Category Attractions

Blanton Museum, Austin, LBJ Presidential Library, and Skyspace

All of these places are on the University of Texas Austin’s campus, so I paid for parking, stuffed a raspberry kolache in my maw, and made a day of it.

Blanton Museum

Jacob Asking for Laban, Frencesco Castiglione, ca 1660-1710

The informational placard next to this piece identified it as representing “the Genoese fondness for animals in artwork, a taste stimulated by Northern European genre painting and depictions of keenly observed animals.:” I have keenly observed a lot of horses, and, not being familiar with this Biblical tale, can only assume that Laban is Jacob’s horse dealer and Jacob is REAL mad about the deformed horse Laban sold to him.

Suicide of Lucretia, Luca Cambiaso, 1565

Medieval animals are so ridiculous, I love them.

Casting the Runes [Tirando las Runas], Leonora Carrington, 1951

On its lower floor, the Blanton Museum featured a large exhibit by Ellsworth Kelly (the artist who also created the Austin installation on campus). I’m not much of a fan of minimalism or geometric color blocks, so Kelly’s work does not speak to me and I was much happier when I went upstairs and found their other galleries, particularly when I found some surrealism which was and is and probably will forever be my artistic movement bae. I was particularly thrilled to see a piece by Leonora Carrington, one of my favorite Surrealists, who infused her work with alchemy and Celtic mythology and the subversion of the feminine role.

Looking at their website now, I’m bummed that I missed their exhibit on photography and the American road trip, because that one also would’ve been right up my alley. 

Austin

This is a permanent structure on the University of Texas Austin’s campus, with the design concept gifted to the university by Ellsworth Kelly in January 2015. It was subsequently constructed and opened to the public in February 2018. It’s constructed like a chapel, with stained glass on three sides. The building’s exterior is striking, it transcribes Kelly’s work from the wall into the world. Rendered in this way, Kelly’s blocks of color are luminous and luscious, candy-like in their appeal. From the inside as light blazes through the glass, color plays over the walls. It’s not an easy structure to linger inside–the heat was oppressive even in March, and there’s nowhere to stand that doesn’t feel like it’s in the way of someone else’s camera, but it’s a rare thing to be able to stand inside of a non-architect’s artistic vision.

LBJ Presidential Library

I only had a brief thirty minutes to visit the LBJ Presidential Library and I spent five of them convincing the person at the front desk that, yes, I did want to buy a ticket at this late hour. I’d never been to a presidential library before and didn’t know what to expect, because apparently I didn’t have the intellectual curiosity to investigate the idea beforehand, satisfied to laugh without context at jokes like “Trump’s presidential library is just going to be 50 copies of The Art of the Deal“.

No, Melissa, a presidential library is meant to preserve papers, speeches, and essentially be the ultimate informational center about a given president. So the LBJ Presidential Library had floors and floors of materials only available to researchers, and then several floors accessible to visitors dedicated to the Johnson presidency (1963-1969), including replicas of both Lyndon B. Johnson’s office and the first lady, Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson’s office.

There were also examples of the white house china, campaign ephemera, and gifts that were given to the Johnsons on behalf of other nations–two that I took note of were golden swords from the UAE and Morocco, respectively. The gifts are there in part due to the Foreign Gifts and Declarations Act of 1966, which limited the dollar value of gifts presidents could accept ($390 in 2018) from foreign nations. Anything over that value is filed in the National Archive, and later is transferred to the Presidential Library when the president retires. These swords have to have been among the very first items to be affected by this rule change. And in doing some rudimentary research, I’ve found a lot of sources talking about how Johnson received a Burberry coat as a gift from the UK prime minister, tried it on, and upon finding the sleeves too short, sent his aides out running into the streets with the coat to chase down the prime minister to ask him to exchange it for the right size. However, I cannot find a single source that pinpoints the date upon which that coat was gifted and if it was the camelhair coat that made Congress act. Luckily, I know of a place in Texas where I could research this. 

My final stop on campus was at The Color Inside, a skyspace by James Turrell at the Student Activities Center. It’s a naked eye observatory (a room with a hole cut in the ceiling), and for an hour at sunrise and sunset, colored lights illuminate the walls inside the dome, creating an ever-changing colored frame around the sky that influences how you perceive its color. Reservations are required as the dome can only accommodate roughly thirty people. Silence is requested in the dome, and it’s unusual to be in a space with other people where everyone is silent as is the room. No music, no talking, just you and a couple dozen other people and the sky. People started to filter out after fifteen minutes or so, and nearer the hour mark, there were only four people left in the room. It was a true pleasure to take the time to mark the sunset in a different way, to watch the sky and not have anything else I should be doing, or could be doing.

Goga Goat Yoga

Practically as soon as I booked my flight to Austin I started looking for a place to do goat yoga, because I had stereotyped Austin in my head as the sort of place one would be most likely to find instructors dedicated to the art of practicing yoga accompanied by baby goats, and thankfully I was correct. Never mind that I hadn’t really done yoga for a while and needed to buy a mat to bring to class–I wasn’t going to let any minor considerations keep me from enjoying baby goats to their fullest extent. I could tell I was truly serious about baby goat time when I gave myself over an hour to drive to the rooftop where it was taking place “in case there’s traffic” at 6 am on a Saturday. 

There was no traffic.

However, there were several adorable baby goats awake and ready to play. GOGA sources all their goats from 2CrazyGoatLadies, and I absolutely do not recommend visiting that website if you think you might have even the slightest inclination to impulse purchase a goat because I almost immediately decided that I wanted three and, my friends, these goats are so inexpensive that I could have feasibly made that happen. But as much as I think I want tiny goats bounding around my backyard (and oh, I do, more than oxygen), I know that the reality of tiny goats in my backyard is not a good match if I want to travel ever again…unless, of course, I rent out my place while I’m gone to people who want to do yoga in my backyard with my goats. Hmm. 

The yoga class itself was a pretty rushed-feeling vinyasa class with ratio of people to goats being too high and the ratio of people to fenced-in square footage was likewise. It is the cutest to be doing a lunge and come face to face with a tiny curious critter. Other people had goats climbing on their legs and backs and in general, their presence was a delight. But the hustle factor was real. Often I had just barely found a position and it was time to be in another one. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale–breathing at that pace felt like hyperventilation. When asked for my feedback, I mentioned the class’ snappy pace and was informed that it was deliberate so “people feel like they’re getting a good workout.” Listen: I am not here for a good workout. I have a gym membership and can work up a sweat at practically any time of my choosing. I have literally any other time to focus on my core. I could be doing sit-ups right now. I woke up at the crack of dawn and showed up an hour early with my shirt on inside out because I wanted a fun and chill stretch and play session with goats, dadgumit!

At the end of the session, everyone had the opportunity to take a photo with the one week old baby goats who were too small to roam in class, and I loved them immediately. Overall, I didn’t have as much goat interaction as I would have hoped for in a goat yoga class, but as far as goat attentions go, I got lucky–at least I wasn’t the person whose shoe got used as a baby goat’s poop savings account.

The murals and art around (a small sampling of) Texas

This fucking 3d mural, you guys. I drove to San Antonio to see it, among other things, including a shop where you could buy tacos AND donuts from the drive-through, because of course that’s a place I would go. The 3d mural, Vision del Futuro, has its own permanent 3d glasses to view it, so naturally a helpful soul broke out both lenses. I suspected that might be the case beforehand, so I packed an old pair of 3D glasses from Halloween Horror Nights…and those only sort of worked. It was at this point that I realized I didn’t have my phone after frantically checking all of my pockets and every compartment of my purse. I then spotted it on the ground behind my rental car and dashed over: the screen was shattered and it seemed like it might have been run over by a car. Sigh. I suppose if it was going to happen, it’s better that it happened while Jason was there with his phone because otherwise I would have been alone and lost in an unfamiliar city. As it was, that was the end of the day I had planned and instead it became a tour of the endless strip mall that is San Antonio, first visiting my cell carrier’s store and not finding the phone I had intended to buy, and then visiting an electronics store only to find that they only sell the phone I wanted for other carriers because while you may be familiar with Murphy’s Law, Melissa’s Addendum states that not only will everything go wrong, but it needs to be the biggest, most expensive pain in the ass possible. I really did not want to buy a $600+ new phone that’s a runner up to the one I actually wanted, so I needed to find some other option. Eventually I found myself at San Antonio’s UBreakIFix, and while they didn’t have the screen for my (admittedly a couple generations old) phone, they called every other UBreakIFix in the greater San Antonio/Austin area and found ONE shop in the Austin area that had one. I begged them to hold it and told them I’d be there when the doors opened the next morning. It only took the better portion of the day and that’s why there’s practically no San Antonio to show for my efforts. 

This piece was made to draw attention to the critically endangered Houston toad, of which there is estimated only 3,000-4,000 remain in the total population worldwide.

This was near the churro food truck that I tried to visit three times that was always closed. I think it would take less effort to start my OWN churro food truck than actually catch this place open.

I don’t know what kind of armadillo centipede you’re trying to create here, sky prince, but I’m not here for it and I don’t think the people of Texas will stand for it.

No.

Art for the People is a cool gallery with a surprising amount of art packed inside at all price points.

Buc-ee’s, a friend to all travelers in need

It’s hard out there on the roads in Texas. Their highways are bigger, faster, and more complicated. You’ve got to watch out for flash floods and there are yellow warning road signs for churches so I guess you have to watch out for those, too. I still have minor PTSD thinking about my drives through Houston with its ten lane highways all swirling about one another with left and right unmarked exits and oh shit I need to cross six lanes right now. Lanes in general in Texas seem to be…more like suggestions. Same deal with speed limits and apparently driving while drunk, as it seemed like every stretch of road I traveled featured a sign with “drive sober or get pulled over” or “plan while you can.” I had a lot of time on these roads to think about these rhyme-based slogans and I’ve come up with some snappier ones that the state of Texas is welcome to use, free of charge:

  • share the road, you greedy toad
  • cut the chatter or get splattered
  • to these words pay heed: don’t you dare fucking speed
  • don’t make the highway a dieway
  • E.T. Leave your phone alone
  • when you drive like trash, don’t be surprised when you crash
  • drive drunk and johnny law will punch you in the junk

Sure, some are more usable than others due to potential copyright infringement issues but that’s for the courts to decide. I hereby absolve myself of all legal or financial responsibility should the state of Texas use any of these as their new road slogans. 

The point is, the night is dark and full of terrors on Texas highways something something chainsaw massacre and from that darkness emerges a friendly face on a yellow sign. Buc-ee Beaver ready to welcome you at all hours to his obscenely large convenience store, one of which is the largest convenience store in the world. 

THE LARGEST CONVENIENCE STORE IN THE WORLD. The world’s largest convenience store, featuring:

A size so immense it continues almost to the vanishing point!

Its own BBQ restaurant inside!

An almost shocking amount of Buc-ee brand souvenirs. “This is the magnet I bought to remember the time mom ate those bad tacos and we needed to pull over.” 

A straight-up ridiculous amount of Buc-ee brand preserves, candy, and baked goods, and charcuterie!

A coffee bar that has everything and you can make a gallon size coffee if you want. Plus walls and walls of drink and other food options. 

In case you didn’t realize just how large this flask truly is from the previous photo. This is the flask of a cave troll or a dedicated alcoholic.

A whole section of explicitly “Texas-y” merchandise–lots of leather and hide, flashy silver bits, big hats, gun rhetoric. My favorite thing made out of cowhide was definitely the coasters made to look like miniature cowhides. Are cowhides even good coaster material? Who cares!  I myself bought the flashiest, rhinestoniest belt with a fist sized buckle from a Buc-ees, and when I wear it, I look like a lumpy disco ball. It’s glorious.

PLUS this place has the greatest bathrooms. THE GREATEST. Tons of stalls. They’re huge and private. Hand sanitizer in each stall. Plus tons of sinks and mirror space and it’s cleaned constantly throughout the day. It’s the complete opposite of every gas station bathroom horror story you’ve ever heard, and it is a blessing to anyone who has ever spent three plus hours in a car and still aren’t at their destination. 

Oh yeah, and one station I visited had the world’s largest carwash, too, so now all I need for Buc-ee Bingo is the world’s largest  gas pump, which I have to assume is out there somewhere. I’ll keep an eye out for it the next time I’m in Texas: don’t let me down, buddy.

 

Photo post: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX

Jumping spider? Maybe? 

The famous Texas Bluebonnet was juuuuust coming into bloom on my visit. I particularly like the way its fuzzy leaves appear to be softly highlighted in chalk.

What is this!?!

Looks like a Texas spiny lizard to me! Someone or something startled it and I heard its rustling through the leaf litter and looked until I found it. 

Cecropia moth

 

Spotted on the Roadside: Congress Bridge Bat Colony in Austin, TX

Before dusk, crowds start to gather on the Congress Avenue Bridge overlooking the Colorado River and the lawn in front of the Austin American-Statesman. On the day I visited, there were people holding up a giant white cross on the bridge itself, so I elected to go to the park instead. The park immediately felt like the right choice as I chatted with people and pet their dogs. Out on the river itself were a number of swan boats, canoes, kayaks, and even a party boat, all there to watch the bats. When I visited in March, it was early in the season, but still thousands of bats streamed out from the bridge, all hunting for dinner. Or is it breakfast? I bet they go to a diner so they don’t have to decide between eggs or a meatloaf sandwich. Over the course of the evening, as they become satiated, they’ll return back to their spot under the bridge as individuals. 

The truth is you do have to experience it to understand just how many bats live there, but I didn’t choose to post no bat photos to force you to go see it for yourself. I have no bat photos to post because every “bat photo” I took was an indistinguishable grey blur against a white background interspersed with like a thousand branches. These photos look like an x-ray of a nightmare. 

Footpath starts at 200 S Congress Ave in Austin, Texas.

Museum of the Weird in Austin, TX

In case it somehow isn’t 100% clear to you from the photos that I absolutely, positively loved Austin’s Museum of the Weird…I absolutely, positively loved it. The Museum of the Weird has every classic roadside attraction element:

  • A museum incorporating lots of sensational posters, travel ephemera, movie props, and taxidermy including at least one feejee mermaid
  •  An area with a larger legend surrounding it that you can look at but not photograph
  • Enter and exit via a gift shop

In addition, this museum has another museum built on top of the first one full of classic horror movie icons rendered in wax and your tour guide for the legendary part of the tour you can’t photograph is a man who claims to be a wizard and does a brief cold reading show. You heard me. A mother-flipping wizard. 

But first: The legendary Ice Man. The owner of this museum saw the Minnesota Ice Man as a child when it came around on tour in the 60s, which is not really the sort of tour you see going around anymore. Admittedly, I don’t browse ticket buying sites often but I still don’t think “dead guy in block of ice” has much of a chance if it’s in town the same dates as The Book of Mormon. Regardless, dead guy in a block of ice made a big impression on this child, and he began to collect weird items, like a mere glimpse of the ice man radicalized him to a gothic awakening. In 2013, that same Minnesota Iceman was listed for sale on eBay, and the only way I can explain as to why I didn’t know about this/bid on it was that I was going mildly insane with wedding planning at the time. Otherwise I never would’ve missed a chance to bid on something that had a feature on Unsolved Mysteries

On to the wizard: In the ice man room, the wizard put on a show. He had a man in the group picture a person in his mind while holding a crystal in his hand. He gave me another crystal and told me to vividly picture a place I found special or interesting, real or imaginary, somewhere I would want to go. I chose Egypt because I’m dying to go and have wanted to visit since I was a kid, so I suppose in a way Hatshepsut is my Minnesota Iceman. He had the man and myself write down who or what we were picturing, respectively, fold the paper twice, and hand them to someone else in the audience. She mixed them up until she didn’t know which was which, and then she handed them to someone else, who also shuffled them. Saul Ravencraft (the wizard) took one of the papers and burned it. There was then a whole thing about the man in the group’s person but since that part’s not about me and I don’t know how true or false any of his guesses general statements wizard oracles were, let’s skip to the part that’s about me.

…As I go through my notes, it’s clear to me how this particular wizardry worked but it’s delightful all the same, and if a visit to Egypt does indeed “inspire a very interesting creative work” I’ll be sure to quote the wizard on my book cover.

HOPE Outdoor Gallery in Austin, TX

 

Right about the time I started getting antsy to get out of town and see somewhere new, a friend in Austin posted on social media that they needed someone to watch their pets while they were out of town. It felt like kismet, and I booked a flight immediately. After settling in and learning how to give one of the cats her asthma medicine, my first stop was at HOPE Outdoor Gallery, a community art park on the fringes of downtown Austin. I exited my giant rental car (everything really is bigger in Texas!) to a riot of birdsong and followed the scent of aerosolized paint to HOPE.

Founded in 2010 with the help of contemporary artist Shepard Fairey on the bones of an abandoned condo project from the 1980s, HOPE was the only art park of its kind in the world, a living, ever-changing canvas with opportunities for artists to display their messages on a large scale for eight years. In 2019, HOPE will be moving from the center of Austin to its outskirts on Carson Creek Ranch in a new center built expressly for the purpose.

On the day I visited, a bus of kids rolled up and were being taught a class in the spraypaint arts. The rattles of their collective cans sounded like a nest of snakes–not angry, threatening, but saying “Hey. I’m here.”

Iceland’s South Shore

We added a short stopover in Iceland on our way home from England. It was an opportunity to revisit favorites, see some new things, and, even better, break up the flights. Because, you know, even though I can travel thousands of miles across continents in a single day I can still find a way to complain about it. I suppose I’m inured to the marvel. Overseas travel used to involve a high risk of scurvy, a disease that ravaged the mind and body, but I’m complaining because sitting the whole way from London to Seattle might make my butt ache slightly. 

When I say “short stopover”, I mean it: we had one evening, one morning, and one full day sandwiched in between. On our evening, we went back to Grillmarkaðurinn, because how could we not? I had the most amazing rack of lamb, perfectly pink and luscious, which came with three small ramekins of yogurt, rhubarb sauce, and crushed nuts for self-saucing and experimentation and a side of crispy kale and garlic fried potatoes. I also stuffed myself on crusty bread with Icelandic butter and black lava salt and a side of fresh hot corn with the same accoutrements, and surprise, I again had no room for dessert. Jason’s meal had three kinds of fish, and he said each one raised his bar for how good fish could be. On our morning, we went back to the blue lagoon until we were driven inside by a violent hailstorm. All of those people surging out of the water while shrieking and flailing  looked like a scene from Jaws

On our full day, we went on tour to Iceland’s south shore. We were picked up early from the hotel and shuttled to the large bus terminal from which I could see the beautiful pink sunrise, and, on the hill, the place at which I’d made reservations that evening: The Pearl, where we’d eat in a glass dome under the stars with a 360 degree view. I had some time to contemplate my dinner plans and doze on the bus while we waited for some late arrivals. This late start unfortunately impacted our day as we had to blast past our first two stops, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, with assurances that we’d hit them on the way back.

Seljalandsfoss-adjacent

Skógafoss

We made a bathroom break/snack/gift shop only stop at the LAVA centre in Hvolsvöllur, but our first official activity stop was at Sólheimajökull glacier. One of my favorite teachers described his awe upon laying eyes on a glacier for the first time: “It was Tidy Bowl* blue!” This refreshingly unpretentious and product placement laden description had the kind of staying power it took to stick in my memory for decades, much like how Tidy Bowl lasts, flush after flush.  After a short hike from the parking lot, I finally got my first good look at a glacier, and it did indeed glow a gentle electric blue. We were not allowed to walk right up to the glacier but even at a distance it was immense. Less immense every year, however: it recedes the length of an Olympic size swimming pool annually.

I think this is the best photo to help understand scale–look at those tiny people in the lower right, off to hike on the glacier itself.

Our next stop was the farthest from Reykjavík we’d travel on the trip, the village of Vík í Mýrdal. As its southernmost coastal village, Vík enjoys the reputation of the warmest place in Iceland, a balmy one or two degrees warmer than average. Despite this heat wave, Vík’s population of 318 has yet to embrace shorts. To be fair, I can’t say I would have embraced them, either, as I spent the entirety of this visit in the puffy, noisy grip of cheap snowpants and still felt cold. Despite its small population, Vík offers a robust amount of services for travelers, as owing to its location along the ring road, it’s one of very few places in the area to fuel one’s vehicle and purchase food, which makes it a very different kind of “must-stop” on a road trip. Our tour group was given an hour and a half in which to eat, shop, and sightsee at our leisure, if anything done on a ninety minute timer can be said to be done at leisure. Jason and I ate at the Ice Cave restaurant, which is essentially a cafeteria attached to a huge gift shop and a grocery store. I finally got some Icelandic meat soup! It was…soup. Meat, potatoes, vegetables, water. It wasn’t objectionable in any way, but it had two main things going for it that had nothing to do with the flavor: it was extremely hot and therefore warming, and, unlike just about everything else on the menu, it’s ready to go off the line so you don’t have to use precious sightseeing time waiting twenty minutes for your mediocre burger. After Jason finished his mediocre burger, we hit the restroom and hustled down to the black sand beach, giving the gift shop a pass because however huge, it was still stocked with the same stuff we saw at every other single shop in Iceland. What did they even sell before China stitched its first stuffed puffin?

But a black sand beach…I’d never seen one of those before. The sand at Vík, due to its origins as basaltic lava, has the inky depth of rich topsoil, or, learning the lesson from that former teacher and using a metaphor that’ll stick with you, it’s a beach of Oreo cookie crumbs. To be more exacting, the black sand mingled with the pure white snow and ocean foam looked strikingly like the dirt cakes my brother requested for his birthday several years in a row (always served in a flower pot). 

I didn’t learn my lesson from last time about the perils of buying cheap snowpants online and gleefully abandoned this second terrible pair in the hotel. 

At the appointed time, we all loaded back on the bus and the driver hauled us up the hill and back down the other side to Reynisfjara Beach. Reynisfjara Beach is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in Iceland, with its striking basalt columns and stretch of black sand, but it’s also one of Iceland’s most dangerous, with sneaker waves and an extremely strong undertow, a one-two punch that will knock a person’s legs out from underneath them and then drag them to sea. Although warning signs have been posted and tour guides stress the importance of not turning one’s back to the ocean, people still are caught unawares and several have died. Even when we visited, there were people toying about at the water’s edge, because, I guess, do you even have a life if you don’t take the risk of having it violently ripped away from you by the freezing ocean? 

The basalt columns in the ocean at Reynisfjara Beach are known as Reynisdrangar. Icelandic legend tells of two trolls who decided to drag a ship to shore in the night, but the task took longer than they anticipated (darn that strong undertow!) and they were caught by the sun and subsequently turned to stone. Also basalt, the step pyramid on land is called Hálsanef and it looks like the entrance to the lair of the troll king if only the cleft in the rock went deeper.  Scores of birds wheel about the top of Hálsanef–we were here at the wrong time of year, but I hear it’s very popular with puffins. It’s funny, these two black sand beaches are so close to one another, but one of them feels like an epic scene straight from a movie, and one of them feels exactly like what it is–a stretch of beach behind a parking lot. 

The sands at Reynisfjara Beach were rockier than their brethren at Vík í Mýrdal, with large areas covered in smooth dark grey stones. I don’t know what came over us, but both Jason and I coveted these stones, and even though we never do this, we agreed that we could each pick one to take home. I know, it’s a bad practice: if everyone did this, or even if a lot of people did this it would dramatically change the characteristic of every wild place for the worse. I knew it was wrong as I picked up the stone and closed my hand around it and slipped it into my pocket. But that stone had a grip on me. It was somehow The Perfect Stone, so smooth, so dark, so symmetrical, satisfying to look at and hold. Precious.

 

After our petty thievery, it was time to board the bus and head back to the waterfalls we’d blasted by on our way in. We made it to Skógafoss just as the sun was starting to set–you may recognize Skógafoss from Thor: The Dark World or a handful of other films. When we arrived, we were informed that we wouldn’t have time to go up to the viewing platform unless we were comfortable with the idea of running both up and down the entire set of stairs. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me or could make an educated guess about my general fitness level based on the sheer amount of Lord of the Rings references knows that running isn’t my bag. Me running up and down those entire stairs at full tilt is exactly equally as likely to happen as it is for Chris Hemsworth to have shown up just then, in his Thor costume, solely for the purpose of carrying me to the top.

Sheep!

We inched toward Skógafoss: every inch of terrain near the waterfall’s “splash zone” was coated in slick ice, and the ground itself was covered in irregular large rocks, which were also slick with ice. It was like trying to walk on bubble wrap made of ice, and while my feet tried to slip out from under me a few times, thankfully I kept my balance. Ultimately, I didn’t want to get very close to Skógafoss–the icy mist pelting me from a distance was plenty, I didn’t need to soak my jacket through, sit on a cold bus for a while, and then walk to and from our dinner reservations when we got back to Reykjavík in my still-wet jacket.

Speaking of not wanting to soak my jacket, at our final stop, Seljalandsfoss, visitors can walk behind the waterfall itself, which sounds like a great idea in the summer. When I visited, someone would have needed to credibly convince me that a puppy needed my help to get me back there, so either all puppies in the area were safe and accounted for or no one there realized that was part of my skillset. Either way, I ventured nowhere near the waterfall because I was already cold to my bones. The little heating packets in my pocket felt more like holding the memory of warmth–a pale ghost that just reminded me how cold I was, the LaCroix of heat.

 

We boarded the bus for the last time, and it was then that things took a turn for the worse. A horrible storm kicked up and an accident on the road forced us to a halt. I can no longer recall how long we sat there, but the time for our dinner reservations came and went and we had yet to arrive back in Reykjavík–and we were still lucky, because the snowstorm got bad enough that the roads were closed behind us, and in that instance, we would have had to backtrack to the nearest town and try to get lodgings for the night. Moreover, it was looking increasingly likely that the storm was going to stick around for a while, which kicked off my anxiety about our flight potentially being canceled. 

Then it struck me. In my run-up to my previous visit to Iceland, I did some research into their story culture. In addition to Norse mythology (because Vikings), Icelanders have a strong storytelling tradition about elves. In a 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. Plenty of people have mocked them for it, regardless of whether or not that survey accurately reflects the population in 2018, but Icelanders’ belief in elves isn’t nearly as pervasive as the nearly 80% of Americans who believe in the existence of angels and I don’t think that little tidbit makes it into the guidebooks for the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s at least be consistent in our treatment of invisible people! The book that I read about the elves, The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir stated unequivocally that Icelanders do not believe in elves, and that the stories of the elves (or hidden people) were to help the people of Iceland deal with their extremely difficult circumstances. For example, back in the day when most Icelanders were peasants working the land for someone else, they were not allowed to marry until they had achieved significant financial resources, which wasn’t really a thing because nobody had a track record of paying peasants well–so if a woman were to somehow become pregnant outside of wedlock, well, a hidden person did it. Or, more grimly, if a child was to go missing in the harsh Icelandic weather, parents could console themselves with the idea that a hidden person had led their child off to the land of the hidden people, a prosperous place that would care for them for the rest of their lives, because the alternative was too horrible to consider.

Regardless of my day to day belief in the existence of elves, in my mind at the time I was convinced that our earlier stone thievery royally pissed off an elf since they are known to be touchy about stones and things they view as their property. When we got back to Reykjavík, Jason and I each took our perfect stones out of our pockets, sincerely apologized to the elves, and put them on the ground. And to be certain, this is just an anecdote with no scientific value whatsoever…but within 20 minutes of setting down those stones, the storm that was supposed to last for days completely cleared up. We missed our dinner reservations but made our flight and I got to eat another pepperoni taco sandwich, so all in all, I’d say the elves let me off easy, perhaps taking into account that it was a first-time offense.

 

 

*I’m fully aware how it’s really spelled.

Footsore in London

From our rental flat, we wound our way through Hyde Park, the largest of its Royal Parks, encompassing Kensington Palace and an artificial lake known as The Serpentine, which coils about a grove of trees like an overenthusiastic comma. Coming from Paddington, we entered the park directly adjacent to the Italian Gardens, a gift from Prince Albert, avid gardener, to Queen Victoria which is the sort of thing you can do when you’re a royal and don’t have to be fussed about getting out there once a week to clip the lawn.

And yes, this is a proper British lawn–the swaths of perfectly trimmed grasses that were a mark of British aristocracy and the current obsession of many a suburban American homeowner. I myself reached for a piece of this monarchist’s dream this year, which involved digging up some 800 square feet of cabbage-y weeds with a pickaxe, spreading yards of fresh topsoil, tenderly nurturing grass seed, and plucking out new tiny weeds by hand. I’m currently in the process of watching it all fall apart thanks to an industrious mole who has discovered how much easier it is to dig in the new topsoil and has decided to move in and have an army of industrious mole babies. (I can only assume, it’s hard for me to believe that the utter devastation currently occurring in my front yard is the work of just one mole, no matter how industrious.) 

Studded with lime and maple trees, Hyde Park also acts as a bird sanctuary, providing ample nesting grounds and places to hide from predators. No doubt, it’s spaces like these which allowed their population of feral parakeets to thrive since the mid 19th century. There were certainly a lot of them flitting about the park, a splash of lime against the sky or chattering from a branch. 

We walked the length of The Serpentine and then backtracked a bit to head in the direction of the Science Museum. There’s still so much of Hyde Park I haven’t seen–it’s so large, I didn’t even get a peep at Kensington Palace or Speaker’s Corner, where open-air public speaking, debates, and protests take place. Angela Merkel referred to Speaker’s Corner in 2014 as “the very symbol of free speech”.  I’m glad that this symbol of free speech and respectful debate exists, particularly as a corner of the same park where gentlemen used to duel one another with swords to the death over insults. It feels like progress for humanity. 

At London’s Science Museum, our foremost stop was at the cafeteria as usual, because it’s like we can’t face the prospect of learning without powering up with a 400 calorie dessert bar. But learn I did, about antibiotics and the history of mathematics and Morse code. If I’m honest, though, by this point in the trip I was a husk of myself from the lack of quality sleep and therefore not the most receptive to new ideas despite the amount of sugar firing my neurons and jittering up my blood. Thus, I spent a lot of my time in the Science Museum pretending I was a bitcoin trillionaire making a wish list for my birthday party on the moon.

I want one of these skull pipes.

I also want this silver fountain, which I would use to serve fondue. I would presumably also eat fondue a lot more often. When I got bored with it and/or fondue, I would use it as a cat’s water bowl.

An entire room of the museum was dedicated to an exhibit about the information age–the 200 years of progress to instantaneous communication. Among them was a Morse code machine hooked up to a monitor that taught visitors how to use it, and I immediately dove in and crafted a message for the ages with my dazzling vocabulary:

Next up was the mathematics room, exploring and celebrating 400 years of mathematical achievement. I have historically struggled with math as I moved into the more advanced subjects: I vividly remember my dad griping while he helped me with my homework that he’d hoped at least one of his kids would’ve had his talent with numbers. One of my math teachers looked at me perplexedly during a tutoring session, saying that she’d seen my IQ test scores and that she didn’t understand why I didn’t grasp the concept. Yet another of my math teachers instructed me to put a rubber band around my wrist and snap it whenever I made a mistake–I went home that day with my wrist striped with angry red welts. I used a college math final to test my psychic abilities because at that point, it was the only way I was going to pass as I’d been hopelessly lost since day one. (Verdict: I have no psychic abilities.) But it was one of my high school teachers who, bless his heart, tried so hard to reach me. I had no business in an advanced placement math class but this poor man did everything he could to usher me along anyway. He held tutoring sessions after school. He allowed me to re-take tests and I would still score miserably. At the end of the year, he awarded me with a certificate for “maximum effort”, which, delivered with the wrong tone could feel like a real slap in the face, but I knew he meant it sincerely. I didn’t keep much of anything from high school, but I still have that certificate because I appreciate how hard he tried and that he could see I was trying instead of just failing to achieve. What I’m saying is, Science Museum, I’d be open to donating my certificate to your exhibit to round out your collection.

 math skulls

I would like one of these skull watch fobs, please. And another of vibranium with gold vermeil for when I’m feeling fancy.

And also one of these.

And also one of these but with, like, either better dong or a tasteful thong over the dongs. Right now it looks like he’s wondering where it went.

And then we found ourselves on a bench seated opposite a display of clothing made using recycled materials. I was curious about what materials they were made of but was too tired to heave myself over there, so I did the laziest thing I’ve ever done: zoom in on the sign with my camera, take a photo, and examine the photo from the relative comfort of the bench. It was as I suspected: the bomber jacket is made out of stainless steel, so it’s going to be a 2057 must-have to camouflage ourselves from the murder robots. We spent some time on the bench dinking around on our phones, ostensibly looking for somewhere to eat in the area, but we couldn’t decide on anything so we decided to do a whirlwind one hour tour of the Natural History Museum next door before it closed for the evening.  

A placard identified this as Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his ardent belief in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Huxley was a self-educated man who believed science should be for everyone–call me Huxley’s Bulldog.

There were fanciful wall carvings of various animals throughout the museum, making it the most ornate museum I’ve ever visited by a long shot.

Rollers are such cool looking birds. My favorite is the lilac breasted roller, which in addition to these striking blue and green feathers, has a hot pink chest and looks like it’s going to the fanciest garden party. Also, its hips don’t lie. I hope to someday see one in the wild so I guess I’m officially a bird person because I don’t think you can have a bird bucket list and not be one.

We made the absolute most of that hour, beelining toward Treasures in the Cadogan Gallery, featuring 22 objects of scientific significance, including original images from Audobon’s Birds of America book, and The Vault, containing glittering gemstones including the ostro stone and a cursed amethyst “stained with the blood and dishonour of everyone who has ever owned it.” Presumably the museum is only entrusted with it so as to avoid the blood curse. I tried to snap a few photos of some gemstones but they all turned out terribly. Perhaps the amethyst’s curse is in effect for beholders of the stone as well, albeit more mildly. 

I can say without a doubt that I absolutely walked past all of the displays in the Natural History Museum, but I can’t really say I saw them all. Or even most of them. It is a stunning museum and deserves more time for contemplation but I found it’s also absolutely worthy in a quick visit, an out of focus haze, fleeting impressions of a celebration of the world as it was and is and our place in it. 

As the museum closed, everyone was ushered out onto the streets. The air had grown sharp since our earlier walk though the park, and I shivered into my coat though inside I’d been roasting. Outside the museum hung scores of glittering strands of lights and, on the lawn, a seasonal ice skating rink. Wafts of heated cinnamon air informed us there was a street vendor peddling roasted spiced nuts nearby. We still hadn’t had a proper meal, so we bought a packet and parked our weary butts on a cement blockade to have a warm snack and watch people wobble and triumph on the ice.

We took the tube back.