Bikepacking Iceland Week 1: A Euphoric Escape

We were riding a wave of euphoria as the stress of the previous four days dissolved with each rotation of the pedals and was mopped up by the sea's breeze. Smiling and giggling under a warm sun, pushed by a tailwind, we dodged pedestrians as we escaped Reykjavik, destined for the countryside. To say we felt owed this perfect sunny day, the first since our arrival five days ago, was an understatement.

Four days earlier, in a drunken stupor unique to long distance travel and too many sleepless hours, we stood at the lost baggage counter in Keflavik International Airport trying to comprehend our predicament. Delta had lost our two large boxes containing our bikes, camping gear, tools, etc...Everything aside from a change of clothes and our toothbrushes was gone. Hanging our heads, we walked in the rain to the AirBNB place we'd arranged for our first two nights stay and fell asleep.

We awoke the following day to SCUBA dive in Silfra, a 34 degree fresh water-filled crack system separating the North American tectonic plate from the European plate. Literally diving between two continents and the stunningly transparent water is the primary draw of the dive. Visibility measures in the 100s of feet; even the cleanest, clearest waters of the tropics and swimming pools are murkier. We hoped our bikes had shown up on that morning's flight, but a call to the airport revealed they were still missing without a trace.

Staying put for a second night, we were torn on what to do if the bikes were never found. Our entire trip was based around our bikes and camping, keeping the budget small. Without our gear, we couldn't afford to stay. We decided that if our bags hadn't been found by the fourth day, we'd rebook flights and salvage a vacation back home.

Day three arrived, once again without the bikes. With no other choice, we booked another room and walked through the rain to get there.

A sharp pop and the duffel bag from around my shoulder splashed into the puddle at my feet, its strap ripped from the bag's stitching. As I fought anger and despair, Keri weakly laughed and picked up our bag of clothes. It seemed as though Iceland was chasing us away.

On the fourth day, having already been told there was no sign of our stuff, we called Delta and paid the $600 to change our flights. Defeated and exasperated, we called my parents with the news. Midway through, the phone beeped with another call.

The bikes had turned up!

Our emotions were doing somersaults.

My parents gave us the support we needed, telling us, "things never go as planned and that's part of the fun. Go get on your bikes and send us pictures when you can."

Glass siding of Harpa concert hall
The bikes were delivered to Reykjavik Campsite. Better yet, the boxes were fully in tact along with everything inside. That afternoon the rain stopped and we unpacked under clear skies, giving care to place our sleep masks by the pillows, for this is the land of midnight sun.

We rode out of town that next morning, invincible, stopping by a local bike shop for a map and advice. We lost ourselves riding through expanses of purple lupine, following gravel tracks and quiet roads, in route to a river of hot water.

Miles later, a sign pointed towards a trail and the trail led south, our intended direction. Labeled on the map as an "educational trail," we turned thinking it would offer an easy and fun bypass to the trails labeled "steep, narrow, very difficult travel".

We were fooled. Though the map did not lie about the trail being educational, an American educational trail it was not. No wheelchair access, no signs informing the reader of the local flora, we were taught about the nature of trails in Iceland. We pushed, pulled, grunted, and groaned the bikes more than we rode them. Beaten into the tundra by more sheep than feet, the trails were often axle deep, narrow, and unrideable. Switchbacks were lost in translation, as this trail, and every other trail in the country, climbed straight up any incline only to turn straight down the backside.

Progress slowed drastically and while daylight may be in infinite supply this time of year, our energy was finite. We reached a junction, stopped and camped. Steam could be seen rising from a dozen points in the surrounding hills.

Waking and looking at my watch, unable to figure out if it was 3:46 am or pm, I rolled over and went back to sleep uncaring.

In the morning it seemed our slog would continue until surmounting yet another hill, we were brought into another world. The trail's surface was level with the ground, but for the moment, that was lost on us; the trail descended into a valley of bubbling and burping mud, steaming creeks, the primordial smell of sulfur.

Alone in every direction, we rode through our personal wonderland, enchanted.

Reality snapped us back when, while throwing my shoes across a creek we were about to ford, the wind kicked up and my shoes dropped into the flowing water. Cursing and laughing, we chased them down and continued on our way.

Too soon we reached the head of the valley and began to climb onto a broad ridge line. From this vantage, we gazed into the next valley and our planned home for the night.  The squawking of a thousand birds echoed from the cliffs and a river of steam slithered down the valley as far as could be seen.

We rode down the loose volcanic slope on a steep path and made our camp in the grass an arm's length from chest deep 100 degree water. We washed two days of sweat and dirt from our bodies while relishing in the golden midnight light and allowed the backcountry cocktails to calm the last remaining memory of the first turbulent days.

Peaceful bliss.

Check back for parts II and III to come in August


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