Escape: Cold Comfort

Renewing our vows on the back of a bike in Reykjavík, Iceland

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Joe Gresh

If you want to stay married to the same woman for a really long time, you've got to be willing to navigate a trackless emotional jungle. Part Indiana Jones, part Sigmund Freud, you blunder through the half-light, never finding firm footing and always on the alert for diabolical sensitivity traps laid with love and the best of intentions.

Take this year, when my wife Colleen told me not to make a big deal out of our 20th wedding anniversary. "Let's save the money instead," she said. Like a rookie on a snipe hunt, I made that No Big Deal. I made it such a No Big Deal, I forgot all about it, the importance of the day slipping my mind like an old Sachs six-speed transmission slips into neutral. Until, that is, she came home from work.

It was quite a scene. I begged; she snarled. Offers of dinner were rebuffed. I plied her with the traditional day-late-and-a-dollar-short long-stem roses. I tried to purchase a Mulligan from her but the damage was done. In the penal code of marriage crime, failing to properly celebrate the 20-year mark is equivalent to Murder One. "Book 'em, Danno!"

I haven't been dozing this past fifth of a century, though. Experience has taught me that the fastest way out of marital strife is to spend lavishly. Which explains how we ended up in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, in Reykjavík, Iceland. Nothing says "Happy anniversary, baby" like a nice motorcycle ride around a chilly fjord.

We pick up our Suzuki V-Strom 650 from Haddi at Riding Iceland (www.ridingiceland.is). The 'Strom rents for 118 euros a day. I work it into the conversation that I am the tiniest writer at Motorcyclist magazine and therefore won't tax the 'Strom's tires. The rental price plunges to 115 euros a day. That's the power of the press.

Haddi and I appear to be identical twins separated at birth, and we fight an unnerving desire to start doing the mime-looking-in-a-mirror shtick. With our luggage bungeed to the 650, my wife climbs onto the pillion. "It's the most comfortable motorcycle you've ever had," she says, tears running down her cheeks. This is true: My bikes have not been very passenger-friendly. She once did 2000 miles to Sturgis with a broken helmet and no backrest on the postage-stamp seat of a V-Max. Then there's my old Yamaha Enduro with no backseat at all; she sits on the rack. Still, I feel the water works are uncalled for. I've gone out of my way to set up this anniversary motorcycle trip just for her.

We're in a downtown Reykjavik bar, and I ask a group of local motorcyclists if they speak English. Stupid question; everybody here speaks English. I will never see any of these leather-clad Moto-Vikings again, so I ask them where a good place to ride is. They laugh and point at the ground. I get it: to the bar. "I mean twisty roads out in the country." The Vikings think everything I say is hilarious, which is good; you don't want Vikings upset with you. Finally, one of the Vikettes (Valkyries?) suggests the first fjord to the north. "Be careful," she says, "the wind will blow your motorcycle off the road."

Normal September weather in Iceland is breezy and overcast with a light dusting of rain, but for our ride up the coast, broken-glass sunshine litters the ground. We turn right onto Highway 47 just before the entrance to the Hvalfjorour tunnel and begin circumnavigating the sinuous road around Hvalfjorour-fjord.

Colleen is comfortable on the back of the V-Strom; too comfortable. Next she'll want me to buy one of these smooth-running Suzukis and take her riding with me all the time. Then she'll make me wear a European carry-all rakishly slung over my shoulder. A manicure, or worse, a pedicure can't be far behind. I better nip this metrosexual-rider action right now. We pull off onto a bumpy dirt road and drunkenly weave across a single-lane bridge, passing waterfalls and grassy fields lousy with shaggy horse. "What's that baby? Can't hear you!"

When the Vikings landed in Iceland 1000 years ago, all they found were a few Irish monks glad to be out of the rain. Lacking even basic cable, the Icelanders created The Sagas: bloody 12th-century soap operas where no one's hide went un-flayed. Saga stuff is everywhere in Iceland: Next to that rock, Guntar slaughtered Hans and his extended family. We just passed the spot where Olaf strung up Eric by his Achilles tendons. Those early Vikings were well schooled in vengeance. The modern Icelander seems much nicer. Of course, I can't vouch for them in the middle of winter. Six months of darkness will turn anyone into a Beserker.

Borgarnes, our lunch stop, is like Saga Central. Everyone who killed anyone in the ancient texts did so here. Twenty miles from Reykjavik as the puffin flies, our fjord-based route has rung up 75 sweet, twisty miles to get here. On the ragged edge of Borgarfjordur-fjord, we stop to spit out the vowels and consonants filling our mouths and dine at the Buoarklettur restaurant/Viking museum. As a rule, real Icelandic folk-cooking involves an abnormal amount of cast-off body parts. You'll want to avoid local delicacies like decomposing shark, pickled ram's testicles and split-down-the-center sheep head. Exception to this rule can be made for the homemade-in-boiling-thermal-pools bread. On this trip we stick with Nuevo-Icelandic cuisine: tjomato sjoup, hjotdogs, and Fjrench fjries.

The weather has dulled a bit and our original destination, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, not only looks like the moon, it might as well be on the moon. You know me: If I was alone, I'd push on. I laugh at cold weather like Ed McMahon laughed at Johnny Carson: by the hour. If we keep going, it will be dark and cold on the way back. My wife pulls out her 20-year-anniversary Get Out of Riding Cold pass and we head home to Reykjavik.

Luckily, before we left Riding Iceland, I bummed 200 Krona off Haddi (about $1.50) for the tunnel toll, the only hard currency I have needed in Iceland. We almost make it back to Haddi's shop before the irresistible pull of the suburban Kringlan Mall draws us into its consumer vortex. So where is the helmet lock on the Wee-Strom? Giving up, I carry the helmets through the mall while my wife purchases 10 or 15 pairs of shoes.

So here's the deal, boys: You too can be the sensitive, altruistic kind of husband I am. A long afternoon's flight out of Boston's Logan Airport puts East Coast love birds smack-dab in Iceland's other-planetary world. With a frisky motorcycle between her legs and Iceland's crisp, clean air, feather-light rainfall and impressive volcanic scenery, she can't help but fall in love with you all over again.

And listen: Play it safe. Don't wait 20 years to take her there.

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