“The eruption has started,” says the Reykjavik Excursions guide as our bus pulls up to Landmannlaugar where we will begin our four-day hike on the Laugavegur trail.
The bus passengers begin to exchange uneasy looks. Obviously, most of us do not hail from an ever-changing island made completely of volcanoes and lava fields, fire and ice.
“Don’t worry, I have lived in Iceland all my life and I am still smiling,” the woman reassures us in her button-nosed Nordic accent. Instead of taking her word for it, I think of the postcard I bought for one of my nephews, which reads, “Don’t trust the elves.”
Even before the announcement of Bardabunga’s rumblings, Spanky and I are up shit creek without a paddle.
We have no sleeping bags.
We only planned a few nights of camping during our one-month Europe trip so we figured we’d just rent bags in Reykjavik. Spanky reserve the bags day-of and despite the successful online reservation (phew), the rental company closes before receiving our request and depositing our bags in the 24-hour drop box (crap).
Thus, the scramble begins. Now what?
It turns out that our outdoor company which closed at 5 p.m. – we missed it by a mere 15 minutes – was the only sleeping bag rental in Reykjavik. Even all the outdoor stores are closed once we realize the rental is a bust. Thankfully, Iceland specializes in wool blankets. Lucky us. We shop around for the best price then choose our blankie and prepare for a three-night cuddlefest and funny looks from fellow hikers who will never take us seriously.
A volcano, sure, but no one mentioned a hurricane.
“We’re doomed,” I hear the guy next to me say in his Monty Python accent as our bus bumps and thrashes along the highlands road to Landmannlaugar.
Did he say something about a Spanish Inquisition or a hurricane? Come to think of it, I think he was commenting on the single women to men ratio. I glance down at the survival bracelet on the Scotsman’s wrist. Shoot, I forgot my braided life line. I know, I know, Bear Grylls says it’s important to have rope, but honestly I don’t know what I would do with it. I’d just use it to hang myself if things got bad enough.
“I wouldn’t get you a survival bracelet because you’d be lost for five minutes and hang yourself,” Spanky says.
Across the aisle, a German girl polishes her leather hiking boots, which makes me feel even more unprepared.
I turn my gaze instead to the window and fear the worst. I’ve been to New Zealand and have hiked the Tongariro Crossing. This is Tongariro on steroids. New Zealand’s Mordor hasn’t got anything on Iceland’s lunar landscape. Growth trickles down the coned mountains like a fresh dusting of pollen or fluorescent yellow-green lava. I wait anxiously for something to blow (other than a tire) as I wonder what we’ve gotten ourselves into this time. As a Country Girl, I’m all up for getting out into the “wide open spaces” but this sense of desolation is almost inconsolable. I want to swallow my tongue and spue up my stomach all at once.
Green moss sprouts from the black tar mountains. It’s like observing a Petrie dish that has just begun to grow. This is the stuff Ninja Turtles are made of. I think I’ve discovered the secret of the ooze, and it’s in Iceland.
Steam spouts from the earth in various location. We pass a plot of trees, the oldest in Iceland at 100 years. One-third are used for Christmas trees in Iceland. Oh yeah, well, one-third of all Icelandic ponies moonwalk when no one’s looking. How’s that for a statistic?
Unfortunately, I’ve become accustomed to California where a bad day is 69 degrees and a few clouds, but when an Icelander tells you the weather will be bad, they mean Armageddon is in the three-day forecast. These people wholeheartedly expect a volcanic eruption at least every four years, I mean, come on.
Well, it’s no Armageddon, but the remnants of Hurricane Cristobal make landfall on Iceland just in time for our second evening on the Laugavegur trail. After a hilly day of hiking up and down passing both ice caves and steaming geysers, we reach our second hut along the shores of Lake Alftavatn.
Spanky and I are the first ones in, crushing seven miles in three hours and earning back the respect lost with our pathetic wool blanket. Now we’re not unprepared; we’re hardcore.
“The early bird catches the worm,” the warden says as she scratches another couple from her list and pencils our names into one of four private rooms, the only two-bed private room (still, we’ll snuggle onto one to share our blankie).
The rest of the hikers trickle in as the weather begins to go south and we prepare to batten down the hatches. Some 30 hut dwellers hunker in, stirring around preparing soups, MREs and pasta-tuna concoctions (that’s out plat du jour). I sit down on a bench at the long Oktoberfest-style table lined with tea candles, which set the perfect pre-storm camping ambiance. I shoulder up next to a couple of Canadians, some Germans, two greenhorn hikers from Paris (one of which, when asked if he likes the hike so far says, “Not so much), a couple from Oakland and a group of 40-something good ole boys from the Midwest. With the flames alight and the Midwest boys playing Yuker — and just plain lit from tequila shots — it feels like a homegrown Christmas gathering.
We spend the night mingling as the storm gains strength outside our sturdy four walks. Still, the timbers quake and a picnic table relocates with help from the roaring wind that screeches like a mountain lion. I lie in bed praying I won’t have to pee in the middle of the night and make the treacherous trek to the outside bathrooms. I also pray the roof doesn’t come loose and take flight like Todo. All of a sudden, I’m back in South Dakota during tornado season humming, “I will praise you in this storm, and I will lift my hands, for you are who you are no matter where I am.”
The next morning, after a few hours of restless, anxiety-ridden sleep, I awake to the warden’s voice.
She’s giving the rundown options. Stay at the hut another night and hike tomorrow, hoping the conditions improve, take the bus to the next hut or take it all the way back to town. Being stubborn to a fault, I want to finish what I’ve started. Some hikers, mostly women, want to forge onward. Others drop like flies, opting out of the hike.
Spanky and I decide to hitch to the next hut, Emstruer, but we’re still second guessing that decision as the weather forecast for the next day is not as windy — 30 mph winds compared with 70 mph winds — but just as wet. After an hour or so of deliberating and waiting on the bus to arrive, our decision gets easier. The road to Emstruer is impassible and we’ll all be shuttled back to Reykjavik. Cutting our four-day hike in half.
Iceland has an amazing, ever-changing landscape and weather pattern. It mirrors my emotions, strong with the desire to finish the hike, finish what I started, but matched by the desire to get back to “civilization” unscathed.
I adopt a newfound respect for Mercedes buses. Holy crap. This is why you are advised not to take your rental car on any F Highland roads. My belly aches, muscles seizing as we drive up to another muddied crossing that just a few days ago was perfectly passable. Our bus lurches through rivers, across them, up them, one after the next and I’m left wishing I’d brought my “chill pills” along for the ride. I peek through my fingers, mash my face in distress, but each crossing gets easier to stomach as we make our way back to town under the watchful eye of Eyjafjallajokull, the last sleeping giant to blow, oh, four years ago or so.
So yes, Bardabunga is right on schedule, but this hike reminds me that nothing in life is certain or predictable — except death and volcanic eruptions, if you live in Iceland.