After running Björk’s built-in space heater for a few minutes Monday morning, I was able to convince myself to wriggle out of my sleeping bag. I shortly discovered my first serious snafu of the entire trip. Despite the switch being on the lowest setting, my little icebox had been acting as a freezer. Two Cokes and one beer had exploded overnight. I must have been sleeping like a rock.
And so, my first productive hour of the day was spent in the back of the camper, meticulously taking every item out of the icebox and washing and drying it like a dish, then mopping Coke-Zero-beer out of the back.
Mischief managed! These things happen, I suppose. On to the pretty stuff.
First, I drove down to the first of several black sand beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean.
Birds were nesting by the thousands in the cliffs, wheeling for no apparent reason in the air before returning to their nests.
Heading east out of Vik, I drove past fields of bumpy moss, wind-swept grass, and gray moonscapes, always with the mountains to my left and the ocean to my right. There were (of course) plenty of scenic stops along the way.
One thing I’ve failed to mention thus far: the driving conditions in Iceland take some getting used to. First, there are no giant billboards directing you to the major tourist attractions; you’ve got to catch the tiny directional signs, no bigger than regular street signs, as you zip down the highway at 100kph. Second, the side roads to many of the tourist attractions would, in any other scenario, convince you that you’d taken a wrong turn. “Bumpy” is a kind word for it. Suspension repair has got to be a BOOMING business in this country. Much like yesterday’s strange trek to the thermal bath, it’s not until you see the collection of tourist vehicles that you’re sure you’re on the right track.
The major event of the day was a walking tour of the Svínafellsjökull glacier (SVEEN-a-fells-yokel1). I checked in at the mountain guide center and was fitted with a safety harness (juuuuuust in case I slid into a crevasse!) and crampons.
Then myself and 20 other tourists spent a couple of hours criss-crossing a glacier. Yes, it was the one from Interstellar. Yes, it’s quite surreal-looking.
The tour had a funereal feel—our guide pointed out the many places where the glacier had retreated, with lakes growing in its place, and speculated that within five years they’d need boats in order to conduct tours. Glaciers are a dying breed, friends, see em while you can. 🙁
On the way back to the van, it began snowing.
By then it was 6pm and for the first time (but not the last) I had to cut stops from my trip to stay on schedule. Too damn much to see in this country! Sorry I missed you, Svartifoss.2 Instead, I continued east.
At one point I was crossing yet another one-lane bridge (they’re ALL one-lane bridges) over yet another glacial river when I happened to notice two strange shapes in the water below. Are… are those…
Seals were not on my Top 1,000 list of things I expected to see in Iceland. It was a lucky fluke that I’d even glimpsed them from the bridge. The country continues to throw me strange plot twists.
As I “turned the corner” of Iceland and the Ring Road began leading me north, the snow picked up. Before long I was driving through a winter wonderland, with mountains and glaciers alternating to my left. My enjoyment of the snow turned gradually to worry—I was close enough to my stop for the night (at Höfn, if you’re keeping track). But what would the roads be like in the morning? Would tonight be the night that Iceland’s weather shamelessly threw my itinerary for a loop like a fork in a garbage disposal?
FIND OUT, ON THE NEXT EPISODE OF HAPPYWAFFLE!
And now: a Justin Bieber music video shot in Iceland. You’re welcome.
To pick up my camper van on Sunday morning I had to walk to the bus station and take a 45-minute ride back to the airport, only to pick up ANOTHER shuttle and get to the rental agency. But after that and the usual stack of paperwork, I was finally introduced to her.
Now, y’all may know that I always name my cars after female solo artists—Fiona, Tori, Cher, Florence, and so on. And so, uncreative though it may be: everybody, meet Björk.
She’s a stick-shift, the sliding door doesn’t always open, the dome light doesn’t work, the bed doesn’t fold flat, and I love her to pieces.
I drove Björk back to the Airbnb, tossed my stuff unceremoniously in the back, and by 11:30 I was headed southeast out of Reykjavik on the Ring Road.
To call this the best weather of the trip so far is an understatement. The sun peeked through broken clouds above; not a stitch of rain. Later in the day it would be downright sunny.
In most places, Iceland consists of very wide, very flat land backing up to incredibly dramatic cliffs and mountains. Off those cliffs fell one stunning waterfall after another. I could have literally stopped for a picture every five minutes. I joined the throngs of tourists1 at some of the major ones, but there were so many others without even have a spot to pull over. It’s an overwhelming experience.
Then I stopped at a grocery store, bought food, and made myself a PB&J for lunch, just to remind myself that mundanity still exists in the world.
My two afternoon activities each felt like some kind of bizarre cold-weather dare that I, for some reason, accepted.
Dare #1 was Seljavallalaug. Say it with me, now: SEL-ya-va-la-lowg. It’s an outdoor thermal pool that’s so far from the road, parking lot, or any other human habitation that only the ant-trail of fellow tourists convinces you you’re not walking randomly into the wilderness. I hiked almost 20 minutes up a narrowing ravine, carrying my swimsuit and towel in a plastic grocery bag. Finally I rounded a bend and saw… a guy’s bare butt. This must be it.
This place is some kind of life-after-people thing. The pool has been open since the 1920s, but only the barest of maintenance has kept it alive. The changing rooms were in ruin, which meant most of us just changed clothes right there in front of God and everyone, freezing wind spanking us the whole time. I quick-changed into my swimsuit and immediately dipped into the pool, discovering to my dismay that (unlike the Secret Lagoon) it’s merely warm, not really hot. Like hour-old-bathwater warm. Yuck.
There was a thin waterfall trickling down the hillside into the pool, so I backed into this little alcove and let the hot water trickle down my back. (“Naturally hot water” still doesn’t quite register as a logical thing in my brain.) There, I was able to relax for a bit. The mountain in front of me was brilliant in the sunlight. Occasional snowflakes drifted downward. It was pretty darn nice.
The real challenge was getting out of the water.
Dare #2 was Sólheimasandur (SOUL-heim-a-sand-ur). This is a beach where a US Army DC-3 famously crash-landed in 1973, and was largely left there to rot. You can hike from the Ring Road to take a look at the rusting plane sitting by itself on the sand.
The catch is that the hike down to the beach is crazy-long, like, almost an hour of brisk walking. Time and space seemed to lose all meaning as I walked on this straight track from the parking lot. The ocean was visible in the distance from the very start, but absolutely refused to grow any closer. The sun set slowly to my right2 and the wind seemed to emanate directly from it, my shadow stretching off to the left was like a wind sock.
Just when I had lost all hope of ever seeing my family again, the plane finally appeared in the distance. And yes, it is quite strange-looking, though all us tourists hopping around like flies on a carcass take something away from the effect. Still, a neat sight.
Of course it was almost an hour to walk back, this time directly into the wind. (I’m trying not to bitch about the wind constantly, but it’s pretty impossible to ignore.) I made it back and drove another few kilometers to Vik—finally, a place with a short name!—where I gassed up and parked at the camping area.
I wish I could have captured the moment an hour later, in the back of the camper, after I poured the boiling water into my freeze-dried chicken gumbo, set a timer for 10 minutes, and then just sat there, head back, white LED dome light dimly illuminating the scene. Only my hunger kept me from passing right out as I sat there. My watch told me I had reached almost 700% of my daily exercise goal. HOLY CRAP FREEZE-DRIED GUMBO IS SO GOOD, Y’ALL.3
ICELAND FACT OF THE DAY: There are currently no trains of any type anywhere in Iceland.
After enjoying many fun beverages and cool people at Friday night’s improv afterparty, I woke up chilly but well-rested at 8:30 Saturday morning. I’d previously learned that the “oldest pool in Reykjavik” (I don’t know how to verify these things) was just a block from my apartment. So I threw on my layers, walked over, and paid a $9 entry fee to soak alongside the locals.1 I sank into the 42-degree water (yes, that’s in Celsius) and listened quietly to their friendly Icelandic chatter, failing to recognize a single word. It felt like my most authentically Icelandic experience thus far.
My body temperature sufficiently raised, I then spent the $30 Of Shame on a new hat before returning yesterday’s rental car. The rest of mid-day was, as I’d hoped, chillax. I walked along the waterfront and had a perfectly decent burger at a well-known local dive. I wandered through a moss-draped cemetery, shoes squishing in the black leaves under my feet.
I went to the National Museum and saw thousand-year-old artifacts that had, in an amusing number of cases, been randomly found in some Icelander’s attic. In one corner was a shockingly well-preserved jawbone from a Viking woman, who had died in eastern Iceland shortly after 900AD and been partially mummified in the ground until a road crew uncovered her in 1938.
Then I pressed against the bitter wind, back up the hill to the Airbnb. Did I buy a sugar-covered waffle from a food truck on the way?
Back at the apartment, I found a newly-arrived tourist from Seattle in the adjacent room. She said she was making coffee and asked if I wanted some. “Sure,” I said politely, and a few minutes later was handed some sort of coffee-flavored pudding. Lesson learned: never assume the person offering you coffee actually knows how to MAKE coffee. The caffeine burst definitely helped, though, as I caught up on photos and Merlin Works stuff.2 Plus, the view out my bedroom window was not bad at all.
After a not-long-enough catnap I walked through the wind, which I’m pretty sure is getting colder and bitterer by the hour, to the theater for the final night of the Iceland Improv Festival. On the one hand, I should’ve said more about the festival thus far; on the other hand, IT’S NOT LIKE I DON’T TALK ABOUT IMPROV ENOUGH. But it was a delightful night of comedy, with an especial shout-out to the amazeballs headlining set from North Coast out of New York City.
I enjoyed myself at the tiki bar (?!) where the festival had its afterparty, then wandered back to the Airbnb for the final time. The moon rose beautifully behind the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral, and I suddenly realized: the moon is out! For the first time since I arrived, the sky is clear! It might not last, but even at night, it’s mildly exciting.
Back home now. Still sorting through Merlin Works work. Tomorrow at 7:30am, I take the bus to the rental place to pick up my camper van. I doubt that I’ll go off the grid, but the Internet might become spotty for me. Barring a catastrophic volcano eruption, though, you can assume I’m fine.
Gonna abruptly end this entry with some cool graffiti (if this even counts as graffiti) in downtown Reykjavik.
First, some terminology: The Ring Road is the big drive. The Golden Circle is the little drive. Confusing I know.
Today I took the little drive, splitting a car rental with two Brits (Phil and Katy!) and two Swedes (Peter and Daniel!) to visit some of the best views in Iceland within spitting distance of Reykjavik.
It was still overcast when I left the Airbnb—24 hours and counting with no sun—and walked across downtown to the car rental. I picked up the gang in my shiny new Kia hatchback and we headed east out of town, up a wide valley, the low clouds stubbornly refusing to show us the tops of the surrounding hills. As we got higher, white streaks of remnant snow joined the green-gray-brown of the landscape. Native Icelandic horses could be seen along the roadside, as well as various birds—especially swans. An unsettling number of swans.
After an hour we made our first stop: Þingvellir National Park. (Þ is pronounced “th” as in “this,” and ð is pronounced “th” as in “thing.” Yer welcome.)
There we tromped against the wind along a boardwalk, down a Middle-Earth canyon, to the first of two terrifically powerful waterfalls that misted us generously. I requested windshield wipers for my glasses.
45 minutes later we were at Gullfoss, which is professional-grade waterfalling, A+, would waterfall again.
Thirdly, after an errant drive down a comically bumpy road, we made it to the geysers at Haukadalur. One of them is named Geysir. We got the word “geyser” from THIS EXACT GEYSER. It’s inactive today, but another one called Strokkur burst into the air three times during our brief visit. It was a bubbly-cauldron landscape of weirdness. I’m gonna go with Monty Python & the Holy Grail for my movie comparison, just for the persistent random blowing smoke.
The weather throughout the day was nose-runny cold and generally miserable. I believe Forrest Gump would have called it “little bitty stingin’ rain.” But, you know what? Good! One doesn’t come to Iceland for its blue-sky 70-degree afternoons. This felt like an authentic experience. (Plus, there were free refills on the lamb soup at the Gullfoss cafeteria.)
And then came our final stop, the Secret Lagoon, my first Icelandic thermal bath experience.
Thermal baths are to Icelanders what saunas are to Finns, or what breakfast tacos are to Austinites. So, being in Rome, we unbundled ourselves of our various layers; took the required shower (there were diagrams showing the body parts to wash); threw on swimsuits; tiptoed hurriedly from the dressing-room door through the misty 40-degree air; and plopped in.
We were quickly up to our chins in the exceptionally warm water, comfy as puppies. As our bodies acclimated and grew hot, we could comfortably lift ourselves into the frosty air, letting the thermal currents sort themselves out. I drifted off alone for a bit and found a shallow spot where I could sit half out of the water. That very same freezing drizzle, which had rendered me miserable an hour before, now bounced harmlessly away. The sun peeked through the clouds for one of the few times that day, and I even glimpsed bits of blue sky above. I smiled.
Somehow my hat went missing in the middle of all this; no idea how that happened. So tonight I’ll be a meat popsicle, and tomorrow morning I’ll pay way too many moneys (ohmygodsoexpensivehere) for a new one.
It was less of a whirlwind day than this entry makes it seem. Quite a full one, though. By 5:30pm we were heading back to Reykjavik through the intermittent rain, over a snowy mountain pass, past more horses and swans ohmygodsomanyswans.
Tonight: dinner and an improv-festival after-party. Tomorrow: a much more chillax day, mehopes, and the last in Reykjavik. Sunday: I pick up my rented camper van, and the trip really begins.
I slept terribly on the overnight flight from JFK to Reykjavik, occasionally peeking out the window in hope of seeing the northern lights. There was an orange smear of sunlight growing on the horizon when our 737 dipped into a thick layer of low clouds over Iceland. Seconds before touching down, we emerged out the bottom, and I got my first glimpse of the country—mottled soil and rocky coast, all shades of gray this early in the morning.
As a tour bus drove me from the airport into Reykjavik, I had a better view: unkempt fields of green and brown and gray, sprinkled with broken black boulders, fading into mist on the horizon. There were still some smudges of snow clinging to life here and there. Very few buildings in sight; very few roads besides the one we were on. Already, on the ride from its biggest airport to its biggest city, Iceland seemed so beautifully empty.
Finally the city began to emerge around us—heavy industry, apartment buildings, hills and pine trees—and we joined the Thursday morning rush hour (such as it is in a town of 100,000). I listened to the final episode of S-Town so as to drown out the easy-listening music on the bus’s radio. I’m too jet lagged for ya right now, Phil Collins.
I checked into my Airbnb (a charming little room on the fourth floor) then immediately set to work wandering the city. First came Hallgrimskirkja, a tremendous spartan iceberg of a cathedral less than a block away. Then the Settlement Exhibition, more quirkily known as “871 ± 2,” where I saw the archeological remains of a Viking longhouse built sometime between (you got it) 869 and 873. Then at the Saga Museum, I learned about the history of the country, thanks to the goofiest set of wax figures I’ve ever seen.
Lunch was at a famous hot dog stand. The Icelanders are mighty proud of their hot dogs, it turns out, but they dress them in stuff like gravy, mayonnaise, and fried onions. I know what you’re thinking: That sounds gross. But I’m here to tell ya… Yeah actually it’s a little gross.
After recharging my gadgets (with electricity) and self (with a nap), it’s now 4:00 in the afternoon, meaning this is really a first-half-day report. I’ll catch a few more tourist spots before seeing some friends at the Iceland Improv Festival. Tomorrow I’m going in on a car rental with a few of them—two Brits, two Swedes—and driving the famous Golden Circle.
Hmm, I should probably shower at some point.
ICELAND FACT OF THE DAY: Iceland was one of the last landmasses on earth to see permanent human habitation, only 1100 years ago. (New Zealand takes first prize; aborigines settled there less than 800 years ago.)
In 2012, I decided that I would visit Iceland in 2017. Yes, that’s ridiculously far in advance. I like planning things. Just ask my parents about our trip to Disney World in 8th grade—there were dot-matrix-printed spreadsheets.
But, five years is enough time to plan a serious trip. And now, sure as the Mayan apocalypse, the time has arrived. I’m flying to Reykjavik on Wednesday morning, spending the weekend at the Iceland Improv Festival1 in between sampling the tourist attractions and local cuisine.
Then on Sunday morning, I’m renting a ramshackle camper van and spending the next ten days driving the Ring Road (as it’s called) around the entire country.2
Iceland is about the size of Indiana. It’s got about 335,000 permanent residents, but 60% of them live in and around Reykjavik. The rest of the country is mostly empty, wild, weird space; “it feels like someone put the American West in a blender.” It’s played a zillion different planets and fantasy-lands—the glacier from Interstellar is right next to the ice pond where Qui-Gon had a sword fight with Batman, and just down the road from Galen Erso’s farm from “Rogue One.”
There’s a waterfall, beach, gorge, lake, volcano, or cave around every bend in the road. There’s a Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, “The home of the Necropants.” There’s a Phallological Museum, with the excellent URL phallus.is. There’s something called “Interdimensional Hopscotch” (stay tuned on that).
My keyboard is programmed to type bizarre Middle-Earth-looking letters like Þ and ð. I have tips on the best hot dogs and thermal baths. I’ve bought and marked up a giant folding paper road map, like it’s 1986 or something. I’ve got the optional “sand, gravel, and volcanic ash insurance” on my rental car. Just like Disney World, I have carefully-crafted spreadsheets and itineraries—and Iceland’s famously capricious weather stands ready to blow them both to smithereens. (As I type this, a significant chunk of the Ring Road is closed to all traffic.)
It’s going to be a wild time. Watch this space for more.
Today is the 11th anniversary of the most successful April Fools’ prank I ever pulled. Thought I’d document it here for posterity.
I was (really) visiting friends in Cambridge, MA, and my flight landed in Boston on the evening of March 31st, 2004. The next morning, early on April 1, I sent the following email to all my friends back in Austin:
Landed in Boston alright – it is miserable crappy weather here, which will make me oh-so-happy to return to Austin in a few days. Otherwise we’re having fun making crepes at the moment, headed to the aquarium later today.
But first! Got to tell you about my celebrity encounter.
So I get on the subway at the airport yesterday afternoon, headed into downtown Boston, and this cutie sits down next to me. I’m nose-deep in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (thanks Sonali) so I don’t pay too much attention til she looks over and tells me she likes the book. I start flirt–uh, “chatting” with her about the book, and suddenly I realize I’m talking to
Being the smooth operator that I am, I immediately began sweating and jumbling my words. Didn’t want to shift the conversation straight from love-and-philosophy to wow-you-were-in-Star-Wars, but I managed to acquit myself quite well. We continued yakking all the way from the blue line to the green line to the red line (these are subways, people) Finally I got off at the MIT stop, and in the most bad-ass moment of my life, asked if she wanted to get a beer later. “Gimme a call, I think tomorrow might be better,” she said. And Natalie Portman gave me Natalie Portman’s Phone Number!! JEEEEEEEEESUS!
So later today I’ll be placing a call to what I HOPE is Natalie Portman’s phone, and we will see if this all comes down. Whether it does or not it was quite an encounter. I’ll let you all know if I get the hookup with Queen Amidala. More later–
Absolutely EVERYBODY fell for it. (To put it in context, Natalie Portman actually was a student at Harvard at the time.) I got back responses like, “Good luck man, I’ve got my whole office rooting for you.” Over the course of the day, a few people sent follow-up messages after suspecting a rat, but many others were waiting with bated breath to hear how it went.
On the morning of April 2nd, I sent the follow-up:
So I finally plucked up the courage and gave old Natalie a call, and I met her at this Au Bon Pair café near Harvard Square. We still got along just fine; she got the roast beef, I got the chicken. Turns out she does improv, how wacky is that? Not too impressed by my Lego habit, though. Oh well.
Then Miss Natalie asks if I’ve ever seen the whales in Boston Harbor. I’m like “uhh, no, and I’m not likely to in this weather.” She smiled at me. “You scared of a little rain, Texas boy?” “Depends on the company, I suppose,” I fired back. And suddenly she had flagged down a cab and ordered it to the pier.
Bear in mind, it’s like 8:00 at night by this point.
The cab arrives on the shoreline, and this young tart leads me through a couple of gates, past a security guard, and out to her family’s yacht! The thing is like a 40-footer, called the Queen Amidala. I guess it pays to have a movie star in the family. She’s got me untying lines around the ship while she fires up the motor, and before I know it we’re piloting out of the harbor in the 40-degree, rainy darkness. I couldn’t figure out if it was really romantic or really weird. Maybe both.
We get to the point that we have a full view of the Boston skyline, which is really pretty through all the haze. Like I said, it’s utterly frigid, so Natalie wraps my arms around her. It was real nice; I had gotten over the whole my-God-you’re-a-movie-star thing, and we were just two kids having some fun. I’m just thinking about kissing her when she says “I’m real glad you could make it out here, Kevin.”
“Well, you sort of dragged me out here,” I remind her.
“That’s not what I mean,” she said, and turned to me. “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
Is this about to get a little too romantic? Am I going to have to tell NATALIE PORTMAN that “she’s a real sweet girl but”? I try to keep it playful. “Oh have you?”
“Yes,” she answers, and takes a step back. “We all have.”
It’s then that I realize the sky has cleared overhead. Stars are peeking down at us. It looks like they’re spinning; then suddenly I realize that the BOAT is spinning!
Natalie looks at me, and fire leaps up in her eyes. “You thought you could escape, Agent Ploo, but we found you. Now you are going to pay for all the Flimopps you killed on the moons of Tauridius III.”
I look around, panicked. Another Natalie Portman climbs over the side of the boat. Then another. Then another. I’m surrounded by Queen Amidalas. It’s a little disconcerting.
“Time to die, Agent Ploo,” says the original Natalie, and she raises her hand; before my eyes it changes to a Flauvian Phase-Matter Generator.
That’s when my survival instincts kicked in.
With a single kung-fu move, I spun one of the Natalies in front of me and she caught most of the Phase-Matter. With my other hand I reached for my Hyper-Pulse Rifle and levelled two others. Three more Natalies tackled me from behind, but I was ready for that; I dispatched two by knocking their heads togather, and threw the third overboard.
That left me with the main Natalie, the one who ordered the roast beef. She was growing tentacles as I watched, and her voice suddenly dropped several octaves.
“Most impressive, Agent Ploo,” she said, rearing high above me. “I suppose you think a mere blast from a Hyper-Pulse Rifle is enough to kill me? Ha! I eat Hyper-Pulses for breakfast!”
She reached for me with one of her tentacles. I pulled out a lighter and a can of hair spray.
“Eat this, bitch.”
FOOOOOOOM! The Natalie queen lit up like a Malatov cocktail. She flailed around the deck of the ship, and with an expert kick I sent her off the bow. She got sucked under, and the propellers spewed out nothing but red seawater.
So I was kind of stuck at that point, cause hell if I know how to drive a damn yacht. Fortunately a Coast Guard ship was just scooting by to see what all the fuss was about, and they gave me a lift back to the shoreline. I shared the whole story with Wilbur, a bright young Coast Guard coxswain.
“I guess going out with a movie star ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, huh, Ploo?”
I laughed good-naturedly. “Call me Kevin. And it’s not so bad, Wilbur; Natalie was a good kid. She was just born on the wrong side of the asteroid belt.”
The ship cruised back to the safety of Boston Harbor.
My second-favorite response came from Ryan, who said:
You had me up to “yacht,” at which point I said “fuck you” about ten times.
My first-favorite response came from Sonali:
Hahaha, you really got me. Can’t wait to hear how it really turned out!!
The first leg of my roundabout trip to Nashville had one interesting aspect that I forgot to mention in the previous blogpost: I shunpiked. This is a word I just learned, but it’s perfect. In the hopes of a more interesting drive, I deliberately skipped the direct route (in my case, Highway 290) and for long stretches used its predecessor, Highway 20.
Shunpiking is a fun way to travel an otherwise boring route if you’re not in a hurry and your car’s suspension is in working order. The latter becomes evident almost immediately as you bounce like a moon buggy along a neglected two-lane road, some of it dirt or gravel, the modern highway often visible only a couple of hundred yards away.
Trees hug the sides of the road (some of them surprisingly colorful; take that, upstate New York). Buzzards the size of Cessnas occasionally swoop past. Importantly, the old highways actually travel through the towns that the new ones were designed to bypass. The forgotten downtowns typically include a half-dozen historic brick buildings, one or two of which have been turned into antiques shops, either or both of which has itself gone out of business. And the rest is left to decay. It’s either exhilarating or depressing, or both. …
I’ve got an interesting Thanksgiving week ahead. Goes a little something like this.
1. Driving to my mom’s in Nashville, and visiting my aunt and uncle west of Houston en route. If that sounds circuitous, it is: I’m taking a deliberately-roundabout route to get there so I can knock off 17 Texas county courthouses on the way. To wit:
2. Spending three days in Nashville. My mom and her wife always have a Big Gay Thanksgiving for a bunch of their friends, so I’m looking forward to some fabulous turkey.
3. Driving back from Nashville to Dallas on Sunday night. Spending the night with my high-school buddy Mike and his family. Knocking out five more courthouses en route:
4. Waking up early Monday morning—when I should be back at work—and driving back east, to Texarkana, to give the deposition for my upcoming lawsuit. (Going to court! It’s ironic! In the Alanis Morrisette sense.) Yes this back-and-forth is a titanic waste of gas, but I get to see Mike and family, and it’s preferable to leaving Nashville at 4 in the morning. Plus, hey, more courthouses!5. Finally, some time Monday afternoon, heading back to Austin. And yes, hitting as many courthouses as I can on the way back before the sun goes down—hopefully the ones in Daingerfield, Pittsburg, and (appropriately enough) Quitman.
There’s the plan. I’m leaving momentarily. Wish me and my car luck.
I’m not proud of it, but it’s nothing new—even as a child, to the frustration of my mother, I used my Lego sets as model kits to be assembled, not tools for pure creativity. Today I’m a true aficionado of Legos* and although I constantly marvel at the creative output by Lego fans around the world, my own collection sits largely unused, carefully sorted into an enormous card catalog. Others might find all of this rather surprising, given my unconditional love for the little bricks.
All this is to say that I might be the perfect customer for Pley, the Netflix for Lego sets.** Pley’s business model is straight-forward: pay a monthly fee and they send you one Lego set at a time. Build it, play with it, keep it as long as you like, mail it back, and they send you another one from your queue.
Certain potential customers might immediately disagree with the entire premise. Who would want to acquire a Lego set without actually owning it? Who’d pay money to a company just for renting toys?
Well, me, for one. I enjoy the simple act of starting with a big pile of Legos and ending with a spaceship (or truck or whatever, but come on, you know I mostly want spaceships). I think Lego designers are enormously talented and produce some really innovative designs that are a joy to construct and then swoosh around the room (SPACESHIPS!). Most crucially, I have more than enough Legos to my name, and no space or desire to add more. But being able to build, appreciate, and return sets? Fantastic.
So a few months ago, mere hours after learning of Pley’s existence, I forked over the cash for my first month. Pley offers three membership tiers: Fan ($15/month), Super Fan ($25), and Mega Fan ($39). The sets available at each price level would normally retail for $10-15, $20-30, and $50-500, respectively. It’ll surprise nobody that, once I was assured that this wasn’t an elaborate scam, I quickly upgraded to Mega Fan.
First step was to select Lego sets for my queue (called the “Pleylist”). Pley offers almost 200 sets as of this writing, divided across the three tiers. (If you’re a mere Super Fan then you can’t select the Mega Fan-level sets, though you can add sets from a lower tier.) Pley is rather insistent about keeping “at least ten sets” in your Pleylist at all times, for reasons that’ll become clear shortly.
Sets arrive in a bright red envelope or box, with the set’s pieces zipped into a reusable mesh bag inside, along with the instruction book and a return label. (More than one delivery guy, upon hearing the rattle inside the box, thought I’d ordered something that was now terribly broken.) Pley encourages you to keep and play with the set as long as you like before returning it for another. There’s no charge or penalty for missing pieces upon return, which is obviously a relief, but might also be a bit of a liability (see below).
The bricks and instructions are almost always in good shape. Pley claims that they clean and sanitize the bricks between renters, which is comforting when you imagine some anonymous fellow member prying bricks apart with his teeth. I’m not sure the cleaning happens every time, though, since sets sometimes aren’t fully disassembled. More than once I’ve found a still-assembled cluster of Legos in my bag, then faced the odd moral conundrum of whether I should take them apart so as not to deprive myself of building the entire model.
Sadly it’s in putting the models together, Pley’s raison d’etre, that I found the single most irritating aspect of the whole experience: missing pieces. Lego is famously fastidious in its quality control, and missing pieces in sets are extremely rare. Scouring my brain, I can remember missing a piece out of the box exactly once in my decades of Lego purchases. That’s a fantastic track record.
Not so with Pley sets. In five of the six sets I’ve received, at least one piece has been missing (usually either one or two). Early in my membership they would include a small bag of 10-20 “frequently missing” pieces, but alas, the grab bag never matched up with what I needed. Pley also has a useful webpage for you to select and order Legos from the inventory of what came with the set. But then the site displays an icky warning that it’ll be a long while before the missing pieces arrive in the mail, and politely suggests that you might simply return it or play with it as-is.
I took their advice, and substituted the missing parts from my own carefully-sorted collection. It seemed to be the rules of the game, so to speak. The worst offender, however, was a tow truck set that lacked over 50 of its 800 pieces, including two of the large wheels, which left the completed truck looking in need of a tow itself. Given this, the overall build experience was frustrating, even more so than you’d think. Any experienced Lego fan knows well the momentary panic of thinking that a crucial Lego is missing, and then the relief in finding it hidden under another piece. With Pley sets, the stress is real, and often repeated. It’s advisable to have a personal Lego collection to supplement missing parts as I did. But then you need to keep track of what you’ve donated. Again, it’s more of a hassle than it seems.
It’s hard to know how Pley can correct this problem permanently. Since Legos can weigh as little as a tenth of a gram, they’d need very careful measurements of their sets upon arrival to even detect a problem, and then they’d have to inventory the entire set to find out what’s missing. So the obvious response—charging or penalizing customers for not returning the full set—can’t possibly be made cost-effective. Still, though, I’d think they could have at least realized that my tow-truck set was 10% light before shipping it out. Even more obviously, they could allow you to report missing pieces without requesting that they be sent, for the benefit of the next member. (Pley states that they’re planning this feature.)UPDATE: As a part of the ongoing website/branding relaunch, Pley just introduced Pley Detective, which lets you do exactly that.
After enjoying and displaying my sets for a few days, I tear them back down (almost as much fun, for some reason), drop them back in the bag, and mail the set away. Then comes my second-least-favorite part of the process: the unpredictable wait for the next set. The shipping itself can be slow, sometimes painfully so (a good transaction might take a week from shipping one set to receiving the next). And Pley is completely unpredictable as to which set from the Pleylist they’ll be sending you. Though you can sort your list by preference, I’ve received sets that were as far down as 10th on my list—the nicer sets are in high demand and low supply, it seems. Those at the very top of my list, like the $400 Death Star, seem frustratingly hard to get.
DEPRESSING UPDATE: I mailed off a set the day after posting this review, and was informed via email two days later that the new set being sent to me is the 17th on my Pleylist. …Out of 17 sets. Dead last. Adding insult to injury, this set is at the Super Fan level, meaning that for the current rental at least, my $39/month is paying for something I could have gotten at the $25 level. Discouraging, to say the least.
Update 2, just for my own record keeping: the next set was the UN Building, 9th out of 16 sets. It was a Mega Fan set, at least. New policy for my Pleylist: no more “nice to have” sets, only ones I’m actually excited to receive. It’ll be interesting to see if the list gets pared down to its bare bones as sets are sent to me faster than I add new ones. I’m also curious whether I’d have better results if my list *only* consisted of the hard-to-get sets, but I suppose I’ll soon find out.
Update 3, since this post is still getting some attention: My queue basically went out with a whimper. I stood my ground, and eventually I had about 10 Mega Fan sets on it, none of which were being shipped to me. After a month of waiting, I cancelled my membership. And that was that.
Investment in their inventory would surely help. 190 sets in their current catalog sure seems like a lot, but I really only had 20 or 25 that were of interest to me. On a related note, I receive no notification when new sets are added to their collection, and there’s no way in the current website to sort by “recently added,” making the search for new sets feel like rummaging through a used-DVD bin.
These all might be growing pains. Pley is an interesting business concept and it’s certainly in its “plucky young startup” phase, down to finalizing its name and branding. And it certainly picked the right year to open up shop. As linked previously, they’ve got a page up at http://pleygo.uservoice.com where users can submit suggestions. They’re also running miscellaneous giveaways and other contests, and inevitably heading toward social media by inviting you to upload a gallery of your creations.
So I’m sticking with them to see how well these wrinkles get ironed out, and what else they have planned. Even with flaws included, they still solve a very particular problem for me, which is the highest compliment I can give any product or service. I hope they stick around for a long while.
Update 3: Alas, I reached the end of the line. As mentioned above, I began deliberately allowing my Pleylist to shrink, so that it only consisted of top-tier sets that I genuinely wanted. What followed was two long months of nothing. Not a single set shipped to me. I was reminded multiple times that Pley recommends more sets on one’s list, but for $39 per month, I shouldn’t have to add mid-level sets just for the pleasure of receiving them. Thus ends my experiment, in frustrating fashion, since I really rooted for Pley to succeed. But their time simply ran out.
*Yes I call them Legos, just like every other red-blooded American. I say “y’all” too.
**They were called Pleygo until halfway through writing this review, when they relaunched with what seems to be a much-improved website. One imagines they’re not only steering clear of Lego lawyers, but positioning themselves to offer other types of toys in the future. Either way, I like the change.