CDS Column: Freedom, Iceland and Campervans

14188326_1604753102884102_6073273407149284030_oIn Iceland it’s easy to rent a camper van.

They are everywhere, little Citroens, Peugeots and Ford Transit Connects rigged with curtains, beds, sinks and stoves. They zip up and down the two-lane highways like miniature delivery trucks pulling over wherever to offer overnight accommodation.

There are bigger Mercedes Sprinter vans and full campers, too, and even rigs that look like a cross between an RV and military transport, go-anywhere-campers equipped with huge tires and undercarriages that ride feet above the road, but it’s the little camper vans that buzz around the desolate isle like bees, their occupants in search of adventure.

And there are adventures to be had in Iceland — glaciers, mountains, geysers and waterfalls, hiking trails and hot springs, whale watches and black sand beaches. The country is crawling with visitors, mostly Europeans but Americans and Canadians, also, there to see volcanoes and ice caps, to ride horses and explore ice caves.

And when the day is over, they pile into their delivery vans, find an empty parking lot and go to sleep.

This isn’t like New Hampshire, where landscape and pine forests might conceal the little red cars with names like “Happy Camper” and “KuKu Camper” pasted on the side. Iceland is a barren place; lava flows coated in emerald moss stretch for miles. It would be easy to veer off the blacktop and just drive almost anywhere, no obstructions for miles. Far-off mountains, plateaus and camper vans dot the landscape, all in clear view. Scenic viewpoints and dirt pull-offs everywhere become impromptu campgrounds each night, three or four cars to a lot.

14124927_1603110626381683_7502455490426160407_oBut no one minds, and no one complains. The police — there are few in Iceland — aren’t about to break up the party. No one is asked to move along. It’s just not a problem, something part of the culture.

And it’s not just the cars: In Iceland you can go almost anywhere. There are trails crisscrossing private land, and tourist sites sit adjacent to homes. Iceland is just open. Anyone can go anywhere. Roads might be posted for vehicles, but walkers can go pretty much anywhere.

The rules are codified in the Icelandic Nature Conservation Act, which stipulates “everyone has the right to travel around the country and enjoy its nature,” according to the website of the Environment Agency of Iceland, “as long as the traveller is tidy and careful not to damage or otherwise spoil natural resources.”

It is “permissible to cross uncultivated private property without seeking any special permission” in Iceland. “Landowners may not hinder passage of walkers alongside rivers, lakes and ocean, or on tracks and paths.”

The result? A country where everyone is free to wander, welcome to roam. Backpackers pitch tents in any open field, walkers wander along exposed clifftops, and car-campers park for the night anywhere they please.

Another result is less concrete by no less real: a feeling of openness, of freedom, of unrestrictedness, a right to be where you are. It is a feeling unfamiliar in America. But in Iceland no one is ever going to ask you to move. They aren’t going to ask you to explain yourself, to demand you produce your ID. The default assumption is you have the right to be where you are, to stand where you are standing and walk where you are walking. Private property is not so private to exclude you access to it.

It is a different version of freedom, one that runs deep on the island of fire and ice. It even extends to the national parks: There are no entrance fees, no gates or rangers. The mountains, waterfalls, natural hot springs and glaciers are all open; there are no ticket sales. Iceland may be expensive — it is an island, after all, and imported goods cost accordingly — but to gain access to the land is free.

Contrast that with our version of freedom, the version so vehemently celebrated in the Live Free or Die state. Here the word means not universal access to the land but the right not to be bothered. “My home is my castle.” “Don’t tread on me.” Freedom is a celebration of a place where I do not have to fear interruption.

Here in New Hampshire — and in America — freedom is a form of protection, a cloak, a warm blanket to wrap ourselves in. It shields us from the darkness and the night, all the terrifying and unwanted things crowding outside our doors.

But freedom doesn’t have to mean that. Iceland lives a different version. Freedom there is not the protection of a closed door but the chance to throw open the windows. It is a chance to abandon home completely and explore the world, to wander and get lost without fear of persecution, to head for the horizon without risk of reprisal. It is the right to exist exactly where you are, to not apologize for standing in place no matter where that place is.

Maybe everyone grows accustomed to the version of freedom they are born into, the version they grow up with. But those camper vans dotting the highway, those hikers pitching tent in empty fields, they represent a different version of the word, some meaning long since forgotten at home. Somewhere between the White Mountain parking passes, the Do Not Enter signs and Echo Lake entrance fees, we got lost. Suddenly, our land wasn’t ours anymore. It was yours, and only yours, to keep free.

But that’s not everywhere. In Iceland, little red cars with beds in the back swarm the land, buzzing their way freely wherever they like. The wind carries them past the lava and snow, over rivers and next to oceans. It’s all free, and it’s theirs. Because “everyone has the right to travel around the country and enjoy its nature.”


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Chasing Whales

Chasing Whales

13244231_1490935147599232_2529425574868615330_oI’m not sure how to explain it, but I’m chasing whales.

Not metaphorically. Really. I am looking for whales. Everywhere. Anywhere. And when I see them I dive in, swim after them. Follow them down into the blue. No joke. I’ve been training. 🐋

It started in Iceland.

Actually, that’s not true, it started before Iceland. It started last summer. It started in New England.

We were laying around, sprawled on the bed in the middle of the day. “Want to go snorkeling?” she asked.

“You know, I’ve never liked snorkeling,” I said. “I did it as a kid, but I can’t relax. Listening to my breath, all loud next to my ear, I don’t calm down. I wind up on the verge of hyperventilating. I’ve always wanted to get comfortable but I never have.”

She popped up to sitting. “I have masks,” she said. “Let’s go.”

That was the beginning. I have a tendency to run headlong at anything that scares me, and her push was enough. We grabbed wetsuits, masks and snorkels and went to the beach. The water was cold, but I floated around listening to my breath run ragged through the plastic. I calmed my heart, willed myself to relax. Soon we were coursing our way around rock beaches and points, diving down to examine starfish and stripers. The ocean, which had always held a foreboding cast for me, came alive. I was part of it, close enough to touch it. I was hooked.

12961430_1458805094145571_3194725830949882464_oLater that summer we were diving a nearby beach and swam into a shark. A blue shark, nothing dangerous, but it sure felt real as I swam up to him in his territory. In the fall we dove the Florida Keys, where I came face-to-face with a swarm of parrotfish. They looked like a herd of rhinoceroses tromping over seagrass beds; they saw me and parted like swallows, enveloping me. The next day I swam alongside a sea turtle as it made its way over the reef. Two days later on a diveboat, the only two without tanks, we swam with nurse sharks 30 feet below the surface. The ocean’s current had me; it was dragging me down.

Fast forward to February: Iceland. I had a 24-hour stopover on the way back from climbing in Scotland. I saw it in the Iceland Air magazine, towards the back: “Whales of Iceland. The largest whale exhibition in Europe.”

My head was still in mixed climbing, but it looked interesting. I’d give it a shot, I figured. I had a day. The plane landed and I caught a bus to my hostel. After a shower, a meal and some relaxing time in a bookstore coffee shop I went to bed.

The next day I woke up at 7 a.m. The sun doesn’t rise in February in Iceland until 10 a.m., so I wandered out into the dark. I found a public bathhouse where I relaxed in geothermal water in outside pools. The morning was beginning well.

I plotted my course on a cheap tourist map. The whale exhibit was on the other side of the city, but Reykjavik is small; it took me 30 minutes of walking, buffeted by wind.

I got there right after 10 a.m. just as they opened. The city was bathed in gray, overcast light. The man behind the counter looked up at me.

“You’re the first one here,” he said. “Just go in. Don’t worry about paying.”

IMG_4604Confused, I wasn’t about to complain. I wandered into the entrance, where I met the first of 23 full-sized models of the dolphins and whales that choke Icelandic waters. They were detailed, realistic, hanging from guy-wires, suspended from the ceiling. I turned the corner and the man from the corner came after me. “Wait a minute,” he said, holding up his cell phone. “We just developed a new app, a virtual tour of the exhibit. Will you test it out for us?”

I took the phone without a reply; I was still taking in the massive beluga whale model off to my right. I wasn’t yet ready to answer questions. I hit the play button and began wandering through the sea of mammals.

The tongue of the blue whale weighs as much as an elephant. The heart is the size of a Volkswagen. A sperm whale’s teeth are the size of corn cobs. And I was wandering beneath detailed, full-sized versions, bathed in blue light, listening with a phone to my ear in awe. It felt like I’d stumbled into the real thing, like I’d wandered into a sliver of open ocean. I went from one whale to the next, and slowly they got bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until they were the size of city busses and diesel locomotives. I sat down at the coffee stand at the end, still open to their enormity, and exhaled. They were stunning.

Then I saw it: A virtual reality headset on a nearby table. I walked over and put it on, goggles and headphones both. There were three choices—tropical, temperate or arctic. In each you were underwater, surrounded by whales, and fish, sharks, seals and more. I spent 15 minutes spinning blindly on a chair watching orcas race past me. This. Was. IT. I was chasing whales.

IMG_1043I walked out in a daze, barely remembering to give the guy back his phone. “Come back whenever,” he said.

That’s it. The seed was planted in Iceland. That’s where it started for real. Since then I’ve been watching, waiting for whales. And they keep show up—in conversations about work, in books, tattooed onto the forearms of strangers at the Red River Gorge, along the highway. So I follow them. I trust they are leading somewhere. And I’m preparing to meet them: I took a freedive course in North Carolina so when one pops up before me I’ll be ready. In Moab I swam laps in the rec center pool, holding my breath from one end to the other. I’m going to be ready. When I see one and it dives, I’ll dive with it. They will share their secrets with me. They already have.

If this doesn’t make sense, I know. But I’m following them anyway.