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Senior Ben Block and alumnus Taylor Flowers ‘16 backpacked through Iceland last summer. Ben Block | Courtesy
Senior Ben Block and alumnus Taylor Flowers ‘16 back­packed through Iceland last summer. Ben Block | Courtesy

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 [18] days, I would’ve laughed. We are already planning a back­packing excursion in Montana for next year.”