Racing the Rain

This short episode has all the aspects of real adventure, man against nature, man against man, and man against himself. I knew it would be a stormy day, but took a risk and decided to ride my bike to work. The morning would be fine, but the afternoon was when the storms were expected to appear. Storms this summer have been particularly violent, coming in with fury, bringing down limbs and uprooting trees.

A downed tree and downed wires a few weeks ago.

As often happens, my day stretched out, and what started as a potential departure at 3:30 became a reality at 5:30. Also, as sometimes happens, the storms which were supposed to reach us by 2:00, were now predicted to start around 6:00. I walked across the street to where my bike is kept. I tried to assess the clouds as I walked, but our office building blocked my view of the western sky, from which direction the storm was approaching. What I could see to the east looked like a pleasant summer day, some blue skies, cumulous clouds, no rain.

After I crossed the street, I looked back to the west. There were dark clouds with swirling patterns, moving in quickly. No rain yet. I changed into cycling clothes, got my backpack on, and got on the bike. Already the wind had picked up. It was variable, sometimes in my face, sometimes from my side. The traffic was heavy. I made my way out onto the road for my seven mile commute. I knew from the look of the clouds it would be close, me getting home. That’s why I felt I better put the hammer down and turn this into a time trial. With the threat of lightning and rain imminent, the adrenaline kicked in and my usual leisurely pace going home changed to a hard ride. The darkened sky meant all the drivers (or most, there were a few clueless ones) had their lights on. I had mine on, too, blinking front headlight and bright flashing taillight. Along the road bits of tree branches and leaves were falling from the wind. I had to look out for these as I rode alongside the traffic. Sometimes the cars were stopped from traffic congestion and sometimes they were zipping by me. I stuck close to the side of the road. There’s no bike lane, but there is a wide enough shoulder so there is room for me and the cars. Yet, I got honked at several times as I zipped along. I did not look to see who honked. To do so would be to take my eyes off the road. A couple of drivers sped past me only to make a quick right turn. Instinctively I saw this coming and slowed, but it is a dangerous move for the driver to pull. I then had to crank up to speed again.

About three miles from home the rain started. It was very light and spitting at first, but the dark gray cloud in front of me that had no borders said it would get worse. Above me, there was a brownish cloud with a swirling unicorn shape pointing to the side. Tornado? Well what would I do if it did develop. Fortunately, that did not happen. As I got within a mile from home there was another traffic light. I stopped and waited as the rain became light and steady. I saw a lightning bolt off to my right and counted six seconds to the loud thunderclap. As the traffic light turned green I pushed for the last stretch to home, and a driver did a quick left turn in front of me. The driver was looking at a cell phone. Another driver pulled out in front of me from a side street. She clearly saw me, but I guess didn’t care. Drivers are not usually this awful on my way home. They must have been in race mode themselves. I finally got to my house as the rain and wind picked up. I looked at my watch. I knocked four minutes off my usual time for this ride. Backpack off and cleat covers on, I stood on the porch, unlocked the door and wheeled my bike in. A few minutes later, the storm hit with strong wind gusts and driving rain. The streets were filling with water and turning into rivers. I felt very fortunate to get in the door before that happened.

January in Southeastern Oklahoma

Yesterday, it was kind of typical. Woke to around 34 deg. F and the temperature reached a rather comfortable 64. Some at the local Walmart had on shorts, but still long sleeved shirts.

Today, something completely different. I was awakened very early to the sound of howling wind hooting down the chimney in our bedroom. It is not a working fireplace, and the top is covered by a heavy steel plate. Nonetheless, the sound was dramatic. It was also very cold. I had turned off the heater, since we were comfy without it. So, I turned it back on, and peered out our front door window. Oddly, the glass seemed frosted. Looking out another window, I saw why. There was snow on the ground, tiny ice droplets were flying around, and the bare tree branches where whipped up in frenetic motion. I made a pot of coffee, poured a cup for my wife and me, and snuck back under the covers to wait for daylight.

The day dawned in mixes of dark and light grays, blues, and white. I got dressed, layered well, put on my Iceland jacket, grabbed my camera, and headed out to hopefully capture the feel of a bitterly cold and windy day on the ranch.

Looking West, from the yard.

Trees plastered with snow on the north side of their trunks.

The steers looked a little unhappy.

This frisky filly did not stay still.

The birds kept moving about, too.

Sugar-frosted maxi-wheats (or rather, alfalfa).

The “Crust Buster” sits idle, awaiting spring.

Still hanging on….

The cabin in the cold.

Last November, we planted bulbs amidst the crape myrtle trees we planted earlier, along the north side of the house, and in a bed along our front porch. Some of the bulbs got fooled into sprouting early, with thin, green shoots already 6 inches long. Hopefully, the cold will put a hold on their development, and they will still blossom in true spring.

How does one know?

How does one know one is dead?

I was in the airport in Munich. My flight was scheduled to leave in about three hours. I made my way to the proper check-in area, checked my suitcase and walked to the passport check. The line was very long, and I had a small concern about making my flight. As slowly as the line seemed to move, it did move, and soon I was passing through. I was traveling with a group, but oddly, they were not in line with me. I’m not sure how I got separated, but the people around me were all strangers. Once through, we all made our way to another waiting area. There were seats, but the room was remarkably devoid of other features. No wall posters advertising vacation spots, No overhead signs showing gate numbers. After a short wait, we were led through a door to waiting buses. People jostled with their belongings and carry-on bags for room. Our bus was tightly packed and had only standing room. There was a small half-sized bench seat for a few older individuals. The bus would take us to a boarding area away from the main terminal building. It pulled out and everyone tilted backward for a moment, then righted. There was some soft chatter in the background, in languages I could not understand. It wasn’t German. After ten minutes the bus slowly came to a stop in front of a concrete building, two stories high with the part facing us all glass. There was a glass door leading in, and inside one could see an escalator. There was a small standing desk inside a few feet from the door. A man was standing at the desk. He was wearing a blue uniform-type shirt and had a reflective safety strap at an angle from right shoulder to left hip. He was looking down at the desk, and did not appear to look up when the bus arrived. The bus doors did not open. I looked around the bus, and realized I could see out the windows I was facing, but not out behind me, as there were no windows on that side. I also realized the bus got here without a driver, some kind of automatic transportation system. In the bus, we waited for something to happen.

After ten minutes when nothing had happened, people started to rustle and look perplexed. Another ten minutes went by. The man behind the desk walked to the door and stepped outside. There was a man in a wheelchair rolling up, and he went through the door held open by the man in the blue shirt. Inside, the man in the wheelchair, who did not look young, by the way, demonstrated remarkable wheelchair handling. He spun the chair around to back on to the escalator, and held it front-wheels-up as he ascended. We could only see the bottom part of the escalator and he was soon out of view. Another several minutes went by, and I started to wonder where we were and what was happening. Was this it? The end? Was this our exit from our existence? Who was the guy in the blue shirt? Why did I not know anyone on the bus? Suddenly, the middle door of the bus opened, and we were led into the building, through the glass door, and onto the escalator. The escalator seemed longer than I expected, but it did end and we streamed off. In the corridor at the top, again, with no signs, no posters, just off-white walls and a tile floor, there was the man in the blue shirt. He was directing some people to the left and some to the right down separate halls. Again, I wondered, are we being directed according to our ultimate destination? And if I died, would I know it? Would it feel different? Shouldn’t I feel nothing, and not be aware? But there is no one to tell us.

We walked a bit farther, and I came to my senses. There was a waiting area which looked familiar. We had to pass through another security check to get there. My traveling companions had already made it through, and there was a loading gate manned by airline personnel. A sign above indicated our flight and time, and through a window I could see our American Airlines Airbus waiting for us to board.

For Halloween, 2018.

The Cabins at Madill

 

Horses in the pasture.

I had the opportunity to spend some time in what some refer to as flyover country. My wife and her sister share property bequeathed by her father in southeastern Oklahoma, a place very few people not from here would consider visiting. I would not say those people are missing out, as it would not be possible without the benefit of owning a chunk of this area to experience it like I did. But given the chance, it is a place of beauty, challenge and reward.

Early sunset with barns

My wife is investing a large amount of time and effort rehabilitating a house on the land that sits on a hill. We refer to it as the cabin, but it is really four old small houses and parts of houses stuck together at various times many years ago. This is why we are now calling it “The Cabins at Madill”, a fancy sounding name, like a resort in the woods. Madill is the nearest town, small and very “country”, nine miles away. The man doing the work is named Galen, and he is very talented at construction and hard-working. He grew up in the area, and knows its secrets, hidden roads, fishing spots and most of the locals.

The main part of the house has a bedroom, large living area, open kitchen and dining area. My son-in-law, Evan, and his friend Andy from Texas installed “mini-splits” two weeks ago, which are permanent HVAC units installed high on the walls. The units work great, and are necessary in a place where it is really hot in the summer and really cold in the winter. Galen reworked the ceiling in the living area, creating a high ceiling with cross beams, and installed a wood-burning fireplace. He put in new flooring all around, redid walls, rebuilt two bathrooms, installed new kitchen cabinets and appliances, and has replaced several windows. Rewiring required disturbing a skunk family and a snake under the house in the crawl space.

Early in the planning stages, the living area.

 

The living area with the new fireplace and the mini-split.

My wife and I arrived at DFW airport the night before July 4, following a three-hour delay for thunderstorms in Philadelphia. Fortunately, my rental pickup truck was still waiting in the lot for me, key on the seat, although the desk person for Budget was gone. We headed up to Denton, Texas and checked in to the Hampton Inn. Hampton Inns have great beds and always seem to be a delightful place to stay. The next morning at the breakfast buffet, we planned our day. It turns out, we had a lot of purchasing to do, at places like Home Depot and Lowe’s. First, though, we headed to the Guitar Center in Denton. After all, what good is a place in the country if you can’t sit on the front porch and strum your guitar? I found a nice acoustic, nylon string guitar to keep at the cabins. We then headed to Home Depot, where we bought a number of essentials, a shovel, some tools, a drill, a Weber grill, and a few other items. Back on the road, we reached Madill in an hour and a half, then went on to our house. It was warm, and as we stepped inside, the coolness told us the mini-splits were doing their job.

My new guitar. Galen brought his guitar over, and we sat in the living area playing music together.

We had plenty more to do to equip the house. We took a trip to town to the Walmart, to get groceries and household items. The grocery section of the Walmart is remarkably well stocked. They even had Mt. Rainier cherries, of which I am a huge fan. For dinner, we bought a roasted chicken and some broccoli. The Walmart also sells beer, nothing too exotic, but beer nonetheless. As we ate dinner, we were enjoying a marvelous sunset seen through our dining room window with the cows and a few horses in the near pasture, the subtle reds, oranges and purples of the sky and clouds, and the gentle hum of the mini-splits. After dinner with the darkness upon us, we sat on a tandem rocker on the front porch, playing the guitar and drinking a beer. Before long, the Independence day fireworks started, and we could see bits of four different displays, over Lake Texoma, in Madill, and in a couple other locations. Bugs were buzzing around us but were leaving us alone; we wisely had applied insect repellent.

Porch in daylight.

Galen had fixed plywood to the kitchen cabinets as a counter top until we could get our real counter tops installed. We had a working kitchen sink, and an unbelievably beautiful stove. We had a little old Sunbeam drip coffee maker that had one button, on/off, and made terrific coffee. Over the next couple of days we visited Lowe’s in Ardmore and Durant, buying a stackable washer and dryer and a dishwasher. These we hauled home in the back of our rental pickup truck, including bringing home the counter tops which had been previously custom ordered. We are not going too fancy with this place. We have vinyl flooring which has a wood look, and Linoleum counter tops.

Our bright red Ford four door F150, on a tour of the ranch.

Speaking of the kitchen, we, that is my wife Kathleen and I, love to cook.  There’s nothing quite like a gas stove to cook on, since one has complete control over the amount of heat applied to the pot.  So, what does one do when there is not a gas line to the house.  Yes, there is an old propane tank outside, but the idea of cooking on a propane stove was not very appealing.  Thermador makes a nice one for $5000 at the low-end of their range, but you’re still using propane, which is dangerous.  I talked my wife into going high-tech, still expensive, but much less than propane, and so much better than typical electric ranges which produce heat by heating a coil, or using radiant heat.  We got a beautiful induction range with a convection oven.  Briefly, induction ranges work by creating a magnetic field, which causes a current to form in a stainless steel pot set on the stove top.  The pot heats up, but the cook top only gets as hot as the pot sitting on it.  If one removes the pot, no heat is generated and in fact, the unit stops working until the pot is put back on the stove.  In our early experiments, it has functioned beautifully, heating quickly, easily controlled, and very similar to cooking with gas without heating up the house.

The amazing induction stove top.

This whole part of the country has been variably under shallow seas or dry over the last 550 million years.  It presents a great opportunity to go fossil hunting.  Galen showed us to a very special spot along the bank of lake Texoma, where many fossils can be found.  We piled into our pickup and headed down to the lake.  The roads we took would be impossible for a visitor to follow without a local to guide the way.  From two lane highway, to gravel road, to dirt road, to a track with overgrown grass and trees, we made it to the lake.  Here, we hiked down a steep embankment made up of broken up chunks of limestone, to start our fossil hunt.

Galen uses his keen eyes to hunt for fossils along the bank of Lake Texoma.

Every rock we looked at was packed with fossils.  Mostly, they were small shells, clams, scallops, and other bivalves.  With careful probing amongst the rocks, we found trilobites, ammonites, and clams.  I also found a fossilized bone.  Doing a little research, I found that trilobites and ammonites lived in different eras, so it is interesting and a bit puzzling that they should be found in the same vicinity.  Trilobites were incredibly long existing and diverse, with thousands of different subspecies.  They lived during the Paleozoic era, starting 542 million years ago, and lasting until the great Permian Extinction, 251 million years ago, or almost 300 million years.  Ammonites, a form of a cephalopod, lived mainly in the Cretaceous period, 200 million to 65 million years ago.  Lake Texoma is a large, man-made lake, so perhaps the rise and fall of the water has caused the various strata to wash up on shore, or fall down the side of the cliff, into the same location.  An interesting bit of information about the lake:  the dam to create it, Denison Dam, was started in 1939.  The last two years of construction, 1942 to 1944, German prisoners of war captured in North Africa were used as the labor.

Aside from creating one’s own entertainment, the big entertainment mecca here is the WinStar World Casino, located off Highway I35, one mile north of the Texas border.  By square area, it is the worlds largest casino, and boasts 7,400 electronic games (like slot machines).  We went to the casino on a Friday night to see Bill Maher, the comedian and talk show host from HBO.  While he is on the liberal side, and Oklahoma is a very conservative state, between North Texas and southern Oklahoma, and some from parts farther away, he packed the 3500 seat auditorium and gave a great show.  Typical of casinos, we had to walk past a mile or so of slots and blackjack tables to get to the event hall, and most of the machines were being used by hopeful gamblers.  When we left, around 11:00 PM, the place was even more crowded.  The casino is owned by the Chickasaw Nation, the tribe which is located in this area

Exploring the ranch on which our “cabins” are located, there are a number of barns, out buildings, fenced areas for cattle management, and a few structures for which the function was not immediately clear.  One barn has a bobcat living in it, which makes it a dangerous place to explore.  Another barn has an old pickup truck that was deeded to my daughter, for some odd reason.  The truck doesn’t run, but the tires are apparently in good shape.  It would take some significant expense to get the truck running again.  A big question for us is how to best utilize this property.  Cattle ranching requires a lot of attention and not insignificant risk.  Other ideas, however, include growing hops, creating a guest house experience for visitors who want to learn about the area, or several other ideas we are kicking around.  It will be a great family meeting place to have Thanksgiving together.

 

The barn with the bobcat as tenant.

 

This tree has clearly not let anything get in the way of its growth.

 

Livestock management areas.

 

This creature decided to take a ride with us on the windshield.

 

It is hard to say what he is thinking.

 

Every weed in this place has sharp thorns.

 

 

Galen’s coop of speckled Sussex hens provide him and his family with plenty of eggs.

 

A local denizen who wandered far from the pond down the hill.

 

Another local denizen, this one seen at Fort Washita, a fort built in 1842 to protect the Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians from the plains Indians, and now owned by the Chickasaw Nation.

I had to leave our beautiful ranch on Sunday, five days after arriving.  My wife stayed on to take care of some family business in West Texas.  I look forward to coming back soon, to play my guitar on the front porch, to grill on our Weber on the back slab of concrete, and to explore some more of this very fascinating and attractive place.

Looking forward to the next trip down to OK.

Kathleen has a soft spot for kittens.

In the Rabbit’s Head

When it comes to looking out for myself, I often think I would do well to think like a rabbit.  I’m specifically thinking about my bicycle trips to and from work.

Yesterday was “bike to work day”.  I had planned to bike to work, but with the rain coming down, I figured I’d skip it.  Then, while eating breakfast early in the morning, I checked my email.  An email from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia notified me that, rain or shine, they would have stations set up in Philadelphia with La Colombe coffee, snacks and other support for the thousands of cyclists that would be biking to work that day.  There would be a special group ride (I assume for people with unfixed work hours) starting at 8:30, and a press conference at 9:00 with civic leaders about making Philadelphia more bike friendly.  My commute is in South Jersey, so no chance of grabbing that cup of coffee, but this gave me the impetus to go ahead and ride, and not worry about the rain.

While I enjoy biking to work, it is far more dangerous than driving.  Adding rain to the ride makes it that much more of a challenge.  We have a few rabbits living in our backyard.  They munch on our grass, look longingly at our fenced-in vegetable garden, but are always on critical alert.  Their long ears stand up, and turn to face the sound of the gate opening.  Their eyes are ever open, and they are ready to move, or bolt, when they sense danger.  I think of the rabbits often as I ride to work.  I’ve gotten to know the route very well.  I know every grate, pot hole, rough spot, crack, traffic light, narrow spot, entering roadway, curve and even where deer sometimes come running across the roadway.  If I leave for work at 6:00 AM, I get passed by only about 20 cars and pickups on my ride, which is about 25 minutes.  If I leave at 6:30, that number about quadruples.  If I leave at 7:00, there is a constant stream of traffic all the way.  I like to imagine that the drivers at 6:00 are less likely to be talking on their cellphones, since there would be fewer people awake with whom to talk.  Most days, I need to be at work by 6:30, so the decision is made, but even when I’m not due in until 8:00, I will leave early to make the ride safer.

I think having a rabbit-like sense of danger is healthy for bike commuters, for we are the small, vulnerable animal on the road.  Keen hearing, sharp eyes, and an ever-present sense of danger are critical elements of the ride.  Why do it, then?  I will list several reasons.

It is a way to work in some physical activities into my day which I would otherwise not be able to do.  Twenty five minutes of riding twice a day adds up when done regularly.  While I can only ride three days a week, I definitely benefit from the exercise.  Not driving the car means less products of combustion ascending skyward.  Less oil consumption.  Granted, it is an infinitesimal subtraction from the total emissions of the day if one looks globally.  But, this brings up a question I’ve considered while riding, which is, what about my CO2 output and my energy consumption.  Is there no consequence of increasing one’s metabolism to ride to work, burning calories and producing CO2?  As it happens, a study has been done.  According to a study done by the European Cycling Commission, the CO2 produced by a cyclist is about 21 gm per kilometer.  For a driver in an efficient car, that amount is 271 gm and for a passenger on a bus, the average is 101 gm.   What about the cost of the fuel to ride my bike?  By that, I mean, the cost of the food I need to eat to cover the energy expenditure of my ride.  One could calculate this in many ways.  But, if I burn about 750 kcals total for the round trip, one can put that in food costs.  If I were to replace that with a muffin from Starbucks, about 380 kcals for a blueberry muffin at about $2.25 each, I would need to eat two to get my calorie needs met.  By eating some rice and beans, the cost would be far less.  Your choice.

I enjoy the sense of freedom I get riding my bike.  Maybe this hearkens back to childhood, when one’s bike was a ticket to adventure.  I also like the camaraderie with fellow cyclists on the road, who, at 6:00 AM, are frequently commuting to work.  On the way to work, the cars pass me.  But, on the way home, with traffic tie-ups, I can frequently breeze by a long line of cars waiting at a traffic light.  Ultimately, they catch and pass me, but it may be several miles down the road.

Yet, the danger is there.  Rain adds another dimension, of slippery roads, decreased visibility both for car drivers and for me, and reckless motorists who don’t think physics applies to them, with decreased tire friction, longer stopping distances, and so on.  I dress in bright yellows and reds, and have my blinking tail light and headlight on.  I put my mind in the head of the rabbit, knowing that those beasts of steel and glass are eying me as a target, keep my ears tuned and eyes open, look for the cues that tell me someone is about to do something evil, keep my hands on the brake levers, have an escape plan, and hopefully, get to work in one piece, refreshed and ready to hit the ground running.

DSC_1253a

Set to ride on a cool morning.

Multitudes

Portrait of Walt Whitman, by Thomas Eakins, 1887-1888, in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

I was reading an article in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, and came across a mention of a Walt Whitman quote, “I contain multitudes”.  I had to search a bit to find the whole quote.  It is from a long poem, “Song of Myself”, part of his work “Leaves of Grass”.  The full quote, from stanza 51 of the poem, “Do I contradict myself?, Very well then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).”  I had not heard this before, and certainly had never taken on the daunting task of reading Leaves of Grass.

Finding it interesting to read a bit about Walt Whitman, I tucked this information away for later study.  Then, on Thanksgiving day, my son, who is well into adulthood, said, off the cuff, “I am multitudes”, while entertaining the rest of the family.  I was awestruck.  I just had read about this, and to my recollection, had not heard it before I read about it a couple of weeks earlier.  I asked him, “do you know where that comes from?”.  He wasn’t sure, but when I mentioned it is from Walt Whitman, he had some idea he had heard it before.

Way back in high school, some guy I didn’t know very well called me a cowboy jock.  I was taken completely off guard.  First of all, I didn’t see myself that way.  I never did rodeo, and while the people who compete in rodeo are terrific athletes, I was not one of them.  I think he meant I was a cowboy and a jock.  Again, completely not how I pictured myself.  True, we had horses.  We had three horses at one time in our backyard in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Where we lived, this was not unusual.  We lived on the edge of the wide open desert.  If we had the urge, we could have ridden from our house all the way to Flagstaff.  I was also on the swim team.  But, if you put together recreational horseback riding and a sport that was utterly not like football, it doesn’t add up to a cowboy jock.  Maybe he was jealous of something, but I don’t really know why.  Clearly it made an impression on me, since I remember it so many years later.  I’ve grown to accept it as who I am.  Sometimes.

Birthplace of Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819), Huntington, long Island, New York.

Clearly not my entirety, and not in complete agreement with the other parts of me.  Getting back to Walt Whitman though, what a fascinating and prolific person he was.  We live in his stomping ground.  It was his for part of his life, anyway.  He was born in Huntington, New York, an early town founded in the 1600’s 0n Long Island.  Anyone wishing to learn more about Mr. Whitman can find numerous biographies, telling of his life from multiple perspectives.  He really was multitudes.  I don’t wish to tell his life story here.  That the reader can do for them self.  But he spent his last years in Camden County, living in his brother’s house, later in his own house, in the city of Camden, New Jersey, while spending time in the bucolic countryside of Laurel Springs, from 1873 until his death in 1892.

I often have conflicting beliefs, although not as wide ranging as Mr. Whitman’s.  One of my favorite quotes comes from a sociology professor I had in college.  He said to the class, ‘the purpose of education is to make you confused when you were once certain.”  Perhaps this is the basis of being multitudes.  One must have an open mind, curious, intellectual, and aggressive in acquiring new knowledge, in order to become multitudes.

Two weekends ago, members of my running club were planning a great long run, which I call the Colonial Run.  It begins in my town of Haddonfield, New Jersey, goes through Camden, over the Ben Franklin Bridge, and then courses through colonial streets of Old City Philadelphia.  We run up Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the USA, built in 1702.  We run by Betsy Ross’ house, the Christ Church, Ben Franklin’s grave site, and of course, the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.  Then we continue on, through the famous Philadelphia City Hall, with William Penn’s statue on top, to the Ben Franklin Parkway, and finish up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  We were stymied, though.  It snowed the day before the run, and the pedestrian walkway on the Ben Franklin Bridge was closed.  We changed our plans, and ran the “drives”, the West River drive and Kelly drive, and were still able to finish on the steps of the museum.  However, after reading about Walt Whitman, when we do reschedule this epic, 14 mile run, I intend to take the course past the Walt Whitman house in Camden.  We may even run past his tomb in Harleigh Cemetery, also in Camden.

I came across another “multitudes” quote just recently.  In “Delusions of Gender, How our minds, society and neurosexism create difference,” by Cordelia Fine, Honorary Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, she writes, on page 7 (yes, early in the book),  “…even if your personality offers little to hold the interest of  a shrink, there is nonetheless plenty in there to fascinate the social psychologist.  This is because your self has multiple strings to its bow, it’s a rich complex web, it has a nuance for every occasion.  As Walt Whitman neatly put it, ‘I am large:  I contain multitudes’.”

The Walt Whitman House, 330 Martin Luther King Blvd., in Camden, NJ.

Walt Whitman (per Wikipedia) held opinions on many aspects of life, such as drink (against), slavery (against) and equal rights of men and women (for).  His Leaves of Grass, and in particular, Song of Myself, were harshly criticized for his expressions somewhat covert, of sexuality, including references to homosexuality.  He extolled the virtues of sunbathing nude.  He was nationalistic and patriotic, but wrote in a way to praise liberalism and democracy.  He wrote in a free form style, criticized by some, but praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  He respected all religions, but did not believe in them himself.  He is described variably as immanent (feeling that god is within everything), or transcendent (that god is external to everything), or more of a pantheist.

In spite of these views outside of mainstream, or socially acceptable thought, in spite of writing in free verse, of challenging the norms of religion, he is revered as the American Poet.  When he died more than one thousand people came to his home to pay their respects.  There is a bridge over the Delaware River named after him.  Being aware of the many works of Walt Whitman, knowing about his life, may come as no surprise to those who studied him in college, or just through curiosity.  But, I was not informed about his life and writings and will do my best to make up for that deficit.  First, though, I must sit down with Song of Myself, and see how much I can understand.  It is tough reading.

Walt Whitman Tomb, Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ. Photo by iirraa on flickr

In the spirit of the season, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.  May 2018 be better than 2017.

That Time Again

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hi, Buckaroos.  Marathon training time again.  Gonna try to slide one by once more.

Yes, I got out early this morning.  I hit the pavement at 5:45 AM, to start my 20 miler today.  My plan was to get around seven miles in before our 7:00 AM group run, which is 12.5 miles, roughly, and have a half mile extra to do at the end.  I am training for the Twin Cities Marathon, Minneapolis and Saint Paul, October 1, 2017.

When one starts out that early on a Sunday in late August, the sun has not yet come up, and it is nice and peaceful.  No lawn crews with their gas-powered leaf blowers sending dust up into the air.  Very little traffic.  The houses are silent as the occupants slumber, completely unaware of the runner going by.  Even the locusts have dimmed their din.  A couple of crickets are still at the party.

What does occur is the senses, hearing, smelling and seeing, picking up little things that would ordinarily get missed.  As I stepped out on my front porch, I took a sip from my water bottle, set down my back pack and second running shirt on top, switched on my Garmin, waited for it to register the numerous satellites it follows, and headed out.  For the first mile and a half, things were very quiet.  At about that point, though, the first big olfactory hit came my way, which was the smell of someone starting up a barbecue.  I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but guessed it must be someone planning to do some serious smoking, maybe beef brisket or a pork loin, and needed to get things going early.  It would be pretty nice to be around when the cooking is done.

I noticed a few birds and squirrels, but not the usual number one sees later in the morning.  Clearly, these were those looking for a competitive advantage.  I wondered if they also were selective favorites for procreation, or did the lazier of their ilk happen upon willing mates while the others were out foraging.  While the early bird gets the worm, the later bird may ultimately contribute more to the gene pool.

I could hear each foot strike on the pavement.  If one focuses too much on that, the monotony becomes mesmerizing, and takes one’s concentration away from important acts, such as looking for potholes in the road, and listening for the occasional car.  Should cops need an opportunity to fill their monthly ticket quota, I suggest they set up very early on Sunday.  While there are few cars on the road, to a one, they were all exceeding the speed limit by a hell of a lot.  I had on my reflective vest, with a blinking red light in the back, but when I heard a car coming from either direction I hopped on the sidewalk, since they invariably came speeding by, ignoring road signs and the double yellow line.  One car I saw this morning was a Corvette, driven by a guy with a reflective vest of his own on, but there our similarities ended.

I saw as I ran down Park Blvd. that the giant trees that had been uprooted by our last major storm, pulling the sidewalk to a 90 degree angle, had finally been removed.  Where they had been was now dirt, awaiting sidewalk repair.  This is a narrow street, with cars parked along the curb, and neat homes from the 1940’s and ’50’s.  Normally, I would need to run on the sidewalk since it is too narrow and busy to run in the street.  But this morning, I made it a full mile before a car approached.  I darted up on to the sidewalk as it passed, then got back into the street.  As one runs farther down the street, the houses get older, into the 1880’s and even earlier.  It is a measure of how the farmland got transformed into housing developments.  This part of the run is through Collingswood, a town named after the Collings family.  Collingswood was their farm.  Being Quakers, the town has always been dry.

Heading into Knight Park, I passed close to the Collings-Knight Homestead, the home of Edward C. Knight, benefactor who donated the land for Knight park.  One week earlier I ran through this park early Sunday morning, when a large dog, saliva dripping from his jaw, ran at me barking and snapping.  I turned and faced him, palms up and facing the dog.  Its owner was nearby, a woman standing with a couple of other dog owners, all of whom let their dogs run leash-less.  She called to the dog to “c’m’ere”, reassuring me that the dog was a friendly dog and would do me no harm.  The dog did stop a few feet from me, then turned and went back to her.  She repeated several times what a friendly dog it was, and how I shouldn’t worry.  So, this was on my mind this morning, and fortunately, I had arisen early enough to beat this woman and her “friendly” dog to the park.  I was certainly relieved.

Reaching the end of the park, I headed to Haddon Avenue, and started to run back towards my starting point.  For anyone not from this area, Haddon is a common name.  Elizabeth Haddon was the daughter of John Haddon a Quaker in London who purchased 500 acres in the area that is now Haddonfield and Haddon Township.  He bought the land to escape religious persecution, but due to ill health, could not make the journey.  He sent his daughter, Elizabeth, instead.  She arrived, a single, young woman, apparently confident, and in 1702 asked John Estaugh, a Quaker minister already in this colony, for his hand in marriage.  Elizabeth Haddon was the founder of the towns of Haddonfield and Haddon Township.

Running up Haddon Avenue, I passed the numerous shops and restaurants in Collingswood.  While a dry town, there is a very vibrant restaurant scene, since one can bring wine or beer to the restaurant.  The restaurants have turned Collingswood from an aging, decaying town, with out of date stores like vacuum cleaner repair and hardware stores, to a busy, hip place, especially on Friday and Saturday night.  I pass the parking spots.  These used to be meters, but now are marked with poles labeled with notices that one must pay at the pay station.  Parking is paid seven days a week.  This morning, there are no cars parked here.  Leaving Collingswood and entering Haddon Township and Westmont, one enters the bar scene.  Capturing the revelers which Collingswood missed, this stretch of Haddon Avenue has numerous bars which are busy usually every night.  Again, in the early morning, they are shuttered and quiet, awaiting the opening gong much later in the day.

I turned back into the neighborhood streets for the last mile or so of my run.  I was again aware of a strong olfactory stimulus, this time, bacon.  The smell of bacon cooking is, first of all, unmistakable.  We have two eyes which can see various colors.  We have two ears to hear a wide range of sound.  But we have about 800 genes in humans each coding for a different olfactory receptor.  Most scents stimulate multiple receptors, which is how we can be so discriminatory identifying different odors.  The smell of bacon also is a strong motivator.  It motivates one to eat bacon, which I was, unfortunately, not able to do at that moment.

By this point, the birds were starting to become active and sing to each other.  To us, it is an entertaining bird concert, with different songs coming from different directions.  To the birds, it is the result of sexual selection at work, a subset of Darwin’s natural selection, establishing the male’s dominance for his territory and mate.

I made it around the last corner back towards my house, the sky now a mix of grays and rosy pinks.  I stopped by my house briefly, to change to a dry shirt which I had left on my front porch, grab my backpack and water bottle, and head out to meet the usual Sunday morning runners at 7:00 for our 12.5 mile loop, with 7 miles in already.

By the finish of the morning run, I got my 20.2 miles in.  One of my good running friends, Kealan, ran the 12.5 miles with me, and even the extra half mile I needed to get to that 20 mile mark.  Our conversation the whole way made the run seem much shorter.

I’ll leave you with a link to the song running through my mind as I was running the dark streets in the early morning of last Sunday:

Frank relaxes at Starbucks with his running friends, 20.2 miles in the training bank.

Fire, Ice and Trolls, Part 3

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Map from Pirate and Traveler

Decades ago, when my brother and I were kids, there was a board game we played called “Pirate and Traveler“.  The fact I still remember it today says something, that it stimulated a desire to travel the world, and a curiosity about foreign lands.  One of the destinations one could travel to in this game, was the city of Reykjavik, on a tiny island between Greenland and the British Isles.  We, my brother and I, always got a kick out of trying to get to Reykjavik, and figure out how to pronounce it.  No one we knew seemed to know, nor had they been there.

Today, Reykjavik is a hot destination.  Tourism has become the number one industry in Iceland, outpacing fishing and manufacturing since 2010.  As documented in this report from 2015:  “Iceland and the Trials of 21st Century Tourism” the concern is now that the numbers of tourists visiting Iceland today is having enormous and perhaps negative societal and ecological impacts.  Mentioned in the report is that Airbnb has been a major part of Iceland’s ability to accommodate so many tourists.  While the whole country has 350,000 people, most of whom live in Reykjavik, the annual tourist visits today are three times that, and growing.  The hotel industry is growing, but without Airbnb, Iceland could never house all those people.

This has been good for Iceland.  In the great crash of 2008, Iceland suffered as if a volcano had blown and destroyed the nation.  Due to extremely poor, and in many cases criminal, mismanagement of the private banks and their debt, the country fell into an economic crisis from which they are slowly but steadily crawling out.

What is Reykjavik like today?  It is an incredibly modern, forward thinking and ecologically conscious city.  While we flew into the airport at Keflavik, the main international airport for Iceland and near Reykjavik, we spent no time in the city until the last two days of our trip.  We drove back from Vík í Mýrdal through Selfoss, and then up a long steady climb through a mountain pass.  The scenery changed from grasses and moss-covered lava, to snow, very white and glistening snow in all directions.  We were on our way to visit the Hellisheiði Power Station, a geothermal power and hot water generator situated over an active volcanic ridge.  Thirty wells, 2000-3000 meters deep, extract steam from fissures in the rock, which provides steam to generate electricity and also hot water which is used to heat homes and businesses, and even some sidewalks in Reykjavik.  The superheated water is carried by high-tech pipes to the city and distributed by smaller pipes.  This and one other similar plant provide all of Reykjavik’s needs.  They are justifiably proud of their facility, and provide self-guided tours of the plant, with large diagrams and explanations of the complex operation.

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Entrance to Hellisheði Geothermal Power Station

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steam separators at the power station

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Steam driven turbines producing electricity.

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Display of minerals found around the power station.

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Icelanders have a sense of fun.

Moving on.  We drove on to Reykjavik and found our way to our hotel.  We stayed at the Fosshotel Reykjavik.  Here’s the address:  Þórunnartún 1 – Höfðatorg, Reykjavik.  I added that just so you can see how challenging Icelandic can be.  The hotel was wonderful.  The room was very comfortable, and we had a view of the bay.  The bathroom had a heated floor, due to the piped in hot water from the power station we just visited.  A feast of a breakfast was included, and it was beautifully presented.  There was a very good automatic coffee machine so one could get one’s choice of coffee style.  There was also an excellent beer bar with a happy hour which served many local craft brews, which turned out to be delicious.  We were within walking distance of the main shopping and dining street, Laugavegur.  For our brief stay in the city, we chose to visit the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition, and the Reykjavik Maritime Museum.  The National Museum had many items to explore, particularly from the geological and anthropological perspective.  This includes bones of an ancient Viking skeleton and  a rather complex loom demonstrating how early settlers made cloth.  One very interesting exhibit from my perspective, was an analysis of the DNA of Icelanders.  A company called deCODE Genetics in Iceland, once independent but now owned by Amgen, has taken DNA samples from 160,000 Icelanders.  What makes this study unique, and very valuable, is that most Icelanders can date their ancestry to settlers from the earliest groups to populate Iceland, from 870 to about 1100 AD.  Not only that, but genealogical records in Iceland are very complete.  So, with a large database of DNA, and ways to compare with family and medical histories, there is an ideal combination of family information needed to understand the DNA results.  One fascinating finding in one of the studies shows the origin of Icelanders, with about 80% of the men having Norse genes, and about 63% of Icelandic women of Celtic origin.  One may interpret that as one chooses, but those are the numbers.  The museum had much else to offer, of Viking artifacts, furniture, and explanations of the geology of this singular island, and one could spend hours there.   We also visited the Settlement Exhibition, which is a museum housed around the ruins of an ancient Viking longhouse, discovered in Reykjavik in 2001, and inhabited from about 930-1000 AD.  The exhibit is part of the Reykjavik City Museum, but housed separately.  The theme of this museum is 871+/- 2.  One of the peculiarities of Iceland is that dates of settlements and major changes over the centuries can be related to tephra, which is ash layer that falls from volcanic eruptions.  Around 871, with a 2 year plus or minus range, a large eruption produced enough tephra to cover much of Iceland, and part of the wall of this exhibit was covered with tephra from 871.  It was very interesting to walk around the longhouse, examining the old walls and artifacts.

Restaurants in Reykjavik tend to be expensive.  A mid-price restaurant will run 3,000 to 6,000 Krónur, or about $30-$60 per person, not including drinks.  We chose a nice place called Apotek, a very forward thinking, creative restaurant with an Argentine chef.  Our dinner was excellent, and I can highly recommend this place.

On our second day in Reykjavik, we headed to the Maritime Museum.  While not on the top lists of museums in this city, and a bit on the edge of town, it turned out we learned a great deal here and considered the effort to find it very worthwhile.  It is all about the fishing industry in Iceland, from the early days of fishing for cod from simple rowed boats, with hand lines, to modern techniques of enormous fishing vessels which process fish as it is hauled aboard by giant trawler nets pulled in by diesel engines.  We learned of the Cod Wars, which took place over the late 1950’s to 1976.  These were confrontations between the United Kingdom and Iceland over fishing rights, involving warships in addition to fishing vessels, and resulted in the expansion of Iceland’s fishing rights to a 200 mile zone.  They are very complicated struggles, which involved NATO, African Nations, Russia and Europe, and even led to political science studies, as well as a report by Henry Kissinger.  Follow the link if you are curious.

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A stately house in Reykjavik.

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Wandering about Reykjavik on a chilly but sunny day in March.

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Fishing is still very important in Iceland, and from the looks of it, it hasn’t gotten easy.

This is supposed to be stories about running, given the name of my blog.  After strolling about, admiring the structural integrity of the houses and other buildings in this city, meant to stand up to vicious weather, grabbing a bite in a public park at a fast food kiosk, watching young children running about, we realized we needed to get back to our car to feed the meter.  Hence, the first of my runs in Iceland.  My friend and co-traveler Michael and I had worked this out.  Should we need to get back to the car before the meter expired, I would hand off my backpack to Michael and run to where we had parked, so to feed the meter.  Well, the moment came, and I did exactly that,  I think it was about 1.5 km, but it was a run.  I made it to the car in time, no meter maids were in the area, and I was able to get my credit card out, work the machine, get the slip to put on the dash, and protect us from what would surely have been a hassle from our car rental company.  I met up with my wife and friends, and we headed back to the hotel for a nice beer at the beer bar.  Later, we went out for another restaurant experience.  This was not quite as nice as the first night, in a place with loud music and tight seating.  I’ll not warn you away from this restaurant, but there are many excellent restaurants in Reykjavik from which to choose.

Our last morning before leaving, it was snowing lightly and a bit windy.  We took a walk along the bay, on a path built for strolling, running, cycling or whatever.  The walk was dotted with statues and tributes, to Vikings, to USA-Iceland friendship, and just to art.

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Michael and Lynne, dressed for the weather.

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Kathleen, with the bay of Reykjavik looking very frigid behind her.

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Frank, pretending he’s a Viking.

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An homage to the Viking past of Iceland. The ground was extraordinarily slick with ice, and this photo was a risk.

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Back when diplomats were diplomatic, and reason prevailed, this sentiment carved in stone makes a beautiful statement

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Art for art’s sake, along Reykjavik bay.

We wound up our stroll and headed back toward the hotel.  On the way, we stumbled upon the one place in Iceland where we met people who spoke only Icelandic.  It was a bakery, the oldest in Iceland by the sign, and it served absolutely delicious pastries and sandwiches.  We had a couple of croissants, and some sandwiches for the plane.

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While the sign may be in English, the bakery personnel don’t speak English. Not a problem, though, pointing works very well.

There was one other run.  We got to the airport in plenty of time.  We were on Wow Airlines, a budget carrier, but very efficient at moving people through their system.  We made it through security, passport control, the enormous duty free shop, and to the waiting area at the gate.  I had a hunch, though, that something was missing.  Looking in my backpack, I realized that my iPad was missing.  I figured I must have left it at the security area, since I had gotten waylaid by the agents who selected me for a random search of everything.  I bolted back, through the duty free shop, up an empty stairway, found a locked door, back down the stairs, finally found my way to the passport control, ran through there, then back the long haul to the security area.  I went to the aisle I had gone through, and spoke to the agents.  I, somewhat short of breath, explained my plight, that I thought I left my iPad when passing through.  At first they looked at my as if to say, sorry man, that’s not our problem.  Then, one of them spoke up, and said he thought he knew where it was.  It had been taken to the manager’s office.  He retrieved it for me.  Thanking him profusely, I started my run back to the gate, through passport, getting my passport stamped twice for leaving Iceland, and made it back to the gate with a few minutes to spare before boarding.  We had a very nice flight back to the USA.  We fortunately were sat in emergency exit seats, with plenty of stretch room in front of us.  I bought a $7 Heineken, and enjoyed the time in the air, and the sandwich I had bought at the bakery.  I would go back to Iceland in a flash.  There is so much more there to explore, and it is a fascinating and adventuresome place.  We’ve seen the major attractions of the southern part, but we didn’t get to see the northern lights, and there’s plenty to do in the northern reaches of the country.  Also, I’m sure there are some excellent microbrews I have not tried yet.

Fire, Ice and Trolls, Part 2

Reynisdrangar, basalt columns off the coast at Vik í Mýrdal in southern central Iceland

Reynisdrangar.  Right off the water’s edge from Reynisfjall.  Two trolls were pulling their three-masted boat in, but it was slow going because of the rough seas.  Unfortunately, they got caught out in the water as the sun rose, and being trolls, this turned them to stone.  And, there they stay, out in the water, forever.

Vik is not a large town.  In fact, only about 300 people live here full-time.  This was our next destination on our tour of Iceland.  We left our cozy little cabin near Selfoss, put some diesel in the Skoda, and headed out along Iceland 1, the ring road that runs the circumference of Iceland.  Along the way, passing through Hvolsvöllur, we happened to see a sign on the road for the “The Saga Centre”.  As we drove by the sign, I asked my traveling companions if they would like to stop and check it out.  Yes, was the reply.  So, we turned around and searched for it.  It was not immediately obvious, but hunting off the main road took us to the low building with a painting of a viking ship, vikings with swords raised, on the side, and there we were.

The Saga Centre

Inside, a very nice woman explained the exhibit.  We paid the entrance fee and explored.  The Centre is devoted to telling the story of Njáls Saga, or the Story of Burnt Njáll.  Yes, Njáll meets an unpleasant end, but a lot happens in this, the most famous and one of the earliest of the Icelandic sagas.  It is a story first written down by an unknown author between 1270 and 1290, but taken from oral stories of early families, mainly concerning the sagacious Njáll and his friend the strong warrior Gunnar.  It is a long and complicated work.  The museum shows the saga from start to finish in dioramas with life-sized figures, dressed in period garb, with the writing in Icelandic and English, and allow for an understanding of the flow of the saga, the feuds, the insults, the vengeance, the trickery, the lustiness and the struggles of every day life in early, Viking-style Iceland.  After making our way through Njáls Saga, we moved to the mock-up of a Chieftain’s Hall, a meeting area built by the Vikings in early times.

Viking-era Chieftain’s Hall at the Saga Centre.

Today, it is used as a café, and is rented out for functions.  Beyond this, was another hall in which there was an intriguing project taking place.  It is called the Njals Saga Tapestry, and it is the work of three women who designed and created a 90 meter long tapestry in which panels depict the entire story of Njáls Saga.  It uses a Bayeux stitch, which was a type of tapestry stitch used in Viking times.  According to Christína, one of the creators of the project, 60 meters have been completed so far.  She is not certain where such a big artwork will be displayed.

Christína and her Njáls Saga Tapestry

 

One of the panels of the tapestry. The pinned papers show the name of the person working on that panel.

Once we had finished contemplating life in the time of Njáll, we sat outside and ate sandwiches we had prepared that AM.  It started out sunny and warm, but had turned cold and overcast, so we hurriedly finished and then went on driving towards Vik.  One thing in Iceland one can count on is the presence of waterfalls.  Our next stop was at Seljalandsfoss,  where water from the above plain and glacier plunge 60 meters to the flat land below.  A unique feature of this waterfall, is the footpath that leads behind it to a cavernous space from which one can witness the backside of water.  I came prepared for this.  I wore my waterproof jacket and ski pants, had my hiking boots on, and kept my camera under my jacket until I got around to the back.  There was a good breeze blowing, spraying water over the path which made it slippery.  I managed the path, and had a big grin on my face once I got to the relative protection of the cave.

Seljalandsfoss from the front.

 

Seljalandsfoss from behind (the backside of water).

A bit of a hike down the path was another waterfall, Gljúfrabú¡, also very dramatic, and hidden behind an opening in the cliff.

Gljúfrabú¡, the hidden falls near Seljalandsfoss

 

A sheep carcass along the path, in its “pre-fossilized” state.

 

Kathleen and Lynne, walking along the runoff from the falls.

 

The big picture view of the Seljalandsfoss area.

We then went on to Vik, and to our next Airbnb rental.  As we neared Vik, we climbed over a mountainous pass which then descended into the town.  It is a tiny town, with a population around 300.  But, being the only town of any size in this area, it is well stocked.  There is a nice grocery, a bank, and a liquor store.  Our rental was easy to find, as it was right off the main highway, and looked just like its photo on the website.  Once we made it into the apartment, we headed on foot to the store to gather up some wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres.  Our whole group of nine intrepid explorers were coming over to our place to eat, drink and chat about what we had seen and done so far.

Frank, Lynne, Bob, Gary, Niny, Kathleen, Michael, Sue and Ann; in Vik.

We prepared some Icelandic crustaceans similar to crayfish with seafood sauce, had locally produced salami and cheeses, and Kathleen made a delicious yellow split pea soup for some honest sustenance.  Grapes and Finncrisps topped off the delights.  There was no need for dinner that evening.

Overnight, it snowed.  According to one source, Icelandic language has 100 names for snow.  Snow is certainly part of their culture.  It made for a difficult drive the next morning.  While the road crews did plow the road, is was still very slick for the first third of the drive.  Our destination was 192 km away.  The drive got much better after we passed Kirkjubærklaustur.  The snow was gone, and traction returned. We were on our way to Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon with a rapidly running, short river to the sea.   Along the way, we crossed a number of one lane bridges, where, if no one is approaching it is clear sailing.  Otherwise, you give the other driver the right of way if they reach the bridge first.  No playing chicken, since the downside is a cold river.  The glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, is a tongue of a larger glacier called Vatnajökull.  It has changed dramatically over the centuries.  When the Vikings first arrived, the edge of the glacier was 20 km from the ocean.  During the little ice age of 1600-1900, the glacier extended almost to the ocean.  But over the last 100 or so years, it has receded, and now is about 6 km from the ocean.  The glacier hangs into the lagoon, and large pieces of it break off and float in the lagoon.  As we arrived, we stayed away from the main parking area and gift shop, and parked in a small lot close to some hills surrounding the lagoon.

Ascending the gravelly hill overlooking Jökulsárlón.

We were amazed by the view.  To the left was a mountain range, part of a large national park in this part of Iceland.  Directly to the north, there was the immense glacier, with its edge dropping into the lagoon.  And the lagoon itself was filled with large chunks of ice which had broken free of the edge of the glacier.  They would eventually make their way to the sea.

The mountains of the Vatnajökull National Park

 

The Breiðamerkurjökull (glacier) at the far side of the Jökulsárlón (lagoon).

 

Tracks from giant-wheeled four wheel drive vehicles are evident on the glacier, where expeditions of tourists go to explore the surface.  We moved down to the shore line of the lagoon.

Heading to the shore line of the Jökulsárlón.

 

Bits of the glacier had landed on the rocks, forming interesting artistic pieces.

We had gotten a tip from a local in Vik that we could break off pieces of ice from the glacial ice and taste it.  That we did.  It was crystal clear and tasted fine, and, glad to report, did not cause any illness.

Frank and Kat, exploring along the edge of the lagoon.

You may notice that a lot of the floating ice contains layers of black.  These are layers of volcanic ash which coated the glacier over many years.  The amount of ash differs from eruption to eruption, so glaciologists can determine the age of the ice based on the volcanic ash layer.

Glacial ice with volcanic ash layers.

 

Rocks and pebbles deposited on the shoreline by the glacier.

We then drove to the beach where the outlet river met the ocean.  After almost getting trapped in a low, icy patch, we managed to park safely and got out to wander amongst the beached icebergs.  The beach, a black sand and gravel beach, had dozens of icebergs to wander around, and dozens of tourists doing just that.

Some icebergs made it out to the ocean.

 

Beautiful translucent blue of a slowly melting iceberg, with birds circling behind.

 

Some icebergs got stranded on the sand.

 

We were able to walk around the stranded icebergs.

 

The outflow of the lagoon, rapidly running water and jammed up icebergs.

As we looked at the glacier, and the large chunks breaking off and floating by, I thought of Sveinn Pálsson.  Who, you say?  Sveinn Pálsson was a Dane, trained in Copenhagen to be a physician, who came to Iceland in 1791.  His home, a farm, was near Vik.  He was the only physician in a large part of southern Iceland, where travel was very difficult due to the many rivers and lava fields in this area.  He was also a naturalist, farmer, fisherman, father of 15 children by wife Þórunn Bjarnadóttir, 10 of whom survived infancy.  He studied glaciers and volcanoes, and was the first person to propose that glaciers move by “creep, analogous to the flow of pitch”, per the Wikipedia article about him, which was the only source I could find.  He wrote a treatise and submitted it to the Danish Society of Natural History in 1795.  It remained unpublished there until 1880, when part of it was published.  The whole treatise was finally published in Icelandic in 1945.  He also wrote extensively about medicine.  He must have been an amazing, brilliant and very tough person who loved life.

We could not get enough of watching the water sluice around the ice, staring at the many shapes and sizes of icebergs, and the beautiful views of the mountains and glacier in the distance.  But, eventually we tore ourselves away and headed back to Vik for the evening.  On arrival back at our apartment, Michael and I walked down to the grocery store intending to buy some lamb to cook for dinner.  The meat section had a variety of cuts from which to choose, but all labeled only in Icelandic.  We stood there, picking up packs of meats in one hand, our phones and Google translate in the other, trying to figure out what animal these cuts had come from.  None seemed to match the word “lamb”, “lambakjöt”.  But the  words written on the packages kept coming up with no translation.  We made a choice based on looks alone, bought some carrots, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, and salad makings and headed back.  We had a delicious dinner that night, enhanced by the collection of spices available in our apartment, but in no way was it lamb.  It may have been veal, but no one was certain.

The next morning, Kat and I had planned to ride the Icelandic horses on the beach.  In Vik, there is a stables which advertises horse back rides on the black sand beach of Vik.  We made a reservation before our trip with Vik Horse Adventures.  Early that morning, I got up ahead of everyone else, like I usually do, and made some coffee.  I was cleaning a beer glass from the night before, a very thin, narrow glass, which broke in my hand as I was washing it.  Suddenly, there was blood all over the sink, and I looked at my hand.  I saw a very neat slash at the base of my fourth finger, down to the tendon, bleeding profusely.  I applied pressure with a paper towel, cleaned up the blood as well as I could, and sought the help of Kathleen.  We were able to fashion a nice, tight bandage of paper towel and plastic wrap, which stopped the bleeding and seemed to keep everything under control.  I did not want to miss the opportunity to ride the Icelandic horses.  These are a unique breed.  Their ancestors were brought to Iceland in the early days of settlement, 870 to 1100, mostly from Norway, but also from Scotland and the Shetland Islands.  After that, no new horses were allowed into Iceland.  The characteristics of the breed developed from selective breeding and from natural selection, creating the breed as it exists today.  It is known as a strong breed, well adapted to the weather and geography of Iceland, and also as a five-gaited horse, with two gaits which many other horses do not have.  These are the tölt and the skeið.  These are unusual, flowing gaits not usually seen in domestic horses in the USA.

Hjördis readying the horses at Vik Horse Adventure

 

Frank and Kathleen riding Icelandic horses on the black sand beach covered in snow in Vik.

 

Heading out on our ride.

We rode along a path which led to a little stream.  We forded the stream, which was fast running and came up to the bottoms of our shoes.  The horses seemed comfortable in the frigid water.  Crossing to the other side, we headed for the beach and the black sand.  There, we were able to get, briefly, into a tölt, which, while slow by tölt standards, felt fast and remarkably smooth.  We could not go for long, due to the snow, which would pack into the horses hooves and cause them injury.  Nevertheless, it was a remarkable experience on beautiful and unique horses.  Getting back to the stables, I had to take my horse on a few more turns around the paddock.  Reluctantly, I dismounted, removed the bridle and saddle, and turned the tack over to Hjördis, promising I would be back for some more riding.

My wife, Kathleen, and I then met up with Lynne and Michael.  We took the road up to the Church overlooking the town of Vik.  Vik is, for the most part, low and close to the ocean.  High above it is the massive Mýrdalsjökull, an enormous glacier which covers the Katla volcano.  Should the volcano blow, it could melt enough ice to flood the town of Vik.  So, they have regular drills in Vik when everyone in the town gets themselves up the hill to the church, the only building in the area which could potentially survive such a flood.  This in mind, we headed out of town, towards Reykjavík, and part three of our saga.

Fire, Ice and Trolls, Part 1

At the entrance to the Blue Lagoon.

Everything I tell you is true.  This is the way it happened.  So began one of many sagas we would hear in Iceland, this one coming from Christian, the owner of a small café called Café Bryggjan.  Bryggjan means “pier” in Icelandic, and this fisherman’s café is in a small seaside town called Grindavik at the water’s edge of a harbor.  After landing at the main Iceland airport in Keflavik at around 4:45 AM, we got through customs very quickly, picked up our bags, and got our rental car.  I rented from Budget, yes, the same as in the USA.  Our car was a Skoda, made in the Czech Republic, very comfortable, well-built, full-time four-wheel drive (important in Iceland), and large enough for four with our suitcases.  It happened to be a diesel automatic.  We then drove off to find our way to Grindavik and the Bryggjan Café.

You may wonder, as I did, why many place names in Iceland end in “vik”.  As it happens, “vik” means “bay, inlet or cove”  in Old Norse.  So, Reykjavik is Reykja Bay, and so on.

When we arrived in Grindavik and found our way to the restaurant, we were impressed by the plainness of the buildings, and the location of the restaurant, practically at the edge of a large harbor.  We, the four in my group, and the rest of our group, another five traveling with us in another car, met up at the café.  They had rented the very same Skoda we had.  Popular car, that Skoda, in Iceland.  The café was still closed, as it was only 6:30, and it opened at 7:00.  There was another couple waiting for the place to open, a mother and daughter traveling together.  We chatted a bit outside, checked the hours on-line to be sure we were not mistaken about it opening on Sunday, and milled about for a while.  It was cold, slightly raining and windy, so before long, our group made their way back to the cars to sit out of the weather.  Then, a slightly portly looking gentleman dressed in clothes more appropriate for a warm spring day, headed to the back door and opened up the restaurant.  He was very friendly and welcomed us all in.  He explained there were two breakfast options, the light plate, and the full fisherman’s breakfast, which included smoked fish in addition to Icelandic bread, butter, tomatoes, cucumbers, sliced ham and sliced cheese.  Coffee was in the works, and we were also offered Skyr, the Icelandic version of Greek style yogurt.  After all the breakfasts were served, Christian, the owner, came to the center of the room, and started to tell us of the history of the building, the fisherman and the fishing boats, showed us photos on the walls of many boats which had sailed from Grindavik, some of which had not returned, and of course, explained a lot of accidents and incidents as the work of trolls who play a large part in the folklore of Iceland.

In the Bryggjan Café

In the Bryggjan Café

Christian and Gary at the Bryggjan Café, Grindavik

Iceland is a hard place to live.  It is a volcano, or multiple volcanoes.  By one Icelandic blogger’s account, Jón Frímann, volcanic eruptions have occurred over 160 times from 870 to 2014.  Some have been little puffs and some major eruptions.  Iceland was created by a “hot spot”, where lava flowed from out of a crack in the floor of the ocean, at the junction of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.  This is the same manner in which the islands of Hawaii were created.  In Iceland, when the volcanic activity has calmed, glaciers form over the calderas of the volcanoes.  When they blow, heavy volcanic ash rains down destroying living things, and the glacier becomes a massive flood flowing down to the sea.  So one might wonder, what attracted the Vikings to this little island?  The story of the Icelanders, how Iceland was discovered, who first settled, and the history of the country is documented from early on in sagas from early settlers, and from stories from the middle ages to the present day in vivid detail.  My intent is not to relate the history of Iceland, but to give a sense of our visit, what we saw, and the adventure of exploring this place.

After breakfast, we drove to the Blue Lagoon, one of the famous tourist stops in Iceland.  It’s played up as an ultimate spa experience.  In fact, it is the silica-rich water run off from a geothermal energy plant, collected in ponds created in lava fields.  The water is said to be helpful for skin conditions, and just generally a nice experience.  It is a very popular place, and one needs reservations to go.  At check in, a wrist band is provided which is used to open and lock a locker, and also to pay for food or drink.  The water is hot, but not too hot, and there are multiple connected pools to explore, as well as a bar in one of the pools from which to order a drink.

Some of our group, with their silica face paint on.

The Blue Lagoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is a very high-style place, with a fancy restaurant, a café, and, of course, a gift shop, selling skin products and Icelandic clothing, all at extraordinarily high prices.  But go, you will not regret it.

Skin tightened, it was time to move on to our next challenge.  We needed to find our way to our AirBnB rental.  The four in our group drove off in search of our cabin which we rented for the next two days.  It was located about 15 minutes drive north of a medium-sized town called Selfoss along the southern part of Iceland.  The owners live in Reykjavik, and use it as a getaway for themselves.  It was a very charming, small, but well-equipped cabin in the woods.  Not that there are a lot of trees in Iceland.  Apparently, there were birch forests when the Vikings first came.  Those are long gone from changes in temperature, volcanic activity, and harvesting of the trees for buildings and firewood.  We managed to find our way to the cabin and settle in.  We shopped in a large, well-stocked supermarket called Kronus in Selfoss for our meals.

Our Cabin in the Woods

Michael, in repose, in the cabin.

Kathleen in the kitchen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view from the cabin.

Our cabin was located within short striking distance of three of our goals for sightseeing.  The first is a fascinating place, both geologically and historically.  It is called Þingvellir (or Thingvellir, in our alphabet).  It is the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet.  These two land masses separate from each other at 2 cm per year.  They roll like conveyor belts, and as they slowly move apart, they create fissures and cracks, and steam, lava and water move upward.  The split can be seen as a massive wall with waterfalls flowing over it, with gaps in the earth, and south of this area, the largest lake in Iceland.

At Thingvellir, the break between Eurasia and North America tectonic plates.

 

Another view of the split between continents.

It was cold but not frigid. Author Frank and wife Kathleen.

 

Looking off to the Eurasian plain.

The early Viking settlers found this area special, too.  They established a general assembly in the year 930 called Alþing (Althing), a meeting place for the chieftains of the various settlements, and the overall leader known as the “law speaker”.  Early on it was pretty crude justice, but the concept held, and this location was used until 1798.

Where the council met. Kathleen, Lynne and Michael holding court.

After thoroughly exploring the Thingvellir National Park, we drove off to our next sight, Gullfoss.  Gullfoss is a waterfall, part of what is called the Golden Circle, which is a group of sightseeing destinations popular with tourists and in striking distance of Reykjavik, where many tourists to Iceland stay.  Why do we enjoy seeing waterfalls so much?  A river, flowing along the countryside, may have bends and rapids, but the abrupt falling of water over a cliff can demonstrate the enormous volume of water moving through, and the power of that movement.  Waterfalls are dangerous, and cannot be navigated by boats.  And, they tend to be quite stunning to simply watch.

Gullfoss in March.

Gullfoss, looking downstream

Another saga, this one very recent, tells the story of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas, whose family owned the waterfall.  Sigríður was said to have walked barefoot to Reykjavik in order to prevent the waterfall being sold to investors who wished to dam it and use it to produce electricity.  Or, perhaps not.  Apparently the legend is much greater than the real story, in which she was helpful in convincing Icelanders to keep the waterfall as a public park.  The investors actually never could put the money together to get the project going.  And Sigríður?  She got a sculpture of her visage placed at the waterfall.

Sigríður Tómasdóttir

After marveling at the dynamic waterfall, and getting cold from the now-falling snow and wind as we stood at the upper part of the falls, we walked over to the Gullfoss cafeteria and gift shop.  Of course, there’s a gift shop at every tourist stop!  The cafeteria is noted for its lamb soup, and is a nice respite when it is raw outside.  The gift shop is very well stocked, and fun to browse through.

After our meal, there was one more stop on the Golden Circle route we wished to see.  It is a tiny town called Geysir, and happens to be the source of the word geyser in English.  Unlike the well-known “Old Faithful” in Yellowstone National Park in the USA, the Great Geysir in Iceland is very unfaithful.  It has been gushing forth (geysir comes from the old Norse “geysa”, “to gush”), for about 10,000 years.  Sometimes it blows about every thirty minutes.  Sometimes a few years go by without any eruptions.  Engineers have learned to trick it into erupting, and can use their engineering magic to make it erupt on cue.

The Geysir erupts.

In Iceland, safety is a suggestion. A mere rope and little sign tell one to not step in the boiling cauldron.

In a superheated pool, the water and steam flow out, and sinter, the gray silica depost, forms around the edges.

The distant volcano lies waiting, while the ground bubbles up with the heat from inside the earth.

We returned to our cabin near Selfoss, having fully explored the Golden Circle area.  We sent a couple out to the supermarket, bought some lamb and vegetables, some salad makings, and some snacks.  We made a delicious dinner and chatted about our adventures.  The next morning, we made use of the shower in the cabin.  It was located in the entryway, a space heated by a plug-in free standing oil heater which was definitely up to the task.  The shower was a rustic design, a pipe going up to the shower head, and a corrugated side panel as the wall.  We packed up after breakfast, cleaned up the cabin so we would be looked upon as worthy renters by the AirBnB owners, and headed out for our next stop.  Coming up, riding Icelandic horses, an watching icebergs flow out to sea, all in Part 2.

Frank, Michael, Lynne and Kathleen saying so long to the cabin near Selfoss.

 

 

 

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