I was riding such a horse, thankfully, on an America2Iceland trek a few weeks ago when our Icelandic guide, Halli, decided to take us cross-country. Halli, whom I described in a previous post as a man with four arms (one for the reins, one for the whip, one for his GPS, and one for a cigarette), is much like his horses: tireless, intent, fearless, and a whole lot of fun. Nothing flusters Halli. Certainly not the lack of a path.
“We’re heading for that mountain,” he assured us. “Just ride straight for that mountain, the farmer said.”
We needed to reach Hredavatn (Bull Lake), another pretty spot closer to what qualifies as civilization in the Icelandic countryside: Hredavatn is ringed by summer houses, sheep farms, and the business college at Bifrost, with a snack bar and gas station of the same name, and close to the crater Grabrok, a popular tourist stop on the busy Ring Road, which is Iceland’s Highway Number One.
The lake was also near a tunnel under the Ring Road specifically designed for horse traffic.
Note that Bifrost is the name of the Rainbow Bridge connecting heaven and earth, over which the gods and goddesses Odin, Tyr, Freyja, and the rest ride their horses every day to hold counsel beside the Well of Weird. (Except for Thor; he’s so big he has to walk.) When a horse dies, we often say it has crossed the Rainbow Bridge. This tunnel under the Ring Road was Iceland’s attempt to limit the number of horses (and riders) that took the bridge.
“Just ride straight for that mountain,” Halli told us.
I didn’t think so. I’d ridden in Iceland many times before and had never attempted what Halli was suggesting. Between us and “that mountain” was an Icelandic forest. Not a planted forest, with imported trees growing in nice rows, as you’ll see more and more around the Icelandic countryside these days. But a real Icelandic forest. Waist-high birches just coming into leaf, their twigs bursting with fat catkins, growing so close together, their branches so interwoven, that you couldn’t see the ground. We had just left a trail, gone through a fence, crossed a stream, up a steep slope, and spotted Halli’s mountain.
I looked around. A thin line, the mere hint of a path, stretched transversely across the hilltop behind us. “There’s a path, Halli,” I said.
He looked. “Not going the right way. We need to ride straight for the mountain.”
“Stop there,” Halli said quietly, as he halted his horse, its feet on a boulder it was just about to clamber over. Somehow the horse managed to pivot and come back toward us. “It drops off to the river there,” Halli calmly explained.
River? Looking down the valley I could see a river. I ran my eyes back along it until it disappeared under the forest. About 100 feet under the forest, I calculated. We nearly rode over a sheer drop of 100 feet—though doubtless the horses would have noticed it even if we riders were too concerned with keeping our knees and feet on the same side of the tree trunks as the saddle was. Baring-Gould also wrote of Icelandic horses, “neither persuasion nor blows will make them tread where their instinct tells them there is danger.”
We rode straight for the mountain, fording the river at a shallow spot, and walking our horses as calmly as we could through a sheep pasture dotted with days-old lambs and their mothers. Did you know that lambs’ tails wag in circles, like mini-propellers, as they nurse on their mothers?
The farmer was at the gate to let us through. He and Halli exchanged a joke—maybe about the directions? He smiled and waved us onto a gravel road right alongside the Ring Road, separated from the rush of buses, trucks, and tourist traffic only by a strand of twine that the horses were convinced was electrified. It was not. We reached the tunnel: a metal culvert just high enough for riders and horses to safely negotiate. We tolted on through, our hoofsteps echoing. We had passed Bifrost, and no one took the Rainbow Bridge.
The only casualty from our cross-country adventure? Halli lost his whip. He shrugged. “I’ve left a lot of whips out here,” he sighed.
Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.