It is early in the afternoon, July 30, when I finally reach Kerlingarfjöll. A wave of relief pervades me as the familiar sight of Ásgarðar, the celebrated resort at the root of the Kerlingarfjöll Mountains, surfaces through the mist– first the gas pump, then the old Ferðafélag Íslands hut, and the main house surrounded by many smaller cabins, all looking exactly the way I nostalgically remembered it. I am glad that the day is over. In truth, it has probably been the dullest and greyest one since I started my long walk across the country, some three weeks ago.
In my plans and expectations, this was to be the moment when I replicated the breathtaking traverse east to west of the Kerlingarfjöll massif, culminating in a swift descent onto Ásgarðar from the hills: one of the brightest memories I carry from last summer and from Iceland in general. In reality, things turned out quite differently, as I ended up merely walking around the mountains, bypassing rather than crossing them. Since the early hours of the morning, the black threat of clouds and fog called for prudence. And so the rest of the day passed in an uninspiring and nearly mechanical march along the jeep track, the surroundings reduced to ghostly and blurred silhouettes, the air ominously humid and stuffy as if the very breath of the sky were contracting. My steps were heavy as I proceeded, clad like a diver in waterproof fabrics, waiting for a biblical downpour that would never eventuate. Quite an inglorious ending for a stage which I had long envisioned would be one of the highlights of my 40-day trek.
What one year ago was surprise and novelty has now become expectation and almost a sense of homeliness; the casual encounters of that time have turned into bonds of friendship. Þóra and Magda are managing the resort, like last summer, and I meet them just outside the kitchen, occupied with yet another electricity crisis. To my delight, the food of the house has also remained excellent. I definitely do not withdraw when I am asked that night for stories of my journey and am given plenty of conversation time – after all, even in solitary hiking there is unquestionably a fair amount of narcissism. In the end, however, I end up with the role of listener, with a mixture of bafflement, amusement and curiosity about what I am told: apparently summer has brought important news here. A team of Italian “experts” stayed in Ásgarðar just before I arrived. They had laptops, surfed the web through satellite phones, and acted important. They were in search of the Holy Grail. I promptly ask whether this is a joke – but no, they are not teasing me. I am even shown a book in Italian – the very one that the seekers followed in their quest. From what I can gather, the legendary Cup of Christ should have arrived in Iceland with the intermediation of Dante Alighieri and Snorri Sturluson, and has been lying buried close to the Gýgjarfoss waterfall ever since, just waiting for some intrepid people to decipher the riddle and recover it.
I go to bed feeling slightly disturbed. It is around two.
Required Rest in Kerlingarfjöll
I had already decided before setting off that I would take the longest break of my entire journey – two whole days of rest – here in Kerlingarfjöll rather than anywhere else aon the way. As the hours pass by, I do not regret the choice. There is an alien flavour to this place, something that sets it apart from any others in the Highlands. It can probably best be grasped by quietly sitting down beside a gas stove in the main hall, staring through the large windows at the sheep, the green pastures and the gushing and muddy waters just beneath. It is no basic shelter, no fragile wooden cabin that was built in Ásgarðar to host the first ski-school that Iceland ever knew. In all other huts that I encountered travelling across the Icelandic interior, the walls were no more than a light membrane barely able to offer refuge from the fury of the wind. They enclosed a space, and yet seemed to provide no neat or impenetrable boundary, as if “the outside” could somehow filter through within: not so dissimilar to the sensation that I habitually experience when camping in my tent. Ásgarðar is different. It stands solid and defined like a welcoming multi-storey house, a nest of warmth and security pulled out of the encircling desert, capable of firmly locking out wilderness’ whispers.
And yet, while lingering in the safety and stillness of that hall, it is difficult not to be met by an elusive feeling, akin to longing and nostalgia. Of the many voices, singing and laughter that used to fill those spaces, only a distant echo seems to remain. Since the snow abandoned the peaks and was washed away for good, the many hundreds of visitors that used to reach these slopes for skiing have changed their destinations, and so the number of those who venture into the mountains today has drastically diminished. Hikers come here, and horseback-riders, as well as some tourists of various kinds. But after its demise as a skiing centre, it is true that this place chiefly remains a vivid memory for many, a remote rumour for most. After the glories of its winter, Ásgarðar now seems covertly dormant, patiently waiting for a new spring that has not yet matured.
The fortunes of the resort may well be oscillating, and the preferences of the tourist industry are capricious and inscrutable. The fact remains, nonetheless, that few other locations in Iceland can rival Kerlingarfjöll for magnificence of the natural scenery, variety of landscapes, and opportunities for hiking. These two days provide further confirmation of this basic truth as I take my time to explore the area more thoroughly and get to know its most remote niches. Like Askja, Kerlingarfjöll also hides a treasure in its womb, encircled and guarded by the vigilance of the mountains. But whereas the Askja Lake lies motionless, solitary and hieratic like a temple staring at the sky, the geothermal area of Hveradalir – Kerlingarfjöll’s not so secret core – rather resembles a sorcerer’s maze: a labyrinth of sculptured pinnacles, pointy peaks, emerald-green ponds, deep gorges, and steaming fumaroles, all pervaded by the acrid stench of sulphur and painted in a multitude of shades and vivid colours. In a land where the feeble boundary between what is horrid and what is gorgeous appears so often to be blurred, grotesque and distorted shapes emerge from the soil and the many ravines often disclose precipices of unspeakable depth. Ice and snowfields still blanket the outskirts of Loðmundur, the only remnants of the glaciers that once adorned all the slopes. In the sharp air of late twilight, the alpine-looking mountain range spikes out from a frame of pale violet light, resembling a postcard sent from a fairy tale theme park.
Onwards to Kjölur
I leave Kerlingarfjöll under drizzle and a sullen sky, without turning back to look one last time at Ásgarðar and its green roofs – it is always a bit difficult to leave places that somehow feel like home. I walk further north until reaching Hveravellir in one day – once the dreaded lair of ghosts and outlaws, today a crowded tourist hub located midway on the Kjölur Route. On the way, I come across two cyclists who are crunching through their lunch by the edge of the road. They glance at me and ask if I am all right. I smile back.
Although “spectacular” is not exactly the first adjective to come to mind, there is undeniably a gentle and pleasant charm to this Hveravellir too, a caressing and hypnotic rhythm woven by its coloured muds, overgrown plains, and ancient lava fields thoroughly covered in moss. Unfortunately, no contrast could be harsher than the one between the languid and vaguely mysterious appeal of the landscape, and the frantic, laborious activity all around. The entire resort appears literally under siege by swarms of visitors, people driving by, and travelling parties. The contemplative pace of the surroundings is irreparably disrupted by an impression of ceaseless emergency: mass tourism at its worst seems to have struck Hveravellir, severely threatening its evocative and arcane identity.
I wait for the night to grow late and the lights to dim before finally approaching the natural hot pot – probably still the place’s most appreciated and celebrated attraction – for a restoring bath at the end of the day, a can of cold beer in my hand. I realise just too late, once I am already comfortably inside, that far from being alone I have just fallen in between a couple making out under cover of the water and the darkness. I know that it would be courteous of me to leave immediately, but something holds me back. They will leave instead, shortly afterwards and with the sulkiest expression on their faces. I remain alone there, drinking my beer and feeling like the worst human being who ever existed.
I leave Hveravellir the next day, along the hiking and horse trail leading southward to Hvítárnes along the course of the Old Kjölur Route. It is foggy and drizzly again, the air sharply cold – thermometers recorded a mere 2° last night. Different sorts of sensations – and not wholly positive – have been pervading me since both Kerlingarfjöll and Hveravellir were put behind, as if I had stepped across an invisible threshold. I am probably beginning to feel that the end is drawing close – by now, in fact, only a risky traverse over the Langjökull Glacier should stand in between me and a safe ending in Þingvellir, in the middle of August. As I push on amid the mists of Kjölur, all my thoughts are leaning on the hope that the weather will assist me for the next few days…