Moving South across a chunk of land is a magical thing. I've done almost all my treks SOBO (southbound) and you witness so much change down these lines of latitude... weather, plants, animals, people and behavior. It's a male dominated region, where I started. There is this recognizable leather to the skin... thick facial hair, too, making eyes pierce beautifully with a sense of wild and carefulness. People look after one another in a way I haven't experienced before. Survival. Roadkill doesn't stick around as long up North. Every animal for itself. Survival. I remember the first piece of green crossing the tundra. The first wildflower, too. I survived the first 500 miles alone on my bike. Several thousand more to go.
Flying into Deadhorse, I thought of all the ways I could get myself out of what I was about to do. I was scared. Terrified.
Prudhoe Bay, population 35 with a windchill of 7. A beautiful place to learn how to ride a bicycle. I want to see so much of this world, so why not start at the very top? Well, I can give you 72 reasons why not, to be exact. How about this little fact: the "road" isn't designed for bikes, or even better, permafrost tundra isn't designed for roads. There's a bed of styrofoam insulation laid under a raised gravel mound keeping the route from cracking, freezing, thawing and crumbling. Trucker after trucker hauling in more styrofoam rolls. A constant construction zone. The road doesn't end at a quaint picturesque town on the Arctic Sea, it ends at an oil extraction site built to move hundreds of thousands of gallons of this crude sulphur rich money maker across the great state of Alaska. Oh, but there is something still very romantic about this starting point. It's a place very few have ever seen.
Craig ferried me across the construction zone, passing a herd of muskox and caribou to my drop off spot. On my own, no way out, taking each gravel hill one inch at a time. I began this trip in 27 degree sideswiping snow. A few hours later and 3 grizzly bears got close enough to say hello! Day one and I made my mileage, camped on the side of the road. 24 hours of light. Pure exhaustion and the sorest thighs of my life. I just laid in my tent like a mummy looking straight up for an hour, unable to move, and too scared to cook as it might attract some unwelcome guests.
I woke up...11pm, 4am, 8am... who knows, it's all the same. Day two, and it's as sunny as can be. No more need for my winter layers, and I'm feeling more confident and stronger with each mile. According to my own calculations, I hit 45 mph on the downhill, too bad I can't confirm this since my new bike computer isn't functioning. So much love and support from the truck drivers, security workers and tourist. They handed me water, fruit and encouraging words, it really made my day. I'm starting to feel all right out here, starting to believe in myself while leaving most of my fears at bay.
I am so incredibly frustrated with myself for not finding the time to blog about my Hayduke Hike, as I have already set out on yet another adventure. You see, I'm in Alaska now, sitting behind a computer at a hostel trying to quickly summarize my experience from several months before. Last fall, I hiked all but one brutal section of this 850ish mile route. This was probably the most beautiful experience of my life so far. Sure, I say that often, but I am telling you the truth. I am forever changed after spending a few months alone in Utah and Arizona.
Luckily, I kept a daily journal (now safely stored with Dad back in California) and will one day write a better account of this journey. For now, here are some of my favorite memories. I only pitched my tarp twice in over a two month stretch since the weather was so good... no issues with snakes or spiders, thank you. I saw my first narrow, shimmied up and down my first chimney, maneuvered through some tough rock climbing moves alone and learned how NOT to lower a 50lbs pack with shoe string size rope because it will slice your hand skin wide open. I carried 20 lbs of water at one time, and luckily never went dry. I thought the desert would be desolate, but found it full of life. I studied the stars each night with my little astronomy text book and can identify almost all the constellations in the November Utah sky. Hippie Longstockings, Bug and Mud all joined me for short parts of this journey. I met each of them on the PCT back in 2014 and was honored to reunite.
Here are some of my favorite photos that I hope will inspire you to explore this amazing region.
I took the 1:30 ferry back to mainland Iceland and made my way to the darling village of Vík. Camped in a parking lot tourist hub of tents and fell asleep to the sweet lullaby sound of cars racing down the Ring Road. There must be at least one hundred others here, surrounded by people, but no one says hello. Woke up for the sunrise. Pinks, oranges and purples bouncing off the sea. Up the coastal mountain, down to the black sand beach of divinity. I made an attempt to climb a cliff and reach the lighthouse, unsuccessfully.
Onward to Skógafoss, the spectacular cascade Apple Computer uses as a screensaver. I hiked over the people and continued past one hundred more equally stunning waterfalls until the sun set. Pitched my tent way off trail, not something I can condone in a permitted park, but I just needed to be alone. For my final day, someone sent me perfect weather. Put on my shorts to cross a rock solid ice cap in the early morning light. What do you know, a friendly arctic fox joined the trail to say hello.... or maybe he really meant goodnight?
Today, I completed my Iceland Traverse. I walked from the Northern Most point to the very South. I hiked it alone. There's something anticlimactic about this finish line. I can't pretend to be excited or feel overwhelmed. I saw a beautiful country and I proved to myself that I am just fine out here, all on my own.
I made it to þórsmörk by 10:00 am. Sour... Search and Rescue told me I wouldn't be able to continue on to Skógar. They picked 6 people off the mountain, two seriously injured, 1 hypothermic. Zero visibility and furious winds. I tried to explain where I had just come from and that I'm not a regular tourist. I tried to convince them I was a "professional hiker" who only had 15 miles to complete her solo traverse of this beautiful land; 15 miles which would take me roughly 5 hours. Maybe if I spoke in kilometers they would understand? No problem. Safety first. I'll come up with another plan.
I downed 3 beers for $30 while waiting for a bus to take my deflated soul to the closest town. I looked at the map and found Iceland's REAL southernmost point: the Westman Islands. Jumped on a ferry to ride out the storm. It seemed silly to sit for several days in my cold wet tent, eating ramen in the overpriced camping lot. What a genius idea!
Wellcome to the land of Puffins! I'm sure most people who set off to Iceland are aware that these beautiful creatures inhabit the lands, but I only had 10 days to plan my traverse. What a glorious shock to stumble upon a breeding cliff. Oh me, oh my, it's beautiful here. Wonderful. Superb. A dream. I'm so happy I listened to my little heart and followed its direction. What a gift this mini storm detour is turning out to be.
On August 18, in my tiny island cabin, I had an eureka moment, a new life goal: I know what comes next, I'll circumnavigate the globe! I couldn't sleep that night, writing out a million thoughts, plans, ideas and concerns. Who knows when I will be able to start this trip or how I can make it come true, the only thing I can say for certain is that it will happen, OH BABY I PROMISE YOU! The sun returned the next morning, and I took a ferry back to finish my hike.
Have you ever felt an invisible happy hand reach down your throat and steal the sounds you think you need to scream when you see something spectacular? Something that forces your body into a silent moment of AWE? Yes... it is as beautiful and wonderful as they say. The Laugavegur Trail is Iceland's most popular hike and one of the world's top destinations, for good reason, too.
Sure, us adventurous types typically flee populated places to experience nature untouched. We want solitude and serenity... where no one else is... but Honey-Bun, there is enough beauty to go around for everyone! In fact, it brings me so much joy to see people out on their first hike in this kind of terrain. What better introduction to the great outdoors?
I made it to Landmannalaugar in time to find my resupply box and down two beers before setting off on the final stretch. This was an interesting resupply. A few weeks back in Reykjavík, I gave a bus driver 3,000 Króna in blind faith to deliver my food... no address, no recipient to sign for, just faith. Onward to a cloudy misty snow crossing with the sweet smell of sulfur fuming through my feet. I set up camp in a white out, close enough to about 40 other tents to hear them snore. I had to pee in my cook pot, since there were no trees to block the view and the outhouse was too far for my morning regularities. Nothing like salty coffee to remind you of your outdoorsyness? It wasn't until I unzipped my tent at 4:00am that I caught the first glimpse of the obsidian packed volcano snow bowl I slept in. I cried in awe of the beauty. Up and out, here we go.
I pushed past half a hundred people that day and made the questionable decision to stealth camp out of sight down a babbling brook gully. It's my last night on trail (potentially) and it feels so right to be here alone... listening to the water and wind. Only 25 miles to the lighthouse, Iceland's southernmost point. I'm happy and strong. I know someone or something is looking out for me and OH! how thankful I am.
I tried to get a room at my next town stop, but they were booked out. All of Iceland is booked out. It’s a thing. This country is blowing up, the new global hot spot. The motorcyclists who passed me earlier happened to be in the lobby. They overheard my situation and found a spare mattress. WHAT LUCK! Touratech Sweden was on a 9 day backroads adventure across the country. It's pretty cool what they do... visiting the secret spots few people have the opportunity to see.
No seriously… WHAT LUCK!!! I’m in the planning stages of a major international motorcycle tour. Come January, me and my step mom are doing a 3 month ride across Argentina to support our favorite hobby... wine tasting! I know very little about riding, so how cool to meet this professional team. It gets better, they took me for a ride along the next two days! Poor guys had to put up with a million questions all day long.
I promise you David, Mads and Carla... I will come visit in Sweden and I will arrive on my own bike!
The Nyidalur Hut: what a wonderful place to sleep. Ok, it cost me $70 to share an attic lined with mattresses, cozy as a tin of sardines. No electricity. Just a handful of others, international explorers including the search and rescue team. You have to do these things when you visit a foreign land, sleep in expensive huts. When else do you have this opportunity?
The caretaker had recently returned from a backcountry excursion in my same direction. She told me about another private hut not listed on the map and where they hid the key. Her directions, precise: follow your nose straight towards the Hofsjokull Glacier. Moments before I set out, a young Algerian photographer asked if I would like his new compass, since he was carrying two. Pre-trip, this was something I didn’t think I would need. I brought just a tiny, almost toy like thing — assuming the metal in the rocks would render it unusable. This silly idea came from the blogs I read in preparation, but one should ALWAYS have a good compass, especially with solo off-trail travel. Overwhelmed by his generosity, I accepted the gift and gave him mine in return as a token of thanks.
Well, the grey ash hills were simply wonderful leading to the glacier, so far removed from any road. Again, perfect weather — cloudy with a few blue patches providing a bit of light on the giant frozen mass. I probably hiked too hard and fast to keep a solid pace, but I made it. Even crossed a few rivers without getting my feet wet. Ending with the best night’s sleep.
It was completely white out when I woke up. I forced down a few more hours of sleep and then took my sweet time getting ready… meditating, photos, preparing my 'dry suit,' pooping, you know the routine. I pre-rolled 2 burritos and 5 cigarettes, in case the rain shouldn’t subside, and lined my shoes with plastic bags. Today would be wet.
One of the reasons I wanted to hike Iceland was to face my fear of cold. I’m trying to broaden my skills and experience… push my comfort, if you will. Remember folks, I'm a California girl and have a cute allergy to snow. This is just my second year in the outdoor world. Oooooh baby, let's go!! These next 30 miles were on a 4x4 track so, no need to worry about navigation.
I screamed to the hills in excitement, once I confirmed my rain system was working. I can’t quite explain it… this feeling of euphoria, completely ecstatic with a teaspoon of pride. I proved to myself that I properly prepared for my biggest fear. I didn’t conquer it, no, more, I found a way through it. I’m still terrified of the cold, and I’m sure the storm wasn’t really that bad.. or maybe… just not that long.
About 5 hours into the wet freeze, I saw a little weather station, just like the one I remember reading about in Luc Mehl’s trip report packrafting across Iceland. Luc is a true adventurer… one of the big dogs, he's in a completely different league. Well, to find myself in a similar situation as him, it was almost like a dream! I cooked up a pot of ramen and giggled to my self with glee. So fucking happy. I’m doing it! On my own! Just like the cool cats! (Again, my journey can’t come close to comparison with these guys, but that’s how I felt). I’m not a failure! And I’m having fun! The time of my life! In the sole company of dead flies! I remembered Luc writing something about the temp readings being largely off the night they slept inside. I gave a quick kiss to the blue box thermostat, thinking I may have made a similar mark before setting back out.
Several more hours of heavy rain and sleet. Two BMW touring bikes passed me and I gave the biggest smile and wave. Soon, 14 more… followed by a truck lugging their gear. I’ve never been so excited to see people, drenched in cold. I mean, they are bad ass motorcyclists touring Iceland. Walking is easy. Riding takes skill, not to mention the added danger factor. But here I was, crossing the same country, only me with all my gear on my back, at a much slower speed. I can’t wait to ride over foreign lands, and I can assure you that I already have this in my plans, but for now, I am just so happy to be here on foot.
Needless to say, it was a very good day!
This was supposed to be my most difficult section. I remember calling my sister from the airport describing where she could find my will, should my body go missing: a scribbled list of names and percentages in the front of my journal… as if I have anything more than a stinky collection of rocks and bones.
I set out with 10 days of food and 100 pounds of needless fear. I'm not sure which weighed more.
Perfect weather. Beautiful black sand dunes. Volcanic flowerless gardens. I went to sleep each night with watery eyes… tears of thanks, joy and confusion in how I got so lucky to experience this place.
A chunk of isolation. A slab of solitude. Vacant. Null. Desolate. Empty. Alone. Alone. Alone!
One early morning, I saw two alpinists ahead on a 4x4 track in the middle of nowhere. A speck of sand at first, growing in size each hour as they approached, until they towered over me, 4 meters high. Their smiles were priceless, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the gear: ropes, ice axes, crampons. They just came off the glacier. Real Mountain Men. I felt their pride in me, this little American girl alone in the Northern Highlands, and mine in them. I’m just walking, nothing special. I have few skills other than to put one foot in front of the other. There was a sigh of mutual respect when we parted… since I couldn’t communicate in their Polish tongue. It was a silent respect in understanding how special it is for anyone, anyone at all, to make it to this remote part of the world. It didn’t matter what we were doing, simply that we were doing it.
I made it to a “road” minutes after a storm rolled in. Finally, I get to try on my fisherman gloves! To my surprise, a van approached, the only car passing that day. It was loaded full of French tourists and they so graciously gave me a ride to the next hut along with some Chartreuse, Cognac and special gingerbread treats from Dijon. Vive la France! What a gift. Sincere apologies for the horrible smell.
What was supposed to be most difficult, turned out to be a breeze. No wind, a few drops of rain, forgiving fords, and I was able to hike it with ease. This is not normal… no no no. Thor took personal care for me, there is no other explanation. If any of you are planning a similar traverse, take my experience with a sea of salt. I got lucky. Had the weather been normal (meaning extreme)… well, I don’t even want to think about it.
I am ahead of schedule now… by several days. My pace was fast, my days were long with no serious obstacles along the way.
The void is impossible for a dreamer. It simply doesn't exist. Where some see nothing, I am overwhelmed in abundance.
There are those who hike to disconnect, but it's here in the solitude where I feel most connected.
I thought I was alone, but found myself in perfect company. How is it possible to be so provided for, without knowing a soul in this country? How can a flower bloom without any soil? The wind is singing, without a branch to rustle through. A fire burned bright in this treeless tundra.
There is nothing lonely about the Ódáðahraun Desert, nothing lonely at all.