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Journey to the Center of Iceland

By now many of you have seen the ads for free layovers in Iceland - pictures of the Blue Lagoon printed across the side of dirty New York City busses, with the smiling faces of Iceland Air customers smiling through the spa’s 70$ a day mist. All of you have probably turned off notifications from at least one friend on social media driving around the Ring Road, either because puffins are just TOO DAMN CUTE or because you’ve seen that one black sand beach too many times. But what is in the CENTER of Iceland? In an effort to find out (as well as to completely break my bike, and master the panorama function of my IPhone) I traveled to the country’s dry, lava encrusted core to find out.

WARNING: any attempt to pronounce the names of roads, towns, glaciers or hotsprings in this piece may result in serious lingual injuries, for which the author and any travel sites referenced for spelling may not be held liable.

The first day on the road, I headed out of Reykjavík and west towards Þingvellir National Park, a large area of lava flows and volcanic rock formations surrounding the ravine where the North American and Eurasian Plates meet. Exiting Reykjavík, the islands volcanic origins became more and more visible, with large pipes carrying geothermal energy back to the capital receeding into the distance as the steam and mist that shrouds their origins came into view.

After passing back into Europe, I followed the heavily trafficked ‘Golden Circle’ Route past Geysir and Gulfoss, two beautiful landforms in their own right, but surrounded by acres of parking lots stuffed with tour busses. Continuing north past the majestic falls of Gulfoss, the road turns to gravel and steadily becomes less well maintained, and I DEFINITELY found the solitude I was looking for.

The F35, known locally as the Kjölur route leads high up into the Icelandic highlands between the Langsjökull and the Hofsjökull, the second and third largest glaciers in Iceland. The route is 200 km from pavement end to pavement beginning, with no services except for some damn fine hotsprings in between.

Oh JK, there is actually one place where you can by a 6$ coffee or a hand knitted sweater:

But back to those hotsprings... After 60 km in a cold drizzle on unmaintained rutted out roads, I found myself at Kerlingarfjöll. The hotsprings are tucked deep in a ravine of black volcanic rock, which has been hewn away at for years by a yellow sulfur laden river. The only thing that grows in the Icelandic highlands is a hardy, neon green moss, making for a striking color combination and an amazing soak.

The next day I schlepped another 40 km down the road in even worse conditions, always keeping the hotsprings at Hveravellir. I slipped into the steamy bath as soon as I got there, and was soon joined by a very chilly group of German back packers.

The next day I began my descent down from the Highlands back to the Northern coast, and paved roads. In only three days I had manage to snap my rack in half, and it was now tied on my rack with some rope I had to cut off the guyline of my tent, finish my peanut butter stash, and eat all of my chocolate. I still had plenty of freeze dried something or other, but ... THE CHOCOLATE. the road conditions were slowly improving, and I began to see little farms in the distance and signs of society. I stumbled across a little emergency shelter which had been used by dozens of bike tourists before me - many people had left notes in a variety of language, and someone had left out candy bars for hungry travelers. I donated two packs of ramen and a clif bar to the cause, in exchange for some chocolate.

That evening I rolled into the charming seaside village of Blönduós and booked iit to the first gass station I could find, where I enjoyed a hearty meal of a liter of light ~3.5% ‘Viking’ Beer, a Kilo of Skyr, a family size bag of potato chips, a gas station sandwich, a banana and some ice cream. It was like heaven, if heaven had to be packaged with sufficient preservatives and food coloring so that it could survive winter in the gas station of a fishing village with only 881 inhabitants.

Happy to be rolling along on smooth pavement (for a bit) I followed the Ring road along the north coast of Iceland for a day, enjoying clear skys and some much appreciated tail winds.

And of course HOTSPRINGS!

The next day it was back to the gravel. I crossed the base of the Westfjord peninsula, from Hrútafjörður to Breiðafjörður, across rolling hills and some beautiful farm land.

This time I managed to snap the actual tubing of my rack, in addition to just the thin metal strip that held it to the brake. Duct tape to the rescue! This is how I figured out that Icelanders call duct tape ‘american tape’. This is ironic as they come from a country with no bike shops outside of the capital and the second largest city, Akureyri, whereas I live within walking distance of at least three bike shops and at least as many hardware stores, all of which offer much better solutions for bike repair than duct tape.

Around this point it also started to sink in just how many sheep Iceland actually has.

Its alot. There are ALOT of sheep in Iceland.

The next day I headed out along the Snæfellsjökull Peninsula, a gorgeous little strut of land known for its (Comparatively) nice weather and stunning views of the Northern Lights, all of this topped of by the Snæfellsjökull Stratovolcano, the very crater that Jules Verne’s hero Otto Lidenbrock descends into in Journey to The Center of the Earth.

And then I broke two more spokes, one of which sprang off with such force that it got wrapped in my cassette and bent my derailleur, and used up my last spoke repair Kevlar spoke replacement doodad. Luckily, the upcoming town of Stykkishólmur had what passes for a bike shop outside of Reyjavik - a winzied Icelandic Grandpa who doesn’t speak any english with some spare spokes in his garage. With his supplies and the help of an Italian photographer who was also biking across Iceland whom I met at my campsite, I managed to get everything back up in working order again.

Sort of...

I doesn’t hurt that Stykkishólmur is gorgeous, AND has an amazing pastry shop - conveniently located across the street from the campsite.

With all my mechanical issues for the day solved, I settled in to watch the sunset with my new best bike touring friend (aka the person you meet that has a tool you forgot to bring) and wait for the Northern Lights to come out - which they did with such force that we didn’t even have to wait for the sky to fully darken before we could see the thin, magical trails running through the sky.

heading west along the peninsula out to the volcano, the northern shore is dotted with strikingly beautiful fishing villages like Grundarfjörður (above), nuzzled up against the sheer rock walls of the fjords.

The road climbs over each rocky crest and then rapidly descends into a deep fjord. As you approach Snæfellsjökull itself, the landscape becomes steadily more foreign and seussical - giant hunks of rock protrude from the lava fields, forming seemingly impossible spires

until you finally reach the eponymous volcano at the western tip of the peninsula.

After rounding the western most point of the island, I began head back towards Reykjavik along the southern shore of the peninsula.

...And then my pedal fell off...

After about 120 km of biking like this, I finally admitted that my bike was, indeed, broken, and took the bus from Borgarnes back to Reykjavik. I slightly less triumphant finish that I was imagining, but one which allowed for more wholehearted snacking and a very enjoyable nap.

I can wholeheartedly say that this was the most beautiful magical landscape I have ever had the pleasure of cycling through, and (now that I have fixed my bike and saved up enough for new pedals) look forward to exploring more of the hidden back roads and glacial tills that Iceland has to offer soon!

Also Hotsprings. I am going to explore those hotsprings real hard.


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