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The Wonder of Hitchhiking in Iceland

Written by: Shawkay Ottman

A wind was rushing in off the ocean and the purple flowers that lined the road to the lighthouse swayed. Small white clouds drifted across the deceivingly bright blue sky, which made the day seem warmer than it was. I shivered, breathing in the clean, chill air and the scent of the ocean as I wandered the path over to the lighthouse. My phone rang.
‘Hi sweetie, I was just calling to see how you were doing?’ my mom said, voice not nearly as worried as I knew she was. ‘Where are you?’
I hesitated. ‘Um, just on the side of the road.’
She laughed nervously. ‘I hope you’re not hitchhiking!’
That was exactly what I was doing; hitchhiking in Iceland, and not on purpose. I had two weeks, nine days of which were set aside to make my way around Route 1, also known as the Ring Road, starting and ending in Reykjavik.
Hitchhiking in Iceland
Now, when I say set aside, I mean that once I arrived and answered a post on the hostel bulletin board about renting a car with another girl, she said she had nine days and I said that sounded fine; I hadn’t planned this trip beyond the hostel I would stay in upon landing.
My bulletin-board-posting driver and I set out heading north from Reykjavik, car packed full and spirits high.
Our high spirits soon plummeted into the lava fields, along with any attempts at pretending we could get along. Four days later she drove off into the sunrise (metaphorically, of course, because the sun only fakes rising and setting in June) and I was left standing almost directly halfway around Iceland from Reykjavik, a total of 661 km to cross with my backpack and bus fare. Of course, bus fare is only necessary and helpful when there’s a bus to catch.
Seydisfjordur, Iceland
I was in Seyðisfjörður on the eastern coast of Iceland, which is something of an artist’s colony, standing in a bar with an Icelandic beer in my hand when the local artists, all without cars, broke the news: There are no buses to Seyðisfjörður, but every single one of them in residence had made it there regardless, because in Iceland hitching is part of the culture. I suppose that’s to be expected when the total population of the island is somewhere around 300,000 people, and of those 300,000 people 25% live in Reykjavik. That means everyone knows each other, especially in the countryside, and that atmosphere of community has allowed hitching to become commonplace and really quite safe. As a woman travelling alone, I would not have attempted it had I not been assured by men and women alike that there was nothing to fear.
And I soon discovered they were right.
The next day I caught a ride with someone from my hostel to the next town, Egilsstaðir, and from there I was on my own again, relying on the generosity of strangers to make my way south and then back west to Reykjavik. So there I was, backpack still on my back, bags of food that had previously lived in the backseat of the car hanging off straps and clasps, arm out, thumb up, looking beseechingly at anyone who drove past. The first two days I felt like an idiot, because how many times had I been told that hitchhiking was not something to be done? How many times had I passed hitchhikers without a second thought? Surely what I was asking of those driving past was ludicrous.
The feeling stuck with me, and I couldn’t believe it when I was picked up. After two days of successful hitchhiking, all I felt was thrilled.
Iceland Hitchhiking
Over five days I rode in twelve different vehicles, with twenty different people to thank for not leaving me stranded on the side of the road in the cold and wet. Apparently I went during a cold spring, the landscape not yet managing to reach that earthy green which would cover the plains and sweep up into the black mountains. The longest I had to wait for a ride was maybe an hour and a half, and even then I had the company of a hitchhiker trying to catch a ride in the opposite direction. People picked me up and gave me snapshots of their lives, why they were there, what they had loved most.
The first girl to pick me up stopped despite being late for work. She was probably in her early twenties and had that air that the younger generations of Icelanders have about them that makes me feel like I’ll never be as cool. It was a fairly short ride before we were heading in different directions. She dropped me at a corner where my only company was two disinterested horses, and I was left hoping I wouldn’t still be there by the time she was heading back home. Thankfully, I wasn’t.
On the day I waited the longest for a ride it was cloudy, though not yet raining. A couple picked me up and I crushed my backpack into the backseat. They took me to Jökulsárlón, that beautiful glacial lagoon, haunting in its beauty and foreign from anything I’d seen before. They bought me tea from the little restaurant tucked into the parking lot and told me to take my time wandering along the shore. By the time we reached Vík, where the waves crash with astounding glory and power onto beaches that look like black satin rolled out where the water touches, I think we were all sorry to be parting ways.
Reykjavik, Iceland
When I finally reached Reykjavik I called my mom again to let her know that I had made it safely.
‘I’m so glad,’ she said, so clearly relieved. ‘I never want you to do that again.’
My mother had hoped I wouldn’t hitchhike, but I never wished I hadn’t. Iceland is beautiful, and anyone would tell you that, with it’s lava fields and hot springs, but there is more to it than that. There is a kindness and openness to the local people and those who wander there. So much so that if I ever need a reminder of the goodness of humanity, I just think about the people who picked me up and welcomed me to spend a little of our lives together.

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