Thursday, July 31, 2003

Reykjavik (2)

Friends: Reykjavik has rolling terrain like much of Iceland, though there is one sector flat enough for the domestic airport. It is about as close to the town center as Meigs Field was to Chicago's downtown. Unfortunately, there isn't a runway long enough for international flights. The international airport is 30 miles away. That will make a nice final ride through the lava fields and wind and rain.

Atop the two highest hills in Reykjavik are two of the city's most prominent features. One is a cathedral with a spire some 250 feet high. The other is a cluster of four gigantic, gleaming silver tanks, holding the city's hot water. They look like something placed by NASA to thank Iceland for letting Neil Armstrong and the Apollo astronauts use the rugged terrain of Iceland as practice for their lunar escapades. It wasn't until 1940 that the country began heating itself with the massive amount of hot water that lies beneath it, some as hot as 400 degrees Celsius. The hill where the hot water tanks reside is laced with hiking and biking paths. I saw someone out mushrooming as I bicycled up it. There is an expensive restaurant above the tanks providing the best view in town. There are also two man-made geysers on the premises, one inside the complex shooting up four floors, and one outside, spouting even higher.

The best spouting I've seen here in Reykjavik, however, came at the Volcano Show, a two-hour movie of erupting volcanoes and flowing lava shot over the past sixty years by a father-son. The son is now about sixty. When he's not off filming "another volcanic disaster," as he phrased it, and as he'd prefer to be doing, he is on hand to present his film. Lucky for me, and the country, he was in town. He warned the thirty of us on hand for his noon show that he could go on for weeks telling about his experiences. He was so enthusiastic, none of us would have left if he had.

Yesterday I had a pleasant day of just meandering about this pseudo-metropolis letting my bike take me as it whimmed. We followed a bike path along the coastline and another around the mile-long lake in the heart of the city. There were hardly any automobiles to contend with other than on the four-lane wide arteries that skirt the city. They had no shoulder. A non-messenger might have had occasional cause for alarm, but the traffic couldn't make me flinch.

The Ring Road, Route 1, turned into a four-lane divided Interstate as it neared Reykjaik, but still, there were none of those dreaded sings of a bicycle with a slash through it, just signs of a tractor with a slash through it. And there are such tractor-restricting signs on some of the four-lane arteries in the city as well, though some that just apply during the rush hours. Reykjavik may be the only national capital in the world that has the need to restrict tractor use. Another common sign with a slash through it applies to dogs. Dogs aren't welcome in the parks or even on the main shopping street or in many of the plazas.

Today I purchased a pass good for many of the city's museums and its seven geothermal pools and the zoo. It may be the best deal in all of Iceland. The card also allows use of the bus system, but I remained faithful to my bike. I visited all eight museums it entitled me to and the zoo. The pool by the campground is open until 9:30 p.m., so I'll end my day there. It also grants me entry to a soccer match in the city's stadium. I swung by the stadium as preparations were being made for the game and was joined by four boys on their BMX bikes. They were going to be selling concessions at the game. They told me, "Iceland sucks at all sports." Like nearly everyone I have met, their English was fluent and accent-free. Nowhere that I have traveled, where English isn't the main language,  has English been so universal.

None of the museums here were as fascinating as the truly remarkable Maritime and Whaling museums of Husavik, but all were worthwhile. Two of the museums were devoted to sculptors. One of the sculptors carved a gavel that was Iceland's gift to the United Nations upon its birth. That gavel met its demise when the presiding officer banged and banged it trying to still the chaos set off by Kruschev's shoe-banging fit. One of the art museums had an exhibit devoted to the rock band Bad Taste when Bjork was a member. She joined the band when she was fifteen and was an immediate sensation. She may be the most internationally known Icelander, so it was appropriate that a museum would acknowledge her. It is the same in Sweden. When I visited Stockholm two years ago, two museums had exhibits devoted to Abba, its country's best known musical act. For many around the world Bjork represents Iceland, just as for many Abba represents Sweden.

The Museum of Culture had books of the Sagas that were over 500 years old. They were illuminated by the dimmest of light, activated by motion detectors when someone came in to their room. There was a video of the return of several of these books from Denmark some time in the 1970s. It was a huge event that was declared a national holiday. The Museum of Culture made a strong case for the Vikings, who were based in Iceland, as having visited America long before Columbus. The bi-weekly English newspaper has a regular feature interviewing tourists about their impressions of Iceland. Among the questions they are asked is, "What do you think about whaling?" "Who is the premier of Iceland?," and "Should North America be returned to Iceland?"

I had to bike to the outskirts of the city to visit a vast outdoor museum with some twenty typical Icelandic houses and structures, some 200 years old. Milling around were young Icelanders dressed in the costume of the various eras, engaged in traditional activities. There were several sod houses. With no wood or stone for building they were the most common dwelling in Iceland for centuries. In 1910 they were banned from Reykjavik, when its population had grown to 12,000. A Model T automobile represented the first car to come Iceland in 1904. There were some old bikes scattered about, but history has not recorded the first to arrive.

This has been another most memorable trip in an environment of many distinctive features, natural and man-made. The Icelanders are a sturdy and proud lot. I thought they might be similar to their fellow islanders, the New Zealanders, who feel isolated and overwhelmed by Australia, and suffer an inferiority complex of a sort. There was no evidence of such a thing here. Most of the Icelanders hop over to Europe for extra schooling and travel, but the majority remain loyal to the homeland. Iceland may be a speck in the international community, but that doesn't seem to bother them, or be an overriding concern. They know they have it tough here and they are proud to have the toughness to endure it. It was a pleasure being amongst such a people.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 29, 2003


Friends: Like the other two national parks I've visited here in Iceland, the essentials of Pingvellier could be seen in a couple of hours. If the weather had been more amenable, I would have gladly lingered, but the 40-degree temperatures with wet in the air prevail, so it was back on the bike and on to Reykjavik thirty miles away after giving a look to the park's main attractions.

I arrived at Pingvellier at 9:45 this morning after a not-so-bad 35 miles of unpaved roads on the lightly-traveled back way in to the park.  Not many others chose this entry, less than a car an hour. It made me wish I had spent more time in the interior of the country, even though this route included a twenty per cent grade on dirt, a descent this time. I would have much preferred straining to climb it, than having to descend it. Squeezing my brakes as hard as I could to keep my speed in check was more harrowing than I'd prefer. I had to stop every fifteen seconds or so to rest my wrists and rest my brake cables and to calm my heart, not from the strain, but from the danger. The last thing I wanted was for a brake cable to snap.

I camped seven miles from the park border, perhaps my last night of wild camping on this trip. As always, I gathered a stack of heavy stones to rush in to my tent if a gale suddenly blew up. And, when I departed in the morning, I left them stacked for good luck, as is the Icelandic custom, and to mark my spot.

There was a notice at the park headquarters of a free tour at ten a.m. at the church, a couple of miles away. I'd missed such tours at the other parks and, in fact, should have remembered the possibility of such a thing here and arrived a little earlier. I rode hard and found the tour shortly before it was to begin. There were only two others on the tour and it was the Swiss bicycling couple. For once we were able to greet each other with pleasure. I quickly switched out of my cycling shoes, as there was some climbing to do.

This park has great significance to the Icelanders. It is the site where for centuries Iceland's Parliament gathered every summer beginning in the year 930. For ten days they legislated and partied, trying to to sort out all the island's problems. It is the world's oldest legislative body, something the Icelanders take immense pride in. There was a council of 48 chieftains who decided all issues. Anyone could raise a suit at this time regarding any matter, large or small.

There was no town or village at this site. It was chosen for its central location and availability of water besides the island's largest lake and also for the acoustics. A cliff forms a backdrop, which is part of the great rift where the continental plates come together that are responsible for all of Iceland's earthquakes and other geological mayhem. There is only one other place on earth where such a rift is so prominent, somewhere in Africa. It is continually widening, expanding the size of Iceland millimeter by millimeter. In time, Icelanders say, their country will be bigger than North America.

The final miles of my circuit of Iceland to Reykjavik were all too typical--into a head wind with a light mist in the air. There was a picnic table at a viewpoint every ten miles or so, but they could not be enjoyed. Garbage cans have finally started turning up at these rest stops. As I near Iceland's only metropolis, stray refuse is appearing along the road. There had been virtually none for the majority of my miles, denying me my usual scavenging. My spoils have amounted to not much more than a couple of bungee cords, a water bottle, a pair of socks and a pair of soccer shorts. Rare was it to even find a scrap of cloth to clean my chain.

My first site of Reykjavik came from a hillside as I reached the coast. It didn't look overly intimidating. The city itself amounts to 120,000 inhabitants, but there are several suburbs of 20,000 or so nearby. Like every town in Iceland, Reykjavik's campground is fairly centrally located, just a mile from the city center, by the Botanical Gardens and Zoo. I'll wait until later this evening when traffic has thinned to go exploring. It will be the first time since I've arrived that I will ride my bike without panniers.

I could celebrate my arrival here and the completion of this trip with a feast of whale steak for $35 at the lone restaurant in town that still has some in reserve. Or I could celebrate with some other delicacy such as roast puffin or ram's testicles or the dreaded putrefied shark, but I'll celebrate by doing what brings me the greatest satisfaction--I'll go a-wandering on my bike, feasting on my new surroundings. I'll instantly immerse myself in the city and become a part of it. I'll be just another Reykjavikian, and when someone hails me to ask directions I will not be surprised. I will be at one with the joggers, the strollers, the commuters, the laborers, the bench-sitters, the hand-holders, the skateboarders, the drunks and the occasional bicyclist. I'll feel at home, but every site will be fresh and exciting and new. And I can glow with a sense of triumph and accomplishment having completed my circuit of this country.

From the "World as a Village" Department: There were copies of Hillary Clinton's recently published biography at the checkout counter of the local supermarket back in Borgarnes, a town of 1,800.

Later, George

Monday, July 28, 2003

Borgarnes (continued)

Friends: As I was on my way to the Internet for Lance's time trial, I suffered my first mechanical of this trip, a snapped rear derailleur cable. All the rain and salty mist blown in off the ocean had stiffened my handlebar end-shifter. The stress finally broke the cable. If I'd been Lance, I would have had a new bike in an instant, either from a teammate or the team car. Replacing the cable was a minor operation, not much more complicated or time-consuming than a flat tire. Fortunately, I had cable cutters with me this time, unlike in Scandinavia when I had to go in search of someone with a cutter after failing to cut it with my knife.

The cable broke just as I was starting a lengthy climb. I didn't know how long, as I was swallowed up by clouds reducing visibility to less than two of the yellow snow stakes that line both sides of the highway about every fifty feet on just about all the roads here. In most places they are about three feet high, though they can extend to as high as six feet. Just as my altimeter recorded an elevation 1,500 feet, I came upon a cyclist stopped alongside the road at a slight clearing--the summit I hoped. The cyclist couldn't tell me as he was headed the same direction I was.

He was a smiley 25-year old Japanese, the youngest cyclist I had encountered and the first from Japan. He had a half-empty, two-liter bottle of Coke strapped to the back of his bike and a pint-sized bottle of Coke in the lone water bottle cage on his bike. "You must really like Coke," I said.

"Yes, it gives me lots of energy."

"Do you drink coffee too?"

"No, just tea."

"And what do you eat?"

"I'm Japanese, I eat rice every day and sometimes soup, but I'm always hungry."

"Are you eating any hamburgers?"

"No, too expensive."

"How about Icelandic sushi, rotten shark?"

He'd never heard of it, and wished he hadn't.  I asked what other touring he had done.

"New Zealand and Canada. I like very much."

"What do you think of Iceland?"

"It's a very beautiful country, but next time I'd like to do it by car."

"Have you used the buses?"

"No, too expensive."

Not that he was complaining, just stating the way it was. He was clearly quite pleased and content to be doing something he truly wanted to do, something that was in his bones to do, that he was meant to do and needed to do and brought him great satisfaction. It was harder than he anticipated and not all that much fun, but he didn't mind. He radiated an aura of quiet self-contentment. He was the first cyclist I had met here with such an elevated disposition. He is a master in the making. He wasn't doing this because he thought it would be a cool thing to do, or to distinguish himself from the masses, or because he wished to emulate a friend. He knew himself and was being true to himself. He so much wanted to bike Iceland that he had quit his factory job to do it. Such were his priorities. If Lance somehow faltered in today's time trial, it still would have been a good day having met this genuine touring enthusiast.

He complimented me on my Ortlieb panniers and handlebar bag, just about standard gear among the touring cyclists here, as they are the ultimate in keeping the rain out. But this young man was one of the few without such quality gear. "Too expensive." They'd always been too expensive for me too, but thanks to wonderful Debbie, who grows more wonderful with every rain shower, which means here in rainy Iceland she has surpassed sainthood, I am fully Ortliebed. If I'd known what a monumental difference they make, I would have made the splurge for them long ago.

I told my new friend that I couldn't dally, as I had a date with a computer down the road. He wasn't following Lance and The Tour, but hoped to catch up to me. We took some photos including one of us together. It was easy to set up as he had brought a tripod. I quickly descended into a valley.   Out of the clouds I could see actual patches of blue sky, the first I had seen in days. I at last had a chance to dry the clothes I had washed three days ago.

While I was eating on the porch of the Blonduos Tourist Office waiting for three o'clock to come around when I could have a glimpse at the Internet, the woman in charge came out for a smoke. When she saw I was eating a half-liter container of skyr, that unique Icelandic yogurt-type concoction of pasteurized skim milk and a bacteria culture similar to that used to make sourdough, she said, "Ah, I see you like our skyr."

That gave me the opportunity to ask her about that other unique Icelandic food, which I have learned to call "aged," rather than "putrefied," shark. She brightened even more, but acknowledged that, unlike skyr, not everyone likes the aged shark. I asked, "Is it true it has a distinct odor?," again putting it politely.

"Yes, it smells so bad, it isn't put out at parties, as it would stink up the whole house." She had no idea how the tradition started, but said there is a holiday in February to mark the end of winter when Icelanders go on a putrifed shark binge. She said she didn't particularly care for the holiday as "It can be disgusting with everyone going crazy."

Then she said, "Since we're not so busy, if you'd like to use the computer now, you may. You'll just have to pay 100 kroners for the connection." I would have gladly paid a lot more than that. When I connected to the "VeloNews" web site, Lance was ten minutes into his run and was neck-and-neck with Ullrich, who had started three minutes ahead of him. For the next forty minutes I was receiving minute-by-minute updates of their efforts. After half an hour, when up came the report, "Ullrich crashes," I could hear expletives all over the world. I could rest easy with Lance holding his own. It was an exciting forty minutes at the computer. David Millar won the time trial, but Lance retained the yellow jersey and was assured of winning The Race for a fifth time.

When I resumed my riding a bit after three, I set my self the goal of a century for the day to honor Lance's imminent victory in this 100th Anniversary Tour. I had 57 miles to go. There was little wind and it was not adverse, so unless the pavement turned to dirt or subjected me to much climbing, it was very doable. The next town of significance was over 100 miles away. I was told there were at least a couple of Esso stations, generally accompanied by a cafeteria of some sort, along the way. I passed up the first one after 80 miles but at 96 miles at eight p.m., I was hungry for something more than what I had in my panniers. The one bargain at these places is a $2.25 hot dog, less than a third the cost of a hamburger. They are extra-long and are doused with onions and various sauces, adding plenty of supplementary calories. One dog and I was refueled for those final four miles.

When I hit the century mark, I was in the middle of another long climb and was in the clouds once again. I was feeling good and didn't want to stop, but when I shortly came upon a rare clearing just off the road, I reluctantly stopped. My happy totals for the day were 100 miles at an average speed of 12.7 miles per hour, maximum speed of 37.5 and total climbing feet 3,770. Each were my second best efforts for the trip. I could dedicate them each to Ullrich, Mr. Second Place, who for the fifth time in his career was second best at The Tour.

I am now fifty miles from Reykjavik. I will go inland to another national park for a couple of days and put off my arrival at the big city until Wednesday. Its been a good trip and greatly brightened by the exploits of Sir Lance.

Later, George

Sunday, July 27, 2003


Friends: I arrived at the Blonduos Tourist Office at 1:42, twenty minutes before Lance was due in the starting gate for his 30-mile time trial. This was the moment I, and the bicycle-racing world, had been looking forward to for days. This was the stage that would decide if Lance would join the elite ranks of those who had won The Tour five times. I felt triumphant to have timed it so well to have reached an outpost in this sparsely settled land that promised the Internet, enabling me to follow all the action.

As I rushed into this small town's Tourist Office, I was relieved to see no one was there but the woman in charge. When I didn't immediately spot a computer, I asked where it might be. Then she delivered the sorry news that this was a rare Tourist Office that did not have a computer for tourists, just staff. Another such Tourist Office had a similar arrangement, but let me check in on The Race, so I wasn't quite ready to slit my wrists. I told the woman with desperate, genuine passion how eager I was to learn the outcome of The Tour de France. I told her it should be decided around three, and asked if I might have a minute at the computer then. She said that would be OK. That was just barely OK with me, but I was happy to at least have that.

I had been in high anticipation all day awaiting the moment of getting on the computer at the same time that Lance was getting on his bike. It would be an hour of high drama awaiting the time checks to compare how he was faring against Ullrich, who would start three minutes before he did. It was a major letdown to miss out on that, forced to remain in suspense for 80 minutes before being able to connect with the proceedings and to learn their outcome. At least it would give me time to eat, to really load up so I could ride another 50 miles or so after The Race. I'd already come 43 miles, which included a six-mile climb up to 1500 feet, one of the longer climbs of the trip. I'd had an even higher climb yesterday, just the second of the trip that posted the height of the summit at the start of the climb. It was 540 meters, an ant hill compared to those 5,000 meter climbs in Bolivia, but still an hour of sustained effort in my lowest gear.

Just over the summit was another of those bright orange emergency huts. It was easily seen, but there was a sign right along the road with an arrow pointing towards it announcing a distance of 45 meters. Such is the peril of white-out conditions, something that can engulf the countryside at any time. Fog and low-lying clouds have reduced my world several times to little more than being stuck inside a ping pong ball. In the snow months, nine or ten months of the year, and in the winter when dark is the norm, it doesn't take much to reduce visibility to cotton balls pressed against the eyeballs.

It was 7:15 p.m when I came upon the emergency hut. I was slightly tempted to take advantage of it as I had of another several days before, but I preferred to push on. Down it was for six miles into a vast river valley. I considered continuing on for 15 miles more to within 30 miles of Blonduous and the Internet, leaving me the same distance Lance would be riding in the day's time trial. It would be interesting to compare times. The challenge for me would be to do it in less than twice the time it would take Lance. What a joke a split screen of our two styles would be--he with his aerodynamic helmet and skinsuit, and me with my baggy clothes and fenders catching the wind, not to mention my 60 pounds of gear, and he on his 15-pound bike and mine closer to 30 with a kryptonite lock and three water bottles.

I chose though not to make a race of it and began looking for a place to camp well before the 30-mile mark. I could still time myself for the first 30 miles of the day if I felt like it. Before long I came upon a solid-walled corral for horses just a little ways off the road. Its walls were about the height of my tent, not that I needed to be hidden. My one concern was that it might be pocked with piles of dung. I was happy to discover it was overgrown with weeds and had no indication of being used in months. I could nuzzle up to a wall and be protected from the wind as well as the eyes of passing motorists, not that I felt any concern of being seen. I have on occasion seen tents pitched in plain view with no pretense of trying to be discreet. Camping anywhere is accepted practice. Oddly enough, this was the first night that someone did come upon me as I slept. About two in the morning I heard the clomp of a herd of horses and the chatter of several cowboys. Could they possibly be rustlers out at this hour or just some pokes working late? I didn't feel any alarm, just charm at this moment. They doubtlessly noticed me, but just continued on their way.

Later, George


Friends: I arrived yesterday afternoon at the Blonduos Tourist Office by the town campground at 1:42, twenty minutes before Lance was due in the starting gate for his thirty-mile time trial which would determine the outcome of the Centenary Tour de France.  (Its not the 100th, as there were ten years during the two World Wars when it was not contested.)

But this Tourist Office was one of the few that did not have a computer for tourists, just staff.  Another such Tourist Office had a similar arrangement, but let me check in on The Race, so I wasn't quite ready to slit my wrists.  I told the woman on duty how eager I was to learn the outcome of The Race, which should be decided around three, and could I just have a minute at the computer then.  She said that would be okay.

That was just barely okay with me, but I was happy to settle for that.  I had been in high anticipation all day awaiting this moment and now I had to wait another eighty minutes.  At least it would give me time to eat, to really load up, so I could be well fueled to ride another fifty miles or so after the race. I'd already come 43 miles, which included a six-mile climb up to 1,500 feet, one of the longer climbs of these travels.

I'd had an even higher one yesterday, just the second I've come across here that posted the height of the summit at the start of the climb.  It was 540 meters, an ant hill compared to those 5,000 meter climbs in Bolivia, but still an hour of sustained effort in my lowest gear.  Just over the summit was another of those bright orange emergency huts. It was easily seen,  but there was a sign right along the road with an arrow pointing towards it.  It also gave a distance of 45 meters, as in white-out conditions it couldn't be seen.  I've been in near white-outs here thanks to fog and low-lying clouds, but no true white-out. In the winter with driving snow-storms and the dark, true white-out conditions can occur any time.

It was 7:15, near quitting time. I was tempted to take advantage of it, but preferred to push on.  From the summit I had a nice six-mile descent into a vast river valley. The pedaling was so pleasant I contemplated continuing on to within thirty miles of Blonduos and the Internet, the same distance Lance would be riding in  the day's time trial, so we could compare times, but the unexpected climb had depleted me.  It wouldn't be a fair comparison, he with his aerodynamic helmet and skin suit and super-light bike, and me with my baggy clothes and fenders catching the wind, not to mention my sixty pounds of gear.  He'd manage those thirty miles in less than an hour.  I'd be lucky to do it in less than twice his time.

When I decided to call off the race fifteen miles before that thirty mile mark, I began looking for a place to camp after the terrain flattened out.  Before long I saw a solid-walled corral for horses that was about as high as my tent a couple of hundred yards off the road.  I gave it a look and discovered it was overgrown with weeds and was dung-free, perfectly suitable.  It was wind-protected as well as sheltered from the road, not that it mattered.  I have on occasion seen tents pitched a little ways off the road with no pretense of trying to be discreet.  Camping just anywhere is accepted practice here.  But this was the first night that someone did come upon me as I camped wild.  About two in the morning I heard the clomping of a bunch of horses and the chatter of several Icelandic cowboys.  Could they possibly be rustlers out at this hour or just some pokes working late?  I didn't feel any alarm, just charm at this moment.  They doubtlessly noticed me, but just moved on.

Later, George

Friday, July 25, 2003

Akureyri (2)

Friends: Another cold, wet, low-ceilinged, miserable day in Iceland, too inhospitable to linger at the fantastic Botanical Gardens and read Boswell's "Life of Johnson" as I had hoped. Instead, I'm back at the library for a spell before heading down the road. As required at many of the Internet outlets in Southeast Asia, I had to remove my shoes before entering the library, a first here in Iceland. I could easily spend all day at the library catching up on current events with the latest issues of "Time" and "Newsweek" and "Rolling Stone." This is the first library I've come across with such a selection. But I only have time to give them a glance as it is ninety miles to the next Internet, where I need to be by early afternoon tomorrow to make sure Lance wraps up The Tour in the climactic time trial.

After I left the library last night at seven p.m., I gave the local campground a look. It was in a residential district just above the downtown of this city, which rises up from the harbor on a hill. I cringed at the prospect of back-to-back nights in a tent city. I went to the grocery store for some herring and rye crisp and skyr (Iceland's version of yogurt) to supplement my dinner supplies, then meandered over to the Botanical Gardens just a couple of blocks away. I had hopes that it might be wild and overgrown enough that I might find a place to camp, as I once did in Melbourne's Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately, this one was much too orderly for that.

If I'd had the cover of darkness to aid me, perhaps I could have found a spot. Instead, I had a snack on one of its many benches and then took a secondary road out of town in search of a place to disappear for the night. I didn't even have to go two miles before I found a dirt road that climbed a ridge to what passes for a forest here and found a nice clearing for my tent. Among other things, it was a relief to be able to answer nature's call nearby rather than having to stumble through an obstacle course of tents to a porcelain bowl. It was nice, too, to be able to brush my teeth gazing out over the inlet rather than in some cell of a rest room. I could also sleep late in my private, secluded campground and stock up on sleep, just what I needed so I could ride as late as I cared to the next night. I stayed in my tent until ten waiting for the night-long drizzle to abate. When it had faded to a mist I broke camp and headed straight to the Botanical Gardens, the northern-most in the world.

I strolled about its labyrinth of paths with Laura of Brooklyn in mind, faithful correspondent and horticulturist extraordinaire. I kept imagining her glee at seeing this and that. There were over 4,000 specimens for her to be excited about. I imagined Laura exuberantly extolling the virtues of this plant and that. I imagined her excitement upon discovering something she had never seen and wanted to grow herself. What great fun we had. There was a profusion of colorful flowers amongst the many plants. Many were indigenous to other parts of the world--Patagonia, Alaska, Africa. There was bench after bench I wish I could have sat upon, but the sultry weather forced me to keep moving to stay warm. There weren't even ten others on the grounds along with a couple of dozen young gardeners.
Among them were a pair of cyclists I've seen at least five other times. They appeared to be seasoned cyclists, but they refused to exchange anything more than a nod or a muttered, almost obligatory, greeting before turning away. At last, here, on foot, without bikes to intervene, we finally had more than a cursory exchange of words. I thought they were French. I was partially right. They were French-speaking Swiss, and fluent in English. They were well-traveled, having cycled New Zealand, Cuba and Canada. We didn't have time for a wide-ranging conversation, but we at least established that we have grounds for friendship and have respectable touring credentials. We have much to share.

When we meet up again down the road, as we surely will, we can greet each other with some warmth. We are long overdue for one of those animated, non-stop, free-wheeling, free-association conversations I have had many a time in my travels in places where touring cyclists are much less common than here, and are thrilled to meet a kindred spirit. The only disappointment of this trip has been the reserve of the touring cyclists I have encountered. Ordinarily, meeting up with a fellow touring cyclist is one of the highlights of a trip. More often than not, we are instant best friends, similar berries off a very, very rare tree. In most places, when touring cyclists pass on the road, they stop and exchange information, and email addresses. We are common enough here we barely acknowledge one another. Only in New Zealand have I encountered a similar phenomenon.

I'll shortly be back on the Ring Road, another of the world's great Highway Ones. Whenever I spot a highway 1 sign here I hearken back to that Highway 1 I was bicycling last November from Hanoi to Saigon. The two roads couldn't offer a more dramatic contrast--steamy heat versus arctic cold, tons of people and traffic versus nearly none, ridiculously cheap prices versus outrageously expensive, virtually impossible to camp versus camping at will, exuberant, outgoing people versus very reserved, hardly any touring cyclists versus touring cyclists aplenty, swampy, cultivated terrain versus rocky, uncultivated terrain, an 1,100-mile point-to-point road compared to an 850-mile circuit.

Vietnam was a frolic by comparison, but that does not mean I'd rather be there than here. I am in my preferred element here--great wide open spaces and striking rugged natural beauty little marred by man. Iceland is most demanding. The forces of nature are quite harsh and unrelenting. There have been spells of idyllic cycling, but it is difficult to fully enjoy them, knowing how transitory they can be. Still, it is a great joy to be on the bike experiencing the elements. A month is not enough time to come close to exploring all that Iceland has to offer. I would gladly return for more, but since I am all too aware how short life is, and that this planet has way too much to offer, I probably won't. But for now, I am happy to be here in Iceland.

Later, George

Thursday, July 24, 2003


Friends: Last night I camped alongside Lake Myvatn with about 150 others, seventeen of whom were cyclists. The cyclists were scattered among everyone else, mostly in pairs. Like all these Icelandic campgrounds there were no specific sites, just one big meadow. Sometimes the meadow is separated into smaller sections by a hedge or two, which also serve as a windbreak.

The campground looked as if it was near capacity, but another 50 tents could have been crammed in rain fly to rain fly if need be. The cyclists were French, Dutch, German, one Czech pair and me, the lone American. I've heard of only one other American cyclist, some chap from Michigan. Most of these European cyclists fly in to Eglisstadir, about 100 miles away, a cheaper entry point than Reykjavik on the other side of the island. It is a two-and-a-half hour flight from Germany. Most of them had no plans of going all the way to Reykjavik, content with seeing just the eastern half of the island.

There was a nearby thermal power plant, so we had hot water aplenty and no extra charge for showers. We could take as long as we cared, or at least until someone started to impatiently pound on the shower stall. There was just one communal bathroom with three toilets, three sinks and two showers. There was quite a line for the showers, so I waited until nine p.m. when the line had diminished. It had been four days since my last shower, so a few extra hours meant little. The ratio of showers to campers has been about the same at all the campgrounds.

This campground also had two Internet terminals. I feared a long wait for them too, but they weren't in high demand. Only once in my two weeks here have I had to wait to use a computer. In Scandinavia I was lucky to get twenty minutes on a computer in a library before having to give it up. Here, libraries are little used in the summer months. Everyone wants to be outdoors taking advantage of summer, such as it is, when the temperatures are relatively mild and there is daylight, even if the sun may not be shining. They'll have all winter to sit indoors and read. It could be, too, that the computers are rarely free in the libraries here, in contrast to Scandinavia. I've spent more money on the Internet than I have camping or eating in restaurants, but it is money I don't much mind spending.

I arrived at the campgrounds at one after a short day on the bike, climbing back up to the Highlands from Husavik on the coast. Lake Myvatn is a central traveler's gathering place with much hiking in the area. The lake has a circumference of 28 miles and is dotted with small islands, many of them mini-volcanoes, long extinct and grass-covered. Off in the distance, there are just as many full-sized volcanoes jutting up from the Highlands. It is a most other-worldly setting. After pitching my tent, doing some wash and checking in on the Tour de France, I set off on a five-hour hike to the rim of one of the nearby volcanoes. I pranced along in delight at Tyler Hamilton's dramatic stage win. One thing I didn't have to worry about was being caught by dark since there is none for another month or so.

The hike passed through a lava flow from the late 1700's that pretty much wiped out this town, all except its church. "A miracle," some say. The trail took me past a row of caverns containing steaming 50-degree Celsius water. There were warnings of excessively hot water and not to slip in. At one time they were a favorite spot to take a soaking. The rim of the volcano gave a spectacular view of the lake and dozens of smaller volcanoes all the way to the horizon. A thousand feet below, the crater of the volcano was filled with graffiti, mostly people's names, etched in the sand or marked with rocks. The crater is protected from the wind, so they are fairly enduring. It is now prohibited to go down into the crater, though no one knew whether the markings were made before or after the ban, or why those there hadn't been raked away. The lip of the crater's rim was lined for half a mile with scattered hikers. It looked like the photos of climbers plodding to the summit of Everest. The wind was most brisk, threatening to blow off my hat. Like most of the hikes I've undertaken here, this was an out-and-back, rather than a circuit.

I biked 65 miles today to Akureyki, a veritable city of 14,00 back on the coast. I didn't set out until nearly noon after taking another hike. My intention was to put off my arrival here until tomorrow, but the winds were so favorable, I arrived at 5:30, an hour-and-a-half before the library closed. If I want to wild camp tonight, I'll have to head on out of town after I'm done here at the library. If it weren't so chilly, I would have paused on my ride in this afternoon along the road to read to delay my arrival. I stopped only once at the lone service station between here and Myvatn, where I could sit against a wall, out of the wind, and not freeze, and eat my lunch of baked beans thickened with some sort of pizza loaf luncheon meat.

I bicycled for about an hour with three French guys. They envied the drop handlebars on my bike, allowing me to be a bit aerodynamic to better cope with the winds. They wished they'd brought along their road bikes rather than mountain bikes. They're not the first to tell me that. I am the only one I, or any one, has seen not riding a cross or mountain bike. Everyone was intimidated by the reputation of Iceland's roads. They can be rough, but I'm managing just fine on my semi-skinny, 27" x 1 1/4", tires and have no regrets about my choice of equipment.
I'll spend tomorrow here seeing the sites. I'm most looking forward to its botanical garden, the largest in Iceland, containing every species of Icelandic plant life as well as plants from around the world that can brave these latitudes. If it's a sunny day, I could devote a full day there to R & R (rest and reading). But if it is the usual dank, cold, overcast with a chilly wind, I'll have to keep moving. My top priority now is to be in a town with a computer for Saturday's time trial. With just a minute separating Lance and Jan, it will determine the outcome of The Tour. I had hoped I could do that here, but I arrived sooner than anticipated.

Later, George

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Myvatn (Midge Lake)

Friends: My unrelenting pursuit for the reason why putrefied shark came to be the great Icelandic treat continues. I had hoped one of yesterday's museums might have the answer. Both were chockful of Icelandic arcania. One had a remarkable photo of a crowd of thousands in a field at a confluence of two rivers from decades ago, and Billy Graham was no where to be seen. It was such a famous photo it was unaccompanied by explanation. I had to ask one of the curators about it. She gladly told me it was a gathering of 30,000 of Iceland's 80,000 inhabitants in l932 to commemorate the one thousand year anniversary of its Parliament. She positively beamed when she added, "It's the oldest Parliament in the world." The same museum had a stuffed polar bear who earned a young Icelander instant renown when he shot it in 1969 on the island of Grimsey just north of the town where the museum was, single-handedly repulsing its invasion from Greenland.

Both museums had lengthy dissertations on what a significant event the beaching of a whale has been throughout Iceland's history, so much so that the Whaling Museum had a map of Iceland with a dot at every known beaching over the years. Whales can weigh up to 150 tons, equivalent to 30 elephants according to the Whaling Museum. That's a lot of meat. Back in the old days, when starvation ever lurked, the beaching of a whale was such a godsend, a word was created for such an event ("hvalreki"). That word has come to be a term for any stroke of good fortune. Now when I unexpectedly come upon the Internet, I exclaim, "Hvalreki!"

The hunger issue had me think I had at last stumbled upon the reason Icelanders came to eat rotten shark. Someone centuries ago must have been so desperately hungry that he was forced to eat some long decaying shark carcass he happened upon. The person ought to be a national hero. Despite its notorious, ungodly stench, the stuff was actually palatable, in fact, quite pleasingly so. And ever since, Icelanders have eaten this rot to commemorate the occasion. It is a wonder there isn't a Thanksgiving holiday when everyone partakes. But none of the curators at either museum could confirm such a fable, nor could they offer any explanation. But they all brightened at the mention of this food, as if hoping I had some to offer. One woman said her grandfather always gave her a piece as a treat when she wandered over to his house. She said, "When I'd return home my mother could smell it on me and would say, 'I know where you've been.'"

I've only met one traveler, a cyclist, who has had the misfortune to try it. It was at a campground with some partying Icelanders. He said it was so horrid it made Vegemite taste like the sweetest, most heavenly of Swiss chocolates. And Vegemite was not something he had a taste for. He still remembered gagging on it when he was in Australia. "I'd as soon put Phil Wood grease on my french fires as eat Vegemite," he said. "Avoid that shark at all costs," he advised. "If I had to make a choice I'd rather gobble a jar of Vegemite than even catch a whiff of that stinking shark."

I will continue my research asking every Icelander I can and hope that none happens to have any to offer. It's not likely, as after it is done putrefying, hanging in someone's garage for three months or longer, it is kept under refrigeration. I'm told it can occasionally be found in grocery stores in a package with small individually wrapped cubes. I've been warned that most of it comes from the northwest part of the country, just where I'm headed.

But first I get to do some hiking around Midge Lake. Fortunately the wind is up so the midges aren't a factor. Before leaving for Iceland I had been advised to bring a mosquito head net. I have seen some horse wranglers wearing them in other parts of the country, but so far it has been one of those items I did not need to include in my gear, along with a water purifier and flashlight. All three have remained buried in my panniers, unused. I probably could have done without sunscreen as well, though I have applied a dab a couple of times, more out of habit than real need though.

Congratulations to Tyler on his heroic stage win in the mountains today.

Later, George


Friends: I could have paid $42 yesterday and gone on a three-hour whale-watching cruise with a bunch of tourists and a German cyclist I pedaled with for twenty miles to Husavik, but, instead, I chose to pay $5 and peruse Husavik's Whale Museum. It was as fine a museum as one could hope to come upon in a non-metropolitan area, covering all aspects of whales and whaling. Hanging above it all from the rafters were five full-size whale skeletons, the largest a forty-foot sperm whale. It was worthy of a half day visit with a host of videos to watch and an array of displays. But I had to settle for a mere two hours, as I didn't arrive there until seven p.m. I knew it closed at nine p.m. and thought I had allocated myself ample time for it.

I had somewhat prolonged my stay at the equally exceptional Maritime History Museum attached to the town library. After a couple of weeks of being Icelandic, I could fully relate to the many aspects of Icelandic culture portrayed in these two museums. One of its highlights was a half-hour video that realistically recreated how Icelanders had fished over the centuries before the internal combustion machine. It depicted seven men in a row boat on their way to their fishing grounds, three hours away. It spared no detail, even showing one man dropping trou to void his bowels over the side. After the men put out their lines, they engaged in a slapping game to keep themselves warm as they sat idle.

I encountered my German cycling companion, Delvin, again at the Whale Museum freshly returned from the whale-watching cruise. He said they hadn't seen any whales, but they could all go back again tomorrow and try again for no extra cost. He said the guide's commentary was so interesting, that he wasn't disappointed not to have seen any whales. This was Delvin's first bicycle tour. It was his third day on the road.  He had yet to encounter any head winds or much rain or long climbs.  He had no complaints and was in much better spirits than most of the cyclists I've met. He wasn't even complaining about having to walk his bike up what few hills he had encountered so far.

He was 45 with a wife and two sons--14 and 18. Most of his previous vacations had included camping, as he was happily doing here. I asked if he had any bicycle mechanical skills.  Not really, but he was an engineer who worked in research and development, so had an aptitude for such things. He said Germans have a saying which applied to him-- "I do not have two left hands." He enjoyed his work, but not having to be inside all day. He thought I had it pretty good being a messenger half the year and traveling the other half. When we parted, he said, "It was really a pleasure meeting someone like you. In German we have a saying, 'I would be happy to steal horses with you.'"

Later, George

Tuesday, July 22, 2003


Friends: I have reached the northern coast line of Iceland. Husavik is a fishing village of 2,400 residents that was one of the first settlements of this country in the late 800s. It is the largest town I've passed through in my nearly two weeks here. It rests on a cove on one of the several peninsulas that jut out towards the arctic, none of which quite make it. The only part of Iceland in the Arctic is the island of Grimsey, not far from here, which just straddles it.

I spent two-and-a-half weeks beyond the Arctic Circle two years ago on my tour of Scandinavia and never was as cold as I've been here. The only time I saw my breath there was in the tunnels. A couple of days ago, as I climbed to 2,100 feet up into the clouds with visibility of not even fifty feet, my huffing and puffing was making a huge contribution to the cloud cover.

I've let the Tour de France and Internet availability dictate much of my riding schedule on this trip. Twice I've lingered in towns all day until three p.m. when a crucial mountain or time time trial stage was concluded before beginning my cycling for the day, knowing that it could be a couple days before I'd come upon the Internet and learn the results. Iceland is two hours behind France and one hour behind England, though for six months of the year Iceland shares the same time as London. No need to juggle the clocks here for more sun. The Tour stages generally conclude at five p.m in France, though with stages of over one hundred miles lasting five or more hours, finish time is not always a sure thing.

Yesterday I had the dilemma at 12:30, after I'd come forty miles, of whether to continue on the Ring Road another 22 miles to a town with Internet where I could follow the final blows of the last climactic stage in the Pyrenees or turn off and head to another national park and wait 24 hours for the news. I was going to let the wind decide for me, but it was blowing from the southeast and one road went west with the wind and the other north, both sort of with the wind. I decided to forsake The Tour and let the suspense of its outcome hang over me for 24 hours and skip the minute-by-minute reports of the dramatics on one of the cycling websites. So I was a day late learning of Lance's success, winning his first stage of The Tour despite taking a fall when his handlebar became entangled with a fan's bag.

I wasn't all that happy with my choice of roads, however, when shortly after I left the Ring Road, the road turned to dirt and a sign warned of washboard for the next 43 kilometers. I had suffered washboard surfaces already here in Iceland, but none were so severe that they merited warning. This indeed did, though fortunately not all 43 kilometers were rumbled. I was just praying my rear axle, which had so valiantly survived Bolivia's "Most Dangerous Road in the World" and Cambodia's "Roads from Hell" the past two years, wouldn't break, nor that I become seasick from all the tossing around the road subjected me to. I was reminded of Bolivia again, as the Highlands that I was crossing were as desolate as the Altiplano and similarly flat and rolling with distant peaks like mushrooms popping up here and there. There was just scruff enough for an occasional sheep to feed upon. But at least there was air to breath here. This was in the midst of a one hundred mile stretch between towns, my longest so far on this strip, but puny compared to the 750 miles I once cycled in Australia across the Nullarbor Plain. I had filled a fourth water bottle, but with the cold, running out of water wasn't much of a concern.

After eighteen miles I came to the Dettifloss waterfall, the "Niagara of Europe." Iceland considers itself part of Europe and ranks their natural wonders against those of the mainland. It is some 150-feet high and is in a fifteen-mile stretch of a half-mile wild canyon that is "The Grand Canyon of Europe." It all lies below the flat plain of the Highlands. There was no clue whatsoever that there was this great river running from "The Largest Glacier in Europe" nearby. Another twenty miles further, at the northern end of the park, was a distinctly Icelandic canyon with 300 foot high walls carved out of various layers of volcanic flow. It is a vast horseshoe going back a mile-and-a-half and about a mile wide, facing out to the arctic. Geologists cannot explain how it was formed.

I arrived at the canyon at seven p.m. after eighteen miles of some easy, windblown riding and some, not-so-easy, rough-road riding. My legs had energy enough though for some exploring. I hiked to the canyon wall where a rope dangled for hikers to pull themselves up to reach its summit. I could have joined several hundred others in the park's campground, but my preference, as always, was to camp alone and free, not only as in non-paying, but without restrictions. Communal camping, like communal worship, is rife with hypocrites and distractions. Camping and worshiping are both best done solitarily. So at nine p.m., after concluding my exploration of the park, I mounted my bike to seek some solitude--something I can't seem to get enough of.

It was forty miles to Husavik and the Internet and news of Lance. I was momentarily tempted by the notion of making that my destination for the day, or night. The prospects of some midnight sun cycling was one of the allures. But then I might have to camp communally or camp in a spot where sleeping late wouldn't be possible. Best to get to bed at a civil hour, I decided. I would limit myself to ten more miles and ninety for the day. But I thought again and remembered it was about a year ago that Jim Redd and I oddly had back-to-back 93-mile days biking from Minneapolis to Chicago. I would make this a 93-mile day in honor of Jim. It is always nice to have some quaint or personal goal to add significance to one's day. And, voila, there at 93 miles I came upon an open gate to a farmer's pasture, as if it was meant to be. The pasture was dotted with several dozen large rolls of harvested hay sealed in thick, white plastic--winter feed for sheep. Each of the rolls was large enough to hide my tent and block the wind if it turned surly. A fine place to camp it was and a fine capper to another great day on the bike.

Later, George

Saturday, July 19, 2003


Friends: Iceland continues to be something considerably less than a picnic. I suppose I should simply say Iceland continues to offer up one challenge after another. Yesterday it was a sixteen per cent grade on a dirt section of the Ring Road for three-quarters of a mile a little ways out of Hofn. I could see a couple miles ahead an artery going straight up a mountain similar to the Chilkot Pass in Alaska out of Skagway that the gold-rushers had to surmount. It appeared so impossibly steep I was very, very glad I didn't have to bike up it. I doubted it was even drivable except by four-wheel drive jeeps. I saw no vehicles on it as I approached and assumed it led to some abandoned mine. But when I reached it, I was shocked to discover it was at this point the Ring Road left the coast and turned inland. This unpaved "jeep trail" was the Ring Road. No way! Rather than using switchbacks, the road-builders elected to go straight up this mountain and at a sixteen per cent grade, as a sign warned. It was a grunt-and-a-half, but not impossible after all.

And then today a seventeen per cent grade upped the ante. Again, it came when the road turned inland, this time as an option to avoid 39 miles of fjord winding. This climb also was on a dirt road that occasionally had my rear tire slipping out from under me as I stood on the pedals trying to keep the bike in motion. I've needed my lowest gear on the usual five per cent grades, so I've had to find some super low gears in my muscle fiber. I thought a twelve per cent grade in to Vik a couple of days ago on the Ring Road was overdoing it, but seventeen per cent is utterly demonic. How steep can it get? Road builders like to keep the grade at a merciful five per cent, even in the upper reaches of the Rockies. When they need to resort to anything steeper, there are usually signs warning of six per cent or seven per cent grades ahead.

After yesterday's sixteen per center, an even steeper grade was about as welcome as a double blow out, especially since it would take me up to 1,800 feet, three times as high as I've been in Iceland so far. At least I had an option this time--the steep shortcut or the longer, scenic coastal route. But it wasn't going to be so scenic today. I had come 43 miles already along the coast, shrouded in fog all the way, and nothing but fog lay ahead. The difficulty of the climb might actually make the short-cut take longer. I was in no hurry, so time and distance shouldn't have been a consideration. I am always attracted by challenges. That other cyclists I had consulted were scared off the steep route was almost reason enough to give it a try.

And maybe salvation was to be found on the high road, rather than the low road. One never knows where it is to be found. Salvation is, of course, what this is all about. I well know that salvation is not to be found on the consumerist treadmill, nor is it likely to be found aboard a bus. So the high road it was, and it was surprisingly easier than the sixteen per cent grade. Even though it was a much longer climb, there were only short stretches of super steepness. I monitored my altimeter closely, applauding each ten feet of altitude gained, counting each down to the summit. The feet pile up fast when one is climbing a seventeen per cent grade. All went quite well until I reached the summit and was greeted by a twenty mile per hour head wind. What kind of award was that? An hour later the rain started and continued for the final two hours of my ride to this town of 1,600, which is at the half-way point of the Ring Road. My final award for the day was to set up my tent in the rain, the first time that has happened on this trip. At least I wasn't sweltering back in Chicago.

Last night I slept indoors for the first time on this trip thanks to an emergency hut along side the highway. It was the first one I had encountered, and though I wasn't in any emergency, I availed myself of it anyway since an emergency can erupt on a moment's notice here. I would have much preferred to pitch my tent out on the cove, above the ocean, on the opposite side of the highway, but I would have been totally unprotected from the ravages of a sudden wind or storm. The heavy chains that held down each corner of the hut bore witness to what the weather was capable of here on the eastern shore of this island.

And so too did a journal of those who had stayed in the hut, detailing the circumstances of their stay. It bore testimony from traveler after traveler gushing extreme gratitude who had come upon the hut in severe weather and in dire need. Many declared that finding this shelter was one of the greatest events of their lives. The latest entry was dated just five days ago. It was written by a couple of German cyclists who had been pummeled for hours by rain and thirty mile per hour winds. Knowing that Hofn was 35 miles and hours away and nothing else lay between had them making out their wills as they rode along. Their unexpected discovery of the hut was like someone dying of thirst in the Sahara finding a water hole.

The hut was rather musty, as none of its three small windows opened. Only the door allowed any ventilation. By leaving it open, the hut quickly aired out. It had two wooden platforms just wide enough for a sleeping bag and some shelves, but no emergency food or fuel or stove. I was able to sleep in semi-dusk for the first time and took full advantage of it. I slept solid for twelve hours until I was woken by a braying sheep at nine a.m. I had planned on a seven a.m. start, and a hasty one at that, since I had no tent to take down. As it was, I was on my bike in just a few minutes, only having to stuff my sleeping bag and strap it on my rack, as I chowed down on the two peanut butter and honey sandwiches I had made the night before.

Later, George

Friday, July 18, 2003

Hofn (2)

Friends: Not only is there not a stop light in this quiet, isolated fishing village of less than 2,000 inhabitants, there is not a stop sign either, just yield signs at the various intersections. The Icelanders are enlightened enough to recognize the absurdity of forcing vehicles to stop when there is little traffic and what little there is can be seen.

The most prominent sign in Hofn is "No Camping," warning us wild-campers not to be tempted by all the inviting beach camping just out of the town proper. All camping is restricted to an authorized campground within the town limits. It was the second time I've failed to exercise my freedom to camp where I wanted in my first week here, and stayed at an authorized campground.  Both times I was serenaded by a noxious snorer, one of the many reasons I prefer non-communal camping at places of my own choosing. I didn't even get a shower at this campsite, as it was out of order. It was just as well, as it cost one dollar per minute, an outrage in a country that is plopped upon a vast reservoir of thermal waters.

Though I camped wild the night before, it wasn't so quiet either, though it was at an absolutely idyllic site at the foot of a glacier. The most ferocious wind I've encountered so far whip-lashed my rain fly against the sides of my tent all night, even though I was in a somewhat sheltered gulch. It was a thirty-mile per hour wind that had been directly in my face all day. It had held my speed to six miles per hour for a couple of hours. It was a wind that wouldn't let up, not even in the night. I had given it a chance to relent in mid-afternoon when I sat against the wall of an Esso gas station for a couple of hours reading a book periodically glancing up to see if the violently flapping flags at the station had begun drooping at least a little.

By 5:30 when it looked hopeless, I summoned the effort to push with all my might into the wind.  The plan was to give an all-out effort for an hour, take an hour break and then ride, or push on, for an hour more. I could understand why every cyclist I've met has resorted to taking a bus for at least a segment of their travels here. The gas station proprietor told me the wind would let up about twenty or thirty kilometers up the road. Looking at the map I didn't see why, as the road angled at the same degree as the wind was assaulting me for the next one hundred kilometers to Hofn. Since I was only managing ten kilometers per hour, it looked like I was in for a brutal ten hours of pedaling.

After eight miles and more than an hour of pedaling I came to a rest area with a huge boulder shielding a picnic table from the wind. When I stopped I was more drained than I had realized. I hoped an hour's rest and some food would revive me for another hour on the bike, as I was pretty much done in. When it was clear I wasn't going to regain the energy to continue, I meandered around in search of a sheltered spot to camp. A monstrous glacier a few hundred yards away made this a campsite worthy of a magazine cover. Though I hadn't intended on camping here, I was glad that's what the fates decided. It was so idyllic I should have stayed a couple of days. A century ago, I might have been inclined to claim it for a homestead, though not in such a wind.

I kept hoping during the night that the wind would die, or at least wane a bit, but it unmercifully slapped and pounded the sides of my tent all night. I regularly awoke, usually when there was a brief lull, but it was wishful thinking every time. The wind felt as fierce the next morning as it had been the evening before, but I was able to increase my speed to seven miles per hour. I couldn't say if it was my rest that made me stronger or if the wind had indeed weakened.

It brought to mind a climb in Bolivia. I stopped for the night at 14,000 feet when I was only managing three-and-a-half miles per hour in the increasingly thin air, but the next morning, I was able to ride at four-and-a-half miles per hour, a hefty thirty per cent faster. It felt as if I was rocketing up the mountain compared to my previous speed. My increase of speed here wasn't so dramatic, but it was still significant. After about eight miles I passed a ridge and the wind suddenly dissipated, just as promised, though it seemed like a miracle. Suddenly my speed catapulted to ten, then twelve miles per hour and my ten hours of riding time to Hofn was cut in half.

Later that morning I heard a sudden whoosh behind me, as if I'd suffered an instant flat. My heart sank and I braced myself for that sunken sensation of a tire going soft. Before my despair was confirmed I heard a second whoosh, and this time I could feel and glimpse out of the corner of my eye a tern cutting right behind my orange helmet. And then there was another whoosh. There was a pair of birds, like a pair of fighter pilots, practicing maneuvers on me. I waved an arm to warn them off, but then quickly desisted, trusting the precision of their aerial antics and hoping to experience some more.

Later, George

Thursday, July 17, 2003


Friends: Summer arrived here in Iceland yesterday, at least for a few hours. I was actually able to hike bare-chested in Skaftafell National Park amongst its glaciers. For the first time since my arrival I could squeeze my bottle of honey without straining my wrist, and my laundry was able to dry on the clotheslines in my tent while I spent the better part of the day hiking around the largest of Iceland's three National Parks. Chris Carmichael, Lance's coach, may not have approved of my putting my muscles to such use when I'm in the middle of demanding bicycle tour, but it was good for the psyche to take a leisurely stroll on some of the trails in this park.

It was frigid the evening before when I made my entrance to the park. The cold  forced me to put my gloves on for the first time in several days. It was overcast and the wind blowing off the Vatnajokull Glacier that hugs the park cut to the bone. The glacier is the largest in the world outside of Greenland and the Antarctic. Glaciers cover about 10% of Iceland and this one is bigger than all the rest in the country combined. I will be bicycling more than 150 miles along its southern extremity. It has countless tongues of big league proportions extending out of the humongous mother glacier. From this town of Hofn, a fishing village of 1,800, the largest I've passed through in days, one can see four of these behemoth glaciers licking out towards the ocean, each larger than anything to be seen in New Zealand or Banf-Jasper, other favorite glacier-watching sites.

One of the great oddities of this glacier is that two active volcanoes lay beneath it. They last erupted in 1996 causing such huge meltage that the largest bridge in the country and several smaller ones were wiped out by the sudden surge of water. The rivers that flow out of the glacier were clogged with a tumult of icebergs, some weighing up to 200 tons. Film crews from all over the country rushed to the scene. The park headquarters showed a video of iceberg after iceberg pummeling the bridges. Contorted lengths of metal, that were once part of the bridges, can still be seen from the road.

I safely survived a 50-mile stretch of road through sand flats preceding the park that is occasionally closed due to sandstorms. There is such a vast network of rivers through the sand flats that they prevented the completion of the Ring Road around Iceland until 1974. Up till then residents of Hofn had to go the long way around the country to Reykjavik on the Ring Road, as also happened for several weeks in 1996 after the volcanoes destroyed the bridges.

Of the hundreds of volcanoes dotting Iceland only seven remain active. Any can go off at any time, though it may have been years since their last eruption. The people of this country live in a continual state of pending peril from a plethora of dangers--earthquakes, high winds, avalanches, sand storms, volcanic eruptions and, up until a few decades ago, starvation too threatened if the winters were exceptionally harsh. When the country feels slighted by the European community, the Icelanders just shrug and say they have survived famine and plagues and much else over the centuries, so a little disrespect is just a trifle. One thing they don't have to worry about is bears, except for the occasional polar bear that gets washed over on an iceberg from Greenland. When it happens it is always a widely reported event.

I've been here a week now and until today I'd only seen a couple of motorcyclists. But today a group of 25 Germans arrived on the ferry from the Faeroe Islands, and a flurry of them sped past me. Traffic otherwise has been so minimal that the lack of a shoulder on the Ring Road has not bothered me in the least. The Icelanders are notorious speeders, but I have yet to experience anyone passing me at mach speed or anything remotely near it.

I met a couple more shell-shocked touring cyclists today, both riding solo. One was a retired Dane who was high-tailing it back to Reykjavik to rent a car. Another was an Austrian who was riding the Ring Road clockwise, in contrast to me and the recommended route, and had been reduced to busing it from time to time like every other cyclist I've met regardless of the direction they've been riding. Everyone praises the Icelanders for their friendliness, but I have yet to meet anyone who has been invited in to a local's home or been offered food or drink along the way, something touring cyclists are accustomed to elsewhere. We are just too common to be paid any special notice, just as in New Zealand. It is a minor relief that I don't have to fear being invited into someone's home and having the national delicacy, rancid shark, forced upon me.

Just half an hour limit here at the tourist office on the computer. When I tried the library at five p.m. to make use of its Internet, there was a sign saying it was too nice out to remain open and they had closed early. Normal closing time is seven. It was the first library I had encountered since my first day here. The library at Vik was closed for the summer. I'll go back to the library tomorrow and follow the time trial in the Tour de France until mid-afternoon and then head north into fjord country. It will be a rest day of a sort for me.

Later, George

Tuesday, July 15, 2003


Friends: As I encroach upon the outer reaches of this island, the scenery and terrain is turning more and more distinctly Icelandic. There are untold varieties of volcanic debris strewn as far as the eye can see, some thousands of years old and others mere decades. In this excessively wet part of the country much of the rocky terrain is overgrown with lush green moss. This country got its name, not because it is covered in ice as is Greenland, but because the first Viking to settle it saw a bay full of ice bergs, an unanticipated sight for someone coming from Europe. Not even ten per cent of Iceland is covered in ice. The majority is covered in lava.

There are dramatic cliffs and ridges and lone hunks of rock towering majestically as in Arizona's Monument Valley or parts of Australia. When the sun manages to burn the mist out of the air and the clouds lift, the clarity is astounding. Few places on the planet have air any cleaner. The air is remarkably free of particulates thanks to the minimal polluting sources of energy. The vast majority of homes and buildings are heated by the hot water that lies beneath this land. There are few trees to speak of, only a dwarf birch is indigenous, so wood burning stoves and fire places are unknown. There is no need for coal or nuclear generated power. One can see farmhouses miles away as distinctly as if they were at arm's length. All lines are etched with incredible precision. I feel as if my vision has gone from 20-20 to 20-10.

I am often accompanied by terns and others birds who like to fly along with me and occasionally swoop just past my ear with a whoosh. It was a bit shocking the first time it happened. Fortunately, they have yet to develop precision bombing. One has extra reason to wear a helmet here.

Yesterday I saw my shadow for the first time in days--a startling site. At last, I had a companion. Every other cyclist I have passed has had a partner, and they have always been drafting one another. I passed four such sets yesterday, my first long day on the Ring Road. It had me asking, "Wherefore art thou Jim Redd? You promised. I was counting on you. It's your turn to take a pull." Solitary travel is not recommended in Iceland. Even those driving 4-wheel drive vehicles are encouraged to travel in pairs when they leave the Ring Road. Josie Dew, noted English touring cyclist and author who generally tours alone, teamed up with another cyclist when she biked here.

But I am happy to be a committee of one when it comes to making decisions. I had somewhat pushed the pace to reach Vik yesterday by 5:30 to reach the tourist office before it closed at seven to have an hour or more at the Internet. I was eager to see how Lance had fared on day three in the Alps and to reply to all the emails I have been receiving. I was crestfallen to learn my information was wrong and it had closed at five and wouldn't open until ten the next morning.

I went to the grocery store and bought some dinner. As I was eating at a picnic table along the main drag of this town of 296, I was engaged in a couple of debates with myself. Debate number one was whether to camp for free on the black sand beach or to pay and stay at the official campground, which included a shower and swimming pool privileges. My legs were urging me to push on, which was debate number two. The winds had been with us for the first time and the sky was partly sunny, both rarities, and made for optimal cycling. I'm always happiest when I'm upon my bike, so it was hard to deny my legs from continuing on.

The next tourist agency with Internet was 45 miles down the road.  I had no worries about dark, as there is none here this time of the year. I could linger in Vik and search out the puffin colonies and climb some of the ridges for their views. There are better puffin sites ahead. I have gone out of my way many a time for a view, and none has ever rivaled the view I have perched atop my bicycle seat, so neither of these attractions had any great allure. The greatest allure was some more wind-aided miles. I was sitting on 80 miles, so had a chance for my first Icelandic century. With that decision made, I hurriedly ate, eager to get back on my bike before the wind or weather changed, as it can in an instant here.

An hour-and-a-half later I was 25 miles down the road and was setting up my tent on the fringe of a good luck garden of piled rocks. Back in the late 800s (yes, 800, that is not another of my typos) shortly after the country was settled, some farmer's house was devastated by a lava flow at this site. People began stacking rocks in piles where his farm had been to bring good luck. It is a tradition that has gone on for over a thousand years. There is a mound of spare rocks just waiting to be plucked and piled. After sleeping at this site I ought to have enough good luck to be spared flat tires for the rest of this trip. I might even be able to win a lottery or two.

Later, George

Monday, July 14, 2003


Friends: Day four in Iceland and not a day has passed that I haven't seen at least two sets of touring cyclists. So far they've all come in pairs. The first I encountered was a Dutch couple on day fourteen of a sixteen-day tour. They were not happy campers. They had been rained upon every day, forcing them to stay in a hotel every couple of days to dry out their gear, as they didn't have water proof panniers. Staying in hotels had greatly escalated the cost of their trip. They wondered why any one would want to live in this country. I too have endured a spot of rain every day so far. But my ever reliable Ortlieb panniers have kept my gear dry. With minimal sun and warmth when the clothes I'm wearing get wet I have had to rely on my body heat to eventually dry them.

I suffered a mini-disaster my first night. One can camp anywhere one cares to here, but with the predominantly rocky volcanic terrain, it's not so easy to find a place to stake down a tent. I camped in a quarry my first night. It offered some flat terrain. but it was too rocky and solid to allow for my tent stakes to be of any use. My tent is free standing, not requiring stakes, but I need to stake out my rain fly for it to be fully functional. When it began raining some time during the  night, water began to seep into the tent, thanks to my unsecured rain fly blowing in to the side of the tent, and the rain run-off trickling in.

I got up and collected four ten-pound rocks. I didn't have to search hard, as there was an abundant supply.  I placed one at each corner of my tent.  I wrapped a cord around each and then tied them to the corners of my rain fly, pulling it taunt.  I then gathered a few more rocks and placed them inside the tent in case the wind kicked up any worse than it was already blowing. I didn't realize how much water was seeping into the tent, unable to soak into the rocky surface, until I noticed my shirt, tights and shorts (my riding clothes) had been soaking it in and were wringing wet. Since I only had two sets of clothes I was in trouble. I thought of the Dutch couple and asked myself, "How many more days until I can go home?" After that, I made sure to put all my gear into my panniers at night in the tent.

It had been early to bed, as I was operating on minimal sleep after my overnight flight, so I expected to arise early. It wouldn't have been at first light, as I like to do, as there is no first light here this time of year. Iceland is far enough north, just below the Arctic Circle, to have 24 hours of light during the summer months. When I awoke to a drizzle at seven, I rolled over and slept some more. And I continued dozing when it was still drizzling an hour later. It wasn't until nine that the rain let up and I could break camp. It was chilly, but I was soon toasty warm from the exertion of riding on an unpaved road of soft volcanic gravel into a strong head wind requiring my lowest gear. I was soon warm enough to change into my damp clothes to being drying them. Even though they had been dangling off my panniers in the wind, they had dried little in the dank overcast that continually smothers this country.

Today, two days later, I finally hooked up with the main Ring Road that encircles the country. I had avoided it until now to ride more lightly traveled roads and visit a few sites. Almost half of my first 180 miles so far have been on unpaved roads. My first two days I was only able to average eight miles per hour each day, battling the winds and rough roads. I detoured 50 miles from the Ring Road to visit the town of Geysir, where a geyser that dwarfed Yellowstone's Old Faithful gave birth to the word we use to describe such things. That geyser is no longer active, but there is another nearby called Strokkur that spouts some 60 feet every ten minutes or so. Less than five miles beyond Geysir was the waterfall Gulfoss, also on the Golden Circle, the main tourist circuit. There were a couple of tour buses at both places, but the crowds were negligible compared to what one would find at tourist attractions elsewhere in the world.

Reykjavik is just 75 miles away via the Ring Road. The traffic has diminished to a trickle on this main road, making me truly feel as if I'm in a faraway place. I am writing from the tourist office in this town of 650 people, as it does not have a library. It is $2.50 an hour to use their Internet, a great bargain considering I paid $4.50 for a bowl of Cheerios earlier this morning. Only Japan is more expensive. But I am keeping my expenses down, not having to pay to camp yet. My last two nights were in free campgrounds in towns of 50 or so people. Only one had a shower. The peanut butter I brought is going fast. I will be able to replace it for about $3, a relative bargain. Heinz baked beans are somewhat reasonable too at 65 cents a can. Another of my staples, potato salad, is rather expensive at $3 a pound. Even tuna in this country of fishermen is $1.50 a tin. I have yet to notice a grocery item at a reduced sale price, something I am always on the alert for and use to dictate my diet. Fish paste in a tube, also common in Scandinavia, and liver sausage, are other things I'm putting on my bread.

I am about 55 miles from Vik, the southern-most town in Iceland and also its wettest. No rain yet today and the wind is with me. I'm averaging fifteen mph today, a jolly good pace on a fully-loaded touring bike. I see occasional glimpses of snow-covered volcanoes and massive glaciers when the clouds lift. I am nearing the glacier Vatnajokull, the largest in Iceland, covering 5% of the island, and have passed the notorious volcano Hekla, which has had over a dozen significant eruptions since 1104. The latest was in February of 2000. It is Iceland's most dreaded volcano. A favorite Icelandic epithet originating centuries ago is "Go to Hekla." It evolved into "Go to heck," then "Go to hell," as Hekla was thought to be the entrance to hell.

I am getting used to the cold and wind and rain, but I'm not always as eager as I would like to be to get on my bike in the morning. With it light 24 hours I could get really early starts if I wished. It seems to be a national custom, though, to stay up late and not get up too early, as there is virtually no traffic on the roads until ten a.m. I am getting lots of sleep, though I've awoken nearly every night around one a.m. starving. I could easily eat two or three hamburgers at a time, the main fare at the small cafes, but at $8 each, they are budget-killers I have so far been avoiding.

Later, George.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Grindavik, Iceland

Friends: My sandals won't be getting much use on this trip. Not only is it cold here in Iceland, its winds are even colder. I had to quickly stop and put on gloves shortly after I set out from the airport. It may be July, Iceland's balmiest month, but the temperature was barely 50, about as warm as one can hope for. Such a temperature was almost welcome after coming from Chicago's hot and humid 90's.  The temperature may have at first just seemed as if the air conditioner was turned a little low, but I was extra chilled by a biting wind off the surrounding arctic sea carrying with it the cold from nearby glacier-choked Greenland, just across the Denmark Strait.

But neither cold nor head wind had me much chagrined, as my spirit was bubbling with that usual thrill of being on my bike in a distant land that has long lured me.   Nor was my spirit diminished by the minimal sleep I had on my over-night flight. It was just a four-and-a-half hour flight from Boston, though a three-hour time difference. When I had finished assembling my bike it was 8:30 a.m. local time, though my body clock placed me in the wee hours of the morning.  I came via Boston as there  were no direct flights from Chicago.

I was somewhat delayed commencing my ride searching fro a place to store the card board box my bike flew over in, as I would need some such container when I returned to Chicago in a month. There was no storage area at the airport, but I learned Icelandic Air provides plastic bags for bikes, albeit at a cost of 1,5000 kroner, about $20. That was no doubt cheaper than a month's storage for the bike box at a hostel in Reykjavik, and cheaper too, than bus fare to Reykjavik, thirty miles away, which transporting the bike box would necessitate. I could, of course, have tried to bike those thirty miles to Reykjavik carrying the box, which I have been known to do, not only to save the expense and hassle of a bus or taxi, but also to assert and maintain my independence from the internal combustion machine. But never have I carried a box that far.

I was glad not to have attempted those thirty miles, especially with the winds. There's no telling where they might have blown me with a four-and-a-half foot by two-and-a-half foot sail of a box under my arm. It could have been a test, though, of Icelandic hospitality. Would anyone have stopped to offer a ride? It could have been test too of Icelandic curiosity and character and how they would have reacted to such an incongruous site. When I chose to bike one-legged for fifty miles after breaking my left crank while bicycling across Australia, people thought it a hoot seeing such a site and thought they were in on a bit of history wanting to know if I was trying to be the first person to bicycle one-legged across their country. After disappointing a few by saying no, I began replying in the affirmative, earning a "Good on ya mate."

Not having to store the box in Reykjavik spared me from having to venture into Iceland's lone metropolis, containing about three-fourths of the country's 270,000 residents. I go off on my bike to ride where there is little traffic and lots of open space. I get enough urban bicycling as a messenger. I was happy to be able to immediately start this trip without a dose of urban congestion and mayhem. I will pass through Reykjavik eventually, but not until I complete the 850-mile circuit of this island country.

Within ten miles of the airport was the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland's premier attractions, and its most renowned geothermal area. It had already attracted several bus loads of tourists when I arrived at 9:30. Its waters are blue from the effluent from a nearby power plant. They are said to have curative powers. Bottles of its mud can be purchased. There were a few heads bobbing in the steaming waters, but most of us camera-toters did nothing more than put a palm in. I'll have ample opportunity in the days to come to dip into hot springs. Most towns here have an Olympic-sized outdoor hot spring swimming pool that is open year round.

I was lucky to find a library open at the first town I came to, less than three hours after I started biking, but there is a time limit on the computer and I am nearing it. I hope to send out a few more reports in my month here. I've only biked twenty miles so far, but I'm already enthralled by the rough and rugged treeless countryside. This promises to be another good one.

Later, George