“You’re going to die.”
It was my landlord who relayed this, and she couldn’t hide all of her smugness in saying it. It was the first of many times we would hear it.
I had told Paul that the middle of April was too early, but it was the only time he could get off work. “Besides,” he said. “People who don’t cycle think it’s harder than it is.”
Paul and I cycled from Boston to San Francisco several years before that, a 60-day trip that generated many good memories. Paul, the true cycling enthusiast, went on to take his bike across various countries around the world. I was living in Iceland at the time and Paul asked if I would mount the aluminum steed once more. We hoped to make it around the island in two weeks. The problem was, as the Icelanders were quick to point out, the weather in April is unpredictable, and can turn from T-shirt conditions to a blizzard in seconds.
When natives of a place tell you not to do the thing you are doing, it puts an ominous cloud over the experience. Although it turns out that would be nothing compared to the actual storm clouds that would torment us later on, we started out still optimistic and hopeful. The first day we went through the Hvalfjörður valley north of Reykjavík, an old whaling fjord with pleasant views. We reminisced about the American trip as we passed through the picturesque landscape, each adding details to memories the other had forgotten. It seemed as if the cycle around Iceland was going to be pleasant after all.
The following days, however, would not be so fortuitous. The next mountain pass was covered in snow and forced us to take a bus through it, and the subsequent pass was closed most of the next day. We stayed with a farm family I knew up north, and the wife dropped us off in the next town, Akureyri, once the roads were open. She said goodbye with a shake of the head and a bit of sadness, as if she never expected to see me again.
The next day we left the hostel and launched into a gale-force wind. I would later look it up to see that it was clocked at 53 mph. Each down-pedal was just as much about avoiding going backwards as it was inching ahead. Akureyri disappeared behind us slowly, and I watched it go with a heavy heart.
It took us several hours to make 10 miles to reach the foot of the next mountain. Towering white peaks against a dark purple sky and us in shorts and a light jacket was a strange and daunting juxtaposition. I felt like Frodo standing at the bottom of Mordor, or Dorothy in Oz, or any other character entering a dangerous kingdom, unsure of the peril that laid ahead or how to get through it. However, I didn’t say this to Paul. Instead, we silently started the climb.
The road was clear at the moment, but great bursts of wind rolled down the mountain, picking up snow with it and giving it a body. Most cyclists who die in Iceland are pushed in front of cars by the wind, and being the only road to the east there were plenty of vehicles. My hands trembled trying to keep the handlebars steady. The moment felt to be growing closer when we would no longer be Paul and Ryan, but just another statistic of tourists who died because they did not respect the climate of the island. I could picture all of the Icelanders who knew me shaking their heads—a little sad, and a little proud that they had been right.
Paul stopped at the bottom of the mountain and looked into the plane ahead, all the vegetation bent over and thrashing. When Paul tried to speak the words were hard to hear against the roar of the wind, but I knew what he was saying: we had to go back. The next town was 70 miles away and there would be no way to put up a tent in these conditions. We turned around and started climbing the mountain again.
In minutes the pavement that was previously clean suddenly had over an inch of snow on it. Pedaling was slow and slippery, and our thin tire tracks followed after us on the incline. Worse still, and although the science of it still confuses me, the wind was in our faces again as he headed back to Akureyri. We were crawling back to where he had come from, but each foot was hard-earned. Paul had a better bike and was in greater shape, and neither of us wanted an audience for our suffering. I motioned for him to go ahead.
I tried to stay low, but the wind tore into me and shook the bicycle. Suddenly, it began to hail, the ice biting into my skin. Icelanders beeped as they passed, no doubt laughing at the foolish foreigner trying to cycle on their island. I was numb and utterly exhausted—the most tired I had been in my life. The thought occurred to me to just fall off the bicycle and lay on the shoulder and not worry about present circumstances anymore, and the urge grew stronger. I thought I was at my lowest point.
Until a car pulled up, rolled down its window, and threw an apple core at me.
Then I was at my lowest point.
We made it, eventually. Paul and I had to walk the bicycles over the long bridge back into town because we could not stay on them, and even pushing them the wind tried to tear them from our hands and fling them into the ocean. We returned somber and defeated to the hostel, which was starting to take on a Hotel California feel.
There is a peninsula on the western part of Iceland called Snæfellsnes. They call it “Little Iceland” because all of the major types of landscape on the island can be found there. It turns out, Little Iceland was just as good as the big one, as far as we were concerned. It was the only place in Iceland that was not storming, and although we got around it in only three days, it was still enjoyable. Instead of being a reflection of the American trip, the time was filled with laughing at our previous days. We didn’t make it around the entire coast of Iceland, but we did survive, which made it a partial victory in itself. Paul would eventually go on to cycle in Spain and Morocco, and I would eventually go back to my apartment to listen to my landlord remind me how right she had been about Icelandic weather.
Still, I got a story that was mine to tell (and not the Icelandic newspapers’ upon finding our remains), which to me was an accomplishment greater than any cycling feat.
This article appeared in a similar form in Progressive Dairyman.