Up, down… and up again

From the garden in Hermance we rapidly transitioned back into dirtbag mode (not that we ever truly left it), traveling by bus and Bla Bla Car to Chamonix, France, the unofficial capital of Europe’s outdoor world. There, we met up with Matt’s college roommate, Mitchell, and his Norwegian friend, Ola, at a campground on the outskirts of town. Mitchell came to Europe after graduation with a purpose that resembles ours, though lacking in both planning and a return flight ticket. (See, Mom? It could be a lot worse.)

The plan was to hike the famous Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170-ish kilometer trail that encircles the Mont Blanc massif, and leads hikers through three countries and over almost 10,000 meters of elevation gain. So, the morning after meeting up with Mitchell and Ola, we went into town to buy the necessary supplies (food, fuel, map) and to cram down a massive cheeseburger before hopping on the bus to the trailhead in a little place called Les Houches. (While the trail officially starts and ends in Chamonix, it’s extremely common to skip the first 7k of the hike which is, as it was described to us, “not very interesting.”)

Being the tourist attraction that it is, the TMB has over 50 “refuges,” or accommodations where hikers can eat and sleep during the tour, which typically takes anywhere from 9 to 12 days. These refuges ensure that a hiker has a hot meal, a shower and a warm bed at the end of each day, but most importantly, it means that a hiker has to carry virtually nothing but a water bottle and a toothbrush. This makes the otherwise daunting hike enjoyable and accessible for people of all ages and physical ability.

Naturally we decided to forego all of this in favor of a more earthy and less expensive approach. We carried our backpacks and “unofficially” wild camped for each of our eight nights on the trail. (As far as we saw, we were almost the only people carrying more than a small day pack.) While not strictly prohibited, wild camping is generally discouraged and frowned upon along the TMB, though it’s widely accepted that many people do it each year. This meant we had to be a tad sneaky. At the end of each day, we covertly scouted out a camp site and waited until dusk to pitch our tents, breaking them down and moving on early in the morning. We were almost always able to find campsites that had already been impacted by people who were, no doubt, doing exactly the same thing we were doing. While this did have certain obvious inconveniences, we were overall extremely happy with our decision to wild camp and felt a level of authenticity that the refuges, no matter how rugged, just couldn’t provide. Each night after we found camp, we’d spend a few hours patting ourselves on the backs for a day well walked, studying the map and gawking at the next day’s elevation change, doctoring our poor neglected feet, and always capping the day off with story time (which was just me reading aloud from Dan Brown’s Inferno).

Our first couple of days on the trail were pretty brutal. On the first day we gained a thousand meters of elevation almost solely on paved roads in the direct line of the beating August sun. There’s something really depressing about seeing a truck grumble easily by as you trudge uphill, barely above a snail’s pace. The second day was worse. We left our improvised riverside camp early in the morning and almost immediately began a 1500 meter ascent over steep rocks and dirt, with no shade but with plenty of hiker pileups and curse words and despairing glances at the impossibly far off ridge line. I almost took off my pack and kicked it down the mountain a couple of times, but fortunately, good sense prevailed. At a false summit Matt had a physical meltdown and I feared I was going to have to use the “help” feature of our Spot communicator. (He was fine after some food.)

It might seem that these first days should have been the easiest, since we were fresh, relatively full and not yet worn down by the mountains and the weight of our packs. But as with any strenuous activity, it often takes a little time before your body stops its initial protesting and decides to cooperate with the hell you’re putting it through. I like to think that the moment my body gives up the fight is when it can really begin for me. So after about three days on the trail, we were feeling pretty used to it– all rocking and rolling, mostly past the agony of lugging a pack up and back down 5 or 6 thousand feet of trail each day, and psyched to be hiking on one of Europe’s most beautiful trails through some of the world’s most beautiful mountains.

This marked the longest backpacking trip to date for all four of us, though we can’t claim to be totally self-sufficient on the trek despite our strict avoidance of the tourist trap refuges and hotels. The TMB dips in and out of small villages, and almost every day we had the opportunity to restock our food supplies and get a taste of some version of civilization. While I was a little disappointed in the total lack of remoteness and the plethora of day hikers who I knew would be returning to their cars at the end of the day, I can’t complain about the convenience of being able find fresh baguette and a flushing toilet almost every day on the trail.

I think there comes a time on a backpacking trip of any magnitude when your thoughts are totally and constantly consumed by food. When, even though you’re enjoying the breathtaking scenery and reveling in the glory of being in the mountains, each step you take is really just a step toward all the things you want to eat when you reach the end of the trail. On this trek, Matt and I were eating oatmeal for breakfast, a bowl of broth and a handful of granola at the highest elevation of the day, and some form of instant pasta for dinner. We supplemented with hunks of bread and an occasional scoop of Nutella (for morale). We call this the backpacker diet, or in other words, the cheapest, lightest way to eat on the trail. While not totally filling or satisfying, we can live like this for a few days while we day dream about what we want to eat when we finish. I usually crave all things sweet and sugary. I dwell on ice cream and candy bars until I think I’m going to die if I see another pack of ramen noodles. I once found myself actually scolding my past self for turning down a brownie that my grandmother had offered me three months ago. Yeah, it’s bad sometimes. This hunger really hit us somewhere around the 6th day, when we were in Switzerland and couldn’t afford anything, and we rode it like a wave all the way back to Chamonix.

And so for nine days we walked like this, each day trudging up and plodding back down, exhausted but exhilarated by our good fortune to be there at all. The terrain on the TMB is extremely varied but with one constant– it is never flat, which for me means slow going. I was standardly the caboose of our four man hiking party. Usually Mitchell and Ola raced ahead, preferring to make one hard push to the highest point and then stopping to wait. Matt was consistently about 10 minutes behind them going at his own quick pace. And then there was me, always bringing up the rear, typically another 15 minutes or so behind Matt, doing my slow but steady slog up whatever we were climbing that day. I wasn’t any faster on the downhill. It’s a myth that descending is easier. While it’s less of a quad buster, it’s exceedingly tough on the knees and toes, especially with a pack. (I’ll refrain delving into the disgusting details of the state of our feet after this trip.)

A few days after we finished the hike was the start of the UTMB, an ultra-marathon trail race that follows the exact same route we were hiking. Any time I got tired or a little bummed out, I tried to remind myself that in a few days hundreds of people would be completing the circuit in a single day.

On our final day on the trail, we decided to begin hiking at seven, because we were excited to get back to town and because we were totally out of food and wanted to get there by lunchtime. By the time we reached our highest point of the day where we crossed from Switzerland back into France, an ominous front was moving in and the sky was dark and angry as far as we could see. Where the temperature would have been a comfortable 24 degrees Celsius it was rapidly dropping as the wind whipped away our hats and our motivation. We ended up making the decision to take a short cut back to town, skipping the last few ridge line kilometers of the trail in favor of a side trail that would let us descend more rapidly. The last two hours of our hike were a frantic scurry in the rain and we were elated to pop off the trail at a conveniently placed bus stop that put us near our campground. Our first stop, of course, was to buy slices of pizza and pain au chocolat at a bakery that Mitchell had been talking about for days, and then to the grocery store for our other cravings.

We spent the next few days relaxing in Chamonix, wandering around town and recovering from the hike. We got to see one of the UTMB events start, a 290k race that teams of three had up to six days to complete. We got to do a morning run with the North Face athletes who would be running the TMB route that we had just finished. We tried to do a day hike one day, but after sailing up the 600 meter ascent, we realized that we couldn’t possibly see anything that could rival the views we’d had on the tour, and we turned back.

Our days on the TMB, aside from being filled with awe inspiring landscapes, served to change my perspective on backpacking and my other various outdoor recreation endeavors. The tour was hard. It was only nine days, but those nine days were long and difficult and downright exhausting. We were hot in the day and cold at night, hungry and occasionally lost, our feet and knees and backs hurt, we woke up early and went to bed late, and we realized that even if you’re prepared, backpacking is hard. But it’s supposed to be hard. Of course, I’ve known this all along, in a vague sort of disconnected way. The TMB made me understand more about why we put ourselves in these situations that we know are going to be at times a little rough, at other times totally miserable. It’s something that’s nearly impossible to explain, but really easy to feel once you acknowledge that the world is bigger than you, the mountains are tougher than you, and once you can learn how to be thankful to be a teeny tiny speck roaming through all of it. In the past few years I’ve developed an enormous respect for nature, but have naively continued to try to be better than nature, to be stronger and smarter and braver than it is. And while I know that I can still work toward being these things in my life in general, all that I need to be toward nature is humble.

After a few days in Chamonix, we said goodbye to Mitchell and got on a bus to begin the journey to our next destination– the French island of Corsica.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

5 Rhodesian Ridgebacks and a thousand ways to cook zucchini

image
We got off the train in Koprivinca, Croatia almost three weeks ago and began searching the platform for our WWOOF host, Lela. “Don’t worry,” she had emailed us. “We’ll find you.”

Matt and I had assumed that the “we” she was referring to was she and her husband, and that they would toss us in the back of their pickup truck and drive us to their little family farm.

“We” turned out to be Lela and her puppy, Fela. And she did find us, and we loaded up in her mini van and she drove us to the farm that she’s spent the past eight years creating almost singlehandedly.

This one woman operation in the rural northern part of the country has a little bit of everything: two small orchards, a large personal garden, a crop of lavender for making oil, and a dozen other projects that are still in the works. In other words, far more than one woman can handle on her own– even someone as tough and hardworking as Lela.

Perhaps the most striking part of Lela’s land is the big, partially unfinished log cabin that she shares with her WWOOFers and her five (FIVE!) Rhodesian Ridgebacks. (Contrary to the name’s implications, a Rhodesian Ridgeback is a breed of dog, not a dragon. And consequently, the only Croatian we learned are dog commands. So if the words sit, stay, and come will get us anywhere, we’re all set.) The cabin is full of beautifully carved natural wooden features and is laid out according to some sort of Indian astrology that we don’t quite understand and that Lela doesn’t quite have the English to explain. The living area is mostly consumed by dog beds and crates, and the kitchen houses one of the two wood burning ovens and a stone sink the size of a small bathtub. A trap door in the ceiling of the living room leads to the second story loft where Matt and I have been sleeping during our stay. Off the loft is Lela’s bedroom, though she prefers to sleep downstairs surrounded by her dogs. The house runs on solar and wind power, so water and electricity are available but limited, especially on cloudy days.

We worked on various projects during our stay at the little farm, the most arduous of which was probably the enormous holes we dug in the clay-rich dirt during our first week here. Lela has a way of assigning tasks so that they seem small, like they’ll only take a couple of hours, and then before you know it you’ve been doing that one job for the better part of a week.

She asked me to clean up a few blackberry bushes in the yard, I spent a few hours on them, they looked happier and healthier and I assumed I was done with the clippers. The next thing I knew I’d spent three days grooming the wild thorny bushes all along the lane next to the farm and was covered in little pricks and scrapes (okay, and some berry juice).Then she asked us to clean about 30 of her recycled bricks to finish building a little wall, and that took Matt and me a morning and we thought we were finished. Four days later we were still sitting on the front porch scraping old cement, dirt and spiders off of the bricks, and the wall had grown to encompass the whole terrace and employed about 600 bricks. After that Lela asked me if I liked to paint, and I nodded enthusiastically as she handed me a can of wood stain and pointed me toward a few beams on the porch ceiling. Three days later I was still standing on top of a rickety ladder putting a second or third coat of paint on the ceiling, annoyed that I’d ruined two items from my limited wardrobe with the goopy stain, and wondering why the ceiling hadn’t been painted before it was, well, the ceiling. Additionally, Matt has mown grass, chopped wood, built a wall and been apprentice to the non-English speaking bricklayer. We’ve also taken part in 6 am dog walking sessions, helped to prepare meals and become expert dishwashers, cleaned indoors, weeded lavender, dug up dead trees, laid concrete and been wheelbarrow mechanics.

The great thing about doing manual labor in extreme heat for eight to ten hours a day is that you don’t have to give even a second thought to your caloric intake. So when Lela piles my plate a first, second and sometimes third time with her delicious vegetarian cooking, I don’t even feel bad when I repeatedly lick it clean.

Which brings me to the food. Lela is a trained and extremely well-practiced chef. She went to a culinary school, has cooked in many hotels, owned a restaurant for a while and still occasionally cooks at retreats and other gatherings. She uses primarily the vegetables from her garden and seems to make everything up as she goes along. For a typical meal, Matt and I spent at least an hour in the kitchen chopping up fresh vegetables while Lela points and stirs and continually amazes us with new dishes for us to try. It’s all unbelievably delicious and has been quite the culinary adventure for Matt and me. She’s made several hearty traditional Croatian dishes for us to sample and repeatedly asks us what kind of food is traditional in America. (“Um.. Fried chicken?” we reply.) We concocted some version of soup every single day, which Lela says is “the best food” for her. We’ve consumed zucchini in every conceivable form, including baked, boiled, raw, grilled, shredded, stuffed, puréed, and in no fewer than three different kinds of cake. Even her dogs eat better than most humans, with Lela preparing them full meals twice a day, complete with most of the major food groups. They get their daily zucchini, too.

Even after spending over two weeks on the farm, Matt and I still can’t get a good grasp on Lela. She’s the kind of person who does everything with passion and impressive vigor. When she digs, you get the feeling that the shovel is going to snap like a twig at any moment. When she eats, she ends up with food all over her face and sometimes even in her hair. When she breeds animals, they’re award winning show dogs. When she meditates, her ohms resonate throughout the house. And when she builds a home for herself, each brick, nail and board must be placed with the greatest care. Oh yeah, and it has to have a DIY swimming pool. But that’s a different story.

She’s a no nonsense kind of person, stressed and impatient, who has a photo of her spiritual guru on her bookshelf and a skylight to see the stars. She values solitude, peace and quiet on her farm but hosts foreign WWOOFers continually and makes trips into town almost daily. Her dogs are immaculately trained and obedient, except when they beg for the table scraps that she inevitably gives them directly from her own plate. Her cooking is all vegetarian and insanely healthy, except for the mounds of salt that she pores into each dish. She loves to meet new people and invite them into her home, yet she doesn’t hesitate to express her feelings that most people are stupid, stupid, stupid. Her English vocabulary is extensive while her grammar is rudimentary. This morning she practically yelled at me for making a painting error, and this afternoon she made a cake to commemorate our last day on the farm. Try as we might, we just can’t make sense of her.

We’ve also met some interesting WWOOFers while we’ve been here. A group of 11 Belgian scouts arrived the same day we did, which made for an interesting week. Fortunately most of them slept in tents in the yard; unfortunately the one that slept in the loft with us was the troop snorer. Lela definitely wanted to take advantage of their manpower, which accounted for all the digging we did those first few days. After the scouts came a Brazilian family who have been WWOOFing all over the world for the past year and a half, in search of the perfect place to start their “community.” They had a four-year-old son who spoke roughly four languages and was a good bit smaller than all of Lela’s dogs. The threat of five lion hunting dogs was a little daunting for them, and they left after only a couple of days. Finally came an American couple who have spent the past three months hitchhiking around Europe, on a trip very similar to but also very different from ours.

Overall we’ve decided to call our first WWOOFing experience a total success. We loved the beautiful setting (which we found strikingly similar to East Tennessee), our quirky host, her simple homesteader lifestyle and everything we’ve learned from it. And a few honest day’s work never hurt anyone.

From Croatia we’re headed for another mini vacation in Geneva, Switzerland (after a brief visit to the Barcelona airport) before hopping a bus to our next farm in southern France. Or in Matt’s words, “My passport is sore from all these stamps!”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Four days in the city

 

image

 

In all honesty: Our two weeks in Iceland were incredible– surreally beautiful and absolutely a once in a lifetime kind of trip. But parts of it were pretty rough on Matt and me; namely because everything in the country is outrageously expensive and not at all designed for budget travelers. We spent the whole trip living outside in the cold, wet and very unpredictable weather, eating ramen noodles and slices of plain bread in our leaky little tent. By the time we left, we were dirty, hungry and ready to give ourselves some TLC.

 
Cue Amsterdam. In addition to purchasing the plane tickets that made this whole trip possible, Matt’s mom booked us two nights at a B&B in Amsterdam as a graduation gift. During some of our wetter and colder moments in Iceland, the thought of that B&B waiting for us in a faraway city buoyed our spirits through the never ending rain, fog and instant pasta.

A taxing bout of hitchhiking, a taxi, an early flight and a train ride put us in central Amsterdam right in the middle of the day on July 4th. We dropped our bags in our tropical-themed room at our long-awaited B&B, in a hurry to see the city (But mostly in a hurry to find some food). Our hotel’s host presented us with a map, proclaiming the city “very small” while scribbling and highlighting points of interest. (He highlighted basically the entire map.) He then shooed us out the door, encouraging us to go get drunk and experience Amsterdam and its famous nightlife. I can imagine that he was very disappointed to find that we were home by 8 pm both nights of our stay.

Being the logical people that we are, Matt and I looked carefully at the map he gave us and neatly divided it up into the segments we would see each that afternoon and those we would save for the next day. If you’ve ever tried to navigate Amsterdam, you’re probably laughing right about now. We immediately got lost, ditched our map and decided that aimless wandering was a better approach to exploring the canal-riddled city. The streets are crooked and badly marked, forming a disorienting arc out of the center and that gives each street a curve that is imperceptible to pedestrians but devastating to navigational attempts. So you think you know in which direction you’re walking, and just when you feel you should be reaching your destination, you realize that you’re facing the opposite way because of the subtle curve of the streets and that you actually have no idea where you are at all. We’re pretty sure the whole town would shift each time we entered a building, and we would somehow exit onto a different street in a different part of the city. It felt like the urban equivalent of the moving staircases at Hogwarts; a street leads to a different place each time you walk it and you can never go back the same way you came.

In this perpetually confused way we roamed Amsterdam for two days with no agenda whatsoever and loved every minute of it. We wandered up and down its old narrow streets, lined with buildings that are timelessly beautiful while also looking like they might topple to the ground at any moment. We visited cathedrals, the famous flower market, Rembrandt’s square, saw Madame Toussaude’s, the Hermitage, Magna Plaza, and on and on. We saw the outside of Anne Frank’s house and the hundreds of people waiting to get into it. We followed our noses into bakeries and cheese shops and creperies. On every corner there were “coffee shops” that smell like every bad decision you’ve ever made and don’t actually serve much coffee. On our quest for China Town we accidentally wandered into the Redlight District and were thoroughly disturbed and thankful that it was early on a Tuesday afternoon. Every so often we’d duck into one of the countless tiny pubs for a Heineken and a bout of people watching before continuing on our way. Bicycles far outnumber cars in Amsterdam, and they zoom the crowded streets in speeding clanking hoards so that you can’t even fathom how they manage not to all collide into a rusty tangled heap.

In the evenings we dined shamelessly on fresh baguettes, brie, pastries and wine. (When in Europe, right?) After our 12 days of backpacking with minimal food or other comforts, we really didn’t feel that guilty about it.

We left Amsterdam in the morning and took a train to the Brussels airport for our flight to Zagreb, Croatia. I have to admit I was a little uneasy about traveling through Brussels, though rationally I know that it’s probably a lot safer than dodging bicycles in the streets of Amsterdam. Aside from some military presence in the airport, everything there was business as usual and we got to Zagreb without a hitch.

In Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, we spent another two days exploring the city and staying at a hostel on the outskirts of downtown.

Zagreb is another beautiful old city, with thousand year old buildings tucked away in the city’s many nooks and crannies. It’s often perceived as being very Slavic and Russian-feeling, but really Croatia is right next door to Italy and has a much more European/Mediterranean influence. It’s most known for its immaculate western coast, but unfortunately Matt and I won’t get there this time around. Much of Zagreb, we learned, was constructed during the socialist regime, so many of its buildings are drab, peeling, and kind of all-around depressing. We spent our days there very similarly to those in Amsterdam: wandering the streets, admiring old buildings, sampling the food and, our favorite, people watching from local bars and cafes.

Our first WWOOF farm is in the rural northern part of Croatia, so we wanted to soak up as much city life as we could during our four days in Amsterdam and Zagreb. If number of pastries consumed is any measure of that, I think we met our goal.

Hitchhikers’ Guide to Iceland

image

On many of the trips that Matt and I have taken together, he’s been mostly in charge of researching and planning, while I more or less pack my bag and hop in the car. While this tends to work well for both of us, it also gives Matt a certain amount of power to omit key details about what we’re doing until it’s too late for me to back out.

For example, last March we went to Cumberland Island for spring break and we decided to kayak to the island instead of taking the ferry with everyone else. Around the time we began unloading our boats, Matt finally mentioned that it would be a 12 mile paddle. By that point, though, it was way too late for me to change my mind and take the ferry.

Similarly, last week when we spent three days hiking the Laugavegur here in Iceland, we were already about 20 miles in when Matt finally let slip that there would be several river crossings involved. Thus, about 12 hours later I found myself wading thigh deep through swift foot-numbing water that had very recently been snow.

So when we began gearing up for the last leg of our hike and Matt casually mentioned that we were taking a mountain pass over part of a glacier, I was surprised at the information– but I also wasn’t surprised at all.

(Full disclosure: I know that Matt doesn’t necessarily do this on purpose, and that he wouldn’t send us out to do something that we weren’t capable of. I also know that in the end I’m always thankful that we did whatever it was, and I’m thankful that Matt gives me the nudge I need sometimes to challenge myself. Anyway.)

This section of our Icelandic backpacking trip, from Thorsmork to Skogar, was around 35 km and topped out at about 1000 meters. The trail wove up into a high lava field from a 2010 eruption that is mostly buried under several feet of snow. We were hiking it backwards from the popular direction, so the first several hours of the hike were an extremely steep and semi-exposed upward hike followed by 15 kilometers of very gradual decline. (This was actually ideal for us because navigating a steep upward scramble with a heavy pack is a heck of a lot easier and less sketchy than doing the same thing downward.)

Things were really great for about the first three hours of the hike. The views of the mountain scenery behind us and the glacier ahead of us were magnificent, the sun was shining in a mostly clear sky and a steady breeze kept us cool. Then, after crossing an extremely flat and unexpected ashy plateau, we began to notice the first tiny ice pellets coming down on us. We were optimistic that this was only from the cloud passing overhead and that it would soon blow over. As we climbed higher, though, things only got worse. By the time we reached the highest point of our hike, it was a full on downpour of rain and sleet, the temperature had dropped below freezing and we had emerged onto the glacier in a thick blanket of fog.

It’s important for me to note here that I borrowed my mom’s old rain jacket for this trip (without permission) because I knew she had gotten a new one– sorry, Mom. It turns out that the joke’s on me, though, because the jacket isn’t remotely waterproof, and so by the time we began our descent every single thing I had on under the rain jacket was completely drenched. (My boots and gloves aren’t waterproof either.) Matt, who was wearing socks on his hands for gloves throughout much of the hike, wasn’t in much better shape in his ultralight hoodless rain jacket.

Our wet descent into Skogar followed alongside a narrow grassy river canyon, which had giant downward steps in it that produced countless waterfalls, some gently cascading and others dramatic hundred foot drops. Had we not been so miserable and cold we might have actually enjoyed it.

I’m sure you can imagine what kind of sight we were by the time we trudged into Skogar to set up camp. We stumbled into the restaurant there for the coffee that we’d both been dreaming about for several days. It just so happened that that there was a soccer match between Iceland and England that evening, and we got to partake in another multi-national viewing party. (Iceland beat England, to the astonishment of many.)

The next day we began hitchhiking east along the Ring Road, and made it all the way to a village called Hofn (pronounced Hep) before turning around to head back toward Reykyavik. In total, we caught 12 rides and traveled around 600 kilometers along the southern coast of the island. We met a lot of interesting people this way, including a Chinese couple living in Canada who drove the tiniest car we’ve ever been in, a vacationing German plumber, an Icelandic girl who has aspirations of being a truck driver, an odd Russian/Asian couple who we think met online and met up in Iceland for their first date, and one woman who we’re pretty sure is our guardian angel.

I’ll explain. After exploring Skaftafell National Park a few days ago, Matt and I caught a ride to the iceberg lagoon (Jokulsarlon). By the time we were ready to leave, it was evening and traffic had slowed considerably. After about an hour and a half of waiting, it was getting very cold and we were growing disheartened. We decided to count 20 more cars before giving up on a ride and setting up camp on the nearby beach. (Please remember that this is a beach in Iceland at a lake full of huge frozen hunks of ice, not a warm breezy Florida beach– so not an ideal camp spot.) The 20th car passed and didn’t stop. Directly behind it, though, was one more car that we decided to wait on, and, miraculously, it pulled in next to us.

The driver turned out to be an American woman from Atlanta, Georgia, who had decided to give herself a trip to Iceland for her 30th birthday. After we explained our 20 cars story and how amazing it was that she came along at that exact moment, she explained that before her trip a friend had challenged her to do 10 things she had never done before. See where this is going? Yeah, she had never picked up a hitchhiker before.

Her name was Savannah and it turned out that she was headed exactly where we were trying to go– to the campground in the village Hofn.

Maybe it’ silly, but things like that, like Savannah, make me think that I’m somehow on the path that I’m supposed to be on. I guess you could call it a lot of things– fate, luck, coincidence, whatever. You might just call it statistical inevitability. Call it what you want, but it sure does give me the feeling that I’m doing something right.

Matt and I decided that if we made it all the way to Hofn it would be our turnaround point. We spent a day there and then began our journey westward, giving ourselves several days to get back since hitchhiking isn’t exactly the most reliable method of travel.

We made it back to Reykjavik in two days and are now at an Airbnb near the airport to catch an early flight to Amsterdam tomorrow morning.
We’ve loved everything about Iceland, from the never ending daylight to the otherworldly combinations of mountains, rivers, volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls and hot springs. We’re sad to be leaving such a beautiful place but of course are so excited to start the next leg of our adventure. We’re also very excited to spend a few nights sleeping indoors and to eat any food that isn’t ramen noodles. And so onward we trek!

Update on soccer: Tonight Iceland played France in the quarter-finals (I think) of the Euro. We’ve been told that about 10 percent of the Icelandic population, 30,000 people, traveled to Paris to watch the game. Unfortunately Iceland lost miserably and the Cinderella story has come to an end. Icelanders are rightfully devastated, but everyone we’ve talked to also seems to recognize how incredible it is that their team made it so far, being such a tiny country and having never even been in the tournament before. Afram Island!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Laugavegur

image

We arrived in Reykjavik on what just so happened to be the day of the biggest soccer game in Icelandic history. We stumbled across a public viewing of the game against Austria and got to spend our first afternoon abroad cheering on an underdog team with a couple thousand very excited Icelanders. It was quite the welcome party.

After that we hopped a bus to Landmannalaugur (which we learned how to pronounce about two days after leaving it) which is the starting point for the Laugavegur, the most popular hiking trail in the country. The bus ride was really an adventure in itself, spanning across most of the country and ending with several miles of windy, narrow dirt roads and lots of cringing on my part as I was sure the 50-passenger vehicle was going to tip over at any moment. Icelandic people seem very confident in the capabilities of their buses.

In all the 55 km trek took us three days to complete (though we still aren’t quite sure if you can call it a day when the sun never actually sets), covering 15-25 km each day. (We are still struggling with kilometer-to-mile conversions.) Along the trail, there are huts that provide indoor accommodations for people who have reserved in advance, and very expensive campsites for those who haven’t. We fell into the latter category, but the presence of bathrooms, picnic tables and clean water each night made us feel like we were living in the lap of luxury all the same.

I think we’re both still a little speechless at how insanely beautiful the landscapes on the trail were. Every few hours it seemed like we were walking into a different place altogether: we started in yellow rolling hills and hot springs that reminded us of Yellowstone, and moved from there into some of the most beautiful jagged mountain scenes imaginable, we camped on the beach of a calm blue lake, then walked into a black desert rimmed with green peaks, we hiked along lush mossy canyon walls jutting up from a narrow but raging river, and finally into a forest populated with small trees and a million wild flowers.

Though it’s still early in the summer (a season which averages in the 50s), we were by no means alone on the Laugavegur. Even now, when many miles of the trail are still under snow, people flock to it by the bus load to experience it’s world renowned awesomeness. We saw and camped with dozens of people from all parts of the world each day, and the campground where we are now is teaming with hikers. (Without moving from where I sit now, I can hear at least five languages being spoken– and we are seriously amazed at how the rest of the world seems to speak perfect English.)

The trail deposited us in Thorsmork, which is basically a campground and a bus stop, and is crowded with people who have either just come off the trail or are about to begin it. (You can tell which is which by how dirty and hungry they are.) Our plan is to continue on the extended section of the trail, another 30 km, which squeezes between two glaciers and heads further south to Skogar. Presently it’s raining incessantly and all of our gear is soaked, so we’re taking a rest day in Thorsmork in the hopes of getting some of our stuff semi-dry before we head on.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“An adventure is afoot!” -Matt

Today is an airport day. Well, actually, it’s a car-shuttle-airplane-moving walkway-eight hour layover-another airplane day. In the next five months, Matt and I will have about seven more days very similar to this one as we weave our way through Europe using just about every method of transportation imaginable. 

Tomorrow morning we’ll land in Reykjavik, Iceland where we’ll spend about two weeks backpacking and hitchhiking around the small country, which has common words the length of this sentence and a fondness for fermented shark meat. We’re betting we’ll have plenty of time to see all the sights considering that it’s only dark for about three hours each day this time of year. After that, we’ll head over to continental Europe for hiking, WWOOFing and the general sort of bumming around that new college grads are apt to do in faraway places. 

Track us on our Spot page, or keep up with us on Instagram (@madisoneubanks and @jmguenther). 

I should also mention that we’re only taking backpacks. Here’s what’s in mine (which rang in at a surprisingly light 21 pounds, minus a full water bottle and a few other minor things): 3 t-shirts, wool base layer top, tank top, flannel, rain jacket and pants, pack cover, 2 pairs of leggings, a pair of jeans, 3 pairs of shorts, 6 pairs of socks, undies, down jacket, a hat, parts of the tent, spare shoes (hiking boots are on my feet), toiletries, first aid kit, fuel canister, journal, Spot communicator, plug adaptors, sleeping bag and pad, digital camera, camp food, headlamp, and…. I think that’s all. 

Matt has his personal gear and other camp essentials such as: the rest of the tent, camp stove, water purification, cooking pot, and a dram. (His pack weighs 24 pounds minus his camera, water bottle, and the iPad I’m currently writing on.)

We’ll pick up things we need and ditch stuff we don’t as we go. We spent the days leading up to our departure packing and repacking our bags, debating tiny details like whether or not to bring an extra stuff sack or a collapsible water bottle, and frantically searching our pockets every five minutes to make sure our passports hadn’t wandered off. After so much planning, we’re psyched that there’s finally nothing left to do but to hop on a plane and hit the road. 

A day in the life

IMG_1171
Today we reached the west coast and our 375-mile mark. In the hour that we’ve been here in Lincoln City, we have secured a campsite and erected our teeny tent, giddily scarfed and slurped giant ice cream cones that we’d been promising ourselves all day, and briefly visited the unsurprisingly unpleasant oceanfront.

Our ride today was shorter than usual- 27 miles- but we’ve decided to celebrate our beach arrival by clocking out early to relax and triumph in reaching this unofficial destination. So on this not so typical day of bike tourist-ing, this is to be a narrative of a typical day in the life of a bike tourist, or at least, these particular bike tourists.

Morning: We try to start our days fairly early, to take advantage of the daylight, which here in the Pacific Northwest lasts from 5 a.m. to nearly 10 p.m. The magnitude of this earliness almost directly depends on the legality or sketchiness of our camping situation. For example, if we have paid to pitch our tent at a family-oriented state park and have received a neat little permit to display on our tent proclaiming our permission to be there, we may sleep until eight and piddle around for a while, leaving camp nearing ten o’clock. However, after a night of cowboy camping between a shed and a train track, we will depart very early and with a purposeful haste. (We’ve only had one close call with these “unofficial” campsites involving a disobedient dog and a man who took his “Volunteer” status way too seriously.)

We eat instant oatmeal every single morning, sometimes accompanied by scoops of peanut butter or handfuls of cheerios, but usually just the oatmeal, straight out of the package and halfway cooked. We don’t make coffee, because I would rather drink no coffee than instant coffee, but maybe I’m just a snob about it. Once Matt’s little alcohol stove is cooled enough to pack up, we hit the road.

Mid-day: Biking is probably at its most pleasant during the mid-morning hours. Then, traffic is often slim and the incessant wind hasn’t yet reached its full, infuriating force. The frequency and duration of our breaks of course depend on the terrain and the weather, but we typically take a major rest after our first 20-ish miles– unless we are climbing one of Oregon’s many hills or mountains, which it seems we nearly always are, in which case I stop to drink and pant and cuss approximately every 50 yards, while staring in incredibly fierce envy at the cars that whiz past us as if the road is flat or something. In this style we’ve ridden some of the state’s most beautiful scenic highways and experienced the landscape’s drastic changes through the magnifying glass that is traveling by bicycle. Matt is constantly pointing out trees and birds and vistas while we pedal up, up, up, but I tend to be mostly unable to appreciate these little wonders until the descent.

Anyway, we like to take our big, middle-of-the-day-making-good-progress breaks at, of all places, Safeway grocery stores. They’re everywhere out here, and they have everything we need: cheap cold drinks, air-conditioning, and tables next to outlets– Safeway is a bike tourists’ paradise. So we sit, recharging our phones and our burnt muscles, looking at maps and camping options, until we are mentally and physically boosted enough to get back on our bikes that double as suitcases and back on the highways that will take us onward.

My biggest hope on any given road is simply that it has a nice wide shoulder with little debris. Road shoulders are useful to us in a myriad of ways: they help me to not see my life flash before my eyes every time a truck passes; they help drivers to not yell at us to “Get off the road you hippies,” and therefore help me to not make rude hand gestures; they give me a place to perform my hill-climbing drinking-panting-cussing routine. The only people that road shoulders don’t seem to be useful to are the drivers of logging trucks, who always seem to swerve closer to us in what can only be a conspiracy against cyclists because anyone who rides a bike must be a tree-hugger.

Most of the time, how many miles we bike in a day depends on where we will be able to camp. Usually we are able to hop between national forests and state parks from day to day, but sometimes they are too far apart and we find ourselves stuck in what I think of as no man’s land, but the problem is that it is certainly some man’s land, which is why we can’t camp on it.

Evening: Inevitably, we find somewhere to sleep, questionably permissible or otherwise, and we settle in. In a secure spot we set up the tent; elsewhere, we sleep outside on the ground, ready to ride. While heating water on the trusty stove, we pour over our maps, discussing and re-discussing where we’ve been, where we’re headed, where we’ll be able to camp. These conversations are detail-oriented to the point of obsession, and the conclusion we almost always come to is something along the lines of, “Eh, we’ll see what happens. It’ll work out.”

We eat ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes every night, sometimes followed by a course of blackberries that we picked from the side of the road and have carefully kept at least somewhat un-smushed all day. Last night we had road kill pineapple for dessert, by which I mean that we found a perfectly good pineapple on the side of the road and we took it with us and we ate it delightedly.

Our days end with a single beer when we feel like splurging, and me reading from The Last American Man, the story of Eustace Conway, modern-day mountain man, which is probably the most appropriate book anyone could read on a trip like this (except, perhaps, a guidebook or a book of biking tips or some other sensible read). Sometimes we manage to stay awake until night falls, usually we don’t.

And then we do it again.