I spent part of two days walking along the outlaws’ trails that cross the plains and lavas of Kjölur, under variable weather, swinging moods, and the gloomy vigilance of the Hrútfell Mountain, the sole landmark of the area. I began to feel the savour of the passing hours changing as the end drew near. The fluttering fog banks and sudden waves of chilled air reminded me that in wraith-infested Kjölur, one is never alone. The sporadic sunbeams left my clothing damp with cold sweat under the darkening sky. The sharp icefalls of Hrútfell grew grim and painfully close, piercing the view with their pale blue radiance as warnings of the upcoming challenges, as anticipations of the bite of the ice in the days ahead. I steered westward and shivered as I approached the glacier.
A more intense feeling of uneasiness and contemplation caught me while I was fetching fresh water from one of the rare springs – a gushing and clear stream running amidst thick moss and an unusual patch of greenness surrounded by barren land. I felt fear for the imminent glacial traverse, bitterness and regret for the conclusion of my trip coming so swiftly, and the sore grip of loneliness even harder in this menacing and forsaken place. I got cold and sat still.
I don’t know how long I sat there, nor where the music came from. And really I cannot guess by what twisted unconscious path a long-buried sliver of conscience re-emerged from the farthest depths of memory. All I can say is that it was the voices of Simon & Garfunkel that finally rescued me from that sorrowful silence. It echoed in my head and rang with sounds of healing and relief, and wiped the lingering shadows of Kjölur away. I felt warmth again: I rose just in time to meet a full, yellow sun tearing the clouds apart and painting a glorious day all around me. I picked the trail again, saturated by a sensation of renewal, as someone who has just shaken off an unpleasant dream. Only one question kept bugging me: why on earth Simon & Garfunkel?
The Mountain Church
The rest of the day brought no answers – only more wonder. Soon, Fjallkirkja appeared before me with all the might and violence of an epiphany. Just a few days before, I had heard about a well-documented attempt to seek the Holy Grail in the vicinity of Kerlingarfjöll. If I were to dedicate myself to pseudo-archaeology and vaguely esoteric quests, Fjallkirkja – the Mountain Church on the edge of the Glacier – is surely the place I would begin to dig. It surfaced from the horizon abruptly, without warning, as soon as the southern slopes of Hrútfell were behind me – a massive bulk of black rock rising from the whiteness of the ice, symmetrical in its shape, imposing in size, surmounted by a thick and rounded pinnacle spiking from the midst of its solid shoulders. In another country, or another place, it could have easily been mistaken for a man-made artefact, a forbidding Templars’ fortress maybe, erected on the hilltop to guard over some secret treasure, to mark the threshold to the glacial wasteland.
I reached the summit of Fjallkirkja late in the evening, after a 500 m ascent – like a path of penitence to prepare the pilgrim for admittance to the sanctuary on top. A desert of dark-brown rock surrounded the solitary tower, slab-shaped as if to form a natural stairway. I took my place in the small hut at the southern edge of the mountain: a very basic but properly tended cabin brought there by members of the Icelandic Glaciological Society some three decades ago, devoid of services and facilities except for a few beds. After darkness came and the first late summer stars were lit, the wind rose, vomited by Langjökull in all its wrath and anger. The howling hit and slammed the cabin’s thin walls zealously. As I lay down to rest, I felt the wooden structure faltering and shaking under the violence of each blow, and began to fear that the time had come for that untamed shelter – which had already endured some thirty winters at the doorstep of the glacier – to be wiped out by the geography of the mountains, and me with it. I fell into a troubled sleep, wondering what I would be waking up to.
A veil of thick mist cast its dull uniformity on ice and rock alike when I woke. The wind must have ceased during the night, the air was still, quiet, humid and relatively warm, but visibility was reduced to a matter of metres. Even the “watchtower” of Fjallkirkja was concealed from sight, buried in the fog, reappearing every now and then as a twisted and ghostly sculpture of stone.
I ventured out for a short reconnaissance trip onto the glacier. The danger of several crevasses – a couple of which were treacherously hidden under thin snow – made all decisions easier: I would wait another day, and not dare cross Langjökull unless under far more favourable conditions. I killed the remainder of that day in a timeless laze, melting snow to replenish my water reserves, thinking of possible alternatives to the original route, currently denied, and simply sleeping the hours away. I repeatedly browsed through the pages of the hut’s guestbook, pondering over the low number of visitors that seemed to have come across that enchanted place over the years – evidently neglected, and yet the most intriguing surprise in my whole journey.
The cloak of fog did not lift the next morning. I left Fjallkirkja behind in a slow and sombre stumble down the slopes, resigned and overwhelmed by a sensation of defeat and regret. I made for the nearby Ferðafélag Íslands hut in Þverbrekkumúli. Shortly after my arrival, three Germans also hit the cabin. They offered me rum and spoke all night of the joys of such things as biting salami in the middle of a carefree hike. I left in higher spirits early the following morning. I walked due south along a horse trail. According to the new plan I’d devised in the fruitless wait at the edge of the glacier, I would keep skirting Langjökull along a fairly spectacular route, touching on the glacial lakes of Hvítárnes and Hagavatn. The food and supplies left would possibly be sufficient to take me all the way to Geysir.
I pushed forth, crossed the milky depths of the river Hvítá on the car bridge, and made for the hills again. I ended up walking forty kilometres that day, desperately waiting to run across some fresh water before being able to set up camp – my own reserve had been exhausted late in the afternoon. It had been an extremely dry summer and I saw entire river systems erased from the local geography, reduced to no more than green stripes of moss in the ground, empty names on a map. I found water in the end – a stale pool amidst the rocks, dead flies floating on its surface. I had just started to filter it and fill my bottles, when a downpour of rain caught me unprepared. It was around midnight.
The Lack of Closure
I wake up early on the morning of August 10, greeted by the same thought that accompanied me to sleep: the last day of my trip has come. I take a peek outside the hut, determined to enjoy this final stretch. I feel good. I had seen Jarlhettur before, but I had never fully appreciated all its riveting and spectacular beauty. It is just enough to turn one’s gaze away from Gullfoss and look in the opposite direction. Yesterday, my eyes were opened to this when height and a better vantage point first disclosed that terrific row of conic and sharp hills that spike up grim and black against the clear backdrop of the Langjökull Glacier. I walked several hours in the grey and utter solitude of Jarlhettur, north to south along gravel and sand, glacial tongues, secret lakes, narrow passages in the rock, and elevations of twisted and threatening shapes. It was a scene out of a science-fiction novel, seemingly drawn from somewhere out of this earth where not even a blade of grass found hospitality. I was filled with excitement and relief: I may well have missed the thrill of a breathtaking and hazardous traverse on ice, but at least I was bestowed the discovery of yet another jewel I had ignored and overlooked until that moment. The passage through Jarlhettur definitely constituted one of the best moments in my long march across Iceland.
Now, I have come to the final stage. In a matter of hours I will reach Geysir, where the bittersweet word “end” will be appended to a whole month of pilgrimages. I start with a swift visit to the peaceful waters of Hagavatn, and the faint blue ice that surrounds them. The sky is sullen and before long I start to feel slightly drowsy. When I finally leave the place for the final stint, it is around midday. It would appear to be a glorious moment, but all the positive sensations I enjoyed on awakening appear to have faded into discomfort and malaise. The closer I get to the conclusion of my journey, the less prepared for that moment I discover myself to be.
I have been in the wild for thirty-three days, caressed places of forgotten beauty, lived in uninterrupted proximity to dazzling landscapes, experienced the awe and sometimes the horror of Nature, and perhaps proven something to myself. I wonder what will remain of all this. According to myth, people have reached unexpected profundities in similar situations. Learnt to speak with birds, or more simply “found themselves.” In this sense, I am rather displeased at the embarrassing lack of answers I am coming home with. As for the chimerical achievement of a sense of cosmic solidarity or reunion with nature, I cannot really claim to be doing any better.
I only have a few hours left to work something out, only a few hours to find answers and leave a deeper footprint of meaning on these thirty-three days of walking. I slow down the pace, try to control the breathing and make it rhythmically regular – perhaps in peace rather than distress I will find illumination. Nothing seems to work. I get stressed and increasingly frustrated: however many kilometres I will have treaded in the end, the quest is evidently bound to fail.
The Home Stretch
The weather is sulky and uneasy and mirrors my own mood. Upcoming mundane concerns – phone calls to make, mail to read, bills to pay – begin to surface. I had awaited and secretly savoured the moment of completing my feat for over a month, but the sad truth is that in the end it is going to suck. A deep sense of dismay kicks in – I just cannot accept that it will actually end this way. I make up my mind and decide to approach Geysir from the hills. It is a slight detour, but perhaps it will help to build the climax that I need and miss, perhaps it will give me that little extra time to find the answers that still elude me.
It is at the very root of the slopes of Sandfell that the torment of the midges begins. Once started, their assault leaves no relief, and I am rapidly led to absolute exasperation. I grunt and swear repeatedly, cursing my own mindless masochism that wants me on the top of another pointless hill. In the face of all thoughts of ecological ecumenism and cosmic unity, I feel open hostility all around me; as a fitting response, I start whirling my poles at flies, scrubs and stones alike, in a desperate and impotent outburst of frustration. I beg for rain, a good downpour of rain, just to cool this disgusting heat down and make the flies retreat for a while. The rain comes – a few drops of it, feeble and warm like a mocking line of piss from the sky. The midges couldn’t care less. I am left as hot and choking as before, only more irritated and stinkingly humid. By now I really am pissed off. I spit at the bloody flies and hasten up, determined at least to terminate this nightmare as quickly as possible.
I have started the last, conclusive descent towards Geysir when I finally convince myself to lift my gaze from my boots, where it had been nailed and vacant over those last two, terrible hours. It is like this that I get the chance to see the rainbow. Difficult to guess when it rose, but it makes for the most spectacular one I have ever seen: an immense arch, neat and vivid as if ink-printed on glossy paper, seeming to gather all the Highlands in the immensity of its embrace. The sky is clearing up, making room for a newly-found brightness and translucent air. As precise as a spotlight, a slender ray of sun is descending and settles onto Hekla, crowned in snow. I realise that even the midges are gone. I stand for a while enjoying this and think that after all, this is not such a bad ending. I know that in my memory it will all end here. All later troubles and pleasures – an uncomfortable stumble across fenced farmland; the drench of my boots and pants as I carelessly immerge myself in the last river to wade; the mix of Rod Stewart and Phil Collins hits delivered by obnoxious speakers as I sip my first beer at Hotel Geysir – all later moments will soon be forgotten. In my memory, it will all have ended right here and now, in the very sappy and oleographic image of a serene homecoming under the lucid colours of an arch in the sky.