HVALFJORDUR, Iceland- I finally made it out of Reykjavik, battled the wind around the bay, rumble strips on the highway, and soon found myself peddling my two wheel steed out in the open countryside of Iceland. Though the cars and trucks flew by on the highway close and fast enough to occasionally send me rocking off kilter the majesty of the landscape could not be overlooked. Jagged peaks rose up from flat farm land to frolic with the heavy sea breezes head on. For thousands of years they fought this losing battle, ever being worn down little by little by the salty air coming in at maximum velocity. Below this epic of geology wild flowers bloomed — open fields of green with myriad yellow dots blanketed the terrestrial depths of this place, the peacefulness of which seemed surreal, mixed up, out of place within this climatic war zone.
Read the first part and watch a video of the exit from Reykjavik here.
I rode on in wonder, exhaustion, and freight — feeling all three emotions simultaneously and loving it. Around a large uphill bend I saw a curious apparition on the horizon. Like a turtle flipped upright there was a backpacker, walking down the highway. What was this nut doing out here? Going for a pleasant stroll in the wild winds on the side of Iceland’s busiest stretch of highway? I rode by him quick — it is best not to deal with people so strange. He looked up at me as I passed by, I looked back at him — pale faced, buried under a heavy load — zoom, I was gone. Patting my bicycle on its side, I praised myself for my selection of transportation.
Getting annoyed with the traffic and rumble strips that sent me vibrating ever 20 seconds or so, I veered off the highway onto a farm road that ran parallel. Peace. Consumed in my new found ability to enjoy the landscape I was riding through I did not notice when the farm road bifurcated from the highway, sending me off into some nowhere ag land with no option of a quick return. I stopped and realized that I would need to turn around and ride the farm road all the way back to where I got on it — there was now a deep ditch and an entire field in between me and the highway, and, as my load was in excess of 100 lbs, it would be more trouble to push my bike over this expanse than just returning to the source, defeated.
I rode back to the main road, passing the tramp as he continued his steady pace on the highway. It was a classic tortoise and hare type of scenario. I got back on the highway and peddled fast, slightly embarrassed that the hiker was a spectator to my directional blunder. I tried to fly by him again, but felt awkward at passing him for the third time without a greeting. I said hello, he replied in kind. His accent sounded American, I instinctively slammed on my brakes. “Where are you from?” I expected to hear a state, instead I heard, “France.”
Zoom, gone. A gas station was up ahead on the highway — the only thing anywhere. I stopped and bought some milk for my muesli and sat outside at a picnic table and ate a bowel. There was a picket fence that blocked my view of the highway and the gas station blocked the wind. Peace. As I ate the French tramp walked into my refuge. We greeted each other with smiles, he asked if he could sit down at my table. How could I refuse a fellow tramp? His name was Pierre, and, though I did not know it at the time, we were beginning an auspicious pattern that would last out the first half of my travels in Iceland.
The French tramp told me that he had just climbed up Mt. Esja — a huge snow capped mountain overlooking Reykjavik — and, as the storm clouds came in fast around him, he miscalculated his route down the mountain and ended up on the side of highway 1 rather than on the banks of Hvalfjordur (Whale Fjord). The directional error would cost him an entire day of tramping, and he did not look very pleased with himself as he sat across the picnic table from me. He would come to refer to this venture as “my embarrassment.”
“I tried to hitchhike, but it did not work, so I just started walking,” he spoke with a air of defeat. He then mentioned that his plan was now to tramp up to Westfjords, in the far northwest of the country.
“That is really far,” I commented, now understanding how distance is truly measured in Iceland, having just cycled through the wind out of Reyjavik.
“Today I want to go to the glymur,” he said, indicating that he was on his way to the highest waterfalls in Iceland, which lie at the end of a trail that goes into the mountains from the deepest flanks of the fjord we were now approaching, “but I don’t think I am going to make it there today.”
He then told me about his adventure climbing up Mt. Esja, and how quickly the storm blew in and how rough the wind got up there. “I can’t die my first day traveling in the country,” he joked. We laughed. I could sympathize with this, as I had this same thought as I battled the traffic leaving the capital.
“No, that would be way too lame!” I said.
“Do you want to see my stupid trip?” Pierre asked as he pulled out a map. He then showed me his great plan to climb the mountain to the other side and arrive near the waterfall, but in actually biffed on his descent and just ended up back to the highway, only slightly farther up it than where he started out.
I was sympathizing with each word this kid spoke, for my wayward path out of Reykjavik was not executed with much greater precision. It became immediately clear that the French tramp and I were in similar positions: we set off to travel Iceland through unconventional, self-propelled, means, and the reality of doing so was hitting us right in the face our first day out. We just made it outside of Reykjavik, and already the punches were getting hard to take.
“Look, that is Reykjavik, just right there,” Pierre spoke as we both looked off into the not so distant horizon. The skyline of Iceland’s urban center was still clear. We both had traveled for the better part of a day and had gotten next to nowhere. We were both beat already, both facing down over a month more of this type of travel, both finding out what adventuring in Iceland really means. The harsh parameters of this landscape, the wind, the rain, the cold were making both of us silently reevaluate our methodology: do we really want to keep going like this for the next month?
I thought of the backpackers lounging in a warm cafe, drinking coffee, without physical or mental challenge right over the bay in the city, and I am sure Pierre was thinking the same. What were we doing out here like this?
Before caving in completely I jumped up and said farewell to the French tramp. I gave him the rest of my milk and my last piece of treasured fruit leather. He thanked me and took the gifts. I thought I would never see this kid again, as I rode away I imagined him laboring across Iceland — pack on back, walking into the distance.
I turned off the highway and into Hvalfjordur — Whale Fjord — the epicenter of Icelandic whaling. It was here that the whaling boats leave to go out and harvest their large sea cows from the coastal areas of Iceland. I road downhill with a good tail wind. I was moving inland from the coast, and the ride became surprisingly easy. 10 km go by with only slight effort, I looked up in the mountains to my right, looked down at the glistening fjord to my left, nod my head, sing a song, speeding down the empty road and into the interior of Iceland. Now, this felt like adventure, this is what I came here for, this was what I was doing here.
I could just ride like this all night long, there is no night, what is there to stop me?
I passed a few cows, more horses, and little more than majestic landscape. Stopping only to take photos and dig everything around me I found one of those sweet moments of travel where you can only utter one word: “perfection.”
I soon passed by a river that had a picnic table and a small rest area set up. I thought of stopping for dinner, but kept on going. I got the feeling to return, so I turned back, pulled up to the table, and made a cheese sandwich. With my hood drawn up tightly around my head, I ate with my back to the wind, which was blowing hard into where I sat an elbow in the fjord. I thought of the French tramp, I knew that he would be coming this way and would probably stop right where I was. I considered making him a sandwich and leaving it in a baggie with a note on the picnic table. He would surely stop there: a picnic table set up in the middle of nowhere is too inviting to pass by. This would be a good traveler move, sure to brighten his day at best or feed the birds at worse. Either way, the chance that the sandwich would make it to its intended destination would be worth the small sacrifice of food.
As I thought about this a car pulled up behind me. I did not look back — the wind was blowing from that way, and I was cowering from it. But the car did not move. Curiosity got the best of me, I turned around.
I would not need to leave a sandwich for the tramp after all.
[adsense]I found a small car with two Icelandic girls in the front seats, and in the back was the French tramp. He had hitched a ride right to where I happened to be sitting. We would meet again. As he got out of the car and retrieved his pack I heard the girl in the passenger seat call out an invitation to him:
“I am going to Westfjords tomorrow, would you like to go with me?”
This was the tramp’s intended destination, and, by all accounts, this girl was rather attractive — around 21 years old, thin, big breasted, spiky black hair, a facial piercing or two, and looked to be the same age as Pierre. It seemed too perfect to be true. I smiled for the kid, it seemed as if the Road was already rewarding him for the dues he paid earlier that day on the mountain and highway. But to my surprise the French tramp shot her down.
“Go for it!” I yelled at him.
Pierre declined again and waved the girls away, thanking them for the ride, showing no greater interest. Surprised, the girls shrugged, turned their little car around, and sped away.
“Why didn’t you take that ride!?!” I asked with the utmost exasperation.
“Because I wouldn’t have felt like I earned it,” the tramp responded stoically.
This French guy was on a quest, for certain. In my opinion he’d just passed up an opportunity to live out the prime directive of travel, but he was after something much greater — something much more difficult to obtain. The chance fling at romance was dust on this kid’s boots when placed up against what he was looking for.
For all his determination, all the spoils he would receive on that night was the privilege of sleeping alone in his tent next to another filled by yours truly. By all accounts, this fellow’s decision making capabilities warranted questioning.
Visit Pierre’s French language blog at Sinequanon.