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That’s what the fine print on the map said—Uxahryggir. I put the car in park and fluttered through my Icelandic dictionary (Google Translate does not function in the uninhabited interior of Iceland).
Ux: “Ox, bull”; hryggir “grieving or distressed”.
I squinted at the dim horizon and imagined a pair of pissed-off Viking oxen shifting over the shattered lava landscape, stumbling on the red-black scoria while cursing the humans who dragged them from a land of green grass and easy things.
Such is the beauty of Icelandic toponyms—that every place name reveals a thousand-year old story. Back in America, most of us forget that Ohio means “beautiful water” in Iroquois, or that Arkansas means “people of the sound wind” in Sioux. In Iceland, though, the language of the first settlers remains practically unchanged, while the land is forever moving and burping, shuddering with unease and friction, occasionally exploding into action with burning brimstone and ash clouds rising high above the many miles of namesake ice.
I drove onward beneath a watercolor sky, leaning close to the windshield, sparkling with tiny raindrops. Lurching and bumping, I followed the dirt road out of the blackened mountains, where glacial lakes stay frozen until mid-July and a mere change of wind turns misty rain back into snow.
She was the first human I had seen in six hours, standing alone in the gravel, her black cape flowing like smoke in the wind. She saw me before I ever noticed her, like a witch without a broom—waving at me to stop.
“Do you know where this hot spring is?” she asked, thrusting a book through the open window. No—I shook my head. Never heard of it. There was no map in the book, only a convoluted description of the vague surroundings.
“It’s supposed to be on this farm, but I can’t seem to find it.” She was frustrated, and she wanted to get into my car—I sensed this much. Her dark gaze was unsettling, but the two of us were alone, in the wilderness. There was nowhere else for her to go—but how in the hell did she get out to such a remote spot of Iceland?
“Where did you come from?” I asked.
“I hitched a ride until the end of the paved road, and then hiked—I’ve been walking for hours, but I can’t find this hot spring and I’m ready to give up. Can you take me back? Where are you headed?”
“Pretty far—I’m going to Stykkishólmur . . .”
“Oh. I’m headed back to Reykjavík,” she countered, like a teacher correcting the wrong answer from a slower student. But did I really want her in my car for the next hour? She saw me hesitate. She probably wasn’t dangerous—just weird, I figured—and a lot of people think I’m weird. Besides, I was starting to feel lonely after a day in the car by myself.
“I can take you as far as Borgarnes,” I offered, but already she was opening the car door while I hurriedly shuffled maps and Pringles cans and licorice bags into the back seat. I felt exposed and embarrassed by my visible junk food habit.
“There’s this sacred hot spring up here,” she began to explain, still flustered. “It’s in this book I have—Natural Hot Springs Around Iceland—like, I read that the early Christians used to come up here to get baptized. It’s a healing spring with all this power.”
“Hmmm,” I answered blankly, driving onwards, amazed at the distance she had walked—at least six or seven miles!
“Do you have a raincoat?” I asked, thinking of the crazy weather. One minute the sun is shining, the next it’s sleeting sideways. Tourists get into trouble in Iceland simply because they get too wet and cold. They don’t understand how fickle the sky can be this far north. No, she did not own a raincoat. Only what she was wearing—black boots, black tights, a black skirt, a black cardigan and a ragged shawl that reached for homeless chic, except that maybe she really was homeless. Her little square carpetbag looked the part.
“I’m a nomad,” she declared. “So I’m not really from anywhere.”
“Where is the last place you lived?” I asked, trying to pin her down to some place on the globe—a familiar place that I knew and could talk about with some kind of knowledge.
“Venice Beach, California,” she blurted. Of course, I thought. Whacko grand central—the SoCal tidal pool of burnouts and ruffians, pot fiends and knife jugglers—exported to Iceland right into my car.
“I like that beach,” I offered, trying to be nice and non-judgmental. “I like the ocean.” That was all I had. I was not proud of my reaction to the stranger in my car. She had done nothing wrong. She was simply there, in the wilderness, and she needed a lift. So I talked to her, asked her all the questions you ask the stranger next to you. Her name was Adiya, and she had been traveling for years—five years or seven years, it depends on how you count, and was it important? She loved Iceland and kept returning. Me too, I said. It’s a spiritual place, she said—lots of energy here. She was seeking out all the hot springs—not the touristy ones, but the hidden cracks in the Earth bubbling up with hot sulfuric water. That’s where she bathed—all over the country, hopping from one hot spring to another. Hundreds, she told me—she had soaked in hundreds of hot springs all over Iceland.
“The first time I came, I rented a car, but now it’s just too expensive,” she said. “So now when I come to Iceland, I just hitch. I can travel for months like that. People are nice here. They always pick you up.”
“They do, this is true.” I thought of all the hitchhikers I had picked up in Iceland.
“Do you camp?” I wondered aloud.
“No.” Lugging all that equipment around was too cumbersome. She was couch surfing—staying with random strangers for days or even weeks at a time. The hosts were nice folks, mostly. She liked it, and it was free. Right now she was headed back to her free couch in the capital.
“Where else have you been?” I asked.
“Most recently? India,” she said. “I went to India, because I’m really into traditional Indian music and yoga and stuff.” So she was a hippy chick—hence all those silver bangles and her bulky beaded necklace.
“Don’t you just love India?” I said, my mind flashing with the exotic memories of color and silk and monkeys, sweaty jungles and the beautiful chaos that is south Asia, “India is like, the total opposite of Iceland.”
“Actually, India did not appeal to me,” Adiya said in her spacey, deliberate voice. “It was so dirty there. Everything is dirty. And poor. It was hard to get around, and the people, well . . . I just found it all very unpleasant.”
Interesting—she digs Indian music, but India, not so much. At least she’s honest. But has she been to China? Never. Egypt? No. LA? Yes. Well, you can find dirty, poor and unpleasant pretty much anywhere you look. I began defending India, but Adiya pivoted to England, to France and Sweden—a whole list of music festivals around the world. Her life was nothing more than wandering and soaking up live music and bathing in holy springs and doing yoga at dawn. She was a vegan, too, and only ate organic, whole foods.
“That must be tricky in Iceland,” I said, considering that codfish is on the coins and in every kitchen, and the many baby lambs that polka-dotted the farms we drove past.
“No. It isn’t. I just travel with a lot of spices,” she said, patting her bag. “I make soups—like carrot and ginger—really delicious soups. And I forage things.” Our conversation turned to eating seaweed—raw, or baked into green-hued bread; dulse in Ireland and nori in Japan.
“I guess I could probably survive on seaweed if I had to.” I was trying so hard to be amenable, pretending for a moment that my back seat was not filled with crumpled hot dog wrappers, empty Sprite bottles, and a half-eaten bag of kleinur—twisted Icelandic doughnuts.
“I like the clarity that eating whole foods gives me,” Adiya replied mysteriously, as if she alone had solved the mysteries of the universe by eschewing dairy, gluten, and inorganic vegetables. I checked her face again, wondering if I had picked up Gwyneth Paltrow by accident, but no, Adiya was dark-haired and sincere. This is simply who she was—some crunchy boho California girl wandering the world, drawn back to Iceland again and again—like me.
We talked about the awesomeness of Iceland and the places around the world we shared in common. We agreed that hitchhiking in America was too dangerous. I taught her how to pronounce Icelandic letters and she complimented my aura. An hour later, I dropped her off at the end of the pier in the seaside town of Borgarnes, where I left her staring out over the silvery fjord.
“Have a nice life,” she said, shaking my hand through the window—and she meant it. Our paths had crossed for a brief moment and now we would never see one another again. That’s how travel works.
Updating my guidebooks requires stopping frequently to check every little detail, comparing the current reality to whatever I published in the last edition, hen scribbling down corrections. On my way out Stykkishólmur, I stopped by campsite, where a solitary backpacker kneeled in the grass, rolling up his sleeping bag before the soft rain grew too strong, then hoisting the pack on his smallish body and beginning the long walk out of town. I passed by him a mile later as I pulled away from the town bakery where I had just purchased a warm paper bag of ástarpungur (“love balls”)—deep-fried dough dotted with sweet raisins.
The boy had his thumb stuck out in the universal hand signal of hope, but once more, I hesitated. I had such a long drive ahead of me. I had work to do. I had to stop and take photographs. I had to write notes. The next 50 miles was on a barren, single-track dirt road along the coast. There was no place to dump somebody if they turned out to be dangerous. And I did not really want to share my doughnuts.
At the same time, I began to remember the hundreds of times I had hitchhiked—all over the world—how so many kind and wonderful people had stopped to give me lifts. I remembered what it was like to wait—for hours sometimes—while car after car passed by, staring at me with disdain or pity. I remembered what it was like to travel without any money at all—to sleep outside, to wash in bus stations, and to live by the mercy of locals and strangers. I felt my foot pressing down on the brake and the wheels crunching slowly into the black lava gravel.
“Where are you headed?” I asked, but the backpacker only smiled weakly. I pulled out my map and showed him my route and he nodded. Then I unlocked the back door and he threw in his pack and climbed into the front seat.
The boy resembled an extra from The Hobbit—a dwarf-like character who never made it past the final audition. He was short with a freckled face and a long, coppery beard that seemed ridiculous on such a young person, made weirder by his complete lack of mustache. I was playing chauffeur to an Amish leprechaun—would he grant me three wishes?
“My name is William,” he struggled to say the words. He did not speak English or Icelandic—only French, and so I switched over to his native language.
“Guillaume?” I asked.
“Oui,” he nodded, relieved. “You speak French.”
“Yes. I went to high school in France.”
I knew his hometown in southern France, too—I had been there long ago. The blessing of a well-traveled life is that we know something about everyone, because we know their hometowns. I knew nothing about Guillaume, but I knew that he came from a land of early-morning mist that cloaks evergreen mountains, where goats and cattle tiptoe on the angled slopes of the Massif Central. Now I was driving him through the Nordic equivalent—the wild and volcanic dairy country of West Iceland, where sturdy cows nibbled at the edge of this gargantuan panorama, and the fjord shone blue and clear.
“This is all so beautiful,” Guillaume captioned the moment and grew silent. I waited a minute and then launched into my many questions. He was half my age—only 20 years old. He had dropped out of school at age 14, when he realized that, “could no longer in good faith participate in the elitist corporate-imperialist system that was rigged against him and those like him.” But what jobs are there in France for adults with only an eighth-grade education?
“Je suis au chômage,” Guillaume explained. He was unemployed and spending his dole on plane tickets to Iceland. I chuckled. Guillaume was a kindred spirit. He was also a philosopher and wanted to let me know that he was deeply spiritual. He had no plans in Iceland—only to wander until he felt he should stop.
“I come to a place that I like, and I meditate there.” Sometimes, he could even feel his soul leaving his body, but that was not for beginners. Astral projection took many years of mindful practice. He suggested I read some books written by his guru, but first, did I believe in a supernatural realm?
“I am open to all things,” I said, not surprised at all by the weird turn of conversation. “When you travel a lot, you accept that there are many things you can’t explain.” To cope with the weirdness, I began gushing with stories of folklore.
“Do you know the huldufólk?” I asked. No, he did not.
“The ‘hidden people’ inhabit another realm that exists right in front of us,” I lifted a hand up from the steering wheel and swept it across the rocky horizon. “They call them ‘elves’ in English, but in fact they resemble us—the same size and shape as humans, only invisible to us most of the time.”
Guillaume was intrigued, and so I went on, sharing tales of the hidden people, pointing out to the rocky outcroppings where they most likely lived; how the huldufólk can be your allies, unless you offend or upset them, in which case they will drop havoc into your life—much of Icelanders’ respect for nature traces back to these ancient beliefs.
“Certain parts of Iceland are known to be álagablettir—enchanted places where you feel a strong and mystical energy. Magical things can happen there,” I said.
“How do you find these enchanted places?” asked Guillaume.
“Some are widely known. Others you simply feel.”
“I think I have already felt some,” said Guillaume.
“Probably. There are so many,” I said. “Frankly, I think all of Iceland is enchanted.” We drove another mile without speaking, watching the mountains grow taller and more pointed and the sea turn brighter with the day.
“Thank you for picking me up back there,” said Guillaume. “Some people are afraid to pick me up.”
“No problem,” I replied, offering him a love ball to eat. “I know what it’s like. I used to hitchhike all the time and most people were good to me. Now that I am traveling with a car, I feel like I have to pay it forward.”
“Then you understand karma.” Guillaume bit into the pastry.
“I’m not sure," I said. "But something about this trip, man, there are hitchhikers everywhere. I picked a girl up yesterday, way out in the middle of nowhere. Honestly, I was concerned for her safety, stranded in such an isolated place.” Guillaume replied with a smirk, nodding his head.
“Have you ever heard of the Law of Attraction?” he asked.
“No.” I tried to remember high school Physics or some forgotten episode of Oprah.
“The energy you send out in the world comes back to you. Whatever is going on inside you,” Guillaume pointed to his chest, “that sends out waves of energy, and that in turn, attracts similar energy back to you.”
“Hmmm. C’est interessant.”
“You are the one pulling us to you,” Guillaume was getting excited now. “You realize this? It is you—calling all of us hitchhikers into your life.” He was smiling now, as if this all made sense and he had just enlightened me on the point of my own existence. I found his earnest explanation endearing and sweet, if not naïve and baseless. I respect all beliefs—even this half-baked New Agey stuff, but I also lean towards logical explanations—like, how it’s springtime, and budget airlines bring an increase of backpackers exploring Iceland on the cheap, and that my own past makes me a sucker for my fellow lost souls waiting on barren dirt roads.
Seventy miles later, I dropped off Guillaume in the village of Búðardalur. He thanked me, and I thanked him for the conversation.
“Good luck out there, man,” I said, and he nodded and walked onwards, already searching for his next ride.
Days passed. I zigzagged around Iceland, doing my work, stopping at hotels and restaurants and historic sites. Every fjord and every fishing village stirred up memories from past travels and I remembered how much of my life was forever linked to this country.
When I reached the Westfjords, massive basalt cliffs shot up from the sea, and I drove for hours across the snowy plateau, and many more hours skirting the edges of finger-like fjords. I was exhausted by the time I reached Ísafjörður, where the town glowed with summery daylight all around the clock.
I saw her after midnight, walking to the end of the peninsula, a black shawl draped around her head, like some Civil War widow in mourning. It was her—the same girl from a week ago, with the same lost look on her face, searching for some address.
“Adiya!” I called out, surprising myself that I remembered her name.
“Oh. It’s you. You’re here, too,” she said, unimpressed.
“Ísafjörður is probably my favorite town in Iceland.”
“Can you tell me where this street is?” She showed me an address written on her hand with black ink. “It’s the couch surfing place where I’m supposed to be staying at tonight.”
No, I did not know the street, but using the map I had designed myself for my guidebook, I showed her where to go.
“Where are you staying tonight?” she asked, with hopeful eyes.
“I have a room at the hotel,” I said, then felt guilty, remembering what a luxury it can be—a mere hotel room.
“Is it nice?” she asked.
“It’s comfortable. A good bed, a hot shower, strong internet—all the things you need.” I hated myself for saying that. I knew what it was like to travel without any of those things. Adiya stared at me, and I stared back at her, then I said goodbye and walked back into town.
I explored alone for three more days, sometimes driving for six or seven hours without seeing another car or human. Every fjord felt even more magnificent than the one before, and every village felt so isolated from the rest of the country. I wanted to stop and visit everything, but that was impossible. Updating a guidebook is an exercise in prioritizing—knowing when to stop, and what to skip.
At Dynjandi, I parked my car and took some notes: Expanded parking (@ 50 spots), picnic area, toilets, with camping area to the side. Well-marked trail to the top of the waterfalls.
Ten years had passed since I first climbed Dynjandi and back then, I had come alone—the only visitor that day. Now, there were at least two dozen tourists clambering uphill, stopping for selfies—some of them hanging dangerously over the edge, holding freeze-framed grins until the best picture had been taken. After such a long in the car by myself, I was not sure that I was ready to mix with so many other people, but then I remembered my job, and that I really needed to explore the newest trail to Dynjandi for myself.
I set off slowly, hopping from one stone step to the next, feeling the spray of the water on my face and overhearing the excited cries of tourists in German and American accents over the booming din of the stair-step waterfall. When I reached the top, she appeared once more, standing off to the side, her black shawl around her shoulders and her short hair blowing wildly in the wind.
It was Adiya—way out here—standing at the very edge of the cliff, gazing out at the fjord with crossed arms pulled into her chest. I called her name, but the wind only pushed my own voice back at me. Why was she teetering so close to the edge? I worried that she was going to jump—I knew stories like that, about dreamy travelers who just floated their way from place to place until one day, when they reached some fabulous backdrop that touched them and they made their exit from Earth.
“Adiya!” I shouted, walking up behind her. The girl turned her head, jolted from her reverie.
“Oh,” she said, clutching her carpetbag of organic food and special spices.
“Hi,” I said, “Great view, huh?” I did not know how to ask someone if they were contemplating suicide, or simply enjoying nature with their toes hanging over the edge of a 300-foot cliff.
“Yes, it’s very beautiful,” she agreed with me, in that same affected tone, as if reading her lines in a screen test.
“How did you get here?” I wondered, relieved that she was now backing away from the cliff edge.
“I hitched—got lucky and found someone who drove me all the way here.”
“Do you need a lift?” I offered without thinking. “I’m headed south.” Somehow, I felt the need to save Adiya from the great isolation of the Westfjords. I worried about her alone up here, in the cold, after all the other people had left. There might not be any other cars until tomorrow.
“No thank you,” she said. “I think I want to stand here for a while longer. Sometimes I like to just stop and look for a very long time.”
“Me, too,” I said, though I wondered if I could still make such a claim. Twenty years ago, yes. Twenty years ago I had all the time in the world, and I spent it freely around the world, walking the edge of the road for hours until a friendly soul picked me up, traveling overland because it was cheaper than flying, lingering for days in one pretty spot, just because I liked it.
Now I was older—so many of my earlier travel dreams fulfilled—and I was barreling through Iceland on a speedy mission—to cover as much ground as possible in the very short span of two weeks. No matter how romantic it might seem to my friends and family back home, mine was business errand with a sub-arctic outdoor office.
But we need each other, the hitchhikers and me. They needed me to show up at the right time with a heated car, a fresh bag of doughnuts, and my little book of insight, and I needed them to remember the truth and wonder and why we all come here in the first place—to feel the fantastic pull of Iceland and the strong magic of this great place.
“Mind if I stay awhile?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said, and so I joined Adiya at the cliff’s edge, leaning against a boulder, breathing in the pure wet air of Iceland. The fjord shone silver in the sideways light of the afternoon, and for just a moment, I forgot the many miles I had to drive before bedtime, or the exorbitant cost of gas in Iceland, or the pile of work that awaited me once I got back home—none of that mattered anymore. Perhaps I had willed all these crazy hitchhikers into my life—my beacon of lonely energy shouting into the world until now, with both of us there, side by side at the edge of this flowing water, two wandering humans whose paths kept randomly crossing, over and over again.