A Mountain Hut
On my second night in Iceland, with the July sky showing no signs of sunset at 11 p.m., I slept with a couple of 28-year-old Spanish men who had, an hour earlier, produced two bottles of earthy Rioja from their backpacks and poured the wine by candlelight. After that, conditions only improved.
I should explain. The candles took the place of electricity in the cramped mountain hut that served as my introduction to eight days of Icelandic adventure travel. (The wooden hut, located on the edge of the Eyjafjallajokull glacier, also lacked plumbing, running water, and the possibility of making tea until the hut warden melted a huge pot of glacial ice on his gas stove.) The sleeping arrangements were head-to-toe on a wooden floor, with each of us insulated in as many thermal layers as we could scrunch into our individual sleeping bags. Curled up next to me were two German women, a British couple who had teenage children back home, a middle-aged French-speaking husband and wife from Montreal, and a gnarled hickory stick of a 70-year-old doctor from North Dakota (bred of Icelandic stock) whose wife had passed on the rigors of the itinerary. With no coercion, we had united as strangers to spend our vacation time and money hiking up to 15 miles a day across rough terrain alien enough to be mistaken for a galaxy far, far away.
What’s more, we put our faith — our lives, really — in the care of a spry Icelandic guide named Siggi, whose pale blue eyes glittered with benign madness. We trusted in him as he negotiated our group over glacial ridges, deciphered paths through rock and water, maneuvered the vehicle that carted us from trail to trail, and downed his morning muesli mixed with thick, sour milk. "Crazy Icelanders!" he would cackle about his countryfolk.
Before our international potluck group convened, I had plunked my hiking boots down in a cheery, dorm-style hotel in an old part of Reykjavik, ambled the capital’s cosmopolitan streets, drunk a $10 beer at a pub packed with spiky-haired 20-year-olds, and let the mystery of sunsetless summer nights and the music of Bjork wash over me. But it was on that second night in the mountain hut that I knew I’d arrived where I really wanted to be: in the middle of a pristine, raw nowhere, making my way step-by-boot-step across treeless mountain stretches, with fellow adventurers for company.
That night, I learned to pee in the hut’s Rube Goldberg-rigged unisex urinal and discovered that I could sleep even when surrounded by five champion snorers. In the days that followed, I also learned that in the middle of the journey of my life, with a cosmetics bag dedicated to Advil and knees grateful for compression bandages (and little more than two pairs of hiking pants, three long-sleeve T-shirts, six pairs of wool socks, and a fleece hoodie that doubled as a pillow), I felt as radically free, as adaptable and as bold as Neil Armstrong on the moon.
Only later would I learn that NASA once trained astronauts on Iceland’s otherworldly terrain. One small step for woman.
All Trails Lead to Iceland
This woman is not one who falls into strange sleeping bags easily. I take my bath oils seriously; I’m only half joking when I say that the most effective technique with which to extract state secrets from me would be to confiscate my tweezers. But my life, and its comfort requirements, changed when I discovered the lures of guided group adventure trips some 13 years ago. With their promise of exoticism and convenience, I found an ideal way to travel — and hike, my passion. I love the notion of ending a good, hard trek with a hearty meal in a simple hotel. I like carrying a daypack while a support vehicle (to use catalog-speak) transports my duffel bag from inn to inn. But even more, I love the liberation of packing minimally and covering territory by foot maximally.
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.
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.