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.

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

Ultreia–One Pilgrim’s Progress

For the last two months, my course materials have consisted of a tiny backpack filled with clothes and blister treatments, a pair of hiking shoes (recently exchanged for a new pair), and a foldable book of stamps from hostels and chapels. I am on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a medieval pilgrimage route that leads to a grand cathedral and the remains of St. James in the Galician city of Santiago. Its presence and importance in the history of Europe has its proof in the still intact walking routes that lead to Santiago from all parts of the continent. For some, it leads ninety kilometers beyond Santiago to the ocean at Finisterre, the place people once considered the end of the world. Traditionally, for people in Europe, the pilgrimage begins when you leave the front door of your house, and I have met pilgrims from Germany and Switzerland and Belgium who have done just that. While many know of the Camino Frances, which stretches through Navarre, La Rioja, Castilla, and Galicia, there are also some other very popular routes that lead through the northern coast of Spain, Portugal, and the western stretch of Spain. And then there are even more that lead from Paris, from eastern Germany, even from eastern Europe. I am staying here in Europe until my visa expires to do my best to complete, meet, learn about, struggle with, and come to love the route that takes me from the middle of France (Le Puy), connects me with the Camino Frances, and brings me to Santiago. Over the summer, I completed the bulk of twelve credits of independent study on the history of pilgrimage, pilgrimage literature from around Europe, the Divine Comedy, and nature writing themed around travel and spirituality. Now, I put my studies into practice and make my own journey, taking notes for my own collection of nature writing.

And I am indeed living my studies. Arnold van Gennep, a famous anthropologist, has a term for an experience like the Camino. He studied rites of passage and invented a word called “liminality” to describe periods in which people are suspended, temporarily separated, from their everyday lives in society. Every rite of passage, even the simple rite of walking through a door, has this step. Liminality is the sense of being caught in the middle, being separate from home and customary habits and activities, and at the same time recognizing the time on the threshold (limen is the Latin word) as something that will enrich one’s return to normalcy. Here on the Camino, I am living the words I read. I feel, often, completely detached from my normal life. For a month and a half, I walked through a country where I don’t speak the language. I felt detached from complete conversations as I sat through long meals with groups of five to fifteen social people. For many days, I walked alone for hours.  While I normally walk and hike with ease and speed, I have been walking bewildered, day after day, as I experience one leg problem after another. The slow walking has left me detached from my usual drive to move forward, to fill my days with productivity and force.

And yet, as lonely and difficult as this all looks on paper, this trip has left me feeling light and filled with a mysterious sense of joy. Every time I look back, I remember struggles, but mostly I feel filled with a sense of magic. I remember walking out of a canyon and into a city with a sanctuary built into a cliff. I remember hills of green and yellow and purple in the middle of rural France. I remember fresh, homemade sourdough bread at a donation-only pilgrim hostel. I remember watching old ladies in plain cardigans swaying along with gleeful smiles to a traditional African processional dance in an echoing stone church. I remember laughing with new friends about falling off my top bunk and miraculously landing on my less-injured foot. The route has been filled with unforeseen beauty. The difficulties, though demanding and exhausting, have taught me the importance of slowing down, of believing in the surprises to come, of trusting that not only the Camino, but life itself, will provide for us. I have realized in this trip how much the tiniest things–a bowl of soup, a phone call, a conversation, an open café after miles of rain–can mean to a person detached from home, from ordinary comfort, from usual sources of self confidence. And I have also started to suspect that those moments of relief happen more often than I have cared to notice before.

I came on this trip hoping to process a thing or two about the world, but I ended up learning more about something equally important–myself. Before I came, I spent months reading about the experiences of others on long journeys like this. I read about the experience of pilgrims in the Eleventh and Twelfth centuries in Europe, the Golden Age of pilgrimage, walking over the same bridges I have seen and themselves being confused by new languages and foods, delighted by taverns, and sometimes miraculously cured of ailments. I read of famous warriors like the Cid in Spain, exiled from his Lord’s kingdom, traversing what we now call northern Spain and regaining his wealth and renown through a series of battles with Moors. I just saw his tomb in the heart of his city of residence, Burgos. I read about Perceval leaving his mother’s home to pursue his knightly heritage. So here I am, smack in the middle of a route of extreme literary and historical significance…and every lesson reverberates back to my own life.  It was jolting at first– I felt misdirected, distracted. I was frustrated that I couldn’t focus on history and culture and writing down sagely thoughts because of the constant necessities of food and shelter and ice for my shin splints.

Yet the truth that I have come to see is that am not denying my studies or forgetting them– I am  enacting them, taking the stories I have read and experiencing them in my own flesh. This is not a walk in the park, and it never was supposed to be. I am enacting a central human experience, one imbedded in Catholic history, in philosophy and nature writing, in old European epics and romances, in anthropological studies on human passages. And at the core of all of these genres lies the centrality of the individual’s experience. I came not to study the Cid’s homecoming, but to walk through his home city myself, to feel in my own bones the immensity of the cathedral where he is entombed, to question on site the religious wars that made this Christian route possible. I came not to share commentary on Perceval’s determined quest for the Grail, but to be more ready to understand it by completing a journey of my own with all of its trials. I came not to learn about pilgrims, but to be one. I have come to believe that all art, all history, all thought, all human sharing, is meant to be internalized. It is meant to hit home not just in our heads and imaginations, but most importantly in our lives and physical experiences. 

Time has slowed. I am here for another month, and I feel already more tranquil than ever, despite unhelpful doctors and the necessity of taking busses and resting and the stubbornness of my own legs. The first and most important lesson of this pilgrimage–one that a fellow pilgrim and priest reminded me of the other day–is that everything is a pilgrimage, if we only recognize it as such. No matter if I walk or bus or fly to Zurich or wake up at home in bed, every day will continue to offer me sunsets and rainstorms and surprise friendships and brilliant stories–a mess of lessons and interactions, running through me and filling me, energizing me and feeding me. What good is a liberal arts education if we only use it to get a grade? Over here, I have finally settled down, stopped worrying about the speed or quality of my hiking or thoughts or speech or writing. Instead, the experience has started to flow through me, to impress itself upon me, and to give me lessons I never would have learned had I not gotten out of the way to see them.

There is a  pilgrim greeting here, one that has been uttered since the middle ages between pilgrims parting from one another–ultreia. It is Latin and translates, roughly, as “onward.” The traditional response is et suseia–“upward.” We sing it frequently in a song, which I have seen translated into French, English, Spanish, and German. It is the perfect way to describe what we do as pilgrims, as students of the world, as humans. Walking is a slow, wearying kind of progress–slower still with stubborn shin splints. But it is progress nonetheless. A symbol of our life stories, the slow pilgrimage leads us onward in a continuous way that, when we look back, does indeed flow into a melody. And, going onward, we rise upward into ourselves and into an ongoing love of the surprises the world throws at us.

Ultreia to you, wherever your journey takes you today!

Some pictures:


The city of Rocamadour, site of a black Madonna statue and the alleged (now empty) tomb of St. Zaccheus


Taking a rest at one of the many rest stops made and supplied with snacks and water by locals eager to help pilgrims


Morning mist


A night of song at a communal dinner in the middle of rural France

More critical questions

Critical questions 3

I was just sitting down thinking about the difference between working artfully and passionately, and working for a profit. I think that being passionate about ones work is something that everyone wants, or that most people want anyway. Anyway I watched a couple dance videos this evening when I was procrastinating on working, one was “Break the Geometry,” the other was “Art of Krump: Journey to Heaven.” Both of them, “Break the Geometry” in particular discussed why the dancers danced. Some of the reasons that they gave were that it allowed them to become what they wanted to and that it allowed them to lose themselves in movement and lines. It was meditative for them. I find these reasons for doing very noble and primitive. I also notice that they seem to turn up more frequently in artistic professions, though many of the people that we’ve had the privilege to talk to and spend time with have also discovered how to integrate artistic passion into their work. I wonder if it was easy/natural for those people to come reach the point of successfully working passionately? I am curious about how to bring that creative primitive passion back into typically less artistic jobs and walks of life.

As we learn more and more about Maori culture I begin to further consider my own. The Maori culture is so intense and so rooted to the place that they live and find meaning. Its interesting to compare culture of the Maori to our culture in the United States, which seems to be packaged up and shipped around the world all the time. The United States is definitely connected to land but not at the same level, the majority of my culture looks to the land to make a dollar rather than for spirituality and sustenance. What would the American culture look like if we connected to the land we live on at a deeper level?