Three days into a trek across the volcanic highlands of southwest Iceland, it occurs to me: This is Tolkien's Middle-earth. With its obsidian lava fields and steaming hot springs, its moss-covered foothills and treeless valleys, Iceland is Mordor one minute and the Shire the next. It has a magical quality to it, this Land of Fire and Ice—as if it has been plucked from the imagination and placed here, somewhere between Europe and North America, to be a playground for the adventurous traveler.
A thousand years ago, Iceland's Viking settlers sent criminals to the island's inhospitable interior, where they were forced to survive for 20 years before earning a pardon. Most never made it. I only have to survive for a week, though, and I have some help: a rugged British guide named Kelso, who's lived in Iceland for five years "after getting his mid-life crisis in early," and Helgi, an Icelander who transports our overnight gear from hut to hut each day. Together they're responsible for our food, our emergency transportation, and most of our comic relief.
I've booked my trip through Adventure Center, the U.S. sales representative for a British adventure outfitter called Explore. There are 12 people on the trek, and it's a boisterous group that includes a Scottish schoolteacher, a Kiwi doctor, a Canadian, seven Brits, and my wife and I—the only two Americans. We prefer it this way. British-run groups tend to have more of an international flavor than those assembled by American companies.
Our trek begins in the shadow of Mount Hekla, Iceland's famous volcano that was once thought to be the mouth of Hell. We walk about 80 miles over the next six days, although it's hard to know the exact distance because there are no trails, no markers, not even any other footprints for most of the week. It's not until day three that we meet anyone outside of our own group. On day four, we see our first signs of a trail. On day five, our first trees in almost a week.
Each day reveals a different side of the highlands. Bubbling pools of sulfuric water greet us from behind sandy red mounds of volcanic ash before making way for glacial rivers, broad valleys, and snow-speckled mountain ridges. The scenery changes not just daily, but by the minute. With 24 hours of sunlight in these summer months, and no trees to obstruct the view, visibility extends for miles. What appears to be a small hill in the morning reveals itself as a 4,000-foot peak by mid-afternoon.
That's on a clear day. Icelandic weather is notoriously temperamental, though. "Expect rain, sleet, hail, and snow," says Kelso at the start of the trip. "Maybe some sun." And this is summer?