Do Icelanders Really Believe in Elves?

Pingvellir National Park

The typical Icelander, per random articles pulled from the net, is a published author, excels at chess and believes wholeheartedly in Elves. Find that last factoid a bit difficult to swallow which pushed me to ask Icelanders whether or not they believe in Elves. First lesson I learned; it is very awkward asking people if they believe in Elves.

At Gullfoss Falls

I did though manage one such conversation with a very patient National Park ranger. His take was that Icelanders embrace Elves due to their place in folklore. Believing in Elves then is like believing in the Spirit of Christmas.

Scenes along the Golden Circle

Really though what it comes down to is that there is so much in this Universe we just don’t understand. Why not just blame it on the Elves?

Getting Over Jet Lag in Iceland

My current Facebook feed is mostly pop-up “articles” related to recent Google searches. For example, a typical FB generated article for me might be “All The Reasons Why You Should Buy Yourself Yet Another Coffee Maker. Reason 11 Will Surprise You.” I will then mindlessly flip through this slide show from Hell in search of that elusive eleventh reason. One pop-up article though that I did not mind from last week concerned the weirdness of Iceland.

Greenland spied from our airplane window

Iceland is in fact pretty weird. Take Wyoming and populate it with Vikings. Then separate those Vikings from the rest of Europe for a few hundred years. Add to that the Northern Lights, a genuine belief in Elves (so Facebook tells me) and unlimited hot water. That my friends is Iceland.

Our lovely room in Iceland

And that is also our Airbnb. For less than $100 a night we have ourselves a beautifully large and well appointed guest bedroom complete with small fridge, access to a cute kitchen and a nice ocean view.. This is in a country where hotels regularly go for $700 or more a night.

Not your typical shower

The experience here also includes a shower too bizarre not to be mentioned. Standing in at about five foot six is something better resembling a Singer sewing machine than a shower. I say that because the plumbing involves a series of handles that, when operated correctly, blend two competing streams of water. One stream is boring and cold. The other is a sulphery, boiling mess of liquid possibly pumped in from Old Faithful. If ignored it might burn. Equilibrium between the two streams, while theoretically possible, is not a likely outcome. More than a metaphor, the shower exists as a challenge; it might even possibly make me a better man.

Day 1: We Decide Not To Take The Blue Line to Iceland

Henna and I were game. And also relieved when Corey took Shari up on her offer to drive us to the airport. So much nicer than standing in 90+ degree heat waiting for a train. Also allowed us the chance for some pleasant “crap our kids are going to college” talk. Really the last several weeks have been one long drawn out goodbye/celebration filled with graduations, proms and parties. We love to travel. We also love our family, neighbors and friends. Honestly this beginning was a bit tougher than most.

Day 1: Probably the Freshest We Will Be For Some Time

I would write more but boarding is almost done. Time now is about an hour before sunset. We are headed east so I don’t expect to ever actually catch the sun. We arrive local time 6:30 AM just a bit south of the Arctic Circle. Don’t expect to see true dark until Paris. Will try to check in soon.

Step One: Get Yourself A Good Backpack

So this is the plan; Shari drops us off at the Blue Line which takes us to O’Hare and then it is off to Iceland we go. Three days later our flight continues to Paris where our lovely niece Kristine and her cool boyfriend Francois have promised to show us around. Then we take a very fast and mostly underwater train to London which will later be followed by a whole bunch of other train rides through Scotland and Wales. Eventually we take a boat to Dublin before one last final flight back to Chicago.

Man we miss those dogs at Waterton! Been way too long.

First thing to do though is to begin packing. In my backpack there will be a sweater, a very light rain jacket, a pair of pants, two shorts, lots of underwear, socks and t-shirts as well as a few odds and ends such as my favorite Yeti cup and a couple of paperback books. Henna and Corey will pack in a similar manner with Henna right now choosing to also bring along one incredibly dense piece of classic literature. I do not like the literal weight of the book but Henna thinks it will be fine (update: Henna has since abandoned that plan). We will also of course bring along a few rapid tests just in case plus one tiny backpack for walking about.

Six year old Henna.

Covid, Covid, Covid. Yep. We might get it. We will try not to get it. But we do not plan on taking any extraordinary precautionary steps. And by that, I mean we will not be skipping out on pubs. Pubs might be the thing I am most looking forward to. Scampi and chips with a pint of ale. Yum.

Taken at our favorite place during the first summer of the pandemic.

With or without Covid the world is a scary place. It has gotten too hot. And overcrowded. Things also cost too much and everyone is always shouting at one another. And guns, whether they be the easily purchased assault rifles here in America or the ones held by Putin’s conscripts, make everything just that much worse. Given all that, it would make perfect sense for us not to leave our pleasant northwest side Chicago neighborhood. But that is just not what we do. We travel because we can. We also still very much love sharing our insights, ramblings and other such nonsenses.  A shout out to M&M at Chase Bank because I promised I would do so. Cheers.

From March, 2018- Riding Detroit’s People Mover

Sitting at a Coffee Shop in St. Paul, MN while Henna and Corey attend Macalester’s Open House

Two years into the Pandemic I am sitting in an overcrowded coffee shop mask less. No one here is wearing a mask which makes it easy to eavesdrop on all the catty conversations. Someone supposedly is a total nightmare. Made her boyfriend go vegetarian. Also made him propose to her. And all the time she whines about how everyone is so entitled. Didn’t catch her name but I know I hate her.

I am not at all hating the world slowly returning to normal. Normal being war ravaging Eastern Europe, inflation running rampant and a despotic former President lurking about like Voldemort. But I do not always have to wear a mask so that’s nice.

Conversations here are turning more adult. Not sexy adult but boring adult. Something about their jobs. So I leaned over to ask them to talk more about their friend.

I did not actually do that. Instead I leaned into my coffee and thought a lot about my kid. How she use to be so small. Would hold my hand when walking to the park. Crap like that. Now she’s a season or two away from heading off to college. I am so incredibly happy she found such an amazing place to call home for the next four years. Wish though my neighbors would talk about something a bit more juicy.

A stroll around the neighborhood

Jackson Hole vs WY

Rawlins is not a nice place. At least that is how a local Airbnb describes the town. The listing states that while Rawlins “has fantastic people” it fails to meet the standards of a basic tourist destination. Three nights at this Airbnb would set you back about $360.

Our last night in the Tetons

We actually disagree with that sentiment. Rawlins has a very compact/functional downtown populated by the usual collection of repurposed old buildings and saloons. They also have an excellent Thai restaurant. Really great stuff. I recommend the spicy eggplant and also the shrimp massaman. Yum yum in my tum.

Sign above a barber shop in Pinedale, WY (just one hour south of Jackson Hole)

Which brings me to a rather obvious point. Jackson Hole is nothing like the rest of Wyoming. The covid vaccination rate for Jackson, for example, is a very impressive 71% while the rest of Wyoming comes in at a death wish 34%. A similar gap can also be found in the political realm with Biden easily outpacing Trump in Teton county (67% to 30%). But the biggest difference between Jackson Hole and the rest of the state is in housing prices which range from “you can’t afford it” to “hmmm, that’s just a bit more than I thought it would be.”

So where would we rather be? Guess it depends on the day. For now though this trip is quickly moving east with tomorrow likely bringing us home. We miss the mountains already

World on Fire

Sunset at Gros Verde Campground, Grand Teton National Park

The red moon last night was as pretty as it was unnatural. Whereas a few nights ago the Milky Way was still prominent across the night sky (and I saw three shooting stars in the time it took to empty my bladder at around three in the morning), last night there were maybe two dozen stars visible.

Similar vantage points taken a few days apart

The world is on fire. In Greece and Italy. Closer to home fires rage in California, Oregon and British Columbia. Their intensity is such that they choke people a thousand miles away from their flames. Here in the Tetons the smoke drifts with the weather patterns. The current heat wave brings with it a hazy blanket that drapes over the not so distant peaks.

Climate change does not care if you believe in it. It’s kind of like Covid that way. And the next ten years or so will likely be a doozy with feedback loop after feedback loop making everything hotter and drier than the day before. At least those were my thoughts while tending a fire under a bright red moon

The Miracle of Thermopolis

Ask anyone in Thermopolis about the Swastika building and they will tell you that it ain’t what it seems. The building was built in 1917. The “Swastikas” are reversed and were included in the architecture as a peaceful message to the neighboring Shoshoni tribe who have used this symbol for a millennia. All of this may be true but it is still not hard to see why this building might run people the wrong way.

Even more surprising is that several businesses adjacent to the Not Exactly A Swastika Building have menorah stickers prominently displayed on their doors. On Tuesday night, around 6 PM and at the height of the tourist season, all but one of those businesses were closed. The one employee at that business had no idea what a menorah was. When shown the sticker affixed to her window, the elderly woman explained that there “are not a lot of people of that religion” in the town but that the owner of the building was in fact “someone of that religion.” I told her that I was actually one of those people of that religion. She thoughtfully nodded her head at me then suggested the stickers were put on to make that one Jewish businessman happy. I walked out confused.

Dinner at Hot Springs Park

Later at Hot Springs State Park we met a very cool local who also thought the menorah stickers were a way to make that one Jewish businessman feel welcome. Hmmm…. Interesting. But that answer still did not feel quite right.

One Eyed Brewing Buffalo Company, Thermopolis

The next day we asked a few more locals about the menorahs. First thing we discovered is that everyone in town knows that this one business is owned by a Jewish couple from New York City. After that though the stories became a bit muddled. One person thought it was part of a fundraiser. Another knew it had to do with a chalk art festival. None of these answers really made a lot of sense.

During lunch at a local cafe we finally heard a story that felt true. A local eccentric once sketched out in chalk a few stock symbols of the Jewish faith with the word “repent.” This message was drawn in the general vicinity of that one Jewish businessman’s store. In a show of solidarity the surrounding businesses affixed menorah stickers to their doors. Later they were invited over for a Hannuakah dinner where they took turns spinning a dreidel and lighting a menorah. And that my friends is the Miracle of Thermopolis.

Buffalo, WY

View from front porch in Buffalo, WY

I spent much of our last morning in Buffalo, WY weighing whether or not to trade for the book I was about a third of the way in  (Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari). I was like Indiana Jones weighing sand before the idol. First I was going to leave behind Disappointment River (Brian Castner). It’s a great book. One of my new favorites. Everyone should read it. But after snagging the book at Half Price right before this trip I could not quite convince myself to release it back to the wild. So then I decided to leave behind two beers (Copper Mule from a brewery in Sheridan). That was before I realized that 1) I really like Copper Mule and 2) I might not be able to ever find that beer again.

Hazy skies near Medicine Mountain summit off US Highway 14a
Trail to Medicine Wheel

This would be a good time to mention that none of these deliberations were made in private. Henna strongly advised me to either leave behind Disappointment River or to stop bothering her. Corey was the one who suggested the beer. My Airbnb hosts did not care what I chose to do (and implied that if I wanted I could just take the book). In the end I decided to leave the book behind. I also promised myself that I will buy my own copy somewhere down the road.

Clear Creek in Buffalo,WY

Our three day stay at Buffalo was not all one neurotic decision making process. We also spent some time up in the Big Horn Mountains and exploring all that Buffalo has to offer. Let me tell you, this sleepy 4,000 person town has a quite a lot of history to explore including a violent cattle war that is equal parts Magnificent Seven and Young Guns. There is also this cool Cowboy saloon/historic hotel called the Occidental, a beautiful creek running through town, a Danish expat running a laid back wine bar and locals packing heat. But at last the road is calling our name and we will now take two days to drive about five hours to the Tetons. Hmmm. That would leave quite a lot of time for reading. Maybe I should take that book…

Locals watching us drive by on Highway 14a
Medicine Wheel. Near the summit of Medicine Mountain off Highway 14a. Sacred site for many Native Americans it is accessed by a forest road followed by a one and a half mile hike. Medicine Wheel was created by an unknown group of people somewhere between 250 to possibly a few thousand years ago. Per Wikipedia it lines up neatly with the sun during the Summer Solstice.

Custer, SD

We were a bit nervous staying in Custer over the beginning of one of the most elaborate cosplay festivals ever. But so far it has been more fun than annoying although I do wish the fine folks at Harley-Davidson would do something about quieting their engines a bit.

Corey and I first climbed to Black Elk Peak when it was named Harney. That was in 1999. Bill Clinton was president. A quarter would get you a steak, potatoe, beer and some change back. And we had never ever slept in a tent west of the Mississippi or seen the world from a 7,000 foot elevation.

A few years back we did this hike in a brutal hail storm. Why, you ask, did we hike in a brutal hail storm? Well when we began the hike it was a beautiful sunny day. Yesterday also started off nice with only a bit of smoke hanging in the clouds. And then about two thirds of the way back it was lightning all over the damn place. So we hung back before climbing that last ridge (where I would be the highest point) then charged ahead after estimating the storm was quickly moving away (this was determined via the Poltergeist method- counting the time between flash and sound). Storms are always awesome after the fact (assuming of course all is still well). This one was no exception. Truly humbling to see lightning strikes a few miles away along the ridges of the needle landscape. Later we saw a helicopter picking up water to drop. Maybe it was due to those lightning strikes.

In Sioux Falls we saw several state flags with the rainbow colors superimposed over the logo as well as a church proudly flying a Pride flag. At the Sylvan Lake Parking lot we had a long conversation with a recently retired couple from Minnesota about Covid. They were aghast no one was wearing masks. We nodded our heads in agreement. None of us were wearing masks. Our KOA neighbors (the ones with the flags) mostly sit in their RV. They are a family of four with two cute little girls who occasionally are sent out to sweep the ground of rocks. He does not always like to wear a shirt. Most of my neighbors here though seem apolitical and spend most of their time attending to or talking about their bikes. And that is what it is like hanging out in Custer at the beginning of Sturgis.