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Thumbs Up

Hitchhiking to Þjórshátíð
8.8.2012
Words by Eli Petzold
As I walk up to the edge of the road, I'm filled with a feeling I can only identify as stage fright. I extend my arm and put my thumb up—a gesture I had only ever used humorously in the Southern California where I grew up, as an ironic punch line to the question, “And how are you going to get there?” In the States, hitchhiking was always taboo, the kind of thing my parents and their friends did "but that was back when things were safer."

My friend Cory and I wanted to go to Þjórshátíð—a small festival or protest of sorts against existing plans to dam up the Þjórsá River and install power plants along it. The local community had organised a series of workshops and concerts to raise awareness of the irreversible damage that the damming project would cause. The event's Facebook page promised stunning views, environmental activism and lamb soup—enough to get us excited.

But it wouldn't be so easy; we had no clue how we could get there. We weren't even sure where we were going. The festival's Facebook page gave us the unpronounceable name Gnúpverjahreppur, but we didn't know if this was a region, town or hot dog stand. We knew no one else going (or anyone with a car to borrow), renting a car would be too expensive and buses (also expensive) would certainly not take us to the middle of nowhere. So, how could we get there? All of a sudden, the ironic thumbs-up gesture became a perfectly valid suggestion. Besides, I had heard that hitchhiking was a safe and even somewhat reliable method of transportation in Iceland, so why not give it a try?

Detour: flower shopping

Thumbs up on the edge of Route 1, we watch cars zoom by us for fifteen minutes. Some people wave at us or give us thumbs-up back—do they think it's funny? Not for a first-time hitchhiker. We're so close to giving up when a car finally pulls over: a couple in their 50s from Kópavogur, on their way to Hveragerði to buy flowers grown in one of the many geothermal-heated greenhouses there. They are more than willing to drive us past Hveragerði to Selfoss if we don't mind going flower shopping with them. So we drive through the otherworldly moss-covered fields as the wife names the hills and mountains until we descend into the greenhouse-lined roads of Hveragerði. As we pull into our drivers' favourite flower shop and get out of the car, I begin to feel a bit like an adopted nephew, out buying flowers with auntie.

It's this aspect of hitchhiking that thrills me so much: temporarily glimpsing, even sharing, the life of a complete stranger. Had Cory and I driven this route, the hills along the road would have just been hills, but our drivers infused their own experience and stories into this otherwise anonymous landscape. And we certainly would not have gone flower shopping. Moreover, our drivers go out of their way to help us: when we tell our drivers that we are going to Gnúpverjahreppur, they explain that it is the name of a whole region. “But we'll find someone in Selfoss who will know where you should go,” the wife says. We pull into a used bookstore in Selfoss and sure enough, the man at the counter knows people playing in the festival. He calls them and relays the directions to us: we're heading to a farm outside of Árnes.

Nowhere into somewhere


It takes us a total of four cars to get us to the festival. The second driver is heading to Hella and agrees to drop us off where the Ring Road intersects with Route 30—a short distance from Selfoss. We make small talk, but this driver makes it clear that she doesn’t want to chitchat. Why she picked us up in the first place, I still don't know. Although the ride is painfully quiet, I can't help but feel grateful. Our last two rides prove much more like our first ride. Both drivers are eager to chat about politics, history, the landscape. As we near the festival grounds, our final driver reveals that he grew up in this region. He points to a looming mountain across the Þjórsá River. “Mount Hekla,” he says, “It erupted when I was growing up here. We all came out on the porch and just watched.”

It seems to me then, beholding the immense open landscape, that we have come to the middle of nowhere. And yet, when I think more about this clichéd phrase, I realise that it was not a journey into nowhere at all. Our drivers' personal and historical narratives of the landscape between Reykjavík and Þjórsá transformed this unfamiliar nowhere into a somewhere. Although hitchhiking is certainly not the most practical way of getting around, it's been the most valuable method of transportation I've used here; the mountains, rivers and towns all come together into a living text of both history and everyday life.

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