Wednesday, February 29, 2012

William Morris's Muse

Here's an essay I wrote for a contest (didn't win) about riding horses in Iceland:

"There's no bad weather, only poor clothing." That's one of my favorite Icelandic sayings, as I was reminded, daily, for a week in the summer of 1990, when I took a horse trek in southern Iceland. It was billed as "a trip for people who have a taste for uninhabited areas far from any luxury." It was run by the company Hekla Horses, named for the nearby volcano long known as the Mouth of Hell.
We rode five hours a day in drizzle or worse, with only a few spells of misty calm to tempt a lowering of our hoods. My rainpants proved leaky. Though warm enough, I grew sticky behind and uncomfortable in the saddle. My hands, wet through three layers of gloves, were claws.

We rode along a leaping river and down farmers' lanes, encountering loose sheep and cows, horses and herd-dogs. Ducks filled the river's rare calm pools. Snipe whirred and tittered overhead. From the fenceposts whimbrels sighed (Icelanders liken the sound to porridge bubbling). Redshanks flew shrieking off the sandflats. We passed a meadow yellow with buttercups. I shut my eyes often -- for cold, rain, dirt, fatigue, fun -- as we rode across an interminable black sand waste, past a booming waterfall called Troll Woman's Leap, a mesa-shaped hill now on our right, now on our left. The Mouth of Hell remained hidden in clouds. In spite of the flurry of my horse's hooves, I felt strangely motionless, strangely light, balanced between the mountains, floating between sand and sky.

We were on our way to a national park deep in the deserted highlands. The park is renowned for the fanciful colors of its geology -- a pea-green chasm, a blue hill, tawny ridges, a lemon-yellow sulfur pit, a cliff-face with candy-pink stripes. From the top of the blue hill, a far-off cluster of lakes mirrors the sky, while on every horizon glaciers lift like white turreted castles.

Or so the tour books say. We saw little of it. It rained for six days straight. Misty rain, wind-driven rain, chilling rain, rain that cut visibility back to the ears of my horse. Once the horses turned tail and refused to go forward into the gusts.

Our guide, Jon, taught us songs. "Ride on, ride on, ride over the sands. The elf-queen is bridling her steed." Jon had a high, strong bellow of a voice, nasal but tuneful, piercing and sad. "Lord lead my horse, this last part is hard."

In 1871, the writer and Arts-and-Crafts designer William Morris toured Iceland. He, like I, was enamored of the medieval Icelandic sagas, Iceland's claim to literary fame. He, like I, thrilled to see the farms, the dales, the mountains mentioned in those tales from a thousand years ago. Tales of sheep-farmers and sorcerors, horse fights and feuds, love and grief and strife. Tales of a hard life scratched from an unforgiving land. Tales tempered with poetry and grace. He, like I, rode a long way in the rain, over rugged terrain on a trusty horse, happy to come at last to a house and begin to feel his hands and feet again. He wrote of cresting a hill and receiving "that momentary insight into what the whole thing means that blesses us sometimes and is gone again."

Once while we rested our horses at a crossroads, Jon shared out bars of chocolate. Each other rider broke off a square or two, but I refused. I didn't want to strip off my layers of soggy gloves. Jon nodded. He bared his own hand, broke off a square, and brought it to my lips.

Twenty years on, I can still smell the wet wool of his sleeve-end, see the manure grime in the heart-line of his palm, his squint of a smile as I opened my lips to this outlaw priest and his bitter wafer.

Hekla Horses is still in business. I highly recommend the six-day Landmannalaugar trip (I've taken it twice). See For a great website on Icelandic horses in general, visit The Icelandic Horse Congress at You can also take a virtual trek on my friend Stan Hirson's video blog, Hestakaup.kom. Finally, to learn more about Iceland and Icelandic horses, don't forget my book, A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse!

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