Iceland, the Laugavegur Trek, and hitchhiking for the first time

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So, instead of sharing the logistical details of my trips (there are plenty others on the internet who do that way better than I do), I'm going to try writing stories about people and experiences related to my trips. I realized how much I miss writing as an art form and creative outlet, so want to use my blog as a place to do that. I'll share my story, and then my photos, and then if you want help planning your trip, I'll paste helpful blogs/resources for each trip at the bottom of my post. (You're of course totally welcome to reach out to me individually too if you want tips/recommendations!)

Here we go!

My 30-second brief for Iceland is: It's amazing. You probably need 3+ weeks to see all of its amazing-ness. I didn't see any of the major Ring Road attractions in my 10 days. You should do the Laugavegur Trek if you can squeeze it in. Food is expensive, but skyr is worth every krona. Bring a rain jacket. Maybe learn how to drive manual transmission. Or hitchhike if you're feeling brave. 

I wrote a story on: My first experience hitchhiking - and why I'm proud of it
Sorry in advance to my parents, who actually haven’t heard this story because I knew they’d worry. (I’ll probably get some lectures on safety after this post, even though I made it back alive.) But I did tell my brother while it happened, because unconditional support and real-time safety updates are what siblings are for, right? 

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ONE THUMB OUT, TWO THUMBS UP

I didn’t realize hitchhiking was on my life bucket list until I did it. It hadn’t even crossed my mind as something I might do in Iceland, but there I was, on the fifth day of my trip — right arm extended, thumb standing tall and optimistic, with a big but probably goofy looking grin across my face. I was going for a “I’m friendly, fun, and totally harmless, but I'm experienced and tough so you can't outsmart me” vibe, and although I have no idea if my smile reflected that, I’m going to guess probably not. I’ve never been very good at poker.

Lingering at a busy roundabout right outside a gas station, I immediately questioned my decision-making. As car after car drove by, I realized how little thought I’d given this. I thought I'd rent a car after my four-day Laugavegur Trek (which most of these photos are from), but then I met a girl who hitchhiked to the start of the hike (whereas I paid $75 for an uneventful bus ride). And then I met a couple who hitchhiked the entire Ring Road. I felt emboldened by everyone’s success, and by their insistence that Iceland is one of the safest countries for women, and for hitchhiking. Their enthusiasm was contagious. I thought to myself, “Independent, brave, adventurous women don’t take buses or rent cars, they hitchhike!” - and obviously, I wanted to be one of those independent, brave, adventurous women.

Deciding to hitchhike was probably the fastest decision I have ever made. (It took me a solid 9 months to decide to quit my job, and I'm always the last to order at a restaurant, even though I looked at the menu online before.) So of course, as soon as I was actually out there, thumb upright, the doubts began to creep in. Would anyone even pick me up? Did I just sign up myself up for the least exciting death ever?

There are a few things in life that always make me feel exposed and that make minutes feel like hours. Like sitting in the backless hospital gown in my doctor's exam room, my bare fleshy butt cheeks sticking to the paper-lined table. Like standing in front of my whole company, those long seconds right before it's my turn to present. Like messaging a promising match on a dating app with a funny one-liner it took 2 minutes to perfect, and waiting for a reply. Like, as I found out, hitchhiking.

Each car that passed by was someone evaluating whether I was worth stopping for, which made me self-conscious. Each car that passed gave me glimmer of hope and a quick disappointment. Each car that passed brought a new wave of doubts and questions. I wondered if they were laughing at me for trying. Could they tell I’ve never done this before? Why didn’t that outdoorsy, open-minded couple stop for me? Why didn’t I read some sort of “hitchhiking in Iceland 101” guide before this? Does that even exist? (It’s 2017, and everything exists on the internet. It did exist.) 

My right arm was already tired. I had already practiced my shpeal at least thirty times, although I definitely hadn't mastered it -- “Hi! I’m heading east to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula! Any chance you're heading that direction?” Hmm….Wait. How do you say it again?  I think I can just say the first two syllables. But I think two Ls in a row might make a different sound. Snay-fells? Snay-fett? Snai-fell? I’ll just mumble a little and emphasize the “east” part. I anxiously looked at my watch, and of course, it had only been three minutes. 

FINALLY (as in, after three minutes and thirty seconds of waiting), a vehicle pulled up next to me. A wave of celebratory relief, followed immediately by a voice in my head telling me to quickly assess the situation. It was not a normal car. Rather, kind of like a pick-up truck with an open trunk, and only one row of seats, but much smaller. The trunk had a big barrel-sized container and some sort of machinery and power tools. The 40-something-year-old man rolled down the passenger window, and with a scruffy smile and thick Icelandic accent, asked which direction I was headed. (Cue my rehearsed mumbly shpeal.)

If I were less trusting (and let’s be real, less discouraged and desperate), I probably wouldn’t have gotten in. But I wasn’t sure if anyone else would stop - maybe it was now or never for my hitchhiking adventure! I threw my big backpack of clothes into his trunk, on top of a bunch of orange electrical cords, and hopped into the front seat with my small backpack of valuables. 

I’m a pretty risk-averse person. Sometimes, people don’t think so, because I do things like solo travel and bike trips and quit my job without anything lined up. But I see those as calculated risks - I’ve either done significant research and concluded that the risk is small enough for me to stomach, or I have a solid Plan B (and usually, Plans C and D).

Although I had not very thoroughly thought through my hitchhiking decision, I did come up with a Plan B in case this man became dangerous - open the car door and jump out, and abandon my big backpack in the trunk. Yes, a pretty clumsy and far from foolproof plan, but I kept my hand on the door lock to make sure it stayed unlocked, held my small backpack to my chest, and felt confident that I wouldn’t die if I jumped out of a moving car. I also have a huge insulated steel water bottle that, when full, could definitely be wielded like a club. Hydroflask: The water bottle that doubles as a self-defense weapon. Stay hydrated AND safe. (Clearly, I should pursue a career in marketing.)

Fortunately, I didn’t need my Plan B. This man, whose Icelandic name I sadly couldn’t pronounce and therefore forget, was so accommodating that I felt guilty for even thinking he might be anything but kind. He did some sort of road construction / repair work (hence the vehicle) and was dropping me off at a town on his way to one of his repair calls. He talked about how much Iceland has changed over the years, from the booming tourism and cost of living, to the fact that the Ring Road was all dirt when he and his friends, just 10 years old, would hitchhike from their small town, piled into the back of a stranger’s pick-up truck for a ride into Reyjkavik.

I eventually hitched rides with two more people that day: another older Icelandic man who showed me pictures of his newborn grandchild on Snapchat (which his son downloaded onto his phone for the very purpose of getting real-time baby media), and a younger Dutch man who brought his own car on the ferry from Denmark to Iceland. My three rides were far more entertaining than a bus ride alone would have been, and I arrived at my destination filled with pride.

I think I am most often proud of things that I feel I’ve earned and invested energy in. I’m proud of biking across the country, of the nice jacket I bought in college with more than a year of tutoring money, of the friendships I invest time and energy in to nurture. My guess is that many people feel this way; certain accomplishments give us pride because they are a reflection of our effort. (Side note: I also believe many of our achievements are partly a product of our circumstances, which we often cannot take credit for - a topic for another time.)

Hitchhiking in Iceland made me aware of a different kind of pride I get, when I do something that is totally against my nature. The challenge, unlike a bike trip, isn’t necessarily in the immense effort you expend, but in your voluntary commitment to defy your usual mode of operations. When you surprise yourself, you get that good kind of discomfort, the kind that expands the boundaries of who you are (or think you are) and opens up your world a little bit more each time. 

It's SO easy to avoid that discomfort, because “you're just not that type of person.” For example, on weekends, I rarely go out to large group events because "I'm not a big partier" and "I'm more of a small group kind of person." But when I've pushed myself to actually go out to that random Halloween party, I often have a good time and am proud of stretching out of my comfort zone.

Well, in addition to being risk-averse, I’m also pretty introverted (small talk with strangers makes me a bit nervous) and usually a pretty detailed planner (Google Calendar and spreadsheets run my life). But on my fifth day in Iceland, I woke up ready to hitchhike, which meant saying "fuck it" to how I would usually go about my day - more risk, definitely strangers, no concrete anything. I knew things would work out in the end, I just didn’t know exactly how — how many rides I would need, who would pick me up, where I would sleep that night if I didn’t make it all the way to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The only thing I had planned for the day, was to just go along for the ride (literally).

When people ask for highlights from my Iceland trip, those four hours of hitchhiking comes to mind first — because I am proud of surprising myself, embracing discomfort, and having more fun because of it. With the help of three strangers, I made it to my destination all in one piece, arriving with way more stories than a bus ride would have given me and a correct pronunciation* of Snaefellsnes, thanks to my second ride.

 

*It's snae-fetl-ness, and while I know it in theory, that "tl" sound is a tricky one to execute!


PHOTOS: LAUGAVEGUR TREK

 The view from our first steep ascent, looking back at all of the moss-colored lava fields

The view from our first steep ascent, looking back at all of the moss-colored lava fields

 Looking back at camp

Looking back at camp

 Looking ahead, just 5 minutes into the trek

Looking ahead, just 5 minutes into the trek

 My favorite view in Iceland. Hands down.

My favorite view in Iceland. Hands down.

PHOTOS: SELJALANDSFOSS, SNAEFELLSNES peninsula, & THE WESTFJORDS

And, to cap off my Iceland post, here are a few last photos from my trip that aren't from the Laugavegur Trek - let's just say there were lots of incredible waterfalls, quaint towns, and vistas that make you say "It's like another planet" a million times!

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resources i used to plan my trIP TO ICELAND:

  • Day by day guide for Laugavegur Trek: Frugal Frolicker and Andrew Skurka
  • Carsharing website where I met and hitched rides two other travelers: samferda.net
  • The Lonely Planet guide, of course - used it pretty religiously since I had nothing else and the maps were helpful!
  • Google Offline Maps - download the area while connected to WiFi and use it even if you're offline!