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It's a long climb, to get to the bottom of things

gettin outta this one horse town!!!

ICELAND | Sunday, 11 July 2010 | Views [658]

He looked at me squarely in the eyes, sizing up the spirit inside and making up his mind. I tripped over his name- Floki, chatting inanely about how I trust him completely and we are meant for each other while nervously fussing about checking all of the leather ties and hooks that would saddle me onto his back.
I hung back from the group, an aloof observer gathering the inside intelligence to fake my way into belonging in a group of seasoned horse riders. Jodhpurs tucked inside the rubber riding books I had hastily picked up in London, I wondered nervously if everyone could see how inexperienced I am. Every movement could be an enormous advertisement proclaiming me to be unfit for the six day riding tour- the agent selling me on the tour had been very cautious and uncertain about letting me book it. He warned me that they did not consider me to be seasoned enough in the saddle- that i would not have the stamina for seven hours of riding a day and that I would be booking it under my own liability if I could not hack it in the wild.
I was nervous, very unsure of myself, but after checking my advice center for life experience (thanks mom) I knew that I had made up my mind and nothing was going to stop me- not saddle sores, not risk of death. This was my tour, and I was gonna make it come volcanic eruption or freezing rain.
I arrive at midnight a full 28 hours before the tour begins. The sun spins slowly like a mobile in the sky. It never dips below the horizon, just shifts its place in the sky. I settled into my bunk at 3am and tried to lull myself into sleep, but could not shake the feeling that this country is like no where else on earth. Since I was a little girl and I learned that the Vikings named Iceland to discourage foreigners from her fertile lands of beauty and direct them towards Greenland's barren ice, I have been curious. Combined with a love of mythological sagas and history steeped with trolls and elves reaping havoc on the poor unsuspecting humans, I long to feel the mystery unfold. I want to find the Viking spirit in my soul.
The capital city is a small town by my comparative scale, but the shops are more sophisticated than the Bryant Park New York fashion shows. Everything is handmade, designed locally. A colony of artists and literary virtuosos, Icelanders are fiercely intelligent and educated about the world. I spent most of the day wandering the shops and just taking in such a brilliant collage of artistry.
That night, as the tour loomed imminently before me, I fortifyed my courage with a liquid test of strength.
I have traveled to many urban hotspots in the world, few pull off the revelry that Reyjkavik sustains every weekend night. Rest must come at your own instigation in the summer. There will be no help from nature as the 3am sky convinces me that I have only been at the bar for  few hours, and the night is nowhere near an end. At 6am, I crawled the 3 miles back to the hostel only to find my roommates were already preparing for the bus to pick us up. Come volcanic eruption or risk of death, through sleep deprivation to rival the torture chambers of Gitanamo... this will be my tour.

The first day they took it very easy on us. We took a bus to a few herding tourist spots: the geysir rivaling Old Faithful in height, and Theervillir park where the first parliament of Iceland formed and where the continental plates are shifting apart at a speed of 7mm per day. All very nice, but a little bit uncomfortable to navigate in rubber boots. The green rolling hills, the cropping of volcanic rock forcefully breaking through the mossy grass, no one can deny the beauty of Iceland. But I want to experience something more...
By the time we had lunch, I had made two new friends. An American-born London transplant-Emma and a Scottish girl-Kirsty both about my same age with the spirit of adventure spanning all the continents. We stuck together, and their confidence handling horses relaxed me into realizing that the little things I was questioning were common differences in the worlds of equestrian sport. When we stopped to pasture the horses at Gulfoss falls, we took one look at the rocky cliff falling down the mountainside and our eyes lit with the same mischievous glint as the Vikings before us! Climbing down the rocky cliff to stand as conquerors beneath her powerful sprays was exhilarating. This was definitely my people. Definitely my tour.
Floki and I finished our first ride beautifully. In one day, I had learned how to tack the horse into the bridal and saddle, how to have confidence in my ability to control, and how to squeaze the Icelandic horse, known for it's independant spirit, into it's quirky 5th gate- the tolt.
We stayed up talking well into the sunlit night, admiring unearthly pictures our guide Denni had taken of this homeland to show the world the land where the Invisible people live. We spotted the little elves both cheerful and grumpy, we even discovered an elvish shark...
After finding our level on the first day, the second began our cross-country trek across the highlands, inaccessible by car. Riding the trails of the ancestors between the two glaciers, the land folded in my restless spirit. Tears seeped down my cheeks to quench the ground's lust for admiration as I felt finally at peace in the world. A land of bone-numbing cold and here it has risen such a feeling in my hard little shell that my reticence, my nervousness breaks open like an avalanche. Here I am, world, Emily again.
At lunch, we waited along the sunny green fields of grass for our date. The birds started to take flight, the horses neighed and flipped their restless manes, and then the sound: thunder never rumbled the earth with such a powerful trembling! the earthquake was accompanied by a massive blotting of the horizon as the wild herd of horses descended the plateau to join us. I longed to run along side them as they ate up the earth with their passage. The rugged men beside them carreened the mass into the fenced pasture waiting their arrival. the rest of our days will be spent riding along with this herd, changing our horses along the way as the mountains tax their stamina. Such a glorious wild beauty to be a part of. I am a part of this wild herd. Just as restless and untameable in spirit, but just as willing to be of service and take the guidance of tested men. The day was significantly harder- one of the Danish women who had been riding horses for 25 years and in fact owns Icelandic horses at home was thrown from here horse into the rocky plain twice by a spooked and nervous horse. The tension level arose as we realized that this is not just a playful dog that obediently follows direction... this breed of horse demands compromise and ability to see beyond the habits learned in training. this horse demands a special attention and skill. when we finally arrive at our tiny little home for the night, we crawl over each other to our bunks like summer camp kids.
Each hut greets us with Asa, our hostess with her husband Yalti. They are two of the most gravitationally welcoming people I have ever met. Warmth and love flow from them making the world a better place just with their existance, their staff bond together beyond just a money-making company. Together they instantly feel like family. People you will never forget and hope to happen upon again in this crazy world of shifting faces. She is a tiny blonde swede to whom competence comes as naturally as breathing. He is a quiet solid mountain of kindness, eyes giving away a curiousity about the people around his as he watches from the corner without notice. He knows the names of all the hundred horses, gathered from different farms around the country. He knows their tempermant and their habit within a few moments of meeting them and he never forgets a horses' face. I believe she does the same with people.

Everyone realizes that I am crazy when I wake up at 6am each morning to run the gravel roads laid out on the countryside linking the mountains huts we stay at to the rest of the rural world. With elves and birds for company, the sound of my feet hitting the rocks and the brisk loneliness of the morning hours suit my need to cleanse my mind of thought. When I passed the pasture, the herd started trotting right along behind me- I belong, I belong. It feels so good, i never want to stop. I am clocking 10 miles a day before a long day of riding, and not a muscles dares to complain!
The third morning was the longest, hardest day of riding- a full 7 hours through mountain terrain. The glimmering treat at the end of the horizon was a hut with a hot tub in the mountains. A very keen prospect considering the lack of showers for the two nights before.
The morning was rainy and freezing, the horses all seemed reticent to submit to our day. My horse in particular was testing my mettle. The moment I got on his back, he took off running as though he was out to show me the world. Not quite out-of-control, he seemed to just want to warm up as quickly as possible, and did not care to follow my suggestion that we walk along with the rest of the group. Karl, the teeming canvas leader of the herd riders, walked us back like chastised kids visiting the principles office. We walked along with the group for about a mile before my horse decided this descision blows, and took off again on a wild sprint. Side coaching from Gert, the co=leader of the tour was to take the horse in small circles. The more I pulled on the reins, the more the horse fought me tooth and nail. I pulled left, he turned right. I pulled back, he slowed for a moment then took off again. Tight pulls, burst pulls, nothing could get him to stop until finally he just took off for home like the kids on the last day of school in may. I held on for dear life and started plotting my escape.
Everything slows to precise time when your horse runs off without your consent. I had time to analyze each passing rock for it's potential impact to my body and helmet. As long as we were going in that direection, I decided that the softest landing possible had to be the river. We hit the water at full gallop, I rolled off the side and let go with the ceremony of an olympic gymnast dismounting the pommel horse. and I stuck the landing like a champ!
Funny thing about adrenaline, I was much more focused on getting a horse and getting back to the group than on how drenched with freezing water I was. Luckily my tardy tendencies came in handy as my bags were the last on the truck. I had been wearing almost every layer I brought to begin with, so now that rocks and water were pouring from my boots like I was my own natural waterway, Asa lent me her Ishestar jacket. I giggled about the hilarity of my farce as we tried to put together enough cover to last a day of wind and freezing mountain mist. Asa said later that she could hardly believe how calm I was and asked my cowboy savior Ziggy how he had managed to get me to laugh. Life knocks you down hard sometimes, Iceland tested my courage and I passed. I love this land for being so real. Nothing is taken for granted, not even my biggest lesson about being in charge of the horse from the moment you mount, and making sure your clothes are really nearby when you go for a river swim!
I was pretty tense for the rest of the day with the horses. The afternoon horse knew my restlessness was clouding my mind and kept testing me in my morning lesson. We made tiny little circles of tension over and over whenever he wanted to run for the herd. and we made it through the day. together. Through the outlaw valley of purple rocks and the mountain hike of perpendicular hoofing, we made it through. and the hot tub that night was the most beautiful sight I have seen in my life. Right after the beer.
the bar was a meeting point of groups traveling both north and south, passing ships in the night of gossip from the countryside and friends seeing each other for the first time in months. I love that the herd crew of Icelanders stays with us, quiet protective men who let loose and pour whisky in their coffees while we laugh and tell silly stories of our lives. In the bar that night, Asa, Yalti and the couple running the tour to the south showed us just how worldly iceland can be. These country horse people, so useful and confident in their survival in this wilderness sang the most beautiful Opera classics I have heard in my life. His voice so deep and clear, hers the soprano to rival Maria Callus. and the whole crew joined in icelandic folksongs for us to learn. the people here are part of everything, I admire them so fiercely for finding their place in this world, I want to be them when i grow up.
Kirsty and I stayed partyed like it was Reyjkavik that night, staying in the hot tub and bar until 5am. I woke up and the world was frozen. We visited the outlaw caves n the morning, tiny little hovels were they would winter out the year and build a life outside of society. to imagine the stamina, the strength to survive with nothing in the Artic winter. Chills the mind to contemplate.
Two short days of rides through miserable wind and freezing cold taugh us to appreciate the sun and every day brought new horses to learn and closer friendships. the nightly singalongs got more and more enthusiastic until I was pulling out my own Operatic past and brushing off my freakish memory for lyrics.
As we headed high into the mountains for our last day of hard riding, we could hardly believe that all that time had passed. My morning horse, Trolli, was the most perfect of gentleman. He nudged the oats from my hand at our morning snack break, and gave me a kiss to the cheek when he was through. I asked him to marry me, and I think he felt the same.
It was so hard to part when the last break came. We arrived at the last hut in shock that it was all about to end. No one wanted to let go of our new family, but that is the way of the world, we keep moving on.
Asa's last meal was one of the best of my life. Grilled Icelandic lamb with rosemary potatoes and rhubard gravy. melting into the couch in a coma of satisfaction, i could hardly gather the energy to play group games like musical chairs and freeze frame. We laughed so hard together. We graduated with certificates of pride. and as I hugged each of the crew goodbye, they thanked me for my smile, and wished i would come back soon. I think I just might.
now, as I said goodbye to my new friends back in Reyjkavik, I make plans to visit them in the next few weeks, always keep the people you meet who are mirrors of your spirit. good friends are hard to find.
and off we go to navigate the next challenge- stick shift driving on gravel mountain roads. lookout, iceland, I am not done yet!!!

Tags: emily predny, horse riding, iceland, ishestar, kjolur ride, predny, reykjavik

 

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