All of the photos in the blog post are thanks to Mark Andrew Gonzales. See his amazing photography on his personal website and his professional website. Thanks, Mark Andrew, for not only the photos but also the laughs, your positivity, sharing your candy, and keeping me warm in the backseat!
Many times throughout our hikes, pit stops, and treacherous 4WD through blizzards, fog, high winds, and even clear skies, I was convinced that we'd left planet Earth without any hope of ever returning home.
Iceland is full of nature and void of people (one town we visited has a population of 380 residents!), but we still managed to make friends with locals here and there. I learned about "window weather" (when the bright, sunny--and even green!-- beautiful view outside your bedroom window suggests nothing of the wind and near-freezing temperatures that actually await you), kartöflukrydd (paprika, sugar, MSG, and basically delicious crack cocaine for your french fries), 24 hours of darkness in the winter, 24 hours of sunlight in the summer, viking soup, the banality of the Northern Lights (us: "Can you tell us where we can see the Northern Lights?" local guy: "....uh.... look up....?" us: "Is it really that visible? Can you see it from anywhere?" him: "yes! just the other day, I was shouting at the Northern Lights because it was too bright. I could not sleep. So I closed the curtains."), the lack of crime and violence in Iceland, and oh... so much more.
When I travel, trying local dishes, learning about the history of the country, and meeting locals are often my top priorities of my trip. Here, with such limited open hours for restaurants, shops, and museums (grocery stores were often only open noon-5pm; some restaurants only opened seasonally; the liquor stores are open from 5pm-6pm), our little roving group of five had to make do with entertaining each other on the long stretches of snow-covered roads. We would go for hours wihtout seeing more than a dozen cars on the road. Every now and then, we'd pass a road sign with a pictogram of a village and a big red "slash": a warning that there are no towns ahead for several miles--so stock up on food, water, and gas at the nearest town somewhere behind you.
This trip was the first nature trip I've ever taken... here's how it looked.
A little bit of a backstory behind the ridiculous beauty that are these photos:
Mark Andrew Gonzales, a friend of Brian's, came along with us on this trip last minute. I had originally planned on going on this trip either by myself or with Brian if he could come. Then I invited two of Brian's friends, Edward and Kevin. And they all invited Mark Andrew, who, by the way, is an international award-winning photographer. What a serendipitous addition to our little tour group for such a scenic vacation. All of the photos in this blog post are courtesy of Mark Andrew.
It so happens that Mark Andrew's day job is self-employed wedding photographer. All of his other awesome photos are what he does in his down time. At the beginning of the trip, Mark Andrew asked if Brian and I would be subjects for a few photos that he'd add to his business portfolio.
I felt a little silly because Brian and I never take lovey-dovey photos. Regardless, every day, Brian and I were Mark Andrew's willing subjects. The funniest parts were when Brian and I had to stare into each others' eyes for a few shots at a time; rather than professing our undying love for one another, we were cracking jokes and making fun of each other (me: "you have snot dripping out of your nose and I'm afraid it's going to drip on me"). Can you tell?
We saw waterfalls, glaciers, big/small/colorful/black/white birds, mountains, snowy deserts, rivers, and arctic seas. The guys, though, had their eyes on the prize. All throughout the week, our Iceland-traveling family was like a team of storm chasers, looking for the perfect viewing spot (clear skies, dark location) to see the Northern Lights. Sunday was bad. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday were bad. In fact, Tuesday was really bad. We forged un-plowed roads (which, in our defense, were clear to begin with, and only became impassable when it came time to turn around and head back), danced in darkness, and waited with a thermos of hot chocolate for the fog to roll off the snow capped mountains. Here are a couple of photos we took while waiting:
On our way back home, we made a quick wrong turn and ended up stuck in a snow bank. Uh oh.
We spent an hour trying to dig our car out with nothing but gloved hands before we gave up and ended up calling 9-1-1 (there, 1-1-2). The local police were eventually dispatched to 'rescue' us. They brought a gigantic shovel, we heaved and hoed our bright orange Kia... and we were forced to give up. We abandoned the car for the night. The police made two rounds to take all of us home to our AirBnB apartment.
As bad as that night was (not getting to see the Northern Lights, getting stuck in the snow, having to call the police), I hope I'll always remember that night as quirky and romantic rather than stormy and tumultuous. While the guys were off doing their own thing (I'm sure they remember exactly what they were doing, but that's a story for another time...), Brian and I enjoyed the view of a tiny patch of glowing green in the sky above, the twinkling lights of a the small town of 2,000 residents below, singing silly love songs together, and slow dancing in the fresh, powdery snow.
I was content with the bits of aurora borealis we had seen thus far into the trip. A sprinkling on Monday, an inkling on Tuesday--honestly, I was ready to go home and with proper bragging rights that I had, indeed, seen the famous winter sky wonderland. But the guys were on a mission. Every day, Brian, Edward, Kevin, and Mark Andrew kept their eyes glued to the sky. Brian kept track of a weather website reporting the particles in the atmosphere (seriously!) and the likelihood of seeing any hints of green, purple, and whatever else the sky had to offer.
Brian became our de facto meteorologist that week. He explained the rating system used to predict the visibility and intensity of the Northern Lights. On a scale of 1-9, 1 to 2 is hardly visible, and 4 is "dazzling" (not sure what everything else in between and after count as). Most days, only a 1 through 4 is likely. I believe he said that a rating of 1 through 4 occurs 90% of the time; the likelihood of each increasing rating drops off from there.
By Thursday night, we were in Southern Iceland--the most unlikely place for the Northern Lights to be visible because of the region's inclement weather. That night, our weather app predicted a Northern Lights rating of a 5! Whaaaaaaat.
Here are the photos. No magic, no tricks--just God, a camera, and 25 seconds of exposure.
The sky is bleeding:
The cabin we called home for our last days in Iceland; Edward and Kevin drowning in the view:
My Iceland nomadic family:
And then... Brian dropped to one knee.
And he said some things. Some very sweet things, I'm sure.
I couldn't hear any of it though, because I was an ungraceful, blubbering mess. I have no idea what was said, but at least we have photos to remember the moment by...
So, there you have it. My first "nature trip" traveling adventure. Everyone, please visit Iceland. It's not just awesome, awe-full :) . And hey, if you're free, mark your calendars and meet us there in June 2016--we'd love to show you around!