Monday, February 12, 2018

Iceland Expedition: Heading Home

First of all, I want to encourage you to go back and take another look at (or even reread!) the three previous expedition  posts, now that I’ve had the chance to add some pictures, links, and additional video! Much better than the wall of text that was there previously!

Thursday was our last day in Iceland, and we sadly prepared to go home. Our flight left at 3:30 PM from KEF, so the morning was a leisurely one, as we woke up, packed, and prepared to leave. Based on our previous morning track record, we did not attempt to schedule any excursions for that morning, and I gave the group a departure time about thirty minutes earlier than one I felt was still extremely comfortable. We also enjoyed the entertainment of some schoolyard bullies at the school across the street, as we finished up our breakfast.

Our Airbnb (and little "seven passenger" car)
The next step was to pack into the car for the drive to the airport. We had been riding seven deep all week, but, this time, we had to fit in our full size suitcase (which ended up between Steven and I in the back seat) and all of our backpacks, stuffed to the gills. It wasn’t the most comfortable car ride I’ve ever taken, but it was bearable.

At the airport, we dropped off the rental car (after a side quest to refill the gas tank), hopped the shuttle bus to the terminal, and proceeded to check in and drop off our bag. Having learned our lesson, during check in, several of our group members asked to have their middle names added to their ticket, so that they would match their passports exactly. Imagine our surprise and frustration when the agents for WOW just shook their heads and told them not to worry about it. Now if only we could get that attitude transplanted to BWI and the WOW employees that work there!

Welcome to KEF
This wasn’t the only instance of the level of security or “standard procedure” being much lower than in the US. As we walked towards security, I had my passport and my ticket out to hand to the nice lady at the entrance to the queue. However, there was a sign that said “state your nationality” on her podium, and she never asked to see my ticket or passport (Mike corrected several of us for saying “United States” instead of “American,” during this interaction). In their defense, both the ticket and the passport were checked at customs, just a few minutes later. Also, that’s the first time I’ve been through a metal detector instead of an x-ray machine in a long time.

Icelandic hotdogs (finally!)
Having made it into the terminal, Mike, Steven, Tanner, and Katy finally got to try some Icelandic hotdogs. The way Steven described it, “You can taste more of the casing on it.” From that description, I didn’t think this was something I needed in my life.

WOW Airlines
We congregated near the gate and got to board one last bus to ride out to our plane before taking off. I was relieved to see everyone clear the turnstiles right after me. Nobody was getting left in Iceland! At the beginning of the trip, I had joked with everyone, “You’re all grown adults. If you get in trouble over there, I will leave you!” Unfortunately, I didn’t ever consider that it might be in the US, before we even took off. The joke all week was, “We never leave a man behind! Expect when we do.”

The purple plane
I was lucky enough to have an empty seat next to me on this flight (as well as the flight in), so I napped a little bit, read, and edited some video. When we landed, I looked out my window to see some random guy holding up a sign that said, “Tom in 11A loves stinky cheese!” Life is never boring.

I don't know who Tom is, but he has awesome friends!
After clearing customs, picking up our car from the parking lot, and stopping for something to eat, we began the long drive home. Mike volunteered to ride in the small third row seat next to the suitcases in the back, and was a champion. We made one pitstop in Harrisonburg for Cookout milkshakes and ended up making it back to the Park and Ride around 1:30 AM. Not too bad, even if I do say so myself!

Goodbye, land of ice!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Iceland Expedition: Vik, Waterfalls, and The Secret Lagoon

Yesterday, we made our trip to see the sights along the southern coast of Iceland on our way to the town of Vik. Again, our goal was to leave around 8:30 AM and we departed around 9:45 AM. We’re growing as people.

Our first stop was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. We parked and tried to pay for parking, but the machine refused to print the parking pass, even after charging my credit card. I saw an official looking guy carrying around a noteboook, so I figured I should say something to him to keep  us from getting a ticket. I eventually figured out that he wanted to see the charge on my bank account. So, standing in front of a waterfall in the middle of nowhere Iceland, I used my fingerprint to log into my bank account (through a local bank in Blacksburg), and showed him the charge that had been placed only a minute or two earlier across the parking lot. Welcome to technology in the 21st century.

Ice daggers
The waterfall itself was neat. One single drop, over the ridge to the ground. We also walked along the ridge and saw several other smaller falls. Tanner and I improvised a tripod mount (using a C-clamp tripod, phone mount, and my knife), but weren’t able to take any long exposure shots like we had hoped to.

The next stop was Skógafoss. This incredible waterfall and the surrounding landscape was probably my favorite thing about this trip thus far. It was very cold and windy (you may be noticing a theme here), and, to make it even better, the waterfall was blowing water droplets that felt like rain towards us as we approached it. It may not have been the smartest idea, but we walked over to get as close as we could to it. We didn’t come all the way to Iceland to just stand in the back and take pictures. The waterfall thanked us (Mike, Steven, and Tanner especially) by drenching us in water, when the wind all of the sudden changed directions. Our jackets are waterproof, but our pants are not. The good news is, once everything freezes over, it’s not as cold.

Getting wet
The aftermath
After that incident, we climbed the ridge behind the waterfall for a better view. The vistas at the top were incredible. This was definitely my favorite part of the trip thus far.

That's definitely Everest
The upper falls
The explorers
Once we cleared the immediate overlook with all of the tourists, we continued onto the ridge beyond, and the views only continued to get better the further we went. After a few hundred feet, ours were soon the only set of tracks in the snow. We were on a trail, but we were breaking new ground (at least for that day). I can’t express in words how insane these vistas were. The scenery, along with the isolation, made it feel like we were on top of Mount Everest. There was also the random windswept snow cyclones to deal with, coming over the edge of the mountain. As tanner said later, as far as earth is concerned, “That’s the closest I’ll ever be to heaven.”
Blowing snow
The view
The top
Black sand beach in Vik
After that experience, we continued on our journey to Vik, arriving at the black sand beach about a half an hour later. This beach was pretty surreal. It had the texture of a normal beach, for the most part, but the sand was jet black. We also had it almost entirely to ourselves. After spending some time dodging waves, we walked down the beach to where it met the cliff face. Adam, Mike, and I explored a few shallow caves while Katy watched the waves and Tanner, Steven, and Laurel climbed rocks.

Rock climbing
At this point, if you haven’t watched the video blog from today, stop reading and go do that! I won’t be able to adequately describe in words what the video shows happening in real life, and I’d rather you experience the video unspoiled. To wet your appetite (pun intended), I'll just say I may have lost a GoPro as a result, but the video Tanner got makes up for it.

Wet, but laughing
When I came out of the cave, I asked Katy where Tanner was. She pointed to a rock almost backed up to the cliff face down the beach. As I watched, Steven ran to Tanner’s rock in-between waves, and managed to get about halfway up the back side of it before the next wave broke. The bad news, however, was that another “surprise” wave was also coming. It hit Steven full in the face just as he looked up, and swept him off the rock into the surf. As the wave went out, Tanner grabbed Steven’s hand sticking out of the water and stabilized him. Steven stood completely still for a solid few seconds and then said, “Okay, I’m going back now,” and started sprinting up the beach. At this point, Katy just shook her head and said, “Boys!” Steven eventually caught up to us, and Tanner ran up behind him. It was obvious they were both pretty shaken up, although both of them were laughing hard, Tanner nearly doubled over. Steven said, “I thought, ‘So this is how I’m going to die.’” Tanner said, “I so wish I had gotten your face on the video. You were terrified.”

I promise we checked he was OK before laughing!
We knew we needed to get Steven out of his wet clothes as soon as possible, so we cobbled together a replacement outfit from extra clothes we had brought along as well as spare layers we had on, and the guys created a towel enclosure so that he could change in the parking lot. Thankfully, the car was nearby and, although he was shivering for a few minutes, he was very soon sitting in the car with new, dry clothes on, and suffered no further ill effects (that we know of). We did, however, scare off a few other visitors to the beach. One car pulled into the parking lot, saw what was going on, and then turned around and left.

Basalt columns
We had two more stops in Vik. The first was Dyrholaey, a huge natural bridge that juts out into the sea. Steven and Tanner only joined us for a short amount of time here, since they were still a little cold from their earlier drenching. The second stop was Halsanefshellir, a basalt cave along the black sand beach with inverted basalt columns along the cave roof. We found several signs warning us to beware of “sneaker waves,” and took a few pictures for Steven.

We ate the centerpiece
On the way home, we stopped at a restaurant called Gamla Fjosio, which, translated, means something along the lines of “The Old Cowhouse.” It was a local farm to table style restaurant, which focused on beef dishes from its herd of cattle. The guys who ordered sodas got them in little glass bottles, and, after much debate about whether we were eating the centerpiece like dumb Americans, we tried the thin little breadsticks standing in the jar in front of us. I ordered the Volcano Soup, a “hearty beef soup with vegetables.” The food was all very fresh. In fact, after taking a bite, Tanner was convinced that his burger was still mooing. Steven inhaled his, while Katy and Tanner worked through theirs at a little slower pace.

This morning, we decided to do something a little closer to home so that we could come back to the place we’re staying and prepare for our dip in the hot springs later in the day. After quite a bit of discussion, we settled on Gljufrasteinn (The Poet’s Path). This six kilometer (roughly four mile) hike wound its way through several fields, along a nearby stream, before entering a small valley and ending at a waterfall. Apparently, a local poet would walk this path quite often for inspiration.

I really enjoyed this hike because we were truly alone, hiking through an open plane and down a valley, guided only be occasional markers. The hike itself was fairly secluded, and based on the lack of footprints, we were probably the first ones there in several days. Although I'm sure many tourists come here, it felt like we were experiencing "true Iceland" on this hike.

Who needs a path?
The drop off
Despite what it may sound like, with quite a bit of snow on the ground, this hike was not the walk in a park you might expect it to be from the description. Near the beginning of the hike, I stepped off a footbridge and sank into a snow drift up to my thigh. There were a few other places that were similarly deep, but, for the most part, it was only as deep as our boots. The biggest challenge we faced was crossing all of the little tributaries for the main stream without breaking through the ice and getting wet. We were mostly successful, although, on the way back, both Tanner and Steven fell in up to their hips, wetting their feet again. The scenery though, was beautiful, as we followed the foot of a mountain ridge up the valley. The waterfall at the end, although not as impressive as some of the others we’ve seen this week, made the hike totally worth it.

The falls
The last stop of the day was The Secret Lagoon hot springs. After hearing from several people who had visited Iceland that we should avoid the Blue Lagoon at all costs (an expensive tourist trap, apparently), we settled on The Secret Lagoon as a good mix between natural and remote, as well as having facilities. On the way there, at one point, Tanner was driving in white-out blizzard conditions over a mountain pass (again). Later, he told us he’s very rarely been scared driving, but this did it for him. He didn’t want to stop for fear we would be hit, and he didn’t want to keep driving because he couldn’t see anything! In the end, he just blindly followed the taillights of the guy in front of us very carefully.

The "Secret" Lagoon
When we arrived, the air temperature was around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. We paid or entrance fee, showered, changed, and then ran outside into the (literally) freezing cold. It was actually snowing as we jumped into the pool. The water, however, was very hot, and once we got used to it, we were pretty comfortable. The water that fills the pool overflows from the nearby geyser, which are boiling. The geysers themselves are roped off to keep you from burning yourself, although several in our group referred to them as the “personal hot springs.”

We were hoping to see the Northern Lights this week, but, unfortunately, it’s been cloudy and snowing most of the week. As we were sitting in the lagoon, however, the sky was perfectly clear, and we were able to see stars, satellites, and, in Katy’s case, a shooting star! No luck on the Northern Lights, though, as the solar activity for the evening wasn’t really conducive to it. We did stop once on the way home (in the middle of a long stretch of open road) when Tanner spotted a patch of open sky and made one last attempt to see them, but to no avail.

All of the road closures
Our trip back, which should have been roughly an hour and a half ended up almost doubling in length. The treacherous mountain pass from the trip to the lagoon was now closed, so we had to reroute around it. Each place we tried to turn towards Reykjavik, however, we were met with a closed gate. Eventually, we talked to a couple of (Icelandic VDOT?) guys, who explained that several cars had slid off the road, and now there was a snowplow stuck, blocking the pass. As one of them said, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes!” With this information, we ended up tracing the coast almost all the way around to get back to the city, arriving around 11:15 PM.

When we got back, Mike and Steven decided it was time to go find some real Icelandic hotdogs...

We have had several long days over the course of this trip, but they have been amazing and packed full of adventure. While it will be good to be going home tomorrow, it will also be sad to leave!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Iceland Expedition: Reykjavik and the Golden Circle

An hour or two after I finished writing the last blog post, we were wheels down in Iceland! Unfortunately, with the time difference, it was 5:00 AM, and most of us had not slept on the plane. Nevertheless, we planned to push through and see what we could see in Reykjavik (and because we couldn’t check into our Airbnb until 3:00 PM).

After exchanging money, buying Siminn SIM cards, and picking up the rental car in Keflavik, we began the drive to Reykjavik. The rental is a small, diesel, manual crossover that “seats” seven people. As we were pulling out of town and Tanner was figuring out all of the controls, he chose this time to tell us that he’s gotten a ticket in every foreign country he’s ever driven in. This came as we were deciding whether it’s acceptable to right turn on red here (it’s not).

We arrived in Reykjavik around 7:00 AM, and, as we discovered, not a whole lot is open at that time in the morning. We drove around for a little while, getting our bearings, then eventually parked and started walking, hoping to find something to eat. We eventually found a cafe that was open for breakfast that also kindly accommodated a thirty minute (power) nap for a few of us.

Harpa Center
The first thing we decided to check out was the Harpa Center, a steel and glass performance hall, downtown near the docks. Adam, who works as an architect, loved this building, and probably would have stayed there all day, if we would have let him!

Katie enjoys watching the ocean
We wandered through the streets of downtown Reykjavik for a little while, stopping to check out a few of the small shops and museums. We then made our way up to Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland, located at the center of the city. The sanctuary was a sizable acoustically reflective room, with a large pipe organ. It seemed like an amazing place to sing something like the Doxology, or as Adam suggested, Blest Be the Tie That Binds.

From that church building, we made our way to the church we had actually planned to worship with that morning. Honestly, this was one of the parts of the trip I was most looking forward to, after some of the research I had done beforehand. I started Googling for churches in Reykjavik and found this Gospel Coalition article, as well as an article from Christianity Today on the work this pastor and his congregation are doing in this country. I was excited for us to experience a small part of that, and, hopefully, be of some encouragement to this pastor in his work. I contacted him beforehand to make sure we wouldn’t be a distraction, and he welcomed us to come.

We weren’t two steps into the building when I was greeted loudly by an Icelandic man who thrust a small bag with what looked like dried bread chips in it towards me. Having zero idea of the context, I thought this might possibly be communion bread of some sort, picked a piece, and held onto it. A few minutes later we entered the sanctuary and I saw communion bread and juice set out in the front, so my previous assumption no longer held. Figuring it would be weird for me to stand there holding my piece of bread, I went ahead and popped it into my mouth. An incredibly strong fish oil flavor hit me immediately, and I tried not to grimace as I chewed. At that moment, I was also stuck with an empty water bottle. As politely as possible, I excused myself and ran off to find some liquid.

Tanner, meanwhile, had held onto his piece as well, but made the unfortunate choice to try it during the service. I was listening to the message when all of the sudden he taps me on the shoulder and whispers, “That’s nasty!” quite loudly. I quickly shushed him for fear one of the church members would overhear him. He told me later he had grabbed one of the biggest piece because he was hungry. He struggled through the mouthful he had and then gave the rest to Steven, who, of course, loved it. I’m still trying to figure out if this was a friendly gesture or an attempt to haze the Americans (or, perhaps, both).

The service itself was awesome. Meaningful hymns and solid, Biblical teaching. Most of the songs were in English, and they even had a translator who translated the teaching and speaking portions of the service from Icelandic to English for any English speakers, using a separate transmitter and receiver system.

At the end of the service we got the chance to speak with the pastor and pray for him. If you would, please pray for Gunnar and his work in Iceland, and particularly for two of his young children who are struggling with some pretty severe health problems. We have noticed the country of Iceland is a place that seems altogether hostile to the Gospel (addressed in this video by Gunnar and some of his ministry partners), and Gunnar’s congregation are doing their best to share the hope and joy that can be found only through Jesus with their fellow Icelanders.

Driving in Iceland
Next, we went on (what turned into a lengthy), shopping trip to the local Bonus grocery store to attempt to buy lunch supplies and ingredients for communal meals. Although most people here speak English, it’s still difficult sometimes to find exactly what you need if you can’t read Icelandic. Case in point, “Is this meat actually beef?”

After our grocery run was complete, we set off to find our Airbnb. Despite some less than stellar navigating on my part, we soon arrived. For this trip, we rented a large, second floor apartment that comfortably sleeps seven and (importantly) has two bathrooms. It’s very homelike and cozy, and it was wonderful to be able to come into a warm, welcoming environment, after travelling for almost two days straight. I stretched out on the large rug in the living room for a little while, perfectly content with life.

This morning, Steven and Tanner set out early in the morning to pick up Mike, who had gotten the bus to Reykjavik after his plane had landed. I didn’t think about it until they left, but they had no GPS, or even a way to communicate with Mike. The end result was, I ended up playing the middleman for communication between Mike and Steven, and acting as command and control for remote navigation. It was quite the process, but they were eventually successful in finding him. Steven credits this mainly to his ability to read paper maps (an underrated skill, apparently).

This morning we began our tour of the Golden Circle, a driving route through southwest Iceland, with quite a few amazing sights along the way. We woke up to find that it had snowed the night before, which could only help make this trip better! We planned to leave at 8:30 AM and left at 10:00 AM.

Golden hour all day long
Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park, where the North American and Eurasian continental plates meet. We got to walk down in-between the rift and see the crystal clear water that flows through the valley before emptying into the adjoining lake. Many people swim or scuba dive in this water (one of the highest visibility dives in the world), but, unfortunately, that was not in the cards for our group today. We did, however, get to see a pair of Mallard ducks, much to Katy’s delight!
Stupid Americans standing on the wrong side of the rope
The next destination was the Geysir geothermal fields. There we got to stick our hands in the warm water flowing from one of the hot springs and watch the Strokkur geyser erupt several times!

Notice the rope
As we were exploring the geysers, at some point, Steven, Mike, and Tanner cut across a roped-off section. They made it about halfway across before getting yelled at by an official-looking guide in an orange jacket. Steven said, “As soon as he said something, I turned around because I knew we didn’t have any argument.” Tanner, though, tried to play dumb, “This isn’t the path?” The guide responded with a wide sweeping gesture to the rope in front of him. “Obviously!”

Rando, myself, Adam, Tanner, Laurel, Mike, Katy, and Steven
Third on the list was was Gullfoss, or “Golden Falls.” One of the most biggest, most well-known waterfalls in Iceland, it lived up to its reputation, although we agreed the comparison with Niagara Falls on one of the park signs was laughable. As we were getting ready to leave, what can most accurately be described as a blizzard rolled in (at least, it felt like it). We fought our way back to the car and continued on.

Icelandic Niagara?
Our last scheduled stop of the day was the Kerið volcanic crater. There was a small admission fee for this, and we paid it readily. However, before we got within sight of the crater, we met some of our friends from the flight over and asked them if it was worth it. One of the ladies replied, “Well, I’ve spent $4.00 on worse things in my life.”

That's us on the far side!
Despite that less than raving review, it was a pretty cool sight, although we all decided it would probably be significantly better during the summer, when you should be able to see more detail in the crater and swim in the lake at the bottom.

Mike eats it
All of us except for Tanner (who generously offered to stay and take our picture) decided to walk all the way around the crater. As it turned out, he may have had the better idea, since it ended up being slick going. At one point, Steven and Mike were in front of me. Steven called out that it was slick, and Mike wiped out, sliding the rest of the way down the small outcropping. Having just seen Mike eat it, and figuring I would learn from his mistake, I stepped forward carefully, but confidently... and promptly wiped out.

Lake "frozen solid"
We did walk down to the frozen lake (and, for a few of us, onto it). While there, Tanner struck up a conversation with a few young men from Israel. At the end of their conversation, he offered them his gloves (which I believe in Iceland is equivalent to the shirt off of your back), although they refused. When we got back to the parking lot, Tanner said he was thinking about giving them his Bible. After thinking about it for a few minutes, he did, and, after some urging from Tanner (they initially told him he would be wasting his Bible), they took it. Please pray for our two Israeli friends, that this seed would spring to fruition at some point in time, either directly through the Bible Tanner gave them, or through some other means.

Steven learns his first 100 Icelandic words
We made one final, unplanned stop at a roadside mall-type building on the way home. Inside we found a local library and a bunch of maps, both of which I particularly enjoyed. I really like experiencing things about a culture (the Airbnb apartment, church, library, etc.) that the people here do every day, rather than just see the tourist sites (although those are often good too).

Tanner and Mike, meanwhile, went into Bonus again to pick up some extra paper towels. When we met them on the way out, Tanner said, “They thought Mike and I were from Iceland, seriously! The cashier started going off in Icelandic! I had to tell him we were Americans, and he apologized and switched to English.” Mike said, “When he started in in Icelandic, I just stood there nodding. I was going to go with it. Then he switched to English, like, immediately. It was crazy!”

A map including all of our stops for the day
Despite another blinding snowstorm as we crossed the mountain pass back to Reykjavik, we made it safely back to our Airbnb for the night. After a day full of incredible experiences, we ate dinner (pancakes and eggs) and went on to bed (or stayed up for several more hours writing a blog post, as the case may be). Excited to see what tomorrow holds!

We didn't do a very good job with this

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Iceland Expedition: Day #1

Well, as the saying goes, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is, the statement Steven makes in today’s video holds true. “No one’s dead yet.” The bad news is, we did have to (temporarily) leave a man behind. More on that in a little bit.

Today was mainly a travel day. We met at the local Park and Ride around 9:30 AM to consolidate vehicles and luggage. Most of us decided to just take a personal item (17 x 13 x 10 inches) and split the cost of a single large bag, mainly for liquids, food, and extra shoes. This worked out pretty well, but we knew we were pushing the 44 pound bag weight limit.

The other decision we had to make was how many vehicles to take (accounting for the cost of fuel and parking for each). Steven was driving, but doesn’t plan to return from NoVA at the same time as the rest of us, so, although we could easily fit everyone into two vehicles on the way up, the question became how tightly we wanted to squeeze in on the way back. My Jeep can carry seven (with a pretty uncomfortable third row), and we eventually settled on squeezing someone into one of those seats in the back with the luggage on the way home.

We made it about a quarter of a mile out of the parking lot before stopping at Hardee’s (bathroom and breakfast), and then we were on our way (for real).

The trip to the airport (BWI) was fairly uneventful, filled with some napping by the self loading ballast (passengers), and occasional radio chatter to keep things interesting. Steven told jokes such as, “What do you call a pastor who runs a marathon? A reveRUNd.” Our pastor, Jeff, would be so proud. After that joke, I told Steven, “You’re fired. Give the radio to Katy.”

We made a pit stop for lunch at a Chick-fil-A in Winchester and gas at Sheetz and arrived in the parking lot at the airport around 4:30 PM.

The moment of truth came when we had to drop off our single checked bag. I set it on the scale and the agent told me, “Your bag is one kg over the limit.” We moved out of the way of everyone else and cracked it open to see what we could shift around. As it turned out, we moved a few things to the carry on/personal items and I swapped out my trail runners for the boots that I had packed in the bag. That was enough to drop us 1.4 kgs below the limit.

Security screening was uneventful, despite a grumpy TSA agent. From there, we made our way to the gate and everyone split off in different directions to grab food or a forgotten item.

I was pretty relieved at this point. We had made it to the airport with plenty of time, handled the overweight bag issue quickly, and everyone had made it through security without incident. We were home free! Or so I thought.

About thirty minutes before takeoff, one of the gate agents made the following announcement. “Passengers, please check your boarding pass to make sure the name on your ticket matches the name on your passport exactly, including your middle name. This is an international flight, and if the names do not match, you won’t be able to fly today. We’re about to close the flight, and, after that time, no changes can be made.”

I immediately checked mine, although I was almost positive it was correct (it was). The few people from our group that were still at the gate checked theirs as well. No issues. The other half of our group, however, was elsewhere, and most of them had left their phones with me, charging. As people began to filter back in, I passed the message along and received affirmatives. Then Tanner said, “I think Mike said his name was different on his ticket.”

As soon as I heard this, I went to the gate agent and told her we had a possible mismatch. She asked if he had checked in already, and when I said that he had, she said, “I probably would have caught any difference when he checked in, but let’s double check.”

When Mike return, we looked at his ticket and passport together. Mike’s actual name, as you’ve probably guessed by now, is Michael. Mike on the ticket, Michael in the passport. My heart dropped.

We went to see the agent, and she just shook her head and told us that the flight was closed at that point, and that they could no longer make any changes. Our only option, she told us, was to call customer service, in the off chance they might be able to change the name on the ticket before we took off, but she wasn’t hopeful that would happen.

Mike started dialing and I started to work through contingency plans in my head. My first thought was that I would stay behind with Mike until we could get it all sorted out, and send the rest of the group on to Iceland. None of our reservations were tied solely to my name, so the group wouldn’t have issue continuing on without me. My main line of reasoning there was that Mike didn’t have a vehicle, although there was also a part of me that felt some responsibility not to leave a group member behind.

As Tanner and I discussed, he pointed out that, since there was no issue with my ticket, WOW wouldn’t do anything for me if I decided to stay, so I would essentially be buying a second ticket.

That reasoning, combined with the fact that, in reality, I wouldn’t be much help stateside, helped me resolve to continue on. I handed my Jeep key to Mike, still hoping that wouldn’t be the outcome.

We waited until the last minute, but the plane was almost done boarding and we had to go. We stalled for a little bit longer, then sadly waved goodbye to Mike. Our whole group was pretty despondent (although the sight of the purple airplane cheered us up a little).

Despite that setback, we have been in communication with Mike since then, and it looks like he will be joining us early Monday morning! He has a place to stay tonight, and will fly out of BWI at the same time tomorrow. Please pray for a smooth flight and no further issues for him. We’re bummed he won’t be with us the first day, but look forward to him joining us!

I’m writing this post as we hurtle through the air at 500 MPH over Greenland, heading towards Kevflavik, Iceland. We should be touching down around 5:30 AM local time. Our plans for tomorrow (today?) include exploring Reykjavík and attending a service at Loftstofan Church! More updates to come!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Great American Eclipse Chase

When I first saw this video from Smarter Every Day and realized the plane of totality for this eclipse would pass within four or so hours of our area, I started planning. I mentioned it to my friend Tanner and he was enthusiastic about making a day trip out of it. We started asking around and ended up with a group of seven people who wanted to go eclipse chasing!

Goggle up! Science is about to happen.
We weren't exactly sure where along the path of totality would give us the best experience. Sites anywhere from Kentucky to South Carolina were possible viewing locations, but we decided to choose our destination the night before based on the weather forecast. As it turned out, we ended up road tripping to Spring City, Tennessee (population 1,988), about a four and a half hour drive away. This town is on the western shore of Watts Bar Lake, and, from their website, it looked like they were prepared for eclipse visitors!

4:30 AM comes early
We met at the local Park and Ride around 4:30 AM on Monday morning, hoping to beat day-of inbound traffic to the totality plane. We piled into my Jeep and Tanner's Ram pickup and hit the interstate.

I wasn't sure how insane the totality plane would be, so I tried to make sure we were as prepared as possible. We filled both our vehicles all the way up with fuel roughly an hour outside of the plane, and everyone packed their lunch (as we figured local restaurants would be overwhelmed). I had a small Gatorade-style cooler full of ice water and had packed a watermelon as well. From what I had read, there was a possibility that cell networks in that area would be overloaded, even though Verizon and other carriers were bringing in portable towers to try to handle the capacity, so we brought along two-way radios to communicate between the vehicles. I even packed some toilet paper as a precaution. One can never be too prepared (false, but mostly accurate).

Roadside parking
On the way down, we encountered very little traffic, except during rush hour around Knoxville, Tennessee, and arrived in Spring City about 10:00 AM. When we reached the town limits, we discovered that quite a few other people had decided that this was a prime location along the plane of totality as well! There were people parked anywhere you could fit a vehicle. It was obvious that this was the biggest event this small town had seen in a very long time, and probably will see for a while. People were selling parking spots in their yards, and I saw a sign pointing the direction to a local church, advertising free parking and breakfast pancakes!

Sure, we'll ride your bus!
We managed to find a few parking spots in the lot of the local Piggly Wiggly, although we had to pull through some grass to get to them. We piled out, sunscreened up, and set out to find out where people were gathering. As we started walking down the road, a school bus pulled up next to us, the door opened, and the driver asked, "Are you all going to the park?!" We looked at each other, paused for a few seconds, and then I said, "I guess so!" We hopped aboard and she pulled away.

The eclipse chasers: myself, Joel, John, Tanner, Haley, Krista, and Jeff
At this point, Tanner said to me, "You know. We just got on a bus in a random town, driving by someone we know nothing about, going we don't know where." I'll admit I was a little nervous as the bus began to head out of town, but the driver eventually looped around to follow what was obviously "the route." As we began talking to her we found out that Spring City had closed schools for the day and were running the buses through town, acting as free shuttles, picking people up from wherever they had parked, and bringing them to the local park where the celebration was in full swing!

Watts Bar Lake
As the day went on, it was obvious that the town had done their best to prepare for a huge influx of people, but had little bearing on how many would actually show up. Near the park, there was a line of 40 or so porta-potties, which was definitely overkill for the number of people there, but it meant no waiting for us!

We then began looking to stake out a spot to watch the eclipse, which would begin in a couple of hours. We found a trail that traced the shoreline of the lake and walked half a mile or so before finding a boat ramp and parking area that was partially shaded, yet had a good view of the lake and sun. We decided this would be our spot.

Joel finds this spot to be acceptable
After hanging out for a little bit (and talking to a guy who had flown in from Texas), we took another bus ride back to our vehicles to have lunch and grab all of our gear. We broke out our packed lunches community style in the shade of a nearby building, as the anticipation started to build. Despite what we knew about how accurately NASA can calculate eclipses, we started discussing how crazy it would be if this one just didn't happen. We (along with quite a few other people) had made some pretty crazy decisions about how we would spend our day (or weekend, as was the case for some people), based only on things we had read or other people had told us, versus being able to do the celestial mechanics calculations ourselves. It was amazing to think about how many people along the path of totality had put their total, implicit trust in something they couldn't see (yet).

Prepping for shadows bands
After lunch, we grabbed our filtered glasses, cameras, tripods, pinhole projectors, and various other assorted equipment and headed back to the spot we had staked out earlier. Our friend Anthony, who had stayed the night with another friend nearby, met us back at the boat ramp. He brought a couple more cameras and a white sheet to try to capture the shadow band phenomena (thin, wavy shadows that occur just before and after the total eclipse). As we were setting up, a lady nearby commented, "You guys look like a bunch of engineers getting ready to do some science!" Somebody in our group responded, "Well, you're not very far off!" Out of our group of eight, five of us do some kind of engineering.

Science! (And Jeff's baller shirt)
Haley tries the pinhole projector
During the eclipse we had several phones running the Solar Eclipse Timer app, which counted down to and called out the four "contact times," C1, C2, C3, and C4, as they arrived. These times and the duration between them are location dependent, so this is a great use of smartphone technology, integrating GPS positioning. At C1, the moon's disk makes first contact with the sun's. At C2 the total solar eclipse begins, and it ends a couple minutes later at C3. At C4, the moon's disk has completely cleared the face of the sun again. C1 to C2 and C3 to C4 both took about an hour and a half. C2 to C3, however (the important part), lasted only only two minutes and twenty-nine seconds for us. This was only ten seconds shorter than the longest possible observed duration in the United States, though, so I'll take it. That was still the shortest two and a half minutes of my life! It felt like ten seconds.

The group. (Sorry, John and Jeff!)
Crescent shadow
As the moon began to make its way across the face of the sun, we began to notice a few different things. First was the heat. It had been pretty hot all day, and we could tell that the temperature was beginning to drop (although it was still pretty warm). It also began to get gradually darker. Not dramatically, but enough to be noticeable. However, my favorite thing about the partial eclipse phase was the shadows that were being cast. Since the light coming from the sun was now in the shape of a crescent, this changed the shadows as well! John's pinhole projectors made it very easy to see this, but you could also create the same shadow yourself, using your hand. In the shade under the trees, it was even more dramatic, as the light filtered through the leaves, casting hundreds of "crescent sun" shadows!
I will take a moment here to say that although the partial eclipse was cool, that last 1%, as we approached C2 made all the difference in the world. A lot of people were happy to see a 75% or even 95% eclipse, but, afterwards, didn't understand all of the hype associated with the total eclipse. Having seen both, I can say I understand that sentiment, but disagree. While the partial eclipse was cool, it probably wouldn't have been much to write home about. The total eclipse, however, was insane.

Around C2, everything started happening at once. The sky was rapidly getting dark, and we started seeing shadow bands on Anthony's sheet (not a guaranteed event, so it was awesome that we got to see it). As the last bit of the moon slid in front of the sun, we saw the "diamond ring" and "bailey's beads."

And then it was dark.

360 degree colored sunset.

In the middle of the afternoon.

Fireworks started shooting up from the baseball field adjacent to our viewing position (I told you this town was prepared) and everyone cheered as we entered totality. We heard all of the people gathered in the park on the opposite shore yell as well. We could see stars and planets in the sky, next to the sun. We stared, tried to take pictures, and laughed with joy. It was crazy.


Think about this for a minute. The moon and the sun are at perfect proportional distances from earth so that they appear, from our perspective on the surface, to be almost the exact same size in the sky, although the sun is roughly 400 times larger than the moon. This size alignment, along with their regular orbits in space, allows the moon to just barely totally eclipse the sun every so often, and creates this incredible phenomenon. It's almost like it was perfectly designed like this by Someone for our enjoyment.

Hiking out
By the time we got back to the parking lot, Spring City was pretty much gridlocked. People had arrived in waves over the previous few days, but as soon as C3 had passed, they were all trying to leave at the same time. If we waited in line to get out of the parking lot we were in, it was going to be a good while before we even got onto the main road. However, behind the parking lot was a back road that I was pretty sure would get us past the traffic and out of town, based on the bus rides we had taken earlier. The only problem was, it was over a sidewalk and through some grass. I tapped on Tanner's window (in his big Dodge truck) and said, "I'm going over the curb." He took a long look around and then said, "I'll follow you!"

Power Rangers
We were one of the first few people out of town and didn't hit any real traffic until we got to the interstate. At that point, we decided to take a detour around Knoxville (during what would have been rush hour as well), and stop at Chick-fil-a in Oak Ridge, Tennessee for dinner. Unfortunately, it was also Power Ranger night at this Chick-fil-a, so we joined the entire elementary school population of Oak Ridge for dinner, with a line wrapped out the door for a picture with the Power Rangers.

In contrast to our trip down, the trip back home took us roughly eight hours. The traffic on the interstate was insane, with solid lines of cars in both lanes for as far as the eye could see. The southbound lane, on the other hand, was completely deserted, in comparison. Every so often, traffic would slow to a crawl and then stop completely, for no reason in particular. This occurred even hundreds of miles away from the totality plane. However, whenever this happened, inevitably one of us (me a lot of time) would giggle a little bit, and then say, "Worth it!"

Ten out of ten, would total solar eclipse again.