Weed, Hunting & Suicidal Ptarmigans: Hitchhiking In The Northeast Is Crazy

Weed, Hunting & Suicidal Ptarmigans: Hitchhiking In The Northeast Is Crazy

Photos by
Alice Demurtas

I used to hitchhike around Iceland fairly frequently. I’ve circled the Ring Road by thumb three times, and have traveled to various destinations this way. None of the trips I have taken can, or likely will ever, compare to what I experienced hitching from Egilsstaðir to Akureyri one late summer day.

I had finished crossing the bridge from Egilsstaðir to Fellabær, and I was being eating alive by biting midges, when a beat-up Subaru hatchback pulled over. A young Icelandic guy behind the wheel asked where I was going, and when it turned out he was going to Dalvík, I thought my prayers had been answered, as I was going to nearby Akureyri. I hopped in, and off we went.

We rode in silence into the northeast for what might have been less than an hour before he asked me, “Do you smoke?”

The phantom geese

“No, thanks,” I said. He shrugged, reached into his shirt pocket, and pulled out a joint the size of his index finger. I said nothing as he lit it and drew deeply from his joint, puffing away, casually exhaling with one hand on the steering wheel. That is, until he suddenly pulled over, pointed towards the passenger side window and said, “Look! Do you see them?”

“‘Wait here,’ he said, and got out of the car. He opened the hatch and took out a shotgun.”

I looked. All I saw was grass, stretching to the horizon. I said I did not see “them.” He hesitated. “Wait here,” he said, and got out of the car. He opened the hatch and took out a shotgun. “I’ll be right back,” he said with grim determination, and walked off into the grass, leaving me in the car.

Sure, I considered running. But where was I going to run to, exactly, away from a man with a car and a shotgun? So I stayed put. About a minute later, I heard a loud “POP!” and saw a flock of geese in the distance take flight.

The man came stalking back, cursing. He tossed the shotgun into the hatch and got behind the wheel again. “Missed ‘em,” he said. “Don’t worry though, there’ll be more.”

I’m not sure if he was trying to reassure me or himself, but he nonetheless stopped three more times, stalking after geese I couldn’t see but he could. He never got one.

Destiny calls

Toward evening, we arrived at Mývatn, and stopped for a burger. He was clearly in a bad mood, looking like a little kid who was just told no, we will not stop for ice cream on the way home. I tried cheering him up with my own stories of failed hunting attempts, but this did little to lighten the mood. He pushed away his half-eaten hamburger and said it was time to go. Back on the road we went.

The roads around Mývatn can be winding, but he kept his speed up around 90 km/h. He looked positively broken. But then we turned one curve, and there, destiny awaited him.

Two ptarmigans stood in the road. One was on the median, but the other was standing right smack dab in the middle of our lane. “Nei, rjúpur!” he exclaimed, and floored the gas pedal. The bird had enough time to turn to see the bumper approaching. I heard a soft thump. The man spun a hard U-turn, and drove back to the spot. There, the ptarmigan lay where he once stood.

“Isn’t there a ban on hunting these birds?” I asked.

“Well yes,” he said. “But there’s nothing in the law about hitting one with your car.” I couldn’t refute that.

Amazingly, he gave the ptarmigan to me as a gift, which was very generous considering his repeated failure to hunt any birds that day. He dropped me off in Akureyri with my small bird in hand, and drove away. I never met him again.