Show me the way to get to Milford Sound
He had to buy his first passport to get to New Zealand. He was 28, from a Minnesota town of 600 souls, and my friend Lauren picked him up on Raupara Rd at midday last Sunday. She pulled over when she saw the lone bloke, assessing him as harmless - and then, as they always do, another hitchhiker materialised from the undergrowth.
The boy, Mike, had flown into Auckland four days before, and somehow made it overland down the North Island and across Cook Strait. He'd met the girl, 19-year-old German Nadine, in a bakery, and agreed to hitch together to keep her safe. They had been waiting for an hour and a half when Lauren pulled over, and when she did, Mike looked surprised. He said: "I've never done this before."
In the car, he explained that his mother had made him vow not to hitchhike in New Zealand. "I told her, ‘I can't promise that, Mom'. I didn't want to have to lie to her," he said.
His friends back home in Minnesota said "What do you want to go there for?" when he announced his plans for New Zealand. But he was determined to see Milford Sound: the Mecca of the Pacific, the best place in Aotearoa. He'd almost been to another country before; once, when he was fly fishing back home, he'd seen the Canadian border across the lake.
On the way home to Nelson, Lauren stopped at Pelorus Bridge for a swim. She led the hitchhikers down the path to the place where the green river slices the rocks in half and the sun warms them, and Mike gasped at its sudden beauty.
"Oh my Gaard," he said. She jumped into the water, and he stood on the rocks, shocked.
"Oh my Gaaaard," he said, gaping at her audacity. "I have never done anything like this before."
That night, the hitchhikers camped out in the spare room at Lauren's flat, and the next day Nadine left for Motueka. Mike got up early to catch the NBus, hoping it would take him somewhere interesting, but it took him to Richmond.
He got off and asked at a shop where the West Coast was, then walked to the roundabout at the foot of Gladstone Rd and stood there, thumb out, hoping some kindly soul would pick him up and get him closer to Milford Sound.
After four hours, he shouldered his pack and returned to Richmond, where he caught the NBus back to Nelson for a look around town. Later, his heel rubbed raw by a blood blister from all that hot, lonely walking, he flagged down a taxi driver.
They fell into conversation, and the driver said he'd show him a good time for $100. The pair spent the afternoon driving around the region together, the driver showing him old childhood haunts and Tasman School, and pointing out the golden sands, blue water, green bush and yellow sea kayaks of Tasman Bay.
They visited a craft shop, where Mike bought a ring for a girl back home. But he avoided visiting Abel Tasman National Park. No time. He had to get to Milford Sound.
The taxi driver dropped him home at 8pm, just in time for Lauren to dish him up some lentil bolognese for dinner. He ate it, bravely, just as he'd eaten the spicy jambalaya the previous night. He'd never had that sort of food before, he explained. Back home, he ate mostly peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, turkey breast, steak, and Kool-Aid, to which he'd add a cup of sugar for the taste. But when he decided to go travelling in a foreign country, he told himself he'd stay really open to new experiences, including the food.
The next day, Nadine returned from her trip and asked how she could get a job here. When she left, she wrote a note that's now posted on a pinboard in Lauren's flat.
"Hi, thank you very much for picking us up, showing us that amazing river and hosting us so friendly," it said.
Mike, having visited the iSite and finally figuring out his passage to the West Coast, left a note, too. "Thank you so much for your hospitality and generosity," he wrote. "I'll never forget an experience like this. If you're ever in Minnesota, I'll be more than happy to show y'all around."
By now, he should have made it to Milford Sound.