Bicycling Around Hvalfjordur Iceland
My second day out from Reykjavik put me in a strange predicament: I had my end of journey epiphany at the beginning of my trip.
I departed from the farm where I camped in the field with Pierre, the French tramp, at six AM. I was packed up and ready to go by the time my companion stuck his head out of his tent. He fired up his stove and offered me some tea, but I was on a mission: the excitement of bicycling had not yet worn off from the day before. This would be my first day of hopping on a bike and really exploring the Iceland countryside, I was on the move. I turned down the offer of tea, shook Pierre’s hand, and then joked that we would meet up again down the road. Neither thought it really possible: we are travelers, we meet up, travel a stretch, then split up — this is just the way it is.
I was soon out on the road, going, going, getting nowhere. Walking my bicycle up a hill I joked to myself that the vehicle at least made a good pack horse. Arriving at the top of the hill I jumped back on the bike and rode fast down the slope into a little valley that lead back to the fjord. Summer homes lined the coast, stealing looks over my left shoulder I could see out to the ocean. All was good, too good.
My downward momentum slowed as the downhill mutated into another uphill, only this time it was huge and going straight into the wind. In gusts that had to have exceeded 10 meters per second, I started pushing my two wheeled pack mule up this monster of a hill. I gave up, pulled over to the side of the road to a level area over a cliff, ate yet another cheese sandwich. Looked at some sheep. I leaned back and found myself napping — not one hour into my ride.
Waking when some bold sheep ventured too close, I jumped up, reloaded my food into my panniers, and continued pushing the bike up the hill. I rounded a bend, was blasted by the wind, and struggled for the next 10 kilometers, peddling steadily, slowly. I tried concentrating on the beautiful landscape that rose and fell around me, but found a catatonic mental state of thinking nothing, starting straight ahead, to be more to my benefit. Another hour past. I peddled on, uphill, downhill, into the wind, the reality of cycling this country sank in: the highs and lows of bicycling Iceland are both vast. This is the most beautiful, amazing country that I ever set out in on a bicycle, it is also the most hellish. These two extremes go hand in hand, leaving the traveler with only one adjective to describe this place: epic.
I biked through the highs and lows through the morning, being amazed at the environs and cursing my fate at steady intervals, then I rode down to the apex of the fjord. The wind felt as though I was on a jet that had a hole punched into its side: the bike was thrown across the road, I could hardly hear myself curse over the roar of the gale. F’ck, what was I doing?
I rode to the end of the fjord, threw the bike up against a stone partition on the side of the road, staggered away from it, looked up into the mountains, out to sea, and then despaired that I would just have to ride all the way around the other side of the fjord back to the main road — nearly right back to where I’d come from the day before. I would have to do ALL THAT again. I looked up at the snow covered peaks, I looked out into the grey-blue fjord, and felt a 50mph blast of wind hit me right in the face. I was, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.
What was I doing here?
I thought of Maine and my warm wife and my little daughter. Why was I alone, being beaten like a withering gimp in Iceland?
I looked at the back wheel of my bicycle — it looked like a snaggle tooth’s face: bending this way and that way, buckling under the load. I groaned at the thought that this wheel would not hold up, that the rim could crack or the spokes blow out, and I would be left waking my pud on the side of an empty road like a f’cking cowboy out in the desert staring dumbly at his dead horse. I tried not to think of what I would do if this wheel did blow out, as there would be no fixing it, and no way that I could carry all of my baggage, food, water, as well as the wounded bicycle. I knew from the outset of this trip that if this wheel caved in, the bicycle portion of this trip would be over: there would be nothing more that I could do other than take what I could carry, chuck the bike (preferably into the crater of some volcano), and try to hitch a ride to the nearest population center.
This foggy prospect became all the more ominous as I stared at the wavering wheel. I leaned the bike up against a tower of stones that someone built on the downslope to the sea. I took out my multi-tool and bulked at readusting the spokes to bend out the rim to where it was suppose to be. It was futile, the load would just bend the rim out again, and the spokes were holding for now. I pocketed my tool and just looked up at the mountains again, let out a wail into the wild wind.
I proclaimed that I was going to ride fast to the Akranes, ditch the bike, and return to Reykjavik, and book a flight back to Maine, take a bow, exit stage left, give up writing, be a happy sort of loser. I underestimated my competition here in Iceland, overestimated myself, I did not prepare properly, I had too little money, too many supplies, and was proved a fool. I would just return now before making this situation any worse — the farther from Reykjavik I go the more remote and harsh this country becomes.
All the importance that I imparted to this journey before it began now felt insignificant and silly as I stood there in the wind with a bicycle whose back wheel was about to croak. It was here that I realized that all of the journeys, adventures, accomplishments, successes, books, travelogue entries, awards, and honors that I could ever gain meant little when weighted against what I left behind in Maine: my wife and daughter. Being with them is worth a thousand “Iceland bicycle adventures,” and what was once the hallmark of my life as a traveling writer now shown itself to be incredibly dumb.
This journey prematurely climaxed, I obtained the knowledge that would better have been reserved for the end of the trip. I thought about telling my wife about my plan to shove this stupid trip and get on with living the family life — maybe move into a little cabin in the hills of Maine, start a real life or something. At first I thought that she would be please by this, and I smiled at my new plan. I came to the end of my tether as a traveler, stopped dead by the fierce wind of Iceland, I realized the fallacy of my purpose, the silliness of my passion.
But then I thought a little more of what my wife’s reaction would be about these new revelations, and had to laugh. Chaya would not be excited, she would not smile, and feel victorious that her man was returning to here, but she would greet this new proposal with scorn. She wouldn’t be happy about my retreat — as much as she wants me to be with her. No, she wouldn’t be happy at all. She would call me a pussy. I had invested a bunch of our money to come to Iceland. I put her in a position to support me and our daughter in this endeavor, and this she was doing this with diligence — working for $14 an hour and taking care of our daughter solo. It became clear to me then that this was her project too, that she was doing the background work for this trip to happen. Returning right after setting out would not only be an insult to myself, but to her as well — and she would be pissed, disappointed in the resolve of the man she chose to marry, disappointed in a failure that would not only be mine but her’s as well.
The twist of perspective that happened next is what allowed the rest of this Iceland journey to happen.
I only thought of myself before — this is my journey — I did not consider that other people we supporting me from behind the scenes, wanting me to succeed, wanting me fight through that f’cking wind, those hills, the blasts of rain, and into the beautiful valleys and gruesome lava fields that lie beyond — writing every word of it with the hope of transforming experience, observation, thought into a viable living. It was not just me working on this Iceland journey, but my family as well. The cerebral tether pulling me backwards now began yanking me forward. I got back on the bike and rode through the wind, to the other side of the fjord.
As often happens, revelations come right on time.
Even solo travelers rarely travel completely alone. There are often other people there at the end of the tunnel to offer support, encouragement, who will also benefit from your travels — whether implicitly or explicitly. I have benefited greatly in my life from the journeys of other travelers –through reading or listening to their expeiences, taking their advice, or just having them stand as a pillar of inspiration. Few people in this world live in social vacuum, completely independent from anyone else and operating with complete autonomy. Few travelers are the sole beneficiaries of their travels. Humans are social creatures, we benefit from both our own experiences and those of others.
I am in Iceland traveling solo, but I am supported not only by my family, by friends, and the readers of this website. Travel is an inherently selfish act, but to treat my travels as though they are only for myself alone would not only be selfish but ingorant as well.
Many years ago a reader once sent me an email criticizing some change I made to this blog which said, “You are being selfish, this isn’t only about you.” I didn’t get the pertinence of these words at first, I basically told her to f’ck off, but as I stood at the apex of that fjord in those high winds in Iceland debating on turning back that reader’s critique took on a whole new frame of relevance: this isn’t only about me, I may be traveling solo but I am not alone. Where I go, what I experience, and what I share has an impact on others, the traveler still maintains some sense of social responsibility: sometimes we must bulk up and pay our dues in full.
This is not to proclaim that travel is a self-sacrificing endevor — no way, it is selfishness incarnate — but it is to say that somewhere in the process there are elements of responsibility to yourself, other travelers, and those who support you to keep going, learning, exploring, and sharing.
A few days later I found myself on an internet connection. I Skyped my family with a video call, and saw that my daughter had a new little pink bicycle toy, saying “Dada in Iceland, pink bicycle!” while zooming it all around.
I am traveling solo, but I am not alone here.