Hitchhiking in Middle Earth
Copyright 2018 by Brittany Rohm
I had no plans, no itinerary, no idea, really. But
made getting rides from strangers exciting--if also terrifying, at
hefty backpack, I trudged along Highway 1. The aroma of grass
cleansed by rain wafted past on a summer breeze, and I paused to
drink in the scent. I admired the rolling hills, the sheep bleating
their hellos, and the dusk settling over the New Zealand countryside.
chill nipped at my spine, and I stretched out my arm as far as it
would reach, hoping drivers could see my raised thumb in the
diminishing light. Although I had covered hundreds of miles around
the North Island by way of rides from kind strangers, I did not want
to be hitchhiking at night.
if a genie had granted my unspoken wish, an aged sedan slowed as it
passed me, then veered off the pavement. With the elegance of a
hippo, I trundled to the car.
opened the passenger door. A man the size of a kauri, the largest
tree species in The Land of the Long White Cloud, leaned across the
console. Tattoos wrapped around his beefy arms, and his shoulders
were as broad as a train tunnel. Had he been green, I might have
mistaken him for the Hulk. But his skin was a deep, rich brown—the
color of the earth.
I poked my head in. “Thank you for stopping.”
man flashed a grin like we were old friends. “No worries. Where
Campground,” I said, sure I was mispronouncing the name.
crinkled his nose. “I'm not sure where that is.” His
thick Māori accent drew out each word. “But hop in. I’ll
take you there.”
mound of fresh leafy greens buried the passenger seat, and he
shoveled the vegetation to the back.
got to take this nightshade to my mum first.”
had heard the name, and somewhere in my mind I recalled thinking it
was deadly. Or illegal. Or maybe both.
I could not be picky. No other car had passed in the last thirty
minutes, and the sun’s final golden rays had already
placed my pack on the backseat—careful to avoid the plants—and
slid into the passenger seat. “Thank you, again,” I said.
“By the way, I’m Brittany. What’s your name?”
to meet you, Brittany. I’m Ken.” He eased the car back
onto the highway. “Where you from?”
casual manner mirrored that of so many people who had picked me up in
the last month, but something about him—maybe his biceps the
size of my waist—reminded me of Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
States,” I said, giving him the condensed answer.
longer response was that after seventeen years of freezing in Alaska,
I headed to Nevada to thaw out—and to attend college. Realizing
the Silver State had its share of frosty weather, I moved to Los
Angeles, where I promptly shunned my Journalism degree and became an
aspiring-actor-turned-dog-walker, with the obligatory waitressing
stint in between. I next donned my sea legs for a few contracts as a
cruise ship librarian, sailing everywhere from Spain to Vanuatu, and
at last, I packed it all in to travel around Southeast Asia and
reality, I no longer knew where I was from. I had no job or house or
dog “back home”; home had become wherever I laid my head
for the night, the week, or the month, at most.
glanced at Ken. “And you?”
laughed—an easy, carefree laugh. Then he bellowed with
merriment, “New Zealand.”
smiled at his enthusiasm, at the love he and so many of his fellow
Kiwis seemed to have for their nation of origin. Although I had never
been ashamed of my roots, “Proud American” was not a
moniker with which I could identify. I knew I had not selected two
United States citizens to conceive me, nor had I kicked messages to
my mother from inside the womb, urging her to give birth to me in
Alaska. And perhaps because I grew up north of “the lower
forty-eight”, I had always felt like an outsider.
here?” I gestured to the wide-open fields sprawling out in all
Ken nodded. “Never even been off the North Island.”
someone who ranked traveling above most other things in life, I
couldn’t comprehend how that was possible, how someone could
stay in one place forever—at least without going insane. But
when I searched his tone for a hint of sadness at never having
ventured beyond his narrow horizons, I detected only a simple
was it like growing up here?” I asked.
lived with my mum in a small house. We didn’t have running
water or electricity, and I got most of our food myself.”
thought of all the summer weekends my family and I had spent at our
island cabin, where we played games by candlelight and my sister and
I fetched water from the spring. As a fan of Little House on
Prairie, I enjoyed feeling as intrepid as Laura Ingalls
But we also brought food from the mainland, and we fished only for
fun—not to survive.
did you eat?” I asked.
birds, like Pūkeko. I’d get ‘em with my bare hands.”
A smile creased his lips, and I eyed his oven mitts controlling the
steering wheel. They looked capable of taking down an ostrich.
wild,” I said. “Or as you guys would say, far out.”
do you live now?”
gave a shrug. “In different places.”
answer struck me as odd, but then, who was I to judge? In the past
sixteen months, I had slept in eighty-eight different places, split
between bungalows, guest houses, hotels, locals’ homes,
campgrounds, airports, a car, and once on the side of the road under
only a tarpaulin.
that my living conditions were forced on me; I was employed as a
freelance editor and had some money in savings. I had simply grown
restless of comfort, routine, and familiarity. I sought adventure and
the unknown, days comprised of figuring out what new activity I could
try, what weird food I could sample, or what incredible place I could
is how I found myself hitchhiking across a country at the bottom of
the earth, with only a few possessions to my name.
looked at my driver. “Me too, Ken. Me too.”
laughed again—with zeal. It was easy for me to join in his
continued to cruise along as if we were two old pals out for a Sunday
drive. The speed limit was a reasonable sixty miles per hour, but
either Ken’s car, or Ken himself, refused to go faster than
a few minutes of silence, Ken asked, “How long you been in New
been hitchhiking by yourself the whole time?”
the whole time, but for a while.”
told him that I’d trekked around with two guys I met on the
side of the road near Tauranga but that we’d gone our separate
ways in Wellington. They’d continued south, and I’d
continued exploring the North Island, hiking through ethereal forests
that looked ideal for a Peter Jackson film, soaking in natural hot
springs and giving myself mud facials, learning about the nation’s
history by touring quaint museums, and floating in the salty Tasman
Sea, languidly and without a care. I said I’d been thumbing for
rides not out of desperation but rather to meet locals.
out,” Ken said. “I don’t think I could do that.”
shrugged. “It’s actually pretty easy here. Everyone’s
so friendly and helpful. It’s kind of like you’re all in
a secret competition.”
swiveled his head. “Really?”
I nodded. “I think you’re all trying to outdo each other
time, Ken’s belly, and all of his mass, shook. The small car
responded with a shudder. He eased his foot off the gas pedal, and
our slow pace got slower. I peered out the window, gazing at the inky
sky. It stretched for days, broken up only by pinpricks of starlight.
last Ken returned his breathing to normal. “I think it depends
where you are. Like up here, there are some dodgy fellas, kids who
like to get into mischief.”
line did not elicit laughter from me like my words had from him.
worries, though,” he resumed in his jolly manner. “I’ll
take you all the way to… What’d you say the name of the
place was again?”
Another head tilt. “You know where that is?”
pulled up the Google Maps image I had earlier saved to my phone. “I
think it’s about halfway between where you picked me up and
Kaitaia. Just off the highway.”
sounds good. Can you see where we are now?”
shook my head. “I don’t have service.”
raised his eyebrows. “You don’t got cell service?”
Once I left the States, I realized my phone was locked and couldn’t
be unlocked unless I was back in the States.”
told him I never got a local phone because I was never any place long
enough to justify the purchase. In truth, I had delighted in severing
the former digital appendage. I relished ogling the sun as it slipped
below the horizon, leaving behind ribbons of red and bands of orange
that wove through the dusky blues, knowing it was incredible without
needing social media users to tell me as much. I loved not being able
to check my email twenty-six times an hour, only to see an empty
inbox. And I did not at all miss trading the Facetime app for actual
face time with newfound friends.
shook his head, but a smile played at his mouth. I gazed out the
window. Nothing but the blackened sky meeting the dark green of the
land. I realized we hadn’t passed another vehicle the entire
time I’d been in his.
do you do for work, Ken?”
He took his burnt umber eyes off the road and set them on me. “I
actually just got out of prison.”
enshrouded the car, encasing us like a tomb. Sweat soaked my armpits,
and my heart galloped at a rate appropriate only for a horse in the
Kentucky Derby. I fixed a stare at each yellow dash as it blazed to
life under the glare of the headlights, only to recede into the vast
nothingness behind us. My position was squarely between wanting to
know what he’d done, and being terrified to hear it.
snuck a glance at my driver. Is he capable of murder?
wondered. Rape? Killing only female
hitchhikers from the
States who've admitted they don’t have cell phone service?
mind reeled with questions, causing every synapse in my brain to fire
at once—threatening to shut it down at any second. I struggled
to pass air through my constricted throat. Would I die from a heart
from getting a knife through the chest?
swallowed hard and focused my attention out the window, searching for
something that could help me. Nothing appeared. In a country that
boasted more sheep than people, even the ewes and rams had vanished
from the landscape.
if sensing my anxiety, Ken said, “I was in for armed robbery.”
stunned into silence, I let his words wedge into the folds of my
brain. A conviction of murder likely would’ve inspired me to
fling open the car door and hurtle myself onto the side of the road,
confident I’d be able to get up and dash into the darkened
woods faster than Ken looked capable of doing. But armed robbery
somehow disabled my flight response.
for my fight response, I may have been insane for getting into a car
with the Hulk, but I was smart enough to not engage him in
an effort to “play it cool”—which was the best idea
my short-circuiting brain could produce—I finally mumbled,
the nonchalance of a child admitting where he was born, Ken said, “I
spent four years locked up. Got out just before I turned
by fear, I couldn’t ask what prison was like, what kind of
weapon he had used, or what he had tried to steal. I couldn’t
ask if he was a repeat offender, or if the incident had been a
one-time occurrence he would never, under any circumstances, try to
senses were not only heightened, they were amplified more than the
speakers at an AC/DC concert. The fine hairs in my ears stood at
military attention, and my retinas seemed to focus on individual rays
of light. Yet my brain spluttered to come up with any course of
action better than: Be calm. Ride this out.
the middle of Middle Earth, under a sky continuing to char like all
of the marshmallows I had roasted as a child, I was scared. Bungee
jumping in Thailand, skydiving in Australia, paragliding in Colombia;
these “risky” pastimes I once delighted in seemed like
carousel rides at Disneyland.
options were limited, I knew. I could kindly ask Ken to stop the car
and let me out, and if he didn’t, that would be it. I would
become a statistic, a newspaper blurb, a warning to other women to
not take rides from strangers. And if he acquiesced, I was at the
mercy of the “mischievous fellows” that a felon, of all
people, had warned me about.
I could stay with Ken, in his beige beater, and trust him to deliver
me to the campground like he avowed he would.
again, Ken revealed his telepathic abilities and sought to assuage my
fears. “That’s in the past, though. Now I’m trying
to spend more time with family and friends, trying to make sure the
young fellows don’t get into mischief like I did.”
shoulders relaxed a fraction, and I squeaked out, “That’s
wide grin lit his face. “Well, Brittany, I want to do good. I
want to help people—like you.” His eyes flicked my way,
held on me for a second, then returned to the blacktop. “I
think we all need to help each other. Especially when times are
tough. And they can be tough up here, especially for my people.”
expression, his delivery, and his tone all conveyed pragmatism more
than they did a plea for sympathy. Absent seemed a desire to blame
anything or anyone, to make excuses or to be absolved for illegal
acts he and those he knew had committed.
he expressed his faith in mankind, his belief that if we all did our
part to make things better for one another, we’d all be better
off. And he was trying to do just that, he said—starting with
I listened to his views and learned more about his experiences, sweat
ceased to pool in my armpits. A steady beat reclaimed its residence
in my heart. I realized I would not become roadkill at the hands of a
stopped talking to pull in a full, deep breath, and I heard myself
say, “Good for you.”
shined a smile, and for a moment, the inside of the car radiated
enough light that the high beams were no longer necessary.
Eventually, after a few wrong turns, a number of stops to visit his
kith and kin, and a detour to a gas station to ask the attendant for
directions, Ken made good on his promise.
the ebony of 10:30pm, we arrived at Raetea Campground. Light rain
sprinkled down, and Ken aimed his car’s headlights at my
self-appointed plot of grass. He even helped me erect my tent. I
expressed my unequivocal gratitude as Ken climbed into his sedan.
Then he rolled it across the graveled parking lot and slipped back
into the night.
following morning, I lay awake in my sleeping bag, considering my
next move. The raindrops that had speckled the campsite upon my
arrival had become fat and heavy in the night. Now, they thrashed
against the tarpaulin covering my tent. I knew I could hibernate
until the downpour ceased, or venture out of my modest shelter, try
to pack up without getting everything soaked, and return to the
highway—in search of the next adventure.
crunched the gravel in the parking lot, interrupting my internal
debate. I sat up on my yoga-mat-turned-bed, unzipped the tent door,
and peered out from under the improvised rain cover. The few other
tents that had been there the previous night were gone, but a
familiar beige car approached my home.
heartbeat ratcheted up.
is he doing here? Was everything he said last night a lie? Was he
simply giving me one last night to live, and now he’s
going to kill me?
car stopped less than twenty feet away. The door opened. And out
strained a smile, hoping to appear calm. “Hey,” I said,
wondering how sharp the tiny knife on my multi-tool was. Thinking the
hooked can opener might make a better weapon. “I’m, uh,
surprised to see you here, Ken.”
let out a belly rumbling laugh, rattling my nerves even more. “Well,
I’m surprised to see you. Still here in the pouring
walked towards me, and I instinctively scooted back. My narrow tent
offered no security. The can opener would have to suffice.
then he held up a hand, one strong enough to crush a large bird, and
showed me a brown paper bag.
thought you might be hungry,” he said, his tone as affable as
before, “so I brought you fish and chips. And if you want,
and raised in Alaska, Brittany Rohm grew up with an adventurous
spirit and a love of nature. From the woods behind her childhood home
to the savanna grasslands of South Africa to the watery world of the
Great Barrier Reef, she has glimpsed brown bears, leopards, manta
rays and more. She currently resides in Northern Virginia, where she
works as a freelance editor.
I can give you another ride—as long as it’s not this
hard to find.”
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Another story by Brittany
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