ARNARSTAPI, Iceland- “There is nothing here!” the camp ground attendant and restaurant waiter in Arnarstapi spoke boldly.
“But is there a place to grab a hot dog?”
“There is nothing here!”
“Well, is there a store or something where I can pick up some food or snacks?”
“Really, there is nothing here.”
“How far away is the nearest store?”
“About 35 kilometers.”
“Is there another restaurant that has cheaper food here?”
“THERE IS NOTHING HERE!”
“Do you sell hot dogs?”
“Is there a French guy staying here?”
“I don’t know any French guys.”
“So there is really nothing here then?”
“Right, there is nothing here.”
There was nothing there, but I paid $12 — an enormous price — to camp there anyway. There was little other option. There may have been nothing in Arnarstapi, but there was less than nothing outside of it — only a volcano, some lava fields, beaches. I was enjoying the nothingness of rural Iceland, but I had now run through my stores of food. I was not prepared to add on another 35 kilometers of bicycle travel on to this day though, and three days before in Eldborg my friend Pierre had sliped the following note under my door:
“Wade, I waited for you until 11 but you didn’t wake up . . .
I’m going to hitchhike till the cross between road 54 and 56, then I’ll walk. If we don’t meet again on the road, what do you say about meeting in the campsite of Arnarstapi, to hike together around the Snaefelljokul?
I was pleased to see you again!
Arnarstapi took me by surprise — it was truly an irregularity in this world. There were over 50 summer homes, a fully operating commercial fishing dock, campers, RVs, a hotel, and hudreds of people all around but there was no place other than a single overpriced restaurant to get any food. There was not even a place to pick up a snack — not even a Snickers bar, a bag of potato chips, or a hot dog — for 35+ km in any direction. This lack of development would be acceptable in a place that is virtually deserted, but Anarstrapi had people all over the place, hundreds and hundreds of them. The business model here I could not fathom: certainly somebody should have realized by now that they could set up a summer shop here and sell snacks and other essentials to the visitors, but, apparently, this hadn’t happened yet. I thought of hitching up to Olafsvik, going grocery shopping, and bringing a load of snacks back to Arnarstapi, setting a table up on the gravel road that goes through town, and selling them for 3X my expenses. At least then the kid at the campsite could say that there was at least something in Arnarstapi. There is nothing here except for some weird dude on a pink bicycle selling Snickers bars.
There is something deeply annoying about places that are poorly developed, places where tourism brings in the people before the essentials of life.
I checked my food stores. Only noodles. Nothing more. Shit.
I rode from the overpriced restaurant to the campground, looking for one thing: Pierre’s tent. I did not see it at first, and found myself extremely disappointed. I had not confirmed meeting up with him again — he just slipped a note under the door of the room that was provided to me at half price. But, soon enough, I saw it, Pierre’s tent. In fact, Pierre himself was sitting next to it, looking up at me as I walked across the field. A smile took over my face: I would have a friend tonight, I had found something in this town of nothing.
Pierre offered to help me set upmy tent, as he did back in Borarnes. I declined, as it is a simple procedure to pop up a pup tent. He told me of his misadventures as I set up my camp. His walk from Eldborg was as hellish as my ride there. Pierre faced 50+ mile per hour winds all through his day of walking. As I’ve well know, such wind blowing on your face hour after hour is enough to provoke small fits of insanity. He told me that he nearly left after this walk.
“Leave to where? France?” I asked.
“Yes, back to France.”
A sense of shock rose up in me. A traveler being told that another traveler is going home is enough to drop a jaw, it is sort of the reaction that most people have when told that someone croaked. Why? Why are you going to do that? I wanted to reply with bewilderment and convince him to not say such things, but I knew what the kid was facing, and I understood completely: tramping in Iceland is not easy.
Pierre then spoke of the anguish of traveling solo through a harsh landscape, of the wind busting you in the face for hours and the sickness of solitude after you’ve run out of thoughts. I knew what he felt. I’ve been there many times, at that ice cold juncture when the excitement of a journey suddenly ends and feelings of loneliness, depravity, and self questioning begins.
“I had to ask myself, what am I doing here?” the French tramp continued.
But he kept on to Arnarstapi, found that there was “nothing there,” realized that he had run out of food with no chance of resupply, and decided to hitch the 35 kilometers to Olafsvik to get to a store. He stayed over night here on the day that I spent on the beach, and then hitched all the way back to Arnarstapi the following morning to stay in an overpriced campsite with lacking facilities in a town where there is very literally nothing, on the off chance that I would read his note in Eldborg and come to meet him.
Pierre, a traveler, spent a day hitching all the way back from where he came just to meet me.
This gesture blew me away. He did not even have confirmation that I would be coming to meet him, but he stuck true to his word just in case. He could easily have just shrugged, said oh well, and kept going on his travels in Olafsvik, and this would have been absolutely acceptable, normal, OK, in keeping with the codes of the traveler. But Pierre made a show of friendship, and I recognized it as being something very rare.
We went and got coffee at a cafe in Hellnar, a small village three kilometers from Arnarstapi along a hiking trail with skirts the ridge of the sea side cliffs. We sat there for over an hour, drinking a half dozen refills of coffee, talking of travel, France, the USA, Iceland, things, nothing. Some pretty ugly tourists sat all around us. People who entitled to money, spending money, treading trails of entitlement, looking through people, looking through landscapes. I found one not too old but exceptionally ugly and fat European lady looking at me. “Hello!” I exclaimed loudly, “How are you doing?” The outrage.
After Pierre and I drank as much coffee as we possibly could we returned to Arnarstapi and prepared dinner. It would be a dismal event. Cooking on our own stoves — his a nice primus, mine a tuna fish can — I made spiral noodles combined with tomato soup and he made white rice which he topped with ketchup. We ate our poor man’s slop side by side. “Would you like some ketchup for your noodles?” Pierre asked as though offering a bit of cheese with my wine. I declined the graciousness.
“Maybe in a couple of days I will switch to noodles,” he stated.
“Yes, and maybe I will switch to rice.”