On Hitchhiking in Iceland

 

One week ago yesterday, Melissa and I stood in the Icelandic countryside, upon the grasses at the edge of a farmer’s field at the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 60, six kilometers North of Bifrost. I reveled in the absolute perfection of the warmth and calmness – it was the temperature at which you want no clothes at all; the air itself felt like soft, dry cotton on your skin, and breathing is effortless. As Iceland has almost no creatures of any bother at all to humans, insect or otherwise, we could quite literally have lay down on the thick, springy grass of this valley between the arching volcanic horizons and taken a nap in the open air. I might have done so, just to stay longer in this strange Eden, except for a nagging predicament: it was in the middle of nowhere, and we were, in a sense, stranded.

Any lodging or meal meant an hour’s hike south, and we were trying to get somewhere 130 km north. It was these circumstances formed the first debacle we encountered in our first attempt at hitch-hiking in Iceland.

Sitting on the side of the road near Bifrost in Iceland, trying to hitch-hike

Though we had trouble finding a ride north, the weather was sympathetic to our predicament.

Let me get you up to speed. We were in Reykjavik, Iceland, and we needed to get to Blonduos. We had stayed in the city for four days since we arrived in the wee hours of Thursday morning the week before last, but we had filled nearly every free minute exploring the city, or sitting in one of its cafes, taking it in. Then, on the first Monday of our trip, with the feeling of Reykjavik firmly tucked into our belt, we boarded a city bus that took us to the outskirts of town, and dropped us within walking distance of Highway 1, the Ring Road. Blonduos, where we would become guests of transplanted-Americans Dan and Cat,  was a peppy three-hours’ drive up that road. For the very first time in our lives, we planned to hitchhike.

 

Dan, who we knew through a mutual friend, had suggested it. Had he not, the thought might never have occurred to me. As I grew up in middle-class surroundings in Raleigh, NC, the actual practice of hitchhiking was almost unheard-of, and carried a stigma of danger. Though I’ve shed some of this fear, and have picked up a handful of hitchers over the years, I’ve never done it myself. Besides a simple lack of necessity, it was intimidating.  For whatever reason, the idea of being in the passenger’s seat, veritable prisoner aboard a vessel at someone else’s command (forgive me, I’ve been reading Jules Vern) for as long as they wish it to hold you, excites my nervous imagination more than the idea of some poor traveler attacking me in my own car. But Dan suggested it was safe, and his suggestion was corroborated by the blogs I researched, so we decided to have a go of it.

 

We arrived at the side of Highway 1 outside of Reykjavik with only our backpacks and a small plastic grocery-bag, which contained two cans of tuna and a cylindrical package of some sort-of trail mix of seeds and nuts- emergency rations, should we need them. The road from the bus stop joined Highway 1 in two-lane traffic circle. We cautiously crossed the highway, stepped onto the gravel shoulder beside the lanes headed north, faced traffic, and stuck our thumbs  out. Traffic was heavy out of Reykjavik, and I was giddy. This form of travel meant adventure. We would be guaranteed to meet strangers, who could be fascinating. Our immediate destination was unknown, which made it exciting. It was a challenge, it was novel, and to boot, it was exceptionally cheap – we planned to offer to contribute for gas, if we sensed it socially acceptable, and that was all.

Walking to the Ring Road, highway 1, to try out hitchhiking near Reykjavik

Walking to the Ring Road, highway 1, to try out hitchhiking. We took a city bus to a neighboring suburb to the North of Reykjavik to increase our odds of getting picked up for the long haul.

In not more than five minutes, probably a hundred or so cars had already passed us, and Melissa said, “I’m not as confident as you are that someone will pick us up.” As if we had insulted fate with that remark, and it sought to spite the idea, I turned around, and an old European-style Toyota van had pulled over fifteen yards beyond us. Our first ride had arrived. Melissa and I exchanged an eager glance.

 

A thin, pretty French girl with short hair hopped out of the driver’s seat and graciously opened the sliding door, inviting us to stow our packs on the middle bench seat. I must admit surprise that our first ride was female- I was used to the common case, in the US, of females being somewhat more apprehensive about being alone with absolute strangers. However, if our driver felt any anxiety, it didn’t show- she asked us first where we were from, and then where we were going. Once we had exchanged names and a smiling, hurried hand-shake, we all slid onto the same bench seat occupying the very front of the vehicle; Claire – our new friend – sat on one side, I sat on the other, and Melissa, who took up the least space, sat in the middle. Besides ourselves and our packs, the vehicle was empty. The old van was put in gear, edged tentatively into traffic, and five minutes after we had first stuck out our thumbs, we were headed North. Apparently, it was as simple as that.

 

Hitchhiking with Claire, a likeable girl from France, while hitchiking to Blonduos

Hitchhiking with Claire, our first driver, a likeable girl from Lill, France.

Claire told us she’d have to drop us off roughly halfway to our destination, at which point she’d take route 60 and leave us somewhere along Highway 1 again to catch another ride. As easy as catching our first ride was, we thought catching another in the middle of the country, along its busiest road, was a great idea, and I presumed we’d be in Blonduos by dinner. We chatted with Claire, who was roughly our age and worked for an NGO in Iceland, throughout the ride. Her good nature showed through her pausing, practiced English, and we found conversation easy. After a good hour’s drive, including passing 165 meters under the surface of Hvalfjordur, the Whale Fjord, via an impressive tunnel, and one quick stop near Borgarnes to check the map, we pulled over near the departure of highway 60 from highway 1, exchanged email addresses with Claire, and watched her van pull away. This was the aforementioned paradise: the lonely, beautiful spot where the highways meet. We were warm, happy, and eager to get our next ride. We posted up on the side of the rode, and, just like last time, stuck out our thumbs. But this time, nothing happened.

 

Melissa sitting on a farmer's field near Bifrost, Iceland

We hung on the edge of the field for a little while before we started trying to catch our next ride.

Cars came and passed. At first, they were sparse, and I thought nothing of it – there were less cars to “fish for” here, and so, it made sense that it would take longer to get picked up. But after several dozen cars passed us by, some passing in loose herds of seven or eight, I began to analyze. I tried different parts of our little strip of road. I tried smiling. I tried to look pathetic. I tried standing behind Melissa, because she’s cuter than I am. I tried standing a little down the slope of the ditch, so I wouldn’t appear as tall. I tried putting my bag at different angles so it didn’t look as big. Two hours later, the warmth gone from the air and our impatience catalyzed by our hunger, we temporarily gave up on going North and started to walk the 6 km back to Bifrost, thinking maybe we could pick up a ride from there, or if not, at least lodge for the night. We kept our thumbs out – this time, defeated, in the wrong, but safe, direction.

 

It wasn’t long before we were picked up again. Two very friendly high school girls from the North, on a short trip to Reykjavik, gave us a ride back south to Borgarnes, the city we had already passed through with Claire. They chatted, mostly with me, and I dared form the hypothesis that my looks landed us that ride. But they were polite and helpful, and gave us a few suggestions on where to visit in the north. Then they dropped us off at a gas station and disappeared.   After thumbing at the gas station, and even approaching and talking to a few of its patrons (a practice we felt was a bit invasive) and quickly abandoned, we gave up and decided to walk down to the local campsite and set up camp for the night. Our temperament was cooled by our apparent failure to reach our destination- but this final walk would actually put us in the path of a most fortunate opportunity.

 

We walked the mile or so to the campsite, found a spot to post up, and took our packs off. The campsite was right off Highway 1, (as everything seemed to be in the country), and we decided that before we actually set up the tent, we’d hang out casually with our thumbs out, on the off-chance we caught a straggler. The sun was getting low and we were getting cold. I had almost made up my mind that we were at our final destination for the evening. We watched a few cars come and go. Each time we made eye contact, straightened our backs, smiled. Gave a little wave. One after another, they’d drive by, often shrugging or waving at us as if to say, “wish we could.” An old green Toyota Land Cruiser passed us going relatively quickly. We barely noticed, we’d given up. Then, a good forty or fifty yards ahead of us, it’s brake lights came on, and it stopped suddenly, and to our amazement, began backing up. it swerved into the little paved alcove that formed the bus stop at which we sat, and I ran up and opened the door.  A thin, kind-faced gentleman in casual attire looked me over.

 

“Where you headed?” I asked, a bit too loudly, tired and excited.

“Blonduos,” the lone occupant replied. Incredible!

“No way! That’s where we’re headed!” Melissa shouted behind me.

“No way! Hop in!” replied our new best friend, his tone like a good-natured jab in the ribs.

 

Then, almost as if we were in some Tolkien fiction, we experienced true kindness from this stranger whose land we visited. We were given cookies, coffee from his thermos, a few samples of his deep, reverberate singing voice as he accompanied a few songs on his stereo, and a grand tour of West Iceland, as he sped us to our destination, describing bits of history along the way. When he dropped us off, he gave us the address of his greenhouse just north of Reykjavik, where he sold fruits, vegetables, and flowers he grew, and where we plan to visit him before the end of our trip. We offered our profound gratitude for his kindness, and walked the few short blocks to Dan and Cat’s house, arriving a little before midnight. Dan greeted us at the door, surprised to see us arriving at all that night.

 

Driving from Borgarnes to Blonduos, Iceland

The view from the Icelander’s car as we neared Blonduos. He explained to us that the house we were looking at, now abandoned, was once the last farmhouse at which travelers could rest and get a hearty meal before crossing the highlands towards the north. It was also, of course, the first one that greeted travelers after braving the mountains headed south.

And that’s what it’s been like since. That trip was typical of all of our hitching adventures. We are often picked up right off the bat- once, a genial Belgian couple didn’t even wait for us to stick our thumb out, but approached us at a gas station as we contemplated our next move and simply asked if we needed a ride. Those times when we aren’t picked up right away, we tend to find – with surprising surety – that  an altruistic stranger saves our day at the last moment. Indeed, just yesterday, we were picked up by five fantastic Austrians, a bit younger than us, who had seen us waiting for two hours in the tiny town of Sudavik, and took pity, stuffing us into their SUV with only five seats and taking us almost 4 hours from Isafjordur to just past Holmavik, and even helping us get a room at the guesthouse they had booked.

Side of the road near the west fjords in iceland

Quick stretch and “restroom” (read: behind that rock outcropping) break with our Austrian friends on the way out of the West Fjords

It also seems that if we are dropped off somewhere, walking towards our destination while we thumb, even if it is hours away, curries good favor with passerby, and we are more likely to get picked up. Or, perhaps it just makes the waiting seem less like waiting. This was suggested when we were once again dropped off by the farms bordering highway 1 as it hits 60. This time, instead of waiting hours, and because we were heading south this time anyway, we started walking towards Bifrost immediately – and were almost immediately picked up, by a carpentry teacher at a technical college, heading south for an odd job.

Yesterday was a similar case. After a late start leaving the guesthouse that we found thanks to the Austrians, we found the highway that ran nearby to be disconcertingly empty. But, not long after we decided our only hope of catching a hitch might be walking seven km to the nearest major intersection, a perfectly hilarious German agricultural scientist, on a trip with his daughter as a high-school graduation gift, pulled over and helped us into their small rental. He then took us almost all the way to Akureryi, and even pit-stopped at a beautiful waterfall (or at least, his daughter Ella, Melissa, and I all thought it beautiful – he laughed at it, and opined that it was hardly worth the detour – this was the nature of his humour).

 

 

We knew when we were let out at a gas station an hour from Akureryi, stuffed to the brim with patrons on their way to various places in the country, we’d get picked up by someone. What we didn’t expect was to get picked up, in an amazingly serendipitous turn of events, by, once again, the fantastic Austrians! We had hardly walked across the street and stuck our thumb out when they pulled over behind us, as amused as we were to have run into one another again. What makes that event even unlikelier was that they really shouldn’t have had room for us whatsoever in the first place: the spot in which we sat should’ve been occupied by their luggage. But that luggage was misplaced on their flight to Iceland, rendering their trunk almost empty. We pitied the fivesome for having to buy all new cold-weather gear in one of the more expensive countries in or near Europe, but their misfortune (and, in spite of it, kindness) did ultimately  secure our transport all the way from Isafjordur to Akureryi, halfway across the north of the country and a total of around seven hours of travel.

 

Dirt road in the west fjords, iceland

The Austrians and ourselves stopped to take a picture of an expansive landscape at sunset.

We now sit in Akureryi – a beautiful little city, a little more huddled together than Reykjavik, enjoying a little down time after hitching (of course) to and from neighboring Dalvik and enjoying their Great Fish Day festival. I feel we have a firm grasp on this method of travel, having now traversed a good bit of the country in kind strangers’ cars, and I can myself vouch – hitchhiking is among my favourite methods of traveling Iceland. So long as kind strangers still elect to share their cars with us, I have no doubt it will carry us all the way around the Ring Road and back to Reykjavik, filling our blogs with stories and our address book with new friends.

Road near Bifrost, Iceland, upon which it is sorta hard to Hitchhike sometimes

Along with a huge debt of gratitude to those benevolent souls already mentioned, I’d like to send a special thanks to the Swiss pair who took us to Patreksfjord, the Italian couple who took us to Latrasbjarg, the Swiss/Greek girls who took us from Latrasbjarg back to Pareksfjord, the bus driver who managed not to kill us on the intimidating roads to Isafjordur and the old British gent who made the trip a laugh, the driver of the truck who got us to the airport outside of Isafjordur (“What does your truck do?” – “It drives!”),   the Icelandic gentleman on holiday who drove us through the “longest tunnel in Iceland” on the way to Sudavik, the couple from Akureryi who filled the drive to Dalvik with information about the area, the friend who gave us a ride in the Search and Rescue van (please, if you visit the US again, shoot me an email!), to anyone I may be forgetting, and to all the friendly folks who wished they could but had full cars or weren’t leaving town.