When I was 21, I worked in a nightclub of ill repute. The windows were painted black, and the doors opened into a dark haze of thumping music and hot bodies. No women worked there — we were all called “girls.” My uniform included giant fake eyelashes, spindly high heels, and a smile that never faltered. Men seemed to really enjoy that version of me, and I went home each night with fistfuls of cash.
At first, the work was kind of exciting. I was an Honors student finishing up degrees in Philosophy and Sociology, and the transgression of dark places fascinated me.
But eventually the allure wore off, and the dark and fascinating club became my real, and really depressing, life. My job was to let men leer at me, to be skinny and delicate, to laugh at my own lack of boundaries. I told myself it was an acting gig. But as I took the last of my university finals, I found myself writing the same Annie Dillard quote over and over in my notebook: How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. I was making great money but losing myself.
I remember the feeling I had on the night I finally quit. It was like I had been crushed into a smaller and smaller space that I didn’t know how to get out of. Everything was wrong, and I felt desperate.
I needed a change, a new sense of self, the freedom to move differently. If I could just get myself into motion, I figured I could deal with the rest as it came.
I drove back to my apartment and opened my laptop. All I could think was go, go, go.
I scrolled through discount airline tickets to countries across the globe. Every new destination made my heart beat a little faster, and eventually, the thought slid its way into my brain: I could. I could actually just go.
Then it popped up on the screen — a cheap round-trip ticket to Iceland, leaving the following weekend and returning a month later. Click. I knew nothing about Iceland. Purchase. I was going. I sat back and stared at the screen. Did I really do that? I started to laugh. The crushing feeling evaporated, and everything was suddenly, hilariously, possible again.
The next day I started packing up my apartment and trying to figure out what in the world I was going to do in Iceland. I looked at a map and saw a single road, the 828-mile Ring Road, winding around the whole country. Considering the touring bike that I’d never ridden more than a few miles and my pile of camping gear, I thought that maybe I could just ride my bike around that one road.
I had one week to get ready.
I went to a local bike shop and explained my situation. The woman behind the counter smiled and asked me to clarify.
“Have you ever toured before?” she asked.
“How many miles a day and days per week will you bike?”
“Hmmm … I don't know … ”
“What’s your budget?”
“As low as possible?”
“And when do you leave?”
“In five days.”
We both shrugged and chuckled nervously. Then she sold me a pair of basic panniers, a repair kit, and a bike box. Because apparently, I had to put my bike in a box to get it on the plane. Clearly, there were a lot of things I had not considered. Actually, all of the things were the things I had not considered.
Luckily, my dad had a friend named Dave who was an avid cyclist, and he sprung into action to help me get ready. We practiced oiling the bike chain, tightening bolts, and changing a tire. He showed me how to undo the pedals and handlebars and pack everything into what looked like a very flimsy cardboard box.
Having never used bike tools before, the thought that I would have to rebuild the bike — a mostly indecipherable mass of metal thingamabobs — by myself in Iceland was overwhelming. As was the fact that once I got to Iceland, I would be totally on my own.
This was in the early 2000s: no smartphones, no google, no help. It was a little disconcerting, but at the same time, it gave the trip the very edge I was looking for. I needed a change, a new sense of self, the freedom to move differently. If I could just get myself into motion, I figured I could deal with the rest as it came.
Over the next few days, I managed to move all my belongings into my parents’ garage and began cramming gear into my new panniers. With camping experience under my belt, I knew to pack clothes that would keep me warm and dry, as well as a tent, sleeping bag, and basic medical supplies. I wanted to go as low budget as possible, so I planned to buy simple foods at grocery stores and wild camp wherever I landed each night.
I read that Iceland didn’t have any predatory or poisonous animals and that there were twice as many sheep as people. Also, there were puffins! Fantasies of being surrounded by woolly sheep and wild birds carried me through the days leading up to departure.
Having never really cycled before, I had no context for what challenges awaited me. I searched online for references to cycling Iceland and found a number of different opinions. The terrain is not mountainous, which makes it easier, but the winds are fierce, which makes it harder. Summer temperatures are cool and pleasant, but you might also get a lot of rain. The Ring Road cuts across stunning, remote landscapes, but that means no bike shops for hundreds of miles. I had no idea how to judge any of these factors. But other people were obviously cycling there, so why not me?
Finally, everything was as ready as it was going to be, and that weekend, instead of going back to my job at the nightclub, I boarded a flight to Reykjavík. I don’t remember much about the plane ride itself. Perhaps I waved goodbye to all the drunk dudes I’d never have to see again. Most likely, I finally found the time to leaf through the Iceland guidebook I had bought. Thirteen years later, I still have that original book on my shelf, its cover dirty and bent.
The wheels keep spinning but we stay in the same place. This seeming lack of motion actually holds its own energy, like a spring that coils deeper and deeper into itself, just waiting to propel us forward. All we have to do is set ourselves loose.
What I do remember is the feeling I had when the plane finally landed in the wee hours of dawn, the feeling of being myself but living someone else’s life. Everything was terrifying but in the most sparkling way.
One of the things I’ve grown to appreciate about personal desperation is the infinity that it holds. We all have times in our lives when we become stuck, when motion stagnates and habits betray us. The things we thought would be good for us no longer are. We are busy but unhappy. The wheels keep spinning but we stay in the same place. This seeming lack of motion actually holds its own energy, like a spring that coils deeper and deeper into itself, just waiting to propel us forward. All we have to do is set ourselves loose.
I found my bike box in the baggage claim area and took out the bike pieces. Somehow I put all the thingamabobs back together and strapped on my panniers. Stuffing the disheveled box and packing materials in a garbage can, I rolled the bike to the airport exit. Outside was Iceland, cool and blue in the arctic dawn. I got on the bike and rode out, away from the airport, and toward whatever adventure awaited.