“The next bus isn’t until tomorrow morning, but you can always hitch!”
Just minutes before the above advice came across the counter at the Picton tourist information site, we had actually felt relieved and really lucky. Our three hour ferry to the South Island across the Cook Strait was as serene and sunny as it was scenic. Considering a “weather bomb” (their term, not mine) had slammed into New Zealand just forty-eight hours prior causing turbulent seas and delaying all inter-island ferries for a day or so, travel life was pretty darn good. You learn on the road though that plans can go awry at any time, and it was that time in Picton.
At first, I actually thought the woman behind the counter was making some sort of reference to that cheesy Will Smith movie out a few years back. I never saw it, but now I was stood wondering if the plot of Hitch possibly involved teleportation, time travel, or maybe even superhuman speed walking? After her next bit of advice though, it became plainly obvious that she was not making a film reference, she was talking about actual hitchhiking.
“Right past the park, on the way out of town, that’s where everyone grabs a ride, you’ll get one in no time“ she explained as she subtly looked past us to the next person in line. She said it so casually and in such a rehearsed tone, that it was obvious that this wasn’t the first time she doled out the thumb travel tip. Now up until this precise moment in my life, hitchhiking was something that only existed in the realm of movies, television, or tall tales leftover from the 1960‘s. Everyone knows anyone who would pick up a hitchhiker in real life is obviously an escaped convict just looking to pounce on the first poor fool they saw on the side of the road, or is it the hitchhikers themselves who are the psychos doing the preying? I mean, the setting was right out of a B-movie horror film that you'd buy at a used DVD store. Were we about to be sliced up? Or perhaps all our fears were imaginary.Was this the best idea we've ever had? There was only one way to find out. So we did what any self-respecting travelers worth their guidebooks would do, we marched right out of that office and down to that street corner, sketched a sign, gulped, stuck our thumbs out (in my case with a grimace on my face), and hoped for the best.
About thirty minutes later, a non-threatening young girl pulled over, and after inspecting the car for hatchets, hooks, or anything else out of a urban legend, we got in. She told us how her cousin hitchhikes all over New Zealand and how she feels she should pay it forward by helping others out. She could only take us halfway, so after about twenty minutes of small talk, we were back out on the street with our sign and now oddly entertained with our new travel game. Next up to play were two young German girls working on a winery, and they offered to take us all the way to Seddon, which was where we were meeting up with our winery job for the week. Their van was something out of the summer of love as they were living out of it and I had to squeeze in the back in between their backpacks, our backpacks and last night’s leftovers.
I was pretty crammed back there, but I had just enough room to admire the late afternoon summer sun as it shined down upon grey mountains and ripening vineyard after vineyard. I don’t think anyone could see me in the rear view mirror, but I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire way as it was truly one of those special travel moments that we never saw coming and sometimes those are the best kind.