"Unexpected Walkabout" Part II
How An Older American Female Backpacker Unwittingly Finds Herself Hitchhiking In Arthur’s Pass, (South Island) New Zealand
*This is Part II of "Unexpected Walkabout." If you haven't read Part I, you can read it by clicking here.
Bless Garth, he was respectful when he gave me guidance on how to hitch a ride from Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch. He didn’t roll his eyes. He spoke in kindness to me as an older woman.
Garth must have had nice parents.
“I’ll need a sign, right?” I ventured, trying to sound as if I knew something, anything. I’m glad he has no idea how far out of my depth I am.
“Yes, you will. Our small grocery market across the road will probably have empty cardboard boxes you can tear up for a big enough sign.”
“Ok, thanks. And they would probably have a marker for printing ‘Christchurch’ on the sign?” I asked, to his head nod. Neither my Bachelors nor Masters degrees had covered hitching a ride.
And so began my first foray into hitchhiking. Gulp!
I strolled across the lonely two-lane road, not a car in sight. Gosh, I hope that changes. The shopkeeper in the market was a lovely Kiwi lady, about my age. She kindly rummaged around for a suitable box and a black marker. Asking no questions, she knew I was American by my accent but acted as though middle-aged lady backpackers routinely asked her for hitchhiking help.
Since the storms had abated that morning, I stayed dry returning with my precious cardboard sign which was about 3 feet square. Neatly and clearly printed was the word, “Christchurch.” I was glad I had been given a good-sized vegetable box for such a long word. I kept the big, fat tomato signage turned towards my body. I didn’t want a ride with a tomato.
The only visual I had for hitchhiking was a 1940s movie clip of Claudette Colbert pulling up her dress to show her ankle, enticing a driver to stop for her. As a Quaker, I had little else to go on. I had no friends nor knew other Quakers who had ever hitchhiked, even to get a ride home from college. Realizing that Claudette was out of date, I practiced a pleasant smile. Hopefully, I would appear friendly and harmless to passing drivers.
Over and over in my mind I kept thinking how both my mother and daughter back in the States would kill me if they knew I was trying to hitchhike. Years ago, my daughter and I had made a pinky promise that—when traveling apart—we would never do anything to put our lives at risk.
What would she think of me now?
My backpack and daypack were ready to go. Garth had found a plastic trash sack into which I stuffed all the sodden tent gear. Some strange instinct told me to leave all that inside the hostel until I found a safe driver. Was some ancient Quaker sending me telepathic advice? “Hide that stuff until you find a ride,” she was telling me. But what would my Midwestern Quaker ancestors know about hitchhiking anyway? Maybe, when a horse went lame and they needed a ride back to the cornfield? But they weren’t a single female traveler stuck in the middle of the mountains with motorized traffic and an unknown number of circulating criminals possibly driving the backroads….
As I organized my belongings and the sign, I experienced a bifurcated, out-of-body feeling. I observed myself from above as I crossed the street, talked to the shopkeeper, crossed back and thought about what to do next. I felt in control but felt bizarre about what I was planning. To add to my divided self, my conscious and subconscious selves began to bicker.
You’re crazy. You have zip experience in hitching a safe ride. What do you think you are doing?
Shut up. What other choice do I have? No train. No bus. Returning storms. No hostel rooms are available. Do you have a better idea, smarty pants?
A small tea house stood next to Garth’s hostel. Tea is big in British colonized territories. New Zealand is very British. A few cars were stopping for refreshments in the pink and green sweet shop.
Ah, drivers stop here, I divined.
With my possessions hidden in the hostel, I stood on the correct side of the two-lane highway. I knew it was the correct side because I had spent two weeks in New Zealand looking the wrong way for traffic when crossing, often nearly hit by vehicles. Proudly holding my sign aloft and practicing my innocent smile, I stared at each car that passed through the small village without stopping. Don’t take that personally, Karen. They are all busy people.
An hour had crawled by when I spied a car from the west pull into the tea shop. No driver returned to Greymouth towards the West so I figured the driver was stopping for a tea break before heading to Christchurch.
That’s my destination! I excitedly thought. Stop it. Don’t get your hopes up.
The driver, a tall man, stepped out of his car. About six feet in height, he was dressed in suit trousers and a long-sleeved lavender shirt. Based on the bold color of his shirt, I quickly guessed he was an artist and, therefore, trustworthy in my eyes. No man I knew in farming or in my conservative childhood church would ever wear that shirt color. He stepped into the tea shop. I made an immediate decision, based on his colorful outfit, to cross the gravel parking area and follow him into the shop.
The tiny bell over the door chimed as the door closed behind me. The tiny tea shop was “frilly curtain cute.” Fragrant cake slices and mysterious Kiwi desserts sat in delicate dessert papers behind the glass cases. I waited until he had ordered, then introduced myself.
Good Quakers are mannerly. I would grovel, if necessary.
“Good morning. My name is Karen. Would you happen to be driving to Christchurch?” I asked with as much charm as I could muster.
“I am. Please call me Paul. Are you looking for a ride?” He had seen me with my sign. He knew me to be an American, hearing my accent. I knew he was a Kiwi from his.
“I am and would so appreciate a lift. I do have a backpack, daypack and a wet tent from the storm if you have the room.” I was an honest Quaker, even if it cost me the ride.
Without hesitation, he smiled as he answered, “I’d be glad to give you a ride. I’m headed home to Christchurch. Would you mind waiting for a bit?” he responded.
“Not at all.”
Restraining myself from doing handstands, I tried to be a calm Quaker. Trying to contain my wild joy about getting a ride within an hour, I left the shop and dragged my things out of the hostel to his four-door sedan. It was a nice enough vehicle which I thought was a good sign. Don’t serial killers drive crappy cars with faded paint, bald tires and missing hubcaps? Wait a minute! Would a Kiwi gang member drive a nice car and wear a lavender shirt? My conscious and subconscious returned to their bickering.
Well, you’ve stepped into a bad situation.
Pipe down. I can’t think of any other way out of Arthur’s Pass.
While I waited for Paul, I copied his license plate number, a description of the vehicle and his first name. I didn’t admit that to Paul. I was not a stupid Quaker.
I walked over to the hostel across the street and handed the information to Garth. “Garth, I will call you from Christchurch to let you know I have arrived safely. Would you please keep this info for me until then? If your mother or sister were hitchhiking, you’d want them to be safe, wouldn’t you?” Garth was a good guy. He agreed to keep the information until I called.
I felt much safer knowing I had left a few breadcrumbs, just in case I disappeared in New Zealand.
Actually, that was just one tiny breadcrumb.
After a short time, Paul walked out of the tea shop.
“How kind of you to give me a ride, Paul,” I said, clasping my hands in thanks. “The huge rainstorm here changed my travel plans and I’m stuck here without any lodging.”
“Weather can change rapidly in Arthur’s Pass,” Paul replied with another kind smile.
I did have a trusting Quaker mentality but I’d lived solo long enough to have a fierce woman warrior spirit alongside. Therefore, my mind was quickly ferreting around for defensive weapons in case my ride might turn sour down the road, literally.
How about an ink pen jabbed into his neck?
We chatted while Paul arranged most of my things in the boot (trunk) of his car. I kept water, a sweater and my camera with me, accidentally walking to the driver’s side of the car to get in.
“Darn!” I laughed. “I’ve been doing that since I arrived in your beautiful country. Crossing the roads and streets without getting hit has been a challenge.”
“It’s the same for me when I travel outside my country,” Paul laughed in agreement.
After I stepped into the proper passenger side, I silently gave thanks for the ride, the pretty morning filled with sunshine and warmth. Fickle mountain weather could and did change each hour. I anticipated the travel ahead through green paddocks filled with strange trees, mysterious flowers, unusual farm equipment and new panoramas stretching into the distance.
The unfamiliarity and newness of other countries were a major draw for my international travel. Language accents, different colloquialisms, new animal species, unusual foods and different customs were charming in every way. In this country, shop keepers would say, “That will be two dollars, thank you.” I had enjoyed every hour spent in New Zealand so far.
Paul knew about cattle dogs, sheep dogs and the famous red deer bred in paddocks for their exported antlers and velvet. We talked about Merino, Dorset Down, Shropshire and South Suffolk sheep breeds. My farming soul was in heaven. He explained that dairy herds were mostly Holstein-Friesian with small percentages of Ayrshire, Guernsey and Brown Swiss. This was literally music to my ears. As for beef, Paul said that Angus, Hereford and Durham Shorthorn were the dominant breeds bred and raised for meat. Hogget (hog) breeds were bloodlines from Duroc and Hampshire breeds. I knew both of those breeds from my family farm in the States.
Paul’s accent was captivating, reminding me of the lovely accents I heard on the backpackers’ bus line.
And yet, part of my brain was ready for any kind of weird behavior from Paul. I had no idea what I would do if he spoke suggestively or made a physical move towards me during the drive. My memories of Hollywood films reminded me that jumping from a fast-moving vehicle could cause broken bones or worse.
Somewhere in between my inner warnings and his explanation of beef and dairy breeds, I heard the word, “Presbyterian.”
“Pardon?” My head jerked up at the word interrupting my visuals of the cattle.
“I work for the Presbyterian Church.”
“In what way?” I scrambled a response with cattle breeds and a huge cathedral image colliding in my visual brain.
And then his next words banished all of my prior impressions of who he might be, “I said, I’m the head of the Presbyterian Church for all of New Zealand.”
I was floored. What?! You mean, instead of a serial killer, I asked for a ride from the Head Honcho, the Big Cheese of all Presbyterians to give me a ride? So, I copied the license plate and make of car of this pastor and gave it to my hostel manager?
Am I a bad Quaker for having misjudged this very nice man? Stabbing him in the neck with my ink pen would have been a bad move for my mortal soul.
Suddenly his lavender shirt—which I had mistakenly attributed to being an artist—made sense. I remembered the purples worn by church clergy for Easter. Paul must have removed his white collar as well as unbuttoned his shirt because of the heat. I didn’t ask him about the collar. I was too busy covering my tracks in embarrassment as such a rube. If I’d seen his religious collar, it would have clearly established him as a member of the clergy. My mind would have been completely at ease initially accepting a ride.
Paul would have shared more about the business of his parishes and I wish he had. We were seeing the first road signage for Christchurch. I was so embarrassed that I had mis-judged him. I could have learned a heap about his Church and shared about my Quaker upbringing but our time was ending. That was a missed opportunity for me. Instead, I happily shared how I adored eating sauteed lamb with tomatoes and zucchini with delicious Kiwi bread for most my meals and was helping the economy by shipping home soft New Zealand sheepskins.
All too soon, Christchurch came into view. Our two-lane road from Arthur’s Pass merged into heavier traffic, stop lights and city crossroads. Paul knew where my hostel was located and found a parking space in front of the entrance. As he pulled my backpack, daypack and trash sack of wet tent parts out of the boot, I was overwhelmed by his cordial hospitality.
“Paul, I can’t thank you enough for your giving me a ride, talking about New Zealand in ways I thought I would never discover. Thank you so much.” There was nothing I could give him that would equate with my gratitude and joy. I couldn’t even invite him to my home so far away.
“Karen, it was my pleasure. If you need anything, call me.” He handed me a church calling card with his phone number. “My wife and daughter would love to meet you but I know you have travel plans.”
I didn’t know what else to say. Falling to my knees and kissing his Presbyterian feet might have embarrassed him. We shook hands and I loaded up to walk into the hostel. Paul’s kindness had made a profound impression on this solo female traveler to New Zealand.
There was one more thing to do after I arranged a dorm bed and before I found a place to dry out the wet tent parts and pieces. As promised, I called Garth in the Arthur’s Pass hostel.
“Garth?” I asked the man who answered.
“This is Garth,” came the response.
“Hey, Garth, this is Karen Thurston. I’ve safely arrived in Christchurch. A Presbyterian minister gave me a ride. He was very nice.”
“Really? That’s cool, Karen. We Kiwis are a pretty good lot.”
“Garth, thanks for everything.”
“Hope to see you on your next trip, Karen,” Garth said as he signed off.
As I registered for my room, I mused that those ancient Quakers must have been watching over me.
Thank thee kindly, my sisters and brothers.
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