Opinion

The places my soles carried me

I look over to my shoes, a pair of hiking boots no longer in pristine condition and a pair of “Robin Hood” boots, scuffed up and hidden under a fine layer of dirt and dust sitting on the rug by my front door. I should clean them, wipe them down, but I’m not ready to let go of my adventure and all the experiences I had.

Their soles have traveled so far. Thousands of miles I never would have imaged. They have walked past Parliament and across the Tower Bridge in London. They walked past the political murals in Belfast and felt the cobblestones of a medieval town called Drogheda in Ireland. They have stuck to the floorboards of maybe one too many pubs in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day and felt the spray of the ocean as the smooth, black pebbles, formed from lava, rolled beneath them on a beach in Iceland. They journeyed to the center of the Earth as I descended somewhere between land and the ocean floor in the Vatnshellir Cave where legend says trolls meet once a year. They danced in the street in Reykjavik at midnight and traipsed through the snow to a waterfall, that although they were surrounded by dozens of pairs of other shoes, other travelers, they felt they were experiencing the wonders of the world alone.

My soul experienced the same.

The trip was conceived out of a simple thought — St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. From there, it expanded to two other countries, one planned (Iceland) and one by timing. London stood between me and Belfast, Ireland. I could either spend a five-hour layover at Gatwick International Airport or I could spend half a day in one of the most iconic cities in the world. So I did.

There was one thing I wanted to do in London — have a proper afternoon tea. I scheduled it later in the afternoon so I could experience it with my travel companion, who was on a later flight. But I had difficulties in London. My worldly friends, who have all traveled to multiple countries, boasted about how easy it was to get around London. And it was, once you figured out public transit. Unfortunately, it took me too long and having tea no longer fit into the schedule.

Instead, I walked around the city. Taking metro from one stop to another and exploring. In Westminster I took in Parliament, and the protesting about Brexit, and the peacefulness of Westminster Abbey. In Tower Hill I walked beside the Tower of London and then across Tower Bridge. All was not lost on the half-day stop, as I descended from the bridge I stumbled across a pub, The Vault, under the bridge. My stomach grumbled as I passed so I stopped in for a pint and an order of fish and chips. The view of the River Thames only added to the meal.

Ireland, specifically Belfast at 9 p.m. posed another travel hiccup — learning to drive on the left side of the road. Exhausted and travel weary, and with only 25 percent battery left on my phone, I left Belfast International Airport in search of my Airbnb. My unease with roundabouts, because I kept taking the first left, led me out of the city and into the country. The narrow lanes and tight curves left me in tears wondering why I thought I could make portions of this trip on my own.

Eventually, I made it. My host met me at the door with a cup of tea and a hot water bottle for my bed. After a hot shower and promise of a good night’s sleep I convinced myself I had gone through the worst of it. Tomorrow would be a new day, a new adventure and I’d be reunited with my travel companion. That was after I went to the wrong airport to pick them up.

In Belfast, we toured the Crumlin Road Prison and then the political murals. Before leaving town we had a pint at Kell’s Cellar, one of the oldest pubs in Belfast. The moment we walked in, we could tell this was a “local” spot. Patrons sat at the bar, pints in hand, and those in the other wing of the bar sat at tables with a bowl of lamb stew in addition to their pints.

From Belfast we drove to Sligo. Driving had become easier at this point, although every time I slid behind the driver’s seat I reminded myself a right-hand turn was just like a left-hand turn back home. Even the roundabouts were easier to navigate at this point.

Sligo was maybe one of the most enjoyable stops for me. I had an entire afternoon of just meandering. I walked the city streets, listening to its inhabitants carry on their daily conversations in their thick Irish brogue. I stopped at cafes here and there, ordering a pot of tea and pastry to enjoy as I wrote out my postcards and caught up on my travel log.

Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day was not as green, or as crazy, as I thought it would be. One of the surprise joys of the parade was seeing the Marching Panthers, the band from my alma matter the University of Northern Iowa there. I screamed and shouted when I saw the purple and gold on the street. I do wish I had known more of the local lore, because the floats, all accompanied by dancers and music, told a story I had never heard before.

From Dublin we journeyed back to Belfast to hop a flight to Iceland. We had three days in Iceland and it was not enough. We barely scratched the surface of what there is to see and explore in that country, but every moment of it was breathtaking.

I figured at one point I would stop saying “oh wow,” in Iceland. But around every corner, every curve, the topography changed and our eyes were met with a new landscape. And likely new weather condition. We joke in Iowa that if you don’t like the weather, just wait because it will change. It’s nothing like Iceland. Ten minutes is really all a snowstorm lasts, but it comes on as quickly as it goes. During one hike we went from sunny skies, to rain, back to sunny skies, to sleet and hail and snow, all within an hour.

In Iceland we explored caves and traipsed after the Northern Lights. We saw geysers and swam in hot springs. We stood on a beach formed by lava and felt the spray of the ocean as it chased us on shore, always falling just short of our feet. We pulled over the car more times than I can count, sometimes not even to take pictures, but to just live in the moment.

A week later I’m still riding the highs and lows of the trip. I close my eyes and I can smell the sulfur from the water in Reykjavik and feel the wind whipping across my face as I imagine the mountains to one side and the ocean on the other of the long, winding highway we drove.

I look at my shoes sitting next to my front door and I see all the places they carried me. All the times I stumbled, and all the times I got back up. I see the landscapes, so vast and varied, each beautiful and breathtaking in their own way. I look at my shoes and I long for my next adventure.