I wake up in this sublime world worrying. I can’t help it. I keep looking to the sky for signs of more rain, estimating the chance that the winds will continue to work against me. Instead of resting in the holy land – a friend calls Hvítárnes a mountain church – I peddle on. Today’s sketchy plan says 85 kilometres, across the interior, to a mountain Café at Áfangafell. Backtracking to road F35, and confirming my slow average speed, I begin to pray for clear skies and more favourable winds. Slowly the sun comes out and the wind turns, coming from an easterly direction. A sidewind in the sun is a different ball game altogether from a headwind in the rain. For a tailwind, I simply do not dare to ask. Cycling between Hofsjökull and Langjökull, through the valley called Kjölur, floating effortlessly in warm air, praising the creator, I begin to sink into myself until I’m nearly brought to tears. I can find no obvious reason for this, but later tell myself it’s because of how small you feel in nature revealed, a cycling bug, really, amid sleeping giants. A white jeep from Björgunarsveitin, an Icelandic rescue team, stops and the driver greets me. I ask him how far it is to Hveravellir. Before he has a chance to answer I say: “By my estimation it should be about 40 kilometres.” He looks at a white note pad with some handwritten numbers, turns to me and then double checks. “It’s 42 kilometres,” he says. A deep sense of satisfaction envelops me.
These 42 kilometres turn out to be the hardest ones I have cycled in my life. My body is ready – a year long training with up to 165 kilometre day tours is paying off – but it’s a hard mental struggle. And it takes the form of a battle with the glorious glacier Hofsjökull. I set myself the goal of cycling past Hofsjökull before declaring victory. Somehow the fact that Hofsjökull is nearly the size of the mighty Langjökull has escaped me. The glacier itself is partly to blame for my error. It doesn’t spread out all over the place like Langjökull, but calmly sits there in the middle of our land with its tail curled deep under its own belly. It can’t be that much of a problem to cycle past the beast, I think, and the weather is favourable.
But cycling past Hofsjökull’s west side turns out to be anything but easy. The serpentine road winds dry and grey through brown hills, each slightly higher than the one before it. You can see three or four of them at a time. If only you can make it past the highest hill yonder you’ll see past the glorious Hofsjökull, you think, only to discover three or four more hills forming the same devilish pattern. This goes on for hours.
The huge rocks in the sand turn out to be a good place to dry your socks and shirts, and have a slice of lifrarpylsa, sviðasulta and some cheese. A Czech couple, who pulls over apparently to tell me that I’m their hero, are brought to sympathetic but uncontrollable laughter when they learn that I’m an Icelander. They are not the only ones surprised to find an Icelander on a bike in this landscape. Everyone, including myself, who comes across a lone biker in this territory automatically assumes it must be a tourist.
Going up a hill I myself finally meet another cyclist, who, for sure, turns out to be a tourist. A Belgian, cycling around Iceland, “including all the Westfjords”. I tell him about the sublime lake, Hvítárvatn. He says he will go straight to Gullfoss. I compliment him on his bags. He tells me he has been on the road for four months and has all his stuff with him. I resume the battle with Hofsjökull and when I finally escape from the calm beast it has set me straight. Never again shall I reduce Hofsjökull to a secondary spot on a map next to Langjökull.
At Hveravellir – a place where every tourist stops – I see a homemade sign saying it’s 38 kilometres to my mountain Café. After fighting the 42 kilometre battle with Hofsjökull all day, the thought of adding 38 kilometres is strangely attractive. So I peddle past Hveravellir. At a peaceful creek north of Hveravellir, where I rest and have more of my traditional Icelandic food, which tastes better and better with every stop, I experience a dilemma. I’ve repacked my things after the meal, and made sure I haven’t left any garbage behind when I notice a large plastic wrapping next to my resting place. Leaving the tiniest scrap of waste seems a deadly sin up here – on more than one occasion I find myself running after a corner of a chocolate bar wrapping. But this is another man’s trash. Coming closer, I see the slob had been feasting on dried haddock. Do I pick it up? I didn’t pack dried fish – I should have but didn’t – and my trash bag is buried deep in my cycling bags. I leave it lying were it is. Cycling on, it takes me full three hours to rid myself of the idea of turning my bike around to pick up the trash.
The road improves markedly the farther north you get from Hveravellir and before long my speed has doubled and I arrive at the mountain Café at 20:35 pm. There is a fine view of my friend Hofsjökull from here. Apart from me, there is only one guest staying at the Café this night, an Englishman called Lawrence who has cycled around Europe for 35 years in his free time, including four summers in Iceland. Now on his second trip over Kjölur on a bike, he is going from north to south. Lawrence has peddled through most of the highland roads in Iceland, including Sprengisandur, which he didn’t like at that time, “too much rain, too much sand”. He has taken his bike to Askja and Snæfell. Once Lawrence was forced to turn around because he couldn’t find drinkable water anywhere north of Vatnajökull. Twice he has had to stop motorists to plead for water and something to eat. He speaks fondly of a German family who gave him a box of biscuits and a large block of chocolate. I tell him about an Austrian couple who helped me with water when, fixing a puncture in the South of Iceland earlier this summer, I was unable to find the hole in the tube. “You sink deep into yourself when you are alone in the interior highland of Iceland,” Lawrence says “and if there isn’t anyone to pull you up you just keep on sinking.” He looks at me and adds: “I have often been brought to tears on those trips, Robert.” The sun has peeled some skin of Lawrence’s nose and cheekbones and he could easily pass for an Icelandic farmer.
We talk for hours and when Lawrence learns that this is my first trip over Kjölur on a bike he becomes quite jovial. He tells me this is a unique place in all of Europe – this place I have right here in my backyard. “You’ll be so proud to have cycled over the island,” he tells me. “Not many people have done that.”
As we talk that evening and over breakfast next morning, I realise that Lawrence is moved to have found a native cyclist who might one day come to share his love and enthusiasm for Iceland. I tell him about my intense dislike of leaving the tiniest scrap of trash in the highland interior. He has no difficulty understanding this. He had an incident last week himself when he was forced to run after a plastic bag for nearly a half a mile somewhere north of Vatnajökull. When he finally got hold of it he was too tired to walk back to the bike and had to lie down and rest for a while. “Should you pick up another man’s trash?” I ask him. “Oh, you pick it up,” Lawrence says, “leaving it is the same as throwing it away yourself.” I’ve an arsenal stocked with clever arguments I think I could use to refute Lawrence on this point, but my experience today silences me. Morality has preciously little to do with cleverness.
Macbeth in the Highlands
It turns out that we both love Macbeth, and like to quote from the play, and Great Expectations and share a dislike for intoxicated people. Lawrence tells me about this guy who puked all over the camping ground in Akureyri last night. He stands up and imitates the intoxicated fellow extending his neck, like an ostrich, carefully placing a mouthful of vomit between tents and on tents and finally into his own tent. I tell Lawrence a story of two motorcyclists I shared a cabin with on Norröna last summer. They had warned me they liked to drink and politely asked whether that wasn’t OK by me. I had told them that so long as they were not doing the drinking in the cabin it wouldn’t bother me at all. They informed me that a Swede was occupying the fourth berth in our cabin, who looked like “a rather boring fellow”. That night I fell asleep before my fellow travellers returned from their drinking but was awakened in the middle of the night by one of them who repeatedly tried to jump into his bed, Fosbury style. The next evening I got a chance to talk to the “Swede”, who turned out to be from Switzerland, a most interesting fellow travelling around Iceland reading contemporary Icelandic literature, “trying to get a sense of the land and the nation”. He didn’t say a word about the drunks from last night but just before we turned off the light he fetched a ladder from the closet next to the cabin door, placed it up against the drunken man’s bed, looked at me and said: “It’s for our jumper.”
Lawrence knows all there is to know about cycling in mountainous areas and has, no doubt, spotted the flaws in my preparation. But he is nice about it and doesn’t bring these flaws to my attention – except once when it proves necessary. Since we met he had been giving me increasingly less subtle hints about the chain on my bike – “when your chain shines you need to oil it” he had said a number of times – but when we are ready to leave the next morning and I still haven’t got it, he says with slight theatricality which seems alien to his nature: “Now, Robert, here, for example, is a chain that needs oiling.” He then helps me oiling the chain, carefully placing a drop on each link while counting them. He tells me that what is left of F35 is easy, an anti-climax really, but that a major elevation (500 meters) awaits me shortly after coming back to highway one. He hands me a banana which is left over from our breakfast at this plain but excellent mountain Café, – I’m to eat it before climbing the steep hill and he pleads with me to take the bus from Varmahlíð to Akureyri. I’ll be deeply irritated by highway one after Kjölur and there are no shoulders for cyclists on the roads in the North. Arriving at Varmahlíð exactly three days after leaving Reykjavík, I decide to follow Lawrence’s advice. My pride has been growing steadily since I came down from the highland and cycled into Blöndudalur with its farms on each side of the river Blanda. I love the increasing smell of cow dung in the air. I stop to watch horses grazing in a field on a sloping hill close to a farmhouse. I count them and listen to the sound when the grass comes loose from the sod in seven distinct places simultaneously. I have an irresistible urge to embrace the nearest tree. How good it feels to be me at this moment, and how genuinely sweet everything will continue to taste in the coming weeks. Of that I’m sure.
Róbert H. Haraldsson is a 47 year old University teacher who has recently taken up cycling. The first half of Haraldsson’s story was printed in the last issue (13) of the Reykjavík Grapevine and is available at www.grapevine.is.
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