Circumnavigating Iceland was equal parts beautiful and exasperating.
By Monica Graves
Finding the right words to tell of our time hitching in Iceland is difficult because words and pictures are only a faint imitation of the experience itself. Words fail to convey so much and the reality is life is far more complex, disenchanting, and beautiful than the picture they paint. They can attempt to capture the feeling or story but for every aspect they capture there are thousands more that fail to receive mention. For example, the feeling of piercing cold wind as you stare in awe at a receding glacier that has existed for thousands of years. Or, how humbling it is to stand on the side of the road for hours in the rain, watching dozens of cars pass as you remind yourself you are fortunate enough to undergo this by choice rather than circumstance.
A lot of people asked what drew us to Iceland. Was it the vast landscapes, contrast of volcanic activity mixed with chilling glaciers, or the infamous hotdogs? Truth be told it was the budget airline and dirt-cheap flight that truly sparked our interest.
Disbelief and excitement regarding our upcoming trip flooded in and somewhere among brainstorming sessions, the idea to hitchhike around the Ring Road manifested. If you aren’t familiar with it, the Ring Road circumnavigates the whole country and spans 1,332 kilometers which makes it a popular route for travelers. Hitchhiking intrigued us for several reasons; the primary one was that it would allow us to travel within the constraints of a budget. With absolutely no experience we were comforted by Iceland’s consistent daylight, and the fact that it is an accepted form of transportation (Yes, Mom, it’s legal) enabled us to explore with an open mind. What we did not anticipate was the outpouring of kindness from strangers while we were on the road.
Despite what the pictures may depict, the experience was far from glamorous with multiple sleepless nights due to the strong winds and unpredictable weather patterns. It tested our strength and positivity but we found solace in spoonfuls of peanut butter (we went through three jars in two weeks), laughing at ourselves, and bidding good riddance to those that whizzed by with empty seats as we stood in the rain. We quickly observed that things happen for a reason, and odds are it was a blessing in disguise that those cars neglected to give us a ride because they might have been filled with creeps. Surprisingly, and to our relief, we found the skepticism that is expected for young females traveling alone proved fallacious; everyone who welcomed us in their cars were ecstatic to share part of their journey with us without even the slightest hint of unfavorable motives. Every person we met served a different purpose in our collective voyage around the island with each offering new perspectives. Although we initially hoped for a way to get from one destination to the other we gained insight as our travel companions opened up about their lives, sharing their passions and wisdom.
In total we rode in 13 cars with 17 travelers, altogether of which 11 were men and 6 were women. Their ages ranged from 29 to 73 years old; each of them revealed a remarkable spirit. There was Rhinko, the quirky businessman with a warm heart and fatherly demeanor, who showed us his innovative approach to education and creativity. Our oldest driver, Erling, was a native Icelandic man who moved to Sweden in his youth. Sensing the limitations that come with old age, he decided to return to his hometown one last time, insisting to his wife that he go alone. He often slowed the car to bring our attention to details as they arose from his memory: He pointed out the house he grew up in, the sheep farm his grandparents owned, or the mountain he scaled in his teenage years. He was pensive, and his optimistic reflections on life was truly inspiring.
In addition to our travel companions we also encountered many people who showed us kindness with small gestures and encouragement throughout our journey. Early on we also crossed paths with young travelers like ourselves who understood our bum lifestyle and thirst for outdoor adventure. In a gas station cafe seeking shelter from a raging storm, Abel and Elias taught us the importance of optimism in the face of less than ideal circumstances. Our odyssey around the island came full circle at the end of our journey when we returned to the capital city, Reykjavik, and our “old” friends sauntered into our campsite. Swapping stories, struggles and laughter, the realization that everyone had undergone a transformation was tangible.
Iceland’s landscapes were entirely breathtaking but the stunning scenery served as a backdrop for an experience only possible through the kindness of other humans. Being in a place of vulnerability and openness allowed for real conversations and self reflection that shaped our time on the island in a monumental way. The connections we made and stories we shared are how I will remember Iceland; laughing at a pathetic lunch of peanut butter, or the feeling of gratitude when a kind stranger buys you dinner or offers their hospitality. It is these lasting and impactful connections that add color and happiness to life.