Stopping in Selfoss

Today was one of those “rest and repair” days. I did get out for a little while, but mostly I stayed in the hotel doing a thorough tune-up of the bike, while the weird pale daylight spilled through the ground-level window of my sunken room.

Sunset at 11pm, sunrise at 4:00am. I hope you brought a sleep mask!

I’d been at this high latitude for weeks now, but it still felt strange to see the numbers for sunrise and sunset, right there in my weather app. It looked like some kind of software glitch.

For a good chunk of each evening, this bridge is a traffic jam.

During my outing I passed by the bridge into town, and it was just as clogged with traffic as before. What a serious mixed blessing for the local residents.

The river under the bridge was one of the largest I’d seen in all of Iceland. Dig that tiny island! I wonder how many people have tried to anchor a boat there and climb up. Humans love being on little isolated chunks of land. There’s something cozy about it. Perhaps the whole of Iceland has that advantage, relative to other places…

They're all too tiny to wear, but they're quite adorable.

I’ve seen sweaters shrink in the wash before, but this is ridiculous!

Those lovely birch-carved trout bits!

I poked around town a little more and eventually settled in another cafe. I had some research to do: Was it possible to take a detour up into the highlands, and see some of that amazing territory, without going too far out of my way or getting stuck on messy roads that my recumbent couldn’t handle?

Mapping things out carefully day-by-day, using Google Street View to inspect the roads when possible, and closely following the official Iceland bicycling map, I put together a plan:

Day 1:

2021 iceland highlands plan step 1

Day 2:

2021 iceland highlands plan step 2

Day 3:

2021 iceland highlands plan step 3

Day 4:

2021 iceland highlands plan step 4

Day 5:

2021 iceland highlands plan step 5

Day 6:

2021 iceland highlands plan step 6

I wasn’t very happy about the pricey hotel stay at the Highland Center, but it was obvious why they could charge so much: It’s the last facility with hot water, or rooms, or a restaurant before a long, rough road to the Landmannalaugar campground.

Beyond that hotel, I was also a bit worried about the roads. Gravel on hard-packed ground would be fine. Loose gravel with some depth to it, or patches of sand, or dirt softened by rainfall could force me to walk the bike for miles, and that would be annoying. Also the river crossings were an exciting unknown: Would I have to hold my bike up over my head and pick my way across loose stones in a fast current? Or would I just be shoving the bike across creek beds, with the water barely splashing halfway up the waterproof bags on my seat?

We shall see!

I made screenshots of my itinerary on the phone for easy reference, then rode back to the hotel. Time to start that bicycle tune-up.

As I worked on the bicycle I put the movie “Jungle Cruise” on in the background. A bit of brainless action to help the process along. Staring at the bike, I couldn’t help thinking about my relationship to it, and to travel in general.

Riding a bike doesn’t use the full range of movement that a human body can do. It’s actually pretty restrictive, especially on a recumbent. I could get the same exercise sitting at home on a stationary bike, and in that situation, whenever I stop pedaling I’d have my entire house around me, including a giant comfy bed and a pantry full of snacks. What else am I really getting, out here in the world, that’s worth the trouble and the expense?

Do I actually stop and touch the environment I’m pedaling through?  Yes, but sometimes not for hours. Is the air better out here than at home? Usually yes, but sometimes not, because of truck fumes and grit. The sun can be intense and the rain can be chilling, and indoors I’m safe from both. If my interaction with the world is primarily visual, couldn’t I get the same thing by planting the stationery bike in front of a television set? There are readymade products that do exactly this, complete with a fake 3D view of a fantasy world, or a processed recording of a real trail in some exotic place that crawls along at the same speed I pedal.

With that available, how does my desire to bike tour make any sense at all?

I guess there’s just something way down in my hind-brain that settles itself when I’m traveling, that doesn’t settle when the travel is simulated. Driving has this effect, but bicycling has it much more. I think it has to do with the idea of reducing my existence to a container – something smaller and more portable than everyday life allows – with my body at the center of it. It draws me back into my body.

The effect isn’t absolute. I still carry all my obsessions and interests, and I often feed them along the way with audiobooks. Also, I’ve been a computer programmer for so many years that you could pick me up and drop me in the middle of the Mongolian steppe, and I’d be standing there thinking CLC, REP #$30, LDA $00, ADC #$75, PLX, … “Oh, what a nice view.” … STA $2000,X, INX, BNE $2014 …. “Wow, the wind is amazing.”

That makes traveling for the memories a bit slippery.  Now that I’m middle-aged, a lot of the stuff that’s fixed in my brain is outdated engineering specs. Sometimes I have to knock my senses about pretty consistently to crowd the new memories in.

But that’s it, really: The idea of reducing my physical existence to something smaller, and then moving it. Call it a nomadic instinct. There’s something important about the movement itself; the fact that you’re never in the same place for too long. A feeling of safety or security in that.

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