Ride Iceland's Highway 1
"I was thinking about your motorcycle," the lanky truck driver with glacier-blue eyes says, leaning across my table at a roadside diner in Hveragerdi, in southwest Iceland. Outside, the wind howls, rain lashing at the windows. "You aren't planning to go to the north, are you? There's an early winter storm coming. When that happened last year, they were still digging out sheep months later."
I want to protest the arrival of winter in late August, but then again, we are as far north as Fairbanks, on a volcano- and glacier-battered terrain jutting out of the tempestuous North Atlantic. I am dripping wet, wondering if my grand plan to circumnavigate Iceland's 830-mile ring road by motorcycle has been scuttled just as it began. My wife, Jess, sits sodden across from me, bringing her hands back to life around a steaming coffee mug. We stare at each other. She puts on a brave face, with a look that says: Well, it would be no fun if it were easy, right?
Iceland is a landscape of both geological and meteorological extremes. Its far north kisses the Arctic Circle, and more than 11 percent of its 40,000 square miles is covered by a glittering glacial ice cap. Shaped as much by fire as by ice, it has dozens of volcanoes that send up ash cones, geysers, and bubbling thermal pools. There are 200 earthquakes recorded every week. Somewhere in the clouds above looms Eyjafjallajökull volcano, whose 2010 eruption shut down air travel to Europe for weeks. Complaining about the weather would be déclassé.
The rain slackens, and we thank the trucker for his friendly warning, climb back on our shiny silver 770cc Honda Deauville, and pull out into a world of swirling mist. Even though this is the national highway, there's scarcely any traffic. Two-thirds of Iceland's 318,000 souls live in Reykjavík, but the tidy modern capital is far behind us. Now vast empty stretches separate the scattered settlements of the south coast. I know we aren't the craziest ones on the road when I spot a pair of bicyclists, heads down, grimacing and pumping against a fierce headwind. I lean the bike into the buffeting crosswinds, so at times it feels more like sailing than riding.
We're well suited up: waterproof and armored riding suits and lots of base layers. For the first time in a dozen years of riding, I've gotten helmet intercoms, snazzy Bluetooth headsets from Sena that let us speak to each other over the twin roar of the wind and engine. I'd feared it would ruin the lonesome mystique of riding, but it turns out to be great fun. We banter like a pilot and navigator in a war movie, or point out the stunning landscape unspooling before us.
The narrow ribbon of blacktop winds through a plain of soft green boulders stretching into the whiteness. It's like the surface of the moon has sprouted moss. Each bend of road reveals some new cinematic image: a tiny farm tucked at the base of a brilliant green cliff; a herd of Icelandic ponies, long manes whipping in the sharp wind; waves crashing against a beach black as gunpowder.
Near dark, we pull up to Geirland, a working sheep farm with a group of tidy guest cabins. A pair of Icelandic sheepdogs sniffs around our unfamiliar two-wheeled conveyance. We gorge on lamb stew before passing out, our gear steaming dry on the radiator as rain drums on the steel roof.
The road rolls eastward, cutting straight for miles across the alluvial fan of a retreating glacier. The 3,200-square-mile Vatnajökull ice cap, Europe's largest, feeds dozens of outlet glaciers, but climate change is already taking its toll. Glaciologists estimate that in two centuries Iceland's glaciers – now retreating as much as 50 meters per year – will be gone. For now they remain a wonder, their surfaces whorled with black ash and split by deep blue crevasses.
Where a one-lane suspension bridge spans a narrow river, we are greeted by one of the great sights of Iceland, the Jokulsarlon lagoon. Brilliant white and sapphire hunks of ice, some big as houses, have calved from the glacier and bob in the milky turquoise water. The iconic scene is a draw for international tourists, who pile into yellow amphibious trucks that slip into the water like giant rubber ducks. A fur seal pops up, mugs for the cameras, and vanishes. The ice drifts slowly in the current to the open sea, where waves hurl it back ashore. Squeezed by unimaginable pressure, the ancient ice is clear as glass, forming a gallery of abstract sculpture melting in the sunshine.
We stop in the fishing town of Höfn, at a restaurant called Humarhöfnin. Digging into magnificent grilled arctic char and langoustine, I ask about a photo of Ben Stiller hanging on the wall. I'm told he's been here recently filming The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The drama of Iceland's landscape (not to mention generous film-tax credits) has created a Hollywood boomlet: Tomb Raider, Batman Begins, and two Bond movies were all shot nearby. Game of Thrones' frozen wastes are a short commute. "Jon Snow sat at this table," our waiter says, beaming.
The waiter is a young guy named Benni Fridthorsson – he grew up here, working on his father's fishing boat out of the harbor and picking up shifts at the restaurant during the off season. He's proud that the Hollywood people come here, but he has no escapist fantasies. There's plenty of adventure to be had: His real passion is hunting. He pops open his Facebook page and shows off photos from some recent expeditions: rows of greylag geese and mallards, even a reindeer hunted in the roadless reaches of Iceland's interior.
Afterward we stand on a bluff above Höfn's harbor, the summer sun setting rows of brightly painted fishing boats aglow. Far into the distance, the glacial fingers of the Vatnajökull ice cap shine in the sunlight. It's easy, in these golden hours, to see why location scouts love the place.
The next morning we grit our teeth through driving rain and buffeting winds, passing through a tunnel beyond Höfn that serves as the gateway to the Eastern fjords. The pastoral quaintness of the southern coast is left behind. By contrast, the east coast is a wild region, its exposed topography stripped bare by wind, ice, and geological time.
The road clings beneath headlands of columnar basalt, which rise like colossal ruined battlements above the grinding North Atlantic. We delve deep into the narrow fjords, where tiny fishing villages and flocks of whooper swans find shelter beneath glacier-scoured cliffs. Riding the road along the fjords is like tracing the outline of a stony hand, its fingers reaching out toward the ocean.
Finally we roll into the harbor town of Breiddalsvík, a motley collection of weathered buildings huddled behind a seawall of giant boulders. Waves crash below a lighthouse, and serrated mountains march down the fjord. It feels like an outpost at the ragged edge of creation.
The deep chill of riding is soon worked out of our bones in the hotel's sauna. At dinner, a cheerfully raucous gang of fishermen sit at the next table, downing pints of Viking lager. Jon Arason, a crewmember of the 42-foot Bildsey, whips out his smartphone and scrolls through photos of their most recent haul, a record-smashing 26 tons of cod. They'd filled their storage hold, and the catch had spilled over into every available space on the boat. They'd even hooked a 12-foot Greenland shark, though the line had broken. I ask Arason what they would have done with a shark.
"You've never tried hakarl?" he asks. His compatriots' laughter should have tipped me off, but I bit. Hakarl is an Icelandic delicacy: shark that has been buried in gravel to ferment for several months. They present me with a gelatinous cube on a toothpick, compliments of the house. The taste and texture are best described as "old wetsuit pickled in toilet-bowl cleaner." A cloud of ammonia clears my sinuses and brings tears to my eyes. But I get it down, and seem to pass some sort of good-natured Icelandic initiation.
We spread our road map across the table, corners held down with pints of Viking, and show our new fisherman friends the winding route that delivered us here. The local news shows the north of the island socked in by heavy snow, so the eastern fjords are our turn-back point. We don't mind. Looking at the unfurled chart, we can clearly see that it would take a lifetime to discover all the secrets of this island, and we're already fantasizing. This strange and wild edge of the world seems far enough for a first expedition.
More information: Reykjavík Motor Center will rent you a BMW G 650 GS for about $210/day. Peak season is mid-June to mid-August, so aim for a shoulder season like mid-May (by September, snow may already be falling).
Credit: Thorsten Henn / Corbis