On our third day, we explored the mountains and gorges of Thorsmork, clambered through the Stakkholtsgja gorge, and spent another night in the hut whose name I preferred to translate from the Icelandic as "place with showers." In a gesture of group bonding, the Brits, Jonathan and Marion, produced tea bags, and even better, an ambrosial half-liter of Scotch. That night, the hut vibrated with snores of hard-earned exhaustion.
Cross Between a Refugee Camp and a Lunar Paradise
And so our U.N.-flavored expedition team settled into its own viable rhythm and flow. We devised an informal rotation to fulfill table-setting or dishwashing duties (or cheese-sandwich preparing; it was always and forever cheese sandwiches for lunch) in whatever hut Siggi had arranged for the night. And we established a casual choreography for walking in pairs or in quiet solitude, watching puffs of steam rise out of volcano-heated outcroppings along the way. We became comfortable enough with one another to joke, or to complain. Often we would nod international hellos to other wind-chapped hiking groups, many of them Danish, Swiss, French, or Australian, but none American.
By the fourth day, we began to traverse the Laugavegurinn Trail in earnest, crossing the Krossa River to the northern part of Iceland’s glacial valley. "A terrain built from fire and ice," said Siggi, pointing to black sand created by lava. Flash streams required the removal of boots, the strapping on of water sandals, the fording of currents, the removal of sandals and the relacing of boots. As our team trudged on, the Spaniards sang while Dr. Hickory Stick free-associated about birds, flowers, weather patterns, and the splendors of North Dakota. (The guy also forged ahead with no hiking poles!) That night, I shared the gifts of hand sanitizer and the precious sleeping potion, Ambien, which made me a very popular bunkmate with the nonsnorers.
One morning, I realized, with no little pride, that I hadn’t seen my face in a mirror for two days. Then, about the same time that Dr. Hickory Stick had stopped bathing or changing his clothes, I decided that if I, a woman used to plenty of space and time by myself, couldn’t eke out a simple hour alone, I’d go mad as a hag in an Icelandic saga. I went outside, took deep breaths, gazed at the noon-colored night sky and returned to my sleeping bag. The last day of our expedition, we admired the great Icelandic volcano Mount Hekla, shrouded in mist. "She is very shy," Siggi explained, sounding like a Viking bard. "She is covered with clouds to her shoulders." The roughing-it portion of the hike had ended just in time: My travel-diary description of the large mountain hut at the end of the trail reads "a cross between a refugee camp and a lunar paradise."
How my hair looked I could only guess, but how my sense of self had strengthened needed no mirror for corroboration. With each adventure I take, journeying on my own to meet other pilgrims and committing myself to flexibility have become sources of psychic rejuvenation. I love the group camaraderie, the friendships that become as dissolvable or sustainable as desired by journey’s end; I love studying the astonishing ways of strangers who become my temporary intimates. I even (almost) feel sisterly love for snorers. Nothing is intolerable when every situation is fresh, and the facts of my career, my home address, and even my hard-won definition as a woman of a certain age, status, and fastidiousness of grooming shrinks in importance.
Back home, these contours will matter again. But in the mists of Mount Hekla, I feel giddy with the excitement of life without borders.
Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2007.