At the lake’s edge I kept the water filter clutched between my feet and alternated each hand between pumping and being tucked in my pocket. My sister was in the tent, waiting out her high blood sugar.
It was the end of our sixth day walking in Iceland. The lake we were camped at was roughly thirteen miles from the road and still two weeks from the other side of the island where we planned to finish.
The sky seemed especially far away. Across the lake were two mountains which set against the far-away sky didn’t appear particularly tall but were snow-capped nonetheless. There were two dozen clouds moving fast and in disparate directions. They each seemed to hold rain nervously abreast, as though school boys with stacks of books slipping from their sweaty palms. The sun was out at the moment but I knew rain would come randomly and suddenly.
With our water bottles full I sat on the edge of the lake and pulled my buff over my chin and nose.
I wondered how anyone could live in Iceland permanently. In July the days were twenty-four hours of sunlight while later in the year there were months of absolute darkness. The winters in New Jersey were long enough. When the sun rises at eight and sets at four I find myself sleepy and boring. If I lived in Iceland I imagine I’d be a man forever on ether.
I tramped back to our tent and climbed in. My sister was in her sleeping bag, propped on her elbow eating a granola bar and going through the pictures on her phone. I dropped onto my sleeping pad and laid with our backpacks and water bottles between us.
“The weather is crazy out there,” I said.
“The clouds are moving so fast. I think it’s going to rain in a few minutes. I could see a cloud in the distance coming towards us.”
“God, I hope it doesn’t rain.”
“Me either. Too cold for rain.”
After a while longer the rain came. The drops were fat and heavy but our tent was pulled taught, the stakes were driven far into the ground, and I’d covered the edges with dirt so no wind came inside. Each drop made a deep thrum which all together made it feel like sitting on your porch during a summer thunderstorm even though it was much colder than that.
Soon the cloud was blown passed us and the rain stopped.
“That was short,” I said.
My sister nodded. She was not given to excess words.
Night never came but as the sun rested just below the horizon we fell asleep with the help of eye masks and three milligram melatonin tablets.
In the morning I woke with a shot of adrenaline – a habit from sleeping in so many strange and illegal places. Snow was piled a foot high against the tent walls and when I stuck my head outside I saw that everything was white and that the mountains which were only snow-capped before were now completely painted.
I shut the tent and looked back to my sister.
She was still sleeping; her blonde hair peaking out from the sleeping bag.
There was no rush to get moving, we had endless daylight, food for days, and sat beside a lake, but still I felt panicked. A day without movement was a waste. We needed to put some miles in.
When my sister woke it was at an incremental pace.
“It’s gorgeous outside,” I said. “There’s snow everywhere. The lake is black and everything else is white, it’s incredible.”
My sister put her glasses on and nodded, but didn’t say anything. Once she sat up and ate she became a little more lively. Her blood sugar was normalizing. Even with the correct dose of basal insulin before bed she was practically guaranteed to wake with low blood sugar.
“What’s the plan?” she asked.
“The road is a half day walk. If we can get there it should only be a few more hours to town. We walk through the snow for a while, but hopefully have a hot shower and a good meal by the end of the day.”
Lexi dipped her head out of the tent to peer outside.
I geared up then slipped outside with our water bottles. The wind was strong. Massive snowflakes struck my exposed cheek.
At the lake’s edge I pumped the filter as quickly as I could but in minutes my fingers were painfully losing feeling. I dunked my water bottle in the lake, forgoing the filter, then hurried back to the tent.
Lexi had her contacts in and was rolling up her sleeping pad.
I finished packing then we stepped outside. We were both bundled completely but the wind cut right through us. I yanked the tent stakes from the ground and strapped the tent to my backpack – no time to pack it properly.
From all the snow my gloves were wet so I strapped them to my backpack too then put my hands in my pockets then together Lexi and I tramped forward.
After just a few hundred yards I was piping hot and feeling nauseous and I could see in Lexi’s face things were no okay.
I was a fool to rush out of the tent. We should have at least waited until the wind died down, but in my haste we broke down the tent in the middle of the storm. We had twenty-four hours of daylight, we could have waited until three in the afternoon and still go a full eight hours of walking in.
“Are you alright?” I shouted to Lexi.
“It’s too cold!”
“We have to set up the tent again!”
We moved uphill and away from the lake’s shore where it was windiest. I threw out the tent and Lexi began to stake a corner in but was fumbling with her hands.
“Go against the wall so your out of the wind!” I pointed beyond her to where the wall of earth formed a tall natural barrier.
She wrapped her arms against herself and hurried uphill.
She pressed herself against the earth. Snow blew over her head and above her gray clouds had consumed the blue sky that had been there the day before.
The tent was not easy to stabilize in the wind. Stakes popped out as the wind snapped and flicked the tent. I was running corner to corner, dumping snow on the edges to keep wind from taking the tent away completely.
After a few minutes I had the tent stable and I threw my gear inside. I then hurried to my sister. I grabbed her backpack then tossed that into the tent too.
Lexi climbed inside and with her safe I went from corner to corner outside to bury each stake deeper into the earth and pull the tent as taught as possible.
Once the tent was as wide and low as it would sit I packed snow on the edges. A few minutes of that and we had a tent that would withstand a storm as well as any tent in the world.
I dropped myself inside and felt my ears warm and my fingers agonizingly regain feeling. My stomach cramped and for a second I lost my breath, but then the pain left I was warming again.
I felt like a fool. I’d taken the elements too lightly and taken my sister’s health for granted. Perhaps if I were alone I would have walked through the snow with my back to the wind, but even by myself it was a stupid decision. I should have been more patient, it was as simple as that.
“Thanks for setting up the tent,” Lexi said.
“Sorry for taking down in the first place,” I replied. After two years of walking I should have known better.