Because we arrive in the wee hours of the morning, we usually spend the day in Reykjavik hanging out, which means coffee shops, museums, shopping…coffee, shopping, coffee. But this year Bev and I have plans to do something more adventurous, and dare we say it, without horses. Before we went, we threw out suggestions: spelunking in a volcanic cave! Snorkeling in Silfra (which is the continental rift)! Bev said: “I’m willing to stretch myself, go a little beyond my comfort zone.” I said: “Me too! ” She: “Like minds!” Me: “Yes, like.”
Of course, given the fact I had a stray day, I researched quick trips to Greenland. This is my default wish: Must. Go. To. Greenland. (What, yours isn’t?) It’s only a two-hour flight from Keflavik. But it was a hard sell to Bev. “Eer, some other time,” she said.
As runner up to Greenland, we settle on an all day trip where we hike glaciers and such in southern Iceland with an outfitter. (In truth, I didn’t really read the whole description of the trip. Still pining for Greenland, I signed on after seeing the word “glacier”.)
When the van pulls up at our hotel and we first meet our mountain guide, a tall, lanky young man named Gudni, he appears shy. We introduce ourselves and he quickly ducks in the back of the van to fiddle with some gear. “I don’t know about this,” Bev says, “this could be a long trip.” Never fear, no one stays shy around Bev and me for long. We chat him up, tag teaming him with questions. Within minutes we find out where he lives (Reykjavik); what he’s studying (mechanical engineering); where his family is from (East Fjords); who was on his trip yesterday (people who couldn’t hike); what his name means (Gudni is a shortened version of a longer name meaning “God’s friend,” though, he added, his parents weren’t religious). Really the poor guy doesn’t stand a chance against women like us. This is all within the five minutes that it takes to pick up the other group of women who are joining us. And the women we pick up are –oh no– just like us (poor, poor guy), yakky American women who are horse crazy. And, as Gudni wisely remains quiet, we have a loud, ten minute discussion in which we find out vital statistics, meaning name and state, how many times we’ve been to Iceland, and who owns what kind of horses back home. They are Big Horse People. This is how Icelandic horse lovers refer to people who ride other horses. We picture them needing ladders to climb aboard their horses.
We leave Reykjavik and head for the hills. The first stop on our way is Hengill, the energy center. Unlike the one in Snaefellsnes, which is spiritual and literary, this one is geothermal and provides much of the energy for Iceland. It’s like the oil rush of Texas, only it’s not fossil fuel. It’s a never-ending, limitless source of heat and power for all of Iceland.
Gundi brings us up to the edge of the path and says, “Don’t go any closer.” Oh, why? we ask innocently. “There are sinkholes. And they are very, very hot.” What surrounds us basically looks like wasteland: an unearthly, hellish Mordor of Iceland, with bubbling boiling cesspools of mud.
Gudni explains: You could boil lamb meat in this and steam bread. Back in the old days, this was the outlaw area. If you were accused of a crime, like murder or sheep stealing, you were banished to these areas and you had to live off the harsh land. You usually got a three-year sentence; if you survived the hardship and providing no one killed you (no questions asked when killing an outlaw), you could come back to society. This leaves me contemplating the U.S. penal system. Medieval Iceland seems fairer.
We hike on to dryer and higher, less steamy ground. Gudni points to the cliffs that are full of bird activity. “That is where the fulmar nest.” He explains their behavior: they spit at predators. It’s actually regurgitated stomach oil that has a very bad smell.
This reminds me of that scene in Jurassic Park, where the nasty dinosaur spit-kills the nasty person stealing the dinosaur embryos. This is harsh land, indeed: spitting steam and spitting birds, hot sinkholes and bubbling mud. The outlaws had it tough.
It’s a hot day for Iceland, more sunny than cloudy. I’m not used to hiking in Iceland and start longing to be on a horse instead. I’m even watching myself walk as if on horseback. Would a horse step here? Would I guide the horse around this craggy part? We come to the crest of a hill and stop before going down, and I’m thinking I’d definitely dismount my imaginary horse before going down the steep gorge. The path is full of warning, “Haetta!” but it’s not really scary; it’s just a slippery slope.
It’s only 10:30 in the morning and we’ve got the rest of the day in front of us. I don’t really have a clear idea where we’re heading but we have a trusty, now friendly, guide and Bev takes this picture of me dancing.