It may not rival the stories of Grettir the Strong or Erik the Red, but our own Icelandic saga continues in the geologic wilds of North Iceland. This is the realm of charred lava fields, desolate peaks, and waterfalls named for the gods—not to mention a memorable stretch of the Ring Road that traverses remnants of ice and fire.
Back in 2004, as I was finishing my final months at the University of Virginia, I had a once-in-a-lifetime moment of Halloween costume inspiration. Having already spent 22 years with black hair and bangs (and the last several being told that I resembled a certain Icelandic singer), I set off for the local Michaels craft store. A few feather boas, stuffed-and-stitched tube socks, and scraps of felt later—I was Björk herself, in all of her swan dress glory at the 2001 Oscars.
As the 18th century came to a close, the British explorer George Vancouver set sail to survey the wild coast of the Pacific Northwest. Among his findings was a narrow pass at the tip of Fidalgo Island, where the tides moved with such force that Vancouver believed he had found the mouth of a great river. It wasn’t until his lieutenant, Joseph Whidbey, explored further that he realized he had discovered a second island—one that stood on the other side of this confounding Deception Pass.
It’s been a difficult few weeks here in Portland. On the afternoon of September 2, a teenage boy tossed a smoking firecracker into Eagle Creek Canyon, igniting a blaze that quickly consumed more than 35,000 acres. As firefighters worked to contain the devastation, Portlanders were left helpless as the Columbia River Gorge went up in flames and ash fell upon the city like a terrible, unwelcome snow.
There’s a great old episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine—a writer for the J. Peterman catalog—is saddled with a debilitating case of “catalog writer’s block.” The culprit? The troublesome Himalayan walking shoe. Beset with frustration, an exhausted Elaine takes to the streets of New York (to search for a houseguest who has gone missing)—only to find unexpected inspiration in the warmth and comfort around her feet.
“Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes In variegated maze of mount and glen. Ah me! What hand can pencil guide, or pen, To follow half on which the eye dilates Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken Than those whereof such things the bard relates, Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium’s gates?”
On the morning of January 11, I woke to find Portland buried beneath more than a foot of snow. As skiers rejoiced, schools shuttered, and Portlanders collectively expressed their surprise, I pulled on my boots to mark this unusual occasion with a walk through Washington Park. The snow was knee-deep, the firs shrouded in winter white, and the creaking of heavy branches the only sound to be heard.
Perhaps it was what Lisbon had in common with San Francisco that first had me hooked. A majestic suspension bridge painted a familiar shade of international orange? Check. Antique cable cars that rattle and shudder their way up steep city streets? Check. A treacherous position on a fault line, a long and storied seismic history, and one devastating earthquake that nearly burned the city to the ground? Check, check, and check.
One of the things I love most about living in Portland is the perpetual, snow-capped backdrop of Mt. Hood, the prominent 11,249-foot volcano that dominates the horizon to the east. Whether I’m crossing the Fremont Bridge or circling the top of Mt. Tabor, a glimpse of the lonely mountain always gives me a bit of a thrill—and not just because it signifies a temporary break in the rain.
In 1471, Moulay Ali ben Rachid founded a village high in the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco—a fortress to launch attacks against the Portuguese in nearby Ceuta. In the centuries that followed, this secluded town would provide refuge for the Moors expelled from Spain, for the Jews fleeing the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, and for weary travelers in search of peace and tranquility.
In a young nation like the United States, history is not always defined by old age. Harvard, our oldest university, was founded less than four centuries ago in 1636. We ratified our Constitution in 1788, ended our Civil War in 1865, and welcomed our 49th and 50th states just decades ago in 1959. So imagine the wonder of visiting Fes, the oldest imperial city in Morocco founded by Idriss II in 807.
I’ve never been one to seek out the packaged excursion. Call me old fashioned, but I truly enjoy the process of scouring guidebooks, tracking down timetables, and navigating unknown places with a degree of independence. What I may suffer from getting lost or missing the occasional train is (usually) nothing when compared to the connections I come to feel with the rhythms of foreign life. But like so many rules, there are exceptions.
Since 1998, lovers of music, art, and North African folklore have gathered in Morocco each June for the Gnaoua World Music Festival, a four-day event that draws nearly half a million attendees. It’s a vibrant celebration of contemporary world music and skilled Gnaoua musicians—descendants of African slaves who have left their mark on Moroccan culture as healers, mystics, and keepers of a spellbinding musical tradition.
It is perhaps the most well-known of Morocco’s imperial cities—a centuries-old medina founded by the Almoravid Dynasty in 1062. It’s home to distinctive red sandstone walls that date back to the 12th century and what has been called the busiest square in all of Africa. It has also been the playground of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Yves Saint Laurent, to name just a few of the artists and musicians who have been drawn to its exotic allure. But the city of Marrakech is so much more than the sum of its parts.
From the rocky spires of the Grand Tetons to the craggy shores of Acadia, the United States’ 59 national parks are as diverse as the nation itself. Where Death Valley holds a world record for the highest air temperature ever recorded (134 degrees), the slopes of Mt. Rainier saw an astounding 93.5 feet of snow in the winter of 1971. So what makes Olympic National Park stand out among these millions of acres of natural wonder?
A few weeks ago, The New Yorker scared the living daylights out of those of us lucky enough to reside in the Pacific Northwest. In gripping fashion, writer Kathryn Schulz told of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that are doomed to destroy the coastal communities of Oregon and Washington while wreaking havoc in Portland and Seattle—possibly in the next 50 years.
In 1967, Governor Tom McCall signed the Oregon Beach Bill into law, guaranteeing Oregonians public access to every beach along the state’s 362-mile coastline. Fast forward a few decades to find a state that manages 69 state parks, recreation sites, natural areas, and scenic viewpoints on its coast—an average of one state park for every five miles of ocean shoreline.
If you were lucky enough to come of age in the 1980s and 1990s, The Oregon Trail was likely your first introduction to computers, to the nearly impossible task of hunting squirrels, and to the very real dangers of fording a river. It also may have been your first exposure to the Willamette Valley, that little piece of verdant paradise your wagon traveled 2,000 miles to reach. So what is it that led hundreds of thousands of settlers—and countless elementary school students—to brave dysentery, typhoid, and meager rations to reach a valley at the foot of the Cascades?
As we approach one of the most desperately needed long weekends of the year, I’ve been thinking about where I would ideally like to spend Presidents’ Day. It turns out that the answer was right in front of me—or rather, just a few years behind me. After giving recent billing to my adopted home of Portland, Oregon, I turn this week’s focus to my first home, the natural wonderland of Marin County, California.
Oh, the joys of beginning a new year. Joining a gym, filing taxes, and realizing just how much you overspent on Christmas. But with the new year also comes a refreshingly blank slate—the promise of 12 new months that could be filled with life-changing opportunities, new faces and friends, and exhilarating travels near and far. As for me, I begin 2015 in a very different place—quite literally—than I was this time last year.