Days 40–49, September 3rd–12th: the Rocky Mountains (2)

Greenhouse gas emissions (CO2eq): 2,335 kilos (still working on it…)
Sigurðar saga fóts: 212/252

So I had this colleague, right, who was, like, maybe some of our lectures would be less boring if we did them as debates. You know, who would you rather save from a burning building, Geoffrey Chaucer or Marie de France, that kind of thing. Which I thought was a great idea (except that I always lost). Then this colleague left, right, but the debates remained, only now my sparring partner is someone who’s always, like, well, really we should save everyone from burning buildings and they all have their own individual merits and worth. I mean, I know she’s right, yeah, but at the same time, that’s not the point of a debate…

So which would win in a fight, Iceland or the Canadian Rockies? Bearing in mind that the only acceptable evidence in this debate is my own eyewitness reporting. In the case of Iceland, most of the coast, particularly the south coast and the Eastfjords, but not the Westfjords; in the case of the Rockies, Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and Camloops. In both cases often with people who like to appreciate the natural world from inside cars, pausing to get out for specific natural wonders; but also with sporadic proper hiking.


So the rockies kind of win hands down: bright sunshine or moonlight for ten days solid. During the day, temperatures were higher than I’ve ever seen in Iceland; and when did Iceand ever go ten days without a cloud passing?! But then… I kind of started to miss clouds. And drizzle. I’ve been quite glad of both since coming West to the Pacific coast. And there’s something about the breezy freshness of the North Atlantic air that I started to miss… And if it weren’t for all that rain in Iceland, you wouldn’t see so many rainbows. Or those fleeting moments when the sun comes out and you’re like, now I remember what hope is! Iceland, I have been so spoiled by my good weather-fortune in the Rockies that I miss you and your weather.

Iceland: 1
Rockies: 0


It appears to be the done thing to come to North America and go, wow, everything’s so big! The cars, the plates, the people, everything! Mostly I haven’t noticed this very much, particularly over in Toronto; though Cheektowaga and Calgary and Camloops all did look sort of over-spacious, and obviously there were the monstrosities of central Chicago. But the Rockies: they’re totally big! They do make Iceland’s mountains look kind of dinky. In fact, even just the surface area of the Canadian Rockies makes Iceland look dinky. On the other hand, Vatnajökull looks upon the Columbia Icefield and laughs. On the other other hand, poking around at the edge of a glacier, which is all I’ve really done in either place, feels much the same. You’d have to put in some serious effort to appreciate Vatnajökull as a vaster place than Columbia Icefield. Hmm, except that Skaftafellsjökull made cool, scary rumbly noises and left these beautiful stones in the morain that looked like normal stones until you accidentally touched them and, their internal cohesion long since destroyed under the pressure of the ice, they disintegrated into a thousand pieces. Spacy! I’m torn. The rockies are more impressive, Iceland is more homely, in its drizzly way. I guess if you’ve been following the blog so far you’ll have a guess which I’m likely to prefer…

Iceland: 2
Rockies: 0


Transparently meaningful place-names! Both Iceland and the Rockies have these, but in Iceland, you more or less expect them. Akrafjall, the mountain of the fields; Eyjafjöll, the mountains of the islands; Vestmannaeyjar, the islands of the Hebrideans. It’s cool. But in Britain, English-language mountain names were mostly last transparent in the seventh century. Well, there’s Snowdon, the first element’s still transparent, fair enough. But it was really cool to be moving through this landscape where the names are fully alive: the Big Beehive. Because it looks like a big beehive. Emerald Lake. Which is the same colour as an emerald. PYRAMID MOUNTAIN! Because it looks like a PYRAMID! Okay, so some of these names are more inventive than others, and who knows what arrays of older names have been steamrollered off the maps. But I was still, like, wow, this is how the English landscape must have felt back in the day. I guess both places should score equally on transparenly meaningful place-names, but like I say, you expect it in Iceland. In the Rockies it was new!

Iceland: 2
Rockies: 1


The Rockies have trees! Trees are cool. They’re so cool that I’m going to do a whole separate post about trees, with pictures. The Rockies have cool trees. Iceland just has some scrubby birch. In the hot weather I’d be walking through these pine forests in the Rockies and I’d smell the smell of pine and be like, hey, that’s the smell of pine! Like, in real life, not someone trying to make their toilet smell funny. But after a while, it’s, like, yeah, sun, pine, pine, sun, more pine, I mean, it’s not birch is it? It’s sort of hot-and-resinous, not cool-and-breezy. You wouldn’t beat yourself with pine in the sauna, would you? It’s not the Reykjavík smell. And, you know, with pine there wouldn’t be any ruska. And although I really respected these pine forests in their own way, you don’t half have to walk a long way before you finally get over the treeline and can actually get a view. No problem with that in Iceland. The trees in the Rockies have their place, but they don’t win!

Iceland: 3
Rockies: 1

The Northern Lights!

Wow, the Northern lights! I sort of once glimpsed these, vaguely white, from a train window north of Tampere, but you couldn’t see much. And later in life I realised that I had actually seen them in Ireland in 1996. My uncle came into the caravan one evening and was, like, there’s something funny in the sky outside. So we go out, and there’s this funny white band stretching hazily across the night sky, and we wondered if it might be a cloud, or maybe smoke, but none of these identifications seemed to fit. We couldn’t work out what to do with it, so my uncle christened it a moonbow and that was that.

Then I was living in Iceland in 2010, right, and I was just walking back from the pub in the small hours through Reykjavík, and I was, like, what’s that up in the sky? I wonder if it’s a funny shaped cloud? Or maybe smoke? And I stare at it, right, and then it starts to move and get green bits on it, and I’m, like, it was a MOONBOW!! And now it’s the Northern Lights! And then it had RED BITS on it too! It was totally amazing, all the more so for being unexpected, I was just blown away, there next to Reykjavík airport, squinting through the streetlights without a soul around.

I didn’t seen the northern lights as much as I’d have liked while I lived in Reykjavík because Mávahlíð is too far into town. Needed to be by the sea really. Still, I did get to show them to an ex-student one time: that was cool too. Made me feel like I’d finally given the guy something that you could call an education.

Then, right, me and my travelling companions were playing Dutch Blitz, this card game brought to us by the Pennsylvanian member of our rabble, and it’s quite fast-moving, right, so it can be a bit loud. And the lady who ran the B&B we were in was a bit of a stern sort of character. On arrival we were given, in oral and written form, a long list of things we weren’t allowed to do (cook onions, let any children in our party play in the garden, that sort of thing). And I’d just won, for like the only time ever, this game and shouted BLITZ! (Which is what you do to win, only you have to have got rid of your cards too, otherwise it would be too easy.) And there’s this knock at the door. And we’re all, like, oh no, now we’re going to be in trouble :-/ So I answer the door, and it’s the landlady saying ‘Do you want to come and see the Northern Lights?’ Woo! So out we go, and there they are, turning from a moonbow into northern lights and back again. And we got the pajama’d early-sleepers in this motley collection of travellers out of bed and then drove to Pyramid Island to watch them in the proper dark. And, you know, they came and went pretty quickly, but still, it was cool seeing the Northern Lights in company.

I think it has to be a point each way on Northern Lighteration.

Iceland: 4
Rockies: 2


Wow, so Iceland and the Rockies are both seriously Geological Places. Like, the kinds of places where uplift and erosion are laid bare for human appreciation; where you get glaciers and glacial rivers, and U-shaped valleys and V-shaped valleys, and hanging valleys and stuff. So it’s a close call, and I guess geology points count disproportionately to ultimate victory. The Rockies are totally prototypically mountainous. I mean, you look at an Icelandic mountain and there’s no doubt that it’s a mountain. But you look at a Canadian mountain and you’re like, it is MOUNTAIN! So much so that the very word MOUNTAIN starts to look weird because you’ve stared at it too long. And that thing about fractals–how a mountain is made up of rocks that look like mountains, which are made up of stones which look like mountains, which are made up of, er, stone-molecules that look like mountains… or something… the Rockies are totally like that! Maybe that’s why they’re called the rocky mountains. Icelandic mountains don’t really look rocky the way that the Rockies do. I guess lava isn’t so obviously fractal a mountain-building material. It just lacks frac.

So this kind of comes down to a sedimentary-or-igneous debate. I was cadging a field trip with some vulcanologists in Iceland one time and looked down at this meandering river and innocently asked something like, wow, why’s that river meandering like that? And they turned and stared at me with, if not contempt, then at least blank amazement that I should so much as ask so lame a question. And then said ‘That’s the kind of thing a sedimentologist would ask’. Ever since then I’ve felt this welling sympathy for sedimentologists, the underdogs of Icelandic geology, the people who work on slow-but-sure accretion, little-by-little erosion, rather than pyrotechnics. Maybe it’s because I’m a philologist… So, yeah, the Rockies are very sedimentary. In, like, amazing ways. Everywhere you go you can see the grain of the rock, sometimes at alarmingly non-horizontal angles. It might be a little stone you’ve picked up, or it might be a whole chain of mountains that you’re looking at through the thin air from the alpine pastures of Pyramid Mountain. It’s the fractals thing again, how the peak of a mountain crumbles away just like an upended bit of slate, only one’s small and near, and one’s big and far away.

And the Rockies have FOSSILS! They have AMAZING FOSSILS! Of PLANTS and SOFT-BODIED SEA-CREATURES! Iceland hardly has any fossils. Igneous rocks aren’t very conducive to fossils.

But… the Rockies are kind of brown and light grey, whereas Icelandic mountain for the most part is BLACK. At first it’s a bit disorientating, but mountains—and beaches—do look good in black. It, er, sets off the grey of the sky. Does being near the sea count as an unfair advantage? Fjords are cooler than valleys, but maybe that should be discounted for the purposes of this competition. But still, that shade of brown reminds me of my irritatingly brown manuscripts.

Arrrgh, so difficult. I think if the Rockies were both as big as they are AND black then everyone there would just curl up and weep in terror. There’s something cosy about the brownness, even as, I grudgingly suppose, there’s something cosy about those crappy old Icelandic manuscripts. I think the Rockies win on geology.

Iceland: 4
Rockies: 4

Arse, now I need to do a tiebreaker.

Trolls or Sasquatch?

Trolls obviously!!

Iceland: 5
Rockies: 4


About alarichall
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1 Response to Days 40–49, September 3rd–12th: the Rocky Mountains (2)

  1. Pingback: The blogger you have selected is busy; feel free to choose one of these links… « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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