iceland ii: the name of the wind

After recharging in Reykjavík (one day and two entire packages of pasta), I set out on my backwards adventure north along the west coast. In Hvalfjörður, “whale fjord”, I set up in Hvammsvík.

I had no urge to make an attempt at going further north than the western peninsula, The Snæfellsnes. I’d done a quick 5-minute jaunt on to see if there were any hot springs. I found this one down a dirt road, after tip-toeing precariously from rock to rock in clip-in shoes to cross a shallow stream.

The next day I came to an intersection, battling a mean crosswind. Fantastic idea: follow the wind. So I made a turn and crossed the peninsula, the wind now pressing at my back, a novel concept, a guiding hand, yes, this way young lady, excellent. I thought I was so clever. The wind pushed me to a steady 50 km/hr on flat stretches and 82 km/hr on the downhill. It was terrifying. I hurtled into Stykkishólmur, a small fishing village. For the next two days, I waited for a weather gap and watched snowflakes melt in the swirling steam of the pool.

I continued west along the peninsula and found a wonderful little camping spot. The sun made my tent hot enough to get out of all my thermal layers and thaw my Nutella – big news. It didn’t last.

Clouds rolled in and the wind really picked up. A “severe wind warning” had been issued; I missed that memo. At the campsite in Ólafsvík, the only couple in a tent surrendered at 1:00 am and the police (the police!!!) let them into a hut. Meanwhile, I had no choice but to try to plug my ears with my sleeping bag, staring at my tent poles as they were punched down, gust after gust. The entire time, being the humongous dork that I am, this is the kind of thing I think: I wonder what the design wind load for this tent was. I wonder what the safety factor was. Not kidding. I would be ashamed that I thought that, only I have no shame (or dignity, for that matter) left; this country has stripped me of both. Allow me to present, “Thoughts You Have When You Think Your Tent is Going to be Ripped to Shreds in the Middle of Nowhere”. Enjoy.

The historical weather record showed that during the worst hour wind speeds were sustained at 75.6 km/hr, gusting to 126 km/hr. According to the National Hurricane Center, a hurricane is assigned “Category 1” when the wind speed ranges between 119-153 km/hr. So that’s comforting, right? In the morning I scrambled to get out when I could. I rode into Grundarfjörður and then Ólafsvík. I was slowly crawling up a hill when I saw a figure at the top and realized this guy was cheering me on. I love it when people cheer me on – the little beepbeepbeeps I get from nice people in cars, the headlight flashes, the thumbs up, the waves. I’ve had three different vehicles and a motorcycle slow down to video me with GoPros and I’m sure that somewhere I will appear in a family photo album with the caption: “Psychotic cyclist that we saw!”. I retired to a café in the absolute middle of nowhere to dry out (all day in downpour). I was in a terrible mood and this lovely American couple bought me a beer.Thankyouthankyouthankyou.

I headed back out to find a spot to camp for the night. As I was nodding off I heard a noise: distinct stepping sounds, not human. I perked up, my heart pounding in my ears. Does Iceland have moose?I’d seen road signs with warnings of what looked like a moose. Or maybe it’s caribou? What did I know about Icelandic caribou (reindeer)? Nothing. How do you conduct “fight or flight” when you are zipped and cinched head to toe in a mummy bag?! I held my breath as this creature came closer. Did it smell my food? I thought about the bears in Tofino. If this thing has antlers, my tent is done. The footfalls stopped. I slowly exhaled. And then… a rustling rightoutside of my tent vestibule. I felt a new flood of terror wash over me. Fear is the path to the dark side. I edged forward, Swiss army knife unsheathed, ready to poke eyes out with the tiny 3” blade. I slowly unzipped the tent fly to reveal four spindly legs supporting a monster. Ferocious, terrifying and carnivorous. A fluffy white lamb stood eyeing me curiously. Oh my god, I’m losing it. The sheep in Iceland are set free by farmers when the lambs are big enough; I don’t know how I didn’t put this one together because they hang out on the side of the road all the time. They’re so adorable, why do they have to taste so good?

Pools in Iceland are a thing. They’re clean and they aren’t pumped full of chlorine. They’re also great for disgusting people like me that wild camp and only shower once a week (this is barely an exaggeration). Naked soapy showers are 100% mandatory before you enter the pool. So there I was, scraping seven days off filth off me so frantically I was leaving red marks. I was alongside a couple of other women, typical shimmery blonde. They were yammering away in Icelandic and when we all went to get dressed, they started putting on police garb. So yes, I’ve showered with Icelandic police. Unfortunately I have no photographic proof, you’re just going to have to take my word for it.

Heading back south, I made a left to Þingvellir National Park and made the Golden Circle rounds. There are a couple of waterfalls I checked out – Öxarárfoss and Gullfoss.

The Golden Circle is a tourist trap and I could tell as soon as I swung off the Ring Road that I was on a well tread path. Tour busses consistently passed me and when I got to Geysir there were so many people that I almost ran. Crowded places do offer their own entertainment though: how many will touch the water labeled “80-100°C. DANGER!” and recoil in pain? How many will try to go through that sliding glass door that doesn’t work? When it doesn’t work, how many will do a weird little side-to-side dance trying to make it work? How many will stand in front of Geysir for 5 minutes with their hands poised upwards and their significant other standing by, finger dutifully on the shutter button? How many will walk past my bike and take a photo of it? By 11:00 PM, the place was mostly asleep and the tour busses long gone.

I think there’s a misunderstanding about Þingvellir National Park, based on the conversations I overheard at the tourist information centre that I waited some rain/hail out in. People think that there is one single crack where the plates neatly diverge – that you can hop from one continent to the other and you can’t. The plates diverge and the land has cracked in multiple places, causing huge cracks, some of which you can walk down and some of which you can dive in, like Silfra. Between the tectonic plates is a 7 km piece of land that does not technically belong to either plate. Here’s a crack just off the side of the road that I ventured down.

Iceland was relatively cheap. With my extra time and pennies, I buckled under tourism pressure and headed to the Blue Lagoon to cake myself in mud (why is this a thing? I will never understand) and drift around in the powdery blue pools. Blue Lagoon is a [overpriced, touristy] geothermal spa, originally constructed as a geothermal power plant, fun fact.

Lessons learned in Iceland: If you put on all your rain gear, there is a 70% chance the rain will stop within 3 minutes, how to rotate a tent in heavy wind without it collapsing (key skill, very key), it is perfectly okay to accept candy/food from strangers, the correct answer to “Would you like a drink/meal?” is “YESPLEASETHANKYOUSOMUCH”, I have a morbid fear of dying by pyroclastic flows, do not ride clipped in on gravel roads because you will wipe out, do not ride with even one foot clipped in on gravel roads because you will wipe out, do not clip in while stationary because… you will wipe out, I do not wipe out elegantly, if you wear wet neoprene gloves every day it smells disgusting, Ray Bans are a bad substitute for goggles in the rain, carrying five spare tubes with tires like mine is overkill x 5 and if you freeze/thaw Nutella enough times the sugar starts to crystallize.

Things I am going to miss: Mostly, Skyr. I’m pretty sure it’s only an Icelandic thing. Maybe I’ll find it in Europe, but it’ll probably be imported and insanely expensive. Skyr is like thick yogurt, comes in a bunch of different fruity flavours and is high in protein. Some days I would pack away a kilogram of this stuff (100g of protein)… Now you know why I don’t look like a skeleton. Secret’s out.

And now, STATS, because everyone loves FACTS! I would like to compare my proposed and actual route, for entertainment value:

Plans are made to be broken. With the small off-road adventures I went on, my total distance was a little more than Google Maps point-to-point shows: 1,341 km (no, that does not include the bus ride distance from Höfn to Reykjavík or the rides to/from the airport, I am not a cheater).

No hitchhiking. No flat tires. No terrifying bike breakdowns. Knock wood. Regardless, Iceland broke me down several times over – here’s the closest thing I had to a white flag.

My bike has now once again been put into its box, after some cardboard patchwork that should hold for a quick 2 hour blip, and I am packed for a red-eye flight to Sweden that leaves tonight. I’m leaving behind booties, balaclava, neck warmer, two pairs of destroyed gloves, fleece longs and wool socks. Good riddance. Goodbye (bless bless!), Iceland – it’s been real [cold]! Get me out of this country; I need a vacation.

Cheers from Keflavík, Iceland.

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