Dear Loyal Urchin Readers, you are in for quite the treat today: a sneak preview of my adventure-to-date in New Zealand. I’m currently in the very early stages of a thru-hike of Te Araroa, a 3,000 km hiking trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff. To get to the point, I’ve already cheated. For reasons yet to be revealed, I hitchhiked some 40 miles+ with my dad, bypassing two major forests on the trail. I shant go into details about why (you’ll just have to wait), but I will share a bit of the experience.
Since the day I got my driver’s license, I’ve whisked past hitchhikers without a second glance. Occasionally I give them a look of sympathy, in hopes it might make them feel better as I fly by at 80 mph. Picking up hitchhikers isn’t something you do in America, much less thumbing down a ride. I was raised to believe that hitchhiking died out when Jack Kerouac stopped writing about it. I never thought I’d be the one with my thumb held out, somewhat desperately, trudging down the side of the road.
It all began in a somewhat dire search for water. Though our road followed a stream for miles, the banks were so steep we couldn’t safely get down to it. We might as well have been trying to drink from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Finally, we knocked on a door. A little old Scottish lady in her bathrobe answered.
“Do you mind if we fill up our water from your tap?” My dad asked.
“Well, you can just come inside. Would you like some coffee?”
Would I ever. Soon we were sitting on their sofa, drinking coffee and eating toast with orange marmalade – a delicacy after days of dehydrated fruit and vegetables. In some 40 minutes, we were chatting as though old friends about their children and plans to sell the house. There was even a photo album at one point.
We left with several good handshakes and a cheery wave.
Our first ride was somewhat instantaneous: a 1980s Toyota flatbed with chicken bones in the back. We threw our packs on, climbed up, and were bouncing down the country road quicker than I could grab on. With my hair whipping around my face, my hat threatening sprout wings, and my sunglasses bouncing down my nose, I looked at my dad and smiled. This was pretty awesome. The driver dropped us off at the intersection of Highway 1 and grinned when he heard our accents.
“Los Angeles? Denver? New Orleans? I took a Greyhound around America once.” Then he jumped back in the driver’s seat and sped away.
Our second ride was just when we really needed it, at the foot of the Mangamuka Ranges – a particularly hilly region in Northland. A Maori man with his young daughter in a straight-from-Japan Prius (i.e. no English buttons), smashed our packs into the hatchback and up the mountains we went! As we’ve found over and over again, New Zealanders are completely and totally generous with their stories. Our driver, who turned out to be a DJ at a local radio station, gave us our first real introduction to Maori history and culture. All we had to do was shut up and listen.
Three more rides – a special needs teacher, fire fighter, and a German girl over-staying her visa for a boy – and we made it to Kerikeri by the end of the day.
I felt a strange sort of sadness at the end; thinking about all the hitchhikers I’d never picked up. Sure, most look like slightly deranged serial killers, but I have passed up obvious travellers like myself. But I’m not entirely sure that’s the point here. In just a few short weeks in New Zealand, I’ve been completely stunned by the generosity of the people. Whether it’s knowledge, advice, food, or just a kind word, the New Zealanders we’ve met are open and free with their kindness.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we brought a little of it home to America?
You can read more about my hike across New Zealand (and learn why I was hitchhiking to begin with), at www.NewZealandOnFoot.com.