Monday, March 06, 2017

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Western Iceland

First of all, I don't hitchhike. 

Take me with you? Photo: Johanna Matjaz

That is, I didn't until this past weekend.

See, I'm American and we can't do these things. People in the USA think that I'm "crazy" or "reckless" for sleeping at rest stops, in my very own locked car, where there are often security personnel present. As a woman, I mean. Women are vulnerable and weak, am I right? We can't handle ourselves, right? (Note that the previous two sentences are obviously brought to you by my main sponsor Sarcasm™) Traveling by thumb is a death wish; picking up a hitchhiker an act of prime stupidity. In fact, I recently watched a (really bad) film about a killer glacier that makes Day After Tomorrow look like a thoroughly-researched documentary, and the most realistic scene included an armed and dangerous hitchhiker. I had absolutely no trouble believing this, and this was an extremely bad film described by one reviewer as "cinematic trash."

So anyway. I don't hitchhike, and I was nervous. And I one hundred percent expected to have to fight my way out of some kind of situation, but I figured I could rely on my pent-up rage and stress from the previous academic week and out-of-whack hormones to swing a fist or two if necessary.  

But I went anyway. I'm all about grace, and this was a travel-by-grace situation. 

The plan was to split up into pairs and hitchhike up to the Westfjords region of Iceland, beginning around 9AM on Saturday morning and then come back sometime on Sunday. 

I met up with my teammate Johanna and two other teams at the Ártún bus station, and hopped onto the countryside bus to Borgarnes. 

From Borgarnes, Johanna and I walked until we were outside of town then flagged down our first lift of the day! Our driver was a lovely Icelandic woman who was teaching through the university's Lifelong Learning Program in the next town. She told us all about how her teaching methods; how she teaches courses like Research Methodology, Creative Leadership, and Stress Management and how she enjoys learning together with her students. She told us about a nice hike around a volcanic crater, and dropped us off there before her lecture began.

We took the opportunity to enjoy a walk in the sunshine, stashed our packs in the neighboring lava field, and ate our lunch at the shallow summit of the volcano.

View of the Ring Road from the volcanic crater

View towards Borgarnes from the volcanic crater

Neighboring volcanic crater

View into the volcanic crater, plus surrounding formations

Johanna and I enjoy a midday lunch in the sunshine!
From there, we walked all the way to Route 60 where we were to veer north towards the Westfjords. On the way, we enjoyed some sunshine, snow, and Icelandic horses. It was quite a while before we found our second lift, but we were in high spirits because we hadn't seen sun like this in such a long time!

The stunning volcanic landscape

A long walk in the sun   Photo: Johanna Matjaz

little floofs 

A subarctic paradise

The lovely rhyolite mountain Baula

dream team    Photo: Johanna Matjaz

Our second lift showed up eventually (after a few missed opportunities due to us running down into the ditch to take pictures of particularly lovely ice crystals) and drove us up to the lovely coastal town of Búðardalur. He was a friendly Icelandic man who has a snow removal company, and he mentioned that he was still tired from dealing with last Sunday's snow storm. He pointed out loads of farms on the way and told us who lived there, and where we could get ice cream (v. important!) When we got to Búðardalur, we stopped for a little break. It was also there that we discovered that Malin and Tim had already made it to the Westfjords, but didn't recommend that we try to get there because there are so few cars up there; if we all showed up, it might be nearly impossible to get everybody back to Reykjavík the next day! 

Thanks to Johanna's map of Icelandic hot pots and the kindness of a woman at the gas station, we decided to head north to a settlement called Laugar, home of Iceland's Laxdæla saga and Guðrún's natural bathing pool. This was about 15 km north of Búðardalur, so we pointed our windburned faces toward the polar front and pressed on for some time. We found our third and final lift of the day; three American girls who were headed north to explore the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft. This sounded awesome, but we opted to stay the course so we could set up camp in the remaining daylight! 

A perfect blue fjord just north of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and Búðardalur
We set up camp and set off to find a hot water creek to soak our feet, and that's when Malin and Tim showed up. They told us that Guðrún's bathing pool was just up the hill and that we could sleep in the changing room shelter, a nice viking hut that was insulated with grass and sheep's wool, with a geothermal line running under the stone floor. So, we carried our tent full of supplies up to the hut, stripped down, and soaked in the geothermal pool while the sun disappeared. We relaxed, refueled, and gazed at the starry night sky while the northern lights danced in white, green, and purple curtains above us. Eventually, we fell asleep tucked inside our cozy shelter, saved from the wind and frost just outside. Waking up the next morning was easy and golden, like honey, and it felt like we were still dreaming our sweet dreams!
Soaking our feet in a hot river at the end of a long hitchhike, emphasis on "hike"
Our cozy little hut provided the warmth that we needed on a frigid night     Photo: Tim 

Morning in Laugar     Photo: Johanna Matjaz 

Our little home for the night

Guðrún's Bathing Pool 
Packing up and heading out

Wondering how all four of us would catch a lift home but keeping it bright and sunny anyway, we set off back toward the main road. When we reached the junction, Johanna and I hung back while Malin and Tim went ahead, just to increase our chances of finding a lift. I don't think it was five minutes, though, before Johanna and I flagged down a car driven by a man called Kristjón, who welcomed us into his car and even had room for Malin and Tim, too! He is a 72 year old Icelander who founded an electrical power company back in the 70's which powers the entire island. He spoke broken English and I can speak a few words in Icelandic, so I sat up front and tried to explain to him who we were. He was on his way back from his summer house and was happy to take us back to Reykjavík, but he asked if he could show us a few things first. Of course, we agreed! He took us back to Búðardalur to show us where he used to live, then across the land where his grandfather had a farm to an Arctic ocean fjord. Then, he asked to buy us lunch to refuel; responding to my "Takk fyrir matur" with a "Takk sömuleiðis," it became clear that he was as happy to find us as we were to find him!

The intersection of Route 589 and Route 60

My very first view of the Arctic Ocean       Photo: Tim

What everybody thinks Iceland looks like, probably

After lunch, we really got busy! Kristjón took us around Borgarfjörður along Hvítá (White River) to Barnafoss (Children's Falls) and Hraunfoss (Lava Falls,) to Húsafell near "my" glacier Langjökull, through Reykholt, and over to the Deildartunguhver geothermal spring.  

Driving along Hvítá

Ice formations at Barnafoss

Looking toward Hraunfoss


Gorgeous, red Lava Falls

Icicles at the falls

Just west of Langjökull

Shoutout to Langjökull for being a babe

Huge energy potential in the Deildartunguhver geothermal area

Bubbling geothermal energy at Deildartunguhver

Then, we took the long way down around Hvalfjörður to Þingvellir National Park to finish off our day along the continental rift.

Hvalfjörður reflections

Remains of a US military base

Always moving fjordward

Frozen, dreamy Öxaráfoss

Johanna and Malin moving through the divide

Fissures. Fissures as far as the eye can see.
All of a sudden, it was five in the evening and we were all tired out and ready for home. Kristjón took us all back to Reykjavík and dropped us off, door side service, like we were fancy diplomats or something! Tim and I actually met up with him again today; he took us to Hafnafjörður to tour his electrical power company and then down to Reykjanes to see some hot springs. I have a feeling that this won't be the last we see of him! 

This is probably the part during which I'm supposed to write about how my perspective was rocked and my world view changed, and it was, but I think I learned that this is more about wide open expectations than anything. 

Because even though we didn't make it to the place we thought we'd end up, everything was just fine. Wonderful, perfect even. My expectation, and I think our collective expectation, was to just go. Just go, take a long walk, bask in some long-overdue sunshine, and find something new. Do something new. Meet someone new. Go hitchhiking, you unstable American, and survive it. Expect to grow, but not drastically. Expect to learn, but not so much. Expect to bond, because that's what humans do when they take long walks and choose, actually choose, to exist in a vulnerable space together. Expect to unwind, enough to go back to Reykjavík and be okay with that. Expect to expect nothing, and gain everything that we needed. Nothing much, just enough.

And now we have stories to tell, a little more courage, and a new Icelandic grandpa. And I think that's rad.