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

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