Come for the gardens, stay for the hills

As I was packing up for the day’s ride, I looked at the map and realized that Akureyri had a really nice looking botanical garden. It would be a shame to skip that entirely. So I decided I would just get a late start and bicycle into the night.

On the way up to the garden I noticed how big the city is. It’s the fifth largest city in Iceland – with about 20,000 people in it – but it feels bigger than that. Many of the houses were in fine shape and the architectural style felt familiar to me. I wanted to stay for a week and hang out in all the fancy cafés the museums, but alas… No time.

Reminds me of the houses back home.

The botanical gardens are at the top of a large hill next to a hospital. No bike racks – typical for any place that isn’t Reykjavík, really – so I just rolled my bike onto the property and parked it next to a garden shed. So many people were walking past it, pointing and commenting and even taking photos, that I knew a thief would feel uncomfortable trying to pick it over. I was growing used to Iceland’s crime-free ways.

Every now and then a busload of seniors floods through the garden.

Even if I couldn’t hang out in all the cafés, I could at least enjoy the one inside the gardens. Time for something healthy, and something totally unhealthy!

The good, the bad, and the coffee.

Then I spent the next hour or so walking around snapping photos and taking in the unexpected lushness of so many flowering plants in one place, in the middle of Iceland.

I'm guessing they keep many plants in here during the long winter season...
'Tis a very pretty place.
Tanacetum coccineum a.k.a. "Painted Daisy"
Echinops sphaerocephalus, a.k.a. "Arctic Glow"

There were also plenty of neat little statues and buildings to explore as well.

Statue memorializing Margrjete Schiöth: "She made the garden famous"
Always building!
"Take your kid to work" day?

There was also a large area near the greenhouses covered with grids of seedlings, each bearing a detailed label. I couldn’t tell if they were for eventual sale, or if they constituted a kind of seed bank for the garden during the long winter months.

Seedlings meticulously organized.

I wanted to linger, but I wasn’t sure how much time the big mountain would take, and the day was moving quickly. I hopped on my bike and rode for the highway. Along the way I stopped to refill my water sack at a service station, and there I spotted a new kind of snack for sale:

Freeze-dried fish! Mmmm.

I bought three bags!

Looking back down at the highway 1 causeway near Akureyri

Almost all the remaining daylight was used slowly climbing the hill to the east of town. There is a tunnel that passes under the hill, as part of Highway 1, but bicycles are not allowed to use it. I could have gone farther north and avoided some of the elevation climb, but I assumed from experience that extra length of that alternate route would be filled with smaller hills that collectively added up to just as much elevation change. At least this way I could get it all over with at once.

It's hard to see, but written across the front of this "house" is VELKOMIN HEIM

So that's how you ship a ship...

I listened to a cute little nonfiction Q&A book called “Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze”. Most of it was familiar, but I was truly surprised by the section about freezing water. Apparently water that has just been brought to boiling temperature and then placed in a freezer will solidify slightly faster than water placed in the same freezer at room temperature. No one knew – as far as the authors of the book could tell – exactly why this happened. The best theory they had was that the hot water made the container hot, which temporarily unfroze the icy surface that the container was placed on, creating a much bigger contact surface between the container and the rest of the freezer, encouraging faster heat transfer.

Looking south to the river

Higher and higher I went. I passed some nifty roadsigns along the way.

This becomes relevant several miles ahead when the driver encounters a bunch of really beat-up old bridges.

Warning: Hourglass bridge ahead!

Pretty soon I could see well into the mountains on the opposite side of the fjord.

That meant it was snack and selfie time!

Pleased with myself for doing all this pedaling!

I ate some of the dehydrated fish. I could tell the protein content was good, but the flavor was weak, and chewing on it dehydrated my mouth to the point where I had to sip water every time I ate a piece. I finished off the first bag and poured the crumbs into my mouth, which came along with a quantity of fish-dust as well. Then stood I there coughing and wheezing like a pack-a-day smoker for a minute. For all of the next mile, the only thing I could smell was fish.

The sun got low enough for the hills to start casting shadows.

Some guys on motorbikes went zipping up the mountain, slowing down to pass me. I nodded at each in turn. About two hours later I reached the top of the hill and the bikers came back down, slightly dirtier than before.

The turnoff to the weather station. Glad I didn't have to do that too.

The top of the hill had a plateau about a kilometer long. The sunset colors were amazing, and as I drifted along I craned my neck to take it all in.

Your word for the day. (It's actually just the name of this municipality.)

The view from the edge of the plateau was amazing. I knew I had miles to go, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a bunch of photos.

The cutest little stream ever! For today, at least.

Then the downhill part began. Much lumpier than the other side, with a couple of terrible-looking bridges that looked like they’d been traumatized by large trucks and ice, perhaps simultaneously, for years.

Apparently someone plunged off the highway and died here...

That's a pretty screwed-up bridge.

I was applying the brake constantly, keeping my speed to a safe level just in case I hit something weird. Sure enough I came to the bottom of a hill and there was a big washout of sand spread across the road. The bike tipped and I landed on my side.

Where I took a spill.

An impression of my side, in the dirt.

I fell into the sand, which made a nice cushion. If I’d been going faster it would have been a lot worse because my momentum would have carried me out of the sand as I fell, and I would have landed and slid across hard-packed dirt with gravel on it. Assuming I didn’t bruise anything, the friction would have probably torn through my pants and jacket, rendering them both useless as insulating layers.

Simply being unable to protect myself from the cold wind might have forced me to cut my trip short. Wind protection is that important!

As it was, I just got up, pushed my bike upright, slapped a lot of dirt off … and carried right on with the journey.

By the time I was at the bottom of the hill and back on Highway 1, it was fully dark. I hauled out my phone and considered the options. About a mile south was a campground, but it was in the wrong direction and I would have to retrace my steps in the morning. I hated retracing my steps. I could push ahead to the campground at Fossholl – a tiny roadside installation next to a waterfall – and that would line me up nicely to do the next 30 miles to Lake Mývatn. “That sounds good,” I thought, “and besides I like riding at night.”

I put some spooky short stories on the iPod and got to pedaling. The night time rewarded me, with moonlit skies, shadowy open fields, and for a while I even rode alongside a big lake, only a few meters from the water. I got inspired and narrated a little essay into my phone, on what the experience of bike touring is like. It was quite late when I finally got to the campground at Fossholl but it felt like I’d made a good decision. Night riding plays hell with the schedule for hotels and restaurants and attractions, but it’s so pleasant that it’s worth it sometimes.

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