"Iceland 2000" story # 10

THE ART OF GLACIAL RIVER-CROSSING
N˙psta­askˇgur           July 17, 2000

Sometimes you go hitchhiking, and things go really well. Sometimes you go hitchhiking, and you later wish you┤d never got out of bed that morning. This Tuesday and Thursday, I took two trips to the Southeast of Iceland. My goal for each was to visit Dřrholaey, a well-known puffin colony, where I hoped to catch myself a pet bird for my last month in Iceland.
     Things began well on Tuesday. Three of the first four drivers I rode with could only speak Icelandic, and our conversations went quite well. I┤d have to say one of the most memorable images of my time here will be a grown Icelander flapping his arms and saying, "lÝtill fugl," ("small bird") in an effort to understand what animal I wanted for my pet.
     The last driver I rode with also couldn┤t speak English. But in an unsuccessful effort to make things easier on me, he used an Icelandic-English-Icelandic word rhythm which would┤ve been unintelligible to everyone on the planet. He was headed to the glacier Mřrdalsjokull, where he seemed to be saying his daughter owned 25 sled-dogs. He asked if I wanted to come. The images I┤d had of leaping into the air and catching puffins by the toe were quickly replaced by me and this guy┤s daughter reclined on a huskey-driven sleigh, surrounded by hills of snow. Sounds like the Icelandic recipe for romance, no?
     But when we drove up to where the black mountain became a white plateau, there was no sled, no dogs, and no daughter. I started exploring the glacier on foot, sliding and tumbling down any hill I could find for fun.
     I kept getting passed by the average glacial tourist - zooming on powered snow-sleds and wearing snowsuits and boots. I┤m sure they thought I was nuts: trudging along in windpants, a sweatshirt, and shoes with holes in them.
     I walked and walked, content that my snow-sliding looked like more fun then their sledding.
     And then I saw it! One of the most beautiful things I┤ve ever laid eyes on, and the ultimate sliding hill, all in one. The Colossal Glacial French Fries┤ Box, I like to call it. What it was is a big icy slope, with melting grey snow cubes at the top that point in all different directions. There were also some long crevasses and a forty-foot deep cavern to explore.
     I checked out the cavern, where so much of the exposed snow was dripping that it sounded like it was raining. Sometimes the snow I stood on gave way, which really freaked me out because I thought I might fall straight to hell.
     I didn┤t, ofcourse, and my two slides down the Colossal Glacial French Fries┤ Box were utter joy.
     Though the holes in my shoes had accumulated much glacier and my feet ached, this was definitely a good hitchhiking trip.

On Thursday, my first stop was to be N˙psta­askˇgur. In English, the name means "forest at a sharp cliff." But from now on, I will only refer to it as "The Worst Place in the World."
     I hitchhiked past it to begin with, because I forgot that the Icelandic definition of "forest" is nearly equivolent to the English one for "tree." Most places in Iceland have no trees, so it takes very little for something to be called a "skˇgur."
     I got back on track thanks to the wife of a nearby park-ranger. "N˙psta­askˇgur is down this road," she said, "but it┤s closed to cars now. You know you┤ll have to cross the river to get there..."
     I waved her off and got out of the car. Like a stupid little river is going to stop me!
     (note: if you remember back to my ANOTHER WRONG TURN story, this would make it the second time I┤ve tried walking on roads that were washed out so much that even cars couldn┤t drive on them...I don┤t know why that always seems like such a good idea to me)
     I walked in a barren valley. To my left, towered a nearby green mountain. To the right, sat the long, white glacier, Vatnajokull.
     I came to the murky river in half an hour. It was about fifty feet across. It flowed from a glacier, so that the water numbed your feet in a matter of seconds. I pulled my pant-legs up to my knees, but by the time I┤d crossed the water had reached my waist.
     My pants were a little wet, but I pressed on to find the so-called forest.
     After another hour and a half, I realized I had yet to see something that couldn┤t have been seen from the main road. I could barely make out a tiny group of trees (a "skˇgur," I guess) some miles off.
     I turned back. I followed the river, hoping I wouldn┤t have to cross it again. Well, I did. I came to a dead end, and the river jumped around like popcorn to both sides of me.
     There were many troublesome inferences I could┤ve made from the rough water, but I chose to ignore every voice in my head except, "How easy! The rocks must be close to the surface here," and I headed across.
     I┤d already fallen victim to the glacial river┤s temperature and depth, but it now was the time for the river to unleash the third weapon from its arsenal: its Magn˙s Ver Magn˙sson-like power. As the water reached my knees, I could feel it pushing strongly on me, and I nearly tripped once when my shoe got stuck between some rocks.
     I got close to the opposite edge, where the water went up to my waist. I had to lean my body against the current in such a way that I would┤ve been walking horizontally had I been on land. I was two steps from shore.
     Just a little more...almost there...and...one more step...oh...Splash! I went down.
     I climbed to land. Unsure what to do, I stomped on. I now found myself wet from shoes to shirt to the walkman and papers in my backpack, in Iceland, with a strong wind nearly pushing me off the trail, 300 kilometers from home, and I STILL had a puffin to catch!
     Actually, I scratched the puffin idea shortly after, because a mountain-tall sandstorm sprung up behind me. Black sand flew into my eyes and stuck to my wet clothes.
     I cleaned off best I could, and a nice lady picked me up. My bad hitchhiking trip to The Worst Place in the World had thankfully ended.

This story may seem crazy and exciting to you! But, as my British friend Jeremy likes to put it, "It┤s just another day in the life..."

"...of Modern Oddyseus..."

Later.


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