By Charles Russo
We were about two dozen rides in when I described to our current driver – Marty the diesel salesman – how hitchhiking is all but an endangered species in the United States. If local laws don’t directly forbid it, I explained, then America’s culture of fear has rendered it fairly impractical all the same.
“That’s too bad,” Marty replied, “the ability to hitch says a lot about a place.”
His logic was simple but telling, and applied all too well to the situation back home. The romantic scenarios of young Kerouacs and Morrisons hitching the highways westward was an ideal of a previous generation, in a different America. Today, the act of thumbing rides through American thoroughfares is generally expected to end up more like a grim Silence of the Lambs than a bohemian On the Road.
Lucky for us, New Zealand not only allows hitchhiking, but its people typically regard it as an act of neighborliness. Over the course of two months, my girlfriend and I had caught well over 50 rides with considerable ease, taking us from the furthest tip of the North Island all the way down to the massive glaciers in the south. In the process we spent our time exploring the dizzying grandeur of the Kiwi landscape; the temperate rainforests, towering volcanoes, and secluded beaches that were later showcased as Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Ironically though, the passage quickly became as fascinating as the destinations. The slot machine-style spontaneity of hitching rides exposed us to an indiscriminate mix of colorful Kiwi characters, including every opinion, philosophy, and rugby rant that they had to offer: Buddhist Frank the Chicken Farmer who described to us the bouts of depression he suffers every season at slaughter time; Karlo the Gypsy House Trucker who has been wandering the country in his purple bus for almost a decade; Fish ‘n Chips Nancy who gave us a ride as she was running late for work; Barry the Mechanic who wouldn’t let us out of his pickup until he sketched me a map of hidden fishing spots around the Coromandel. The list is as long as it is unique.
Traveling south to Franz Joseph Glacier, 82 year-old Trevor Jones had offered us a ride while we were still having breakfast at a beachside café in scenic Hokitika. Driving down the remote highways of the South Island, Trevor spun us a lengthy list of stories ranging from local fishing rivalries to the time he persuaded an autograph out of Madonna. Most memorable of the bunch were his tales from WWII, when at 17, Jones lied about his age so that he could have the opportunity to see the rest of the world. In addition to the account of his crew surviving a torpedo attack out over the Atlantic, Trevor told of us of a week stationed in New York City, in which he spent his nights in Harlem nightclubs watching the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.
Like many other Kiwis we had met, Trevor exhibited a degree of worldliness that belied the far-flung location of his home country. “You know where you live is remote,” Trevor had said, “when one of your closest neighbors is Antarctica.” Of course that same far-flung existence seemed to intrinsically extract any sort of center-of-the-world selfishness that is so prevalent in the American mindset.
That said, we weren’t always paired with engaging characters full of worldly tales, and while making our way back north to Auckland we somehow attracted a steady stream of traveling freakshows. Chris the Born Again Christian drove a powder blue mini-van and had his multiple disc changer full of Limp Bizkit CDs. He had a frightening habit of getting a few words into a sentence before abruptly switching back to Fred Durst’s testosterone driven lyrics: “Well, I was born in Christchurch but when I was eight my parents moved us to…I DID IT FOR THE NOOKIE! I DID IT FOR THE NOOKIE!” Overall, our trip with Chris was generally more amusing than mentally debilitating, and though it caused me to casually ponder the consequences of leaping from a moving vehicle, his aberrant antics ultimately paled in comparison to our ride with Dave Wild.
Standing on the outskirts of Rotorua next to gurgling pools of boiling mud, Dave Wild pulled up to us in all of his mullet glory driving a battered red station wagon with three grubby kids climbing around the back seats and an ounce of bush weed in his lap. Anxious to get back to Auckland for the Big Day Out music festival, we took the ride thinking that the children were essentially insurance against any major mishaps.
As I did him the favor of picking the weed out of his ounce of seeds and twigs, Dave raced in and out of the oncoming traffic lane so as to gain a few car lengths on the narrow highway. Playing the part of gracious tour guide, he pointed out all of the hairpin turns and tight intersections that had been the site of gruesome collisions and roadside fatalities. Looking into the rearview mirror from the passenger seat, I saw my girlfriend sitting rigid between Dave’s two hyperactive sons with a look that I hadn’t seen since I got into the heated Baseball vs. Cricket argument while riding with 300 pound Tommy the Maori.
Traveling with the likes of Dave and Chris reflected considerably on what Marty had said to us early in our travels. The “ability to hitch” really did say a lot, because although we encountered a fair share of eccentricity in the locals we had met, there was a glaring absence of the sort of tension and distrust that has exterminated the culture of hitchhiking in the U.S.
Of course, Marty had only realized half of the point. Whereas popular notions of traveling emphasize scenery over interaction, hitching enabled us to experience the two in equal proportion. Sure, New Zealand’s fantastical landscapes will exceed the expectations of nature lovers and eager Tolkein fans alike. Yet amidst all of the spectacular scenery and natural grandeur, the interactions we had while driving with complete strangers have come to eclipse a lot of the beaches and natural parks in my memory; a telling reminder that the act of traveling to a place can be as enjoyable as arriving.