ELDBORG, Iceland- That was awesome. This is the feeling that I now have when thinking of the ride from Borgarnes to Eldborg through an extremely strong head wind on an old pink mountain bike. But I know that when I was actually pedaling on the side of that desolate highway through the night, with nothing around me but lava fields, wind burnt mountains, and scrub land, “awesome” would not have been the adjective I would use to describe the experience. “Absolutely gruesome” would have been more appropriate. The value of travel is often in retrospect.
I think of all the hard trips that I’ve made in my travels: the crowded river boats in the jungles of Peru, a 37 hour bus ride from Lima to Quito, riding wu-zuo (without a seat) on various trains across China, being stuck out on a hot day in rural Laos with no transport to get anywhere, praying for a ride on the side of the highway in France in the cold of winter — I think of all the times in my travels where the barrage of discomfort that was an inherent part of the journey nearly drove me mad, and I compare them to that bike ride through an exceptionally windy night from Borgarnes to Eldborg. There is no comparison. That bike ride was the hardest stretch of travel I’ve yet completed in this 12+ year journey.
A traveler can prepare for cold, rain, sleet, hail, heat, sun, and humidity, but there is no preparation for the wind. You put on an outer layer of synthetic fiber, call it a wind breaker, but this device is laughably deficient once you realize that you need to leave your face sticking out of it. The force of the wind beating against your face, humming in your ears, and wretching every last spec of moisture of your eyes hour after hour withough pause is enought to drive even the most stalwart traveler momentarily mad. You can’t hear anything in a wind storm but wind — wind and your innermost thoughts rising up into your own voice that is felt as a meager rumble in your throat. Mostly, my inner rumble was mutter stuff like, “Where the f’ck am I, the f’cking moon?” Hour after hour of little to no auditory stimulation — of only hearing the wind blocking out every other sound but your thoughts is enough to spark a new take on insanity.
I entered into a new experience of weather as I rode out of Borgarnes on my bicycle on a day that even the Icelanders told me not to go out it. “It is too windy,” they told me. The librarian in Borgarnes showed me on his computer the projected wind report for the night. I looked up and to my demise saw a map of western Iceland with an army of arrows superimposed over it pointing directly against my porposed direction of travel. On the side of the map was a Beaufort scale — a standardized measuring system of wind velocity. The area below the arrows on the map where I was to travel was colored pea green and yellow — 6 and 7 on the Beaufort scale.
In the United States, winds of force 6 or 7 result in the issuance of a small craft advisory, with force 8 or 9 winds bringing about a gale warning, force 10 or 11 a storm warning (“a tropical storm warning” being issued instead of the latter two if the winds relate to a tropical cyclone), and force 12 a hurricane force wind warning (or hurricane warning if related to a tropical cyclone). A set of red warning flags (daylight) and red warning lights (night time) is displayed at shore establishments which coincide with the various levels of warning. –Beaufort Scale
The librarian called one of his friends who use to live near Eldborg to inquire about traveling there by bicycle. After a brief conversation in Icelandic he turned to me and said in English, “She says that if you want to travel into the wind, get a car.”
With this simple advice, I left the library, mounted my steed, and rode off into the wind. Departure time: 7 PM. I would just ride through the night, it is light 24 hours a day in the Icelandic summer, no need to worry about darkness on the road. But I did not plan for the desolation of the landscape or how challenging it could be trying to ride a bike directly into truly extreme wind.
Video of bicycle travel from Borgarnes to Eldborg
From my notebook, bicycle travel from Borgarnes to Eldborg
Ride through otherwordly landscape: rocks the size of mountains, wind shaped ridges, sky moving quickly, rain and dark clouds given way to sun and back again. Clouds close to earth, only a thin strip of land — just thin enogh for the road it seemed — was able to cut beneath the sky. Just me.
Wind blows at near gale force: a 7 and close to an 8 on the Beaufort scale. Head or side wind the entire time. Almost too difficult to keep going, but I do. Sometimes I walk the bike, sometimes jog with it, I try to ride it as much as possible, as this is fastest way. I just wanted to get to a camp. The landscape around was too exposed for camping: too much wind, it would destroy my tent in a second, then I would truly be SOL.
Freightening landscape. Going crazy with the wind blasting my face hour after hour. It becomes difficult to breathe. All I can hear is wind and my own thoughts. I feel somehow enclosed. It seems as if I slipped into another world where I am the lone fool, a play person behind a glass case which others can see but not hear. My mind is losing its grips on this landscape. It is becaming easy to start seeing things watching you — Hunderfolk perhaps. Keep going, keep going, I chant to myself. I think of my daughter, what would she say: “Do it dada, big one.”
I give it a “big one” and top a hill. I am blown off my bicycle by the a gust of wind. I pick myself and the bike up, remount, keep going. There is nothing else to do. I look eviously at a patch of shrubs on the side of the road — I could just curl up here for the night. I keep going.
Finally, I see a sign for Eldborg and turn left. Found campsite on farm, I jump happily when I recognize Pierre’s tent standing by itself in the field — the only tent there. I try to check in to camp, not knowing how I would even go about setting up a tent in such wind. The girl running the hotel gives me a room for the price of a campsite.
The fast changing extremes of travel is perhaps one of the aspects that hooked me into this lifestyle. I found myself on the most hellish bicycle ride that I have ever experienced, going through near gale force winds across a coastal plain of Western Iceland when just a couple of days before I was relaxing on a hillside in Borgarnes with my friend, Pierre, just enjoying the interplay of cloud, sea, and land in the midnight sun. After peeling myself up from the ground after collapsing in camp, I saw the French tramp once again, walking out of the hotel and towards me with a smile on his face. It had been over a day since we were last drinking tea together in Borgarnes. He told me to come inside out of the wind. We went into the kitchen of the hotel and he fired up a pot of tea. It was warm in there, there was no wind. I regained my bearings, leaned back in my seat, and welcomed the new shift in extremes.
We talked of our travels of the previous couple of days. Pierre walked for 25 kilometers out of Borgarnes before growing fatigued and hitching a ride.
“The walk here was so boring,” he spoke. “The landscape was all the same, just the same rocks over and over again.”
For the final 15 km he got a ride with a tourist in a rental car. They spoke English at first until Pierre saw that he had the same guidebook which he was using. “So you are French? Lets speak in French then.”
Both Pierre and I were trying to make it to a camping facility that was labeled on our tourist info center maps. It said that it was in Eldborg, so the French tramp and I both turned off the main road at the sign for Eldborg. But, apparently, it was the wrong Eldborg — the one that we wanted was up around the bend. We laughed over our tea as we realized that both of us made the same wrong turn at the same intersecion. Pierre and I met up again with what was becoming our usual touch of serendipity.
There is no way of really telling for sure, but pissing in your own water bottle may be a little inauspicious.
People say that they are exhausted all the time, but this is not so. True exhaustion is an extreme state of biology: when you experience it, nothing else matters but rest, you can hardly move — even if this means rolling over and pissing in your own drinking recepticle rather than getting up out of bed and walking to the toilet. A strange experience.
“I rode by you on the highway,” a German lady with a rented SUV notified me upon my less than glorious arrival at Eldborg.
“Oh no, I must have looked so pathetic,” I replied.
“No, you didn’t look pathetic at all, you were working hard, peddling fast.”
“I only made 40 kilometers today.”
“40 kilometers is good in this wind. Some people on bicycles have told me that they are sometimes only making 8 kilometers in one day.”
“When I first landed here,” She continued, “I saw this German couple who were putting together their bicycles in the airport. It was sunny and warm outside, and I was like, ‘Man, I wish I brought my bike to cycle here,’ but after seeing you I don’t want to cycle here at all.”