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Translated Jeff Matthews

From my window I see strange comings and goings: there's a steady procession from the hotel to a fold in the mountain above. The low-lying clouds and the constant drizzle on the window panes, however, makes the scene so“swimmy” that I can't really see what's going on. I can make out human figures in various stages of dress and undress—some garbed as true trekkers and some in bathing suits with bathrobes draped over their shoulders. They pass one another with determined indifference, moving up and down the trail like ants going about their endless labors. This piques my interest because upon my arrival I saw that high wall up there, boulders and rocks big and small all hanging, just waiting to come tumbling down if anything or anyone at all dared disturb their precarious state of balance. They hang from a clearing that lies just above. What's up there? Since everyone has been parading to and fro since the wee hours, is it some sort of initiation ritual? My innate curiosity gets the better of me; I can already taste the adventure ahead.

I make ready. Since I really have no idea at all what's in store me, I don my bathing suit under my usual spartan outfit that marks me as a “hardened hiker.” I also make room in my backpack for a beach towel...you never know. One of my travelling companions is the guide book, Lonely Planet, a volume I have come to value for its many points of information; at the first opportunity I'll thumb through it and try to find out what I'm getting myself into. I'm ready in a few minutes and then am off, on my way up the trail to discover the secret of Laugar and the Edda Hotel.

There's an early morning mist, and light rain dribbles down over my eye-glasses and blurs my vision, a truly irritating condition but familiar only to those who wear glasses! Now at the trail-head I find a bilingual sign in English and Icelandic (I understand the former just a bit, but absolutely nothing of the latter). I barely manage to mine a few tidbits of meaning from the sign—thanks to the friendly little illustrations. One of these is a map of the area indicating four different hiking trails marked by colored rings to show increasing degrees of difficulty (I figure that much out!). I read further and catch a reference to a sacred fountain and "bella vikinga” [lovely lady viking] who used to live in these parts. It's not much but it's enough to hold my interest and get me moving along the trail to adventure. After a few meters of moving with the sparse but steady stream of other visitors, I come to a crossing and decide to branch off on the trail marked by the color “black”—meaning 'long and difficult'. In any case, at the end I'll wind up back at my point of departure, but without all the bothersome company along the way. I go over a barbed-wire fence thanks to a small convenient wooden ladder (which I later notice to be in frequent use on Icelandic trails) and start my lonely ascent of the Laugar mountains (photo 1).

The trail is visible and clearly marked by a long series of low wooden signs mounted by lateral bands of different colors that distinguish all the trails. The Icelandic system of marking trails is slightly different from the Italian system (two white-red pennants varnished onto rocks or, more rarely, trees) and has the advantage that the signs are always visible, even in high grass. Thus I follow along my trail, which at first is marked by four different colors. There are then branching points on the right as you move along, and you move away from and above the trails of lower degrees of difficulty (until you are “funneled” onto the trail you want—with one color). I keep moving up and now the rain has stopped and given way to a cold wind. The air is clear and finally free of that irritating little fog that thus far has kept me from truly enjoying the landscape. As I keep climbing higher and higher, my eyes come alive and at last I can see into the distance.

After about half an hour I reach the crest that I noticed from my window. I discover that in back of it is not the plateau I imagined, but rather a vast meadow with a second steep slope on the other side. That second slope, compared to the one I have just come up, is not as steep, but it's three times higher. I pause for a bit to take some photos and then I'm off and on the way up this long and tiring climb. This is a bit trickier because the signs now show only the route of the trail that lies ahead, but not the long sequence of the preceding trails already covered. I am somewhat at a loss as to keeping things straight in my “mental map” and figuring out exactly where I am. I just know that I have to reach the crest directly in front of and above me—and the icy north wind is picking up by the second. Below me the valley grows longer and longer and the Edda Hotel is little more than a colored speck on the green heath.

Finally! I overcome the last barrier and am at the second crest and...am assaulted by misgivings. This is not the ridge I thought I would find; no valley opens up. Instead there is a vast plain ringed by a distant, new chain of heights. I'm scared out my wits. I was certain I had finished the climb, but the climb, undaunted and with a mind of its own, keeps on going. Suddenly I'm tired. I'm at the edge of this great clearing, a geological balcony that lets me really see off into the distance: the entire valley and the ribbon of asphalt that runs along it, then the the river and the open sea that welcomes its waters (photo 2). I have two conflicting thoughts: one urges me on, and the other one tells me to be happy at reaching this point and to enjoy the fruits of my labors. What I now see is pure poetry! For a fleeting second—but it passes—I ask myself what I might see from the peaks of those distant mountains. I decide. Go no further. It's a wise choice since getting all the way up there and then all the way back down again means covering a considerable distance. I sit down and take a bottle of water, some food and my trusty Lonely Planet from my pack; then I try to eat back some energy while I read that there are, indeed, a few tangible points of reference in the area right around me. The text speaks of ancient history and I discover that lower down there is the elf cathedral of Tungustapi [trans. note – also called “the Church of the Hidden People”] (from the Eyrbyggja saga); I see it on the rocky spur of the flank that closes the other slope of the valley. I read the love story of Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir (the “lovely lady viking”) told in the Laxárdalr saga. I remember reading of that as well as of the sacred fountain earlier on the sign posted at the trail-head, which I should see again on my way down this long ring road I have chosen.

The snack does the trick. I feel recharged and after taking a few photos, I start across the vast space, which is on a slight downslope and should get me back to the plain below. I no longer have the comfort of trail signs to point me precisely and have only a partial view of the surrounding territory to give me a sense of general direction in order to “close the ring” and wind up back on the marked path. At first glance the area had seemed a comfortable downslope covered with low grass, but now shows itself to have obstacles and water courses that, on their way down to the valley, have gouged the land with numerous erosion gullies. These channels are often hidden by vegetation and are an insidious trap for foot and calf; if you sprain or break something up here, that will do nothing for your peace of mind as you try to descend. There's the lighthouse! And so, after some stumbling around over unstable stone heaps trying to find the most favorable slope, I am down at the other side of the fenced-off area where my adventure started this morning. The surprises are not yet over, however, for now I see, half-hidden by a rocky spur, first the cabin (photo 3) and then immediately thereafter the sacred fountain where the saga of the Laxárdalr people tell us that beautiful Guðrún once bathed and lost the betrothal ring given her by her beloved.

It is now evening and the long twilight has started—it will last all might. The to and fro of persons I saw this morning has ceased. I am alone and can enjoy in peace and quiet whatever kind attention Guðrún may choose to favor me with. I free myself from my hiking clothes and sink into the warm waters of the circular fountain (see photo) while a small herd of wild sheep stare at me distractedly (photo 4). And all around me the icy wind from the high plateau whips the thin air.

(to be continued...)

Click on images to enlarge.

1. Towards the first crest

2. The large plain at the second crest

3. Guðrún's cabin

4. Wild sheep

5. The trails of the Laugar mountains.

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