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

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