An Icelandic Saga: Laugavegur
"I'm made for this," I thought, as I descended the last leg of Iceland's famous Laugavegur trail, picking my way across a barren plain of volcanic rock and down into swirling mists and sulphurous plumes toward the trail's end at Landmannalaugar.
"There's nowhere else I'd rather be."
The end was in sight. After conquering the 25km Fimmvörðuháls trail with my friends Jason, Darren, Daulton and Krystin two days earlier, I'd set out to tame the 57km Laugavegur solo, covering 33kms in one first exhausting day, and intending to split the final 24kms into two relatively easy segments.
But the threat of bad weather at the high-altitude campground at Hrafntinnusker--and the promise of hot springs at the trail's end--pushed me to try to finish what remained of the trail in a single day, rather enduring a cold and windy afternoon and overnight atop a snowy, rainy mountain.
I wouldn't regret the decision in the slightest.
Leaving Hrafntinnusker after a late lunch, I kept my morale high by cheering up the exhausted-looking travellers who appeared steadily on the trail ahead of me, watching their faces light up when I told them they'd almost reached the hut.
They'd had an uphill slog with about a 500m elevation gain since they'd left the trailhead, and on some of them it showed; by contrast, my slogging days were mostly over, with a fairly pleasant descent ahead of me, and reports of good weather at the trailhead.
I was glad I pressed on. Shortly after leaving Hrafntinnusker I passed a memorial cairn to a young man from Israel, who got lost in a blizzard just a kilometre from the campground and died on the mountain.
Visibility as I hiked was mediocre, but I could still make out the markers that lined the trail. The land around me was vague and featureless, though, and I could easily see how an unlucky hiker could find himself hopelessly lost.
I descended past a number of dramatic geysers and hot springs, one of them belching scalding water from a hole in the hillside with what seemed like furious malevolence, roaring and steaming and angry.
I stopped to marvel at the geyser for a few minutes, and at the steam blown almost sideway by the powerful wind that raked the terrain, and then I shouldered my pack and continued the descent, searching through the mist for any sign of a break in the weather.
Soon I found myself at the top of a beautiful valley, whose slopes resembled marshmallows roasted perfectly over a fire, and punctuated here and there by fields of black lava that looked like the marshmallows you leave roasting too long.
In the distance, on a high peak, I could see people, and beyond them the land sloped down to a wide river delta, still miles away.
I surmised that the people I could see were day hikers, that the trail's end lay in that delta, and that the peak I was seeing was one of the many shorter climbs accessible from the trailhead.
My shoulders were burning at this point from the weight of my pack, but otherwise I felt great, and knowing the end was just ahead kept my spirits high.
I felt pretty accomplished, if I'm being honest. I'd hiked 82kms through forbidding terrain over the span of three days, much of it by myself, and I didn't feel that I'd exceeded my capabilities or pushed myself too far beyond my limits.
I'd spent the year preparing myself mentally and physically for the trek. I'd done boot camps three days a week since January to get my body in shape, and I'd read everything I could about the trail and the terrain in the months leading up to our departure. And I made sure I had the right gear, and tested it on overnight hikes in British Columbia before I left.
I always take a lot of care in being prepared when I go out on adventures, and it really paid off in this instance. And as I made my way down through that valley toward the river in the distance, I caught my first sight of the campground at Landmannalaugar and felt immensely satisfied with what I'd accomplished.
The last two kilometres or so of the trail wound through a vast and fascinating lava field, filled with crusty black rock formations that dwarfed me and spoke to some primeval violence.
By that point, though, I was about ready to shuck my pack off my shoulders and jump in the hot springs; I would have two full days to explore my surroundings once I'd reached the trailhead and got settled.
I reached Landmannalaugar at about 1730 that evening, having covered the last twelve kilometres in about two and a half hours, and the day's 24kms in a little more than six hours.
My reward was a lovely campground and a rapidly clearing sky, and a message from my friend Alexis on the GPS transmitter I carried, telling me that my friends would be renting a car and driving out to the trailhead to meet me tomorrow, which was wonderful news; I'd missed them immensely.
After I'd set up my tent I quickly made my way to the hot springs, and just when I sunk into the thermal pool did a rainbow appear in the distance, arcing fully over the campsite and the mountains beyond.
It seemed too good to be real, and I thought of racing back for my phone to snap a picture. But I lay back instead, and enjoyed the view, and felt grateful for what I'd seen and what I'd been able to do.
And I lay there and basked, with no more ground left to cover, and waited for my friends to find me.