In Plain Sight

This photo shows a mountain along the Skogafoss river trail in southern Iceland

The soil is loose, and an unfamiliar metallic grey, as I proceed along the hiking trail. Although the sky is cloudless cerulean, the wind whips past, unfettered by trees or other vegetation. The glaciers loom in the distance, their snow-capped tops releasing a steady trail of vapor.

Like all of Iceland, the landscape we’re standing on is relatively young, featuring new mountains that volcanic explosions had formed pell mell. We’ve learned the country grows by two centimeters each year, as a result of the ever-shifting North American and European continental plates far below the country’s surface, and its active volcanoes above. The surrounding jagged skyline shows this tumultuous past, the mountains’ cliffs and peaks shaped by the uneven distribution of lava and ash, their crags further sculpted from the rushing water of glacier melt and glacier-fed rivers.

We continue along the trail. There is no tree line to surpass – no trees at all to speak of, actually. And while we can see for miles in any direction, the landscape, close up, changes as we walk, the terrain moving from gunmetal grey to brown to green to hay-yellow. The density changes, too – the grey soft and powdery, like talc; the brown muddy and suction-like in places, the green and yellow forgiving and firm. It does not occur to me, in the moment, that the grey “soil” is actually volcanic ash.

***

I was drawn to Iceland for its alien landscape, tales of fire and water and ancient explorations, and a sky that regularly put on shows of color and light. Its relative accessibility to my Boston hometown was an added bonus; I could be in Reykjavik faster than if I were to visit the West Coast. So, seeking the unfamiliar, my husband and I booked two tickets for a week in September, knowing that visiting late in the season would mean some compromises, weather-wise. Still, I am an optimist, and just the promise of visiting an entirely new-to-me place already gave me a thrill.

***

I’ve lost count of how many waterfalls we’ve passed along this trail, which follows the Skoga River in southwestern Iceland. Their roars are a constant companion as we proceed. We’re not sure how far we’ll go along the trail today – it’s the end of the hiking season, and while the day is picturesque, we’ve been warned the glaciers (and their effects) can change the atmosphere abruptly.

Planning for a day hike, my husband and I have only taken minor precautions – a few warm layers, a packed lunch with snacks, several liters of water for us to share throughout the afternoon. Our cell phones don’t work out here, or anywhere in Iceland at all, as we chose to forego an international plan in the spirit of a thorough unplugging and detaching while on vacation. As the terrain gets more remote, though, and we find ourselves alone for hour-plus stretches at a time, I wonder if that was the wisest decision.

The wind picks up, and I shiver in my fleece and thin hat. I still want to see more of what’s ahead, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I’ve prepped for a leisurely afternoon waterfall walk, not for a glacial trek. The fact that both trail options exist, though, as neighbors in the same place, still fosters a deep sense of awe. The contrast is as impressive as the glaciers are worrisome.

***

It is only later, after the hike, that I put two and two together – that I was walking in the direct shadow of Eyjafjallajökull, the notorious spewer of 2010, whose billowing ash cloud shut down Europe for weeks on end. Back in the rental car, I marvel at the view of the glaciers from the road, and ponder aloud over the notorious volcano’s exact location. My husband looks at me incredulously and points to where we had just been.

I’m genuinely stunned. “But that’s right there,” I sputter.

There were no signs at any point indicating this landmark; no danger or warning signs urging caution along the trail. Andy had told me we would be “in the vicinity” of Eyjafjallajökull; I took that to mean within a ten- to twenty-mile radius, and had not asked for clarification. Toward the end of our hike, we had been at most a mile away. Even without truly knowing what I was seeing, I had still been intimidated, even humbled.

I think of the old adage about the differing mindsets contrasting travelers and tourists: “A traveler doesn’t know where she’s going, and a tourist doesn’t know where she is.” I feel both mindsets coexisting in me, on this day, much like the waterfalls and glacial volcanoes, improbably sharing the same space.

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