A loud WHIRRRRRRR screeched from the front wheel of my bike. A raw and unnatural siren. The innate sound of bad things to come, especially when barreling full speed down a rocky road with over 80 pounds strapped to a fat bike at coordinates nowhere in the middle of the Icelandic Highlands.
I instinctively pumped the brakes. Pulled the shoot. Gently now. Let’s not overreact here. A pilot guiding himself in for a crash landing.
The cry of a metallic balloon meeting a javelin sized pin. The sound of a tire snapping free of a fork.
My body catapulted forward, a charging cavalryman whose horse’s legs implode underneath him. I soared and spun through the air like a gymnast, one who has never trained or stuck a landing in his life.
I hit the ground on my back. The over-stuffed contents of my pack buffering the full impact of the dirt road as I sprung back into the air executing some sort of unsanctioned, double layout, pike combination. A few more impacts. A stone skipping across the gravel surface. Miraculously I landed on my feet facing the reverse direction, looking back up the road.
I stood motionless for a moment. My brain still catching up to the change in position and circumstance. A few quick breaths. I’m in shock, but admittedly a little impressed with my landing. This wasn't my first rodeo. I had been bucked off my bike before.
I took stock.
I was fine or at least it felt that way. No protruding bones or missing limbs. Although, I wished I could have said the same for my bike.
I reluctantly stared back to the scene of the crime and immediately lowered my eyes. I couldn’t look at the grizzly scene: a severed aluminum carcass sprawled out on the road. I turned away. I didn't want to believe my dream, month long bikepacking trip across Iceland had just abruptly and violently come to an end on only the second day.
Like most bike trips through Iceland, ours started in Reykjavik. More accurately, just outside Reykjavik at the presidential Eyvindarholt Guesthouse . I say presidential because the neighbouring property was the actual dwelling of the President. We could see his estate from our window. The flag was lowered indicating his absence. In fact, elections had just ended and the exchange of duties and residence was currently in process. Our journey seemed to fall within the window of a political transfer of power.
This seemed fitting as we had our own politics to navigate. Our gang consisted of six riders, two couples, and two third wheels, so to speak. The need for trust, patience, and bipartisanship was paramount.
One couple was my wife Sarah and I. We had done many road trips with our bikes but we were making the massive leap to the multi-day bikepacking trip. Frank and Sylvia had shared many adventures but the scope and scale of this journey was a pseudo dress rehearsal for their plans to retire and ride across Asia together. Alexa was a friend and planning to race in the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska with Sarah and Sylvia this winter. So for them, Iceland doubled as a psychological qualifier for their race - a chance for them to experience the effects of long days in the saddle. Byron was a last-minute addition to the team, hungry for an adventure and a break from a non-stop portfolio of work in the film industry on which we were regular collaborators.
The dynamic of bikepacking for the first time with anyone, let alone life partners, was a nuanced social-experiment. I knew that I must tread carefully across these unchartered waters or rivers as it would turn out. If travel and living together were the true test of any relationship, then bikepacking was the most primitive trial.
Eyvindarholt and it’s host-owners Aslaug and Marcus were the perfect start to a dream trip. We experienced our first example of the Icelandic personality: creative, thoughtful, dry, witty, kind and patient.
We unpacked and reconstructed our fat bikes, a multi-generational herd of Salsa Mukluks. We tinkered. Stuffed our frame, saddle, seat and handlebar bags until the seams felt like they would burst. Four weeks of camp based essentials and our coveted travel scrabble for good measure. This wasn’t a race, it was an expedition.
With our pack mules fully loaded we were ready for whatever weather, terrain and wonderment Iceland had to offer.
We set off in the morning after potentially our last taste of civilization - a breakfast we knew could never be matched for its perfection. We rolled out with flavours of garden-grown preserves and Icelandic Skyr yogurt on our lips and a new found motivation to finish our journey and return here for another sitting.
In our food coma oblivion, we rode off in the wrong direction. The right road, the wrong way. As the airport drew closer our group overcame it’s first challenge - an act of diplomacy and navigational humility - admitting a mistake was a major step in our future success. Aslaug and Marcus had given us simple directions: find the most Nordic of monuments and go east. Sure enough, we found the Swedish monolith Ikea and our journey officially began.
Our first step in cobbling together our route was based on photographic inspiration found on Pinterest, Instagram, and Google. I used each stunning image sourced through social media as a waypoint, pinned to a map to create a constellation of our journey. Before long I had a tapestry of waterfalls, volcanic landscapes and Martian deserts flagged across the Icelandic Highlands. They say you should never judge a book by its cover but Iceland was an exception to every rule.
The imagery provided a rough guide to the areas we would visit. With these photos as our guideline, we focused on the roads and trails that connected the dots. We downloaded the Cycling Iceland map and later grabbed hard copies, an incredibly invaluable and detailed asset.
We had just over three weeks to ride from Reykjavik to Vik, weaving from West to East, avoiding most major highways and paved roads. There was definitely some guesswork and the perfect number of unknowns. We wanted to allow for some level of spontaneity and those beautiful, unexpected mistakes and discoveries along the way. To accommodate for that we ensured a certain amount of flex days throughout the schedule. These offset the possibility of a slower pace, changes in route, added routes, technical difficulties or simply the desire to relish at a certain pace or in a certain place for a little longer then one can anticipate when written text or a two-dimensional resource are your guide.
I expected the first section of our route to be the longest, most remote stretch of our journey. The Kaldidalur Route followed the Langjokul Glacier around the western side up to its northernmost tip. From there we hoped to cross east but we weren’t exactly clear what route was available to us. If there was a Cartographic Association of Iceland they were a hung jury on the existence of a road there. Every map had a different perspective. While some maps suggested a rough, narrow track traveling east connecting to the Kjölur Route, every second map didn’t show the road at all.
Insert flex day here.
We stopped at the rise of the highest elevation on the long, northbound leg of our second day on the Kaldidalur Route - a hard-packed, dirt track stained in a crimson hue. Iceland was already living up to its reputation of rugged and remote beauty. We propped our bikes up against a tall pile of rocks forming a giant stone pyramid to soak in the views. On the horizon loomed a thick wall of cloud sweeping across the landscape towards us, swallowing everything in its path. Fatigue had started to weigh on the group and the desire to finish riding for the day was rolling in heavier than the opposing storm front. Group patience was dropping faster than the barometer.
I waited behind as one-by-one my fellow riders dropped down the road, rolling off into the distance and out of sight. We still had about fifteen kilometers of undulating terrain to ride to our day’s goal of Húsafell.
I was the second last person to leave. I wrestled into my cockpit and let gravity take control. Almost immediately the heavy fat bike roared down the dirt track, devouring the surface with ease.
I stuck the landing.
It was no doubt an epic crash. Judging by the number of times I hit the ground I calculated three full rotations leaving me roughly ten yards further than my bike. This was world recorder, triple jump territory.
What the hell actually happened? In a flash, my adventure had changed. For the remainder of our trip, I would be paying the consequences.
I didn’t look at the bike. Instead, I took a roll call of my body parts. Bloody knees. Bloody elbows. Bloody hands, shoulders and hips. A fair and even distribution of abrasions. Nothing serious it seemed although my right heel was pulsating. A fracture? Not sure. I was still in shock so the real pain would manifest later. I turned to my most reliable coping mechanism - optimism and humour. What’s an adventure without a little drama?
By the time I completed my personal check up, Byron trundled around the bend. I was suddenly grateful that I wasn’t the sweeper, otherwise I would be sweeping up this mess on my own. He calmly took control of the situation as I tried to regain my senses.
He checked the pulse of my fat bike: life support. We remained hopeful and got to work on the patient. The post triage diagnosis: A bent front fork in two directions and contorted front hub. Not good. We looked over our shoulder to see the storm closing in. We were running out of time.
We stepped up our efforts, both torquing on the frame as if engaged in a wish bone tug-of-war that is chalk out of wishes. The idea of resolving this problem in a monsoon motivated our actions and we seem to be making progress but the wheel still won’t fit. We remove a seat post and use the bar to gain more leverage, hoisting more aggressively. Finally, the wheel jams into place, enough that we can secure the bent skewer. It’s severely warped but rideable. I untangled the hydraulic lines spewing forth like intestines, still attached to the disc brake and stuffed them with the caliper into my front frame bag. I’ll deal with that later. We need to get moving.
The storm rolled over us. A torrential downpour. Through the sheets of rain, a friendly shadow emerged. Frank, unaware of what happened had ridden back to check on us. He shivered from the wet cold as we exchanged a few quick words and facial contortions suggesting ‘we’ll explain later’ and kept moving.
We settled back into riding. Time to just put the head down and go. Behind me erupted a new cacophony of unnatural, mechanical instrumentation. The badly bent bike rack, holding up the weight of my heavy panniers like a wounded Atlas, caused the bags to rub aggressively against the rear tire. Another previously unnoticed casualty of the wipeout.
I grinned and bore the awful noise. I found my place of masochistic Zen when things are bad but temporarily unresolvable and merrily took in the dulcet tones of my quadriplegic fat bike as we battered and bounced through flooded potholes. I was moving. I glanced across at a small window in the clouds revealing the distance ice fields of the Langjökull Glacier. Despite the monsoon, bent front fork and skewer barely holding the wheel in place, the warped rear rack rubbing against the tire and a pulsating throb throughout my body, everything was perfect. I was bikepacking in Iceland. A dream come true.
Later that night in Húsafell we relive the story, full of speculations and solutions for what is now dubbed “The Incident”. We are skeptical our field surgery will keep the patient alive for the remaining twenty days of the trip. Only reflecting back after returning home and looking at my photos for evidence did I discover the cause of the front wheel coming off. Comparing multiple images I noticed the quick release clamp on the front tire had been pried open before I plummeted down the infamous hill. Was one of my fellow riders a suspect? An attempt to handicap me for the remainder of the ride? No. The culprit was a brutish pannier - a heavy saddlebag clipping the lever.
While in Húsafell, I sent emails and made calls, setting the wheels of reparation in motion in order to ensure the wheels of my bike would stay in motion.
I made little progress as it seemed no one in Reykjavik had the parts we needed, which wasn't helped by the fact we were going into a holiday long weekend. I managed to get a message home to Mighty Riders, my local bike shop in Vancouver. I sent autopsy photos in hopes of receiving an uplifting second opinion and a viable solution.
Instead, I got what I should have expected: ambiguous honesty. The bike might hold in its current state for the duration of the trip or could also come undone at any moment. Especially with so much mileage still to cover over rough terrain.
We decided a transplant was in order. While I continued to search for solutions here in the remotes of Iceland, Mighty Riders would put together a package to ship out and find us along the way.
In the morning, we rolled out and continued on our predetermined route. My belief was the bike would hold together long enough for us to get around Langjökull Glacier, across the magical road that may or may not exist and back down the Kjölur Route towards Geysir. By then, some four to five days of riding, the parts I needed would have hopefully arrived in Iceland from Vancouver and we could have them bused out to our location. What could go wrong?
Besides, according to our coveted Cycling Iceland map, a “Bike Repair Enthusiast” was based in the mystical mountains of Kerlingarfjöll where we intended to arrive within a few days. Allegedly, this was no mere shop or disgruntled repairman. No, a Bike Repair Enthusiast. A mechanical zealot. It was hard not to conjure images of a nordic god moulding metal with bare hands, forging a new fork from volcanic fires inside his cave high on a mountain top. Tools and aluminum bones of bikes past strewn about like carcasses. This was Iceland, a place of magic and folklore where anything was possible. Maybe my trip wasn’t over. Maybe it was just getting started.
The Highlands of Iceland were as spectacular as they were desolate. The vast landscape had a stark beauty somehow tempered with a balance of ancient adolescence. I relished in the open space, devoid of forest, stretching out to an endless horizon. We encountered a few “Impassable” signs along the dirt track, twisted to the side suggesting the route was in fact, passable or simply blown sideways by the gale force wind. Time would tell.
We arrived at the first big graphic “V” on our maps. One part Victory, one part Vendetta. In truth, “V” stood for vað, the word ford in Icelandic. Our analog Cycling Iceland map and digitized Garmin route were strewn with them. But in this case, the "V" was for Virgin: our first Icelandic river crossing.
We unloaded the bikes and shuttled across. Our crotch high “Wiggies”, giant canvas leggings, got their first test and failed almost immediately, suffering punctures on the sharp rocks at their feet and water gushed in. My thigh high, cinched draw string loosened with every step as if my pants were falling down. By contorting my legs, I tried to catch them awkwardly, my arms preoccupied with the seventy-five pounds of bike and gear on my shoulders, the process not helped by my ankles rolling on the loose boulders underwater.
In the days to come, I disregarded all water-crossing ritual, accepting that as always water wins. It finds a way. I embraced it and just got wet. In fact, I had come to relish the “V”. For me, it was “V” for Variety.
After repacking the bikes and fighting through a bout of rain and fog, we arrived at Nordlingaflijot which wasn't actually a place, more like a dot on the map signifying you are here. Well done. Now move on.
A series of narrow rivers trickled down into a lake, so we decided to make camp in the picturesque scenery with the echoing call of distant loons reminding me of home - a mesmerizing Icelandic-Canadian euphony.
Two Parisian cyclists passed while we prepped dinner. They were traveling south, the opposite direction to us. They stopped only long enough to confirm that the mystery route of so much pre-trip speculation, across the northern tip of Langjökull Glacier, did in fact exist. But they warned an “Impassable” sign on the eastern side had rerouted them, a detour sending them much further north and forcing them to loop down to our current position. They were clearly not pleased about it and for us, a flex day seemed imminent.
We set off the next morning and it wasn’t too long before we arrived at our crossroads and the mystery road leading east from Storisandur. There were no “Impassable” signs on this end so we decided to take our chances. If it was truly unrideable we would return and take the long, alternative route north.
The track turned out to be rough and not well traveled, but certainly not impassable, especially on our caravan of Salsa fat bikes. Our thick tires ate up most of the terrain. No flex day required.
These Are The Thors I Know
I stared up what appeared to be the last stretch of road leading into the campground of Kerlingarfjöll. The distance and steepness of the grades were rated at 15% which seemed to be the standard throughout Iceland. Either there was a volume discount on road signs of that specific numeric value or the ancient Nordic Gods of Volcanic Activity were perfectionists. Needless-to-say, we grew skeptical of the grade accuracy of the signage.
I was still relishing the challenge of the hills so I attacked the first few pitches with vigor. At times it seemed like the bike might start rolling backward as I held the minimal cadence to propel forward. The grappling hands of gravity engaged in a tug-of-war with my glutes. I crested another hill and it suddenly appeared: the bustling encampment of Kerlingarfjöll lay in the valley below.
I was excited for the others to have the same surprise for themselves. So I dropped down ahead of them without saying a word.
That afternoon, with tents pitched and clothing hanging out to dry, Thor strode towards our campsite. I didn’t call him Thor because of his long blonde hair and even longer golden beard. Nor because he was tall and strong. Not because he was Icelandic and I was name-norming or that he did actually have all of the qualities of a Nordic god of thunder. I called him Thor because I quickly discovered through introductions that his name was, in fact, Thor. He wasn’t our first Thor and he wouldn't be our last. As it were, Iceland was truly inundated with Thors.
At first, I thought this must be the omnipotent Bike Repair Enthusiast having witnessed our approach through his magic Oracle and was coming to help. But Thor was struck more with curiosity than a bolt of lightening. He, like so many others, had come to see our herd of fat bikes.
I was still surprised how peculiar our oversized tires were perceived by everyone. Iceland felt like an island fat bike park, forged by supreme beings, a Salsa-spewed volcanic playground. How could we and our fat transport be so foreign?
It turned out Thor was also in need of enthusiastic repair. He borrowed my tire irons to fix a flat and promised to return them right away. If I knew how grateful he would be I might have simply given them to him. Later that evening, my plastic tools were safely returned to my frame bag accompanied by a delicious Icelandic Porter. A gift of gratitude. Maybe not a Nordic God but a man after my own heart.
The following day we scaled the surrounding peaks of Kerlingarfjöll - translated as “The Old Woman’s Mountain”. It was easy to conjure images of a witches brew as we meandered along the narrow paths weaving between natural caldrons of boiling, sulfurous, hot springs and rivulets. The mountainous layers of red rhyolite stone were smeared with strokes of yellow, green and orange mineral deposits - a volcanic palette of unnatural hues.
We returned to our campsite only to find yet another offering at the mouth of our tent. A sacrifice of a bowl of hand-picked, wild blueberries with a note and yet another sign of gratitude. Thor seemed to have things backward. Weren’t we supposed to sacrifice to the gods?
We never found the great Bike Enthusiast of Kerlingarfjöll so we set off south along the Kjölur Route with Langjökull Glacier and lake Hvítárvatn omnipresent off our starboard. The town of Geysir and the hope of bike part transplants from Vancouver was only a day away. Although the scenery was ever intriguing, today felt more about putting in the miles. Getting from A to B. Every bump or impact made me flinch out of fear for the stability of the bike. It wasn’t long before I felt something was wrong. Perhaps punishment for getting ahead of myself, for not being in the moment. Every pedal rotation was unnatural. The right pedal wobbled and before long and without warning the pedal simply fell off.
Sarah rolled up behind me and I explained the situation. There was nothing that could be done. Clearly another manifested casualty of “The Incident” coming to bear. As odds would have it, and the odds were consistently high in this matter, the problem came in the middle of nowhere. The rest of the group was some distance ahead of us so I pocketed the pedal and we set off with my best single-sided stroke like winding the crank of an old music box. Suddenly those one legged drills back home didn’t seem so ridiculous.
After an hour of lopsided pedaling, a small, unexpected outpost emerged and we found the rest of the team waiting there for us. More emails to Mighty Riders. For better or worse, it turned out the shipment hadn’t left Canada yet so we added a set of pedals to the list. But this meant there would be no spare parts waiting for me at our next, notable destination. I would have to endure a little bit longer.
The rest of the day was spent mostly climbing, grinding our way up the gravel road past Bláfell en route to Geysir.
I didn’t want to show it but I was definitely concerned. I couldn’t help but think my bike was a loose thread slowly but surely coming undone. There was no way of knowing how long the front wheel was going to stay on. Each day it slipped a little, suggesting the makeshift joint was loosening. The rear rack needed continuous tweaks and now I only had one pedal. It wasn’t even so much the physical component but the mental one. It was aggravating.
We dropped down a long, steep and dusty road. I had come to dread the downhills. My rear brake was overcompensating for the missing front brake and the pads were wearing down fast. When there were no cars I wove across the road, carving like a downhill skier to manage my speed. I gave the rear disc brake rhythmic pumps all the while searching for possible runaway routes for a controlled crash.
Another email: add break pads to the list.
I took one-legged vengeance on the ascents as there were no breaks required. As Frank and I waited for the rest of the group to catch up atop the summit of a climb, we noticed a car approach with mountain bikes mounted to the roof. Frank threw his arm out signaling them to stop. The car pulled over and the passenger window rolled down. The local occupants gave us a nervous once over.
‘Pedals? Do you happen to have any pedals?’ we asked as if they were some bicycle merchant roaming the countryside with spare components and tonics to heal all ails and alignments of nomadic cyclists. Pedlars, as it were.
Their response was swift and silent. The driver disappeared into her car and returned with a brand new set of pedals. The cheapest, most glorious pieces of plastic I had ever seen. If there was a code of ethics against public affection in Iceland, I broke it out of elated gratitude. I would ride with two legs once again.
We could actually feel the cars constantly stopping to gawk at us without even peering outside. Whether humiliation, claustrophobia or meteorological telepathy, we finally decided to end our peaceful sit-in and flee the confines of our rain-battered tents. A storm had kept us hunkered down on the side of the road for more than twelve hours. Time enough for several dehydrated meals, three games of Scrabble and a shot of whiskey in our hot chocolate.
After a motivated pack up and departure, we quickly found ourselves riding across the red earth of the Martian landscape deeper into the netherworld that was Landmannalauger. The contradicting textures and tones resembled the fashion of Mother Nature’s precocious daughter allowed to dress herself each morning. Wonderfully mismatching layers, unburdened by convention. Emancipated expressions of ethereal delight. No natural order. Here, in this place, the mode rebelled against all protocol.
We rolled into the designated basecamp, an overflowing, canvas subdivision carved into the small valley. The park had allocated a relatively small, flat section of land for camping and garrisoned it with a stone dyke to protect against regular flooding from river overflow. I have never been to Everest but I was pretty sure this is what it must have felt like. Throngs of international adventurers clumped together in a crowded base camp like an outdoor brand, gear convention.
Frank took advantage and wandered off to explore what was essentially a field laboratory for global tent designs. He and Sylvia were suffering from nightly leaks and he was in the market for a new shelter.
The hordes of visitors, like us, were here to gawk and stare at the outlandish scenery. And for good reason. The surrounding landscape was the visual collaboration of a Dali-inspired geologist improvising with a graffiti-inspired landscape architect.
The most serious visitors were here to start or finish one of the most popular hikes in Iceland. Others were day-trippers, here to scratch the surface with a few photos or simply scratch another check mark on their touristic scorecard. Our status fell somewhere in-between. We planned to stay for a few days to hike some of the shorter trails and appreciate the views. Rolling up on fat bikes seemed to earn us a little cred around camp, or at least more mobs of curious paparazzi taking proof-of-life photos of our frames.
Landmannalauger represented the perfect Icelandic dilemma: a remote and primordial beauty colonized by endless streams of automotive armadas.
We spoke with several guides about the tourism industry. Their hope was to preserve this place and that was the tricky part. Iceland seemed at a crossroads. As a country, they had to determine how much they wanted this success. Like the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre, this al fresco gallery was inundated with revelers. The infrastructure simply couldn’t keep up with its popularity. There was no bitterness or jadedness with the people we had met. Not yet. But I couldn't help but wonder if the bubble would burst.
Maybe we hadn’t met the people impacted in a negative way or spoken with those who had grown up here and wanted to preserve the silent sanctity of this place. Like so many of the ornamental rocks we collected along the way, I could imagine many native Icelanders wanted to pick up a place like Landmannalauger, slip it in their pocket and hide it away. A keepsake for future generations. The challenge of something so mesmerizing and enchanting is once found, it’s hard to lose it again. Standing there as one of the countless visitors I hoped that Iceland would somehow find the balance of sanctuary and public attraction.
A Fork On The Road
We waited patiently in a tiny gap of the campground in Landmannalauger, fending off the new arrivals - packs of baying wolves coveting our empty site. We knew we could only hold our clearing for so long. Sylvia, Alexa and Sarah had already set off ahead to get a jump on the day's distance while Frank, Byron and I kept watched on the horizon, uncharacteristically excited for the arrival of the scheduled tour buses from Reykjavik. One of those buses was rumoured to carry my shipment from Vancouver including a new front fork and a laundry list of accessories I had ordered along the way. Better late than never.
Sure enough, the buses arrived, as they did each day, cresting the hills and forging the rivers leading into the park. I approached the first transport as crowds of fresh recruits poured out into the parking area. The well-informed bore backpacks while others wrestled with shiny, rolling suitcases designed more for the foyer of a Shangri-La than the muddy trenches of a nature reserve.
The driver had never heard of me so I pushed on. The second bus was the charm. It should have been my first guess given the license plate which read “RJ”. I believe in signs but this one was on the nose. I ran back to our campsite, through the maze of tents with wild excitement, thrusting the package into the air like a championship trophy.
Our campsite quickly turned into a mechanical, field hospital as we laid out all our tools and new instruments and got to work rebuilding the front fork. Before long the Salsa Mukluk was up and running with its new appendage. Good as new.
The transplant felt like a new lease on life. I felt I no longer had to cringe at every pothole, crater or steep downhill. I was free to ride.
The route leading from Landmannalauger to Holaskjor was a stunning masterpiece of rivers and rolling countryside basking in a golden light. Reflecting back, it was one of my favourite sections of our Highland journey. Perhaps exalted by a sense of relief, riding on my convalesced Salsa. Or maybe it was inspired by our collective calm and latent feeling of accomplishment, allowing smiles and slacken shoulders to slip to the surface, so close to our final ambition. There were only a few more days of riding left in Iceland and I all of us were soaking it in and relishing in what we had already accomplished.
It’s always the unexpected that surpasses expectation. Our extended stop over in Hrífunes defined that theory. We had spent the day in search of an elusive trail overland and finally accepted it didn’t exist. We retraced our tracks, back in the original direction, which took us through Hrífunes.
I was first to roll into town.The only hint of civilization was one advertised for the future. A giant billboard selling small acreages for a seaside development. The sprawling landscape behind it, vacant and windswept, had the air of dystopian hopelessness. Packaging Mars to Martians. You didn’t need to drive five hours from Reykjavik to get away from it all.
From the road I could find only two other structures in Hrífunes. One was a quaint inn. Two staff politely explained there was ‘no food for non-guests’. No hard feelings.
By then the rest of the team rolled in. We decided to carry on in hopes of finding a protected place to camp for the night. Somewhere away from the howling winds. We passed the second structure in Hrífunes. As it was our last hope for refuge, we sent Syliva and Alexa, our best emissaries to the front door. Together they provided the perfect balance of passive, helpless Canadian and stern, stubborn European. Good cop, bad cop.
After an uncomfortable amount of time Sylvia emerged and waved to us on the road. It turned out the building was a guesthouse and although it was full the hosts offered up a sheltered part of their property for us to camp. There was a hurricane-force, wind storm rolling in - the kind that historically demands an unassuming moniker like Sally or Gertrude.
Their generosity, or pity as they eventually admitted, didn’t end there. They sat us down for a five-course dinner, squeezed in before the scheduled meal for their paying guests.
So we indulged - heaps of human dirt and dust and sweat sitting in the Scandinavian chic of their living and dining room. We gorged on an endless peloton of platters. Somewhere in the blur of courses, between pouring beer and wine and serving up one dish after another, our host Elín balanced the phone to her ear and accepted a wedding proposal. Icelandic selflessness and hospitality knew no bounds.
We put our heads down and trudged through the coastal headwinds to cross our symbolic finish line at the seaside town of Vik. Spoilt with so much backcountry terrain the smooth tarmac felt foreign and unnatural. I leaned in and gave my Mukluk a grateful pat on the torso. My trusty steed had miraculously endured. Despite amputations, so many wounds and battle scars, it had faithfully delivered me across the rugged highlands of Iceland.
We were actually ahead of schedule and despite time wasted dealing with my bike reparations we had saved most of our flex days. We cashed in the extra time with a ride and campout within the canyon walls of the relatively secret haven of Thakgil. With the bonus time came the rains. On our second night, the torrential downpour got the best of our shelters. Frank and Sylvia had been fighting with leaks, and at times themselves, for most of the trip. Finally, years of wear and tear took its toll and the canvas relented. In the middle of the night, we were alerted by Frank that they were packing up and hitting the road back to Vik. With our Big Agnes tent practically floating in the flooding valley, we decided to follow suit. No need to tempt fate or the relentless perseverance of water.
Like Riding A Bicycle
With several remain our fat bikes packed and safely corralled in their bike bags, our final few days in Iceland were spent in rental cars on a motorized fast track, absorbing all we could and thought we had missed with what little time we had left. A shot of touristic heroin. An artificial high.
The feeling was wrong and unnatural. I appreciated what I was seeing but it was somehow tainted. A blurred beauty through the windshield that I couldn’t absorb or process. A study guide summary rather than the novel, ticking off highlights without appreciating the context and depth of character.
Surrounded by the endless crowds and caravans, I realized just how much I missed the bike. Or more, what the experience of bikepacking had to offer. We were suddenly part of an anxious dash to see as much as possible when in reality we weren’t seeing anything at all.
On the bike, every pebble and brook, every twist and turn, was intimate and relevant. The scale of a waterfall was exalted by the isolation of the interaction. Our day’s objective was subjective. Whether a farmer’s field or a famous monument, the result was always monumental because of the shared commitment getting there. We weren’t leasing the journey, we owned it.
Iceland was a magical place. A Goliath in experience despite a David in stature. Not based just on the contours of the landscape but the depth of its soul. Like the volcanic source of its creation, the mystifying power was at its core. Seething below the surface. Iceland is certainly a place to see, but more importantly a place to absorb. The only thing missing was the date upon which I would return.