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

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