To Drive or not to Drive? That is the question:
There’s a funny scene in the cult classic film, “Raising Arizona,” where two convicts named Gale and Evelle Snoats, played by John Goodman and William Forsythe, escape from prison and steal a station wagon. As they’re driving it across the vast foreboding desert, John Goodman bangs on the roof and exclaims, “I just looove to drive.”
I often feel that way when I take the wheel. The forward motion, changing landscape, rhythm of the tires and feel of the wind all combine to give me a mesmerizing sense of traveling through space and time. I welcome diversions and alternate routes, and though I’m heading to a destination, I never know what I’ll see on the way.
Driving awakens the adventurer in me, while at the same time it allows my inner thoughts and dreams to come to light. I’ve probably had a thousand epiphanies while driving, seen a million things I’d never have seen, and been exposed to all kinds of great topics and music on the radio (when I turn it on).
It also allows for a solid place to have a great conversation. When you’re united with someone while you’re driving, it’s easier to get to know them. The time lines up with the white lines on the freeway and there always seems to be something worth seeing or doing at the end of every journey.
So when I read about Iceland, its Ring Road and wide open spaces, I knew that this was exactly how I wanted to spend my time there with my wife Wendy and our best friend Willie.
While I normally wouldn’t recommend a trip in which you sit in a car most of the
time, Iceland is different. There are so many utterly amazing things to see and they’re often right off the road. In the United States, we drive long distances to get to our greatest national parks, but in Iceland you’re already there, driving through a country that is in itself a massive wilderness.
There’s plenty of specific information about car rentals and road conditions online, so over the next few posts I’ll cover general information to help you decide if driving the Ring Road is for you.
First of all, you don’t have to drive. There’s a limited but comfortable and reliable public bus system that goes to most villages, towns and cities in Iceland. There’s also a good airline system for traveling farther faster. Tours are available too, and some people hitchhike.
As a former world-class hitchhiker in my youth, I’ll say that Iceland is a place where you could grab your backpack, put your thumb in the air, and hit the road. There are lots of places to raise your tent and you’d very likely not have to worry about crime or violence.
The statistics on crime in Iceland are ridiculous. With a population the size of St Louis, there are less than 500 people convicted of crimes that require jail time in the whole country. Even petty theft is uncommon. The “wrongness” of stealing in Icelandic culture goes back to Viking times, and the social safety net – provided to the people by the people – eliminates most of the hardships that can push those on the margins in my country (the United States) to commit crimes.
There’s also a strong feminist history in Iceland, and women there are more respected, appreciated, and protected than I’ve seen in other places. While I can’t speak as a female hitchhiker, I noticed that respect.
Having said all that, I wouldn’t hitchhike in Iceland, even as a youngster. The weather conditions can change to anything at any time, and the wind can be brutal. By brutal, I mean that you wouldn’t be as concerned with your tent blowing away while you were gone as you would with it blowing away while you were in it. We’re talking winds strong enough to shred a kite or sandblast the paint right off a car.
And distances are no joke – it’s often hours between the smallest of towns with few cars on the road between them. In addition, the roads are relatively void of any shoulders and standing around them can be dangerous.
There are hardcore, and I do mean hardcore people who bicycle the Ring Road. They are, in my mind, simply insane. There’s no accounting I can offer for them other than to shake my head and say “holy guacamole.” If you doubt their struggle, just check out their pained expressions as they grind past you, their faces flush with wind burn.
My next entry will be on renting a car in Iceland.