Kate and I lock eyes, two pairs of eyebrows leaping upward as the rain-cover for the tent unfurls from its bag. “But where is the tent.” It’s not even a question, just a statement of pure horror. “I’m sure I wrapped up the tent in its cover. But it’s not there… Where is it?!”
Ah yes, the joys of starting an expedition. Indeed, the story of our first five days here in Iceland is most definitely a story of things going wrong. Different degrees of wrong, to be fair – funny mistakes, kind of ok errors, and quasi-dire miscalculations, but in sum, lots of wrong.
Take, for instance, our first day of cycling this past Monday. We set out on our newly rented bikes (I curiously christened mine Björn – please don’t ask me why), cycling merrily along the cycling paths of the Reykjavik suburbs, marveling at the linguistic oddities of the Icelandic language on every sign, and not really thinking too hard, when we encountered our first major challenge: Route 1 itself.
On google maps, or a standard paper map, the Ring Road, or Hringvegurinn, is drawn uniformly and rather vaguely circular, as if all parts of it were created equal. This is, as we rapidly discovered, not the case. We attempted, for several kilometers, to cycle on the narrow shoulder of a full-scale highway. The idyllic photos I had drooled over – of light traffic, with more glaciers in the background than cars – emphatically did not apply to the capital city and its outskirts. After struggling through the driving rain and receiving several ominous beeps from passing drivers, we finally arrived at a little petrol station in the hamlet of Grundarhverfi, sopping wet and more than a little shaken. It was there that we made an executive decision: we needed to take a bus to where Route 1 started being an actual road we could safely cycle on and less of a danger-zone.
So, there you have mistake number one: attempting to cycle on a major highway. Please don’t do this: it’s not an intelligent idea. I think that, in the end, catching a bus was the safest option we could have taken. At first, it bothered me that we wouldn’t get to cycle the entire Ring Road: as a rampant perfectionist, there is something deeply enticing about doing something “completely”, 100%, to the nth degree. And yet, if cycling every inch of the Ring Road means risking a potential collision with heavy vehicles, I would rather take a bus any day than put Kate or myself in unnecessary danger.
On our next day of traveling, we awoke in a beautiful seaside campsite in Borgarnes and proceeded northward, across the rolling plains and hills of western Iceland. But by the time we had arrived at the small university “town” [read as ‘small collection of buildings’] of Bifröst, we had run into a number of problems. First, according to local opinion at the mini-market, there was not a single campsite for at least a hundred kilometers, which was awkward to say the least as camping by the side of the road is not permitted in Iceland, permission from farmers is needed to camp on their land, and camping on agricultural land is also not permitted. Second, Kate was tired on our second day of cycling, and I was being rather too impatient and stubborn, vainly insisting on pushing onward, rather than truly listening. And third, at our current pace, there was no way we were going to arrive in Dalvík, a small town near Akureyri, in time for our scheduled ferry to the Arctic Circle on the first of August.
Something had to be done about the situation, and that something was board a second bus, this time to Blönduós, further up the Ring Road. For a second time, I felt deeply disappointed that we wouldn’t get to cycle this section of Route 1. In my mind, something had “gone wrong”, and my perfectionism was kicking in with full force.
It was not until the next day that I started to notice a shift in the mentality of the expedition. After a difficult start to the day doing battle with a brutal side wind, we entered a sheltered valley, and soared up it with little trouble. Even when faced with a massive hill, we decided to make a compromise with the landscape: we walked up it, rather than fighting it. It took us ages, but instead of feeling disappointed at not cycling, I enjoyed having a lovely picnic lunch with a stunning view of the snaking river valley below us. And finally, at the very top, we were rewarded with an exhilarating downhill on the other side of the ridge that swept us around a mountain lake – the longest downhill run I’ve ever cycled. And that downhill experience, coupled with our positive attitude for the day and the good distance we had made, marked a turning point for me, in how I viewed the expedition. Not necessarily in terms of expecting things to not ever go “wrong” again – very little in life, and especially on expeditions, will ever go according to plan.
Rather, my perfectionist ideal of “cycling the Ring Road” began to shift in meaning, if not in intent. We’re still here to cycle, don’t get me wrong: so far, we’ve gone over 150 km under our own steam. We’ve raised over 700 pounds for OCD Action, including gift aid. And we’re starting to get fitter, have some amazing adventures, and experience Iceland head on. The Icelandic landscape, with its driving rain, steep hills, and brutal wind, takes no prisoners. Rather than stubbornly stick to the inexperienced plan we drew up when Iceland was a flat map and its cities were dots strewn about at convenient distances, the landscape and its challenges have forced us to make compromises, to walk when necessary, to take a bus when conditions get dangerous or energy levels flag, and for me especially, to listen to Kate, my incredible expedition partner. We’ve got to roll with the punches, and there have been an awful lot of them so far.
And with this new way of looking at “things going wrong”, my nagging doubt that the expedition has somehow already “failed” because we’ve not cycled every inch of the Ring Road is also beginning to fade. My overoptimistic plans have been chipped down into more manageable chunks, but this does not mean we have “failed”. Rather, we’ve learned to become more flexible, less stubborn, and more willing to feel out the route as we go, rather than blindly stick to a preconceived plan cooked up with no knowledge of what Iceland is actually like.
And so, typing away at a free-internet computer in the tiny village of Hólar in the Trollskagi of northern Iceland, I can look back on incidents such as Tent-gate with amusement. We found the tent in the end, but even if we hadn’t, we could have bought a new one, rented one, or found some other solution. Our expedition would not have ground to a screeching halt if we had forgotten it. Instead, we would have found another way forward.
Perfectionism is an illusive ideal, like cycling every last 1332 km of the Ring Road: on paper it seemed doable, but in reality, sticking blindly to a preconceived plan without flexibility just made us feel less than worthy, when in fact, we should have been feeling excited about what we have accomplished so far.
Perfection, in sum, is decidedly not going to be the spirit of this expedition. Hringvegurinn 2016 is, rather, about giving to OCD Action, getting fitter, and having some cracking Icelandic adventures. We’ve done loads of each so far, and the expedition is only just beginning.
It’s time not to shy away, but cycle straight into the wind.
– Chase, Hólar, Trollskagi, 29 July 2016