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Translated Jeff Matthews

I'm starting to get used to it and I haven't even noticed: the dim glow of the night sky and the absence of stars are so familiar to me that now...I can even get a good night's sleep. When I wake up, however, there is still one thing that continues to bother me. It's the climate and everything connected with it. At home, down there in the Mediterranean (Mare Nostrum!), it's July, mid-summer. The skies are blue, fruit hangs from the trees or adds color to local market places, our bodies are sun-bronzed, rain is a vague memory, and the warmth “pushes us in en masse to the beaches...” (Darwin! - Banco del Mutuo Soccorso – 1972)..and clear warm waters of Our Sea. [trans.note: Darwin! is an album by the Italian progressive rock band, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (roughly, Mutual Aid Society). It's a “concept album” about the birth and evolution of the human species.] Up here, things are different. I awaken to a compact cloud bank blocking the pale northern sun while a light drizzle once again starts to dampen the hills and plains of the heath. The temperature, normally around 10 degrees C. (50 F.), certainly doesn't tempt you down to visit the waters of dear old Neptune, and the sweet and colored fruit...wait! I'll get back to that.

And today? Where in this lost land shall I turn my daily glance? It's time to move. I have to shake off morning sluggishness and plan the day or it will simply slip slowly away while I stare at myself in the mirror. That does not appeal to me. I'm not here to relax or meditate: the rigid code of the explorer is clear on this point...move, move, move!

I hastily consult the notes I made when I was researching potential goals, new slices of this immense Land of Ice to discover, accessible from my point of departure, the Edda Hotel. While I was planning the trip, I drew up a kind of master-plan with must-see places grouped around where I would be staying, my base-camp. That's something you can use when you are deciding where to go and what to see. Then I saw in my notes the name Snæfellsjökull National Park. OK, there's my day, right there.

I'm still not sure why I chose so hastily. Maybe it was the unpronounceable name and fascination of the Nordic saga or maybe—also possible—the mysterious hand that seems to be pulling the strings of this incomprehensible trip of mine right from the start. I elbow out some free space on my small table so I can lay out the map. I have to know where I'm going, how far I'll have to slog and what potential dangers lie along the way. As I mentioned, the roads that lead inland are almost always dirt, a surface that puts both your car suspension as well as your spinal column through the wringer, enough so to turn a pleasant outing into an agonizing struggle for survival. Luckily, a careful reading of the map tells me that that is not in store for me here. The Snæfellsjökull National Park extends over the entire Snæfellsnes peninsula on the extreme western coast of Iceland and is ringed by an asphalt road, a rim, as it were, with “spoke” trails into the interior. That interior with its snowy mountain tops is especially rough country and would take more time than I have at my disposal for even a partial exploration. The area facing the sea, however, has a number of more accessible points with features of geological, naturalistic, historical, and anthropological interest. That's what I'll choose for today, branching off only to cut across the peninsula from north to south to start on the trip back.

In a few minutes my backpack is ready. Since it's still raining I take a poncho, about the only thing that really keeps you dry in wind and rain. I'm off for my new adventure—what's more, I'm following the trail that inspired Jules Verne in his “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” for it was right here on the Snæfellsnes peninsula that he found the Snæfell volcanic crater to set the beginning of his phantasmagorical tale. What better send-off! Adventure with a capital “A”!

I'm heading west along a secondary, but paved, road. First it runs along the Hrútafjörður fjord and part of the Hvammsfjörður fyord below. Now it's decidedly to the south where I'll have to take that 40 km dirt road that cuts the Snæfellsnes peninsula in two. Along that stretch the only human beings I see are a few road workers trying their best to repair a section of the roadway destroyed by who knows what apocalyptic event. Their giant machines move quickly in the slippery mud. Getting by them is an adventure in itself; my little car squirts and slides around like a mouse trying to move through the paws of a cat. I avoid enormous tractor treads and wheels and hope that someone up there in the booth has noticed me and is trying very hard not to mash me down into the mire of the roadbed. In spite of that single obstacle that was clearly out to keep me from getting where I was going, I make it to the sea of Búðagrunn off the southern coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, the goal of my pilgrimage. I can finally start my day.

The weather worsens, if that is at all possible. Wind, rain, and impenetrable fog are my sole contacts with the world around me. I dare not think of “abandoning ship” for my little car is now a life raft in the tempest. On the outside I might not survive for more than a few minutes. Some of my reading comes back to me. I know I'm on the coast...I can smell it but I can't see it. I imagine there are high cliffs jutting up before me, the kind that reflect out into the dark and foaming spray. But I can't see them or anything else that has been described as a stretch of coastline among the loveliest in all of Iceland. The twisting road keeps climbing, and at the same time the fog keeps getting thicker. By now I'm plodding along at not more than 20 kph (12 mph). The curves, the asphalt slippery from rain, and the high steep cliffs warn me to be cautious. But maybe the sea is no longer so near. Maybe the route veered off towards the interior to get me up to and through a mountain pass. For the past few kilometers it has been going down and the fog is starting to lift. Maybe I'll be back at the coast again.

And so it is. I'm back at the sea. The rain has stopped, the mist has cleared. Road 547 now runs endlessly along deserted beaches of volcanic origin—you can see it in the color of the sand, grey ash telling of ancient eruptions. I stop. I want to sink my hands into the dark waters and try the temperature. To those of us used to crowded Mediterranean beaches, this is impossible—vast stretches of empty sand without beach umbrellas to break the monotony, no screaming kids running after balls, no tennis rackets, no one selling pieces of coconut. There's just a mysterious series of tracks, left—I like to imagine—by fantastic creatures. The tracks stretch down to, and then disappear into, the water. The sea is unusually calm in this sheltered bay. The gentle ebb of the backwash lets me move down to the water and immerse my hands. It's not as cold as I thought it would be, but the air temperature doesn't beckon to a real dip in the sea. That's why these beaches are so deserted.

I find my way again in the direction of the town of Hellnar where I can expect to find spectacular basalt cliffs, lava grottoes and endless stretches of soft multi-colored mosses. The road is on a slight climb with a high uninterrupted wall of rock on the right; it bounds the Snæfell plateau beyond. Suddenly, just around a bend, that wall is broken by a large gap where the earth has opened onto a large split that penetrates the mountain. It's not the first time I have seen something like this. During my first outing I explored part of one such structure (see Day 2, Rekyavik to Laugar). Its a geological feature that is relatively common here and perhaps caused by a sudden cooling and then contraction of the giant lava fronts that mark the landscape or perhaps by secondary faults set in motion by obscure forces within the earth. There issues forth from within this opening, as if from a recent wound, a steady and full rivulet of icy water—the “blood” of the glacier, melting and flowing to the sea. I can't help myself. The call of the dark chamber is too strong. I stop the car and start to walk along the trail while a cold wind tries to block my path. The closer I get to the mountain, the stronger grows the call. The mountain opens, the wind dies down, the temperature suddenly drops and darkness wraps around me. I am within Mother Earth.

(To be continued...)

Click on image to enlarge

1. From the window

2. The Hrútafjörður fjord

3. Rain, low clouds and snow

4. The dirt road

5. Tracks in the sand

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