SUMMER 2017: ICELAND

I can't believe summer is over. Just like that and we're onto a new chapter, a new season. I always try to stop and think back before so hastily moving forward into a new phase of life. Reflecting is my jam. How can I be a better daughter, sister, friend? What do I need to stop doing? What do I need to start doing? How can I show more grace? Who do I need to forgive? Who do I need to apologize to? You get the picture. 

Summer '17 is one I won't forget. A hot, sticky, dewy season that brought on a new mindset, a new set of priorities, a new lifestyle. A summer of reevaluating, restructuring and reprioritizing. All very exciting indeed but that's a whole other blog post in and of it self.

What I want to talk about (scream about, sing about, interpretive dance about) is the highlight of my summer, Europe. My cousin Kristin (I say cousin but she's really my sister who isn't my sister but is basically my sister) and I gallivanted through Iceland, London and Paris. Or better yet, how I like to refer to them, Adventure, Pints, and Baguettes (and wine obviously - so much wine).

In efforts not to bore you with an 18 page rendition of our entire trip, I'm going to break it down by location. I hope my words inspire some of you to visit these places, or at the very least, move them to the top of your Bucket List. With that said, consider this post one of three. 

Iceland.

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Up way too early for any human to consider it normal. Sprinting around trying to gather last minute necessities, run errands and get everything in order before leaving for almost three weeks. Our flight wasn't until 7:30pm but man oh man did we use every minute leading up to it.  

Neither of us could sleep on the plane despite taking Melatonin, Dramamine and Doxylamine. Maybe it was the adrenaline of knowing we were heading to freaking ICELAND or maybe it was the six inches of leg room (what is this, a plane for ants?).

Needless to say, we survived the flight and were ready to hit the ground running. We got into Iceland at 6:30am and had to wait outside for the shuttle bus. This is when the panic set in as we both started questioning if we brought warm enough clothes. Who ever named Chicago the "Windy City" has clearly never been to Reykjavík. 

The blonde haired, blue-eyed, 18-year-old boy behind the desk tried to give us a manual car. I swear I think I laughed in his face. Can you picture us driving the terrane of Iceland with a stick shift!? Let's all laugh together, shall we?

From there we headed straight for the Blue Lagoon. Driving through moss covered lava fields like we would corn fields back home. The smell of sulfur is everywhere. It's in the air, it's in the food, the water, everywhere. They call Iceland the "Land of Fire and Ice" because of the many glaciers and active volcanoes. Fields and fields of dark gnarled volcanic rock covered by blankets of wild moss and browning grass. It's said that elves live within the rocks. Since the beginning of time, elves have been the stuff of legends in Iceland, but locals will earnestly tell you that elves appear regularly to those who know how to see them. Construction sites have been moved so as not to disturb the elves, and fishermen have refused to put out to sea because of their warnings: in Iceland, these creatures are a part of everyday life. It's reported that more than half of Iceland's population believes in and respects these creatures and it's not uncommon to stumble upon tiny elf houses built into Iceland's various landscapes.

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Now, I'm going to be honest about the Blue Lagoon. It was, in fact, cool to see and I'm glad I got to cross it off my list since it's one of the biggest, if not the biggest attraction in Iceland. But, I'm sad to report that the pictures you see on social media make it look a LOT cooler than it actually is. We were in the water for no more than an hour before we had enough, just enough time to finish our cider beers we ordered from the swim up bar. 

First, it's manmade - I did not know this. Second, the hot spots are very hit-or-miss and even when you find one, it's more lukewarm than hot. I felt like I was at a public pool. I'd suggest hitting up a natural hot spring instead. You can find them easy enough and the locals are super helpful. The Blue Lagoon has nothing on the truly majestic scenery Iceland has to offer but more on that later.

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After leaving the Blue Lagoon we drove to Reykjavík to our Airbnb. We had a tiny room with two cots. The kitchen was communal and there were six other travelers there when we arrived. Some from Hong Kong, New York and the UK. Jet lag was setting in but we vowed not to nap so we went to explore downtown instead. It was what you'd expect of any big city. Storefronts, restaurants, and graffiti. We went to a place called Mat Bar for dinner where we split sandwiches and a bottle of wine. We were about to leave when two older men asked if we wanted to have a beer with them. Bernard was a lawyer and Oscar owned a hotel, or maybe it was a theater, I can't remember. They were friendly but not in the where's-my-mace kind of way. They gave us a lot of suggestions for things to do and see. After dinner we went to the grocery store to get food for the week and stalked up on fruit, sandwiches and chocolate covered cashews for our hike the next day. 


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I was really looking forward to our glacier climb. I wasn't sure what to expect but I was ready for anything. We had to wake up really early and head to the bus station to meet our group. Our guide was a handsome blonde, long-haired, blue-eyed Icelander named Stone. 

Driving to Sólheimajökull is when I realized how truly beautiful Iceland is. Everywhere you look is like a scene out of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. I felt like I was on another planet. After stopping for donuts and beer we continued to drive East to meet our other guide, Sven. Equally as rugged as Stone with his ice pick in hand trudging through blue ice and volcanic ash. Kristin thought we was super cute (and so did everyone else).

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Our hike took about four hours. We had great weather and a group of about 15 people. We stopped halfway through for lunch and a much needed break. Kristin and I sat on the cold wet ice eating protein bars and cashews before we started ice picking our way up the vertical wall of Sólheimajökull. Sólheimajökull is a massive glacier made of layer upon layer of ice and volcanic ash. I was somewhat familiar with the glacier from watching the documentary Chasing Ice on Netflix. It's melting at an alarming rate as it covers the Katla central volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in Iceland. Katla is set to erupt in the next few years and this is something the locals fear very much as massive flooding occurs from the melting glacier.

On our way back to Reykjavík, Stone and Sven wanted to show us Skógafoss, a must-see waterfall in Iceland and the only word I can use to explain my experience there is: Holy.

This waterfall is MASSIVE and I underestimated it's power. I ran to the base of the fall so Kristin could capture a picture. I was soaking wet and concentrating on not breaking my ankle as I bound from one slippery rock to the next, trying to get as close as humanly possible - not really paying attention to the fall itself. Getting closer and closer, one more rock, a couple more feet then BAM! 

Shifting my gaze from the rocks to the sky, I froze. This roaring force stopped me in my tracks, arching me back like a boomerang. I felt God's power, His strength, His grace hurling down on me. Physically bending me backward. It was LOUD. I was paralyzed, startled even. It wasn't what I was expecting and I was instantly humbled by the sheer enormity of the natural force. It was incredible. 

You see, it is very hard to visit Iceland and see these soul-enriching, life-affirming sights and not believe in a force greater than you. I love, love, love moments like this. When you're reminded of how incredibly small you are and how astronomically big He is. The last time I experienced this I was on top of Mount Evans. These rare moments swallow me up and I want to live with that life-changing awareness every single day of my life. 

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This was a really fun day. My favorite day in Iceland, my favorite day of the whole trip. We woke up, gassed up the car, threw some sandwiches in our backpacks and hit the road. A full on road trip through Southern Iceland. We drove 11 hours and made nine stops. A lot of tourists drive what's called the "Golden Circle" but we had our own agenda of what we wanted to see.

Kristin drove and I was in charge of the music. How many people can say they've driven through Iceland with Boyz II Men blaring through the speakers? We can.

First stop, Kerið Crater Lake. All I wanted to do was jump in head first. Ever since I dove into Bear Lake, I crave arctic water. The sensation you feel diving into freezing temps is unexplainable. I've never felt more energized after doing so. It takes your breath away. Literally. It feels like the air is stripped from your lungs and shockwaves are sent through your heart.

We had a little mishap while leaving Kerið. As you can see from the picture, the crater is steep and Kristin fell pretty hard. There was blood. And I'm pretty confident she fractured her elbow. She's a trooper though and wasn't going to let it stop her so back on the road we went. 

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Driving through Iceland is something I think everyone should do. I'd love to go back and drive the entire perimeter. Iceland is pretty small, it can fit inside of Colorado so you could drive it easily. They offer self-drive tours where you can rent a customized van and camp out while you drive the entire island. Iceland has 24 hours of daylight in the summer which means more time to drive/explore. SIGN ME UP!

One thing we saw a LOT of was the Icelandic Horse, they're everywhere! The breed developed when ponies were taken to Iceland by settlers sailing from Norway in the 9th and 10th centuries. As ships could carry only two horses at a time, settlers had to select the strongest ones. There has been no cross breeding in 1,000 years, which makes the Icelandic Horse the purest breed in the world. So naturally we had to pull over for a photo op. 

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The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new breath-taking, life-changing natural sight every freaking five minutes. It’s totally exhausting. We continued on hopping from one waterfall to the next. Each beautiful in it's own unique way. We heard about a "hidden" waterfall up over a grassy hill but despite our best efforts and extensive Girl Scout background, we couldn't find it. Maybe next time.

The Black Sand Beaches of Vík and cliffs of Fjaorárgljúfur were two of my favorite places on this particular day.

The beaches in Vík are jet black from the volcanic ash and is the southernmost settlement in Iceland. The sand originated from the basalt lava that covers much of the area. We ran into the moody Northern Atlantic and jogged along the beach. This was one of my favorite stops. We laughed and sprinted for our dry shoes when the waves almost washed them out to sea. I jumped on Instagram Live and it was so fun to show some of my closest friends what I was seeing.

Fjaorárgljúfur was beautiful. We ventured out on cliffs we probably shouldn't have but made sure to keep a low center of gravity. It was a last minute addition to our drive. We were exhausted and it was another 90 minutes East but I'm glad we rallied and pushed on to Fjaorárgljúfur before heading back West to Reykjavík. 

After fighting the wind at the top of the canyon we opened some wine and took a minute to soak it all in. Thoughts like: how is this real life!? flooded my brain. Last August, I wasn't happy with how I was spending my time. Work. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. 

What I ached for was adventure and connection. I wanted less stuff and more experiences. I wanted to do more, be more. Less checking the boxes and more drawing my own. 

I never want to be someone who just lets life happen to them, I want to be intentional with it. I want to create it, not just accept it. "It is what it is" has got to be the worst saying of all time. That way of living drives me nuts. No, "it is what it is" can go fly a very large kite if you ask me. I'm telling you people, it is what you make it. And as I stood on the cliffs of Fjaorárgljúfur staring out over the canyon with the roaring river below me, I was reminded of just that.

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Our last day in Iceland was spent snorkeling in the Silfra fissure and spending time at Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is a historic place, it’s where Icelanders started their first parliament (one of the world’s first actually) and Vikings used to hold meetings. 

Snorkeling is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Iceland but the Silfra fissure is known as one of the most beautiful dive spots in the world with crystal clear 35°F glacial water. The Silfra fissure is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet making it the only place in the world where you can dive between two tectonic plates. In Silfra the tectonic plates drift apart and the fissure is filled with glacier water. The water comes from Langjökull glacier which is about 50 km away and filters through lava for over 100 years before it reaches Silfra. This is what makes it so unbelievably clear. The underwater visibility is over 100 meters making it the clearest, most drinkable water on the planet. 

There were boulders lining the bottom of the fissure from past earthquakes and bright green algae on the rocks that they called "Troll's hair." It was only me, Kristin and our guide PH in our group so we basically had the place to ourselves. It took about 45 minutes until the brain freeze kicked in and we had to get out. After our dive we shared hot chocolate with our guides and jotted down their must-do's for London and Paris. 

The feeling of floating between two tectonic plates is an adventure that can't be beat. Am I going to make it out alive? Are these tectonic plates going to crash together? Is it normal that I can't feel my face!? YOU JUST DON'T KNOW.

If you make it to Iceland, I highly recommend snorkeling in the fissure. If you ever want to become a true Icelandic Viking, swimming the glacier water is a must as it's the official Viking rite of passage. So, I mean, you might as well.

Next stop: London.

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