Hitchhiking in Middle Earth

Brittany Rohm

© Copyright 2018 by Brittany Rohm


Photo of a girl hitchhiking in New Zealand.

I had no plans, no itinerary, no idea, really. But that's what made getting rides from strangers exciting--if also terrifying, at times.

Encumbered by a 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.

The dusk.

A 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.
As 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.

I 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.

Hi.” I poked my head in. “Thank you for stopping.”

The man flashed a grin like we were old friends. “No worries. Where you going?”

Raetea Campground,” I said, sure I was mispronouncing the name.

He 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.”

A mound of fresh leafy greens buried the passenger seat, and he shoveled the vegetation to the back.

Just got to take this nightshade to my mum first.”

I had heard the name, and somewhere in my mind I recalled thinking it was deadly. Or illegal. Or maybe both.

But I could not be picky. No other car had passed in the last thirty minutes, and the sun’s final golden rays had already disappeared.

I 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?”

Nice to meet you, Brittany. I’m Ken.” He eased the car back onto the highway. “Where you from?”

His 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.

The States,” I said, giving him the condensed answer.

The 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 Oceania.

In 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.

I glanced at Ken. “And you?”

He laughed—an easy, carefree laugh. Then he bellowed with merriment, “New Zealand.”

I 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.

Up here?” I gestured to the wide-open fields sprawling out in all directions.

Yup.” Ken nodded. “Never even been off the North Island.”

For 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 matter-of-factness.

What was it like growing up here?” I asked.

I lived with my mum in a small house. We didn’t have running water or electricity, and I got most of our food myself.”

Wow, that’s impressive.”

I 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 the Prairie, I enjoyed feeling as intrepid as Laura Ingalls Wilder. But we also brought food from the mainland, and we fished only for fun—not to survive.

What did you eat?” I asked.

Mostly 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.
That’s wild,” I said. “Or as you guys would say, far out.”

Ken chuckled.

Where do you live now?”

He gave a shrug. “In different places.”

His 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.

Not 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 explore.

Which is how I found myself hitchhiking across a country at the bottom of the earth, with only a few possessions to my name.

I looked at my driver. “Me too, Ken. Me too.”

He laughed again—with zeal. It was easy for me to join in his mirth.

We 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 forty.

After a few minutes of silence, Ken asked, “How long you been in New Zealand?”

Almost three months.”

You been hitchhiking by yourself the whole time?”

Not the whole time, but for a while.”

I 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.

Far out,” Ken said. “I don’t think I could do that.”

I 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.”

Ken swiveled his head. “Really?”

Yeah.” I nodded. “I think you’re all trying to outdo each other with kindness.”

This 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.

At 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.”

His line did not elicit laughter from me like my words had from him.

No 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?”

Raetea Campground.”

Right.” Another head tilt. “You know where that is?”

I 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.”

Oh, sounds good. Can you see where we are now?”

I shook my head. “I don’t have service.”

Ken raised his eyebrows. “You don’t got cell service?”

Nope. Once I left the States, I realized my phone was locked and couldn’t be unlocked unless I was back in the States.”
I 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.

Ken 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.

What do you do for work, Ken?”

Well...” He took his burnt umber eyes off the road and set them on me. “I actually just got out of prison.”

Blackness 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.

I snuck a glance at my driver. Is he capable of murder? I wondered. Rape? Killing only female hitchhikers from the States who've admitted they don’t have cell phone service?

My 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 attack?

Or from getting a knife through the chest?

I 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.
As if sensing my anxiety, Ken said, “I was in for armed robbery.”

Still 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.

As 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 hand-to-catcher’s-mitt combat.
In an effort to “play it cool”—which was the best idea my short-circuiting brain could produce—I finally mumbled, “Oh.”
With the nonchalance of a child admitting where he was born, Ken said, “I spent four years locked up. Got out just before I turned thirty-five.”

Gripped 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 replicate.

My 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.

In 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.

My 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.

Or I could stay with Ken, in his beige beater, and trust him to deliver me to the campground like he avowed he would.

Once 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.”

My shoulders relaxed a fraction, and I squeaked out, “That’s good, Ken.”

A 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.”

His 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.
Instead, 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 me.

As 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 convict.

Ken stopped talking to pull in a full, deep breath, and I heard myself say, “Good for you.”

He 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Tires 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.

My heartbeat ratcheted up.
What 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?
The car stopped less than twenty feet away. The door opened. And out stepped Ken.

I 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.”

He let out a belly rumbling laugh, rattling my nerves even more. “Well, I’m surprised to see you. Still here in the pouring rain.”

He walked towards me, and I instinctively scooted back. My narrow tent offered no security. The can opener would have to suffice.

But then he held up a hand, one strong enough to crush a large bird, and showed me a brown paper bag.

I thought you might be hungry,” he said, his tone as affable as before, “so I brought you fish and chips. And if you want, 

I can give you another ride—as long as it’s not this hard to find.”

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