A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, August 26, 2013

Varist! Brjálaður Bandaríkjamenn með krökkum á hjól!

“Mama, this is not fun.”
The voice from behind me was thin and high, almost lost in the headwind that my young co-pedaler and I had been battling, mile after mile.  It was, nonetheless, quite firm.  “This is not fun!”
Guilt stabbed at me. The twins did not sign up for this.  And, let’s face it, Lizzy has a point.  Normal tourists rent cars. 
The insistent 48-degrees-Farenheit rain blew up the cuffs of my raincoat.  It spun from my front wheel and dripped from my panniers.  It trickled off the end of my nose.  It had been raining – or drizzling, or splattering, or heavily-misting – all day.  We had likewise been treated to almost unceasing precipitation all of the previous day, as we had struggled against a headwind on the road from Hólaskógur to Brautarholt.  The day before that, between Flúðir and Hólaskógur – it rained. Chilly, grey, slanting moisture.  I wasn’t holding out for anything better in Eyrarbakki and Stokkseyri. 
Family vacation, 2013.  Gosh, kids, let’s go bike touring and tent camping!  In… (wait for it) …Iceland! 
Our group included Jay (the man to whom I am blissfully wedded), Molly and Lizzy (the small humans whom we produced a few years back), myself, and Tom (who is in no way related to us, but is strangely tolerant of our company).  Our Grand Scheme was that as a getaway from our home in remote, Arctic, sparsely populated Alaska, we would visit a remote, Arctic, and sparsely populated nation with place names such as “Kirkjubæjarklaustur” and “Fáskrúðsfjörður”; local delicacies such as fermented shark and smoked puffin; and summer weather marked by cold temperatures, heavy rain, high winds, and rampant unpredictability.  And, really, what could be a better mode of transportation than one that picks up the icy drizzle right off the wet roads and sprays it back into your face, even as you fight for control in the raging gusts?
Given the peculiar predilections of our family, it wasn’t surprising that we’d plan a non-motorized vacation (see http://latitude.nancyfresco.com/2011/05/spinning-our-wheels.html  or  http://latitude.nancyfresco.com/2011/01/this-hike-is-not-recommended-for-young.html  or… well, you get the point).)  Even so, from the earliest planning stages, I had a few misgivings about the sanity of the venture. Was I expecting too much of the kids, physically, by planning to cover thirty to fifty miles per day via pedal-power? Would even that relatively ambitious mileage be enough to reach an adequate number of Awesome Sights, and to really see a cross-section of Iceland in a mere two weeks?  Would we achieve a reasonable balance between time spent pedaling and time spent in non-pedaling Enriching Activities such as visiting museums, sampling adventuresome foods, gazing at geysers, and diving into inter-cultural conversation?  In short, was the idea of biking around Iceland with two seven-year-olds on tag-along bikes completely bats-in-the-treehouse-loony?
 In part, my misgivings were based on helpful feedback from friends who told me, in effect, “Bicycling around Iceland with two seven-year-olds on tag-along bikes is bats-in-the-treehouse-loony.” My trepidations was also based on a relatively brief perusal of Icelandic weather data. 
This is not to say that no one was enthused by the idea of visiting the land of Vikings, fjords, trolls, hot springs, and the Reykjavik Phallus Museum.  In fact, most of my acquaintances seemed interested, or even jealous, when I mentioned our destination, especially when I boasted about the astonishing cheapness of the airline tickets we’d managed to snag.  However, friends and family were flummoxed when we went on to explain that our luggage would include our velocipedes, our bulging panniers – and nothing else.  “What do you plan to do there,” one friend asked my, suspicion written all over his face, “besides… biking?”
Um… well…
It’s not fun.
So, yeah.  Here I was, out in the cold rain with nary a Viking ruin, geyser, or waterfall in sight, and my co-pilot was getting peeved.  All my guilt and misgivings came rushing back.   I was tempted to wail, “You’re right!  It’s NOT fun!   I am a fool, a poor deluded fool!”  Past experience, however, forewarned me that maternal histrionics would do little to lighten the mood.  Instead, I looked around for potential distractions. 
 “Look!  Cows!  Let’s stop and say hi to them!”
And thus we learned that damp Icelandic cows – who all seem to be of the dairy variety, rather than the more-emotionally-challenging going-to-get-eaten variety -- are a convivial, svelte, politely curious bunch, grass-happy and eager to tell you just how delicious their skyr yogurt is: “Fat free and high in protein! Do try the melon and astar fruit flavor!”  All the calves are taught perfect English, which is awfully handy for clueless American tourists.
Lizzy cheered up.  She counted cows.  She told me about which mama cows had twins.  Twins! 
On we went.  Just as the troops were getting restless again, we discovered an experimental forestry plantation.  At least, that’s what I think it was.  The sign said, “Skógræktarfélag Árnesinga” which I took to mean, “nice woodsy place in which some previous traveller in worse straights than you built a rather pathetic lean-to out of sticks.”  It was an idyllic little sylvan patch in an almost-unforested nation.  It felt sheltered, private, ours alone.  We never, ever would have stopped at the Skógræktarfélag Árnesinga if we’d been in an automobile… or a bus… or a Happy Camper van.   It was most definitely not on the map. 
Not that being Off the Map was anything new.  From the very beginning of our adventure, we’d been stopping in places that tourists – the kind driving shiny little rental cars or riding in trundling Reykjavik Excursions behemoths – would never, ever bother to examine in miniscule detail. For example, on Day One, we looked at rocks and bones. 
That first day of the trip was crystal clear, a blue-sky gift that even the pickiest of travelers could not possibly have complained about.  Unfortunately, our flight spat us out at Keklavik airport at 6 a.m., but left our internal body clocks back in Alaska, where it was 10 p.m. the previous evening.  Not one of us had slept on the plane – but sleep was no longer an option, now.  The only option was biking.
After spending some quality time annoying the airport security folks by fumbling our seven bajillion bicycle parts back together in an inconvenient lobby, and after desperately searching for—and eventually unearthing -- the luggage storage facility, we were all set to hit the road. Except, of course, for the fact that we were blindingly exhausted.
The children biked 40 kilometers (25 miles) over the course of four hours.  We stopped for snacks.  We stopped to look at lava rocks, intricately bubbly little confections that they are.  We stopped to look at the tiny wind-dried bones of birds.  A seagull skull is a thing of strange and delicate beauty, if you are very, very jet-lagged.  At the picturesque campsite in the orderly little fishing village of Grindavik, we sampled a delicious natively-greenhouse-grown little melon, into which Lizzy’s face slumped as she fell asleep.
And so it continued.  On Day Two, after a delightful morning spent both mocking and enjoying the over-hyped Blue Lagoon, we successfully escaped all sign of any other tourists at not one, not two, but THREE fascinatingly arbitrary roadside locations -- one for each of Tom’s flat tires.  The last of these was also our makeshift campsite – last resort of the jet-lagged, headwind-cursed, and puncture-prone -- on the gale-swept shores of Kleifarvatn.  This deep and ominous lake is draining into a gigantic geological fissure, and is, moreover, frequented by trolls.  Or so we heard.  We would never, ever have stopped there, had we not been on bikes.  Did I mention that the tent almost blew away in the middle of the night?
Day three was full of new experiences.  Such as, for example, coasting uphill.  The force of a temperamental (and possibly psychotic) 30+mph Icelandic wind propelled us into Reykjavik – and sometimes perpendicular to Reykjavik, and/or away from Reykjavik.  Had we been in a car, we would doubtless not have stopped, dripping, at a suburban grocery store, where we cowered by the unused shopping carts, ate a frightening quantity of chocolate doughnuts, and garnered the quietly amused sympathy of the locals.  Nor would we have stopped sixteen or seventeen times at the junctions of the city’s extensive and utterly perplexing network of biking/walking paths.  In doing so, we had plenty of time to admire the tidy fronts, backs, and sides of hundreds of lovely urban homes.  We learned that Reykjavikers push old-fashioned baby carriages.  They go running.  They plant trees and flowers.  They grow cabbages, turnips, and potatoes.  And they post lots of signs with little graphics that make it abundantly clear that you need to pick up your dog’s crap in a little plastic bag, thank you very much.
Day four.  Cloudy with occasional drizzle.  But in a city full of bike paths, every fantastic museum is mere minutes away, and parking is oh-so-convenient.  Yes, kids, the Vikings came here in the year 871 (plus or minus two).  They had fascinating homes with sod roofs, all manner of tools and implements for fishing and farming, and swords to whack each other with.  But no bicycles.  If they’d had bicycles, maybe they would have spent less time whacking each other with swords.  And that thing in the glass case is a sperm whale penis.  Now, let’s get some falafel sandwiches for lunch.  Are you culturally confused yet?
With sunshine on our shoulders, we hit some major tourist hotspots on days five, six, and seven.  We visited Þingvellir, where ancient Vikings shouted laws about sheep-stealing at one another.  We camped within earshot of Geysir, where hot water breath-stoppingly blasts eighty feet out of the ground – an entirely expected phenomenon that causes dozens of grownups to squeal in surprise. Every. Single. Time.  We wandered about in the thunderous spray of Gulfoss, which is humungous.  And a waterfall.  And beautiful, of course – utterly beautiful.
Many tourists flash along the narrow roads at 90 kph, and hit all these big-name attractions in a single day.  But we were on bikes.  We were… slower. 
We were on bikes, and we were travelling with kids.  Thus, we hit some not-so-major tourist attractions: small-town playgrounds; supermarket cafes; an almost infinite supply of adorable Icelandic ponies who obligingly took apple cores from the kids’ fingers with gentle, leathery lips; rock piles;  interestingly unfathomable signs; home-town hot-tubs in villages almost too small to merit names; and people who wanted to know who the heck we were -- and why.
Why was a big question.  Sure, there were other bike-touring folks out there – Germans, French, Canadians, Danes, Norwegians, Finns – and there were other tent-campers tucked among the RVs, trailers, and Happy Campers at every campground.  But, as we discovered, being a family on bikes made us unique.  (A family plus a Tom, that is – but no one ever questioned why there was a stray friend, or perhaps funny uncle or second husband, in our group.)  Instead, they wanted to know where we were from (what crazy nation breeds freaks such as these?) and where we were going (how many kilometers can those tiny legs pedal in a day?) and how on earth we had brainwashed our kids into thinking this was fun.
“Mama, this is not fun!”
Well… mostly fun.  Except for at moments like this.  Ok. Time for another stop. Selfoss was an unpromising town, a workaday place about which even the upbeat Lonely Planet guide had nothing in particular to say.  But we stopped there for lunch, because…  Kids.  Bikes.  Raining.  My burden of self-doubt felt heavy again, as I tried to hang little raincoats and little rainpants near the heaters in the pizza joint without hogging more than two tables.
“I hope you don’t mind that I took a photo of your bicycles.  Where are you from?”  The gray-ponytailed guy looked slightly shabby, in a friendly aging-hippie Alaskan sort of way, but he was definitely Icelandic.  That is, as I soon discovered, he was Icelandic -- but had lived for some years in the US, where he had married an American of Cherokee descent.  They now lived in Stokkseyri.  Would we like to visit them?  Alas, we weren’t going to make it that far that day, but we happily told our newfound friend about our biking adventures.  He, in turn, told us about the culture shock his kids suffered when they first moved from California to a small fishing village in the Arctic. 
It was food for thought.  It was connection, in a country that I perceived as being both friendly and Nordically reserved.  And the pizza was pretty darned good, too.
It was still raining when we left Selfoss.  The rain gear was immediately soaked again.  But a couple of hours later, it hung dripping across half a dozen pegs in the women’s locker room at the Eyrerbakki pool.  There were no other tourists in the hot tub -- or in the locker room.  There was, however, a smiling young woman who was curious enough about these odd-yet-seemingly-harmless Americans to engage the kids in conversation.  Oh, so they liked the ponies?  She herself had forty ponies! 
At last I was able to ask all the questions I’d accumulated about the logistics and economics of horse-farming in Iceland (yes, I ruminate about subjects like economics; I can’t help myself). Our local interpreter was eager to educate me.  Yes, they exported the animals, which were sought-after all over the world.  Yes, they got breeding fees for their stallions.  Lots of Icelanders simply enjoying riding.  And what kind of adventures were we having in her homeland?
Tom and Jay looked a bit perplexed about how long it took for us to emerge from the locker room.  They, it seemed, had not engaged in nude chit-chat with any locals. 
But hey, at least this young woman spoke fantastic English.  The previous night, in the non-metropolis of Brautarholt, we’d discovered the Iceland-rare phenomenon of being forced to play we-are-American-idiots-charades.  The smiling middle-aged man in charge of the pool – as well as the field next door that was the official campground, for us and us alone – could not quite work out how to charge us.  In fact, he seemed genuinely loath to do so, despite the reasonable posted rates of about six dollars per adult for camping, and about three bucks for all the hot-tubbing we wanted.  (Kids were free.  Kids were free everywhere.)  Likewise, the elderly man trying to recapture his adorable Chocolate Lab puppy didn’t speak any English.  However, with our two little kids as puppy-bait, it was easy to help him out – and no one really needed to say anything besides “vinsamlegast” and “takk fyrir.” 
Come to think of it, who needs English?
That evening – on the same day in which my self-confidence had felt so sodden when the riding was “not fun” -- the little town of Eyrarbakki offered a playground, a sandbox with more mysterious bones (just like a REAL archaeologist!), another pool hot tub combo, and – at last – enough breezy sunshine to almost dry the laundry, if only it would stop blowing off the line.  And then… yet another Icelandic stranger ambled over and, grinning gently, handed me a bag of clothespins.  She looked like a grandma. Somebody’s grandma.  Everybody’s grandma.   I loved her immediately.  She told me, in English mostly comprised of smiles and nods, that she and her husband were from Heimeay Island.  On my map, I found this little swatch of land -- perched out in the temperamental ocean off Iceland’s south coast.  Oh, this was a woman who certainly knew how to hang up laundry in high winds, in the brief respites between rain showers.  I accepted the colorful plastic pins gratefully.  “Takk fyrir.”  And everything came together, somehow.  The trip felt right. Complete.
Not that our journey was over on the Night of the Clothespins; the very next day we enjoyed two museums, a lava tube, more bubbly geothermal phenomena, and a thoroughly unexpected town-wide carnival.  Whoopee, time for the annual Flower Festival in Hveragerði!  Moreover, it was gloriously sunny all day, and we enjoyed a helpful yet genteel tailwind.  Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure it was not all this photogenic and bikable loveliness that won me over.  No, it was in unprepossessing little Eyrarbakki that I finally let go of my guilt, my qualms, and my double-guessing.  Biking around Iceland with my husband, my good friend, and my two small children?  Yeah, it was a fantastic idea. 
What I discovered about biking in Iceland was, essentially, what I already knew about biking in Alaska – and everywhere else.  Yes, bicycles are slow, as compared to cars – but only in the same way that home-cooking is slow, as compared to Burger King.  Sure, biking can be damp, and cold, and windy, but it can also be blissfully real.  A car -- with the windows rolled up, the heat blasting, the windshield wipers flapping, and the stereo on -- is awfully comfortable, but it’s also a cocoon that shuts out the world.  It filters out the smell of pony, the faints wafts of sulfur from a cracked and restless earth, and the sharp cries of the gulls. 
In contrast, it’s impossible to hide on a bike.  I’m sure that plenty of people thought we were nuts, but at least we weren’t just one more faceless batch of tourists rushing through the Obligatory Sights.  On bikes, Molly and Lizzy paid attention to geology, geography, flora, fauna, archaeology, architecture, and infrastructure (Seriously.  We’re talking major edification!)  They also received smiles from old ladies walking dogs, garnered curious stares from kids their own age, and earned spontaneous cheers from construction workers (and who wouldn’t appreciate a little attention from a young Viking in a reflective vest?)
 In a car, the stereotypical family-vacations question is, “Are we there yet?”  On a bike, that isn’t even really relevant: you’re already there.  Wherever you happen to be – staring at cows, reading the interpretive plaque by a pair of windmills, catching a glimpse of a nameless waterfall, borrowing a bag of clothespins, or being photographed outside a pizza joint -- is part of the fun, and part of the not-fun, and part of everything in between.
No, we didn’t see the whole country.  But then I haven’t seen all of America, either.   Yes, it sometimes rained.  But even Lizzy, at her more whimsical moments, took this in stride.  “I think the giants’ babies are crying again,” she laughed.  And we pedaled on.
Takk fyrir, Iceland.