It was the promise of danger that enticed my 11-year-old son. Sebastian, my oldest child, has grown up reading fantasy novels and watching “Lord of the Rings,” so he knows every inch of Frodo and Sam’s journey, from the Dead Marshes to Mount Doom. So this is how I sold it: We were going to Mordor. We would be crossing snowy mountain passes, black sand deserts, raging rivers and hot, acidic mud pits. It would be a fantastic adventure, with a small chance of death.
Naturally, my wife bristled at the mention of mortality. “This wouldn’t happen,” I assured her (repeatedly), but its ever-so-faint possibility was crucial to the magic of the endeavor. We weren’t playing on the Xbox. This was real. We were headed to the remote, volcanic highlands of Iceland — and together we would live to tell the story. Salesmanship. It’s a vastly underappreciated facet of parenting.
It was, of course, something of a conceit. I like hiking and acidic mud pits as much as the next man, but what I really wanted was time with my son. For months, I had been sensing that he was at a precarious age — no longer child, but not quite teenager — and I could feel the steady tug of adolescence, like gravity, pulling him away from me.
All of it was quite age-appropriate. (How was your day? “Good.” What do you talk about with your buddies? “Dunno.”) I wanted more, but there always seemed to be homework, soccer games, track meets, sleepovers, band practice, you name it — it’s insane really, the number of obligations that we cram into our children’s lives until we’re all collectively exhausted.
Then one night, as I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, heart pounding, acutely aware of time slipping away, I grabbed my iPhone and booked two tickets to Iceland. No, I didn’t want travel insurance. We were going.
We were headed to Landmannalaugar, a remote outpost in southern Iceland. This was the start of the Laugavegur Trail, a 34-mile trek through an astounding diversity of terrain — all of Middle-earth (minus the orcs) — plus, according to our guidebook, there was a shack, somewhere in the middle, that served beer. The plan was to do it in four days and to stay in huts along the way.
We soon found ourselves on the Icelandic equivalent of a Greyhound, cruising down the highway, when the bus driver made a sharp right turn, onto a vast expanse of black sand, fringed by distant mountains. And we just kept going. Sebastian looked at me quizzically: “Dad, uhh, does this even count as a road?” Our bus approached a narrow river and plowed into the current. It briefly appeared as if we were in a boat, surrounded by water. And on we went, for the better part of two hours, until we arrived at Landmannalaugar in a downpour.
Correction: A freezing downpour.
Heavy clouds hung low overhead, melding with the ubiquitous gray stones of the valley. It was a melancholy place. I later met a warden who had spent part of the winter here, largely by herself. She lived in a hut, which she shared with mice. “I killed the mice,” she told me. “And I really started regretting it because then I was truly alone.” This warden, Heidrun Olafsdottir, was also a poet, and she intended to write while stationed here, but found it impossible. The job required her to keep a journal, which she did with extreme minimalism — “Checked the oil” or “Fixed the generator.” Such was the mood this valley conjured.
The trek begins
Sebastian and I exited the bus and did a quick equipment check — boots, waterproof pants, jackets, hats, gloves, packs, deck of cards, freeze-dried meals and enough Snickers bars to resuscitate six diabetics from hypoglycemia. In the warden’s hut, where prospective hikers check in, the warden eyed me appraisingly. “Weather at the pass is not great,” he warned. “Visibility is poor.” He then asked about our gear. The moment had the somber feeling of a border crossing, as if we were on the cusp of entering a foreign land, which, in fact, we were. All of this, by the way, is typical at the start of the Laugavegur Trail; and wardens often turn people away.
The trail was well marked, the warden explained, with poles every hundred yards or so. And there were plenty of other hikers. The only dicey area was the first mountain pass, just before the hut at Hrafntinnusker, where we would spend our first night. Snow and fog sometimes obscured visibility here. “You can always turn around or dial 112 on your cellphone in an emergency,” he said. I hesitated. Several years back, a young Israeli died on this very pass, in a freak summer blizzard; and he wasn’t the only one to perish. “We usually have one death every two years,” another warden said.
“We’ll take it one kilometer at a time,” I told myself.
At the trailhead, I tried to take some weight off Sebastian’s pack. He had won the state champion in the 1,500-meter for his age group, but running on a track and shouldering a pack over mountains are different tasks entirely. Sebastian gently pushed me away. “Don’t think of us as father and son, just as extremely good friends, and equals,” he said. The expression on his face was so proud and earnest that I had no choice but to agree. And so we began our ascent to Hrafntinnusker.
We climbed up a series of gentle slopes through a vaguely lunar landscape. (It was readily apparent why, in 1960s, astronauts trained in Iceland for their visit to the moon.) We soon gazed down into Vondugil, the so-called Wicked Valley — a place that shepherds historically avoided because of its evil spirits — and which seemed aptly named, as it lay shrouded in a gloomy mist. Sebastian was electrified by it all. When we saw puffs of vapor, in the distance, he bounded up the mountain until we discovered a blowhole where steam hissed. Moments later, he yelled: “Look Dad, look!” I was doubtful about what could warrant such exuberance, until I turned and saw a pond bubbling to a boil.
As we neared the mountain pass, the rocky terrain vanished, giving way to snow and ice. We could have been in Antarctica. The trail was marked with tall stone cairns, which flickered in and out of view, as low-lying clouds swept over us. Instinctively, we reached out and held hands. I felt Sebastian squeeze my fingers. I looked over at him — to make sure he was all right. His eyes were gleaming with determination.
Rough conditions ahead
It was Sebastian who spotted the memorial for the young Israeli — Ido Keinan — a modest pile of stones with a metal plaque. The frightening part was just how close Keinan was to safety when he died. Just a few hundred yards later we reached the Hrafntinnusker hut. The two wardens who maintained it — a young British couple, Katie Featherstone and Daniel de Maine — welcomed us. It was not fancy — a few spartanly furnished rooms and a kitchen — but it was warm, safe and dry.
As afternoon turned into evening, the weather steadily worsened. The wind intensified, visibility dropped and the air grew colder. Other hikers arrived, including a large contingent from South Korea, filling the small house to capacity: 52 people unfurled their sleeping bags in every nook and cranny. (Spaces at these huts are hard to come by; typically, reservations must be made months in advance.) Outside, a handful of brave souls pitched tents.
Around 8:30 p.m., three young women from California arrived. They were cold, wet and spooked. They did not have reservations and they hadn’t checked in with the warden at Landmannalaugar. Katie told them, gently but firmly, that there was no room; they’d have to pitch their tent and make it through the night. If the situation turned dire, Katie said she would open the doors. It was a challenging situation, but one that she and Daniel were up to. Before coming to Iceland, they had volunteered at a refugee camp in Calais, France. “There was a lot of saying ‘no’ to people in France — people in considerably worse situations,” Daniel recalled with regret.
The next morning, shortly after 7 a.m., Sebastian and I set out from Hrafntinnusker into a howling wind. Our route would take us along several mountain ridges, down into a valley, across a river and finally to the lakeside hut at Alftavatn. We were the first ones on the trail and soon felt like the only two people in the world. Cold rain pelted our faces. We spoke little. Our only goal was to reach Alftavatn as quickly as possible.
As we began our descent into the valley, whose slopes were covered with electric green moss, it felt as if we had emerged from the moon, and then the arctic, only to find ourselves in the glens of Scotland. Sebastian didn’t complain, but I could see that he was cold. When we reached the river, the water came up past our knees, and we had no choice but to take off our boots and cross in hiking sandals. The water, which was snowmelt, numbed our feet; when we reached the far bank, Sebastian was shivering. I knelt down, put his socks back on, and tied his boots — like I once did when he was a small child. “Dad,” he said in a quiet voice. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” I said.
We shouldered our packs and, as quickly as we could, completed the last leg of the journey, across the valley, to Alftavatn. Here we found our hut and the trail’s legendary bar in an adjoining shack. We were the first hikers to arrive and had the bar to ourselves. It was a cramped, cozy space with the scent of chicken stew in the air and a guitar on the wall for patrons to play. Sebastian inhaled a brownie, and I downed a beer, while the two barkeeps — Maria and Anton, a young Bulgarian couple — talked about why they had chosen to live in Iceland.
“It’s a magical place that has a special energy,” Anton explained. “They say whatever you wish for, can happen there … If you ask for cheese …”
“Or peanut butter …,” Maria suggested.
“You can find it …,” Anton said.
“ … Even without going to the shop,” finished Maria.
There was a trippy “Alice in Wonderland” quality to their words, but in our state of considerable fatigue, it seemed appropriately dreamy. I asked Anton about a gold medal, mounted on the wall, with the inscription: DIDN’T MURDER ANYONE TODAY. “Ah, yes … We didn’t understand that when we first came here,” he said, with a wry smile. “But now, after seeing so many panicked people, we understand. When you are in survival mode, you forget manners.” This had been the case the previous week, when severe winds necessitated an emergency evacuation of roughly 100 campers from Alftavatn.
An hour or so later, the weather cleared. Entirely. Wind died. Rain stopped. Clouds parted. And then rich, golden sunshine poured from the heavens, while every last beleaguered hiker posted the same image to Instagram: #IcelandicGodbeam and #PraisedBeJesus. Our surroundings, which we could only now grasp for the first time, were jaw-dropping: green hills, snow-capped peaks and the lake itself — utterly still — a black, Tahitian pearl embedded in the earth. That evening, in the hut, the South Korea hikers invited us to join them for a raucous dinner of fish, kimchi and vodka. Everyone toasted Sebastian for his stamina and he delighted in the attention.
A chance to talk
The next morning, Sebastian and I set off across a sprawling, black-sand desert, hemmed in by mountains and glaciers. The weather was perfect — sunny with a slight chill in the air — and we chatted as we walked. “Dad, tell me your life story,” he said. He wasn’t joking, so I obliged him and did my best not to sugarcoat it — as if, in his words, we were just “extremely good friends.” I told him about growing up, and working crummy jobs, and where I was on Sept. 11, and why my parents got divorced, and how I fell in love with his mother. And he talked, too. He recalled memories from the age of 5, when we lived in India, and he walked to school past ramshackle homes and yards with red-eyed rabbits. After the trials of the previous day, we savored the conversation.
The sun got stronger, necessitating us to look for our sunscreen, which I could not find. Sebastian grabbed my cellphone and, to my amazement, used FaceTime for an impromptu videoconference with my wife in Connecticut. “It’s in that little side pocket in Sebastian’s pack,” she said. “Now hold up the camera, so I can make sure Dad puts it on properly.” Alas, our male bonding was briefly interrupted and sunburns were avoided.
We spent that night at the mountain outpost of Emstrur and, the following day, finished the trail to its end in Thorsmork. The weather remained perfect and we talked a great deal more, even as the bus carried us back to civilization — to the tidy streets of Reykjavik. On our last night in Iceland, we feasted on sushi, and then returned to the hotel. We had adjacent twin beds. Sebastian dozed off immediately and then rolled over, in his sleep, so he was snuggled close, with his gangly arms draped over me. It was late by then, almost 10 o’clock, but the sky was still awash in light — the slow burn of northern twilight. Soon our busy lives would resume. School would start. Days would pass. My son would grow up. But for now, I cheated time, and dusk lingered.
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