Let’s clear up one thing straightaway: hitchhiking in Iceland no longer is the bonanza it used to be. Or, at least, this is what my current experience seems to suggest.
I set out from Reykjavík – this is how the story runs – on July 7th. Two days into my forty days of walking I lost my camera’s lens to wind and sand, and was forced to make painstaking deliberations. “Hold on and keep it real” had been the temporary conclusion. “I’ll shortly reach Mývatn, and get the problem solved.” So I left behind the desolated landscape around Dettifoss, with its never-ceasing roar of pouring water and mud, and entered the lush pastures that stretch south-west of the road.
As I pushed forward, doubts kept crowding within. I had already treaded this ground twice before, and never with particular thrills or excitement – at least, not until reaching the cruel volcanic landscapes around Krafla. On the other hand, the prospect of losing precious time on getting my camera fixed once in Mývatn and accumulating further unwelcome delays seemed a realistic and rather dissuading eventuality. As such thoughts gained momentum, I changed my bearing and headed back to the road, and the act felt as heavy as if I was steering the wheel of a ship in open sea.
Two cars passed by, leaving me at their back in a cloud of dust and frustration. The third one halted: a Polish family on holiday, very friendly people. They even took a detour to drive me all the way to the village of Reykjahlíð, the tourist hub on the shore of the lake. I got my friend Sigurjón to send me a substitute lens with the afternoon plane to Akureyri. So far so good. But getting there myself proved to be no joke, requiring a number of lifts and long, wearisome waits. The days of yore when I could cover the almost 500 kilometres between Ísafjörður and Reykjavik in a mere five hours, jumping from car to car, already felt like a remote mirage. I reached the town (and my new lens) late in the evening.
Reykjahlíð – Again
The worst was still to come. It was reserved for the next morning – another clear, unusually hot day. I found out with uttermost dismay, that a whole row of hitchhikers was already positioned at regular intervals along the sea boulevard in a hopeful wait – people of all sorts, often dwarfed by their own suitcases. I think I counted a dozen. “It’ll be easier for you: you are alone” someone reassured me. There was also another guy, watery eyes and the most annoying voice to date, comfortably sitting on the pavement and just exhibiting a sign that read “Egilsstaðir.” I moved on in haste.
If this inflation of hitchers struck me as unsettling, it evidently solicited even harsher responses from most drivers on the road. For the very first time, I found myself being grimly looked at by people through their cars’ windows. I think I walked almost ten kilometres out of the town before some merciful soul finally stopped and picked me up. It was already evening when I eventually reached Reykjahlíð again, roasted by the sun like a stuffed turkey, in a terrible mood, and surely more exhausted than if I had walked the whole way from Dettifoss in a single day.
Whatever the mood, it must be given that – among the tourist resorts in the country – the Mývatn lowlands still stick out and deserve special ranking in the visitor’s agenda of places to see. It is the staggering variety of landscapes and habitats which make this place a unique and indispensable addition to the compendium of sight-seeing in Iceland. Wetlands, lava fields, woody stands and colourful hot springs are juxtaposed alongside almost geometric boundaries, and yet in peaceful and harmonic continuity.
It is the day after my arrival to Reykjahlíð, and I have decided to walk to the geothermal area at Krafla. I am aware that I will accumulate some further twenty-four hours delay in my schedule, but I trust it is time well-spent. I remember I once drove there with my mother – a typical city woman with no love whatsoever for mountains or adventure – in the dim air of a late August twilight. As we approached, her spirits failed and she started displaying all her paraphernalia of religious gestures and invocations. “I’m sorry, but this place is too much like the entrance to Hell” she commented (as if she had actually seen the entrance to Hell before).
For honesty’s sake, the poor woman’s sensibilities had primarily been hurt by the threatening pipelines suspended over the road and the sinister presence of the nearby power station, as much as by the landscape. Anyhow, although back then I found that reaction quite outside the lines, it remains a fact that a disquieting and gloomy atmosphere reigns over the whole place. And today’s ominous weather only seems to amplify that character: thick and low clouds feed a sense of oppression, while layers of brume and drizzle conceal the surroundings in a foreboding veil of mystery.
But as I wander about, every now and then the treasures of Krafla emerge from the enveloping fog: the vividly red tonality of the hills; the vents and fumes that rise from the ground and go to merge with the mist; the kaleidoscope of hues and colours mixed in the mud; the celebrated Víti crater with its green waters; and the twisted and deformed sculptures of lava – crystallized representations of the spasms of the earth. A sour smell of sulphur makes for the only constant around here.
There is just one single element that stands to mitigate the dreadful and forbidding impact of the landscape – comfortably reachable by car – Krafla has become established as a renowned and well-attended tourist attraction. In short, if you are longing for solitude and an ideal of pristine nature, this is exactly where not to be. By this, I do not mean that the experience is irremediably spoilt by the presence of other people – not at all. As lines of visitors walk about the place in a nearly rhythmic sequence, however, the impression becomes one of staring at some plein air art exhibition, rather than traversing a stretch of Godforsaken wasteland.
Reykjahlíð – Yet Again
There are places that always seem to stay the same. I believe that everybody has a few of these nests to come back to, even years later, and be caressed by the reassuring sensation that things have remained exactly the way they were left the last time. Gamli Bærinn – the only authentic bar in Reykjahlíð – holds a similar appeal to me. Stepping inside at night immediately takes me back to some four years earlier: same furniture, same smell, the same vibrant atmosphere woven by many voices chatting in different tongues. I instinctively look around, as if expecting to even spot the same people.
At a closer look, however, I realize that time runs its course here too. Both the food and the service, for example, have lost something in quality. Fortunately, not all changes are necessarily for the worse, and on the bright side I am delighted to find out that Coldplay are no longer part of the house troubadour’s repertoire.
Despite the cool air, a small crowd of youngsters has gathered in the backyard, intent at upholding the art of smoking. I join them. A tall dude with a short blonde beard appears to be the partyleader. He speaks loudly, laughs mechanically, and clearly likes wearing shorts. He has been working as a guide in Mývatn for many years, and knows how to act friendly. “Who are you?” I am asked. “Just a traveller.” Such qualification seems to satisfy everyone and I am given a warm welcome.
I strike up conversations, not all of them entirely successful.
“What are you going to do tomorrow?”
“I’ll start walking to Askja”
“It’s cold in Askja! Why do you want to work there?”
“I like it… But I’ll stay in Askja only one day. And then walk to Reykjavík”
“And doing what?”
“Just walking all the way!”
“Yes, but what sort of job?”
“Oh, forget about it.”
Nothing But the Real Thing
I am awoken at 5:30 in the morning: a group of French tourists are breaking camp and not bothering to do it quietly. Although they speak as excitedly as if the end of the world was upon us, the only word I can clearly distinguish is merely froid. I open my sleeping bag and sit up, and have at once to come to terms with the cold reality: I am hung-over. It takes me three cups of strong coffee before being eventually ready to set out.
At the southern border of the village, the thickets begin – and with them, what I call in my mind “the real thing.” Matter of a mere twenty kilometres, and the inlands will gradually become Highlands – civilization, a fading memory. Reykjahlíð is the only and last village for the next thirty days.
A broken camera lens, a detour to Akureyri, one day of delay: it has been a troubled start of my journey, far from what I had ideally pictured. I pray that better luck will assist me from now on. The “Weather of Great Occasions” is upon the land, and for a while I wish that someone was going to accompany me to the limit of town and tell me goodbye and good luck. But I am alone. A sudden pang of melancholy pierces me like a sting – sometimes leaving places is one of the hardest facets of solitude.
“This is how real adventures start: under an overcast sky and introspective mood. Until now it’s still been preliminaries, this is the actual beginning.” I make myself courageous and dive into the dark greenness of the thickets. I am glad of having the trees around me: they give a sense of safety and protection, of being hidden from any watchful eyes. I hold my breath and push forward along the path. The Highlands are waiting.