There's no feeling in the world quite like that which sweeps you up at the beginning of an adventure. Endless possibilities stretch out in front of you, and hitherto unknown challenges, struggles and set backs imbue the endeavor with a sense of risk, and weight; The feeling that anything and everything could happen to you, that you might not make it out the other side, and that if you do, you won't be the same person who set out.
My first big adventure began in Iceland, with little more than a bicycle, and that which I could carry on the back of it. My friend Hamilton and I had set out on our first cycle tour, with no definite route, or timeline, or plan, and Iceland was to be the testing ground. We had two weeks in the country before catching a flight to Oslo and beginning the tour proper.
The tour had been proposed a year and a half earlier, and while some thought and preparation had gone into getting the appropriate gear together, little planning (or physical preparation) had been done beyond that. We had a loose plan to hit up as many frisbee golf courses we could find along the way, and had scouted out at least a few in Iceland, but that was about it.
Yep. That was how prepared we were.
Our lack of a plan became startlingly apparent after we had made our way through customs and assembled our bikes. Somehow, I had figured that we would simply assemble the bikes, load up the gear, and we would be off and rolling. The problem came when we had assembled the bikes and loaded up the gear and now we were ready to ride, but we had no clue where to go.
Not as in we didn't know how to get from out of the airport complex to the city.
No, it was more along the lines of, “So now what?”
Great start, I know.
Before you start judging us too harshly I'll try to shift some of the blame for our sheer bewilderment onto the fact that at this point we had been awake for well over 24 hours, and it was now 6am local time. The lack of sleep would play a prominent role throughout this first day of our adventure, eventually culminating with my falling asleep during supper, with my bowl of pasta in hand, fork halfway to my mouth.
But that's not for another twelve hours yet.
I know, you'll say we could have prepared before we had arrived in Iceland, and that may well have been a great idea, buuuuuuut, we didn't...
Finally we were able to make the rational decision – possibly the only one that first day – to ride into Keflavik, the small town near the airport, to pick up some groceries and then look for a place to set up the tents and get some rest.
We located the grocery store without too much trouble, but our second challenge was posed by the store itself. I went inside to do the shopping while Hamilton waited outside and watched the bikes, a fact we would later laugh heartily at considering both the size of the town we were in, and Iceland's reputation as largely free of crime.
As I entered the store and began wandering the aisles, I was astonished at how quickly I was disoriented by the difference in language and currency. If anywhere exists that language shouldn't matter, it's the grocery store. I knew what I wanted, I knew what it looked like, and I shouldn't have needed a sign to tell me that the apples were in fact apples. The only reason I can think of for my sudden disorientation was the departure from a regular routine while grocery shopping of checking prices, and comparing alternatives to get the best deal. Due to the currency and language difference, I was unable to do this which really put me out of my element. Again, let's say that the fatigue played a role...
I walked out of the grocery store somewhat defeated, and we “enjoyed” what can only be described as a pitiable lunch: Sandwiches consisting of nothing more than bread, cheese, and cucumber, and an apple apiece. Our dry bread and cheese sandwiches may not have been gourmet, but at the very least they provided a benchmark that we would have to try very hard to do worse than.
An auspicious start to the trip indeed.
It turned out there were no campsites in or around Keflavik, so we were forced to take to the road on no sleep, and with no plan. We pulled out our map of the country (see, we had some preparation going for us), and decided to head to Grindavik, near the world famous Blue Lagoon hot springs. According to the map, the ride was only about 30km if not shorter, a fairly easy hour and a half ride that seemed manageable, despite our current state.
The only issue was our current state.
We set off on the highway to Grindavik, but after five kilometers we realized we were headed the wrong way, on the highway coming from Grindavik. No matter, having realized our mistake we turned the bikes around, and set off in the right direction. The sun was out, the highway was empty, the landscape alien and inspiring. Spirits were high. And they remained high through the first hour of riding, and well into the second hour of riding when we finally spotted a sign with the milage to Grindavik posted on it.
How could this be? It was only supposed to be a 30km ride total from Keflavik to Grindavik.
Furiously we consulted our map to find that we had apparently taken the scenic route to Grindavik, tracing the edge of a peninsula rather than cutting directly across it.
The wind picked up, the sky clouded over, and it soon became a struggle to complete the final stretch of our ride. The last ten kilometers in particular seemed to stretch out to infinity. We could see the town in the distance, but it never seemed to get any closer.
In the end we made it to Grindavik, and we made it through Iceland. The country made us prove ourselves, adapt and adjust to new information, and toughen up. We faced hills and weather unlike any others we would experience over the next three months, and yes, we got lost many, many times.
Looking back, it would be easy to say that I wish we had prepared ourselves and done some more research, at the very least had a plan for the day we arrived. But in fact, I don't wish any of that.
The more I've travelled, the more I've realized that there are different types of preparation. Hamilton and I may not have had a specific plan, known the minute details of the geography of the country, or even thought about how we were going to handle going to the grocery store on no sleep where we couldn't read the language, but we had a different, much more valuable preparation, competence.
Each of us knew our equipment, knew how to handle adversity, and had plenty of experience backpacking and camping. We had our own transportation under us, enough money to help us out in an emergency. Each of us was capable of being completely self reliant, and what's more, we had each other.
The feeling of freedom that accompanies this type of competence while travelling is something rare that you don't get on every trip. Despite my confidence in my skills and mindset, while backpacking through Asia, I did not experience the same feeling of freedom that I did while having my bike beneath me, and my tent in my panniers. I was reliant on buses, trains, and taxi drivers for transportation, and hostels, guesthouses and hotels for accommodation at night. The confidence that I could handle any situation that presented itself had grown exponentially during my cycle trip. However in my new environment, I realized that there were other forces at play that I had to rely on, or adhere to to successfully navigate each day.
The days spent cycling however, we carried our food and home with us as we rode each day. Choosing where to spend the night only as dusk closed in on us, always confident that we would be able to find a suitable location wherever we might find ourselves. The only limitations were those we imposed on ourselves, and the feeling of freedom was almost entirely overwhelming, and incredibly, well, freeing.
Looking back on the end of our two weeks in Iceland, I realize now that we were already changed by our experience. We had dealt with rain, sleet, ceaseless wind, mountains, and our impossible to interpret map. Getting lost no longer phased us, and had shifted into the realm of the mundane, an expected nemesis to be faced daily, which if we were sharp, lucky, or some combination thereof, might be avoided. But only for that day.
Our final night in Iceland found us back in Keflavik. We knew there was no campground, but this time we talked to locals, poked around, and found a spot to camp on the plateau overlooking the town, whose sheer cliffs fell into the ocean thirty feet from our tents.
I stayed up that night, photographing the incredible clear sky that opened above our tents and reflecting on the past two weeks. Iceland had pushed us to our limits in many ways, but we had come out the other end a little stronger, a little surer, and a little more competent than when we had arrived. It was only the beginning, and we would be tested many more times over the coming months, but each was worth it, the challenge itself reminding us of the power of our own self reliance, competence, and freedom.
What are some of the situations you've faced while travelling where you were completely self reliant, and responsible for your situation. Was it exhilarating? Or Terrifying? How has the confidence gained from these experiences impacted your daily life after they're over? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to hear your stories!
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