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Picking Up A Hitchhiker in Iceland

Me: “It’ll Make For a Great Story!” Wife: “Hell to the No.”

There are lots of hitchhikers in Iceland, like these friendly, non-axe-murdering travelers I spotted outside of Reykjavik. Why don't we pick one up?

There’s a missing story that should be in this space. It’s a story about how my wife and I picked up a hitchhiker on our drive through Iceland, and the amazingly vivid interaction we experienced when this hitchhiker entered our car outside Reykjavik, and entered our memories forever, giving us a story we’d tell for the rest of our lives.

But I’m not writing that story here, or ever. I have a good reason for not telling the tale — it’s because we never picked up a hitchhiker in Iceland. That’s not for lack of opportunity. We saw dozens of young people with thumbs pointed to the sky as we drove the two-lane road across the southern coast of the country.

To me, this meant that the practice was safe in Iceland. I'm a big believer in the strength of markets. If there is a marketplace of people asking for rides, then my assumption is there are people giving them rides, and thus these transactions must be happening on a daily basis without incident. If there were incidents, then they wouldn’t be here, right? I surmised Iceland was a safe space for hitchhikers and those that pick them up. I wanted to take advantage of this rare opportunity.

“We really need to pick up a hitchhiker,” I opened the debade as I began to realize the unique situation we were in, visiting a country where hitchhikers still exist, and apparently are not synonymous with axe-wielding serial killers, like they are in the U.S. In the States seeing a hitchhiker on the roadside is as rare a sight as a Betamax movie rental emporium.

“No we don’t.” my wife insisted, as she drove right past the hitchers without so much as a brake tap. I didn’t realize at the time that she’d been carrying with her something more than the usual uneasiness with the concept. For most Americans, this discomfort with the idea usually arises from watching a bad horror movie where a driver’s first, but fatal mistake, is a roadside stop to pick up a hitchhiker. Much more than that, she already had a great and traumatic real-life hitchhiker story, and wasn’t interested in giving herself the additional psychological damage she assumed would be required to gain another great tale with me in Iceland. I’ll just let my wife tell her story:

About ten years ago, my dad was driving my brother and me through the winding rural roads of New Brunswick, Canada, to his childhood home. I had the back seat to myself, but that didn’t last long — without any discussion, my dad abruptly pulled over and before I realized what was happening, a random hitchhiker was sliding into the seat next to me. I immediately realized he probably hadn’t showered in several days. “Where you headed?” my dad casually asked from the front, as though he hadn’t just put his children’s lives in perilous danger.

“Just down the road,” the man said. Wait, that’s not really a location, I thought. My dad was unphased, and set off down the road. But irrational fears started whirring in my head. We were basically in the middle of nowhere. This random stranger could rob and kill us all, discard our bodies in the Canadian forest and we would never be seen again. My mind was racing through several variations on the “Family killed by hitchhiker” theme during the quiet, 20-minute ride to Perth, the next town down the road.

From the smirk on my brother Jeff’s face from the front seat, I could tell he was really enjoying my discomfort. Once we’d dropped off our smelly new friend in Perth, I had words with my dad. “How could you pick up a random stranger and have him sit next to your only daughter, without even asking about it beforehand?” I asked.

“Well, this is what we do around here,” my dad shrugged. “We always picked up hitchhikers while we were growing up. It's a long walk to Perth." And that was that.

My wife and I had learned a lot on our one-year around-the-world trip about the value of making connections with other travelers, and the great memories and friendships that could be forged from breaking through that invisible barrier to talk to the people around us. It had given us some of our most cherished memories on what was already an unforgettable trip of a lifetime.

But somehow hitchhikers are different. Why is that? One, they are in need, and you, the driver, have exactly what can solve their problem — a car heading in the direction they want to go. But there are many barriers to the pickup: you have to change your behavior (hit the brakes) and endure an inconvenience (an additional rider, the effort of small-talk, the potential danger) to solve their problem. Also, you have two seconds to decide all this. So inertia wins over, and you drive on.

Of course, there’s much more going on here in the States. Horror movies and a few highly-publicized real-life incidents in the last decades made the public leery of the practice, both as riders and drivers. According to a great Freakonomics podcast the growth of the interstate freeway system, where hitchhiking was deemed illegal, also put a damper on the practice. Others point to the fact that inexpensive travel options and rising car ownership make hitching a less attractive option. Still others blame it on the demise of trust in our fellow man and the loss of belief in community. My wife blames her dad.

In Iceland, all the hitchhikers looked to be in their 20s, and all seemed pretty well put together and organized. That’s politically-correct phrasing to tell you that they weren’t homeless, which was another reason I was willing to pick one up. (Which of course on its face exposes me as part of the problem - it’s a homeless person who really needs a ride the most, yet I would be more uncomfortable allowing them in my car because I perceive that additional complications are more likely: a request for money, hearing a sad life story, difficulty getting them to leave, etc. Meanwhile these well-dressed millennials in Iceland would be just fine resorting to a long walk while on their sabbatical. So because of my warped logic, the person who needed help the most would be the least likely to get it. Why don't I simply use the "it's a long way to Perth" logic of Megan's dad? I suppose that’s a blog post for another time.)

As we drove on, I kept negotiating with Megan on doing a pickup, even though with our rental subcompact car and our luggage, we only had room for one more person: “Ok, I get it, you’ve had a bad experience and are nervous about being in a dangerous situation. And we frankly don’t have much room. So how about this - if we see a female hitchhiker who is alone, we’ll pick her up." (Yes, I realize I've now added blatant sexism to my decision. It's 2017 Jim! Why can't the women of Iceland be just as capable of being psychotic axe murders as men??). "C’mon, it’ll be a great story," I said. "And these Icelanders are so friendly.”

Big sigh from the driver’s seat. “Okay, fine.” So I kept my eyes peeled to find our new traveler friend. But she never crossed our path. Only couples or larger groups of hitchhikers were anywhere to be found. The exciting tale of “That Time We Picked Up an Icelandic Hitchhiker” will be untold forever, and for the rest of our lives, all our future dinner party discussions will be just a little less entertaining.

Great. Thanks for nothing Megan. Now what am I going to write in this space?

Have you ever picked up a hitchhiker? Wanted to but been afraid? Let me hear your stories in the comments below!


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