Me And Some Big Boxes Take A Trip

I woke up in my van, stowed my bedsheets, and re-packed my toiletries bag. It was time to set in motion that long, weird collection of gears that would move me and three big chunks of luggage nearly four thousand miles across land and ocean in less than a day.

My friend Zog had plans to use the van while I was gone, so I gave him a brief tour and promised to write him an official guide later. While he helped me lug the suitcases and bicycle box into the cargo area, I chatted with his relatives, and they gave me some messages to send along to the Icelandic people, as follows:

Dear Iceland,

Lawrence A. Bell says he’s sorry about Mr Trump, but he takes responsibility.  Jeremy is sorry too, but does not take responsibility.

And then we were on our way to the Portland airport!

Zog is my co-pilot.

We chatted about work and groovy electronics projects, and listened to some throwback 90’s-era goth electronica by Gods Of Luxury. (Sooo deliciously pretentious and cheezy and well produced…) In short order I was hugging Zog at the terminal curb, and then I was alone with my giant pile of stuff and a couple of hours to get on a plane.

Two disposable suitcases, each right up at the 50 pound limit, and one oversize bike box, right up at the 70 pound limit.

A handcart was only a few feet away, so I stacked everything onto that. The little wheels that I’d roped onto the bottom of the bike box turned out to be redundant, which was great news.

Check in went easier than usual. I didn’t encounter any sarcastic resistance from airline agents who didn’t know their own luggage rules. They knew the box was legal, and they knew it could go up to 70 pounds as long as I paid the oversize fee. I was asked to haul it to a special roped area, and allowed to watch as they unbuckled the straps and poked through the equipment inside.

Inspecting the box in the open, where I could see. I like that.

I appreciated that a lot because it meant I could watch them reassemble the box as well, and make sure they got everything back inside and properly tightened the straps.

With that done, all I had to do was get a few labels attached, then check my other suitcases along with the giant box and wave goodbye to the whole set.

It was exactly 70 pounds, but the clerk approved it anyway.

In the trip through security, my hands tested positive for some chemical contaminant so they padded me down and then searched my backpack. No big deal; I’ve got lots of time. I wonder if it was something from the van?

They also said my second camera lens – the 50mm f1.2 – was a strange object on the scanner, so they asked me to take it out of the bag and show them. The woman looking it over said, “holy mackerel, that’s a serious lens!”

“Yeah it’s nice,” I said, “but my arm just about falls off after using it for a while.”

She laughed and waved it through. I was happy to stop talking about it, because I really didn’t like drawing attention to the fact that I was hauling around thousands of dollars of electronics in a sack. I have this probably incorrect assumption that if my luggage looks ratty and old, thieves will assume there’s nothing valuable inside and target someone else. And I don’t like breaking that illusion.

But I have to be paranoid about my carry-on, because I obviously can’t be putting all this fancy gear into a checked bag. Back home in Oakland, thieves will roll up in the arrivals lane using a stolen car, run inside, and yank unclaimed bags off the carousel. They go for classy monochrome bags with discreet labels that look like they could belong to several people, and once they’ve sped out of the airport, the quality of the bag makes only a few minutes’ difference in how long it takes for them to wedge it open, rifle the contents, and then shove the rest out the door and all over the sidewalk. Then it’s back for another round. Unless you’re checking luggage in a heavy steel trunk with a nasty built-in lock, the container you use is irrelevant.

(You may be wondering how I know what kinds of bags these criminals prefer. It’s because I see them scattered around Oakland, mostly on the fridge of the homeless encampments.)

At least three times, over the years, I’ve been biking around the city and discovered a heap of clothing and paperwork all over a sidewalk next to a suitcase, and used the paperwork or the label on the suitcase to contact the unlucky victim and tell them where their stuff is. One memorable time I reached the victim by getting their phone number off a receipt from a gun shop, and in the ensuing dialogue they told me that their luggage had contained several handguns in boxes, now in the possession of some random Oakland criminal. Freakin’ whoops.

Anyway, yeah. I digress. Laptop, camera, lenses… That’s gotta stay with me.

Boarding went smoothly. I couldn’t see the baggage handlers as they loaded the plane so I had no idea if my bicycle was on the same flight. Nothing I could do about it now. Distracted, I bumped my head on the overhead bins, and declared I should just wear my bike helmet all the time, even if it does make me look like a dangerous lunatic.  Airport security would get worried though…

Skirting Mt. Hood as we take off.

As the plane vaulted into the sky and Portland shrank below me, I felt like the journey was truly started. I thought about the next few months. A return to Iceland was something I never thought I’d make — because of time, logistics, and personal reasons. And why return to such a far away place when there are so many other places I haven’t seen at all?

Well, the past resolved itself various ways to lead me here, and I’d worked through that decision. But a question I hadn’t asked was: What do I want to accomplish?

What felt most important was including my father on this trip, more than I’d done in 2019. We share an enthusiasm for trekking out into strange places and then telling stories about what we learned and saw. He with his 35mm slide projector, and me with my digital camera and phone. Actually I suppose this isn’t a trait we share, so much as a trait I absorbed from him in bits and pieces as I grew up, and telling him all my stories is – among other things – a way of turning a line of inheritance into a circle. He’s too frail these days to join me on a bike, and the rough weather of Iceland would be too risky for him even if he could get there, but I can still send pictures and call him up and make sure he’s part of the journey as it happens.

Let me pause here and marvel yet again at the astonishing changes wrought by electronics, in his lifetime. He was born two years before the invention of the printed circuit. The first prototype electronic computer didn’t show up on the planet until he was eight years old. (It was built at Iowa State and weighed 750 pounds.) And now I can do a real-time video chat with him, standing on a street, in a time zone eight hours away, while he sits at his desk in Oregon.

And the location is remarkable as well: When he was born, Iceland was still a Kingdom, not yet a Republic, and was home to about 90 thousand people, almost all of them subsistence fishermen and ranchers. There was no international airport, no ring road, and the capital city was still burning imported coal to generate electricity. (The first hydroelectric power station didn’t take over there until 1937.) Now I can fly there on a plane, assemble a bicycle, ride it around the country eating fish in restaurants and camping as I go, and pay for everything with a credit card. My goodness, the changes…

Anyway, yes. That’s the number one goal: Make sure he’s part of the trip. I made plans to call him as soon as I got to the hotel.

My second goal was to try and get into the highlands this time. I’d seen a lot of amazing terrain along the northern coast in 2019, but I had to scrap my plan to cross the highlands after I found out how rough the roads were. Now I had a chance to use the “partially improved” roads in the southern half.

That was it, really. I cast around in my head for additional goals, but all I found was a general desire to explore, learn, and eat more fish. I had some residual angst about my recent dating life to mull over, but that wasn’t essential, and I knew it would happen organically. The rest was up to the road, my feelings each day, and my desire to improvise.

I knew I should lay back and sleep to combat the approaching jet-lag, but as I often do in planes, I glued myself to the window and watched the clouds scroll by instead. Being this far up in the air is an absolute wonder.  I had an audiobook about material science playing, and listened to the chapter about water and clouds.

We moved north up towards the latitude of Iceland, and passed over the sea. It was white — a solid blanket of ice and show. After a few hours the ice broke up into patches. It didn’t look thick enough to walk on, but it was definitely enough to endanger any ship without a specialized hull.

In time, the patches dispersed a little, and I could look down and see the forbidding coastline of the Nunavut territory of Canada.

Looks cold down there.

Somewhere around here, I did my best to take a nap. I would be losing most of a day upon landing in Iceland, and getting through the next one would be challenging.

Believe it or not, the Qikiqtarjuaq airport is down there.

As I dozed I imagined the freezing air streaming all around the plane, and the churning ocean far below, and how utterly impossible it would be for me to make this journey if I had to deal with the surface.

How many paths was I crossing over, from thousands of forgotten explorers in the near and distant past, who endured loneliness and desolation beyond anything I’ve felt, as they searched for a place to live?

I bet the Inuit people have some amazing history to share that has been almost entirely hidden from me by language and cultural barriers. If I was down there, perhaps I would encounter it organically. Plane travel is miraculous, but every time I use it, I am struck by how much I am missing from the spaces in between.

The chance to see those in-between places is why I love bicycle touring so much. Ironic that I’d start out a tour with a plane flight, yeah? If I had the time, I’d cycle all the way to the eastern-most chunk of the Canadian archipelago instead, then look for some way to cross the ocean.

Barring that, I’d go to the eastern-most airport. I already figured out where that is, of course, being the obsessive planner I am. It’s St. John’s International Airport on the Avalon Peninsula. At some point perhaps I’ll close this link by cycling across North America and ending up there. But not this time.

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