We were officially crashing the tour guide, after-hour bonfire. It was a total “I carried a watermelon” moment. I had half a beer in hand, given to me from Germunder’s private stash, precious like miner’s gold. I wish I could have shown up with more, or brought firewood or something that would have been helpful. Instead I brought my tourist-ness, the scent of paid trekker.
It felt like a 90s comedy trope when everyone stops what they are doing and all you can hear are crickets chirping. Kim and I looked at each other. We looked at Francois, trying to beg him with our eyes that he was sure it was okay that we had followed him there. We’d been following the man for five days. How could we stop now? We looked around the campfire at the half circle of teenage Icelanders with dreadlocks and bulky wool sweaters. One half of the circle was empty and Kim and I decided, well we’re here, we may as well join. We grabbed a wooden bench and scraped it across the stone and pebble strewn riverbank creating a similar trope of the loud sound that continues to bring attention to the outsider. More blank stares. “So come here often…to this remote mountain hut that took us five days to reach?” We give up and decide to only talk to Francois about being Belgian and living in Iceland.
Francois hops over to the river and pulls two more beers from the cold water. Polar Beers. If I wasn’t in love with Iceland already, it was official now. Fantastic Fun Fact: There was a prohibition on strong beer from 1915 until March 1st, 1989. Imagine if Boardwalk Empire ended when you were 7 (for those of us born in the 80s) rather than 50 years before. My high school years would have looked a lot different and I probably would have gotten into UC Berkeley like I always wanted to.
As I sip the beer sitting by the fire, I take a moment to soak this all in. It’s our last night with our trekking group. A bottle of Glenlivet is passed around the circle and I take a slug of it. I’ve earned this. With the blaze of the fire warming my feet and hands (I’ve transitioned to wearing flip flops with socks when not hiking), I take a moment to reflect on all that I’ve seen and done:
I’ve walked around 50 miles (Germunder kept adding on “short,” two hour additions to our planned itinerary), half of that with an infected foot (confirmed by the doctors in our group). On one detour around the side of a mountain, Germunder stopped us to see the dew that collects in the leaves that grow along the ground. He told us that it is sweet and good to drink. Kim instructed me to bend down and try. I got down on my knees and stuck my face into the plant, sipping up the sweet dew. It was surprisingly refreshing.
I saw a number of changing vistas, the Álftavatn Valley was one of my favorites in particular. Beautiful wouldn’t even be strong enough of a word. Majestic, transcendent– none of them can quite do the Swan Lake and the valley around it justice. What was once brown and white from either steam or snow becomes a landscape of emeralds, sapphires, an ombré of blues and greens running into each other and spilling over cliffs. It’s as if the land responded to the change in scenery tactilely as well. Suddenly our feet felt like they were walking on the moon (or what I imagine it to feel like at least). The closest Earthly approximation I can make are those playgrounds made out of recycled shoe rubber that make you feel like you have the ability to jump ten feet in the air and be absorbed again by the ground as it dips and swells underneath you. The ground was covered with a soft green moss and it made the perfect place to take a short nap overlooking the view of the lake and valley below.
One member of our group decided it was perfect timing to fly a kite because when isn’t it. And she wasn’t wrong. The wind was strong and we laid our bodies even flatter to the ground to try to escape the tumult of wind. Your body is always warm when you hike, except when you stop. The second you stop the wind and chill creep in like the demonic baby of Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre [if you’re not already a GoT Fan: Spolier Alert]. Kim took to doing push-ups, tricep dips, lunges, anything to keep her body warmth up when the rest of us stop to eat cookies again.
This wasn’t the first time we visited the moon when we hiked in Iceland. Before entering Ermstrur-Botnar, the group crossed the basalt sand flats. The perpetual daylight of Iceland’s summer is well-known but what you don’t realize until you’re there is how much the prolonged daylight changes your perception of what’s around you. We hit the basalt flats around 5 in the evening but the light hits us at such a strange slant that is spreads long shadows out along the black ground so that we don’t appear to belong to this planet anymore. The hikers in our group are tired and spread out between smaller groups of twos and threes. As I trailed behind them, I can’t help but imagine them as astronauts trekking across untouched stellar plains.
Everything here is shaped by volcanoes one way or another. The jagged canyons that shape the rivers have striations along the cliff sides formed when hot lava met glacial flow, capturing the rock like a flash going off in a dark room. One minute it’s flowing and the next there is hard rock, strange patterns, a thumbprint on the landscape.
After crossing the basalt flats, the trail started to resemble something more familiar. What you could call regular rock outcroppings, sloping hills on our sides, green plains…except for the giant mountain in the distance that seems to have a horn. At first it’s ruggedness almost made it look demonic, like an aged witch enchanted it with a curse and was hiding a princess at the tip, but when told the name you realize it’s another kind of magic all together. The mountain is named Einhyrningur which means “The Unicorn.”
And that’s what this place is, magic, magical. 54.4% of Icelanders believe elves and fairies exist after all. There must be something to those numbers.
The fire has warmed us now, as has the liquor. Everyone is chatting in one language or another and no one seems to notice or think we don’t belong anymore. We find out half the people at the bonfire aren’t Icelanders or tour guides either. They’ve come to volunteer and do trail restoration. It’s their first day in the country. Maybe one of them will find their Patrick Swayze. This isn’t my fate though. Iceland has another sort of magic saved up for me. We say goodbye to the hikers, the tour guides, the Icelandic teens, the volunteers. Goodnight to the fire, the river and its cold beers and volcanic stones. We say goodnight to the almost-dark non-night of the Icelandic summer. We head off to bed and get ready for our departure across the Krossá River in the morning
And then we are gone. We forded the river safely. No flash floods. We’ve lost half our crew to other trails, other buses, but the elves have something in store. The giant bus has taken us to a parking lot to wait for another bus to take us back to Reykjavik. It is freezing outside. The wind speed is too much to handle and I refuse to get off the bus until the next one is there. The driver has left the door open and Kim and I decide to move towards the back to stay away from the wind. As I stand in the aisle, something catches my eye. There is a different pattern on the wall, something doesn’t match, like one of those kid’s games where you try to discern what has changed between two pictures. I turn and see that my gray scarf is dangling from a hook, camouflaging itself into the carpeted wall of the bus. It is hanging from the same hook I placed it on only 6 days before. It’s a miracle (ok maybe not a miracle, but damn special at least). The elves have left me a final present. I believe this was their way of saying goodbye, of wishing me well on my last days in Iceland.
First and last day on the bus.
If you want to read about trekking and adventures on your own Icelandic hike, I would suggest picking up The Lord of the Rings and being grateful you don’t have ring-wraiths on your trail while you walk.