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Backpacker Magazine – April 2008

Iceland: Live Earth

The planet's most dynamic landscape is full of bubbling hot springs, steaming geysers, and kaleidoscopic lava flows. Hike Iceland's epic Laugevegur Trail, and join the action.

by: Michael Lanza, Photos by Tyler Stableford

A recent flow from Blanukur Peak
A recent flow from Blanukur Peak
The thermally active Thjorsardalur Valley
The thermally active Thjorsardalur Valley
Landmannalaugar Springs
Landmannalaugar Springs
The River Stong
The River Stong

If Iceland values a good story more than a speedy commute, it's also a culture that knows how to wring every bit of fun from the endless days of an Arctic summer. For almost two months, the skies never get darker than a cloudy day. And because winter is the dismal opposite, residents burn the candle hard from May through August–fishing, hiking, kayaking, camping, eating, and drinking almost nonstop.

When we return from Laugevegur, our guides round up friends and family for two nights of camping. It kicks off with an enormous lamb dinner, then moves to a traditional Icelandic dish: rotten shark. Fermented for weeks, the rancid, chewy fish tastes like very strong cheese with a disconcerting ammonia aftertaste. We chase it with shots of "Black Death" schnapps, a sweet, searing gut punch that nevertheless seems like an act of mercy after the shark. Guitars come out, and we sing until 2 a.m., under a sky that's bright enough for reading. Then, as kids race among the tents, my new friends gear up for the next morning's adventure.

On my last day, we visit Thingvellir, the "parliament fields," a national park 14 miles east of the modern capital of Reykjavik. For centuries after Iceland established the world's first parliament in 930, thousands of citizens convened here annually to debate government business. I've come to look out over the Atlantic Fault, a gap that's visible here between two giant plates. According to Scherman's book, it's inexorably widening, the slow movement literally tearing Iceland in half a few millimeters a year.

Several minutes down a wide, gravelly tourist trail, I scramble up a break in a 40-foot cliff. Below me sprawls a field of mottled, ropey black lava. The fault slices through here, stretching and cracking the lava like brittle taffy. On the North American side, the ground creeps westward. Across the valley, on the Eurasian side, the brown hills slowly retreat eastward. The scene isn't quite as magical as what Jules Verne described, but I wager it's as close as a kid from Leominster will ever get to the center of the Earth. My 30-year journey complete, I turn and climb down, watching a couple of preschoolers playing below a waterfall, blissfully oblivious to the geological cataclysm taking place beneath their feet.



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READERS COMMENTS

Anonymous
Mar 25, 2010

Do you know what the huts cost per night?

Anonymous
May 22, 2008

The first picture of the recent lava flow is so stunning that I thought it was a painting at first.

Tim
May 20, 2008

Did this trail in 2002. Awesome trail in early June. No other people, a bit more challenging!

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