It is the island of extremes: of glaciers and volcanic springs rumbling side by side; of Norse Paganism and Danish Christianity; of endless sunny skies and unrelenting darkness. Many know it as the land of fire and ice. I still have yet to define Iceland, its antithetical mystery just as befuddling at the end of five weeks as at the beginning. I thought a solo backpacking trip into the Icelandic highlands might help, uninterrupted time to make sense of this geological collage.
My backpacking route, the Laugavegur Trail, a rite of passage to many Icelanders, is 34 miles between the Thórsmork and Landmannalaugar valleys, with an optional 16-mile add-on known as the Fimmvorduháls Trail between Skógafoss and the Thórmork Valley. The ambitious Coloradan in me couldn't imagine skipping the add-on, and every Icelander I talked to confirmed my decision. For my longest solo so far, I needed the ego boost.
I arrived in Skógafoss, one of Iceland's more popular waterfall destinations, late on June 10 and camped at the base of the waterfall, its roar singing me to sleep. I woke up the next morning to uninterrupted scenic peace - neither the click of an extending selfie stick nor the rumble of a coach bus distracted me from the flume of whitewater crashing 200 feet down. Alone at one of the most popular tourist destinations on the southern half of the Ring Road, I rolled up my tent, stuffed it in between enough food to last me for 10 days rather than five - 100 miles rather than 50 - and began hiking.
Full of surprises
After spending most of my Icelandic adventures in 40-degree rain, I never expected to get a sunburn. Yet when I arrived at my first campsite in the Thórsmork Valley - named after the Norse god of war - and squatted next to the silty Krossá River to fill my water bottle, the backs of my calves burned. The sun had reflected so vibrantly against the snow I had trudged on for almost 60 percent of the time that, had I even thought to bring sunscreen, my skin had no chance of protecting itself. My body was too exhausted to care, after 16 miles and 3,000 feet up and over a glacier, around two volcanoes; I set up my tent, managed to read two pages of my book, and fell asleep blanketed by the afternoon sun in the arctic birch forest of Thor.
The next morning, in the most peopled area of the trail, I got lost. After wasting at least 45 minutes obsessing over where to most effectively cross the Krossá, I traversed diagonally to the Icelandic flag waving above the ranger's station on the other side of the river. From there, I hiked out of the Thórsmork Valley into a volcanic canyon, the Pronga River cutting through ash-gray rock and debris. I reached my campsite outside of the Botnar hut, reveling in the unorthodox presence of sun.
After a short ascent from the hut and a cartoon-quality fall that left me with only one contact lens and an eye full of black sand, I entered a sensory overload. Around me, volcanic peaks, the arteries for rivers I would cross along this 10-mile valley. In front of me, a field of twinkling slush. And above me, yet another unabated blue sky. For these 10 miles, I couldn't stop looking up, down, around, continuously asking this unpeopled landscape, 'How did I get here?'
At a crossroads
My euphoric solitude was soon halted by a waist-deep river of snowmelt. I stared blankly at the small coils of foam simultaneously created and destroyed by the flow of whitewater, and needed to make a decision. I could, nine times out of 10, safely cross this river; but what about that one time? There was no one within sight to help save me, to prevent my pack from holding me underwater. Finally, with the possibility of no bus running at the end of my route back to Reykjavik because of late-season snowpack, I turned around, back into the valley with regret haunting my conservative decision.
An hour into trudging through my once-eager footprints, I saw four figures appear in the desertlike haze. "Hey! Are you coming from the Álftavatn Valley?" said one of the men. I explained what had happened, how I couldn't risk finishing the hike without a ride back to Reykjavik. "Don't worry! We saw a warden who said the bus starts running tomorrow. Come finish the hike with us." Without hesitation, I turned around, trusting the strangers.
We approached the river that had once already robbed me of my dignity and crossed together, the water instantly freezing my bare feet and soaking the lower half of my body. With the support of men much larger than me, I had no chance of falling. I stuffed my feet back into my boots, and we walked to the end of the valley, up a lone Jeep road, through arctic rolling hills and across three more rivers. Blisters had begun to swell on my sodden feet from the constant in and out of my boots, but my company kept me distracted with their tales of debauchery until we reached Álftavatn Lake.
Usually, the valley where the Álftavatn Lake sits is hidden in a veil of dense clouds; yet when we arrived, only a few alpine clouds hung high above the horizon. We were greeted with a view of the dark, glossy lake and the surrounding quilt of snow-patched peaks.
With each valley, we entered a new micro-climate: geysers in one, snowfields and covert snow caves in another, more geysers, bedrock and, ultimately, Landmannalaugar, the final valley. I had seen pictures, yet not one captured the otherworldliness of this valley. Every peak was its own bleeding watercolor painting, a smearing of maroon, cyan, forest green, burnt orange and every hue in between. The trail gently intersected this volcanic masterpiece, and, after running my fingers on the hillside almost the entire way down, my hand became a palate of pastels. I couldn't help but think, again, 'How did I get here?' and realized it was only because of the generosity of these strangers who I decided to trust when I couldn't trust myself. Maybe it was the nature of these people that compelled me to do this; or maybe it was the mystical chaos of Iceland, of the land of fire and ice, that was simply too enchanting to want to turn my back on.