A bike ride around Iceland

There's this lovely little island in the far north that Lauren and I biked around last summer, that we enjoyed tremendously, and that I was too preoccupied to actually write about while traveling. Nearly six months have elapsed since we returned, and I've sensed those memories beginning to erode. I want to capture what's left of them before they wash out to sea like the bits and pieces of an Icelandic glacier—seemingly frozen, yet shrinking slowly if you know just where to look. Much is already gone, so instead of a full report, consider this a series of disconnected, illustrated vignettes from our time on the road.

It's our third day in Iceland.

It's been four days since we left home, three days since we flew across the Atlantic, and two days since we set off from the sleepy seaside town of Keflavik by bicycle. Last night we pedaled until the sky turned orange, pink, then violet, pedaled until yesterday technically became today. We knew we'd enjoy short, bright nights here in Iceland, but didn't expect biking at 1AM to be such a reasonable endeavor. 

We get up, slowly, and set about our still-fresh routine of deflating the sleeping pads, stuffing away the bags, disassembling the tent. We pack our panniers and load them onto our bicycles and push everything we have with us—which isn't much, really—up from the overgrown field onto the smooth road. I look back and there's a thin impression of matted grass where we'd rested, but only just. It'll be gone by lunch. I heave the bike forward, step on the left pedal and begin rolling, throw my foot around to the right pedal and press down. We're off.

Iceland promised wind, and it hasn't disappointed. We spend a few hours pedaling straight into it. We cross rivers and idle sheep; we're passed by cars and idle passengers. It's sunny and it's cold. By noon we reach our first real "sight" since arriving in Iceland, though truthfully it's been nothing but sights these past few days. It's an old wreck I'd read about somewhere, four kilometers off the main road. An American plane crashed on this black southern shore forty years ago when the pilot switched over to the wrong fuel tank. Neither the crew (which survived) nor the US Navy (which owned it) ever came back to clean up the beach, as Americans are not known for picking up after themselves at beaches. So the wreck is still just sitting there, rusting and rotting.

It's a bumpy four kilometers, this detour to the plane. The road is closed to drivers so most walk it, but we have bikes and we think bikes will make the trip quicker, and it maybe does but probably doesn't. We bang on the stones and slide on the sand, and all the while the wind continues to bite at our faces and push us back whence we came. Time crawls slowly and we crawl even slower, and it takes us a full hour, or close to it, before we make out a tiny white speck on the otherwise charcoal horizon.

We approach, and it's interesting enough. It's a small plane, long since vandalized and stripped, and a few tourists mill about taking photographs of themselves standing atop it. We agree it probably wasn't worth the detour, but now we're here, and we're tired, and there's plenty of room (and time) for a rest. We seek some refuge behind an embankment dampening the worst of the wind. We pitch our tent and weigh it down with our panniers, stakes gaining little purchase in the loose black sand.

It's too windy to cook—too windy to sleep either—so we feast on some packaged food and read a little until the wind dies down. It's hard to tell if it ever really does. Eventually we bundle up our things and set back down the rough track, walking this time. We return to the main road and point our front wheels to the snow-capped volcano in the distance. We carry on.

It's our fifth day in Iceland.

Yesterday was windy, but the good kind: the wind at our backs, heaving us forward. We raced through jasmine meadows and spiky lava fields with very little effort, and covered more ground than we expected on the long road to the fjords.

Today is windy, too. But it's the bad kind. We're pushed violently by the easterly gusts, bikes spinning out of control and each of us just struggling to stay onboard. Trucks roar by and there's a momentary reprieve under their cover. But then they're gone and it's worse than before: a vacuum forms where the truck just was, fresh air rushes in to fill the void, and with it we go, sucked into the middle of the road for a moment, then smacked by the headwind again and shoved into the shoulder. The cycling approaches unenjoyable, doesn't stop there, and reaches downright dangerous by mid-afternoon. We take a break, shivering in the open sun. We push on, get pushed over, and take another break. This time we shelter ourselves under our tent and settle in for a nap. Clouds roll in and the sun casts golden hues against them. It's all beautiful, this landscape before us—if only it weren't so damn windy.

Night falls. With it, the gusts calm. We pedal on. The lava fields give way to volcanic desert, black and lifeless. The tourists and the travelers are all asleep by now—in Vik or Hofn or way back west in Reykjavik, less than a day's drive from here—and so the road is ours, and we spin silently across it until midnight here begins to resemble dusk back home. We stop for tea and rehydrated tomatoes near an abandoned tractor, we consult our map and find the glaciers of Skaftafell not too far in the distance, and we agree to stop there for the night. We camp outside its borders, pitching our tent in a field with an uninterrupted view of Iceland's brilliant blue ice caps.

It's our sixth day in Iceland.

Skaftafell is a national park, protecting a huge chunk of Iceland's fragile wilderness from the scourge of Progress. Back in the States we carve roads into our protected lands and drive minivans through our redwoods (like literally, directly through the trunk of the tree), but here in Skaftafell—comprising some thirteen percent of Iceland's land—there isn't a single road. Hiking aplenty, though, and so we lock up our bikes by the visitor's center (unnecessary, really), stash our panniers in a rented locker, and find ourselves a long hike toward the untouched Icelandic interior.

It looks like I expect Greenland might look. Monumental might be the word. Iceland's geology is young and thus its stature subdued: the mountains aren't exactly tall by global standards, its cliffs and canyons not yet weathered by millions of years of wear, but still it's something to behold. Something rugged, something otherworldly. Rain hits our face as we climb past waterfalls and rocky wastelands. Our breath makes little clouds of steam as we trip and slip over the rough pathway that cuts through a plateau of moss and lichen. Gentle streams flow from the melting snow at the peaks before us, and large clumps of snow, not yet melted, impede our passage forward. A few fellow trekkers can be spotted in the distance, but otherwise we're all alone.

We summit a crag and look upon the glacier below. We're close enough to make out its little details, its striations and its fractures, the scars of an endless cycle of violence: melting, freezing, heaving, pushing, pulling, falling, growing, shrinking, shaking, breaking under its own weight and healing under its own pressure. It runs into the distance in either direction, climbing the mountains toward the interior and dissolving into slush toward the ocean. Chunks of it drift onward, wrapping out of sight, floating lazily en route to the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. We'll catch up with them tomorrow.

But for now, it's a long way back down to the visitor's center. We continue trekking and hike well into the late afternoon, sixteen to twenty kilometers stomped over rough ground before the day is out. A day off the bikes had sounded like a day of recovery this morning, but we return to level ground perhaps more exhausted than any of the days prior. We treat ourselves to a good meal, a flat campsite, and an early sleep.

It's our seventh day in Iceland.

It's the final send-off, here at the lagoon. For a millennium or a century or a year this ice has been a part of something greater, of a glacier so big it has its own name. But now it's on its own, nameless and shapeless, drifting toward its demise and shrinking all along the way. The shards of Breiðamerkurjökull arrive here at Jökulsárlón, and here they'll float, a slow but determined current pulling them toward the lake's lone outlet and pushing them onward toward the warm waters—relatively speaking, of course—of the Atlantic Ocean. Some will get stuck along the way, making a temporary home on the edge of the lake, an island in residence. Others will finally reach the Atlantic only to get knocked by a wave right back onto the shoreline. They'll remain here, beached, until they're reduced to puddles.

The glacial ice is a blue that can really only be appreciated in the here and now. It catches our eye as we cross the narrow bridge over the lake, its luminosity enchanting. We sit on the rocks of the lagoon's edge for a while, watching for the inevitable cleaving of one ice chunk into two, of two into four, of four into nothingness, specks in the distant Atlantic. The bits of glacier drift slowly until they crack, and then it's all action and cataclysm for just a few seconds, and then still and silent again.

It's our thirteenth day in Iceland.

A week passes. Our small, two-stone bicycles carry us east until there's no more east. We turn north and meet the fjords, a quiet corner of Iceland with sleepy towns and brilliant views. Like jagged teeth cutting into the sea, eastern Iceland's fjords are all peninsulas and inlets that make for beautiful—though by no means speedy—biking.

It works like this. We round a bend and spot land just a few hundred meters in front of us, but between us and that land is an arm of water. We follow that arm of water inland, sometime for a few kilometers and sometimes for ten or twenty, and then the inlet gives up and the land wraps around and we find ourselves on the opposite side of the water, paralleling whence we came for that same few or ten or twenty kilometers. After an hour or two of cycling, we've covered maybe thirty miles on the road, but not more than those few hundred meters as the crow flies. Inflating a raft, tossing our bikes atop it, and paddling across the (many) inlets would probably be quicker.

I can't complain about the views—they're just breathtaking and well worth taking the long way 'round—but I will complain about the winds. In the south of Iceland things were simple: we were heading east, and the winds west, and so we expected to suffer. Here in the fjords, with all their twists and turns, one might then expect a reprieve. We round a fjord and turn inland and the wind is at our face, and that's okay, because we slog through it expecting, once we come around the bend, that same wind to be at our backs. This is the way wind should work. But it doesn't seem to be the way Icelandic wind does work.

No, instead, we round a bend and the wind continues to fight us, reversing direction and slowing us to a crawl all the way back toward the sea. Again we slog through it because there's hope around the next corner, a new fjord with a new micro-climate, surely, and so we rush forward with hope of tailwinds. But no tailwinds are there to greet us, just more headwind, and so characterizes our days spent in the fjords: hope and disappointment, onward struggle, and occasionally a few hours of truly pleasant, effortless riding.

We met another couple on bikes back at the glacial lagoon. We leapfrog each other across eastern Iceland, us catching up to them each morning and them passing us back each night. In the fjord town of Djúpivogur, in an impromptu gathering of us, them, and two other lone cyclists, they warn us about the road up ahead. Something about gravel, foggy passes, and a 17% grade. There's another way around, snaking along the fjords at a gentler incline, but this one double the distance. We mull it over, sleep on it, end up hitchhiking our way over the dreary mountainside and feeling a little guilty for having skipped the adventure, especially as we pass that other couple, huffing up a hill, while we bump along in the comfort of a pickup sharing conversation with an Icelandic reindeer tracker.

It's our seventeenth day in Iceland.

Our time in Iceland is running out. We reach our northernmost point—ever, really—enjoy an afternoon sailboat ride spotting some humpbacks in the Norwegian Sea, and then we begin to race westward. The lush green of southern Iceland and the crystal blue of eastern Iceland give way to a dystopian desert here in northern Iceland, a greyscale rendering of a world capable of such color. The ashy roads, demarcated by white lines, stretch into a distance marked only by overcast skies and black hills. Nothing seems to live here; it seems nothing could live here.

We don't stay. We reach Akureyri, Iceland's second largest city, with a population of 17,000, and consult our map. There won't be enough time to fit in everything we'd still like to see—Snaefellsnes, Reykjavik—by bike, so we acquiesce to the speed and predictability of buses and catch a ride from Akureyi to Borgarnes the following day. We hop back on our bikes and cycle westward toward Snaefelssnes, a peninsula often called an "Iceland in miniature." It deserves the name. For its small size, it offers plenty of geological diversity and samples of the best Iceland has to offer: waterfalls, of course, but also springs and meadows and chasms and volcanoes and a landscape so intriguing Jules Vernes made it the entry-point to his Journey to the Center of the Earth.

We see lots and admire all of it. All of it except the Arctic terns, which would be worthy of their own illustration if I had managed to get a photograph of one. I was not, because the Arctic Terns are a murderous flock of avion trash just as likely to peck your eyes out of your sockets as they are to let you snap a picture without incident.

Our relationship with the terns actually begins on that sailboat in the Norwegian Sea. A member of the sailing crew said they were her favorite bird in Iceland, but that they could be a little vicious, and she seemed quite surprised we hadn't come across them yet. We were sure we hadn't, because Arctic terns tend to make their presence very known.

That presence is first made known as I'm biking along the 54 in southern Snaefellsnes, enjoying the view ahead and with Lauren a few dozen meters behind. It's quiet and pretty and peaceful, and then a shadow, and then a squawk, and then the gust of wind on the side of my face created by a bird beating its wings just inches from my ear. I look back and the bird swoops away. Or up, rather, glaring down at me from right above. It issues another menacing squawk and then dives toward my head once more. I duck, press my chest against the handlebars, and begin pedaling as though my life depends on it, because for all I know this bird means to kill me. It chases for way longer than seems necessary before eventually fluttering off.

Lauren and I talk a little further down the road and she finds this all very amusing.

We pitch our tent at a campsite in Arnarstapi that night, and wake the next morning to the sound of screams. I look outside and there are children running from tent to bathroom, mothers covering their young as they race from reception to car, men swinging chairs above their heads to fend off the flock of agitated terns. In fairness, the terns are agitated because they've laid their eggs somewhere in the area, and all of this human activity is a tremendous encroachment on their territory. They're out to instill fear, to scare us from their ancient lands, and they mean to do so with the limited tools at their disposal: a blood-curling cry and, if need be, a set of talons and a sharp beak.

They haven't drawn blood yet, but the campground is awash in terror. I need to use the bathroom, so I slip on my shoes, unzip the tent, and do my best to play it cool en route to the facilities: walking slowly, not drawing any attention to myself, that sort of thing. It lasts all of a few seconds. The terns descend, taking turns dive-bombing my head and shrieking in my ear. I crouch and race an unpredictable path, cutting left, faking right, huddled over and looking a bit like a football player on a forward rush against no one. It looks ridiculous to humans, I'm sure, and also terribly threatening to the birds, I'll bet, and is thus a very ineffective play. A few minutes later, as I repeat the useless maneuver back to the tent, Lauren cackles hysterically from under the cover of the rainfly. But now it's her turn to use the restroom. She straps on her helmet, takes off into the open field, and suddenly it isn't so funny anymore.

It's our twentieth day in Iceland.

We leave Snaefellsnes—and after a few more heated encounters, those dreaded Arctic terns—behind us. There's a tunnel south to Reykjavik, but it's a tunnel only open to vehicles. Ordinarily this would be an annoyance, and the forty-kilometer detour around the tunnel an insult to lighter means of transport, but our friends from the other side of the island had mentioned that this detour was something worth savoring. Since the tunnel was opened, this beautiful road (the 47, for anyone curious) around the fjord has been all but abandoned, what with folks preferring three kilometers of darkness to forty kilometers of absurdly pretty views (because Progress). That leaves the road all for us.

We enjoy it plenty. We glide along the edges of the fjord all day, catching the tail end of a bike race and later taking a dip in a little hotpot heated by the geothermal waters of the area. We're warned that the turnoff for Thingvellir, not far ahead, is being regraded, and that we may be in for a bumpy ride after peeling off from the 47 for the 48. We heed the advice, peel off onto the 48 anyway (for we don't really have a choice), and are greeted with smooth asphalt at the outset. We're buoyed by this. Every kilometer we travel on the well-paved 48 brings us one kilometer closer to the well-paved 36, and we make it halfway there half-hoping our advice had become outdated, that maybe the regrading was complete after all.

It's not. All too suddenly the flat tar becomes bumpy gravel, and not too far down the road the gravel becomes loose rock. It's wet, and slippery, and our bikes quickly become caked in mud (Lauren's inexplicably more than mine). The road bends upward and our tires seem unprepared for this terrain; they struggle to find any purchase amongst the stones at our feet. We get nowhere. It's getting dark—summer is drawing to a close, after all—and though we're only a half-hour from the campground at Thingvellir in the best of conditions, we're in far from the best of conditions.

We get off the bikes. We start to walk. One hand on the bars and the other on the saddle, we push them, their heavy loads, and ourselves all up through the mud and the wet and the gravel. We carry on.

It's our first day in Iceland.

"I heard there's an abandoned geothermal pool up ahead," I tell Lauren. "Its waters are heated by the warmth of Eyjafjallajökull." I don't actually say Eyjafjallajökull (because Icelandic), but I refer to it as that volcano that shut down Europe a few years back. "It's just a short ride from the main road."

It is a short ride, but not really. We bump along gravel to the parking lot, where a few other nocturnal swimmers grab their daypacks from their trunks and begin the trek into the distance. The lot has no bike racks, and we're still too new to Iceland to realize our bikes would be just fine if we left them right here, so instead we begin walking them along the narrow pathway through the rocky field. Walking turns to pushing and pushing turns to heaving, and Lauren's not happy with this so-called "short ride."

We cross a tiny bridge of two wooden beams and another of just a few stones sticking up from the water. The burden of the bicycles grows, and when we reach our next obstacle—a four-limbed scramble—we ditch the bikes on the side of the path and carry on by foot.

When we finally reach the pool, it's simply marvelous. Carved right into the base of a rocky hillside, it sits in a small valley of wonder and mist. Yellows and reds and greens and purples paint the surrounding slopes. Delicate falls trickle glacial waters into the basin, and underneath us silent forces give life to this valley and warmth to its visitors. We sink into the pool.

It's well past midnight here on the southern coast of Iceland, but the sun hasn't checked the time. It sits high up on the horizon as we return to our bikes and cycle through its amber glow. It decorates the sky and the clouds and the grassy plains below in golden hues and lavender tints, tracing two thin shadows of two steel bikes and two weary riders onto this narrow, two-lane road.

It's only the first full day of twenty-six straight days traveling Iceland at the speed of tranquility, twenty-six straight days of camping under crisp, twilit skies. Between our arrival in Keflavik and our final few days of relaxation in Reykjavik, we'll have cycled well over a thousand kilometers across black deserts of volcanic ash, through glacier-chiseled fjords and desolate lava fields, past ice caps and milky blue lagoons, over little hills and great big mountains, under ominous rain clouds and fierce Arctic terns and blazing sunlight, down dazzling descents and rock-ridden gravel roads. We'll have taken a few shortcuts—two buses to Borganes, two hitches in the unpaved northeast—and a few detours too, but we'll come full circle all the same.

We'll see hundreds of sheep, a few humpback whales, and a lone field mouse all-too-comfortable to climb up onto our tent in the early hours of the morning. We'll hike along volcanoes and swim in waters warmed by their heat. We'll camp everywhere: empty open fields, crowded tent pitches, the backside of a wool shop, the heights of a black sand beach. We'll eat a strict diet of peanut butter sandwiches, packaged cookies, cheeseless pizza, and the occasional non-brown perishable, and we'll warm our chilled bodies with sugary hot tea steeped in a little pot on our little stove on a little picnic bench overlooking some great big view.

We'll meet puffins from afar and friendly, fellow cyclists up close. We'll meet a few Icelanders and they'll be friendly, too, offering rides, encouragement, beer, tips. We'll get zero flat tires, break zero chains, lose one bicycle bolt and several bits of bicycle paint. We'll fall a few times and get a few scrapes, but also climb enough cumulative altitude to reach the top of Mount Everest. Twenty-six days after setting out, we'll return to Keflavik, and later home, with fond memories and a few photographs and, just maybe, enough tread on our tires and our souls for another big ride.