Vail Travel: A melting memory
July 16, 2010
Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of Matthew Cull’s summer-long series about his cycling journey through Iceland and eastern Europe. Cull has cycled through 50 countries on six continents. Visit his website at http://www.matthewjkcull.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My journey around Iceland by bicycle continued south along the east coast. At first it was fjords, those familiar channels of blue, or grey, below towering cliff bands and dotted with lonesome farms raising sheep from tundra. I crossed the highest year round pass in Iceland. On the summit, at a measly 2050 feet, over 95 percent of the surrounding landscape was still covered in snow. I hiked along fjords in under brilliant blue skies and was driven to a standstill on my bicycle by winds so strong they forced me to a walk. I strolled around cute old world homes clustered around a lagoon at the head of a fjord and cycled roads empty of traffic but bursting with fjord views. I sang the praise of this beautiful country yet periodically cursed the weather that always made sure love didn’t come easy.
As the fjords faded with distance south the glaciers kicked in with force. One of the largest ice caps on the planet, Vatnajokull, lies close against the east coast and sends mighty rivers of ice down to melt at the edge of the narrow coastal plain. I cycled past glaciers that swept down in long graceful arcs or tumbled in suspended free fall from the smooth level ice cap above. I took turn offs to moraine lakes where glaciers up to ten kilometers across met their inevitable demise as icebergs floating in thick brown waters. Icebergs floated down short rivers to sit marooned on black sand beaches as melting memories of mountain magnificence.
I cycled below Oraefijokull, its glacial crown the highest point in Iceland at 6900 feet. At Shaktafell I hiked to a mountaintop view with grand panorama over glaciers, waterfalls, the ice cap and the enormous glacial gravel outwash plains below them. Vatnajokull sits on top of periodically active volcanoes and craters. When these fellows grumble they can set off huge jokullkaups, glacial out-bursts, that can send water downstream in excess of two million cubic feet per second. One hundred miles of coast is vast featureless expanses of the dark grey gravel that is ground up mountains.
I cycled across these plains south-west from one ice cap to the next, the much smaller Myrdalsjokull. Laying under the flight path of April’s eruptions those glaciers weren’t nearly so pretty, ice covered in ash. Yet down in Vik, a town that had been temporarily evacuated, life couldn’t have been greener. With some of the highest temperatures and rainfall in the country the landscape was green and lush, summers grass growing through new found soil. I cycled below the offending volcano. Steep ash covered slopes rose from the green of coast to the black ash coated glacial summit. It was peaceful now, basking in the fame of an eruption well vented.
But all this glacial beauty and summer warmth came at a price. The season’s afternoon traffic had been building with distance south and become more than I wanted from my Iceland experience. These were my roads damn it. I turned of at the first available opportunity, heading north past Hekla, one of Iceland’s more notorious volcanoes. I cycled through stark black lava landscapes and through the rich agricultural plain of the country’s south-west.
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The warmth also brought out the bugs that erupted from the bushes by the cloud load. The fickle finger of fate had flipped and the wind, almost always my adversary, was now my part time ally.
I visited Geysir, home of the original, after which all other geysirs are named. And Gullfoss, the country’s most famous waterfall. Further on it was Thingvellir. One thousand years before plate tectonics had been thought about, the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament between the long ragged cracks in the earth’s crust that is the rift zone between Europe and North America.
Thirty three hundred kilometers and 47 days after leaving Reyjavik I rolled back into town. My cycle journey was complete, the circle was unbroken, I could hang up my wheels, at least for now. Yet my time in Iceland is not done. I will replace bicycle with backpack and set off for the hills for a couple of weeks of hiking, far from vehicles, pavement, towns, and get even closer to the wildness that is Iceland.