Travel and Adventure


At 6:15 pm on July 17th, the sky looked weird and the air turned deathly still.

We had planned to go to an outdoor concert in Amery, Wisconsin that fateful Friday night. We had packed four folding chairs and packed them in the trunk along with rain jackets, just in case. Fortunately, we’d left the car in the garage with the door shut.

“Can’t tell whether it’s going to rain or not, said Gunter, my husband. “If it does, we can go to the fish fry instead.”

The four of us—Gunter and I along with his younger siblings, Helmut and Helga—remained on the patio, staring at the sky. It was turning greenish-black.

“I don’t like this,” I said. “Let’s get inside.”

We entered the sunroom with picture windows facing the gardens and White Ash Lake. Then it hit. Suddenly the sky roared like an oncoming freight train—and then whooshed through the treetops like a jet engine. We stood there, transfixed. Our feet were riveted to the floor. We were seeing, firsthand, the sheer, raw power of nature. One huge pine twisted, uprooted, and crashed to the ground in a slow, deliberate motion. Then another. And another. Altogether, our six trees at the shoreline fell on top of each other like dominoes. Their trunks and branches carpeted the entire lawn between our house and dock. Beyond, we could see White Ash Lake kicking up angry waves. My heart pounded but common sense prevailed.

“Move away from the windows; they could break!” I yelled.

Terrified, yet fascinated, the others just stood there.

White Ash Lake Tornado 2019

The pines along the lakeshore fell across the yard like dominoes.

“Move!” I insisted. “This is a tornado. I’ve been in one before. Follow me down to the bunk room. That’s our safe space.”

They didn’t get it.

Then a dull, heavy THUD shook the house. The roof! The sky turned black and the power went out.

We all raced down to the bunk room, a windowless Man Cave we had fashioned out of the utility room for our grandsons. Gunter grabbed flashlights but our trusty generator kicked in after 10 long seconds. We had lights! Five minutes later, the generator stuttered and stopped. My stomach clenched and my tongue felt like sandpaper. To drown out the godawful noise, I chattered about the tornado I’d experienced in as a child in 1952. My Bavarian husband and his siblings had never experienced one in Germany; they had no first-hand knowledge.

When the racket subsided, we ventured upstairs. It was only 6:45 although it had seemed like an eternity. The sky was no longer black; the storm had moved on. Our first impulse was to go outside. We were shocked to discover there was no way out. Fallen trees and branches filled every window and door. Out of the lakeside windows, I could see nothing but trees across our entire lower patio and yard. We couldn’t see the dock, but I thought we saw a glimmer of white beyond the tangle of trees. “That must be our pontoon,” Gunter said softly, still in shock.

Helga called our attention to water dripping onto the kitchen counter and splashing onto the floor. “Looks like the roof is leaking,” she said. We sprang into action, positioning every wastebasket and bucket we could find. Later, we found water dripping from our rec room ceiling. We covered the sofa below with towels.

Because we couldn’t exit through any of our doors, Gunter manually opened the garage. We all filed out behind him, astonished at the destruction. Our driveway was blocked by fallen trees; but no matter, so many trees had fallen from the woods onto South White Ash Lane that we could barely make out the road!

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My daughter Kim and son-in-law Mike insisted on driving to Northern Bliss as soon as they could. They had experienced straight-line winds but even those downed six trees on their property—thankfully, none near their house. The downpour had created a river of rushing water down their driveway. We begged them not to try; they wouldn’t be able to get through. But they were determined. Their usual 20-minute trip took 2.5 hours, chainsawing their way through. The worst devastation they encountered along the way was my four-acre wooded property, with hundreds of trees down, some of them across the road. There they joined five other blocked cars who were also chainsawing their way through. Their last challenge was to move parts of trees blocking our dead-end road. Mike and Kim wanted to bring us back to their home, but we said no. We were the bucket brigade, protecting our property from further damage from the rain. We four spent the night the old-fashioned way: by candlelight. We collected rainwater from the buckets to flush the toilets.

White Ash Lake Tornado

Holly removes branches from my hydrangea and hosta garden.

Early Saturday morning, Mike called on all our relatives living in Minneapolis to come on down to help. Six arrived, each with his or her own chainsaw. Mike’s brother-in-law helped him tarp the roof, which was broken right at the peak with a massive oak branch inside the hole! A huge tree had uprooted and tipped the propane tank partly on its side. The jolt had cut the buried line from the generator to the propane tank; Mike went to Menards to purchase copper tubing. Then he built a new line. The others focused on cutting the trees that had fallen from the woods across the street onto our driveways. Downed power lines crossed the driveway exit, but they could clear the entrance. My granddaughter Holly especially impressed me. She owns a “Queen” battery-powered chainsaw and cut and removed branches from my hydrangea and hosta gardens. Seeing six relatives—without helmets, chaps and boots—wield those chainsaws impressed Helga. In Germany, such work would require licensing, training, and special clothes. Chainsaws would not be a common item in their garages.

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By Saturday afternoon, we had generator power again. Those in the White Ash Lake area without generators waited 1-2 weeks for the electric company to repair all the lines. They had 6000-7000 customers without power in Polk County and brought in 100 linemen from Minnesota. The following week, The Wisconsin National Guard arrived to help open the roads to remote homes on the other side of White Ash Lake.

In addition to structural damage to the house roof, minor damage to the cabin, a destroyed dock and boat lift canopy, arbors, and numerous smaller items, Northern Bliss lost 22 mature oaks and pine; it will never be the same in my lifetime. A similar story can be told among all the property owners around North and South White Ash Lake. Not one of 80+ properties was spared. I expect to hear the buzz of chainsaws, the grinding of stumps, the roar of heavy machinery, and the pounding of hammers until frost—as the recovery continues. How ironic! My latest blog was about migrating north to the sounds of silence here in the land of lakes and woods. The silver lining is that all are safe, and no lives were lost, thank God. We will rebuild.

Next: The Recovery Begins

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website https://loisjoyhofmann.com.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference. –Robert Frost

Lois at the Salton Sea Visitor Center

The Salton Sea. After a spring visit to Joshua Tree National Park, Gunter and I avoided the Anza-Borrego “super-bloom” crowds on the way back to San Diego and decided to take the road less traveled, turning toward Indio and the Salton Sea. We took CA Highway 111 to the North Shore Visitor’s Center. The Salton Sea, 34 miles long and encompassing 343 square miles, is the largest lake in California. It is an accidental lake, born from an engineering mistake made 111 years ago. A network of irrigation canals was built across the southern part of the Salton basin. They proved too small to handle flood waters and were poorly built. Inevitably, disaster struck when heavy rainfall combined with snowmelt poured into the canals from the Colorado River. The deluge broke through the canal’s headworks, breached the levees, and flood water flowed into the massive basin. The event created two new rivers, the New and the Alamo. Left to its own devices, the lake would have dried up due to evaporation rates of 180 cm per annum with precipitation of only 5 cm per year. But in 1928 Congress decided to use the manmade lake as a repository of runoff agricultural wastewater from the Imperial Valley, a process that continues until this day despite ongoing protests.

At the Visitor Center, we watched a short video about the ancient and modern history of the Salton Basin. Then we wandered around the area. One sign pointed out that there are 400 different species of birds that visit this sea; some of them stay year-round. Over 400 million Tilapia live in the sea as well. Cahuilla Indians once occupied these lands. Originally the Salton basin held a much larger body of water—ancient Lake Cahuilla, well above sea level. As the lake shrank, natives moved their villages down from the mountains and settled areas once covered by water. Fish camps followed the contours of that ancient lake. Fast forward to the1950s, when the Salton Sea became a tourist haven. Fishing, boating, hotels, and even a yacht club caused beachfront properties to skyrocket. Business boomed as visitors came from all over California.

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Bombay Beach. A friendly clerk at the Visitor Center said told us that Bombay Beach might be a good place to stop for a homestyle lunch. So, we drove further along 111, marveling at the desert flowers along the way. A small sign pointed to the settlement. We drove past a ramshackle bar/restaurant sporting a sign, Home Cooking. “This can’t be right,” I stammered as we ventured inside. I had imagined sitting on a patio under multi-colored umbrellas viewing the sea! The smell of rancid frying oil, beer, sweat and smoke assailed our senses. Gunter groped for my hand in the darkness. “Let’s get “outta here.”

Back outside and blinded by the sun, I looked back and quipped: “A collection of lost souls thrown into the dungeon.”

We pushed our Nissan onward through the sandy street, past run-down trailers, slab shacks with metal roofs, and rusty vehicles-without-tires collapsed into unkempt yards. As we turned the corner at a concrete dike that blocked the sea view, we encountered a block filled with child-size teepees. An “artist statement” says Ghost Town. Gunter laughed. “This place is a stitch!” We left hungry; that home cooking was nowhere to be seen.

Later we learned that Bombay Beach is a “census-designated place” in Imperial County, with a population of 295 per the 2010 census, down from 366 in 2000. Its elevation is -223 feet. A website called California Curiosities concludes: “I’ve seen the world after the apocalypse, and that world is Bombay Beach.”

Surprisingly, this disaster zone was a thriving resort town during the swinging 50s and 60s. An old sign, still standing, says, WORLD FAMOUS. LOWEST BAR IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE.

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Salvation Mountain. Hot, tired, and hungry, we drove further along Hwy 111 to Niland, where that same Visitor Center clerk said we couldn’t miss Salvation Mountain, right alongside the road at Niland. But we blinked, and suddenly Niland was in the rearview mirror. “Let’s go back,” I begged.

“No way!” Gunter was determined to head on to Brawley to find someplace for lunch. Then he recanted, “Well, if you drive.”

I spun around in the middle of the road (believe me, this is the road less traveled) and drove back. No mountain. I stopped at a gas station along 111. The clerk smirked as if he’d done this a thousand times. “Just continue two blocks and turn right onto Main Street. Go through town and take the road for about 2 miles. Don’t you worry when it turns into a dirt road. Can’t miss it!”

We bumped along through a deserted desert landscape until we began to see signs of life—lots of trailers and hippie-style shacks alongside the road. Then around a turn, there it was, a psychedelic creation bigger than life! The humongous artwork is made of adobe, straw, and half a million gallons of lead-free paint. Some areas are covered with murals, others with Bible verses and sayings. We parked alongside the road and rambled among all kinds of vans, trucks, and even a boat—all painted with Bible verses and art. Finally, we came to the mountain itself, painted with a red heart and GOD IS LOVE in the center and topped with a white cross. We saw groups of young people trudging to the top while others sang in groups at the bottom. What glorious diversity—people of all sizes, shapes, and colors were walking toward that mountain. Surely, the founder fulfilled his purpose!

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The Bible says that faith can move mountains. Did you know that faith can also create them? Leonard Knight wanted a mountain in his childhood dream to come true. He also wanted to move to California one day. Born in 1931 near Burlington, Vermont, he was something of a loner and said his schoolmates made fun of him for having a stutter. So, he dropped out of tenth grade and had to learn how to survive on his own. The New Englander spent most his years doing odd jobs in the Midwest. Then during a visit to his sister in San Diego in 1985 he arrived at this hardscrabble spot during a day trip. (Legend has it that he arrived in a hot air balloon.) After “landing,” he heard a message and began erecting a cross. Mixing water and hay, he applied a façade over a sandy ridge and then painted it with motifs and verses such as: Jesus is The Way. God Never Fails. God Forgives Sinners. He added flowers, suns, bluebirds, waterfalls, and a river that flows from the mountain to the Lake of Galilee in the foreground. He lived in a house on the back of the Salvation Truck, a vehicle decorated with the word REPENT writ large. For 28 years, he continued working on the project under the hot desert sun. He greeted visitors strumming his guitar and requested that all donations be in the form of lead-paint, preferably acrylic.

All paint is donated by visitors

The Salvation Truck King

“What started as a small monument of dirt and painted cement became, over time, a sprawling adobe and hay bale mountain complex, with peripheral structures made of telephone poles, tires, and car windows, as well as art cars and sculptures, all painted in a patchwork of stripes and color blocks of whatever paint was donated that week.”
—Aaron Huey, National Geographic

Salvation Mountain has grown to 50 feet high and 250 feet wide. It is truly unique and has touched and inspired visitors from all over the world. In 2011, Knight was moved into a care facility. He passed in 2014. A public charity, Salvation Mountain, Inc., was established in 2012 to support the project. coachellavalley.com

 

Leonard Knight, builder of Salvation Mountain

For more information on Salvation Mountain, go to their website at http://www.salvationmountain.us

Or watch an Amazing Places video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JAjIjXbe3Y or Roadside America https://www.roadsideamerica.com/video/61915

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website https://loisjoyhofmann.com.

 

“Gratitude doesn’t change the scenery. It merely washes clean the glass you look through so you can clearly see the colors.”  –Richard E. Goodrich

Lois Joy Hofmann, Author

Lois updates her journal in Nurata, Uzbekistan.

A big thanks to YOU. I’m grateful for my readers. You made my day when I noticed that my blog had 917 followers. You’re one of those followers if you signed up to receive my blog online or in your inbox, and for that, I’m exceedingly grateful. Your continuing interest fills me with joy and encourages me to write more about the wonderful world in which we live.

I’d like more followers like you to share the joy. You can help me build my following to that magic 1000 number by forwarding my blogs to friends and family who might want to know more about the Great Outdoors or experience my adventures vicariously.  I would appreciate it if you would “like” my Facebook Author, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages as well.

I’m also grateful for the opportunity to travel by land and sea. I would not trade our eight years spent circumnavigating the world for any object money can buy. Travel has taught me to invest in money, not stuff. It has taught me to collect memories, and to press them—like flowers between pages of a book—within the folds of my heart. I’ve taken thousands of pictures, and when I look at them, I realize that I’ve collected the sights, sounds and smells of nature—and the laughter, joy, and sorrow of people around the world.

Gunter and I recently returned from a road trip to visit shut-ins. As usual, we combined our trip with sightseeing, some of it off the beaten path. Spring was ripe with fresh new growth. Along with fragrant blossoms, myriad possibilities were bursting forth. The scenes reminded me of a quote by Friedrich Gauss: “Life stands before me like an eternal spring with brilliant clothes…”

Finally, I’m grateful for my life and that I can still enjoy the Great Outdoors at will. Each of our lives is a precious gift, my dear followers. Maybe you travel and maybe you don’t. Maybe you can’t. Whatever you do, don’t let life pass you by. Cherish each day as if it would be your last.

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Related blogs:  spring and new beginning; new beginnings and second chances.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website https://loisjoyhofmann.com.

 

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m posting the first of my Ireland blog series. My husband Gunter and I toured Ireland in September 2018 as part of a mission to reconnect with European cruisers with whom we had sailed during our world circumnavigation. We had the good fortune of being hosted by Patrick Murphy, a native Irishman who loves his country, and his partner, Geraldine. Upon arriving, we checked into a hotel in Howth overlooking the Irish sea with a view of Ireland’s Eye, a small uninhabited island off the coast. We were close to Howth Harbour, where Pat still docks his yacht Aldaberan after sailing it around the world. During the week we spent in Ireland, Pat took us to yacht clubs, maritime museums, and shipbuilding exhibits, including the Titanic Exhibit in Belfast. These are covered in another blog called Cruising Camaraderie.

Howth Marina

Howth Marina

The Howth Castle. This was the first of many castles we saw in Ireland, including the imposing Dublin Castle. It’s a hidden gem, the private residence of the Galsford-St. Lawrence family and still occupied by the descendants. The view from the top of the peninsula of Howth Head, northeast of Dublin, provides a stunning view of the harbour and village below.

Howth Castle

Howth Castle

Sightseeing in Dublin. During our first full day in Ireland, we took a city bus directly to City Centre and then bought tickets for a city bus tour, the best way to get an overview of this vibrant city. This gave us a nice overview of the city, landmarks such as the National Museum of Ireland, the National Gallery, Dublin Castle, the Temple Bar district, Christ Church Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Guinness Storehouse, and Kilmainham Gaol and Hospital. After that preview, it was time to walk the city.

The Story of the General Post Office. The main avenue in Dublin is O’Connell Street, 500 feet wide, with monuments to Irish history in the middle. All the way, we couldn’t miss the Millennium Spire, a 395-foot high stainless-steel monument which replaced the 19th century Nelson’s Pillar blown up by anti-British rebels in 1966. O’Connell street’s most famous landmark is the General Post Office, which Pat described to us at length. “See these bullet holes,” he said. “These were made during the Easter rising of 1916, when a group of Irish nationalists proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic. They and 1600 followers staged a rebellion against the British government in Ireland here. They used this GPO as their headquarters.”

We talked with a “soldier” posing as a rebel outside the Post Office. Then we went inside to view commemorative plaques and statues about the Rising. We learned that the rebels, along with some 1600 followers, seized buildings in that area and clashed with British troops. Within a week, the British quelled the rebellion and left 2000 dead or injured. The leaders of the rebellion soon were executed. Initially, there was little support from the Irish people; however, public opinion later shifted, and the executed leaders were hailed as martyrs. In 1921, a treaty was signed that established the Irish Free State, which eventually became the modern-day Republic of Ireland.

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South of the Liffey. Dublin takes its name from the southwest of the city. Apparently in prehistoric times there was a dark pool (Dubh Linn) at the confluence of the River Liffey and what was once the River Poddle. During the 18th century, the Temple Bar became a center for merchants and craftsmen. The southeast was undeveloped until the founding of Trinity College in 1592. St. Stephens Green was enclosed in the 1660s but was private until 1877. Today the south is the hub of the fashionable scene, with designer stores and fine restaurants.

Liffey River

Liffey River

Trinity College. Visiting Trinity College, Ireland’s most famous educational institution, is a must. Since its foundation in the 16th century, it has produced many impressive alumni—including Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Beckett. Entering the cobbled square surrounded by green lawns, 18th and 19th century buildings, and a 100-foot bell tower might have been like walking into a bucolic time-warp—except for the hundreds of students, posters, and booths filling the space. A student orientation event was in process and the lines were so long that we couldn’t get into the library. Too bad. I would have liked to view the 200-foot long room, with two tiers of oak bookcases holding more than 200,000 books. The Old Library is home to one of Ireland’s greatest treasures: the 9th century, lavishly illustrated Book of Kells, containing the four gospels of the New Testament in Latin. We exited the campus at the front arch, in between statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith.

St. Stephen’s Green. This 22-acre park with two miles of walkways is a great way to take a bucolic break within the city limits. It still has the original Victorian layout. Bedding plants are changed out during the year. We strolled past sculptures and around a serene, man-made lake. Lunchtime concerts are performed throughout the summer.

Serene lake at St. Stephen's Green Ireland

Serene lake at St. Stephen’s Green

Back at City Centre, we enjoyed a magnificent lunch at Bewleys Grafton Street Café. But the food was only a small part of our fun there. We were seated in the main dining room on the ground floor. Although the café was jam-packed tightly with tables, we didn’t mind. The entire 1920s café was decorated with art nouveau and stained-glass windows designed by celebrated Irish artist Harry Clarke. After lunch, Geraldine and I walked to the second floor to find a charming art deco café, then went up another flight of stairs to discover a small theatre at the top. Do stop here—even if it’s just for a cup of tea.

After lunch, we watched the street entertainment for a while. This cyclist/knife juggler took our breath away. He deserved his tips!

On the way back, Patrick stopped to show us a tree carved with every species of sea-life imaginable.

Magnificent Carved Tree Ireland

Magnificent Carved Tree

Finally, enjoy “the craic.” Despite the sights, Dublin would be nothing without the warmth and conviviality of the Irish people. Craic (pronounced crack) is term for news, gossip, fun, or entertainment. It’s the perfect word for describing the bubbling, sparky mix of fun and banter that is Dublin.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

Sightseeing in Reykjavik. Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, is home to one-third of the country’s population of about 340,000. This city is Iceland’s business, cultural, and intellectual center with a world-class concert hall and numerous small-scale museums tracing Iceland’s history. The entire city runs on geothermal power. Summer is best, when whales swim in the bay, Icelanders picnic at the park fronting the Parliament Building, and children play in the street until midnight.

Holly and I had booked a top-floor room at Alda Hotel in City Centre that provided a roof-top view of the bay. All week, we squeezed in an hour here and there in between our road trips to see the city. Our first sightseeing walks during the week were to that bay—not surprising given my love of the sea and sailing. We loved to photograph the Sun Voyager sculpture in all kinds of light. Afterward, we learned more about the Viking explorers and our Scandinavian heritage in the museums and bookstores. We ambled through some of well-to-do residential areas in the city, admiring their brightly-colored, corrugated metal-clad houses with well-kept green lawns surrounded by quaint picket fences. We frequented cute cafes and bakeries, planning what we would cram into our SUV for the following day’s Ring Road excursions.

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Saturday was our final day in Iceland. We raced to photograph as much of the city as we could before flying back on Sunday. Visitors once thought of Reykjavik as little more than a stopover to Iceland’s dramatic landscape: volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava fields and massive glaciers. Now the city is a “happening” place. If you have the time, you can enjoy the cultural scene; Iceland has an internationally acclaimed symphony orchestra, two professional theatre companies, an opera company, a national ballet and national and municipal art galleries. There’s even an annual arts festival. Nightlife is vibrant, as we could attest to—not by staying up until 4 am, (we preferred touring) but by hearing the noise of the city when we slid open the glass doors of our balcony room. If you do want to participate in the night life, it’s comforting to know that Reykjavik is one of the safest capitals in the world.

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Icelandic Lore, Legends, and Sagas. When we entered Mal-og-Menning, what we thought was a small bookstore, we were amazed. We were in a different world—three floors of history, sagas (a delicate blend of history and fiction), poetry, geography, science (e.g., thermoelectric power), travel, and adventure. We wandered around in a daze, wondering what was worth taking home. Would we read Icelandic history, fiction, or fairy tales when we returned? Finally, Holly settled on a Viking history book and I bought a book of Nordic Noir short stories to read on the plane. Dark stories and crime fiction seem to fit the environment here—one of cruel winters and overwhelming, mysterious landscapes.

Most literature of the ancients was written for a small and privileged elite. Icelandic sagas, however, have always been the property of the common people. Because the Icelandic language has changed little since medieval times, stories remain accessible to Icelanders in their original language. Almost every Icelander is familiar with the character and plots of major works. Iceland claims to have published more books per capita than anywhere else in the world. Numerous prize-winning authors are among its tiny population; in fact, in 2011, UNESCO designated Reykjavik a City of Literature.

Between 2008 and 2014, Iceland’s adult literacy rate remained stable at around 99 %! Preserving the purity of the language and Iceland’s rich literary tradition is important to Icelandic identity. Think about it: Anonymous 13th-century saga authors living in a desolate northern island during a raging civil war were the first to write prose in their own language instead of Latin. The sagas include countless historical chronicles, romances, fables, legends, and the lives of holy men. But the best known are the family sagas, dating back to the settlement of the land. They were passed down orally until they were finally written; however, until recently, they were regarded as undisputed historical fact! The story lines encompass great epic sprawls, with dozens of characters and sub-plots, spanning many generations. Fate plays a strong role and tragedy is usually the result of simple bad luck.

Even though sagas are the result of fact and fiction, events can be pinned to actual places. We found markers at many locations throughout Iceland. Just follow your guidebook. Many road signs merely denote the name of the farm at which the event took place. In addition to our two guidebooks, Insight Guides, Iceland and Iceland’s Ring Road by Lonely Planet, I read the paperback Burial Rites before I left. Also recommended: The Day is Dark, The Silence of the Sea, I Remember You, a Ghost Story, and Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland.

Understanding Icelandic Language. Icelandic belongs to the Nordic family of languages; it most closely resembles Norwegian and Faroese. It has not changed much from the language of the early Norse settlers. As a visitor, the language is daunting. But no worries—most Icelanders, especially the young, speak English fluently, as well as Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish. German and French are also taught in school. To pronounce a word, put the stress on the first syllable; however, you’ll find that many Icelandic sounds do not exist in English. We found the following phrases useful just to be polite:

Hello/good morning: Góðan dag
Good evening: Gott kvöld
Good night: Gott nótt
My name is: ég heiti
Goodbye: bless
Yes: já
No: nei
Thanks: takk
Yes, please: já takk
Cheers!: Skál!

After four days of touring the Ring Road, we could put together a few place names by understanding how to interpret a long string of letters:

Snæfellsnes Peninsula: snae=snow; fell=mountain; nes=peninsula
Gulfoss: foss=waterfall; gul=gold
Sönghellir: hellir=cave; söng=song
Eyia Flatey: eyia=island; flatey=flat
Laugarvatn: laug=hot spring; vatn=lake
Vatnajökull: vatn=lake; jökull=glacier
Reykjavik: reykur=smoke; vik=small bay

Icelandic History. While sagas blend legends with history and geography, one museum you don’t want to miss is the War and Peace museum depicting Iceland’s strategic role in World War II. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but well worth it. You will need to take the tunnel detour when entering or leaving the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The photos represent only a small part of hundreds of artifacts you’ll discover there.

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Iceland now has one of the highest standards of living in the world. So, it’s impossible to imagine that, prior to World War II, many visitors thought Iceland to be barely out of the middle ages. The transformation occurred almost overnight. Quonset huts and military installations dotted the landscape and the Ring Road was built to provide transportation around the entire island. This frenzy of development created an economic infrastructure for the post-war period. Iceland was proclaimed an independent republic on June 17,1944.

Churches in Iceland. I’ve never been in a small country with such a variety of church architecture. In Reykjavik, we saved the best for last: Late Saturday afternoon, Holly and I strapped on our Canon EOS cameras and walked directly uphill from our hotel to the imposing Hallgrímskirkja church. With a 244-foot tower, this modern concrete structure was designed to resemble columns of Iceland’s basaltic lava. Hallgrímskirkja, towering over the capital city, is a photographer’s dream! In front of the church is an impressive statue of Lefur Eriksson, a gift from the US in 1930 commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the Alþingi, the oldest parliament in the world.

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And how many churches are there in Iceland? The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland owns more than 350 churches in the country. Hallgrímskirkja, of course, is the largest. Other Christian segregations own about 50 houses of worship. Most of the churches we saw in the countryside did not bother to provide a sign with the denomination. We suspected that all churches outside of the capital are Lutheran. Even though a fraction of Icelanders attend church regularly, they are still registered at birth. 97 percent of Icelanders say they believe in God. Social scientists, however, were astonished to discover in an opinion poll that the majority still claim to believe in the existence of elves and spirits. Apparently over 500 ghouls, trolls, and paranormal beings haunt Iceland! In a survey of the supernatural in Western Europe, Icelanders claimed the most ghost experiences, with 41 percent claiming contact with the dead, compared to the European average of 20 percent. This island—with its long periods of darkness during the winters and surreal lava formations—provides the perfect camouflage for spooks! Ghosts are not always benevolent; they could take the form of zombies. Elves, though, are held in high regard as the “hidden people.” Then there are the trolls, beings who turn to stone if they are caught outside in the daylight. The Icelandic landscape is dotted with such trolls, including the great troll-cow Hvitserkur, caught having a drink of water just off the northwest coast.

 Flora and Fauna in Iceland. A joke making the rounds in Iceland is: How do you get out of an Icelandic forest? Stand up. Nowadays, it is said, even a giraffe could stand up and not get out of the Hallormsstaðir forest in East Iceland. The trees in this forest are the Icelandic equivalent of US redwoods—eighteen-meter-high downy birch (Betula pubescens). They are almost 200 years old but look gnarly and withered. These were the type of trees that Icelandic farmers got rid of so they could grow crops and easily round up their sheep.

Holly and I—familiar with the giant oaks, maple, and walnut hardwoods of the Midwest—didn’t come to Iceland to see trees. But we were curious why so few were spared. We found out that the country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now, Iceland is slowly but surely gaining back its forests. The country hopes planting trees will improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, prevent windstorm erosion, and aid agriculture.

The flora we found most interesting were the wildflowers, lichen, and moss. At times, miles and miles of soothing green would extend all the way to the horizon—like puffs of green clouds sleeping on the ground. When we stopped to check out these moss heaths, we discovered that they have an exquisite texture that dissolves into a fine powder. There are 606 different species of moss in Iceland. One of the most abundant species is called the woolly fringe-moss, which dominates lava fields across the South and West. Iceland moss is a lichen—algae and fungus growing together in a mutually helpful relationship. Lichens draw their nutrients from the environment and are easily contaminated. They grow slowly—about 1 centimeter in length every year. They survive well in Iceland because this country is one of the least polluted in the world. It’s easy to understand why signs ask you to stick to the trails. Those areas could take years to re-grow! Take only photos but please don’t leave footprints.

The Arctic Fox is Iceland’s only indigenous land mammal — rarely photographed. We did photograph a few birds, as well as sheep and mountain goats, but the Icelandic horses took our breath away. They are cuddly and cute, like ponies, with long, wheat-colored manes. Because they have never been threatened by predators in their natural environment, they are approachable and friendly, not easily spooked. Their spirited but gentle temperament makes them perfect for riding. All along the Ring Road, you’ll find farms promoting rides to tourists.

These horses were developed from sturdy ponies transported by sea to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. Selective breeding has developed them into their current form. They sport a thick winter coat that they shed at springtime; they are undaunted by high winds and snowstorms; and they easily wade through glacial rivers and cross tough terrains. In 982 A.D., the Icelandic parliament passed laws that prohibited importation of any other horse breeds into the country; consequently, Icelandic horses are one of the purest horse breeds in the world.

Tips for Visiting Iceland:

  • Think about what photography equipment you might need. To watch a video about what shots are simply too dangerous for amateurs, go here.
  • Book your flight and hotels early. I recommend Iceland Air, but beware of package deals which may put you up at a hotel near the airport, away from everything. I recommend staying near the center of Reykjavik most nights so you can walk to check out tourist spots and enjoy the nightlife. Then take your road trips from there. We stayed a single night at two different Ring Road hotels as well (see my previous blogs).
  • Pack for the forecasted weather. You can buy cold-weather clothes there. For ideas, see this IceWear
  • Above all, chill out and have fun. (If you don’t want to get too chilled, go in the summertime.)

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke and Lois Hofmann

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

Destination: the Fjallsárlón Lagoon
After a night’s rest back in Reykjavik, Holly and I were off on our next Ring Road tour of Iceland. This time, we would drive Iceland’s Southeast Coast. We needed to check into the remote Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon to be prepared for a morning iceberg boat tour at Fjallsárlón Lagoon.

Iceland lava field

The view was ever-changing, the lava field never-ending.

Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss Waterfalls. Along the way, we never tired of the view because the landscape was always changing. Of course, we had to visit more waterfalls! Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, reportedly the most visited in Iceland, with a 200-foot (60-meter) drop. Tourists climbed the steep hill to go to behind the falls. We contented ourselves with a view from the bottom. The river Seljalandsá originates underneath the glacier Eyjafjallajökull. The volcano beneath this ice cap was the one that erupted in 2010 and caused havoc at airports across Europe.

Our next waterfall stop was Skógafoss, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in Iceland. The river Skoga, fed by two glaciers, runs through a canyon, then descends from the edge of a moor in a 45-foot-wide (15-meter), 186-foot-high (62-meter) waterfall. According to legend, a settler called Þrasi hid his chest of gold behind the falls. For a long time, the chest was visible through the waterfall, giving it a golden sheen. The ring to that chest can be found in the Skógar folk museum. The following verse has been passed down through generations:

The chest in Þrasi’s secret lair
Under the Skógar waterfall
Rewards the one who ventures there
With endless riches, great and small.

Dyrhólaey nature reserve was our next stop. Formerly known by seamen as Cape Portland, this reserve occupies a small promontory located on the south coast of Iceland. From the glittering black sand beach, we could view the arch near the end of the promontory. We would have loved to hike for hours, but we had to move on. We passed by Vik, a charming village of about 300 souls nestled below the cliffs, but stopped at an IceWear outlet for deals on Icelandic wool outerwear.

Laufskálavarða is a lava ridge surrounded by hundreds of small cairns. Travelers believed that making a cairn would bring luck and fortune before starting their journey across Mýrdalssandur. A farm located here was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 894 BC.

Laufskálavarða

Lois waves from behind a cairn in Laufskálavarða.

Kirkjubæjarklaustur. After driving through miles and miles of lava fields covered with every type of moss and lichen one can imagine, Holly and I decided to make a detour to the road less traveled. We ended up in the quaint town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a tongue-twister that translates into church-farm-cloister. The town is even small by Icelandic standards: a petrol station, convenience store, and a few houses and farms scattered over a vast green oasis—brilliant after all those lava fields. We searched for a waterfall tumbling down through a man-made forest from high cliffs, thought to be the dwelling place of some of Iceland’s “hidden people.” We found Foss a Sidu but saw no little people—only this sign:

Sign along the walk to the falls

Sign along the walk to the falls.

We were surprised to discover hidden falls that reminded us similar ones from ancient glacial traprock in Wisconsin! Back in the nearly-deserted town, we explored the peaceful church and graveyard and delved into its colorful past. “Cloister” was first settled by Irish monks who fled the Vikings but left a curse on any pagans who would venture to live there. A Christian Norseman lived there happily for many years, but when a second Viking decided to move in, he surveyed his future farm and immediately dropped dead!

The site continued to have problems. A cloister set up by Benedictine nuns closed during the 16th century Reformation because two nuns were burned at stake for sleeping with the devil. A third was punished for maligning the Pope. And then, during the 1783 Laki eruptions, a wall of lava came close to wiping out the settlement. The local curate herded everyone into the old wooden church and delivered a fire-and-brimstone sermon while great chunks of ash crashed outside the windows. When the commotion stopped, the congregation stumbled out to find that they were miraculously saved. A marvelous new church commemorates this divine intervention. Laki, however, had devastated Iceland and is still considered to be one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history.

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Touching Icebergs: Vatnajökull Glacier and the Fjallsárlón Iceberg Boat Tour. Before long, we were into glacier country. We stopped to photograph the massive Vatnajökull icecap, the largest in the world (except for the polar cap). The average thickness of the ice is 1,300 feet, but it is 3,300 feet thick in some places. Excursions on the icecap were possible; we’d planned a tour by boat instead. The anticipation built as we check into Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. In the morning, we would be touching icebergs!

It was only a 20-minute drive from our hotel to the majestic Fjallsárlón iceberg lagoon at the south end of the glacier Vatnajökull. We couldn’t miss it; it was right off the Ring Road with a huge parking lot and facilities. We walked into the cabin-like office to present our tickets. A rack of foul-weather jackets in all sizes—with built-in life preservers—lined the entire wall. “You won’t be needing your sailing jacket,” the clerk said. “You’ll be plenty warm in one of these. Let’s check your size.” Soon we were suited up and ready to go. Our group filled two 8-person zodiacs. Seating was on the rim; each position had safety holds. During the safety briefing, our guide told us that our preservers would inflate immediately upon hitting water. Then he warned, “Do not fall in. If you do, you have about two minutes in this frigid water before hypothermia sets in. You could die.” Even though I’m quite used to a dinghy, I made sure I kept “one hand on the boat.” For a short time, that is. How can one take great photos with only one hand? We learned a lot about how and why glaciers “calve,” why icebergs are blue, and how the glacier expands into the lagoon during the summers and recedes during the winter. Our guide broke off a few pieces of icebergs and passed them around for us to feel and taste.

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We couldn’t get enough of the gorgeous lagoon. After we returned our jackets and donned our own, we walked around taking one photo after another. We were about to drive back when we encountered a tourist who insisted, “You must see the larger glacier lagoon. It’s only a little farther along the Ring Road.” So, we continued on.

Icebergs in Fjallsárlón Lagoon

Icebergs in Fjallsárlón Lagoon.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon did not disappoint. This lagoon is Iceland’s deepest and most spectacular glacial lake. The entire lake was full of icebergs, streaked blue and back, floating with the tide, occasionally crashing into each other and breaking apart. In less than a century, this vast frozen landscape has collapsed into a mess of shattered ice and liquid. A river soon formed, and found its way to the sea, pulling broken icebergs into the North Atlantic and sculpting unearthly shapes along its black-sand banks. Every year, this fledgling glacier lagoon is made larger as icebergs break off Vatnajökull glacier, float around in the lagoon, and eventually drift out to sea during the summer months.

What a photographer’s paradise! Holly and I were in heaven. No wonder this site was used in the opening scenes of Roger Moore’s A View to Kill (1985). Some of the icebergs were glassy teal; others, a deep, luminous blue. These shades of blue contrasted with the white background of the glacier and the black sand beach to make awesome compositions.

We had been blessed with optimum weather (for Iceland), but finally, during our return trip to Reykjavik, the rain began. We didn’t mind. We held sunshine in our hearts.

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke And Lois Hofmann

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

Gunter and I often talk about the special bond we shared with cruisers and crew during our circumnavigation. It’s a bond so strong that it can never be broken. When you’ve faced down raging seas, broken boats, and frightening situations together, you never forget. We wanted to recreate that “cruiser camaraderie” that we had felt so many times during our sail around the world. We especially wanted to reconnect with some of those special European sailors we hadn’t seen since our circumnavigation party held in Canet, France in September of 2008.

We decided to visit Ireland to spend time with Patrick Murphy whose wife and first mate, Olivia, lost a battle to cancer in 2015. They sailed Aldebaran with us through parts of the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and up the Red Sea to Turkey. And while visiting relatives in Germany, we reunited with Monica and Norbert Nadler, who crewed onboard Pacific Bliss during the final leg of our circumnavigation: from Italy to France. We added Grimaud, France to our itinerary to visit Jean-Claude and Claudie Hamez, who sailed their yacht Makoko with us throughout the South Pacific and much of the world.

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We reconnected with these cruisers we had last seen ten years ago as if it was yesterday! We picked up right where we left off, whether the subject was cruising then and now, pirate attacks, families and friends, or reliving past adventures (less traumatic but more embellished now).

Patrick Murphy met our flight from San Diego to Dublin and deposited us at our hotel in Howth, Ireland, a nearby suburb, a short distance from his home. Later in the day he and his friend Geraldine took us to Pat’s Yacht Club there. The pennant Aldebaran flew around the world is posted in the clubhouse and his yacht, now ten years older, is docked there. Pat has become quite the celebrity in his beloved Emerald Isle. He gives talks about his circumnavigation and the restoration of the Asgard throughout the land.

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During the week we spent in Ireland, Pat took us took to other yacht clubs, and gave us a great overview of the history of Ireland—especially when it came to yachts and shipbuilding. Pat was part of The Howth Group, a team of yachtsmen who helped install the mast and rigging during the restoration of the Asgard, one of the most iconic sailing vessels in Irish history, now in its own building as part of the National Museum of Ireland. During 1914 the 28-ton gaff-rigged ketch was one of three ships involved in the Howth gun-running expedition that landed 1,500 rifles and 49,000 rounds of ammunition on the Irish coast to arm Irish volunteers. Pat also took us to the new Titanic Exhibit in Belfast. If you go to Ireland, don’t miss this fantastic exhibition of the Titanic and the history of Irish shipbuilding.

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“When you’re getting ready to brave Pirate Alley, you want to do it with sailors whom you can trust with your lives.” This is a quote from the Prologue of my book, The Long Way Back. Patrick Murphy was chosen by our convoy of five yachts to lead us through Pirate Alley, the dangerous route from Salalah, Oman to Aden, Yemen. He will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Patrick Murphy

Patrick Murphy

During our visit to Germany, Monica and Norbert Nadler came to visit. Before long, we slipped into “cruiser talk.” Helga talked about her adventures sailing with us in Greece. After the Nadlers updated us about their recent chartering experiences, the conversation inevitably changed to their sailing onboard Pacific Bliss. We recounted the joy of passing by the erupting Stromboli volcano during the passage to Sardinia and the excitement of crossing our incoming track one mile from Canet, France—thus completing our world circumnavigation.

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In France, the cruiser camaraderie began as soon as Jean-Claude picked us up from the airport in Nice. As we drove to Grimaud, it seemed another memory surfaced every mile! Then when we arrived at Claudie’s champagne reception, we recounted our experiences all over again. Where do I begin? Jean-Claude and Claudie are the only cruising couple whose adventures with us continue throughout all three books. We first met them during our Maiden Voyage when we exited Costa Rica; I write about them in the story on page 182: “Finding New Friends.” They visited us in San Diego while their yacht Makoko awaited them in the Sea of Cortez. In between seasons of Sailing South Pacific, we visited them in Grimaud, France. In various ports around the world, all the way to Thailand, we met up with them again. And in The Long Way Back, they play a major role in Chapter 6, “Crisis in Thailand.” In Chapter 7, they buddy boat with us to the Similan Islands, where they see us off to cross the Indian Ocean. They would also complete their own circumnavigation a year later.

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The cruising camaraderie continued right through to the end of our stay, when our hosts threw a generous dinner party for Gunter and me. The guest list included sailors from Britain as well as France. I was surprised to learn that many of them had read my first two books. This night, they asked me to sign my third book, which Jean-Claude handed to them from the box full that I had shipped earlier. How wonderful!

Dinner Party

A fabulous dinner party.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale for the Holidays.

Sailing books by Lois Joy Hofmann

In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss Trilogy.

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