“Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost”

A dear friend of mine applied this J.R.R. Tolkien quote to me today and I was ecstatic. Not for the reason you’d expect–mostly I was just over the moon to be thought of in the same sentence as J.R.R. Tolkien. The man is a god.  After sitting on it for a while though it struck me how absolutely humbling it is to be thought of like this by someone (especially someone that I admire and respect as much as Brendan). Not all those who wander are lost. I will be the first person to admit that I in no way have my shit together. I don’t know exactly where I’m going or how I’m going to get there. But that’s okay, you don’t have to. If it’s the journey that matters, not the destination, than life is this journey–but it’s not the kind you need to have mapped out beforehand. Not knowing your next move doesn’t mean that you’ve lost the game, it means that there’s still an entire universe of choices and actions open to you to choose from. The possibilities are endless.

No one will ever be able to look into the future and say with certainty “this is how my life is going to play out”. Every second of every day is a new journey. Not knowing what waits in the future doesn’t diminish the sheer beauty of the present. Not knowing whereto you wander doesn’t mean that you are lost.

Not all those who wander are lost

Reflections on the Why

My sister once said to me,

“Sometimes I just feel like you are spending your life trying to prove a point. What point and to whom I am not sure”.

I completely understand why someone would think that about me. I’ve rushed through school with no clear aim in mind. I spend my life coming up with elaborate and fantastical plans that never happen. I find it hard to sit still, to focus, to care about something enough to see it through to the end. I’m the kind of person who will call herself an author but never finish the story. It’s a trait about myself that’s frustrated me to no end.

But all of that, that’s why this trip is just right for me. When the first person asked me ‘Why Iceland?’ I didn’t want to just spout off the generic answers (although they’re not wrong) without thinking about it. So I’ve been thinking about it. I’m not going to ‘find myself’. I know who I am. I’ve long accepted, embraced, who I am. I’m not going for the view, although that certainly helps. I am definitely not going for the bragging rights–I’m probably going to go home and want to tell everyone about my experience, but I don’t mean it in a demeaning way. It’s one of those ‘I would like for you to share in my joy’ kind of situations. I guess, if I had to put a name to it, I would say that I’m going for the stillness. Maybe I ended up with a cliche answer after all. I once had a prof describe her experience trekking the Camino de Santiago to me. She said that there was something overwhelmingly right with waking up every morning, putting on the same clothes you’d been wearing for the last week, eating the same meal you’d been eating everyday for days, and knowing that all you had to accomplish that day was to walk. Being still. Engaging your mind by exhausting your body, but not letting yourself get bogged down in details. Not even letting yourself get bogged down in someone else’s stillness. I guess at the end of the day I am making a major decision so as to avoid making all of the minor ones. It’s important to take a breath every once in a while. Maybe this particular breath will help me to breathe better once I come back. Maybe it won’t. That’s not the point of it all. Iceland’s not a strategy or an end game. It’s not a stepping stone to something more complex. It’s a beautiful country that’s just so happened to have chosen to let me be still for a while.

I don’t think I’m trying to prove anything, I hope I’m not. People will remind me that Europe isn’t going anywhere. I know it’s not. I know there’s no need to rush. But Iceland feels right. My life, at this pace, feels right. Most importantly, all of these dreams and plans feel right right now. There’s no reason why I have to do this trip, but there’s no reason not to. I want this. So I’m making it happen.

Side-trip: Scotland!

Thinking about heading up to the land of the Scots for a few weeks next month for a bit of easy prep. If anyone’s done it, care to recommend a route? I’m thinking either West Highland Way (maybe with another route tacked on at the end because it’s so short–or, if I’m basing in Glasgow, I suppose I could double it up there and back again to save money on transporation) or the Southern Upland Way (sounds less nice but is almost doubly as long).

It’s an easy walk but I’m hoping to have all the gear set to go by then so at least it will get me used to lugging it all around. Scotland is very reasonable on wild camping too which is great. Also, castles. That is all.

West Highland Way

Links – people who’ve done the trek

Andrew hiked the Traverse East-West. His site gives a moderately detailed description of his route, has some handy tips and info, provides a gear list, links to maps, and lists some other useful resources. Caution: His E-W route is rather challenging. You come across a number of glaciers and have to ford many rivers. Probably not the best route for a solo hike; fairly dangerous at parts.

Jonathan and his friend Dave hiked North-South. He provides a quite detailed description of his route and provides some very interesting tips. He invites you to get in touch with him. His route is ultimately shorter and less rugged, but safer from what I can tell. Sticks more to tracks and F-roads where available. Most challenging obstacle appears to be traversing the lava flows (interesting!).

Klara took a rather winding route through different parts of the island. Her post is not the most useful for planning your own trip, but her video is stunning and really puts the fire in your heart to get out there and do it!

Book about a man’s journey across Iceland. Might be a bit outdated. I have yet to read it but I’ve heard it’s quite useful.

Broken English but some references to maps and direction.

 

Tips Along the Way

For anyone who’s thinking of walking across Iceland I’ll be documenting my preparation and, later, my travels here in hopes of making your researching that little bit easier.

Right off the bat here are a few tips that seem to become pretty clear as soon as you start reading up on the land:

– Stay off the glaciers. If you’re with at least one other person, have some experience, brought crampons,  (ideally) brought an ice pick, and have a burning desire to walk across a glacier, than have at ‘er. Otherwise don’t be stubborn, just go around. Depending on when you go you might get lucky and have enough surface snow to clomp your way through, but once that snow melts it’s  just ice underneath. You don’t want to find yourself on a glacial slip ‘n slide or inside a glacier sandwich. The risk is almost never worth it.
-Assuming you went around and find yourself at the opening of the outflow river, move downstream a ways before attempting to cross. The water of glacier-fed rivers in general is extremely silty and the depth hard to gauge. This is worse right near the glacier where the water-saturated gravelly soil is disrupted, forming something very akin to quicksand. Being rash never pays off. You went to Iceland to walk, so walk away from the pretty glacier.
– Fording glacier-fed rivers is scary and dangerous. Particularly if you’re travelling east-west/vice verse though it’s something you’re pretty much inevitably going to have to do. Use your poles first to test the depth and the firmness of the ground, and then keep using them for stability as you cross. Be cautious and careful. (Also, prepare for it to be insanely cold. It’s a glacier-fed river, duh).
– Don’t drink downstream of sheep or near the huts. Common sense. There’s water everywhere, you might as well pick a good clean source. I’m pretty much always going to purify my water anyway, just to be safe.
-Bring gaiters. They might not do much for the wet, but having to stop every hour to dump salt and volcanic ash out of your shoes is no fun.

Preparing for the Unknown

If you’ve even been struck with the sudden desire to walk across a virtually uninhabited country like Iceland on your own, you’ll probably know that it is one of the hardest things to plan for. Not many people have done it. Even fewer have shared their experiences on the world wide web. Generally when venturing into a new place with nothing but a tent, a bit of food, and my own stubborn determination, I like to have a clear idea of where I’m going, how I’m going to get there, and what I can expect along the way. If I don’t have that I at least like to have the odd person who hopefully speaks my language, or at the very least has a good understanding of flailing arm charades, and who is able to tell me where I am and where I need to go.

Venturing into Iceland I will have maps. Probably not even very accurate ones. There will also be no people.

The interior of Iceland, even during the ‘busy’ tourist season, is essentially devoid of people and roads. There’s the occasional two-track or F-road and if you hit an unfordable river there’s a good chance that somewhere, at least, there is a bridge you can use to cross it. But in terms of human presence there’s not much else, and that’s what’s so glorious about it. The diversity and barrenness of much of the landscape means that distance is hard to gauge.  Topography maps aren’t particularly useful when the land is flat, volcanic rock as far as the eye can see. It’s disorienting to be walking past the same mountain for hours on end, never feeling like you’re getting anywhere. I really have no idea what to expect on this journey. I will be investing a great deal of faith in my compass, my (as yet unowned) GPS, and my own intuition. It will be an exercise in trust. Trust in myself, trust in my capabilities.

That being said, I’m thinking that it’s going to go fairly well. The main advantage of choosing a country like Iceland happens to coincide directly with the most basic of human needs: water. The abundance of streams and glacial run-offs means that I will probably be getting fairly wet fairly often, but it also means that I’ll almost never be more than a few hours walk from a good water source. A good portion of the landscape is essentially devoid of viable life, and even if it weren’t I’m not familiar enough with the flora of Iceland to trust myself to ‘live off the land’. If I run low on food than I’m low on food until I hit the next store where I can resupply. Running low on food, though, is like a walk in the park compared to what happens when you run low on water. I will take a three week over a three day grace period any day, thank you very much. As long as I stay away from the lava deserts (real thing) than I should be grand.

Another major safety advantage of choosing Iceland is that the most dangerous animal I will probably come in contact with is an arctic tern. Damn birds are known for dive-bombing people, but they don’t exactly make me terribly concerned for my safety. Somehow the idea of stumbling across a little arctic fox just isn’t as intimidating as the thought of waking up with a full-grown bear outside your tent. Shocking, I know. There aren’t even mosquitoes to bite you. I’ve been told midge flies can be a nuisance, but they’re dealt with pretty effectively with a head net. If something does happen it will be due to my own stupidity, not the wildlife.

Arctic Fox