week of classes before Christmas. I can’t wait to have 14 days off. I’m going to get to travel, see friends, and experience lots of new things. Thank you GLI for helping all this happen!

-Greg Arno

Until the Next Trip!

This journal entry from my travels in Nicaragua was written on July 10, 2014. I had just over a week left in Chacresecra. That week was the best yet. We had a farewell party, finished our projects, and told our host families how much our stay meant to us. Many of us cried, including myself, when leaving the airport in Managua. As I mentioned before, this trip changed me. I now have an intense desire to travel to developing countries and experience and learn from another society’s seemingly upside down lifestyle. I would go back to Chacresecra in a heartbeat. The people there taught me so much. I hope to go back someday and embark on more adventures throughout Latin America after I graduate.

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Over the course of 2 days, I helped double dig 3 whole garden beds! The two beds at Petrona’s are finished! We just have to finish up a small section of the fence. Then we will take transplants from Alberto to plant in the beds. The seeds will most likely not make it through direct planting in the beds (as suggested by Rolando who is an employee of GSE who use to be a famer and went to biointensive training school in Leon) so we will plant some starters for Petrona and then she can go back to Alberto in a couple weeks to get the rest of her starters. This project really came together this week. We had a lot of help from Petrona and Memo and still have to some planting to do. I love working with them – I hope the garden is the start of something really prosperous. Today at Conception we finished double digging a tough bed, did some weeding to clear a path next to our new bed, and filled some bags for starters. At Conception there’s a shared greenhouse and water source from the neighbor who grows watermelon. Lots of school kids helped us fill bags which was fun. Even though I hardly speak Spanish, I love interacting with the kids – showing them or working with them like today. They love working in the gardens which is really neat – something I wish we did in the U.S. Elementary and high school school gardens would be great. Being here in Chac makes me really want to apart of UM’s school gardens and help my Mom and Dad have a garden too. I also want my own farm and garden someday so I can be more self-sufficient like Petrona.

Adventures in Nica Continued…

The following is a journal entry from about halfway through my stay in Chacresecra. Side note: one of the requirements of my volunteer internship with GSE was to implement a needs-based project with my host family. My fellow intern, Gabby (who I lived with), and our host family decided a garden would be the best fit for our project. This journal entry describes some the steps toward creating this garden with our host family (building a fence) and specifically about my host Mom, Petrona.
Petrona is one of the strongest women I have ever met. She helped us make her garden fence today and I think she is just as strong as a man. She cut wood, carried it, and hammered nails better than all of us (me, Gabby, and Memo[my host brother]). She is also very smart and knows exactly what she wants, how to do it, and where to get it. Because I viewed the people of Chac as poor at first, I misjudged them as unintelligent and deprived but I am learning far more from them and their way of life. We, Americans, live an over extravagant life that needs reform. I have nothing to offer Petrona but my gratitude for her hospitality and my help with garden and around the house. I am very comfortable here and try to help out without asking them – doing dishes, sweeping the house. I really admire Petrona’s work ethic and everyday smarts. She does everything around the house and supports herself. She built her own cooking (wood burning) stove that is made of white tiles. Her kitchen is never smoky and her entire house is very open and clean in comparison to most houses in Chac which are dark, tight, and smaller (short roof and not very open). She is well off by Nicaraguan standards – she earned it though. Her children help support her too. Her daughter currently lives with while her most of the time. She is a school teacher at Alberto. For the next 2 weeks, Gabby and I are volunteering at the Conception school garden. I feel like I’m gaining good leadership and teamwork skills. I like to listen to others’ input but also share my own suggestions. I also feel like a role model to the high school interns but also like their friend. I’m buddies with everybody in the group. Fact about compost piles that I learned today – you have to flip them and it takes 3 months for them to fully decompose. We will finish our fence tomorrow – have to reinforce the barbed wire fence sides (other 2 sides are mesh we hammered to wooden posts). A neighbor will help with laying down long wooden boards along barbed wire to keep chickens out tomorrow. Then double digging and planting!

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Chac family

 

Summer in Nicaragua

Chac watertower

This past summer I spent a month in a farming community called Chacresecra in Leon, Nicaragua. I lived with a host family and volunteered at organic school gardens with 12 other interns through a non-profit organization called the Global Student Embassy. Though cliche to say, this experience changed my life. I miss my host family frequently and have caught the travel bug. While abroad in Nicaragua I kept a journal to record what I was experiencing and learning about sustainable agriculture. The following is my first journal entry from June 24, 2014. It was my first day volunteering at the Alberto school garden in Charcresecra.
Today I learned so much! First of all, the type of farming we are promoting is biointensive farming. There are 8 principles/steps. Three that I got to do today are double digging, composting, and planting. The double digging consists of cutting into the soil 30 centimeters then loosening the soil another 30 centimeters while stirring up the soil. Then you add fertilizer and stir up the soil again. Double digging aerates and improves the soil. Today I helped make my very first compost pile! First, you put down dirt, then a layer of dry weeds/vegetation, a layer of greens (long leafy plants), add dirt again, and then water. (Repeat until the square is full). We didn’t plant today but did some weeding. Interesting tips – only plant in hexagons or triangles. Also use live cactus as a living fence. Composting – squares decompose into an entire row and takes about 3 months. We are trying to set an example to the community and school children. The school children (some only I think only in 1st grade or kindergarten) helped us today. I also planted a papaya tree! I’m becoming very aware about conserving water and waste. Especially water – comes from Leon every other day. Did some watering at the Alberto garden today. Each day is getting better and better!

Hitchhiking to Seljavallalaug Hot Springs and Hiking the Flanks of a Volcano

This weekend Brook, Noah, Kirsten and I decided to save some money and try a hitchhiking trip. From talking to a few people I gathered that hitchhiking in Iceland is both safe and easy. Apparently tourists rarely pick up strangers while locals are more willing. We packed for an overnight trip and set out from the city bus terminal around 11:00. We took a local route to the edge of town, where we walked towards highway 1 (the ring road). There was little chance that a group of four could get picked up, so we split into two groups. We split up and Brook and I laid down bags and stuck out our thumbs.

It was about 5 minutes before an older Mercedes pulled to the side of the road. We jumped in and asked where they were going. They were heading just out of town to an old coffee house, so we decided to get as far as we could. The driver was a native Icelander and his brother from Berlin was riding shotgun. We swapped traveling stories and talked about old Mercedes. The car we were in was a 1992 Mercedes 300E. He said he preferred the 6 cylinder to the 4 cylinder, but had never had a diesel. As we pulled into the coffee shop / gas station the driver handed us two CD’s from his daughters band, titled Rocketgirl. Realizing that we were both hungry and seeing that it was nearly 1:00, we decided to eat at the Cafe. Other than cold sandwiches the only option was an Icelandic meat soup. Unfortunately it was nearly 1500 Krona per bowl (~ 13 USD) so I asked the waitress to use their microwave. They happily obliged and allowed us to heat up some crepes and pasta from last nights dinner.

When we finished eating we set out to find another ride. We weighed our options for the best location to get picked up. We reasoned that the drivers need a few conditions to be met for a successful stop:

• Time to see us, make a decision and react

• Ample room to pull safely off the road

• Motivation to pick us up

The best location was the interior hazard lane of the highway. We put on our best smiles and waited. A few cars passed us, many of them waving or shrugging. After about 15 minutes our work paid off. A white Renault van pulled off to the side. We scoped up our backpacks and ran towards the van. The driver was an Icelander who spoke limited English, but was friendly. He owned a painting business and was just driving to the next town Hverageroi, but it was not an easy spot to get a ride so he would bring us to the next town of Selfoss. We thanked him profusely and got off near the edge of Selfoss, ready for the next car. We set up about 30 meters after the round about leaving town. Figuring that the cars would have to slow down for the roundabout and may have time to pick us up.

It was nearly 10 minutes of waiting before a black van pulled up beside us. The driver was an older German lady who worked as a massage therapist in Iceland. Her front seat passenger was a girl from New York who was couch surfing though Iceland on a birthday trip and the lady in the backseat with us was a jewelry designer who was from Canada, but had lived in Reykjavik for the past 20 years. They were all very friendly, but they were only going about 15km before they turned off of highway 1. I mentioned the two copies of the CD that had been given to us by our first driver and offered them a copy. Before long we reached road 30, which branched north off of the highway. We said our goodbyes and stood at an intersection in the middle of nowhere.

As we got further away from Reykjavik, the traffic decreased. Luckily after only a few minutes of waiting, a new looking Toyota land cruiser stopped for us. The driver was an older Icelandic lady who lived in the next town, Rangringytra. When we told her of our plans for the hot springs, she told us the name of her favorite one. Unfortunately, if you don’t get people to write down names, it is nearly impossible to remember, pronounce or spell any of these locations in Iceland. When we arrived in Rangringytra, we once again set up after the main roundabout. The weather had begun changing from a nice sunny day to windy and cloudy. This was our longest wait, taking maybe 45 minutes to catch a ride. As we were loosing hope, a blue Nissan pulled up. The driver said he was only going to the next town (seeing a pattern yet?), but it may be easier to catch a ride from there. He was a middle-aged man who used to do professional horseback riding, but had an accident and now cannot compete.

The next town stopped in was Hvolsvllur, which was not much of a town at all and was the last town before our destination. We had another long wait for a ride. 30 minutes passed before a car stopped. This small white Chevy was a rental car driven by two exchange students. One was from Germany and studying economics, while the other was from Finland and was studying teaching. They said that they could give us a ride to the road we need to hike down, but they planned on stopping at a waterfall beforehand. The waterfall Seljalandsfoss, is a famous tourist sight. This is most likely because you can drive to it. The one unique thing about this falls is that when the sea level was higher, it carved out the area behind the falls, leaving an indentation where you can walk behind the waterfall. About 200m down the path from Seljalandsfoss is a less visited falls named Gljufrabui. This falls is hidden behind a canyon. If you brave through the icy spray of water, you get to an opening in the canyon where the falls are visible. Our waterproof layers were completely drenched, but it was an amazing site. When we finished with the falls, we de-mudded ourselves got back in the rental car.

They dropped us off at an unlabeled road a few kilometers after the waterfalls. Noah and Kirsten had the only map, so we were relying on a picture of the map taken by a blurry cell phone camera. Brooke and I begun our hike down the road which ran next to a farm and into a valley shaded by the ice covered Eyjafjallajkull Volcano. The time was 6:00 and night was rapidly approaching. We still had no contact with Noah and Kirsten, so we decided to find the hot springs.

We hiked for a half an hour down the dirt road before it came to an end at a farm. Past this was a riverbed that continued up the canyon. Another 20 minutes of hiking brought us to our destination, Seljavallalaug hot springs. Seljavallalaug is the oldest pool in Iceland and was built to teach Icelandic fisherman how to swim after many of them were drowning out at sea. The pool is situated in an amazingly beautiful area. It is nestled in a small valley that looks out into the sea and has the ice covered caps of Eyjafjallajokull towering above it. The downside of the pool is that it is not very hot and has not been maintained for nearly 40 years. Waiting at the pool were Noah and Kirsten. They had only had two car trips, instead of our 6, and had arrived two hours before us. We made camp next to the springs and soaked. That night we met a girl from Santa Barbara and two Danish travelers who shared some Japanese whiskey with us. Our dinner was partially cooked tortellini and baked bean hotdogs.

The next morning I woke up to find my backpack, sleeping bag and nearly all of my clothes soaked. My backpack had pushed against the rainfly, which created an opening for the night rain to enter. We laid our belongings out to dry and set out for a morning hike. Looking at the map, we decided to hike up the left fork of the river in hopes of reaching a tongue of an outlet glacier. The path soon disappeared and we couldn’t continue any further up the canyon. As a group we decided to attempt to fjord the river to find another route. The flattest spot looked only up to our ankles, but was wide. I removed my already wet shoes and socks and tested the water. The water was of course freezing being that it had melted from a glacier less then a kilometer away. After we all froze our feet, we decided that it wasn’t worth crossing. Once again we retraced our steps and made it back to the hot springs. From there we hiked straight up the side of the hill next to the pool. We climbed about 700 meters and got an amazing view of the icecap. There was a light snow from the night before that was melting, which prompted a summit snowball fight. Realizing that we only had a few more hours of daylight left, we headed for the pools.

We made a quick lunch out of pesto and potatoes and warmed our feet in the springs before heading to the road. About halfway up the road, a purple Subaru legacy passed us and I jokingly stuck out a thumb. They pulled o↵ and we asked where they were going. They were heading East on the 1, while we were going West. Being tired and wet from our hike we asked for a ride to the ring road. Their car was packed full of gear and there were 7 of us total, so we opened up the rear hatch and sat on the bumper and held on for dear life. At highway 1 we split up again into groups of two.

This time Brook and I volunteered to start walking. We made it about a kilometer down the road before a large maroon red ford van stopped for us. The driver was an old Icelandic man who was driving to Reykjavik. We happily got in and made conversation. He spoke quietly and his English was rusty. The van was loud and the automatic transmission was on its way out, so understanding him was even more of a challenge. He regularly told us about historical eruptions and features of the landscape. He also knew two of our geology teachers and where one of them was born. We pieced together that he was some type of farmer and that he had done a Caribbean cruise and was planning another.

When we entered Reykjavik he dropped us off in front of our residence and drove away. The trip was a wonderful experience. The hitchhiking not only saved us the cost of renting a car, but also allowed hh1 hh2us to meet many new people.

The John Lennon Imagine Peace Tower

Yesterday (Oct. 9th) was the yearly lighting of the John Lennon Imagine Peace Tower in Reykjavik. The Imagine Peace tower located on a small island off the coast of Reykjavik. It is a white brick circle that contains multiple spot lights that all point towards the sky. When activated they form a massive single beam of light that reaches up into the night sky of Reykjavik and annoys stargazers. Some friends and I took a ferry out to the island Videy for the ceremony. Hundreds of people gathered around the tower to hear an address by Yoko Ono and to watch the tower light up. After the speech was over the song Imagine by John Lennon started playing as the spotlights turned on one by one. When the light beam was completed people gathered around and begun to dance. As the ceremony came to an end the crowd begun steaming back to the ferry. We lined up and ended up waiting for over an hour to get back to the mainland.
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The Westfjords of Iceland: Arctic Foxes, Hot Springs and Sorcery

The next weekend trip was to the Westfjords region of Iceland. This region is one of the geologically and culturally oldest regions of Iceland. It extends from the mainland of Iceland into the North Sea by way of a small isthmus. The landscape is endless glacially carved valleys with an occasional sleepy fishing town in-between. We drove out of Reykjavik in a bright purple 90s Toyota Corolla that had well over 300k on the odometer. Driving it on Icelands dirt roads exposed a symphony of creeks and squeals that increased in intensity and frequency as our trip progressed. The first night we followed Lonely Planets advice and sought out a local hot spring. This hot spring was about 10m off the side of the road and looked out into a water filled fjord. Our next stop was another hot spring right off the road. We made camp and cooked some of the staple food of Iceland, hotdogs. As we prepared dinner in the dirt parking lot about 8 vehicles pulled up and locals unloaded to soak. There were three old cement bathing pools with alternating temperatures, ranging from lukewarm to scalding.

In the morning we continued north in an attempt to climb the highest point in the region. The mountain Kaldbakur (998m) is in a region of the Westfjords named the European Alps. To access the trailhead we navigated unmarked dirt roads until we reached a small farm. Unsure how to continue to the peak, we searched around until we found a man driving a tractor. He said that if we continued past a fence and across the river in the car we should find the trail.

We wondered exactly what he meant by cross the river. After thanking him we continued towards the trailhead. Im quite used to driving Montana dirt roads, so I took the wheel. The road was poorly maintained and partially flooded with large troughs of mud. Eventually we found the river the farmer mentioned. It wasnt much larger than a creek, but we were driving a rented Toyota Corolla with only a few inches of clearance so we decided to park and continue on foot. Similar to the Corolla we didnt want to get wet so we stayed on the left bank of the river and started walking up the valley. There was no marked trail so we followed winding sheep tracks up the valley. Eventually the river begun to narrow and we found a suitable crossing. From here we hiked up the old road, then continued up the peak.

The next day we drove to the largest town in the Westfjords named Isafjordur. The most interesting part of this was the Arctic Fox research center and museum south of town. This research center is also a shelter for arctic foxes that come in contact with humans. We toured the museum and learned many fun arctic fox facts. Artic foxes fur color changes seasonally. Foxes are monogamous, but leave their mate for the winter and if both survive they find each other by singing at the ends of fjords. They have many cold adapted features such as a circulatory system that places incoming and outgoing blood vesicles in pairs, which allows for an increased heat distribution and prevents frostbite. The best part of this tour was of course playing with the arctic fox named Freddy that they had in recovery. Freddy is a young arctic fox whose mother was killed by a farmer. He was adopted by the research center and once domesticated will be taken by a host family. He lives in an enclosure outside and is allowed to roam around outside each day. The museum guide let him out of the cage so we could see him run around. He is about the size of a very large cat or a small dog, but has the best characteristics of both. Looking like a miniature husky, but playing and climbing like an energetic cat. Most of the photos I managed to take are blurry because of the insane speed at which me moved around. Although I would have liked to spend the entire day with this fox we had to find a place to camp.

We continued east until we hit the small town of Drangsnes (Pop. 80). We set up our tents behind a huge rock outcropping at the edge of town that supposedly was the back of an ancient giant. This rock did little to block us from the wind and instead seemed to channel it right into our tents. Once we weighted the tents down with rocks we walked over to the public hot springs. These hot springs were three old hot tubs next to one another that were filled by a geothermal spring. These hot springs were not only free, but featured an amazing view out into the ocean. When the sun set the northern lights emerged. As of yet these have been the best aurora I have seen. They danced and moved across the sky in large green swathes. We shared the pool with an old local who told us about the fishing industry and how life was living in one of the most remote sections of Iceland. To my great unfortune, he told us about his UFO story where him and some other people saw a bright light zip across the sky. Feeling a societal responsibility I attempted to explain how many of these phenomenon were easily explained events, such as iridium flare satellites and how unlikely it is that aliens cross the vast distances of space to confuse farmers. Im not sure if this had any affect on his beliefs, but I hope at the least I made him think more critically about his experience.

After about 5 hours of sleep we hit the road and drove south. Our last main destination was the Icelandic Museum of Sorcery & Witchcraft. This museum was one of the strangest places I have ever been. It consisted of an ancient bowl for blood, numerous maps of witch burning and symbols of sorcery. The museum left us all a little confused for lack of a better word.wf1wf2-Raphael

Eyjafjallajokul Volcano and the Waterfall Trail

The most exciting trip to date was the on the weekend after. Our plan was to hike between the ridge that connects the volcano Eyjafjallajokull (The 2010 Eruption) with the icecap Myrdalsjokull. Kirsten, Noah, Leslie and I rented an old Nissan and drove south along the ring road to a small town named Skogar. Skogar is a tiny town known for being at the foot of the famous waterfall Skogafoss. We followed a staircase to the top of the falls and then proceeded hiking up north towards the interior. The hike led us up the Skoga River alongside countless waterfalls. The scenery transitioned from sheep filled green grasslands to a black sand moonscape. The higher we hiked, the colder and more lifeless it became. We made camp in the shelter of a small hill next to an outlet channel of a glacier. Unbeknownst to us until the next morning was the fact that the black sand we were sleeping on was covering part of the glacier. The reason we were so cold that night was because we were sleeping directly on ice. After making a dinner we huddled around the small camp stove using it to warm out hands. We managed to endure the cold long enough to get a show of the northern lights.

The next morning we packed up and set out again. We continued towards the ridge reaching a bright red peak that had formed from the initial fissure eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010. We climbed to the top and found a small thermal vent that was still venting heat from the Eruption. Instead of using the camping stove to heat our lunch we found a flat rock and cooked our hot dogs with the heat of the Earth. With lunch finished we curved around the mountain and descended across a lava field, which was extremely dicult to cross. Every edge was very sharp and loose. At the edge of the lava field laid a tongue of an outlet glacier from Myrdalsjokull. We eagerly approached it, but Noah who was in front begun to sink in a deep mud bog. The regolith near the edge of the glacier was completely saturated with water and proved a real challenge to cross. Once onto the glacier we were able to see numerous moulans, which are ice caves that bring water from the surface of the glacier to the glacier bed. Seeing glacial hydrology in action after learning about it in Montana was really satisfying. On the way down we saw the farmers rounding up sheep for the winter. This tradition is called Retir. Our two-day hike was about 24 miles. It was tiring, but completely worth the effort. When we got back to Reykjavik we decided to treat ourselves and got delicious blue cheese burgers in a dark rundown bar.

skogar1 skogar2-Raphael

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