Iceland Adventure

One woman’s Iceland vacation: a 50-mile hiking trip across a lunar landscape.

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Iceland’s famous Geysir
Photograph: Photo by: Jes

Or at least I do now; in my novice years of decluttered adventure travel, I confess to having overestimated my T-shirt needs. At first, I gravitated toward middle-priced U.S. companies that offered beginner itineraries to much-traveled destinations: the cheese-producing Auvergne region of France, and apricot-colored Tuscany, where our well-heeled group had to beg like underexercised racehorses for longer walks. Then I graduated to operators based outside the States who placed less emphasis on the American taste for six towels per person, per hotel room. I hiked the steep mountain trails of Morocco with a group of young Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis, losing track of my age (except, that is, in my knees) as we talked easily about music, movies, hometowns, and passing shepherds. A year later, I trekked around Turkey, spending a memorable night on the floor of a farmer’s living room while the women of the house cooked over a hearth pit. With each trip, I challenged myself to do more with less: more trail covered, fewer changes of clothes, fewer opportunities for shampoos.

Trip of a Lifetime

And that is how I came to Iceland, a hardy island that has always tantalized me with its alluring self-containment, its beautiful harshness, its dried fish, and its rock music. Iceland, land of sagas, midnight sun, and 99 percent adult literacy, where over half the population believes in hidden nature sprites called huldufolk. Iceland, a place where few American adventure outfitters go because there’s no comfort grade higher than basic to be found in the shelters along the rough hiking trails.

In my quest to explore a bit of the relatively young yet prehistoric-looking landmass, I found Isafold Travel, a small Reykjavik-based company that offered an eight-day hiking trip, which culminated in an add-to-the-life-list march along the 33-mile Laugavegurinn Trail into Iceland’s meteorologically temperamental interior. From mid-July to mid-September, the dramatic route, with its ice fields and thermal hot springs, is accessible to those willing to leap over streams and wade through floods caused by melting ice. For the rest of the year, it’s more suited to the march of the penguins than to the march of the people in Gore-Tex.

Not that I knew anything about the Thorsmork to Landmannalaugar trail (also known as the Hot Springs Route) at the time. And I certainly didn’t know that Dr. Hickory Stick and I would be the only Americans. Or that I would share confidences in French and English with a Quebecois social worker as we plodded through glacial slush — Michele and her husband, Claude, turned out to be expert survivalists stocked with emergency whistles, wound disinfectant, and duct tape — and trade tongue twisters in Spanish and English with two dark-eyed Spaniards whose mothers were probably younger than me. I simply knew that I was in reasonable physical condition, that the cost of the tour was modest, and that for the first time in my postcollege life, I was ready to forgo the dignity of my own room in pursuit of authenticity.

Pay-Per-Use Showers, Flash Streams, and Ambien

Northward ho! And ow — the trip was bloody arduous. Sizing me up that first night in the candlelight, after trudging to our hut through snow and ice for the better part of an afternoon, Claude diplomatically chose not to tell me what he could readily see: My boots were too light, my gloves weren’t waterproof, and my rain jacket could have been sturdier. (Had I not brought along hiking poles, I would have been in big trouble.) Blissfully ignorant, I set forth in the wrong boots and ate everything put in front of me. "Do you have salt?" asked Doerthe, one of the German women, at our first dinner of lamb, potatoes, and coleslaw. "We don’t have anything!" replied Siggi with a giggle.

After a breakfast of muesli, cheese, bread, and tea the next morning, we trekked over more snow and ice and tried to scale down a steep glacier that frightened me. (Full disclosure: I hung back and watched the Spanish boys, Jesus and Gustavo, whoop and slide, then climb back up.) At our second, more "luxurious" hut, we were revived by access to electricity, toilets and pay-per-use showers that we gladly fed with krona coins to produce blessed three-minute streams of hot water. By 11 p.m., the sky that covered us was the color of midafternoon.

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