Three. Four. The cars whizzed by; headlights looming from a distance, growing larger until the light filled my vision and I had no choice but to squint and turn away for an instant; before making their way off into the distance again. Hope waxed and waned at each approach and departure. On one hand, their presence offered some measure of comfort, some affirmation that we were not the only people crazy enough to be out in this weather. On the other hand, the cars I had been steadily counting all seemed to be speeding off in the opposite direction. It was as though we had missed the memo, like we were heading straight into an abyss that everyone else was rapidly trying to escape.
This was not the relaxing vacation I had in mind. I had finally emerged, after fifty long days, from the trenches of a hard-fought trial. For days on end I had worked off four hours of sleep – six on a good night – and even then was I ever really sleeping? The mind remained awake, buzzing over materials and arguments for the day ahead. Every cell of my being remained on edge, braced for impact. We had spent hours, days, months, going over every strategy and possible points of ambush, and here we stood ready to strike with our artillery of documents, painstakingly labelled and marked, incontrovertible proof that we were right where the enemy was wrong.
Now, with the horizon rapidly slipping into dark, I felt the same instinct prickling up the hairs at the back of my neck, the same disquiet beginning to unfurl in my stomach – all warning signs of what was to come ahead. They say one experiences four seasons in a day in Iceland. When we had left the hotel this morning it had been bright, sunny, and for a moment I felt relaxed, at peace with this vast landscape and unknown terrains. Now, barely an hour later, it was as though time moved at a difference pace in this land of ice and fire. My watch said it was almost noon; the scene outside the window said otherwise. The moon had already made its appearance at the side of the sky, marking its territory as it made its way up a steady arc. I was reminded of an article I once read about how suicide rates were the highest in countries with the least sunlight. A Finnish man was quoted saying that in the Great North they survive on two things alone: Alcohol and death metal.
The car drew to a stop. This was it. We unbuckled our seat belts and began pulling on our gear. I glanced down to pull on my gloves. Unthinkingly, I had been wringing my hands, and there were now marks on my palms where my fingernails had dug.
The first step out the car was a slippery one. It was as though we had arrived in a parallel world, where earth as we know it ceased to exist, where a great frost now covered the grass and the mud and all things warm and nurturing. The walk to the entrance of the park was a slow one, as I dug desperately into the icy ground with my hiking poles for balance. I looked out into the distance – it was hard to tell where the ice ended and began. It was an infinite expanse of nothingness. Water, where it dared run, had been frozen in their tracks. The tops of the trees stood motionless, their roots and trunks buried by the snow, defeated from the cold, perhaps waiting for the dawn of a brighter day. Never have I ever felt so at the mercy of the elements.
And so it was into this mighty abyss that we began our hike. Within the first five minutes damp started creeping into my shoes like an unknown intruder, first tiptoeing along the sides of my shoes before boldly making their way into my socks and making a permanent home. I looked ahead, to try to appreciate the beauty of the mountains, but all I could see was snow, snow, and more snow. I tried to mechanically focus on placing one foot in front of another, which soon became one kneecap in front of the other, as each step found me sinking deeper and deeper into the snow. It was like the ground ceased to exist beneath the layers of snow, the land was opening itself to swallow me whole, and I remained on the surface only by sheer constant movement alone. There was no choice in the matter, you either swim or sink.
And then the skies opened. First, a flutter of snow flakes, nestling in the creases of my jacket, and then without warning – faster and faster they came, with a fury. It was like the land was teaching us human intruders a lesson on trespass. The snow melted against my body heat, and moisture seeped into my clothes. I was cold, wet, still desperately plunging one foot ahead of another, knee deep into snow. There was no sign of anyone else around. I could see no end to this road. Unbidden, the article came to mind again. Suicide rates peak at the cold and dark months of the winter season. All at once the panic I had been desperately trying to suppress broke free like a compressed spring with a vengeance. I looked at my partner, memorializing his outline, and then I grabbed him and ran. I ran as fast as I could, kicking up the snow like a horse on the brink of madness, back to safety, back to the visitor’s centre, back to the last form of human civilisation.
The bells on the door clanged as I burst through the door and dumped my palms on the desk to prevent from collapsing. The woman behind the counter looked up at me, quizzically. “Can I help you, Miss?”
I was still heaving, out of breath. “I just wanted to know, how many people have died out there in these mountains?”
The lady paused, looking confused. “Sorry Miss, do you mean in this park?” At this, she exchanged a look at my partner, who was resolutely staring at the ceiling, his hands in his back pockets. “Um… I don’t think there’s ever been any deaths, madam.” She seemed amused, and tried unsuccessfully to suppress a chuckle. “In fact, this is probably one of the easiest hikes in Iceland.” She glanced at my partner again, who let out an exasperated sigh. At that instant, the door chimed again, and a string of people entered. A family, with young kids in tow. I blinked once, twice, noticing the huge smiles on their faces. I suddenly became aware of the feeling of warmth seeping through my shoes. The smell of hot chocolate was wafting from the next room, a café with inviting wood panelling and the warm glow of a fire. I looked out again, noticing for the first time the ice glinting like crystal under a stray ray of light, and the peace of the silence that rose from the trees. The moon was beginning to rise just as the sun was drawing its final breath, and in those few precious moments, both entities of power shared a common stage. I drew a long breath, felt the slowing of my heart rate, and unclenched my fists.