Hitchhikers’ Guide to Iceland

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On many of the trips that Matt and I have taken together, he’s been mostly in charge of researching and planning, while I more or less pack my bag and hop in the car. While this tends to work well for both of us, it also gives Matt a certain amount of power to omit key details about what we’re doing until it’s too late for me to back out.

For example, last March we went to Cumberland Island for spring break and we decided to kayak to the island instead of taking the ferry with everyone else. Around the time we began unloading our boats, Matt finally mentioned that it would be a 12 mile paddle. By that point, though, it was way too late for me to change my mind and take the ferry.

Similarly, last week when we spent three days hiking the Laugavegur here in Iceland, we were already about 20 miles in when Matt finally let slip that there would be several river crossings involved. Thus, about 12 hours later I found myself wading thigh deep through swift foot-numbing water that had very recently been snow.

So when we began gearing up for the last leg of our hike and Matt casually mentioned that we were taking a mountain pass over part of a glacier, I was surprised at the information– but I also wasn’t surprised at all.

(Full disclosure: I know that Matt doesn’t necessarily do this on purpose, and that he wouldn’t send us out to do something that we weren’t capable of. I also know that in the end I’m always thankful that we did whatever it was, and I’m thankful that Matt gives me the nudge I need sometimes to challenge myself. Anyway.)

This section of our Icelandic backpacking trip, from Thorsmork to Skogar, was around 35 km and topped out at about 1000 meters. The trail wove up into a high lava field from a 2010 eruption that is mostly buried under several feet of snow. We were hiking it backwards from the popular direction, so the first several hours of the hike were an extremely steep and semi-exposed upward hike followed by 15 kilometers of very gradual decline. (This was actually ideal for us because navigating a steep upward scramble with a heavy pack is a heck of a lot easier and less sketchy than doing the same thing downward.)

Things were really great for about the first three hours of the hike. The views of the mountain scenery behind us and the glacier ahead of us were magnificent, the sun was shining in a mostly clear sky and a steady breeze kept us cool. Then, after crossing an extremely flat and unexpected ashy plateau, we began to notice the first tiny ice pellets coming down on us. We were optimistic that this was only from the cloud passing overhead and that it would soon blow over. As we climbed higher, though, things only got worse. By the time we reached the highest point of our hike, it was a full on downpour of rain and sleet, the temperature had dropped below freezing and we had emerged onto the glacier in a thick blanket of fog.

It’s important for me to note here that I borrowed my mom’s old rain jacket for this trip (without permission) because I knew she had gotten a new one– sorry, Mom. It turns out that the joke’s on me, though, because the jacket isn’t remotely waterproof, and so by the time we began our descent every single thing I had on under the rain jacket was completely drenched. (My boots and gloves aren’t waterproof either.) Matt, who was wearing socks on his hands for gloves throughout much of the hike, wasn’t in much better shape in his ultralight hoodless rain jacket.

Our wet descent into Skogar followed alongside a narrow grassy river canyon, which had giant downward steps in it that produced countless waterfalls, some gently cascading and others dramatic hundred foot drops. Had we not been so miserable and cold we might have actually enjoyed it.

I’m sure you can imagine what kind of sight we were by the time we trudged into Skogar to set up camp. We stumbled into the restaurant there for the coffee that we’d both been dreaming about for several days. It just so happened that that there was a soccer match between Iceland and England that evening, and we got to partake in another multi-national viewing party. (Iceland beat England, to the astonishment of many.)

The next day we began hitchhiking east along the Ring Road, and made it all the way to a village called Hofn (pronounced Hep) before turning around to head back toward Reykyavik. In total, we caught 12 rides and traveled around 600 kilometers along the southern coast of the island. We met a lot of interesting people this way, including a Chinese couple living in Canada who drove the tiniest car we’ve ever been in, a vacationing German plumber, an Icelandic girl who has aspirations of being a truck driver, an odd Russian/Asian couple who we think met online and met up in Iceland for their first date, and one woman who we’re pretty sure is our guardian angel.

I’ll explain. After exploring Skaftafell National Park a few days ago, Matt and I caught a ride to the iceberg lagoon (Jokulsarlon). By the time we were ready to leave, it was evening and traffic had slowed considerably. After about an hour and a half of waiting, it was getting very cold and we were growing disheartened. We decided to count 20 more cars before giving up on a ride and setting up camp on the nearby beach. (Please remember that this is a beach in Iceland at a lake full of huge frozen hunks of ice, not a warm breezy Florida beach– so not an ideal camp spot.) The 20th car passed and didn’t stop. Directly behind it, though, was one more car that we decided to wait on, and, miraculously, it pulled in next to us.

The driver turned out to be an American woman from Atlanta, Georgia, who had decided to give herself a trip to Iceland for her 30th birthday. After we explained our 20 cars story and how amazing it was that she came along at that exact moment, she explained that before her trip a friend had challenged her to do 10 things she had never done before. See where this is going? Yeah, she had never picked up a hitchhiker before.

Her name was Savannah and it turned out that she was headed exactly where we were trying to go– to the campground in the village Hofn.

Maybe it’ silly, but things like that, like Savannah, make me think that I’m somehow on the path that I’m supposed to be on. I guess you could call it a lot of things– fate, luck, coincidence, whatever. You might just call it statistical inevitability. Call it what you want, but it sure does give me the feeling that I’m doing something right.

Matt and I decided that if we made it all the way to Hofn it would be our turnaround point. We spent a day there and then began our journey westward, giving ourselves several days to get back since hitchhiking isn’t exactly the most reliable method of travel.

We made it back to Reykjavik in two days and are now at an Airbnb near the airport to catch an early flight to Amsterdam tomorrow morning.
We’ve loved everything about Iceland, from the never ending daylight to the otherworldly combinations of mountains, rivers, volcanoes, beaches, waterfalls and hot springs. We’re sad to be leaving such a beautiful place but of course are so excited to start the next leg of our adventure. We’re also very excited to spend a few nights sleeping indoors and to eat any food that isn’t ramen noodles. And so onward we trek!

Update on soccer: Tonight Iceland played France in the quarter-finals (I think) of the Euro. We’ve been told that about 10 percent of the Icelandic population, 30,000 people, traveled to Paris to watch the game. Unfortunately Iceland lost miserably and the Cinderella story has come to an end. Icelanders are rightfully devastated, but everyone we’ve talked to also seems to recognize how incredible it is that their team made it so far, being such a tiny country and having never even been in the tournament before. Afram Island!

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