Iceland Crossing (350 miles)
Within the first two hours of the trek I entered the marine layer of low clouds pushing through the volcanic hills. Over my shoulder, the coastal town of Husavik tucked into a neat little bay flanked by hills. Above the town, a lupine clad cone towered over the quaint and picaresque whaling village. A large lake nestled into a glaciated bowl just below me. In front of me the volcanic hills loomed although I could only put eyes on the lower flanks. I entered a maze within the barren landscape, the misty ceiling pressing down onto the soft pumice ground. I could not see the tops and the low smothering clouds gave the illusion that the mountains went upwards forever. From then on I was in unfamiliar territory, unknown in every which way. I could hardly visualize what was around me, yet I felt fairly content in navigating with dead reckoning. I could apply my wits. I could use the fitness of my body. I could leave the world behind. I could simply hike by feel. All that said, I would take a compass bearing and feel my way forward stopping occasionally to recalibrate my direction and feel. I stayed alert constantly reading my surroundings even though my surroundings were encapsulated my that thick marine layer driving in off the coast. I started at sea level. I entered the cloud later at 1000ft. I wandered and navigated my way through close to 3000ft. I read the scant contours of which I could sight with my vision. The wind pushed at my back. But, at least the landscape was barren and free of bushy ground clutter and forests. Even if I was fogged in, I could see my way ahead.
I reached a creek outlined with bright green moss. This is the only life one can obviously see here. The vibrant moss and the clamoring creek juxtaposed the quietude of the moonscape. I reached down and filled my bottle and drank half of it. So crisp and cold the water felt metallic. The crystalline water tinged my gullet with the stillness of a pitch black night. The water streamed down my gullet like shooting stars. Occasionally, I spotted some sheep prints, sometimes I saw a bird hopping about; it’s the sporadic plant life specifically here in this biozone, the volcanic hills, that pop out.
The fog hung like silky curtains, damp wool draped from a spool. The mist cling to whatever object it gravitated to, the water magnetic in its humidity. Smothered are the conical tops or flat tops, I am not entirely sure. My vision is obstructed. Yet my mind felt clear, clearest it’s been in a long while. Every once in a while, I would hit a drainage that fell off the bearing I was on. I avoided the deep cuts into the ground and rounded above the drops. Every once in a while, I walked across damp pans, usually dry lake beds in drier weather. An eerie feeling would envelope me, as if tiptoeing across an open space in hopes of no one spotting me. I felt that fog and clouds made me feel hidden from the world, as if no one else existed. As if I was the only person left, with simply nothing left to do, as primal as anything you can imagine, I hiked on, my footprints the semblance of life encrusted on the surface of the moon.
Descending the volcanic hills onto another dry lake bed I could barely see a wedge of brilliant greenery. Was it an illusion, a mirage, all of my mind? The fluorescent green shocked my senses into another mode of discernment. The large triangular patch of green illuminated the dismal ceiling pressing down. Shortly, I rimmed the meadow occasionally trodding on some spongy ground. The lime green meadow splayed within a pan wedged between the pinching barren hillsides. A small creek fell off as a small waterfall into a badland chasm, channels of other small meadows breaking up the plummeting of water. Marked by erosion, the rounded land scarred quickly. I navigated in a meandering manner pushing my way atop patches of tundra, slivers of volcanic gullies and strips of compacted pumice. Out ahead, an expanse of dark green shot in an endless zoom into the low clouds. The land was so flat it angled upwards into the leveled clouds. My perception became distorted. I could not quite figure out what I was looking at. I took a couple glances from the slopes to figure out if I could cross the plains. As I picked my way down, my vision became clearer. I could finally see what was ahead of me. A huge lava plain stretched out in front of me. I looked back up from where I came from and beaming in burnt orange hardscrabble streaked the hillsides, a brilliant green pockmarked the broad ridge humps tumbling down, all below the cloud layer that loomed in stark contrast with its dreary spectrum of grays. I looked back towards the lava plains. I knew the crossing would be monumental. I scrambled down a grassy slope. A road appeared, a really rough road, but a way through. I picked up the rugged jeep track and followed it. After a few miles I entered a hallway of grabens and horsts, huge fissures in the terrain. I glanced back I could see the smear of pumice and crumbled lava rock, grays, browns, and reds adorning the flanks of the hills with a crown of clouds on top, the lava plains clad with a thick green shrubbery extended to the east. I forged ahead as I gradually ascended. Soon enough, a thick mist fell. Soon enough, I found a flat patch of grass for camp on the leeward side of a sharp and craggy lava bulge.
Nearly 24 hours of daylight persist up at this latitude. Once again I find myself living in the extreme of seasons. Two weeks ago, in the southwest corner of Western Australia, I had barely 9.5 hours of daylight. Either way, I will most likely have a lengthy ‘night’ in the tent. On the Bibbulmun Track, I squeezed in as much hiking as I could into the shortened day. I had very long nights in the huts I had slept in. Here in Iceland, the weather will dictate my hiking style. With the impending inclement weather, besides the barren landscape that I will be walking through which will have hardly any reprieve from the unending wind, I envisage my movement to be within a consolidated period of time within the day. I will cover as much ground as I can, only that I will not have imminent darkness to contend with.
Already I feel the biggest difference. I can see the obvious differences in the extreme landscapes and most interestingly I can see the similarities. However, what is already way different is my headspace. On the Bibb, I was winding down the Australian trip. The forests were tall and dark, endless, and the weather became very rainy. My mood dipped when I only wanted to reflect on my Australian trip in peace. Really, what got me through all that was injuring my back. That helped me focus on things other than myself, as weird as that sounds. Yet, here in Iceland, despite the gray globe and blustery weather I am physically walking in, I am in a much more jovial headspace. It might be the terrain and type of travel, which is more motivating to me, more my style. But, I think it is that time has passed. I see myself as a part of my time, an actor in the play rather than the critic. So, for this reason, there’s an accountability I accept. My name is in the credits.
I woke up to drizzle splattering my tarp. I got up anyways and packed up quickly. I followed rugged and muddy jeep track through the lava plains scarred by long fissures and crevices and adorned by flowering shrubs. The mist hung low and caressed gently the left side of my body, a soft parting of dampness that would then dry in the cold wind. I ran into sheep, usually a ewe with two lambs. They would scamper off after hearing me. Quizzically they gave me a stare, obvious their sense of hearing incredible even over the clamoring wind. Little narrow trails within the lava humps and fissures showed how the sheep traveled. I would see them bounding off, hopping from lava bulge to lava bulge and weaving within the thick shrubs. The sheep tickled me, as they seemed so out of place here in the lava plains.
One thing stood out to me as I hit the spectacular canyon of Jokulsa. I had to trust in movement. This seems so obvious to me, a credo I always trust in. The mantra feels more prevalent here. Not just for the sake of mood rather for the sake of survival. I needed to keep moving to stay warm. I took a long break in the shitter at a campsite, the handicap room plenty big enough, thankful for the windbreak. I scampered out once I thawed out and hiked swiftly to regain that heat of movement. The canyon opened wide with basalt bluffs dropping precipitously. Ledges and terraces hung in the middle layers. At riverside, huge prominent sawtooths and spires adorned the banks like fangs in the jaws of a bear trap. Suddenly, I was at the gates of Hell. I looked for Cerebus. I listened for the growls of the hellish dog but all I could hear was the ferocious river silty and brown as the color of runny dog shit. I mean all this to be a beautiful description, too.
As I went up canyon, the day became even more blustery. Waves of angled drizzle persisted, the wind became frigid, yet I was comfortable walking. I ran into series of waterfalls spread a few miles apart as the canyon narrowed and the walls shot straight up. The clouds drifted at the rims and all that really shown out was the serpentine tongue of the glaciated river snake. Up canyon resembled the maw of a serpent, a dark tongue and even darker throat, the most of the waterfalls the steam emanating from the fanged mouth. I went up and around a deep side canyon and into a lunar desert. A compacted gravel expanse spread out into the ether of the gray globe, granite outcrops popped up as imperfect mounds mangled in the nothingness. The drizzle turned into rain and everything felt so bleak, desperate. I ambled over a rise and civilization appeared unexpectedly to me. I thought I was the only person on the moon. Hordes of tourists resembled ants moving back and forth from the parking lot hole. Frankly, I was surprised to see so many tourists this Kate in the afternoon. I guess the day never sleeps this time of year.
I crossed over to the anthill and the white mist of Dettifoss pilfered the gray skies, the defeaning roar trembling a dreary air. I hurriedly hiked down the path. I had suddenly become drenched. I was cold, but I just had to see the monumental falls. I reached the basin shrouded in a thick mist, really a downpour. Dettifoss roared wildly over a basalt terrace and down into a narrow chasm. Compelled by the immense power I went as close as I could to the immense falls. Surging over the lip, roaring murky water spilled and splashed into the abyss and violently flung into the air. A torrent of rain pounded me. Nevertheless, I gawked in amazement like the other ants did. Then, I hiked over to Selfoss, the wide spillage of waters less impressive as Dettifoss. Selfoss resembled a stone garden for whatever resided above the gates of Hell. The moment, albeit brief, ended and the cold sunk into my core. I hiked back to the anthill where the tourist buses and rental cars parked. Through there I went back over a granite mound to the designated campsite. I found a huge boulder and hunkered down behind it, my refuge from the brisk wind. It didn’t feel like a very long day, but it must have been. I got in 30 miles, unbeknownst to my tired legs. I settled in in my bleak rocky domain, again not a soul around, ready to endure the long night of light.
I broke camp early. The anthill parking lot laid as empty and barren as the surroundings, eerie after the hordes of tourists I saw the afternoon before. I strode into ash laden hills. My shoes sunk only about an inch as the gravel was hardened from the precipitation. Although it was early, one couldn’t tell if it was afternoon or morning; I could just feel the silence of morning, the yawning of a new day. Over the first rise I immediately landed on the moon. Soon, desolation followed. The wind slapped at my hood diminishing the silence, vanquishing any solace I may have had over any calmness. I leaned in. The wind blasted in from my right, from the north. I would glance up sporadically mainly focusing my vision on the ground in front of me. I would memorize the terrain and the corridor I would be steering towards. In my narrowed vision against the starkness of the moonscape the tiny beauty of very bright and tiny flowers, patches of simple beauty, would jar the monotony. These patches brought a propulsion of glee to me as if my heart skipped a beat. Then, I would look back up at the barrenness dispassionately. I knew what I had to do: keep moving.
I hiked across the hardscrabble moon, these barren plains of ash and pumice, mounds of volcanic dust. Mist drove in from the north and pulsed in soggy waves drowning out the landscape. The clouds pushed in and dominated two-thirds of any volcano on the horizon. To me, in this dismal gray globe, everything appeared flat. Everything appeared bleak, pure nothing, a void of gray rock. Once again, I had the feeling of being the only one left.
I continued my exploration of the lunar landscape. In low-lying hills I weaved between as an ant between piles of dirt. I traversed around the rounded flanks of a volcano shrouded by soggy clouds. Between two cones the wind would siphon through and blast me in rounds right in the face. I buried my chin in my chest abs pushed forward, the brittle wind drying off the drippings of cold water. The sights around me I am sure would be jaw dropping—Jorundur, Krafla, Hildarfjall. Unfortunately, my views were gone and I needed to succumb my vision to the gray globe. I knew this would last and continue. And, that’s okay; it is what it is. I knew the volcanoes loomed over the barren landscape. I could feel them; I could imagine them. I made it through a craggy lava field, molten rock frozen, dead like molten skin, the earth shedding what is old. The rain persisted, just on my back, my headward direction focused on the community of Reykjahlid.
I decided to wait out the worst of the remaining weather in Reykjahlid. The decision proved to be a good one as it rained consistently throughout the day. It was cold, blustery, and miserable out. I whiled away the idle day revisiting Wes Anderson flicks. I needed some bright color in my life to counterbalance the gray. My inner vision scrambled my antennae with that vibrant green moss lining the waterways, the interstitial space between the crystal and the bleak. I cherished the vibrancy, the intense brightness. I scoured over my route, too. Not that I could memorise any of the Icelandic place names, I settled in on the landmarks. I enjoyed this exercise and became more familiar with the route and place.
It occurred to me, as well, that I have neglected to update my changed plans. Really, it is not a big deal to me. It is just the way things worked out. Allow me to indulge the reader. I had very nearly pointedly decided to hike the AT by the time I had completed my bikepacking route in Darwin. I started the Bibb thinking that would very well be the next trail. But, then my back threw out. That changed a lot mentally. As the pain continued I floundered in my thinking that I could accomplish the AT in the timeframe I had left. Couple that with the pace I needed to attain, a successful attempt just did not seem feasible. The last thing I wanted, too, was to go for the AT and have to bail because of my back. As I finished the Bibb, my back felt fine, just not back to normal. It became a very clear choice to me then that Iceland and at least the High Pyrenees Route would be next. I would finish the year off that way. I knew with my back I could manage 25mpd over the same time period rather than the mid-30mpd I needed to reach on the AT. I am not sure I will be able to get the Gran Traversata de Alpi in within my regaining time. And, that is ok. In some way, throwing out my back relieved some pressure. I could simply try and enjoy myself more out here rather than obsess over the singular goal of crushing the AT. So, there you go; everyone is updated. It is a matter of goals: what is attainable. It is a matter of enjoyment: what would be more fun.
As for an Iceland Crossing, I had this route more or less planned for a while now. For years now I had something scribbled out. In Melbourne though, I really started to narrow down the route and plot down some true groundwork. Of course, within my plannings and upon arrival, some changes needed to occur due to logistical changes within the country. First off, I would start at the whaling village of Húsavík rather than the northernmost point of the island at the Hraunhafnartangi lighthouse. Public transportation terminated at Húsavík and no longer went the rest of the way to Raufarhofn. I did not want to spend an unknown time trying to hitch there when I could simply walk out of town. Secondly, most blog resources go into food parcel delivery into the interior of Iceland. A series of huts exist in the interior and it used to be possible to get touring companies to deliver such parcels to the remote huts. Obviously, this is a crucial and advantageous logistical point. This would really save some west and tear on the body and break up the long carries. As of a few years ago, touring companies no longer provide the service. It sounded to with all the tourism occurring that the touring companies do not want the responsibility anymore of delivering parcels. I think it is not worth the effort to them when they can make significantly more money with actual tourists than being a part time delivery service. Also, I got a hunch that there is just way more and more people attempting to cross the island on foot (by bike too). I imagine the business had to decide which service is the priority. So, I adjusted that part of my itinerary. I used the postal service and shipped a box to Reykjahlid. From there I would carry 7 days or so to Landmannalauger. It is a long carry and I would need consistent mileage, but I thought I could manage.
Myvatn to Landmannalauger (200 miles)
Ok, enough of that crap, back to the crossing.
…silence is a steel blade slicing through the air, gleaming the diamonds of the crystalline cold wet air over the lava beds and pumice hills, carving the silence drooping from the low layer of clouds. Silence is metallic. Silence is sodden. You can taste it in your mouth, over the wind. The wind careens through a vacuum, whistles and whirls through every porous pocket, every hilly corridor, every canyon. The wind is absolute. Underlying the absolute wind is the steely silence. Pockets of it scream at you. I suck at my teeth, my ears ring; there it is.
I cannot even begin to understand the geology of this mangled place. I can barely get to the geology of what it is to live a life. I just understand erosion, deterioration. That’s it. I can learn of that through the visualization of time, through endurance. Sure, I can process lava spewing up onto the surface of the earth. I can understand the planet pulsates, throbs like a living being. I mean, I have heard it groan before out in the empty Great Basin of Nevada. Normally, I can read landscapes, interpret the terrain in front of me, much better than most folks. I tie my imagination with my smarts. I can see it. Yet, maybe it is the enveloped sky that is making my understanding of geology so hard to reach. Probably so it is my lack of learned education in the field. This area is complex, a multi-complex of systems layered and layered on top of one another layer. Chaos is apparent, harshness a normalcy.
The lower flanks of Sellandafjall adorned the silver lunar glow of the steamships of roving clouds. Strips of fluorescent green moss hung like tassels from the volcanic dress. The neon green ribbons lining the gullies resembled alien blood, the stuff from movies, ectoplasm, bright green goop from chlorophyllic colonies, a neon green of glow sticks lighting the way under gloomy skies; here, I knew a volcano mountain stood, something above the waistline. I trodded across barren plains of punchy dust damp from the rainy days. These arid and forbidden plains resembled the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming, just on a gloomy day. I halfheartedly expected at any moment to spot a pronghorn galloping away from me, undulating over rolling hills. I am sure the cloud cover disillusioned my wandering imagination. On a clearer day I would see volcanoes sprouting up and the notion of a pronghorn would seem foolish. But, on a day like this the notion did not seem too unreasonable.
I entered gloomy lava beds with a large river meandering through it. Is this the River Styx? I chuckled to myself. The frozen-in-time lava glistened from the dampness. Water sparkled on the timorous and bulging lava. The lava is recalcitrant in its defiance of time. The lava shows you what it once was for all time. It is old, but fresh. Bubbling and roving water filled every pocket, every inlet in the lava field. Water gurgled up from beneath the lava beds. Everything around was gnarled and mangled lava, old and hard, like steel, the hard roots of a living mountain. Yet, along the river corridor birds flew about and dove into the shallows. Ducks quacked breaking the silence of the misty fog and the gurgling river. The river gleamed in the steely gray light giving frigid glare. On the banks the vibrant and lush vegetation fought away any dreary thoughts of a faraway hinterland. I might be in Hell. But, there is pretty parts. Along the sinuous road tall pointy cairns signaled the way, giant wizard hats distinctively noticeable even in the mist and fog, angled and tilted, pyramidal. Suddenly, the Botni Hut appeared onto the bleak expanse, refuge from doom. I nestled in for the night, cozy and warm, a break from the weather.
Over the black compacted desert shadows do not exist. The clouds have smothered the wilderness, the suffocated fog clenching in and squeezing out the air. The lack of shadows is distorting, one’s bearing is lost. I follow a two track etched into the black gravel. It seems like a traveler has not passed through in a lifetime. All is lost on this new planet. Inhospitable, uninhabited, shadowless; grave. If it was not for the eternal sun, one could not tell what is up from down. Am I walking on the clouds, on the ceiling? Luckily, my footprints crunch with each step; I am on land. At least I doubt that clouds crunch underfoot, anyways. What appears as a shadow is an object unveiling the thickness of fog as I step nearer. Giant boulders unveil from water vapor mists. Small mountains undress the fog like the slipping off of a slumbering night gown made of silk.
A hut emerges from the soulless valley of fog. The hut looks desolate, forsaken, an abandoned lunar outpost. I enter, it has been a half day of hiking. I find solace here, not only from the weather but from the world. Here, I am unbound by any constraint other than weather and my food and water supply. However, I am not unbound by my wants. I desire to see this place other than merely walking across this place. It would seem rather silly for me to continue on today under the shroud of a visually debilitating fog. Like I just said, I find solace here. I will wait, read and write. I will turn on the propane heater and gaze out to the hills that occasionally appear during the heaves of fog. I have the good fortune of time. The thermometer hangs between 2-3 C. I also have the roofed fortune of shelter.
My patience paid off. I left the hut early and almost within minutes I was afforded views both up and down canyon, the volcanic landscape crisp in its dampness. Streaks of rust brown smeared the conical slopes, rust blocks and boulders laid strewn about from the bluffs around, all amidst a sphere of silver gravely slopes angling in. In the middle of the drainage black lava followed the path of least resistance when in liquid form. Fresh snow rimmed the tops. The further I ascended the valley the views widened. Suddenly, I could see what was on the map. Even a couple rats of sunshine appeared, which brought a bright smile to my face. I mean I had been having a blast out here in this wide open desert expanse, but after walking nearly a week this was my first true glance at a panorama, my first chance to feel the warmth of sunshine on my cheeks.
The day continued this way. Really, the only eventful decision I made was deciding to head north around Trolladyngja. At a high rise, with snow clad ramparts of Askja on my left, I could see the lowest parts of the Vatnajökull Ice Cap. Fresh snow lingered in the hills below it where my original route had me going. I already decided not to go for the Askja Crater with the low lying fog and now deep drifted snow; this made sense. The last thing I wanted was to be disoriented on a sketchy slope with fresh snow with zero visibility. I really wanted to get up close to the ice cap though, but I could see the snow inundating the way through. I looked to west and saw huge desert hinterlands snow free. An abrupt promontory shot up and flanked the northern end of the valley. An enormous lava field choked the valley beneath Trolladyngja. The choice was an easy one. I ventured to the west.
After the massive lava field I gradually ascended pea gravel hills bleached gray like old bones, scuffed as if sunkissed. I rolled and rolled over the ashen plateau. Pristine river water flowed out from another lava field in between the ash-laden hills. The cold and crisp water was some of the best o have tasted anywhere. I washed my face off and let the cold wind chap my cheeks. I felt so alive, even amid the desolate hills. I forded the river and once across I hiked back up into the hills with a jovial whistle. Another rise, and another, and I could see the massif Vatnajökull. With interspersed stratus clouds I had bounding views to the south. The rolling ashen hills lapped across the barren landscape like a tattered and worn wool blanket. The hills fell at the feet of glaciers. I could not wait to get down there, to be right up the hulking icy beast. I found a break in a lava bed and set up camp on tamped pea gravel. After a long day of 35 miles, I ate dinner plopped down on the gravel. The midnight sun rose and the rays funnel through the clouds. It was warm out, the wind still.
I woke up early to a brittle wind. The temp had dropped a tiny bit but with the frigid wind the temp hovered around freezing. I got up anyways. Low stratus clouds hung low in the sky but I still had views. I forged ahead into the windswept plateau. The going was straightforward enough. I followed a four-wheel drive track that weaved in and over the ashen hills. The Vatnajökull Ice Cap loomed to the east like something so much bigger than anything surrounding me. The low clouds stifled the illusion of something monumental. But, if you traced your eyes along the angle of rise, you knew a behemoth stood there.
I enjoyed the desolate plateau. Even though one could get dispirited out here in the emptiness, I relished it. This type of environment is what gets me going, gets me psyched. The wide open expanse fills my mind with wonder. I rock back and forth with sublime bewilderment. Give me a horizon and I can barely contain myself. The wind whipped a cold air onto any exposed skin chilling me a bit. I stumbled upon skyline lakes, silver potholes that reflected the sky. I found small streams that tumbled over small ledges into which flattened out in dishpan sinks. Little pink pompom blossoms poked out of the gravel cement and brought me immense joy. Oh, how life finds a way.
I ran into three bikepackers riding across the island from east to west. We chatted at the bridge of the Skjalfandafljot River, a cerulean blue glacial fed torrent. The trio hailed from Iowa. We chatted briefly about our own adventure. Where we came from, where we started, how long; that sort of thing. After we parted ways, I dreamily watched them pedal away into the rolling volcanic expanse. I thought of the bikepacking trip the length of South America in the near future. I longed for the Altiplano again. I dreamt of the Andes. Either way, I took a breather at a breathtaking waterfall to gather the moment back. While I obtained the present, the falls fell off a break in the mulched layer of thick rock, on top piled with gravelly pumice rock, moon dust. The glacial blue water rippled right before the river cascaded over a couple ledges. The river appeared harmonious just before plummeting over the precipice in a fury. Some of the water funneled into chutes, the whitewater crashing terrifically. Once back in the main channel, the river carved its way through a mangled canyon. I left after a spell, all here and about, and headed back into the bleak gray hills.
I attained a huge basin. The scenery opened up dramatically and a long trek ensued across the emaciated plains. As usual, the lazily meandering stream was highlighted by neon electric green. I enjoyed following the curves of the serpentine stream, a long thin snake wiggling its way across the basin. At the head of the basin, a pass afforded an overlook over an enormous caldera. Suddenly, it was apparent a colossal artist had swathed and streaked the taller mountains circling the caldera. Yea, is it not funny how we compare new places to familiar and loved places. The caldera and the ochre painted mountains struck me as the San Juans, that huge volcanic area between Lake City and Silverton. The view was mesmerizing and sweepingly stunning.
The colors changed; the moon transformed from gray and bleak to whimsical and dreamy. The ice cap crept closer in a crisp haze, ethereal as a phantasm. From the pass and I said goodbye to the lunar landscape I had been apart of for some time. To the south an entirely different terrain appeared. I strode across braided glacial river and towards the mini San Juans. Up and over a mound of soft tuff I stumbled onto a punchy tundra. Trodding on a fleshy and muddy floodplain, I watched my footprints disappear behind me. Suddenly, a squall came quickly in, the neon green moss and pointy volcanic cones consumed by the smearing squall. I ascended a pass as the wind raged, whipped, and thrashed, the ululating breath of an uncontrollable wind traversing an island. I didn’t last long at the top. I nearly galloped down the sandy slopes, plunge stepping my way down through obsidian flakes. With a sense of urgency, I propped my tarp up at a somewhat buffeted camp. I gazed across the foggy valley with a seriously furrowed brow and became confused. Patches of snowfields up on the northerly flanks of rounded mountains appeared like drifting cotton ball clouds, out of place, lonesome. The curtains of mist caused a distortion of place and elevation, even more so in my mind having been so wind-lashed. I thought I was dreaming.
I fought the burly wind throughout the night. What buffeted camp I thought I had turned to shit once the wind shifted. Instead of blowing into my lower foot box, the wind funneled into my taller front end. I constantly keep an ear and eye open in thinking my tarp was no match for the menacing wind. I tripped out at the noise from the outside open air. Funneling fingers of twisting wind spiraled in a trajectory right off to the sides of my tent, like phantasms of bleakness shot through its own sucking gravity. After a crazy gust blew two front stakes out I re-pitched my tarp. I stormed up to the trail nearby in my skivvies and grabbed a wooden trail stake. I used that as the lower end pitch. I doubled up my taller front end with my trekking poles, with one of the poles now in-collapsable after the string on the inside of the poles untied somehow. I liked many more lava boulders on each stake to hunker down. No way was I not getting any restless sleep. I laid down again and waited. A funneling finger wrecked past. Another pushed and sucked through. All the sails withstood the tempest. And, then I woke up a few hours later ready to trample the moon dust in vigor, rested and fueled. I braved the night, as silly as that seems. But, in emptiness one must find a way to shelter oneself.
I crossed the first major river within a mile or so from camp. The luster of the silver hills drew me in, a metallic sheen of magnetism that pulled at me. I knew I would have some killer wanderings through those desolate hills. I roved through and every once in a while I would glance back and spot my footprints in the compacted gravel. To me, each step crunching and punching into the gravel felt kind of like that 80s metal pin impression gizmo thingy. The morning sun his behind swirling veils of gossamer clouds. The lighting distorted the distances, light shimmered on the horizon. I exited the hills down a narrow ravine and crossed a milky river at a dark blue tributary, the mixing of the waters bizarre as the dark blue resembled a shadow cast from a tall bank. The splicing of the dark blue stream propelled me even deeper into the world of illusion in the Icelandic Central Highlands, the perfect representation of a Salvador Dali painting.
I continued trudging up the remote wide valley. Isolation permeated through the crisp light and bubbling waters. Soft pumice mounds, detritus from a receding glacier—-this is what a golf course must look like in its construction pre-lawns, fairways and greens. Silviculture aside, isolation continued to permeate this adventure. I simply need large doses of isolation in a very big place. No person around for miles and miles; when I need to decompress I need as much head discs as possible. I get so drawn to places like this and at the same time so repelled by cities or just crowds. Up onto the high plateau I could visualize the path of the receding ice cap, the swath of bleached and grounded rock and ash a snail trail. Soft-piled dunes spread out in a chaotic mess like piles of dirty laundry stacked randomly about. Turquoise tarns filled sinking potholes, gems on that tattered and worn gray wool, those filthy piles of laundry. It was like walking through a humongous gravel pit. The receding of the glacier dredged the rock, scraped and plied the rock into bits. Scree piles and dunes laid as detritus from a churlish moving beast that ate everything in its path. The bigger rock within the piles was worn and smooth, unlike the lava rock in the lava beds. A smooth tarnish colored the texture of millions of rock punched into the black dust.
I kept close to the glacier, hugging the ice cap in my meandering navigation. I knew I had some very large river crossings and I wanted to either hit the bigger braiding parts or have a chance to cross any torrent along the glacial edge. Soon enough, I encountered the Svedja River. I did not linger long as my gaze became swept away in the hypnotic raging current. I would start my gaze upriver and follow a contours of rolling waves of murky water. I traced the crest of the waves and spied the spindrift splashing out of my periphery. The chocolate shake slop blended passed me and my neck turned quickly to trace to flow downriver. I snapped out of it quickly and went for it. About 75 yards across I stepped onto the cobbled banks minutes later. Even though the river reached my belly I never felt out of control. I forged across like a bear, the only casualty the bottom part of the broken trekking pole.
I crossed a couple more channels of turgid waters until I hit another large dishpan basin. The roar of the Svedja River barreled downhill off to the right of me as I discovered a swath of drifted sand that led me between some high hills and a massive lava field. Suddenly coming in from my left out of the hills I encountered a set of footprints. I traced the line coming down and out of the huge sandy hills. I thought to myself that whoever this was must have crossed where I crossed but instead went directly into the hills rather than around them like I had done. Above where I had crossed a the river cut through chasm adjacent to the hills. Above even that a glacier shouldered the high sandy hills like a lumbering backpack. My curiosity piqued. As if shipwrecked I had just discovered another’s existence.
For miles I weaved in the seam of soft sand between the tall hills and the sprawling lava beds. The sand sifted with my cleaving shoes and made for slow-going. Yet, the labyrinthine movement in my little hideaway was very entertaining. Around every bend something new would appear. And with each sighting of a new bend I would be enticed by another new discovery. I was simply exploring and wandering like a child. This brought me immense joy.
The pointy cone of Syori-Haganga became a trusty companion for most of the day, a directional cue, a beacon to reference from my position. Near the southern end of the hills the ice cap came back into view. The lava beds jammed up into the recesses of the sandy highlands. I almost backtracked in a sense to get around the incorrigible lava field. From a bluff, I looked out over the impenetrable lava field and I could see the movement of what the lava was when it was alive and growing and consuming. I crossed the lava on craggy fissures and breaks in the crests hopping over caverns that looked as if the floor had collapsed during the cooling process. I found myself on top of the hills looking down onto the lava field. I headed towards the direction of the ice cap.
After some intentional wandering, I found the jeep track that led to an emergency hut. I had gotten in some 25 miles or so from camp at this point and reaching the jeep track meant I could ‘slow-roll’ it into camp. The rugged track snaked through remnants of lava. I popped in a podcast thinking I could use a break from all the tasks and shift into cruise control. I mean, the weather was great, the sun shining over patchy puffy clouds, some easy navigation ahead…all is good. I curved along a big bend in the road and then I saw it. A huge bombastic river boiled over a waterfall. The tremendous roar louder than anything I had heard up to this point since Dettifoss. I gulped for a second and hoped there was no way in hell that I would have to cross that beast. I glanced at my three separate maps and none had the river marked. Maybe it is the Jokulkambur River, a glacier that is a part of the Vatnajökull Ice Cap. I hiked on towards what I fretted would be a crossing to investigate. At the road crossing, I stood in awe, literally my jaw dropped.
The colossal river raged maniacally, a muddy chocolate menace with unbelievable furor. I was stunned, dumbfounded, but shelved any emotional contrivances aside. I needed to focus. I took a couple deep breaths and strode in to test the power. I tried near the crossing of the jeep track and the turgid river quickly rose up to my thighs. The force of the river almost swept me away right then and there. I retreated.
I hiked upriver towards that crazy waterfall I saw earlier. Silty opaque whitewater crashed into the rocky layers. Some of the sides of the channel crumbled. The river must have been at a high point. I stayed patient. I sobered up. I would go as high up to the braids as possible. I went around and up the terrifying waterfall on river right. I couldn’t cross it anywhere near where I was at or up in the distance at first studying glare. I needed to continue to go upriver where I would hopefully find even wider braiding. About a mile further up I tested the river again at a wide channel. Same results, no dice; retreat.
The waves did not show the power as downriver yet I couldn’t trust the depths in the murkiness. I went up another two miles or so and thought I saw a way. From a rise I could see the milky glacial river braiding and splitting the raging and boiling waters almost down to rapid ripples. I continued clambering over the chunky terrain and crossed flood zones and flooded inlets. I scouted a spot after several minutes. I stood at the cobbled bank and waterproofed some items. The torrent at this spot didn’t seem as nearly dangerous as the Svedja crossing. So, I went for it.
Halfway across the murky chocolate waters the sheer powerful force pushed me down river, my feet scraping into the loamy sandy bottom. I pushed back, fought and battled. I only had one trekking pole to use since I lost the bottom half of my other pole at Svedja. I could feel that I had no control, utterly no strength to combat the incredible force pounding me. I was submerged up to my chest in a raging churlish sea. I recognized I was so insignificant and my efforts were so futile I tried to skid my way back over towards the bank I had come from, kind of glissading my way over. I was so close to the sandbar, too.
I tried to backtrack with the skidding technique but I kept getting pushed down. One wave crashed over me as my feet sank into the liquefied bottom. I gasped loudly as the shock of the water hit my core. I turned my neck and saw some rapids about to come up. I turned my head back and got slammed by a wave. The current swept my feet out from under me and I went down. I tried to force my poles at severe angles to hold me up. I went down further and dunked. In a flash of clarity, I knew what was going on. I flipped around on my back with my feet forward. If I was going to be caught I needed to ride it out. In that moment, that moment I could write into years, that moment that was actually s split second, I consciously decided to flip over and ride the rapids feet first. This maneuver probably saved my life.
I don’t know how I hadn’t submerge completely. Maybe it was my lightweight backpack. I could feel myself bobbing. My head bobbed along the surface. The rapids neared quickly. My zippered half neck gulped a ton of water and shockingly struck my core. My feet kicked trudging water out of the way. I dug my heels into the ground and skated. It all was chaotic! I can just recall trying to figure it out, processing things monumentally fast. I can vivid recall clearly an overwhelming feeling of focus and calm. This was my life at the moment and I was living it thoroughly.
Suddenly, my feet hit a boulder. I nearly straight shot up. I had traction and a secure foothold now. Miraculously, my lone trekking pole stayed clasped in my hand. I reached out to river right to feel the bottom, the depth. I was about 10 yards from the bank. I jabbed my pole around into the dark waters and poked a sand bar. I forged my way over to the bank, stomping and clawing and fighting my way over. If there was a wall in front of me I would destroy it. I fought and fought. Finally, I clambered up. I was out! But, I didn’t have time to dally. I was hyperventilating from the cold. My limbs singe with a burning cold, tingling. I was aware what was happening but I was freezing. I mean fucking freezing.
I started marching upriver. I needed to move a bit normally, like a walking locomotion, to maintain my composure from the sheer cold I was experiencing. So many thoughts began to run through my head.
[Set up camp? Get warm? Where? Fuck me, there’s no coverage…I need to get warm, set up camp you idiot, no…keep moving dammit]
I focused in on my breathing which was vigorously heaving in and out. My eyes bulge out of my head. Two breaths in through my nose, one forceful breath out my mouth. Repeatedly, I did this. I felt my heart rate decrease, the pulse throbbing like a loud drum in my head. My eyes receded back into their sockets.
[I can’t stop, keep going…cross this bitch. C’mon… breathe…C’mon keep moving…go go go]
[Never let me die on a regular hill…the river boils when it sees me…I am not giving up…move you bastard…C’mon]
I stopped quickly and threw on my rain gear. I needed to trap in some heat and needed a barrier against the cold headwind coming off the glacier. I quickly inventoried my gear and checked my phone. I noticed my gear looked relatively in tact except for my sunnies. My phone was fine. I marched. I needed to rejuvenate heat. I trained in on a plan. I was determined to cross this river. I aimed for the glacier another two miles up.
[Head down…breathe deeply, get the eyes back in the sockets…go go go!]
My sleeves streamed out water. I couldn’t believe how drenched I was. Sounds crazy but I was 10x wetter than I could ever fathom. I was 10x colder than that too! With my head down breaking the wind, I got to a channel and crossed it. A small waterfall spilled through icy chutes. I looked up and I was at the glacier. Beautiful and mesmerizing, my mouth opened in wonder. I looked off to my right and the glacial river absolutely raged out from under an ice cave, as strong as any current I had seen. I scanned the glacier above the ice bridge…walkable. Soot and grit covered the glacier. I knew I would have traction, which I needed because I was so stiff and nearly immobile from the cold to do any type of nimble agility. I reached my eyes far over the icy arete splitting the two channels. The other one roared as loudly as the one in front of me but I saw a way around it. I dove into a deep focus. I felt alive and on a mission, driven with purpose, exploration of my depths—-fucking survival.
I stepped onto the glacier and began scaling and hopping over huge ice chunks. Bright blue water sculpted long ribbons and chutes, the melting ice glistening and sparkling. A whole new planet enchanted me as anything I had ever seen. One part chaos end destruction, the other part fairytale. I hopped between rivulets, scaled the arete and crossed the muddy liquefied flats to the banks of the second torrent. The ice bridge here was less in tact, so I had to go higher up on the glacier. I maneuvered my way around safely and hit an unseen channel. Wide and doable, I crossed through the icy waters, occasionally my feet sinking up to mid calf in the liquefied mud. Actually, the mud caked my shoes and trapped in the heat I had worked up. I slopped my way through…finally land ho!
Once on permanent land, I continued to March in gravely hills and dunes. I still needed to get warmer. Now, however, I could ring out my gloves as water continued to stream down my sleeves. Dexterity came back to my hands, warmth developed through my movement, and the wind was now at my back. I gained some hope. Out of nowhere those same footprints came in off from the right through the labyrinth of dunes. This sighting brought me tremendous spirit! Whoever this was had needed to do nearly the same thing I had just done. I just hope whoever it was didn’t have an encounter like I had experienced.
I found a couple of large potholes and gulped some water. I reached into my pack and tore into a snickers bar. I knew now I needed to manage everything else. I was now easily over the 30 mile mark and I wasn’t going to stop until I got more or less dry and thawed out. Then, I hit a lava field. It felt endless, painstakingly so. Still determined as anything, I tackled it head on. Actually, the navigating was easy enough and the lava not too jagged and widespread, I found sandy corridors with volcanic scoria punched in. It made for some pain-in-ass ankle-busting hiking, but this got me warmer. I fell into the trance of walking with the crunch underfoot, the rock and pebbles and dust swishing hypnotically. Under the leeward side of a lava bulge I finally stopped in earnest for a break. I tinged out my socks and my layers. I ate another snickers bar. I had been navigating by my internal interpretation of the land. My paper maps were tattered and drenched. I checked my map and GPS on my phone. I was dead on target. I checked the time and I had been at it since I first saw the river for 3 hours. I looked ahead for any potential water sources. I needed a couple more hours of hiking in to call it a day.
A short while later I found the jeep track. I sighed a huge exhale in some sort of relief. About two hours later I found a small steam and filled up my bottled. I then found refuge under a pile of lava wedged between a bluff on a flat spot in a wash. I set up camp and began the thorough inventory of my gear and assessing my body. My hands had tiny cuts all over them. My fingertips singed with an electric numbness. My shoes and socks were filled with black soot. My left knee hurt, my wrists— both prolly from bracing the force of the water. I had some minor bruises on my shins. My fingertips incessantly tingled and the tiny cuts on my hands burned. I found more scrapes at various spots on my hands and arms. I couldn’t fathom how that happened. I replayed the scene over and over. I couldn’t have scraped the bottom, could I? I was pretty certain I hadn’t because it was so deep. Did I have some symptoms of frostbite?
Everything inside my backpack was unscathed and dry. My phone was good to go, too. My paper maps had shredded at this point. My lighter was flooded and rendered inoperable. Everything had black soot on it, a fine black dust when dried. I kept my rain jacket on and slipped into my silk liner. I unenthusiastically ate a cold dinner of spicy couscous and mashers. I just knew after the day I had had I needed the calories. I had pushed and fought nearly 40 miles that day. Too bad the meal wasn’t hot. I was more or less dry at that point and I longed for a long sleep in a warm quilt and liner. I hoped my body heat would dry everything else off. I nestled my eye cover on and closed my eyes. My ears rang, or a resounding ringing in my head pulsed and throbbed, like I had my bell rung. I must be coming down, I thought. I took two inhales through the nose and one deep breath out the mouth. I did this a couple times and the ringing quieted some, not a lot, just some.
I woke up with the sun angled low in the sky and it blared into my shelter. I felt the warmth on my foot box. My fingers still tingled though. My cuts stung and oozed. I needed to mind the hands. I reached for my lighter and gave it a scuff. Money. I took a breath of relief and boiled some water for coffee. The night had been still unlike the previous night, hardly a breeze. I slept soundly, as well, unlike the previous night. I hardly woke up. I must’ve been exhausted, guaranteed.
The way through got fairly easy and I knew I left the crux long behind me. I got to an intersection near a hut. A sign post lettered ‘Impassable‘ mark the way I just came from. I chuckled aloud: hell no it ain’t. The day ensued in an anticlimactic kind of day, especially after the dramatics of the previous day. The way prices to be straightforward, some walking on soft moon dust. Some driving mist cooled me off, nothing too crazy. The hard part was finding camp, finding a windbreak of some sort. I had to hike a few extra miles to find a secure somewhat covered alcove in some pumice hills. I could feel the end nearing. I would reach Landmannalauger soon, the start of the famous Laugavegur Track. From there I would be 2-3 days out from finishing.
Landmannalauger to Skogar (70 miles)
I took the most sense so and logical way into Landmannalauger. As I neared, the scenery completely changed and spired knobs and cones popped up all around me. Hordes of vehicles drove by. Dust and particulate matter filled the sky. Even so, the striking scene was startling. Each cone resembled dusty chia pets, the mountains covered in a pale sage colored moss and that covered in dust. The pale sage moss glowed with a regal furry eminence, a royal pet. I wanted to bounce on the furriness of the slopes. Trails appeared and I left the road for good and climbed dome after dome. From the last summit before Landmannalauger, a lunar outpost appeared. This was the camp, and it looked as busy and as colorful as Everest Basecamp.
I found a quiet patch of grass within the colorful masses. I quickly set up and headed to the Mountain Mall for some grub. Three school buses painted army green position in a three-sided formation had it all. A really cool vibe, warmth, and quiet. I chilled in a cozy bus listening to Icelandic music and old funk. I was in the bus with the two young Icelandic workers. They were much younger than me but we had similar music taste. We got into some engaging conversation even going into music sampling. We played The Clash’s Straight to Hell, an all-timer for me. We then got into an engaging conversation about the toxicity of the US, how most people are now afraid of Americans because we’re simply assholes and bullies. I wish we can see ourselves from the outside looking in.
I digress, but I sat there with the two Icelanders for about an hour, ate a couple of hot dogs, listened to punk and funk, and just straight up chilled. I left reluctantly because I had enjoyed being there and I didn’t want to go out into the horde of tourists. But, I found a picnic table away from the middle, the perfect observation spot. I grabbed a couple of warm pilsners and sat in the sun. I dried my shoes and socks out. I closed my eyes and indulged the surplus of sunshine. I people-watched and laughed to myself observing the backpackers dressed like mountaineers. How silly they looked to me. I enjoyed listening to so many different languages being spoken at one time. I was in a very happy moment. I slurped the beer, loosened my shoulders, felt the chap on my face smoothen, and I felt grateful I had survived that river crossing.
The Laugavegur Track is a world famous trek. At 55km it packs world class scenery in carrying and changing volcanic landscapes. Hordes of tourists hike the route whether independently or with a tour group. Posh huts and outposts are scattered out every 8-10 miles. I figured to either do it in a day or lay up at the last campsite before Porsmark. I would decide during the trek depending on the crowds.
Up out of camp, right off the bat, you are up in the lava fields and steam vents witnessing the marvel of vulcanology. The trail roller-coastered over an undulating rugged landscape. I just hammered it. I was in a playground with my fitness level. I was practically running. To move swiftly through a landscape like this, negotiating tough obstacles, just motivates the shit out of me. It’s like I can’t stop. I was amazed at how the huge snowfields clung to soft precariously steep slopes. The fields hung in tucked ravines, dusted over, dirty. I got ahead of the hikers leaving Landmannalauger, so I had the trail to myself all the way to the first hut. After the second hut, the scenery opened up and huge rolling mountains rimmed the wide basin. Plumes of steam billowed in the distance. The terrain changed color again and gave that San Juan ochre streaking appearance. What a marvel gazing into a painted landscape. The colors of the soil and terrain mixed with bright whites and tans, brown and mauve and magenta, sepia brown and burnt orange, smoky taupe, smears of cobalt blue dispersed as if thrown over the shoulder at random.
I passed loads of people but I was having so much I wasn’t bothered or crowded. I skipped along with glee. At a lofty pass, a shockingly green valley ranged widely below, the cliffs falling precipitously away from the mangled glaciated and volcanic landscape. Below looked ornate, decorated as if the symmetrical cones were figurines placed by an aesthetician. I couldn’t believe the picaresque view. I scurried down the scree-lined zigzagging trail and headed to the next hut. I ate lunch at the hut with a couple of Pakistani blokes who reside in New Jersey and a pair of Icelandic bikepackers. We dove into lightweight gear and I admired the sleek streamlined set up of the young bikepackers. It was exciting to pick their brains and then pick mine. The Pakistani fellows brought the humor and I enjoyed their company. I got to admit sidling up to the cafe at the posh hut I slurped up the steaming mushroom soup and hot cup of coffee with eager pleasure. Fuck it, I thought, let’s mash it out. That valley I saw from the vista, yea, the track wended around the cones atop volcanic plains. Around every bend and cone another close up beautiful view would enter my line of sight. I felt like a giant running a cones course. At Porsmark, I met the bikepackers again. We did the same track with them a few hours quicker. They had to hike-a-bike up a lot of the steep ascents, even some of the sketchy descents. I grabbed another warm pilsner and shot the shit with them. I stayed up later than usual. I didn’t close my eyes until sunset, almost 1130pm.
I felt excited to wake up the next day and finish the crossing of Iceland. It has been a perfect adventure—-me against the land; me connecting with the land; endurance, living in each precious moment. I even just felt confident, social, open to the world. Such a sweeping opposite feeling and headspace than the aloof person I was on the Bibbulmun Track.
Atop the main ridge leading to the crestline the hazy illumination of the glaciers in the refulgent atmosphere, I had an incredible panorama. I knew it literally was all downhill from that point on. I stopped for one last long break. I wondered if the haze was pyroclastic dust adorning the glaciers. I looked back to the north and the platinum atmosphere walled up in the near distance. The whole trip flashed before my eyes. My vastness I had been a part of was gone. I rubbed my cut fingers. A few blisters had developed, my fingertips still buzzing. I had jam packed a big adventure out here in such a short time. The air tinkled with misty clouds from the offshore flow. Maybe it was from the active erupting volcano west of here? Bah, why indulge further when the southern coast was in sight? Why indulge further when I could reflect when I am completely done. I tumbled and spiraled down the mountain and finally hit the astonishingly beautiful Skogar River canyon. Huge waterfall and huge waterfall appeared, an endless tantalization. What a way to finish. Of course, the Skogafoss Waterfall parking lot was a spectacle of tourist trap, an amusement park. I grabbed a bite to eat, some real food in a real restaurant. Then, I hurried down to the ocean to finish.