Some miles are longer than others
Trip Start Jun 17, 2011
36Trip End Aug 26, 2011
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First of all, we just wanted to send out a big thank you to everyone who has been reading our blog, and especially all you dedicated comment-leavers. You have no idea how much it means to us to periodically read a few words of your reactions and encouragement. Never was it more important to remember our so-called blog fan club than when we were out of touch and struggling through "the Highlands," Iceland's remote interior.
From Egilsstadir, we headed south along the shores of Lake Lagarfljot, reputedly home of the Wyrm (yes, with a Y like Lauryn Smith). Although the middle coils of the monster are spotted a couple of times per century (the head and tail were pinned to the bottom by some powerful Finnish sourcerers way back when), our stinky clothes proved to be sufficient Wyrm-repellant and no suspicious ripples on the lake's surface were observed. We stopped for lunch amongst the birch trees of Iceland's most substantial forest. To get a sense of what that signifies, I'll share a common joke with you: Q--What should you do when you get lost in an Icelandic forest? A--Stand up! Nonetheless, having a canopy of vegetation over our heads provided even more contrast to the minimalist wide open beauty we would soon encounter in Iceland's interior.
To escape the chill of the low-lying misty clouds, we splurged on a homemade all-you-can-eat cake buffet in an adorable cafe at the far end of the lake. This was a risky prospect for them as two hungry cycle-tourers filled up on every variety of deliciousness offered! Too full to bike up the long steep pass following the lake, we set up camp. The next morning, the cloudcover had stubbornly settled in even lower and wetter than the day before and we called it a rest day, only venturing out of the tent to check out the visitor center of the hydropower plant nearby. The bored staff convinced us to go on a "tour" of the actual facility located inside the middle of a mountain. The extent of the excitement consisted of driving a minivan down a long tunnel and letting us out to see one room that looked like it belonged in a sci-fi or James Bond movie, wahoo...
The next day proved to be no improvement weatherwise, but we were itching to get going. That long steep pass was still waiting for us even though we couldn't see it in the fog. The rest of the day we rolled across the lower slopes of the highland plateau, where on a clearer day we would have had a chance of seeing some reindeer herds. Sadly, it seems that the only reindeer we will have seen in Iceland was in chunks on our pizza back in Seydisfjordur!
We had what we would soon learn to be the luxury of pavement until we crossed the major dam that feeds the hydropower plant in the middle of the mountain. After that we hit "malbik endar" for the duration of the long haul and the pace slowed waaaayyyy down. The next few hours of the foggy bumpy road was suddenly punctuated by a proper street sign pointing to our destination for the night. We turned onto a sideroad and descended to a valley bottom. Tired, hungry, and more than ready to call it a day at midnight, we were greeted with our first river crossing just before camp. Never has water felt so cold in its liquid form. We learned that with fully loaded bikes, there is no such thing as a singular river crossing, since it actually required wading across five times to carry the bike, half the bags, and then the remaining ones.
In contrast, we awoke to a warm sunny day and we began it with a soak in a natural hotspring pool fed by a hot waterfall on the banks of a pretty river. Wow! The rest of the day was not nearly so relaxing however. Once we had panted our way back up to the main road, we faced serious "Icelandic rollercoaster" that made the rolling hills of the Eastfjords look like a ride at the fair for the kids that don't meet the minimum height requirement. We soon settled in to a routine that went like this: attempt to ride up the mountainside, spin out on loose gravel, push our bikes to the top, wear down brake pads to the valley bottom on the other side, dismount, unload bikes, exchange shoes for Chacos, hoist bike on shoulder to cross river, carry panniers across river, thaw out feet, reload bike and repeat. It was exhausting, but the contrast of the landscape to anything we had seen in Iceland sustained us and inspired us to go on. Tracking our minimal progress on our section map, we accepted the fact that we were not going to get to any particular destination or even landmark that evening. Setting a stop time of 9pm conveniently located us next to a mossy ribbon of a life-nuturing river in an otherwise stark expanse of volcano-strewn rock garden. We also realized the likely possibility of having to modify our intended route with a limited food supply and nowhere in theses wildlands to restock the pantry. We had only gone thirty miles, but it was the hardest thirty miles we had ever done.
Grateful as we were for another warm, sunny and still day, the next morning we packed up in record time thanks to the swarms of flies persistently trying to enter our ear canals, nostrils, eyeballs, and even our lungs. We kept repeating, "At least they're not biting, at least they're not biting," while trying not to totally freak out. To make matters worse, setting off on our bikes was no relief since our pace was slow enough that they were keeping up with us! But without these unbelieveably annoying lifeforms, we would not have had the opportunity to marvel at the tiny low growing flowers lining the road, true survivors taking root in the otherwise abiotic landscape. The flies, presumably, are their pollinators.
We were really looking forward to the flatness of the landscape the topo map indicated for that day, that is until we pedalled into it. The previously chaotically bumpy ride became quickly organized into mega-washboard from the big rigs showing what they're made of on the straightaways. I "busted out" my heavy duty sports bra, but it was no match for the occasion. If those jiggle-your-fat-away schemes actually worked, I think we would be the skinniest people in Iceland! We thought that this was the most torturous surface that a cyclist could contend with, but we were so naive. By the afternoon, we longed for the return of the washboard as we were then spending more time pushing our bikes than riding them. The washboard at least had the virtue of being firm enough to ride on whereas the new variable of sand pits sucked the momentum out of our wheels, wretched them sideways, and tossed us off our bikes with an evil chuckle. There was no end in sight and we felt like ants crossing a sandbox.
In the evening, we finally reached a road junction, still with proper street signs, and read the disheartening distance of 44 kilometers to our goal of Kverfjoll at the northern edge of the Vatnajokull icecap, where hot rivers form intriguing ice caves. It seemed so close, but we knew that we would be hike-biking (our term for the constant on and off the bikes) through the night, or camping somewhere on the side of the road as our energy reserves were already running low. So this became a figurative crossroads as well with deciding our course of action. We had invested so much to get this far, but would it be worth the additional time and effort beyond what we projected? While my stubborn thoroughness was driving me to advocate for pushing on, Matt rationally assessed our dwindling food supplies and diminishing tolerance for battling with our bikes through the sand. After some stressful back and forth, we turned our bikes away from Kverfjoll and toward Askja. Perhaps the most painful part of pushing your limits is finding out where they are.
Even with the shorter reroute, it was past most people's bedtimes when we finally spotted the cluster of buildings marking the permitted camping area. But with relief well within sight, we cruised down a gentle slope and came to a screeching halt. A river crossing? Now? Well that just figures. So we begrudgingly went through the feet-freezing routine and continued on. For about 36 seconds. Just down the other side of the rise we had ascended after the river crossing was another one. You've got to be kidding! This time the huts were literally a stone's throw away. A couple of rugged looking women were observing us unload the bikes with sullen expressions. Then they climbed into a burly rig and fired it up and much to our surprise came across the stream to assist us. It turned out they were part of a volunteer rescue patrol for the highland area. They threw the panniers in the back but unfortunately were so well-equipped with rescue gear that there was nowhere to put the bikes. We still had one wet-feet trip to do, but still faster and warmer than five! Once at the hut, the first thing we noticed was the four other bikes (with fatter tires and front suspension--whatever!) leaned up against it, which in the morning we would learn were attatched to four German Arnold Schwarzeneggerish dudes. Is there not a road in this country that hasn't seen a bike tourer? We pitched our tent on an unwelcoming slanted patch of gravel, made and ate dinner as quickly as possible, and ended the never-ending day warm and snuggled up in the tent with the frigid wind whipping by outside. It was only 38 miles, but it was the hardest 38 miles we had ever done.
The next day was by far the most relaxing of any of them and the amazing sights were a worthwhile reward for three days of rough-going to get there. From the hut, we biked up to the trailhead for the snow covered track to the Askja crater, remniscent of Oregon's Crater Lake. The shoreline was made up of multi-colored pumice, which Matt and I enthusiastically tested the floatability of. In case you're wondering, it passed the float test. Next we hiked down to the bottom of neighboring Viti Crater, which is filled with a shallow pool tepid opaque turquoise water. I went for a skinny dip, as is the Icelandic tradition, but getting out on that cool breezy day took some will power. We then hiked up a beautiful narrow canyon to check out the waterfall hidden at the end of it.
After all of this, our biking day was about to begin. We were astounded at the fast progress we made to our destination that night; we spent three whole hours actually riding our bikes. It is amazing how our perspective had changed, any stretch of road with a rideable surface was now defined as "good." We camped in a green oasis at the base of Herubreid, "Queen of the Mountains," a striking mountain that had been watching over our journey from a distance for the last few days.
If sand was our worst enemy, then we met our arch nemisis upon reluctantly setting out from pretty Herubreid the next day. The road was the consistency of a dry river bed with ample loose stones that the tires would abruptly lose traction on and stop with a jolt that often sent us off our bikes. Cycling had become a full-body work out with our necks, shoulders, forearms, and abs working much harder than our legs to fight against the perpetual wobble and keep the bike steady and upright. We moved through the terrain more slowly than a herd of snails...on vacation. The physical challenge was compounded by a fatigue of our mental toughness. Previous days had held the excitement of reaching a cool destination (or at least trying to) whereas today was just a long slog to get back to the Ring Road.
By evening, we had exchanged the dry riverbed substrate for the more familiar sandy hills and the clear skies had given way to stormy-looking clouds. Here we experienced a true Icelandic moment, all of the key elements simultaneously coming together-- hills, sand, headwind, cold, rain, and monster trucks speeding by! Consuming 1000 calories of peanut butter (each) took the edge off of our desperation though. Realizing we were not making the Ring Road that night, we again modified the plan and spent the night at the first fresh water source we could find, essentially an oversized puddle along side the road. We had only traveled 29 miles the entire day, but it was the most exhausting 29 miles we had ever done.
As we approached the Ring Road the next afternoon, with only 3/4 cup of couscous and some raisins to spare, we took a minute to remember the true meaning of quiet that we found out there. The wind blows, but it doesn't even make a sound. Once our tires hit pavement and we shifted in to those upper gears that we hadn't used for a week, we felt like we were flying, or at least riding on a road made of butter, westward to Myvatn.
At this point, I'll address a question that I'm sure is burning in many of your minds--Why? Why did we do it? Well, the obvious reward was intimately experiencing a unique environment that's actually the majority of the land area of Iceland. Facing the hardship of moving through this desolate landscape by a mode of transport not entirely suited for it forced us to find our strength in its beauty and dig deep within ourselves as well. Now that we have proudly accomplished this, everything else will feel easy by comparison. The other major benefit would not be fully felt until we returned to civilization. If distance makes the heart grow stronger, then deprivation makes the mind more appreciative...of everything. You name it, we found it an absolute luxury upon our return--a hot shower, paved roads, beer, icecream, music, and most of all, bridges! When was the last time you thanked a bridge for being there?
Our highlands adventure was only five days, but it felt like we had been out there so much longer. After all, it was only 216 miles, but it was the most challenging riding we had ever done! Was it worth it? There were plenty of times in the moment that our answer would have been a resounding no, but retrospectively we can only say it definitely was.