The air sits on the tongue like a menthol cough drop, and two hikers inhale as they ford a river of glacial runoff. It’s a summer day in Iceland, with the temperature hovering at 40 degrees and the sky a pastel blue framing nebulous clouds. The hikers are hoping, most of all, not to freeze.
After they cross the river, they shiver, short of breath and soaked from the waist down. Pausing on the the bank, they drop their 65-pound backpacks to dry off.
Suddenly, a herd of wild horses gallops down the hill, some six dozen of them fording the river the hikers have just struggled across. The massive herd of purebreds, white, coal and coffee colored, pass within inches of the travelers.
In a country where the horse population is a quarter of the size of the human population, it’s not a surprising sight for the hikers, but it’s no less a grand one.
This was a standout experience for senior Ben Block. When Taylor Flowers ’16 recalled it, he laughed.
“That was a horrible day,” he said. “We were exhausted.”
Last year, Block and Flowers were sitting in AJ’s Cafe when they decided to go backpacking together in Iceland. They both had hiking experience, and they discovered they could make the trip to and from Iceland for less than $500.
Flowers was inspired to visit the country in high school after procrastinating on a paper by scanning through pictures of the Scandinavian country on Facebook. But Block drew his inspiration from cinema.
“Ben was really interested in Iceland because of ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’” Flowers said.
So this August, the two set off to spend 18 days backpacking, hitchhiking, eating freeze-dried dinners, navigating with nothing but a map and compass, and sleeping in a tent with a two-star rating on Amazon.
“It held up really well for the first two weeks because we had good weather, luckily, but one night in Thorsmork it rained for eight hours straight … and I woke up at two in the morning and sat up and there were 4 inches of water in the tent,” Block said.
Despite the subpar sleeping arrangements, the two managed to stave off hypothermia, which Block said is the biggest danger for hikers in Iceland. They didn’t leave the trip uninjured though. Flowers’ shoes gnawed at his feet, and Block’s hefty backpack put his knee in excruciating pain.
“We were carrying 18 days of food, usually about 2 liters of water per person, and then tent, extra clothing, all that kind of stuff, so my leg just wasn’t used to it all,” Block said. “I just wrapped it up with duct tape and it was fine.”
Keeping a positive attitude is key to a successful hike, according to Flowers’ brother, sophomore Ricky Flowers, who has gone on a handful of backpacking trips with his brother.
“Spending multiple days lugging packs around the wilderness can be a stressful thing, but Taylor’s optimistic energy has always been very motivational and uplifting,” he said.
An optimistic outlook was especially important because each morning began at 6 a.m., an hour after sunrise. After Block and Taylor Flowers spent the day exploring the country (which meant climbing mountains, spotting volcanoes and waterfalls, sitting in hot springs, or crossing rivers), they set up camp at 8 p.m. and spent the evening journaling. The hike began in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, and ended near the backcountry in Southwest Iceland.
In August, Reykjavik typically gets rainfall for over half the month, but Block said they lucked out with sunny weather for the most part.
One day, when it did rain, they were able to find shelter with the help of strangers.
“It was absolutely pouring, like torrential, 40 days, 40 nights kind of rain. And we got picked up by this woman with two kids, and the car was just packed full. And she got out and got drenched in the rain rearranging it all so she could give us a ride,” Block said.
He and Flowers hitchhiked several other times, once with someone who turned out to be a tour guide and other times with tourists from Sweden and Germany. The multiculturalist aspect of Iceland is remarkable, Flowers said. The number of tourists visiting Iceland each year exceeds that of the people living in the country.
“One of the highlights was definitely the unique cultural exchange that we had,” Flowers said. “We met quite a few Icelandic people, but more than that we met people from pretty distant corners of the world, and they came to Iceland for the same reason as us — to find adventure and to get off the grid for a while.”
For most of the trip they had no cellphone service, but both Block and Flowers found the forced technology disconnect refreshing. And although they each had their own perspectives on how to navigate, spending over two weeks in close confinement proved to help, not hinder, their friendship.
“There were definitely some times when we could’ve killed each other — no, I’m just kidding,” Flowers said. “It really couldn’t have been better … because if you had told me we could’ve gotten along perfectly well living in close quarters in a tent for  days, I would’ve laughed. We are already planning a backpacking excursion in Montana for next year.”