This is the story of how I ended up stranded on a roadside with only human kindness and an opposable thumb to rely on.
Nelson is what passes as a city in New Zealand, considering the diminished population of only four and a half million people, for which we compensate with a fucktonne (technical measurement) of sheep. As the sheep don’t require public schools and much infrastructure our towns and cities are somewhat smaller. I had spent a few days kayaking in the wilderness and decided to spend some time with a friend before continuing my adventure. I spent a few days ambling around the peaceful town, climbing the surrounding hills, finding the “centre of New Zealand” and working some short shifts in a climbing hall in exchange for a crash mat to call a bed at the end of the day.
After a week or so of climbing ropes, coffee and poetically losing myself in my friend’s dreadlocks I felt my familiar pal Fernweh consuming my senses and decided it was time to move on. My next stop on my trip was Franz Josef, a good eight hour drive away, but I was without a car, the bus was expensive and sporadic and, despite some strong advice from my father a month or so before, the characters in orbit around me had other ideas.
“You should try hitchhiking.”
Okay, so let me explain a few things here. I identify myself as a kiwi but I have spent most of my life living in the UK. While many aspects of the culture are similar, there are a few raging differences and this is one of them. In England, if you see a hitchhiker, you tend to think “look at the poor fucker, let’s throw food at them!” and proceed to yell verbal abuse from the three centimetre gap between the window at the roof. In New Zealand, it is a perfectly acceptable means of transport, often argued as green, reliable, affordable and most of all, adventurous.
Needless to say, I had my reservations flowing in my British blood. So I spoke up.
1) “Is it safe?”
“Well you hear horror stories, but you also hear horror stories about crossing the road. In most of the stories, the chicken makes it to the other side.”
2) “I’m not cute or female, who the hell would want to pick me up anyway?”
This is roughly the response I got from one of the managers at the climbing hall; “One time I was down South and I’d been exploring in the jungle and had to hitch a ride back to town. I’d been roughing it for a few days and certainly looked like a dirty bugger, but most absurdly I had a fucking machete hanging off the outside of my backpack. I got picked up in five minutes, and fair enough the first thing they did was ask about the machete but I got a lift none the less. If I, a slightly older gentleman who’d been sleeping in the rain for a few days, can get picked up with a fucking machete, you won’t have any problems.”
Before that day I don’t think I would have picked up anybody with a “fucking machete”. Now I might have to consider it. If it proves to be the death of me, with my last interrupted breath I’ll curse Pete.
3) “How long on average do you have to wait?”
“This depends on a multitude of factors but usually no more than thirty minutes.”
4) “Is it legal?”
This is the response I got from a friend of mine. “In New Zealand – yes. I once got picked up by a policeman who dropped me all the way to my destination. I did have to wait ten minutes while he issued a speeding ticket though which slightly delayed my arrival time.”
5) “What happens if nobody stops?”
“This doesn’t happen. Have hope my friend.”
I sighed. I had doubts, still. I felt the hitchhiking karma gods would not be on my side as I had only ever picked up one hitchhiker before and that was through prior arrangement, but then again I’m seldom the person with a car and/or driving it. Then I remembered I don’t really believe in Karma, or hitchhiking gods.
Also, I’d heard a few crazy stories myself. A German friend of mine told me of a time when she got a ride with somebody who seemed a bit suspicious, particularly after he refused to tell her about his profession. As it turned out, he was a male porn actor and he then proceeded to describe in excruciating detail the ins and outs (haha) of his line of work, mentally scarring his poor passenger. But nothing happened more than a brutal description. “Sure, I’ll give you a ride, how are you gonna pay?” Chikka Chikka.
Somebody else had told me they had waited for three hours for a ride once. But they still got picked up.
I’d also been told that once some people were offered a ride, but after they threw their backpacks in the car the driver stepped on the gas and rode into the sunset with all their belongings, passports and all. But then they were saved by the people in the car behind who put them back on their feet.
There always seemed to be a positive note on the end of these “horror stories”. Besides, I’m a caucasian male. The worst that can happen is that I get murdered. At least then the nutrients from my decomposing body could provide help to a struggling tree. Maybe I’d even be reincarnated as dandelion. Ooh or a bumble bee.
So it was decided. I was throw caution to the wind and to face the oncoming traffic alone, quite literally.
It was just before lunchtime. One of the regular customers agreed to take me to a good hitchhiking spot on the main road West. He drove me for fifteen minutes to a little village just outside of Nelson. It is quite aptly named “Hope”.
“The speed limit here is reduced so people can see your dumb smiling face. Good luck my friend.”
“Thank you kind nameless sir. Have a nice life.” I waddled along with my backpack on and my guitar in my hand and stood underneath the sign, took a deep breath and proudly stuck out my thumb with purpose. I wanted to look confident, comfortable, friendly, approachable, humble, interesting and iridescent all at the same time. I probably just looked retarded.
Here is a breakdown of what was going through my head in that moment.
0 mins – “Hey this is alright. The sun is out, I’m wearing bright clothes, people can see me and I’m in a town called ‘Hope’, I mean what are the chances? Besides, Karl looks kind gnarly sometimes and he always boasts about being picked up quickly, and fuck it, I even showered this morning. I bet I’m glowing in this mid-afternoon sun. What was that about the hole in the ozone again? Where’s the sun block?”
3 mins – “Okay, it’s only three minutes. Hey did that dude just honk his horn and wave? People are so nice down here. Why did I drink so much water? I doubt Hope has a public toilet. Fucking hell.”
5 mins – “A lot of these cars have a lot of empty seats. Where the hell is there to go? There’s only one fucking road on this island and I’m standing on it.”
<insert moment of crippling doubt here>
6 mins – “OH MOTHER OF FUCKING GOD WHAT THE FUCKING HELL AM I FUCKING DOING?!!! RELYING ON HUMAN KINDNESS?!! WHO THE HELL ISN’T A BITTER SELFISH MOTHERFUCKER THESE DAYS?!! It’s okay Tom, just keep smiling, or you’ll have even less FUCKING chance. Maybe I can get halfway to Westport and set up my tent in a field. Maybe I should try to get back to Nelson, back to my little community at the climbing hall, and then I can book a bus and travel with a reclining seat and air conditioning and maybe even wireless internet. What an age we live in, wireless internet on busses and WHY WON’T ANYBODY STOP FOR ME?!! The old grey bastard was probably right.”
10 mins – “Oh god I just want to cry. What’s that smell? Smells like roast beef. Maybe I should put on some more sunblock.”
15 mins – “Maybe I’ll message Karl, see if he has any tips? There must be some sort of art form to this.”
16 mins – “Yeah it’s the middle of the fucking night in Amsterdam. God dammit he won’t reply. I’m hungry.”
20 mins – “Twenty minutes and nobody will stop? What am I doing wrong? I’m smiling, I’m visible, it’s a slow section on the only road to the place I need to get to. Do I just look like a horrible person? Do I just look like I smell bad? Do I look like a rapist? Or a criminal? Did Pete sneak a machete onto my backpack? Why must the world be such a cruel place?”
22 mins – “Oh gentle asphalt, you seem so welcoming and peaceful. Maybe when I eventually melt into you we can be one; together forever. It’s only a matter of time after all. Nobody will stop to pick me up, all my friends have been lying to me about this hitchhiking stuff, there’s no kind people in the world apparently. Maybe I’m better off just passing out right here. And what’s more ironic than losing hope in a town called Hope? My life is a black abyss. Oh what’s this?”
At this point, a rental minibus pulled up to the side of the road and the door rolled open. A girl with a heavy dutch accent leant across the abyss. I pictured the roof of the Sistine Chapel in my head. “Where are you heading?”
“I’m not even cute or female.” was legitimately the first thing I said to her.
“Haha. Where are you heading?”
“As far West and South as possible.”
Melissa and I, on our trip all the way to Greymouth managed to take some tourist photos, ruin some other tourist’s photos, eat sandwiches, eat ice cream, trade stories, not crash the car and have a good time. She took my hitchhiking virginity and she claimed she was happy to be my first. Since then, I have been picked up twenty three times, and while I’m always very careful about which country I’m in, not breaking (too many) laws and staying safe, I will never look back, except to face the oncoming traffic with a smile on my face. I have accumulated some hilarious and impressive stories from the mad characters who partake in this show of human generousity and I’ve even made some friends for life. I even haven’t been murdered yet, but then again, I haven’t been reincarnated as a bumble bee either (you win some, you lose some). I will even tell you some of these crazy stories, but not today for I have already spoken too much.
To end this post, I would just like to add some advice to any budding hitchhikers from my little experiences.
1 – Don’t get murdered.
2 – Be aware of the law, even if it’s only so you don’t hitchhike outside a police station and instead around the corner .
3 – Don’t get murdered.
4 – Exit roads from towns are ideal, but not essential. Slower speed limits allow people to see you for longer before they pass you. Ensure you are standing at a safe place for the driver to stop and where they are able to see you beforehand.
5 – Smile. I wouldn’t pick up a grumpy hitchhiker.
6 – If you have a machete visible on your person, make sure you have a good story as to why you have a machete visible on your person and possibly evidence to back this up.
7 – High five motorcyclists. Honestly, it’s fucking awesome.
8 – Don’t get murdered.
9 – Be ready and willing to talk and trade stories. It’s rude if you don’t, and more importantly, you’ll be missing out. You may never know that your ride is an actor in adult movies.
10 – Don’t lose hope.
And to anybody picking up hitchhikers, don’t be a murderer. I mean seriously, it’s just uncouth.