The mood amongst my fellow travelers was a bit more subdued this particular morning. Traveling is fun, but it can eventually wear a person down. The rigors of departure from familiar routines and places, being active every day/more than normal, and constantly keeping warm were taking their toll. Long faces and slightly temperamental demeanors made it clear that travel fatigue was settling in, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about looking forward to heading home, too. Not that I wasn’t enjoying myself, my fellow travelers or everything Iceland offered, but home means returning to the accustomed and comfort, and you miss friends, family and your own bed.
In the weeks before my trip, I made a concerted effort of ensuring everyone in my office knew I’d be overseas with limited resources in case anything came up. With just a tablet and cell phone (both only useful for email within range of wifi signals…which Iceland has plenty of), there wasn’t much I could do should a situation arise or project pop up. That and the company I work for has a crowd of particularly demanding, Type A personalities running it who notoriously check their emails and work through their own holidays and vacations, and I had been pulled into that same trap a few times working there. This time, I was determined to not do anything work related, and beyond checking my work email a few times just to make sure I didn’t miss anything critical, all was mercifully quiet on the western front.
In short, I may have been missing home, but I wasn’t missing work.
Lava Trails to You…(1)
Most of us spent the rest of the morning packing and getting ready for tomorrow since we were leaving the hotel early and not coming back. We eventually all met back in the hotel lobby and eagerly waiting for the tour bus which arrived 30 minutes late. While waiting, the hotel was particularly busy today with Yoko Ono and her crew checking out and new groups checking in, so the lobby was teaming with people. The bus finally arrived and it was an hour’s ride out of the city for our horseback ride through a lava field.
We arrived at the Íshestar ranch, along with about a dozen others in addition to our crowd, making for a very full lobby and long wait as people checked in bags and purses (not recommended to bring along the ride for obvious reasons, though a few dared to bring their cameras anyway…myself among them). Then they had us watch a 10 minute video on horseback riding.
There are many times in life where I questioned or doubted myself or my judgment – whether majoring in Liberal Arts was a good idea in college, dating one or two ex-girlfriends, and why I rode my motorcycle through a tornado cell.(2) Having ridden on horses a handful of times, I can safely say that 1) I didn’t miss my calling as a rodeo contestant (or clown), and 2) horses still intimidate me. The running joke regarding Icelandic horses is the rest of the world calls them “ponies,” but your average, patriotic Icelander will argue with the ferocity of a drunken football fan defending his losing team that the local breed are, in fact, horses. While this particular breed didn’t seem all that bad, even with the number of hours I’ve spent on a horse counted on one hand, I can tell you that the lack of time for that video covering the basic rules of riding was…worrying, even if these were just worn in trail horses compared to wild stallions.
After a brief Q&A that didn’t necessarily ease the more anxious among us,(3) and gearing up with a few last words of advice (“Here’s your helmet – remember, falling off the horse is bad!”), we were given a vital choice – do we wear whatever footwear we had on or change into ranch-supplied riding boots? While my own farm and ranch experience is EXTREMELY limited, one thing I do know is where there are lots of animals, there will be lots of what they leave behind. And I’ve seen just enough horses taking care of business, so it was no stretch of my imagination envisioning a field covered more in manure than soil, so I and just about everyone else opted for the riding boots.(4) Out by the staging pen, they walked us over in small groups and matched us with the right horse like a barnyard version of speed dating (“Hey, I’m a Libra! What’s your favorite food, oats or hay? ME TOO!”), and then gave us a few pointers on mounting our mount. I can only assume, since we didn’t tip the wranglers afterward, that their true gratuity was in watching a bunch of inexperienced tourists make the most graceless and borderline incompetent attempts at swinging our legs over a horse. There was also a bit of anxious waiting while everyone was safely (if not elegantly) put atop their rides, as some horses cozied up to their friends, got mildly ornery or looked bored as Hell. The one rule-of-thumb I remember from a previous horse riding experience was make sure you show the animal who’s boss, which is sometimes in conflict with my own particular brand of laidback demeanor. But I’m proud to say that I showed this middle-aged, diminutive horse that I was a force to be reckoned with, especially when he did what I told him to.
The ride was a peaceful two hours, going out in a large lava field. It was mid-afternoon, but the daylight here was quickly dwindling this far north compared to those of us from more southern tracks of life, so it felt more like late afternoon. We rode past moss-covered lava rock, passed by and under small outcrops of trees, and awed at jagged mountains on the horizon. While I was having marginal success keeping my own ride in line, the woman in front of me had far less dominance over her horse, which was very eager about stopping and eating at every opportunity. The net result was the frequent re-arrangement of our riding order as other horses followed suit. Paul was riding fairly close behind me, and while he was making his best effort at taking pictures from horseback, we occasionally heard sudden bouts of alarm from him as his horse made sudden stops. Toward the end of the excursion, as we were riding downhill, his horse made another stop, causing Paul to exclaim with both genuine and worrying alarm “NOT WHILE WE’RE GOING DOWNHILL! NOT WHILE WE’RE GOING DOWNHILL!” Fortunately, he didn’t fall off of his horse, but we did wonder what was in store for him at the time.
(1) My apologies to Dale Evans and Roy Rogers.
(2) I regret nothing regarding two out of three of these.
(3) In other words, me.
(4) Given my particular distaste for wearing footwear worn by other people, you’ll rarely see me in a bowling alley or skating rink. However, facing the prospect of traveling home with hiking boots covered in Eau de Merde de Cheval along with everything else in my suitcase, I bit the bullet on this one.
Three-Course Meal, Street Style
By the time we made it back into town, it was early evening, and grumbling stomachs were trumping other considerations (i.e., tired, dirty and probably smelling more of horse and barn than I’ll ever admit), so several of us opted for being dropped off downtown in search of our last supper in Reykjavik. As several of us hadn’t had a crack at the famous local food trucks and huts, our first course was at Reykjavik’s famous flagship Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. Since 1937, this hot dog stand is rumored to have served the majority of Icelanders, and is famous for Bill Clinton visiting it back in the day. Most of us ordered a dog (loaded with “the works,” of course) and moaned at the sheer amount of happiness in our mouths. Literally around the corner from there is the Lobster-Hut, a food truck serving all things lobster, especially their amazing lobster rolls, packed with mind-numbing, foodie orgasmic goodness. Still hungry and now chilled, we walked back toward the hotel and through downtown, eventually stopping at K-Bar, which one of the horse ride guides recommended to Paul. It was billed as “good Korean food” but only just barely Korean, and the specials for the evening were for the happy hour (which we arrived just in time for) – fried chicken and some kind of lager, or calamari and a pint of Hoegaarden – served in the most enormous and heaviest pint glass I’ve ever laid eyes on. Now comfortably fed and satisfied, we trudged back to the Hilton Nordica (with brief pit stops for some last minute items) and into badly-needed showers and bed, because tomorrow would be a very long day.