Read CHAPTER XLIV of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on


Wishing to see as much of the island as possible during the short time at my disposal, I made application to young Jonasen for information in regard to a guide, and through his friendly aid secured the services of Geir Zoega, a man of excellent reputation.

A grave, dignified man is Geir Zoega, large of frame and strong of limb; a light-haired, blue-eyed, fresh, honest-faced native, warm of heart and trusty of hand; a jewel of a guide, who knows every rook, bog, and mud-puddle between Reykjavik and the Geysers; a gentleman by nature, born in all probability of an iceberg and a volcano; a believer in ghosts and ghouls, and a devout member of the Church. All hail to thee, Geir Zoega! I have traveled many a rough mile with thee, used up thy brandy and smoked thy cigars, covered my chilled body with thy coat, listened to thy words of comfort pronounced in broken English, received thy last kind wishes at parting, and now I say, in heartfelt sincerity, all hail to thee, Geir Zoega! A better man never lived, or if he did, he could be better spared at Reykjavik.

To my great discontent, I found it indispensable to have five horses, although I proposed making the trip entirely without baggage. It seemed that two were necessary for myself, two for the guide, and one to carry the provisions and tent, without which it would be very difficult to travel, since there are no hotels in any part of the interior. Lodgings may be had at the huts of the peasants, and such rude fare as they can furnish; but the tourist had better rely upon his own tent and provisions, unless he has a craving to be fed on black bread and curds, and to be buried alive under a dismal pile of sods.

The reason why so many horses are required is plain enough. At this time of the year (June) they are still very poor after their winter’s starvation, the pasturage is not yet good, and, in order to make a rapid journey of any considerable length, frequent changes are necessary. Philosophy and humanity combined to satisfy me that the trip could not well be made with a smaller number. I was a little inquisitive on that point, partly on the score of expense, and partly on account of the delay and trouble that might arise in taking care of so many animals.

If there is any one trait common among all the nations of the earth, it is a natural sharpness in the traffic of horse-flesh. My experience has been wonderfully uniform in this respect wherever it has been my fortune to travel. I have had the misfortune to be the victim of horse-jockeys in Syria, Africa, Russia, Norway, and even California, where the people are proverbially honest. I have weighed the horse-jockeys of the four continents in the balance, and never found them wanting in natural shrewdness. It is a mistake, however, to call them unprincipled. They are men of most astonishing tenacity of principle, but unfortunately they have but one governing principle in life to get good prices for bad horses.

On the arrival of the steamer at Reykjavik the competition among the horse-traders is really the only lively feature in the place. Immediately after the passengers get ashore they are beset by offers of accommodation in the line of horse-flesh. Vagabonds and idlers of every kind, if they possess nothing else in the world, are at least directly or indirectly interested in this species of property. The roughest specimens of humanity begin to gather in from the country around the corners of the streets near the hotel, with all the worn-out, lame, halt, blind, and spavined horses that can be raked up by hook or crook in the neighborhood. Such a medley was never seen in any other country. Barnum’s woolly horse was nothing to these shaggy, stunted, raw-backed, bow-legged, knock-kneed little monsters, offered to the astonished traveler with unintelligible pedigrees in the Icelandic, which, if literally translated, must surely mean that they are a mixed product of codfish and brushwood. The size has but little to do with the age, and all rules applicable as a test in other parts of the world fail here. I judged some of them to be about four months old, and was not at all astonished when informed by disinterested spectators that they ranged from twelve to fifteen years. Nothing, in fact, could astonish me after learning that the horses in Iceland are fed during the winter on dried fish. This is a literal fact. Owing to the absence of grain and the scarcity of grass, it becomes necessary to keep life in the poor animals during the severest months of the season by giving them the refuse of the fisheries; and, what is very surprising, they relish it in preference to any other species of food. Shade of Ceres! what an article of diet for horses! Only think of it riding on the back of a horse partly constructed of fish! No wonder some of them blow like whales.

In one respect the traveler can not be cheated to any great extent; he can not well lose more than twelve specie dollars on any one horse, that being the average price. To do the animals justice, they are like singed cats a great deal better than they look. If they are not much for beauty, they are at least hardy, docile, and faithful; and, what is better, in a country where forage is sometimes difficult to find, will eat any thing on the face of the earth short of very hard lava or very indigestible trap-rock. Many of them, in consequence of these valuable qualities, are exported every year to Scotland and Copenhagen for breeding purposes. Two vessels were taking in cargoes of them during our stay at Reykjavik.

I was saved the trouble of bargaining for my animals by Geir Zoega, who agreed to furnish me with the necessary number at five Danish dollars apiece the round trip; that is, about two dollars and a half American, which was not at all unreasonable. For his own services he only charged a dollar a day, with whatever buono mano I might choose to give him. These items I mention for the benefit of my friends at home who may take a notion to make the trip.

I was anxious to get off at once, but the horses were in the country and had to be brought up. Two days were lost in consequence of the heavy rains, and the trail was said to be in very bad condition. On the morning of the third day all was to be ready; and having purchased a few pounds of crackers, half a pound of tea, some sugar and cheese, I was prepared to encounter the perils of the wilderness. This was all the provision I took. Of other baggage I had none, save my overcoat and sketch-book, which, for a journey of five days, did not seem unreasonable. Zoega promised me any amount of suffering; but I told him Californians rather enjoyed that sort of thing than otherwise.