A Lesson in Kindness While Hitchhiking Through Iceland

A small house in the distance in the Westfjords in Iceland
Updated: 01/07/20 | January 7th, 2020

“Where are you going?” he asked from the driver’s seat.

“Thingeyri,” I replied. A confused look appeared on the man’s face.

“Thingeyri,” I said again, this time changing the intonation in my voice.

“Ahh, Thingeyri! Yes, I can take you there!”

Earlier that morning, I’d woken up on one end of Iceland with the goal of heading to the Westfjords, Iceland’s remote northwestern tip that sees few tourists. I’d crossed a beautiful bay as I’d took the ferry to Brjánslækur.

From there, I naïvely assumed the bus to Thingeyri would align with the ferry’s arrival. But, soon after landing, the dockmaster corrected that assumption: there wasn’t a bus until 6:30 p.m.

It was 11 a.m.

Crap, I thought.

I raced to the top of the dock in hopes a car would pick me. In Iceland, hitchhiking is common as buses are often infrequent.

But, as the cars exited the dock, driving off to complete their journey, none stopped for me. Scores of other people walked toward waiting cars filled with friends and family and ignored my jutted-out thumb.

Alone, I went into the ferry terminal, ate some soup, and ventured back to the road. To my left was the empty dock and, past that, a vast, tranquil bay that shimmered on this sunny day.

To the right were farms, sheep, and rolling hills. The only sign of human activity was the little red ferry building where, if all else failed, I could stay until the bus came.

I waited.

And waited some more.

In the distance, a car.

I stuck out my thumb.

As the car passed, the driver looked at me but didn’t slow down.

I waited some more.

A few more cars passed and I stuck out my thumb and put a smile on my face but they too just drove past me.

Thankfully, it was a beautiful, warm, clear day — the first that entire week. The sun shone brightly above, and the sheep grazed in the meadows. Google Maps showed a gas station six kilometers away. There was a crossroads there and I’d hoped I’d have better luck there.

A small hut beside a shallow stream in the Westfjords, Iceland

As a meandered to my destination, I marveled at how quiet it was. I was used to the loud cacophony of New York City but here I only heard wind and my footsteps. I was in no rush, and the serenity and calm of my surroundings made the long walk bearable. I passed black sand beaches filled with sheep — even they knew to take advantage of the weather.

The beautiful lakes and mountains of the Westfjords in Iceland

When I finally made it to the crossroads, I saw a family eating in the picnic area nearby. Maybe they would give me a lift. I made sure to look in their direction often. They noticed me. Walking further up the road, I stuck out my thumb.

They too drove past.

Hours passed. Cars came up the main road. I stuck out my thumb but the drivers shrugged, turned on their blinkers, and headed off in the wrong direction.

I was ready to give up, trudge back to the ferry building, and wait for the bus, but then, like an Icelandic angel descending from heaven in a gigantic steel cage, Stefan stopped his SUV and picked me up.

I got into his car and he drove off like Speed Racer. The road was in rough condition, opened only a few weeks ago due to a late winter and cold spring. There was still a lot of snow on the ground. “In the winter, this is all snow and you can’t drive here,” he said waving at the land outside the window.

Snowy and foggy mountains in the Westfjords of iceland

The road turned to gravel as we whizzed through the mountains. I was jostled up and down as we hit a few potholes, and I closed my eyes as we took turns too fast for comfort, hoping he would notice that and slow down.

He did not.

But, for all the discomfort, I couldn’t help but stare agape at the landscape that unfolded before me. Around me were melting glaciers, with rivers of clear blue water cutting into the snow.

To my left were huge valleys where waterfalls fell down mountains into rivers and snows disappeared under the summer sun, leaving the growing grass a bright green. On flatter ground, the water pooled into lakes, and travelers stopped to take pictures.

A cloudy day over the water of the Westfjords in Iceland

Stefan and I talked a bit. His lack of English and my lack of Icelandic made long conversations difficult but we shared the basics. He was a fisherman from Reykjavik and married with four kids. “Triplets,” he says giving me a “right, I know” look. He was returning to Thingeyri to prepare for another ten days at sea.

During the journey, he pointed out landmarks and searched for the English word to describe them. I helped him when I could. I’d poorly repeat the word in Icelandic, Stefan would correct me, and I would fail again.

A lone waterfall cutting through the rocks of the Westfjords, Iceland

We drove through the mountains into a thick fog. When we could barely see a meter ahead, he slowed down, taking his time to drive the mountain road. As we crept along, I occasionally glimpsed the snow-covered precipices we would careen over if he wasn’t careful. I was relieved Stefan had finally decided to drive with caution.

As we made our way down the mountain, the fog lifted and he pointed to a small town ahead. “Thingeyri.”

The view overlooking Thingeyri win the Westfjords, Iceland

He dropped me off at my guesthouse and we said good-bye — he was off to sea, I was off to hike the mountains.

A bright sunny day in the Westfjords in Iceland
Purple flowers on a sunny day in the Westfjords, Iceland

The next morning I awoke to see the fjord and mountains, free from the fog of yesterday. As I hiked up Sandfell Mountain, I thought about Stefan and his willingness to help a stranger by side of the road. Wherever his boat was, I hope he was filling it with fish and knew that somewhere out there was lone traveler eternally grateful for the experience.

Nomadic Matt posing for a selfie in the Westfjords, Iceland
 

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