"I paid to come on this trip?" Laura gasped as our Icelandic horses picked their way like mountain goats along "the Scream," a slippery, narrow path on the edge of a precipice with a 50-story drop to a glacial river below.
"Just look up the mountain," urged Judy, one of nine women in our group, most of whom had never met before we signed on for this rigorous tour hosted by "Adventure Women." "Think how lucky you are to be in the midst of this magnificent surreal setting, a place that only someone on a horse can experience."
Although this excursion was billed as the "Women Born to Be Wild" tour, Laura had warned us of her fear of heights before we set off on this day's 25-mile ride. She had been terrified two days before when we led our horses across a partially constructed bridge high above another roaring river.
"This is no time for self-analysis," Judy warned. "Just don't look down."
As I listened to Judy try to calm Laura, I was suddenly 7 years old again in South Africa, riding a Lesotho pony on the edge of a mountain cliff. Encouraged by my mother to be fearless, I had survived and even savored that experience, but I understand the sudden, sweaty panic of vertigo.
Judy consoled and Laura persevered as we made our way slowly along the wet, foggy trail. After half an hour of heart-stopping riding, we emerged unscathed onto a flat spot of volcanic rock between mountain peaks. Relieved and elated, we dismounted from our horses, laughing and teasing each other about our "fear of falling" experience, and then took turns going for what Jamie dubbed "our Estee Lauder facials."
From one of the many small steaming geysers boiling out of the mountain, we scooped up the sizzling gray clay and smoothed it over our chilled faces. We looked like women warriors undergoing some primitive initiation rite. "I'm sure you'll look 17 when you wash yours off, " quipped Anne, a thin, tough woman in her 50s.
"I'm just hoping they'll have to ask for my ID before I get a beer," replied Lisa, at 36 the youngest in the group.
Here I was: cold to the bone, faced smeared with clay, herding horses across a mountain range near the Arctic Circle -- in a constant state of wonder. Call me "Incredulous in Iceland." I had come to the "land of fire and ice" -- so named for the wall-to-wall terrain of glaciers and active volcanoes -- with "Adventure Women," a Montana-based organization that arranges physically challenging trips worldwide for women over 30.
Our leader, Susan Eckert, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, started "Adventure Women" on a shoestring 18 years ago after a divorce and the realization that a career in public health was not providing the risk and independence that she longed for. She found a sympathetic banker willing to lend her money for what others had told her was a ridiculous idea. She began by flying free as a courier to exotic international destinations, where she would then find local contacts to arrange her adventures. Today, "Adventure Women" excursions include whitewater rafting in Patagonia, treks through the Himalayas and anthropological desert explorations in New Mexico.
Exactly what was I doing here? For one thing, I needed a break from my emotionally demanding job as a social worker in a low-cost health clinic. The confines of my office job also left me in dire need of a serious physical challenge. And in recent years, as my children grew older, our planned family vacations had given way to more spur-of-the-moment traveling arrangements. This trip would fit well with our evolving family situation.
Two years ago I'd been on another adventure, a riding trip to the Australian rainforest with my 14-year-old daughter, Caitlin. Now, at 16, she was rehearsing a play in San Francisco and socially booked up. My son was working two jobs between his freshman and sophomore years in college, and my husband was making another documentary. Besides, the only horse he ever rode was on the back lot of a Hollywood studio.
So I took the plunge, feeling a little guilty at this self-indulgence and wondering if I'd spend the time away from my family worrying about them. I signed up for Iceland, despite my son's mock warnings that I might find myself "on an island with a lot of dykes."
Before setting off on the seven-day ride across 140 miles of lava fields, rocky terrain, mountain paths and alpine meadows, our group spent the first night in a hotel in Reykjavik, Iceland's brightly-painted capital, where the majority of its 270,000 residents live. As we introduced ourselves, I was startled to discover that Judy and I were the only two in this group of middle-aged women who had children. "The umbilical cord to your child gets longer and longer as they grow up," Judy acknowledged later, when talking about her 12-year-old son. "I'm ready for this."
Most of the rest of the group were single or divorced, career women who worked hard and were looking for some action. Jamie, a 44-year-old accountant, boasted, "I make good money and can afford a great trip. I travel for work, stay in fancy hotels. I don't need that on a vacation. I want an adventure, something unique." This was her sixth "Adventure Women" trip -- she had already sailed in Greece and trekked across Uganda to see gorillas. Jamie was hooked.
Lisa, the youngest, was a federal law enforcement officer, tough and capable. But others were here to gain confidence. Erica, 39, an engineer at Kodak, had learned to ride (just well enough) for the sole purpose of being able to come on this trip. She hoped to make friends but confessed, "I don't mix that much and don't really mind being in the background."
In addition to our group leader, Susan, there was another Susan in our group -- a woman who was timid but determined to complete the trip despite a nagging cough and cold. A financial analyst from California, she ended up keeping to herself much of the time and appeared at times annoyed by the exuberance of the group. Laura, who does marketing for a drug company, gave us each a pat on the back for being there. "All of us are independent, intelligent and confident enough to come on this trip by ourselves," she said. But the physical demands would test her limits as well.
The only two trip members who already knew each other were Anne and Judy. Both had lived in Ann Arbor, Mich., before Anne moved to North Carolina with her husband, a retired veterinarian, to run a horse farm. Anne and I were the most experienced riders, but she was more horse-obsessed. "When my husband and I were dating," she told me, "we would go watch mares being artificially inseminated."
Although this was a "women's adventure," our Icelandic guides were a couple in their 30s: Sigga and her husband, Binni, the parents of three children. We were also accompanied by Binni's friend, whose Icelandic name was so difficult for us to pronounce that we simply called him "Cowboy," a nickname he relished. Cowboy chewed tobacco in the Marlboro Man tradition, but in reality he was a fisherman and writer, and frequently fell off his horse. Binni preferred to snort his tobacco -- in keeping with the smoke-free policy established by our group -- and he and Sigga were seasoned riders.
"Ya-Ya!" Binni would shout out each morning, the command for our group of American women to get onto our grubby, tough Icelandic horses who were picked out of a herd of 40 for each day's ride. Part of the thrill of the trip was riding with a herd of rambunctious horses. "Front riders" would lead, keeping the herd behind them, while the "back riders" made sure no horses strayed, especially the two black-and-white mares we tagged the "Twisted Sisters."
Off we'd go at a steady trot or "tolt," a comfortable gait that is unique to the spirited breed of Icelandic horses. We'd ride for three hours or so before we'd stop to have lunch and get new horses. Most days we ate squashed sandwiches kept in the saddle bag, except when our support vehicle -- a four-wheel-drive commanded by a solemn chain-smoker named Eiter -- would meet us and we'd have the luxury of a hot drink and a couple of cookies.
On the third day, we had lunch in a downpour. Cowboy suddenly raised his hands to the sky and implored Thor, the Viking god, to stop the rain. (Iceland is reputed to have a large population of ghosts, trolls and elves, which fits in a land with long periods of winter darkness and a landscape of weird rock and lava formations.) Cowboy convinced us to take part in a pagan dance, the likes of which I will never duplicate unless one day I find myself again shivering in the middle of a volcanic field. Apparently we appeased Thor, and the rain stopped. Then we set off again across miles of black ash toward our evening's destination, a hut in the mountains.
We'd been warned that this exotic adventure included some "discomfort," and indeed the mountain huts were quite Spartan. Anne tried to shower that night, only to find herself enveloped in freezing water. We comforted her with the reminder that we'd be soaking in the hot spring the next day. At some huts, there was no electricity, which might seem irrelevant in a country where the sun barely sets in the summer. But mountain clouds darkened the long twilight, and by dinner, we had to light candles to see. Some nights after dinner, Binni brought out a plastic tub and roped us into helping wash dishes, tossing soapy plates into the air for one of us to catch and dry. Then we settled in for the evening, fortified by the brandy and cognac we'd each had the foresight to buy at the airport's duty-free store.
To entertain us, Binni recited popular ghost stories and tales of rapacious Nordic gods, including an epic poem about an "afturganga" -- an unfulfilled lover-turned-zombie who carried his victims off to hell:
The moon hides, as death rides,
Do you not see the white mark
On my brow, Garun, Garun.
Fortunately, Icelandic folklore also includes more attractive otherwordly creatures such as the handsome elves, whom my guidebook described as "conscientious and kind lovers."
Stimulated by these accounts, Jamie, the most outspoken woman in the group, started up what was to become a nightly ghost theme at bedtime: "Will the ghosts come tonight? We'll take them only if they're straight, single and employed. Or with an inheritance. And they should be the kind who take showers. Straight ghosts, come. Come! We'll leave the door open."
The lusty supplications ricocheted around the crowded hut as we wiggled into the sleeping bags supplied to us. "Wow, these liners are so tight," a voice in the dark complained. "No room to spread your legs, ladies."
Though it had been decades since some of us shared dormitory rooms, most of the women enjoyed the camaraderie of our intimate living quarters. Others, such as Susan, who told us she had come "to break down my fear of being in groups," had a harder time with it. You had to be able to get used to group snoring and stumbling over bodies if you needed to venture outside during the pitch-dark nights.
The male guides for the group were funny and helpful, but they occasionally got in the way of our unfettered, newfound independence. When we needed to pee, for instance. Since we drank a fair amount of tea or coffee at breakfast, we began strategizing a few hours into each morning ride about the most appropriate place to pee out of view of the men. That was not always easy on flat, treeless lava beds.
Once, while Binni and Cowboy were holding back the herd, which had been agitated by a feisty palomino, our group went ahead across a bridge and took the opportunity to strip off our layers of garments and enjoy peeing without having to hide. It turned out to be a surprisingly blissful experience: As I looked at the herd moving toward us against a beautifully stark landscape that stretched to the horizon, I felt exhilarated and free.
Leaving the mountain wind and sideswiping rain for the blue skies and dazzling light of a green valley inspired me to ask to ride the unpredictable horse whose name roughly translates "Indian." A few days before, I had been on Indian when he bolted out of Swan Lake, where Cowboy and Sigga had been swimming on their horses in frigid water. Indian was young, powerful and had a tolt to die for.
I maneuvered him down a twisting mountain path and was approaching a steep slope to the valley when Binni pointed out the "erotic peak" straight ahead. "We call it 'penis erectus,'" he informed us. As I considered the accuracy of his description of the jutting rock, several of the more rebellious horses, led by the Twisted Sisters, slipped past us and made a getaway. Binni and our irrepressible border collie gave chase, snapping at their heels.
The sudden commotion inspired Indian, who was on a loose rein, to take off at full gallop toward the valley. By instinct, I tightened the rein, still holding my daughter's cashmere hat, which was on "permanent loan" to her from a friend and which I was determined to bring home. I pulled hard on the reins to stop him. When that failed, I tried jabbing his bit, softening and then hardening the pull. But he had his head in the air and was on a helter-skelter flight down the rocky slope.
Dimly, I heard various voices -- Binni's, Anne's -- shouting indecipherable instructions from behind me. I had visions of myself hurtling over Indian's head onto a rock and the ensuing disgrace of it all. Determined to stop my crazed horse, I pulled to make him turn. He complied by tilting his head in the direction of my pull, eyes upturned, but his body and soul still roared straight down. In a flash, I recalled Susan describing a woman on a previous Icelandic excursion who had a bad fall and had to cut short her vacation. I was not going to let that happen.
With all my might, I jolted my horse back to his senses with a sharp right turn that forced him to an abrupt stop. I was thrilled to still be clutching the cashmere hat. With immense relief, I returned to the safe haven behind the herd. Several women did take spills during our trip, none of them serious. But I know that if I had fallen that time, it would have been bad. That evening, as I lay in a meadow with Binni, Cowboy and Anne and analyzed what had gone wrong, I appreciated every intact bone in my body.
On our last day, Laura decided to ride four-wheel-drive rather than a horse. "This horse, it's like one of those thigh machines in the gym," she had complained. "He's so broad, I think I'd never be able to have children. Not that I'd ever want to." Jamie had likewise informed us the "mother thing" was not for her: "If I'd had kids they'd all be mass murderers," she insisted. "My family was so dysfunctional -- and you know how that stuff goes down for generations."
We ended our trip at Binni and Sigga's farm at the base of a verdant mountain where several slender waterfalls descended. As I watched the border collie recognize his destination and dart up the road toward their red-roofed farmhouse, I found that I had come to feel very much at home in this strange land.
That night, Binni offered moonshine to his American guests and I suspected the start of some legendary Icelandic revelry. Alas, I fell asleep, exhausted. It wasn't until about four in the morning, when I heard Anne and Judy giggling and stumbling into bed, that I realized I'd missed the carousing. Apparently the night involved a visit to a nearby farm and skinny dipping with our guides. But this came at a price. Staring at a bubbling geyser on the bus back to Reykjavik, Anne moaned, "That's how my stomach feels."
On our last night in Reykjavik, we had a farewell dinner, where the more reckless among us supped on Icelandic delicacies such as putrefied shark washed down with cognac. But to my dismay, this band of intrepid women who had braved mountain gorges and ghostly nights spent their final hours in Iceland doing what I have strenuously avoided most of my life: shopping. I guess even "adventure women" have their weaknesses.
At the airport, Susan began to entice me with tales of upcoming trips to Italy, Timbuktu, Yellowstone and the Amazon. I would have been completely entranced except for the fact that the Icelandic baggage handler managed to get the lock on Susan's bag caught in the zipper of his fly. My last image of Iceland is of a man struggling with the real-life shame, if not the agony, immortalized in "There's Something About Mary." Susan had to wrestle with his zipper and her combination lock for quite a while -- so long, in fact, that the airline gave our seats away to other passengers. In the end, we were forced to fly first-class. Adventure is a many-splendored thing.
Back home, I returned to an avalanche of e-mail from the group, all of whom were suffering post-vacation blues as they returned to their office cubicles. But all of them seemed quite content with what they had done. As for me, this was the first time in my life away from my son and daughter that I did not worry about them -- at least during the day, when I was totally engaged in my adventure. At night sometimes, my anxieties surfaced in dreams of various calamities -- raves gone bad, car crashes, unplanned pregnancies. But I had also discovered that I could escape these fears, knowing that my kids are quite self-sufficient, reasonably responsible teenagers with a father who is only occasionally neglectful. I could get used to this.