A few months ago I hitchhiked across New Zealand. I never planned to hitchhike. In fact I hadn’t really given any thought at all as to how I was going to travel around. But upon arriving I heard hitching was relatively common there so I decided to give it a try. While I knew hitchhiking could be dangerous, isolating, and risky, what I didn’t know was that it would teach me two of life’s most important lessons.
A Hitchhiking Story
It was raining. Not a gentle shower, nor a torrential downpour, but something in between. It wasn’t the rain that made the day miserable though, it was the undying breeze that managed to bite through all of my layers. Coupled with the fact that I was lost inside of a foreign city things were not looking too good for ol’ Chris Daniel.
I had been walking around the rainy city of Hamilton when I found cover under an overhang outside and opened up the paper map that I carried with me. I must have looked like a drenched and poor soul, because a man driving a beat up red car pulled over and asked if I needed a ride somewhere. My first impression was that he was a nice and genuine guy so I graciously accepted and jammed by backpack into the back of his car which held a lawn mower.
I heard hitchhiking was easy in New Zealand, but I never anticipated it to be like this. In fact over the next three months I had four separate cars pull over and ask if I needed a ride even though I wasn’t hitchhiking at the time.
Back in the car that held a drenched backpacker and a grassy lawn mower I told the driver that I was trying to get to Raglan; a small, sleepy surfing town that was located an hour away on the west coast. Unfortunately though the driver misheard me and began driving east. I wasn’t too worried about it though. I came to New Zealand to see the country and have experiences. I guess it didn’t matter whether I saw the east or west part of the country first.
The driver’s name was John and he worked at a hospital, specifically with young teens from troubled backgrounds. He showed me the building he worked in and we stopped to feed the fish that lived in the pond outside. Eventually he dropped me off where the road fed into a highway and told me this would be a good place to get picked up if I wanted to travel to “Manganui”. I’m still not sure how he managed to confuse that with Raglan.
Either way I thanked him for the ride and got my pack out from the back. Now I had a decision to make: do I try to find a new route to Raglan or should I try to get to this town of Manganui that John told me about? I was out in the rain again, consulting my paper map, but at least now I was out of the heart of the city. I decided to keep traveling west and after about two minutes of standing by the road with my thumb out another red car pulled over and this time it was driven by a pretty young Kiwi girl. So far hitchhiking had begun with a great start!
Through my conversations with her I learned that Manganui was not actually a city, but the name of a mountain inside the city of Tauranga. Fortunately for me she was actually driving past Tauranga, so I rode with her for an hour and a half before we parted ways at the base of the mountain. The rain had passed at this point so I decided to hike to the top. The view was amazing.
After I summited the mountain I made my way back down and found an RV park where I could set up my tent for the night. At least that was the plan. The site was full, and after the manager called a few other campsites and hostels on my behalf it became clear that nowhere had any accommodation available. I had mistakenly come during their busiest weekend of the year. Luckily the manager was a very helpful woman who pointed me in the right direction of the public bus that could take me out of town, and (hopefully) to a place where I could stay for the night.
I managed to successfully board the bus, but now I didn’t know where to get off. Behind me was a large intimidating woman who wore baggy jeans, an All Blacks sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over her head, and some dark over-sized sunglasses that hid her eyes. I didn’t see any other option but to talk to her, so I summed up the courage and asked her where I was supposed to get off. Fortunately (like almost all other New Zealand people) she was an incredibly nice woman who explained to me she was getting off at the same spot and would make sure I got off there too. This is just one of the many times where I learned how judgmental I could be, and how wrong I was almost all the time. Although, through no fault of her own, I actually did get off on the wrong stop and had to wait an hour before the next bus came.
Eventually I made it on the next bus that took me out of town and dropped me off near the highway I came into town on. Coming full circle I put my thumb out and began trekking my way along the road as the rain started to come down again. I must have been running out of my hitchhiking luck because this time it took forty minutes before a car pulled over and picked me up. Inside were two nice Kiwi women who ended up dropping me off on a road that had a campsite two kilometers away.
I made it to the campsite and had just finished pitching my tent when the rain came down even harder than before. Luckily my tent kept me dry as the drops exploded on the rain fly in a deafening fashion. Unfortunately the floor of my tent proved to not be as waterproof when I woke up in a puddle the next morning. Giving in to the soaking mess that was me and my belongings I hastily packed up my gear, walked back out to the highway, and hitchhiked back to Hamilton -the same city that I left from the previous day.
Despite the length of this post, this actually was the Cliff notes version of the story. The full story involves meeting a drunk homeless man, a strange bearded fellow who offered me his van, a stolen piece of work from an art gallery, a hidden waterfall, and a tunnel awash in bright blue light from glow worms. Yet I tell you this story not because it’s short, sweet, and chock full of events, but because I believe it highlights two traits that are important to have: improvisation and perspective.
It would have been very easy to frame this story in a negative fashion. Before my journey had really even begun I was ten kilometers in the wrong direction. I spent a good portion of the day walking in the rain and being lost in cities. I had a plan to end up in a quiet surfing town on the west coast, and instead I ended up in a bustling city on the east coast. On the surface this day should have been terrible.
I had realized something years earlier but this particular day really cemented it for me. It is that you have a choice in which perspective you take. If you want full control of your life you have to practice, and be aware of, how you react to situations.
Before I even came to New Zealand or even thought about hitchhiking I told myself that I was going to make mistakes, and that it would be okay. I knew I would be uncomfortable but in the end I would make it out alive. Hitchhiking came to embody that concept. I knew if I wasn’t picked up I might have to walk through the night in the rain. I knew that at some point (and hopefully not after my exhausted and sodden body was found by the road) somebody would offer me help. Luckily it never came to that but my perspective did not change. I knew I would face discomfort but at some point it would change. While the wind and rain was uncomfortable I realized that I would not be wet forever.
In tough situations I remind myself that these moments will pass. At some point I’ll be back home, I’ll have my old car, I’ll be sleeping in the same bed every night. Being able to put challenging moments in perspective has proved to be a helpful tool in practicing my endurance. Next time I spend three hours coaching in the rain I’ll just have to think about the twelve-hour day I spent hitchhiking, busing, and sleeping in a continuous downpour.
The second important lesson is focused on adaptation and improvisation. When I ended up on the opposite side of Hamilton that I was intending to I figured out a way to make it work. When I ended up on the opposite side of the country I was intending to I figured out a way to make it work again. When it became clear that there was no place to sleep in Tauranga I adapted again. When I was lost in the city, when I missed my bus, when I was dropped off next to a highway, every time I adapted and found a new way forward.
Being able to adapt to changing circumstances is key to making progress. Even in life when we are presented with seemingly limited options, neither of which are ideal, it only takes a little creativity and improvisation to end up somewhere new and enjoyable. To arrive at that promising and winning option though will almost always require you to work and endure through the uncomfortable.. and that is always a challenge.