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Lost in Iceland

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I stole that expression from a T-shirt in a gift shop. The shirt was over-priced but the words were fitting for a desolate country of 300,000.

Reykjavik, although the capital and largest city in Iceland, felt more like a village than a metropolis. There are a few museums though their size is more akin to galleries. We spent two nights there but really one would have been sufficient. I did enjoy that the locals tend to eat later – 8 or 9pm. We ate well, especially a meat bread bowl soup and fish n’ chips by the harbor. Our hotel was a trendy, very sleek industrial furnishing, Much of Iceland’s interior décor is similar to this minimalist approach, I likened it to upscale Ikea furnishings.
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We spent an afternoon at the local geothermal pool. Practically every town, even the smallest of places has a local pool and hot pots. Simply driving on the ring road (the paved road along the perimeter of the island) yields frequent sightings of steam rising from the land and road signs depicting a head in water marking the local pool.

I did notice how fashionable the populace of Reykjavik was, fur trimmed coats, ballet slippers, drapey scarves, and lots of sleek dark colors. I was decidedly unfashionable in my fuzzy wool hat, white rain jacket and sneakers, desperately trying to stay warm.

Once we were on the road heading towards the Golden Circle (a touristy area east of Reykjavik and full of interesting sites) our adventurous spirit kicked in. Renting a car is ridiculously expensive but I do think it’s well worth it, especially if you are traveling off-peak when the buses are infrequent and the weather conditions are erratic. We managed to see the entire southern region and a bit of the fjords north of Reykjavik as well on our return in just four days. It was a lot of driving but there is much to look at and the landscape is constantly changing.

I have never been much enamored with waterfalls, there are just far too many of them that look far too similar. Gulfoss, however was uniquely beautiful. It was so large and powerful, flanked by steep canyons and a lovely rainbow that went right through it.
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The Geysir was somewhat anti-climactic but it was sort of special since this was the original one – the very first. It does not however erupt any longer or at least not as dramatically due to foolish locals in the ‘60s attempting to force it to burst by chucking rocks and dirt but instead blocking the activity almost entirely. There is another geyser nearby that erupts every 10 minutes along with several boiling hot springs.

Onwards we went to Thingvellier National Park, a historical area of interest where the Icelandic parliament once convened.
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We hiked to a massive glacier in Skaftafell National Park and stopped for a bit at a strikingly blue iceberg filled lake.
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I was toting around a Lonely Planet guidebook that was 5 years old (this was a trip that I hoped to take many years ago) and I should have probably opted for the updated version. Not only were the prices way off but also one of the farmhouses I was excited to stay in was shut down last winter.

I read about farmhouse accommodation before arriving. It’s kind of neat because you can stay in an often-beautiful setting off the beaten path at a local’s farm. It’s widely available throughout the island and a far cheaper alternative to hotels. Sleeping bags were listed in my guidebook as one of the “don’t leave home without” items. You have to pay extra for sheets/blankets at farmhouses and hostels so it’s best to bring your own if you can squeeze it in.  The rooms are often dormitory-style but sometimes you can score a private room or the entire house as we did.
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The initial approach was kind of creepy, there was no sign and no clear indicator that anyone was home so we thought perhaps it was no longer functioning.  I knocked on the door and the owner was awkward, staring a bit too intensely and barely providing any details, responding only with “yes” or “no” to all my random questions like does it have heat and is there anyone else staying there. Needless to say our interaction did little to ease my initial hesitance but we decided to at least check the place out. They leave the farmhouse wide open so we searched the premises, flushed the toilet, made sure the heat was working before finally settling in. I kind of hoped someone would show up (though not too late) but no one did so it was just me and Dan in a huge 19th century farmhouse with an upstairs lounge area that had 2 televisions but only one working Icelandic program. We had a couple of beers and laughed our fears away.

I had my heart set on Landmannalauger, which is an area in the interior that is fairly tough to get to especially just after a hailstorm, which is when we were attempting to arrive. We didn’t have much time so we thought we’d make a go for it but even with our 4WD, we couldn’t reach the mountain hut where most people stay to sleep and visit the natural hot springs. I’d like to keep that on my future to do list.
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I think there is an exoticism associated with Iceland, as if it’s this bizarre faraway nether land. Now it feels much more ordinary, still an interesting place of course but accessible. The land can certainly be violent and unforgiving, we witnessed this as we were fording rivers trying to get to a rugged area called Thorsmork (Woods of Thor) but the water levels were too high and there were simply way too many rivers to cross in our 4WD that lacked the heavy duty clearance of the locals we observed.
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The tap water is very good. I highly recommend it; don’t even bother with the bottled stuff.

Our last night we splurged for a fancy hotel near the fjords above Reykjavik. We had a decadent 3-course meal that included fresh lobster and shrimp. They had 2 outdoor hot pots overlooking the mountains. And we caught a glimpse of the northern lights.
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Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon
Our conversations went something like this, “if the road to a particular destination is paved, can this area still be considered remote?” If we see more than one car drive by in the span of an hour, is this not remote enough?  What if we are 100 miles away from the nearest hospital?

We weren’t quite sure what to expect from the high desert country of eastern Oregon but we realized soon enough that it was remoteness we were ultimately seeking, however that would be defined.

We drove 8 hours straight early Saturday morning from Portland to Lake Owyhee state park in far eastern Oregon, bordering Idaho. The red rock and steep canyons surrounding it were quite majestic. We scouted around for a campsite but the sites in the proper campground required a fee and they weren’t so nice, having very tight quarters, limited privacy, and far too many boaters. So we opted to find our own out of the way spot, void of toilets or showers, but in a much prettier locale offering far more privacy. Best of all, it was free.
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon

Next day we were off further south towards Leslie Gulch. The views became much more rugged and the number of visitors dwindled. We hiked and bushwhacked (the trails were not so well maintained) through scratchy sagebrush to reach several gulches in the area. The rock here is noted for its yellowish reddish hue and large pitted areas referred to as “honeycombs” caused by years of volcanic activity and flash floods.
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon

We weren’t sure where to camp that night. Driving along the dirt roads was taking far longer than we anticipated so we scoured the map for a plausible camping area and ended up at “Antelope Reservoir” or the more fitting “Cow Poo Lake. This area was surrounded by petrified cow dung. I even laid a few of our belongings on a slab of poo, mistaking it for a rock. At least it wasn’t fresh poo. That night we slept in the car.

We ventured out to Owyhee River the following morning, which in hindsight, we should have driven the additional 40 miles through dirt roads to reach this picturesque area of a river surrounded by stark canyons and wild daisies.
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon

I think we reached the closest form of remoteness in the desert. We found a lovely campsite up a rough dirt road. It had shade, a creek, and a large fire pit with views of Steen Mountain and the desert.

We were perfectly content sitting in our camping chairs staring out at the unchanging desert. Every once in a while a rig would drive down the one road, kicking up a long trail of dust.

The most relaxing thing to do, when the sun tapers off and the air turns brisk, is to sit in a natural hot springs tub and drink wine or beer and sometimes whiskey. Inevitably one or two people would join us. The first night it was Bill from LA, a warm and friendly fellow accompanied by Niko, a curious free spirit from Taiwan, both of who arrived by plane via Burning Man. Later it was Hawes, older than the rest of us with a deep, throaty voice from years of smoking but equally as chatty and one of the very few people who now reside here. The following night it was another local Jake who used to be in the military and his female friend, a bartender in a nearby town.
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon

We met another older fellow scouting about for Thundereggs (apparently Oregon’s state rock), which is a nodule containing crystals such as quartz or other minerals. If you’re lucky, you can find these up in the hills. We had no idea what to look for but our new friend, Daniel sure did. He drove by and showed us his loot.
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon

After a couple of night’s in the secluded desert, a friend’s recommendation led us to Hart Mountain and the Wildlife Antelope Refuge. The paved roads and general popularity of this area disappointed us but it consisted of a pretty valley with two natural hot springs nearby.  We watched the sun rise from one of the pools in the morning. And we did get to see a herd of antelope.
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon
Labor Day trip to eastern Oregon

On the way home to Portland we stopped at Fort Rock, a massive rock formation in the middle of farm land and Newberry National Volcanic Monument, a diverse area full of interesting geologic activity.

I miss the remoteness but I am relieved to have a toilet and shower at my disposal again.

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