Iceland: The People

On January 22nd, I traveled to Iceland for a 3-day road trip with my friend DL.  The following are snapshots, brief glimpses of the fascinating people we met along the way.

// BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. Concourse E.  After a mildly chaotic boarding process, we all find our seats. Next to me, in seat 24A, is a middle-aged man, wearing glasses and professional clothes.  He is dark skinned and looks to be from somewhere on the Indian subcontinent.

"What brings you on this flight?" I ask.

"I am headed home to London.  My son and I just came to America to see the inauguration.  We love politics!"  Turns out the man had placed a friendly wager with his son as to who the winner of the American election would be. "I wanted Hillary.  My son wanted Trump.  Now he's 500 pounds richer!"  Not content to watch the proceedings from the comfort of the British Isles, they flew in to observe it all firsthand.  The immigration officials had found this difficult to accept. "They looked at us in disbelief. We had to argue for quite some time. 'Why don't you just watch in your own country,' they said to us. My son and I simply wanted to experience the inauguration, a fascinating thing! Eventually, thankfully, they let us through."

Castle Dome

The alarm goes off at 3:57 AM.

I grab my backpack, some water from the fridge, and head out the door.  Alex is waiting outside, ready for the trip to the mountains.  His Altima, we anticipate, will have trouble on the unpaved roads, so we take my Sorento.  The roads quickly empty as we leave town. Rumbling tires and the drone of the air conditioning are the only sounds.  The desert is silent.

We turn off the highway after many miles, approaching the trailhead.  Eight miles of dusty dirt road brings us to a mining museum on the left and a big gate - quite deliberately padlocked - on the right.  A red light blinks on and off: whoever recently built this fortress is keen to discourage trespassing.  Alex mutters in frustration, as no one had mentioned such security in all his internet researching the day before.  The sun still sleeps, so we cannot see Castle Dome, yet we know it looms not far to the north.

Back on the main road, we decide to head north.  The sky lightens and others silently pass us by in their journey through the desert.  We come to a border checkpoint (strangely far from any border) and ask the two guards where to go hiking.  They point us to King Road, just a few miles north, and mention loads of trails back in the wildlife refuge.  The road closure we had discovered previously was news to them as well; however, they said, we could still get to Castle Dome the long way around.

So we try it. A sharp right onto King Road, then a sudden right up an embankment on to a narrow dirt road. We stop to catch the sunrise and the drive for nearly an hour and a half through the wilderness, trees scratching the windows with Alfred Hitchcock musicality as we bounce up and down through the washes and the rocks. I thank God that I was given an SUV as a rental car this time around.

Finally, we come to the trailhead.  Walking up the wash as the temperature climbs into the 90s, we find the first cairn: a pile of stones marking the trail to Castle Dome.  Alex's internet research says to follow the wash into the canyon, then there's a clear path up to the right and we would be on our way to Castle Dome.

There is no clear path.  The first cairn is the only cairn that we ever do find.  So, we blaze a trail, scrambling up rocky hills and hoping there are no angry coyotes in the caves that we pass.  Up on the ridge, we finally see Castle Dome, some distance away.  It's clear now why the internet says the hike is a six-hour trip.

We traipse around, conversing about storytelling and work and vacations as we try and find the least dangerous routes through the mountains.  A variety of cacti cling to the hills; small lizards and what might be roadrunners dart around.

Soon, we need to head back to the car, so we walk down into the wash, where the occasional rains unleash torrents of water that carve deep pools in the rocks.  The whole way back, we try to see where we went wrong, but never do find another cairn or anything resembling the online trail description.

Three hours driving follows, most of it off-road.  Safe home.

"Next time, Castle Dome," says Alex, ruefully.  "Next time, we'll defeat you."

County Dublin

After spending far too little time in the vibrant town of Kenmare, I sped onwards towards Dublin.  A brief stop in Cashel for Wi-fi and Coffee at a wonderful little bakery was a welcome change of pace before the final stage of my race.

Cashel town center

Cashel town center

The race ended prematurely when I hit the M50, Dublin's beltway.  Whereas I had almost no traffic problems during my entire journey, now they were on me in full force.  After some painful navigation of an unfamiliar city on the still-unfamiliar left side of the road, I eventually made it to my destination.

I had asked one of my friends from camp, Emily, if I could stop by Dublin and see whatever cool places she thought I could see.  She welcomed me with the generous Irish hospitality that puts most of America to shame, and invited me to join, first off, a lecture series she and her friends were attending that evening.

The lecture series was called Head Stuff, and it was a fascinating glimpse into what I think might be called Irish Millennial culture.  Lively personalities informed us about an incredible variety of subjects: why zebras are stripey, why Paris Hilton is absolutely amazing, why the Irish government needs some serious overhauling, why we're all cyborgs, and why music has no real definition anyway, to name a few.

The next day brought a trip to Dun Laoghaire, a wonderful coastal town just south of Dublin.  Foolishly/Pridefully, I attempted to drive there, Emily as passenger.  She just takes the train, as sensible people do, so didn't herself fully know the vehicular route to town.  Armed with GPS-lacking phones, we eventually figured out our way there, and consequently all the stress that had melted away from the previous day's rush hour driving came back with a vengeance.

Serenity, this.

Serenity, this.

Emily had lived for a time in Dun Laoghaire while pursuing college studies and knew all the neighborhoods, it seemed.  We sped along the coast, past brightly colored fishing boats and small church ruins on nearby islands.  Upwards on quiet streets towards Killiney Hill, conversing about all sorts of topics.  As we passed the coastal railway, I ran ahead down a trail towards the bay only to be rewarded by the sight of a naked man finishing his swim.  I promptly turned around, any desire to photograph anything quite obliterated.  Apparently, this is a normal recreational activity in these parts.

Up the steps to the obelisk.  Grand views and rushing wind all around.  To the south, a view of Enya's castle.  Somewhere nearby, Emily said, is Bono's house as well.  My time was nearly up, however, and we walked quickly back to town, past the maroon castle and expensive beach homes.  Another coin in the meter, a dash to grab some quick lunch, and suddenly 'twas time to head home.  Back on another plane, another layover.

Another goodbye.

Yet, for myself, for these friends, for this dear island, I think it shall not be long until I say hello once again.

Looking south, near Killiney Hill

Looking south, near Killiney Hill

County Kerry

We last found ourselves at the sunlit bus station in Ennis, waiting for the X51 to Cork.  It arrived, eventually, and off I went, disembarking at Shannon Airport.  After some difficulty, I found the car rental booth that was actually open at half-seven on a Monday evening and got the keys to my CitroΓ«n C1.  Some cautious maneuvering around the airport exit roundabouts and I had generally gotten the hang of driving on the other side of the road. 

Onwards it was, then, toward Kerry. As sunset closed in, I stopped at a B&B to find it full, as well as all others near it.  I continued past Castleisland and found a place to stay tucket away in the corner, guarded by a small yapping dog-like creature.  Back into town for wifi at an "American Style" takeway, then back to the B&B for rest.

Up early, I packed, quickly ate a solid breakfast, and started again towards Portmagee.  Hardly any traffic impeded my progress, as it seems Ireland tends to wake up around 9 AM.  Get your sightseeing done in the morning!

After a few stops at overlooks and the town of Cahersiveen, I arrived in Portmagee.  It seemed fairly quiet as the boatmen prepared for the day's excursion to Skellig Michael.  I parked, found a postcard to send to my grandparents, and eventually attempted to get a last-minute seat on one of the Skellig boats, but was too late.  It seems one needs to queue up around 7 AM the morning of the trip just in case someone called in a cancelation.  So, instead, I hiked up the Skellig cliffs and had a good conversation with a family on holiday from Barcelona.

After a brief lunch at the Bridge Bar (the soup is excellent), I booked an eco tour around the Skellig islands on the Lady Clare.  We had a full boat: two families, a couple, and myself.  I talked at length with Gerry the Englishman and enjoyed the tour around both of the islands.  Disappointing not to land and explore the monastery, but still amazing to see the locations where the monks landed and carved impressive staircases into the rock.  One can see all three locations, still as useful, it seems, as they were when hewn around 1400 hears ago.  After circling the large island, we went to the smaller of the Skelligs, which is overrun with a symphony of seabirds all circling and carrying on.  We found ourselves graced by the presence of dolphins and seals as well.

That night, Trad was on at the Bridge Bar.  I ate a fantastic meal at the adjacent Moorings restaurant and then joined the party.  Local children showed off their singing and dancing talents as the band played a wide variety of tunes.  Soon tired, I headed to bed.

Wednesday was road trip day.  I got up early and left the Skellig Ring House accommodations as soon as possible, beginning my counter-clockwise tour of the Iveragh Peninsula.  After a stop at Ballinskelligs castle, I had breakfast with my friend The Robin at the Westcove Bakery.  I found this place accidentally and I am so glad I did because the croissants are amazing.  After that, it was off to Staigue Fort, an impressive ring fort randomly up a road nestled amidst the mountains overlooking the sea.

Onwards, past yellows and reds and purples amidst the flowers.  Mountains whirred by as I followed the coast road through Sneem and then to Kenmare.  I stopped here, noticing a farmer's market in the works.  Lunch was a delicious falafel wrap for two euro.  Yes please.  The town itself has all sorts of fascinating shops that certainly seem worth a second visit someday!

After a steep drive down through the busy mountains near Killarney, Kerry was in the rearview mirror, and the adventure was drawing to a close.