Monday, September 19, 2016

Reykjavik Adventure, Day Five: Helicopters and Harpa

Today was going to be a big day. I was (once again) going to be riding in a helicopter. I did this insane thing when I went on an Alaskan cruise with my best friend back in May (my apologies; I haven't even finished that blog post), and I thought it was the experience of a lifetime. Little did I know at the time I'd have the opportunity in Iceland to repeat it.

I chose to ride with Nordurflug Helicopters out of the Reykjavik Municipal Airport because they said they were accessible and available to anyone. I arrived at the airport pretty early, but I thoroughly enjoyed just relaxing in their plush lounge area with the very friendly staff. People came and went from different tours with different pilots (including one blonde female pilot who looked like she could have been a supermodel), and everyone was super-happy upon their return. And who could have blamed them? Today was the first somewhat sunny day of my entire week-long stay! There were plenty of small clouds, but the sun poking through was unmistakable.

We got a late start because the tour before us was delayed, but thanks to the .25 mg of Ativan I took a couple of hours earlier, I was nice and relaxed, lol. I would be flying with four other people--a quiet couple from Finland and a pair of blonde bubbly ladies from Manchester, England on girls' weekend away from hubby and kiddos. They were impatient because they had a whale-watching tour to get to at 5pm and we were running an hour late, but they ended up being an absolute riot that afternoon.

Anyway, it was time to get into the chopper. Once again, the Icelandic version of "accessible" is not the US version. In Alaska, the entry/exit from the office to the tarmac was flat, and they had a modified stairlift to get me into the helicopter. Here, we had stairs from the office to the tarmac and nothing to get me into the helicopter itself. But enter a lumberjack Icelander staff member whose name I can't recall, but carried me down the stairs and later hauled me into the helicopter like I weighed little more than an Icelandic fairy. Mission Adapt-and-Overcome complete!

After getting belted in an putting on our headphones, we lifted off! We got a great view of the city of Reykjavik, with all its colorful houses and rooftops. We also got a neat view of the Hallsgrimskirkja (I think I got it right) church that I visited on the day I arrived, The Pearl (a domed gourmet restaurant that sits atop three cylindrical concrete water tanks; yeah, don't ask), Harpa concert hall, and the harbor. Pretty soon we were over the green-and-black Icelandic countryside, flying over lava fields coated in moss, small streams, and low volcanic mountains. Hills that I thought were just hills turned out to mostly be dormant volcanoes that our pilot kept pointing out, and I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, mountains aren't formed here the way they are in the US (outside of Hawaii).

Our first major landmark was the tallest waterfall in Iceland, and even threatened with death I can't recall the name. After seeing the photo on Facebook, my tour guide from earlier this week mentioned its height had been surpassed by some waterfall in a glacier somewhere, but he still regarded this one as the tallest. Now, in order for all of us to get a good view, our pilot made sure to turn the helicopter 180˚...except he didn't warn us that would involve a roller coaster-like dip and hard 3G turn that had us all recalling curse words in our native tongues. The pilot's crazy had come out, and that wouldn't be the last time he'd have fun at our expense.

Anyway, we started heading toward our first landing site--the Langjökull glacier. Erin and I did a landing on the Taku glacier in Alaska, and I thought that was big. Well, this one is 50 KILOMETERS WIDE. Yeah, I had a hard time wrapping my head around that, especially after I saw what looked like just a miles-long snow field. Yep, it was all solid (and slowly moving) ice, surrounded by low charcoal-colored mountains. Just like in Alaska, I felt like we had landed on another planet. The Taku glacier there had very defined edges, whereas the Langjökull glacier is more rounded and looks (ironically) like a slow lava flow. Also like in Alaska, you could hear running water everywhere.

After taking off from the glacier, we headed towards a dormant shield volcano. If it has a name, I can't recall it. Once again, our pilot started going nuts and gave us a bit of a wild turning ride (rolling my eyes). It was both fascinating and terrifying to be flying so closely over a volcanic crater, despite the fact it's dormant. Shockingly, there were actually hikers INSIDE the crater. I have no idea how they got all the way out there, but they were certainly having the experience of a lifetime, for better or worse.

Soon we were flying over Pingvellir national park, where I visited (on the ground) several days ago. Even though I actually walked in the fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, it was still a surreal experience to fly over it. And it wasn't just one single crack; it was a series of lines across the earth, kind of like when you're trying to break apart crusty bread. Looking at something like that definitely makes you feel so small in the grand scheme of things.

Well, this IS the Fire and Ice tour, and since we already did the ice portion, it was time for the fire part--or more accurately, the hot part. Our next landing site was (surprise) another volcano. But this one was steaming, with hot springs absolutely everywhere. And not far away was a huge geothermal plant that was harnessing as much power from beneath the earth as the volcano could give it. Once again I stayed in the helicopter, and I was glad for it. The wind was picking up and it was pretty cold outside.

Then we were up and off to head back to the airport in Reykjavik. Once again we got beautiful views of the harbor and the city, and made a perfectly smooth landing. My trusty taxi driver Heymir (I'm sure I'm spelling his name wrong) came to pick me up, and after freshening up for a tiny bit at the hotel, I was headed out to the Harpa concert hall again, but this time for a show. On the way, I took the Shore and Sculpture Walk because there was one particular sculpture I wanted to see. The name of it starts with an S and EVERYONE who visits Reykjavik has to take a picture of it or with it. It's quite a beautiful piece of art in a neat setting, so I can see why.

As for my show, I had a ticket to see "How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes." As the show's title hints, it was an absolute riot! I'm glad I waited to see this the last night of my stay because it was a fond reminder of all the things I learned about Iceland and the Icelandic people during my stay here. I ran into some new friends from my hotel, John and his mother Tricia from the UK. Tricia can stand and walk a little bit, but she's mostly in a wheelchair so the three of us bonded over accessible travel during our run-ins. After the show I had a fabulous meal in the Harpa restaurant on the 4th floor, reminiscing over all the great memories I've made here in Iceland. I don't think I'll come this way again, but I sure hope all of you do!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Reykjavik Adventure, Day Four: Geology, Geysers, and the Blue Lagoon

Even after being here for several days, I'm still having a rough time getting used to the time change, even though it's only a four-hour difference. Going east is always harder than west, so I really had to drag myself out of bed for breakfast and my 10am tour pickup. It didn't help that the morning was another typical Reykjavik day--overcast and misting. But I vowed to make the best of it!

I had the same tour guide as I did on Thursday, and the plan was to circle the Reykjanes Peninsula on the southwestern-most portion of Iceland. Our first stop was in the Reykjanes Geopark, located in the midst of miles of lumpy lava fields reminiscent of my recent visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Upon entering the park, we were surrounded by mist, or what was most likely just very very low clouds. The visibility wasn't great, but the mist gave the landscape a very creepy, ghostly feel that was actually very beautiful. My guide mentioned how easy it probably was for the Vikings to believe in trolls and elves in this kind of ambience, and I totally got it.

A few minutes later we stopped at an overlook next to a lake. Down below was a black volcanic sand beach exactly like what you would see in Hawaii (minus the sunbathers, of course). The low green-and-black mountaintops disappeared into the low clouds, but the images were fantastic. I was able to collect a few lava rocks for my friends, and I hope they'll be pleased with the unique souvenir.

Our next stop was at some hot springs that were completely reminiscent of my visit to Yellowstone a few weeks ago--and the sulphur smell here might have been even worse! The pools were very active, and my guide said he was happy because the area was much quieter the last time he was here. Since the local geology here is different than Yellowstone, so are the colors. The pools there were a deep glacier blue with surrounding bacteria in a rust orange. Here, the colors were much more subdued. The water and mud were a grayish blue (periwinkle, if you will), and while there was plenty of that orange and mineral white everywhere, it wasn't as intense. I couldn't see the whole area because the transition from the parking lot path to the wooden ramp wasn't doable for my scooter, I saw the biggest springs.

We started the drive to our next scenic spot and got to see many more lava fields. Suddenly my guide hit the brakes because there were several cars parked half on the roadway (there are no shoulders here). At first he was mad, but then we saw what the fuss was about. Sheep roundup!!! First, you have to understand that there are sheep EVERYWHERE in Iceland--pretty much three for every man, woman, and child in the country. At this time of year, ranchers use Icelandic horses (which are small and look like miniature horses) to round up the sheep in this area to prepare them for slaughter. Hey, the yummy lamb dinners have to come from somewhere. Well, catching this roundup in the act is a rarity, according to my guide, but we saw it! It was so cool to see the horses guiding the very long line of sheep along the coast.

Next, we stopped at the southwestern-most point of the peninsula--and the whole country. We couldn't get out of the van because the ground was just way too uneven for my scooter to negotiate. However, I was still able to get some great photos of the large rock outcroppings and the cliffs in the distance with the North Atlantic crashing into them.

Our next stop was another hot springs area. However, this one was different because it was home to one of the most active geysers in all of Iceland. I mean, this thing was GOING literally full steam. My guide said it didn't used to be this active, as evidenced by a wooden walkway going up to the vent that had been completely destroyed. The steam erupting from this thing could be seen from quite a distance, and who knows how long it'll keep going? It could slow down or get even bigger; such is the nature of geothermal activity and Mother Nature.

After this, we were off to our final stop of the day--the famed Blue Lagoon! I had seen plenty of pictures of this place and knew a few people who had been here, so I kind of knew what to expect. However, it was still pretty surreal. My memory of my guide's explanation of the lagoon is a bit fuzzy, but from what I can recall it was created by water that had to be diverted from an overflow somewhere. When it started to pool, people realized it wasn't toxic and started bathing in it. Then they started noticing the silica-infused water had some healing properties--most notably for psoriasis and other skin conditions. People felt so great after bathing in the lagoon that an inpatient clinic was established to take advantage of the lagoon.

The whole place is set up like a luxury resort. There's a hotel, gourmet restaurant, spa, and gift shop. People are wandering around and lounging on the patio in plush white bathrobes (even though it's 53˚ outside), and getting pretty tipsy at the swim-up bar in the lagoon. I didn't get in the water, even though there's a special accessible changing room and pool lift, because hot water makes my MS symptoms flare up. However, there was a little ramp going down into the swim-up bar next to the water where I was able to put my hands in to get a feel. The water was very warm and slippery, like treated soft water. My guide said if you got your hair wet, you'd have not just one, but like three bad hair days because of all the minerals in the water. Many people were also slathered in mud concocted from the water (which is sold in the gift shop), and is supposed to be amazing for your skin. I was happy to observe all this silliness from the glass walls of the amazing restaurant where we had lunch.

After getting a souvenir magnet for my collection, we headed back to my hotel. My official day tours were complete! Another evening of taking it easy, then prepping for my helicopter tour the next day...

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Reykjavik Adventure, Day Three: Enjoying the Great Indoors

After a busy day on the road outside the city, it was nice to have a full free day to explore Reykjavik. I knew the day would be sprinkled with, well...sprinkles, so I planned to find places I could explore indoors and just take cab rides in between.

I started out at the National Museum of Iceland. It was very modern and very wheelchair accessible, and I decided to take advantage of the guided-tour-by-headset. The bottom floor holds the photography gallery, where they had an exhibit of the history of postcards in Iceland. This was a fascinating way to see the history of the country through a different way of displaying images. In a smaller separate section, they had an exhibit by a photographer who visited each of the country's last remaining manned weather stations and took photos of the sea from each station. The two floors above displayed artifacts and videos of Iceland's history from it's discovery in the 9th century until the present day. Afterwards I had a nice lunch in the cafe, and an older American gentleman struck up a conversation with me. It turned out that he and his wife live in Longwood, FL--only a 15-minute drive from my home! How crazy is that?!

After the museum, I took a cab to the Harpa concert hall for their tour. That building is one of the most incredible displays of architecture I've ever seen. Unfortunately, the great economic collapse of 2008 hit smack in the middle of the building's construction, so the budget got slashed and some design elements had to be changed. We got to see all the halls except for the large main hall because there was an event going on there, but the elements of lighting and acoustics were the same in the smaller halls we were able to see. We also got to go up to the top floor and see the VIP lounge--and the accompanying views of the Reykjavik harbor.

After the Harpa tour, I had to book it on my scooter to the next place because (a) I was running late, and (b) it was starting to drizzle. Within a few minutes I arrived at the Bryggjan Brewhouse, a local brewery where they hold short beer tours/lessons three days a week. Over the phone they told me it would take an hour, but since I was the only one, the whole thing took about...ten minutes. But the guy was nice and I got free beer samples, so it was okay! I stayed to have dinner, and I had probably the best salmon dish of my life. While I was waiting outside for my taxi, my tour guide from the day before walked in with his friend! I guess it qualifies as a small town when your country capital's population is only 150,000.

I was tired after a busy day, and had just planned to go back to my room to take a hot shower and read before bed. I knew my hotel bathroom wasn't accessible in the classic US sense, but that reality hit when I had to call up the night manager to help me figure out the hot water. There are no grab bars or handrails anywhere, and the "roll in shower" is just a tiny corner of the bathroom with a plastic chair thrown in there. The manager pointed out that this was, in fact, not an accessible room OR bathroom as advertised. They couldn't move me to the other such room because it was identical. I reported all this to the tour company that booked me so they wouldn't refer future clients there. The hotel was very apologetic, and they're working to figure out a solution (i.e. figuring out how much to refund me because they can't move me to another room or hotel). We'll see what happens, but in the meantime I'm getting by with sponge/washcloth baths and a positive attitude!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Reykjavik Adventure, Day Two - Cold. Wet. Windy. EPIC.

Before I got here, my tour company sent me a list of things I should pack. On the list was waterproof pants. Seriously? I imagined they would look something like those baggy vinyl pants from the 80s that would make you sweat and lose water weight. Fortunately clothing tech has come a long way, and I found a somewhat fashionably slim Chinese off-label pair on Amazon for $30. And I am soooo glad I did, for they were designed for this day.

My tour guide, Christian, met me at the hotel at 9am for our Golden Circle tour. The day promised to be typical Iceland--cold, wet, and windy. Our first stop of the day was Pingvellir National Park. First of all, the P in Pingvellir isn't really a P; there are characters in the Icelandic alphabet that are really strange (derived from runes, I'm told), and that's the closest letter it looks like. It's also pronounced like TH, so in some places you'll find the name of the park written as "Thingvellir" instead. And for the record, the true pronunciation of Thor isn't Thor; it's Tho, with the "th" like in "thought" and the "o" is something halfway between and long and short vowel sound. Really weird. But my superhero fan friends should know.

Anyway, when we got to Pingvellir, the steady drizzle magically paused for the hour or so that we were there (although the 25 mph winds were not so kind). The solid cloud ceiling also broke in a small spot so the sun that was trying SO hard to come out made a very brief appearance. The first vista point is really stunning; it overlooks a broad swath of land with a meandering river, mountains in the background...and the meeting of two tectonic plates behind me. Yeah; I'll get to that in a minute.

It's weird to describe the colors and landscape here. The mountains aren't as overwhelming or stunning as, say, Grand Teton (where I was two weeks ago) or the Rocky Mountains. This whole island country is one big outcropping of lava, and if you're in a flat spot, there's a good chance you're sitting on top of a dormant or extinct caldera. The entire landscape EVERYWHERE is black or charcoal gray with a thick layer of yellow-green moss on top. Trees are scarce in most places, unless they're planted on purpose; many firs are imported from Norway for Christmas reasons. So while the mountains aren't that high, the lack of significant vegetation and the strange colors still make them remarkable.

After this viewpoint, Christian asked me if he thought the scooter would be capable of making it through a narrow path of hard-packed black gravel. I checked it out and it looked good, so off we went in between these two walls of stacked basalt. He told me to observe how the basalt walls had distinct layers, and explained that each layer represented a volcanic eruption's lava flow. The path kept going down and the walls got higher. Only later did I realize that the wall on my left was the North American tectonic plate, and the wall on my right was the Eurasian plate. Unlike the San Andreas fault, which is a slip fault (meaning the plates move sideways, or slip against each other), the plates here are spreading apart at the rate of roughly 2 cm per year--slow enough to keep the gravel path intact, it seems.

I'm glad the park was doable for my scooter because the views were just amazing. There is running water everywhere, and pretty waterfalls are a common occurrence. Just like Yellowstone, this whole country is a geothermal hotspot, so there are steam vents and fumaroles and hot springs everywhere. In fact, Iceland is completely energy independent; it meets all its own energy needs through geothermal and hydroelectric power. The average utility bill for a small three-bedroom home is about US$50 a month--and we're talking about a place where heating is a necessity for a good chunk of the year.

Speaking of geothermal, that was our next stop--Geysir, home of the Strokkur geyser. If you read one of my previous posts from when I saw Old Faithful, I was pretty skeptical of the name after I learned how not particularly regular that geyser actually is. Well, Strokkur does not disappoint. While its eruptions only last a few seconds, they happen every 4-8 minutes, so you don't have to sit around waiting for a couple of hours to see the next one. Something that is a little disturbing is that you can get so close to this geyser that you can literally almost touch the scalding hot boiling water as it erupts from the bowels of the earth. Clearly the Icelanders have no such liability concerns as the Americans.

At this point the rain was coming down in more than a drizzle, and I was having a hard time keeping my phone (a.k.a. camera dry). Fortunately we only had one more stop--the famous Gulfoss waterfall. We had a bit of an unexpected challenge here. While there is a great ramp that leads to the scenic overview, there was this weird (and large) gap between the concrete sidewalk that hugs the visitor center and the ramp. There was no curb drop to the gravel either, so Christian and I had to go to the parking lot tarmac, put my scooter in neutral, and he had to push me through loose gravel onto the ramp. Not sure what the geniuses here were thinking, but whatever.  My battery was getting low on my scooter and I was getting pretty wet and cold, so we only stayed long enough to get a few photos and some video of the impressive two-tiered waterfall.

After returning to my hotel, I was most uninspired to leave again now that I was warm and dry. But I was also starving so, I headed out to the only accessible restaurant (outside of Dunkin Donuts) that I was able to find downtown. By some miracle, as soon as I was seated I head someone speaking Spanish. One of the waiters was a very gregarious older Spaniard from Asturias named Augustín, and he was a riot. After a little while, I overheard the couple next to me speaking English, and I found out the lady was originally from Raleigh, NC, where my best friend lives. After more conversation, I learned she's had MS for seven years. Of course, we bonded! This is the thing I love the most about traveling alone; you tend to meet people you might not ordinarily speak to, and you often hear some unforgettable stories.

Well, the weather is yucky again this morning, so I'm off to an indoor day of museums and building tours. More to come from Reykjavik!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Reykjavik Adventure - Day One: The Land of Fire, Ice, and Stepped Entries

I just wrapped up my first day in Iceland.

I can't believe I just typed that.

My direct flight on Icelandair from Orlando was nice. I splurged for a seat in Saga Class, which is the equivalent of a domestic first class seat but MUCH cheaper. I didn't get much sleep, but at least I was comfortable. Getting off the plane and through the ultra-modern Keflavik airport was a piece of cake. We didn't park at a jetbridge, so all the passengers had to get off the plane using those rolling stairways. The guy who helped me get off the plane in an elevator/shuttle explained that Reykjavik has been getting such a huge flood of tourists lately that the airport can't keep up. Currently, planes seriously outnumber gates by a large margin.

Anyway, after seriously breezing through immigration, I met my private driver in the arrivals area for the 45-minute drive to Reykjavik. Until we hit civilization, the landscape was very bleak. This is a volcanic island with geothermal springs everywhere, just like Yellowstone. The ground was charcoal-colored and very rocky, with low mountains in the distance. The terrain is totally covered in yellowish green lichens, and I didn't see a single tree until we started getting into the suburbs. You could see some steamy spots in the distance where there were fumaroles or small hot springs. The weather is exactly as I anticipated--chilly mid-50s with a fine mist and strong winds. Not ideal, but it's not disappointing when it's what you expect and plan for.

I got to my hotel VERY early because my flight landed at 6:30am. I catnapped on a lobby couch until my room was ready at 11:30am. My room is spartan, but adequate. Lodging (and pretty much everything else here) is very expensive, but at least it's clean and I can sleep. The bathroom is okay; as promised, I have a roll-in shower, but it's a rainfall shower head that isn't removable over a bath chair. Again, it's doable with some practice. There are, however, no grab bars. Obviously there's no ADA here in Iceland, but it would seem to make sense to put grab bars in a bathroom that is clearly meant for someone in a wheelchair. Whatever.

After taking a nap so I could actually function, I headed out to see the local shopping area and work my way towards Hallgrímskirkja, a huge Lutheran church that is the highest point in Reykjavik. My first goal, however, was to get some lunch. That turned out to be more problematic than I thought. While all of the major sights and museums here in Reykjavik are wheelchair accessible, local businesses and restaurants are decidedly not. Out of the dozens of storefronts I passed by on my way to the church, maybe ten were accessible for me in my scooter. More would be accessible if I were in a wheelchair with a travel companion because a lot of the steps were small and I could have been backed over them. But a lot of places also had stairs going down once you got through the doorway. To say I was disappointed to see this is an understatement, but there are some things you can't plan for, and you just have to deal with it once you get there. There are places where I can eat and enough stores where I can get some souvenirs, so I'll survive just fine.

I finally made my way through the wind and mist to Hallgrímskirkja. It's very beautiful, and designed to resemble the lava flows in Iceland. It took 41 years to build, and the inside is pretty simple and minimalist compared to other European churches of this size. There's also an elevator that takes you to an observation area on the 8th floor where you can see some awesome views of the city. But that wasn't even the best part. I knew that my good friend/ex-boyfriend's parents were going to be in Reykjavik because they left the US at the same time I did. Wouldn't you believe we ran into each other inside the church!! It was just too crazy, and a real pleasure to chat with them for a little while.

After that, I started working my way back to the hotel since my scooter battery was wearing out. I stopped at a local bookstore/cafe for some hot chocolate and a cookie (and free wifi). It was happy hour when I got back to my hotel, so I'm enjoying a nice glass of wine while I type this blog entry. I had a pretty late lunch, so I'm going to settle into my pajamas and bed for a streaming movie on Amazon Prime (my TV only has five channels and one (news) is in English). After (hopefully) a good night's sleep, I have a full day tour tomorrow of the Golden Circle. Great pictures are sure to come!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

ID/WY/MT Adventure Day Six - Glacier National Park and Montana Memories

I woke up pretty excited on the last day of my solo road trip since Glacier National Park is the very reason I came here in the first place.  I had seen many photos online, so I had a little bit of an expectation of what I would see. The day promised to be beautiful; a few clouds with a very small chance of sprinkles in the afternoon, and more clear skies. I was scheduled for a 7-hour tour with Red Bus Tours at 1:30 PM in an accessible van. I decided to head to the visitor center a bit early to look around before my tour.

When I arrived at the visitor center, my bus driver was already there. Red Bus Tours added two accessible vans to their fleet a couple of years ago, and I expected to have at least 10 other people on the bus with me. But this was going to be a private tour! The lady from the company said that even if there's only one person booked for a tour, they still go. I couldn't wait!  Except I had to wait for a few minutes. I checked the weather, and while it was going to be cool at upper altitudes, I expected to be inside a climate controlled bus. Well, the accessible van had huge windows made of clear tarps that were all rolled up. I ended up having to go inside the visitor center and buy a long sleeved shirt and thick sweatshirt in the gift shop since all of my layers and jackets were back in the hotel room. Oh, well! New souvenirs.

Soon we were on our way. Glacier National Park is relatively big, but there's one main road that traverses the center of the park called Going to the Sun Road.  Some parts of this road start closing as early as the middle of September due to snowfall, which is why I scheduled my trip for the end of August. But one of the biggest surprises of this park was our first stop, which was a 1 mile loop through, wait for it… A rain forest. Rod, my tour guide, was very very knowledgeable about the different plants and animals throughout the park, so I got an amazing education on Cedars, Hemlock, in Cottonwood, which are the three main trees growing in the park. In this area, there was so much canopy and plenty of running water. It was very damp, and there were mosses and mushrooms everywhere. It was the last thing I expected in a national park with the word glacier in its title.

After spending a considerable amount of time in this area, we got back on the road, which got loopy very quickly. We started going up in altitude and the wind started getting chilly. But the views… I can't say enough about how awe-inspiring the views are. I became familiar with the effects of glaciers on land as they move through terrain and scoop out valleys while I was in Alaska.  Most of the road has a sheer drop on the right side, so it's easy to see the U-shaped valleys and the impact of glacier movement in the park. However, the glaciers in this park are relatively small, even though there are 25 of them. We were able to get a glimpse of one in the distance.

Halfway through the tour, we stopped at a little restaurant where I was able to have lunch. Much to my delight, when I came out of the restaurant to reboard the van, the clouds had disappeared and the sun was out! This made for much better pictures on the return trip. Wanting to enjoy the ride, I had to ask Rod to lower the window tarps so I could experience some warmth.  Although if I wanted to take any pictures after this point, I knew I was going to have some plastic in between the view and my camera phone, it was well worth it for some comfort!

After I got back to my hotel room, I went straight to bed since I had to wake up at 4 AM for a very early flight home. I can't tell you how huge my sense of accomplishment was. This was a physically difficult trip; much more so than my canyonlands trip last November.  I was extremely fortunate that I had someone to help me put my scooter in my car all but two times this entire trip; however, those two times were very anxiety inducing and difficult.  I'm sorry to say that this will be my last solo road trip, but I've pretty much knocked off all the bucket list road trip items. There are still some places in the United States I want to see, but I should be able to do them with either an accessible tour company or just by being based out of one city.

People have asked me repeatedly since I got back what my favorite part of this trip was, and I would have to say driving through western Montana. I have seen so many beautiful landscapes, and Western Montana is definitely at the top of my list of favorites. Geyser Hill in Yellowstone and the peaks of Grand Teton were also really impressive,  But there's just something about rolling through mountainous landscapes filled with wheat fields during the whole day that really reminds me why I enjoy these road trip so much.

And I only have a short time to recover! On September 13, I had to Reykjavík, the largest city in Iceland. So more to come!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

ID/WY/MT Adventure Day Five - Oh, Deer...and Majestic Views

I thought today was going to be relatively boring. Until I almost crashed into a deer. But let's back up a bit first.

I left West Yellowstone under a thick layer of smoke; the fires in and around the park are only getting worse, so I'm glad I left when I did. However, no one was going the full 70mph speed limit; I could only get up to 40mph safely because of the dramatically reduced visibility. It actually felt like I was driving in a really bad Florida thunderstorm. Add to that the constant warnings of wildlife crossing the road and you find yourself on high road alert for long stretches, and that gets tiring.

After about an hour or so, the smoky haze finally lifted and revealed clear blue skies. I thought this 7-8 hour drive north to Whitefish might be uneventful and maybe boring, but I was wrong on both counts. The scenery in western Montana is some of the most beautiful I've ever seen in the United States. I entered a lush green mountain valley with a lake and river at the bottom.

And deer crossing warnings. Not long after seeing the sign, I had to come to a screeching halt because an 8-point buck decided something looked better on the other side of the road. Fortunately, the driver behind me was paying attention and I didn't get rear ended. I had a mild heart attack; the deer didn't even flinch. After I recovered, I kept driving down this stunning riverside road and was treated to some amazing views. Then came the bighorn sheep crossing warning. And the falling rocks warning. What sealed the deal for me was the sign pointing to a geologic sit called "Night of Terror"; I was convinced Montana was trying to kill me, lol.

Anyway, I made it through this gauntlet and spent the next few hours driving through golden valleys, along sapphire rivers, and next to rocky foothills. It became pretty obvious to me rather quickly that three things are huge in Montana: hunting, fishing (particularly fly fishing), and lumber. Weyerhauser has a huge facility not far from my hotel, and I must have past several dozen trucks carrying hundreds of logs each. If you've ever seen the amazing movie A River Runs Through It (one of my all-time favorites), it was filmed in the parts of Montana I drove through today. I can see why this is such a huge draw for outdoorsy people looking for peace and tranquility.

The road became more windy about an hour south of Whitefish, and cruise control was no longer an option. I was tunneled in by very tall pines on both sides, and I sped past a sign that said "scenic view." I wasn't planning on stopping until I got a millisecond glimpse of what I was going to pass up. I had to turn around and stop. Then I got first on-the-ground glimpse of the Canadian Rockies.

I finally made it to my hotel under cloudy skies (the first of this trip) and utterly exhausted. I settled in with yet another fast-food dinner, a hot shower, some TV, and an early bedtime to prepare for Glacier National Park the next day.