A good man i knew used to call them mountain–birches, which is what he grew up calling them in south Norway. Birches that don’t grow so much upwards but in more or less all directions. In my old country they’re just birches and when I used to live there they didn’t grow on mountains. None that I knew of at least but don’t take my word for it, I don’t really know much about trees. What I do know is that nothing smells as nice as a birch tree, in Iceland, on a cold summer evening. Except many of them together. A birch–choir if you will.
In my short experience—emphasis on short—running when away from home is a mixed experience. It can be alright, and it can leave quite a bit to be desired. Maybe if I was happy on asphalt I wouldn’t mind so much but I’m not, on the contrary I’m spoiled by my backyard and have yet to find places that match, let alone exceed it. In all fairness though I haven’t been to many places or tried very hard to find fine trails so I’m fairly confident that not only do they exist, but that many of them do in fact exceed my backyard in a number of ways. Not that there is a contest.
Plus, up until now surfing the map apps for trails has also been a bit of a hit and miss. Perhaps partly because when map surfing I tend to plan routes that take more, way more sometimes, than the hour and a half that’s usually the time slot I’m able to carve out for moving one running shoe in front of the other.
The birch scrub* on the lava field in the Laxárdalur valley in Þingeyjarsveit in north–east Iceland didn’t show up in the map app. Perhaps it would have with a different map overlay but knowing me I might not have noticed anyway. The double track did and I decided to follow it and see where it would take me. At the beginning, from where I entered, the landscape certainly looked like the woods of Iceland, the ones in the joke about what to do if you get lost in one. Answer: Stand up! (Used to be funny, but that was a few decades ago). Questionable jokes aside, the qualities of a certain kind of landscape depend on a lot more than the size of its elements.
*Reluctant to call it woods, although I suspect that’s what it might be called among the locals.
When I was a kid such places were scarce and exotic, something I only experienced on summer vacations in places that felt far away from home. What stuck with me was the scent. I remember liking it then—back then it had a bit of magic to it, the kind of magic you know is only going to last for a short while, even only a few hours and then it would be gone, gone to be longed for. Over the years I grew to liking it more and more, as if it was representing an oasis in the desert, or something equally precious.
It is not uncommon for the woods of Iceland to end a bit like an 80’s pop song, to fade out until there’s nothing left of it. So did this one, only to be replaced by a very different kind of landscape that—in spite of no longer smelling like a distant childhood memory—did nothing to disappoint the senses. Quite the contrary.
Some Kodak moments below..