The land is on fire. Actually, the land appears to be smoldering, stoked by some persistent blaze just beneath the surface. Steam from hot springs and other geothermal features rises from scores of points from here to the horizon. Mudpots bubble and burp, their effluent dotting a giant canvas of black rhyolite, purple pumice, and electric-lime moss with paint-can spills of ochre, pink, gold, plum, rust, and honey. It’s a mind-boggling kaleidoscope that spreads for miles in every direction, unobstructed by anything taller than a clump of moss. It looks like Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin, as seen by an ant.
I’m in Landmannalaugar, a park in the remote Fjallabak Nature Reserve of Iceland’s Central Highlands. Landmannalaugar is famous both for its hot springs–the name means “bath of the countrymen”–and for the trail I’m hiking. Called the Laugarvegurinn (“Hot Spring Road”), or Laugavegur, it’s a three- to four-day, 33.5-mile, hut-to-hut trek across one of the most active geothermal areas on the planet. Friends had told me it deserves a place beside the Inca Trail, Annapurna Circuit, and Milford Track as one of the world’s most beautiful paths.
Just a few miles into the hike, I already see why. Passing other hikers, mainly Icelanders and other northern Europeans, I’d soon found myself alone with the Arctic wind and occasional whistling steam vent. Now, as I gaze across the smoking land, I think: This is how the Earth must have sounded not long after its birth, when the ground constantly trembled and belched and disgorged its surplus of heat and water, and there were no plants rustling in the wind or animal noises to amplify and add complexity to the soundtrack.