Hitchhiking With Rodger

 

I know, I know – hitchhiking is dangerous and you shouldn’t do it. Blah, Blah, Blah. I am not sitting here condoning hitchhiking; however, I have done it in many places and several countries and yet here I am – still alive and writing this blog. I will also say that I have been introduced to some of my coolest experiences, as well as met some of the most amazing people while using this unique form of transportation. Yes, you need to be smart and I’m sure I will have another blog about hitchhiking and how to do it right and be safe as well. I also know in my last blog, I promised information on the Napali coast in Kauai, Hawaii – but then I decided “Nah.” I have been writing a lot about geology and other science stuff in the past few blogs. This one is just going to be out of chronological order of the travels. It also is just going to be a story. I’ll get to the Napali Coast next blog. So this is my favorite hitchhiking story to date. It involves an interesting list of things: an Israeli guy, eels, glowworms, a shotgun, a pinball machine, alcohol, a missing finger, and a crazy guy named Roger. So let us begin.

First we must set the scene. I had just arrived in New Zealand and had been there for less than three days, actually. I was hitchhiking and during this time I made friends with an Israeli guy named Oren. Oren had just finished with his mandatory military service in Israel and was traveling for 8 months. We hit it off and decided we would start traveling together for a while. We started hitchhiking together and did some hikes. Then about a week after we started traveling together, the infamous day of Roger happened. We had just left Able Tasman (a national park on the North end of the South Island in New Zealand) and were trying to get to the west coast of South Island. We took a ride from this old couple early in the morning. They told us about the scenic route to the west coast. They said we would have no problem hitching and said it was beautiful. It was early so I said “sure.” They took us on that route then turned up the back road to get to their house and there we sat waiting for the next car. After an hour I knew we made a mistake going the scenic route. It was nice and everything – but there was no traffic! Everyone took the highway because it was faster. Normally I never waited more than 10 minutes for a ride in New Zealand but there we sat, and sat, and sat. After 8 hours of sitting there throwing rocks at signposts, cooking in the sun (was about 85o F that day), and talking to the cows that were along the side of the road, we finally got a ride but only to the next town – a small town called Tapawera where we, once again, sat by the side of the road. At this point we placed a bet on how many cars would go by in an hour. The over/under was ten. I took the over and lost horribly – in an hour only 3 cars went by! So there we were as the sun was starting to go down. We sat, sad and dejected. Finally we started to look for a place to camp. Just then a beat up, old rusted truck with a mismatched paint job and squealing brakes pulls up alongside of us. Then we hear the voice of Roger.

“Heading for the campground?” My response was “Yeah!” He said, “Hell, you guys can come stay with me if you mow the lawn.” At this point I looked up and saw Roger for the first time. What was my first impression? I think there is no way in hell I am getting into that truck! I’ve already described the ugly old truck, so I’ll paint the picture of what I saw looking at Roger: well, he looked pretty rough! He looked to be in his 50s; however, after talking to him all night we found out he was younger – in his 40s. I noticed he was missing a finger on one hand. I noticed he had a Donald Trump-style comb-over. There were two 32-packs of beer in the backseat, as well as a shotgun. As he continued to talk I kept thinking there is no way I’m going with this guy. But the next thing I know, he hopped out of his truck, grabbed our backpacks right off our backs and threw them in the bed of the truck. Then we were in the truck. Oren’s eyes were probably the size of oranges at this point! So off we were driving even farther from the road that already had no cars on it. As we continued down this now-gravel road I started thinking, “Great, now we are so far out that no one can hear us scream!” As we were heading to his house, though, I was talking to Roger and he was quite an interesting guy and while rough looking on the outside, he actually seemed really nice and intriguing. Finally we pulled up to his house and right away I noticed a few things. First, the grass is almost knee high, and there are three half-built cars in the yard, a half-built boat, a half-built plane, and a school bus. Also scattered around the yard was what can only be described as metal “art work.” Anyone else starting to get the serial killer vibe yet?

We then entered the house and right away I noticed a stuffed deer – not just the head but the whole thing. There was a stuffed mouse wearing a Santa costume, a stuffed falcon, and a stuffed New Zealand Possum (very different from the North American possum). I also noticed a pinball machine and a circular pool table – six pockets around a circle, not a rectangle like normal (I still regret not playing a game on that pool table). Anyway, we sat down and started talking and we started to learn about Roger. He worked in the shipping yards in the port city of Nelson, and he’s spent a lot of time in the sun – which explained why he looked 10 years older than he was. Also, his other habits didn’t help. He went on to tell us about his travels around the world – working in many countries like China, Indonesia, Argentina, Australia just to name a few. He noted that Australia was one of the countries he was not allowed to go back to. No, he didn’t kill anyone, but he just didn’t pay his taxes while he was there. I’m not going to lie – I thought that was pretty funny. As the night wore on the beer kept disappearing. I didn’t drink at all because I wanted to stay sharp. I was beginning to like Roger but I was going to stay sharp and on guard. Oren had about 4 beers. By the morning the 32-pack was gone. Roger liked his drinking. Also, the whole time he was smoking…and not always tobacco. As the conversation went on somehow we got on the topic of eels. Roger began to tell us how the eel trade used to exist in New Zealand. However, now they are protected. But Rodger and his neighbor had some in the back pond they kept as pets. He told us how they were “friendly and could be petted.” He then asked, “Do you guys want to go see them?” My first thought being you want to take us into the back woods to see eels at night? This sounds like murder. So, of course we hopped in the truck with some cat food to feed the eels – and off we went!

As we hopped out of the truck I had my eyes on Roger the whole time – making sure no funny business was going on. But he grabbed a flashlight – or as they call them, “torches.” Oren and I had our headlamps. Off we go to the pond to see some eels, and I’ll be damned Roger was right – the eels could hear us coming. Out they came – there had to be 4 dozen of them. Some were 5 feet long – New Zealand longfin eels, mostly. They had black, leathery skin, small razor-sharp teeth, and tiny beady eyes. Roger began to tell us all about them and we started to feed them by putting cat food on a stick. After a while Roger said “Well, go ahead and pet them.” I thought there is no way this thing is going to bite my finger off. Then I thought “well, I have come this far – and I kid you not, they were like dogs. You start to pet them and they roll right over. Some would bite the one being petted so they could get a turn. I was already thinking this night is amazing. Even if Roger was a little drunk.

There we were talking, and petting eels – and then we got on the topic of glow worms. Roger proceeded to tell us, “Oh, yeah, they are all over the place.” In fact, there was a gorge just a short hike away with thousands of them. I was thinking again “OK, this is where he is going to murder us.” So naturally we started hiking for the gorge. We hiked and hiked until were in the middle of the gorge – 10-foot walls on each side and a small creek running under our boots. Then Roger told us to turn our headlamps off – and it was as if the night sky was two feet away from my face. The walls were lined with thousands and thousands of glowworms, their yellow lights flickering on and off – doing their best to tempt small bugs into their waiting mouths. So there the three of us sat – a Yank, an Israeli, and a Kiwi just marveling at how unique and fascinating nature could be. We were sitting and talking about life and how sometimes you just need to slow down and enjoy the moment. The night wore on, and we decided to head back to the house at around 2 a.m. We all went to sleep, and the next day we woke up, chatted some more, mowed the lawn for Roger, and hopped in his truck again. He drove us to the highway, smiled, gave us one last wave, and drove off. Oren and I looked at each other and both said “Definitely thought we were going to die back there!” We laughed and stuck our thumbs out to start another traveling day.

Travelers Note. The moral of the story is not to judge a book by its cover – it could end up being an epic adventure. Also, yes, I did shorten the story quite a bit. Sadly I don’t have enough space for all the remarkable details about that day. I guess you will just need to go out and have an adventure yourself. Also, do some research on longfin eels and glowworms – they are fascinating. Eels can live for over a hundred years, and swim all the way to Tonga to mate… some crazy cool stuff!