The elderly man rolls down the window and squints. His eyes are concealed behind the refraction of his lenses. All his teeth are missing, and rugged crevices appear on his face as he grimaces and shouts,
“You aren’t gonna kill me right.”
I gently reply I’m not looking for trouble.
“Well then get in mate, I need some company”
Upon entering the car, a pungency of musty sweaters is exacerbated by an overactive heater. The space feels of an amplified retirement home.
The man’s initial comment was his strong stance on avoiding hitchhikers. Today was the singular exception- he was feeling lonely.
He was a few hours into a long journey north, a visit to his dying friend. Somberly, he remarked he possessed no knowledge on his condition, nor his chance of survival.
Upon leaving the town he accelerated slightly, never escaping a drearily monotonous speed.
He glanced at me occasionally and asked germane questions. I spoke about myself a bit, he remained constantly uninterested.
The stubborn, bitter nature of the men rendered conversation incredibly difficult.
At every pause in conversation, he muttered “I’m tired, it’s been a long day”.
Through every repetition, the words sounded increasingly rankled.
“I woke up at 5.30. Was gonna take the bus. Wife wouldn’t let me”
Excuse after excuse accumulated, every negative sentiment acting as a justification.
His unrelenting despondency caused me to believe his pessimism is ingrained deeply in his personality.
The man worked in a warehouse for most of his life. A staunchly proud Canterburian, his family inhabited the region since the 1800s. A direct descendant of the first English colonists, his great grandfather arrived on a fishing boat and never left.
A few years later, there was a marriage with a Roma girl.
“Got some Gypsy blood in me” the man cackled; some spit flying at the dashboard and some sticking to his chin.
The comment resonated uncomfortably.
He used to travel to the North Island regularly yet stopped a few years ago due to his fear of flying.
“I hate going out far, mate”
We gained elevation as we approached the summit pass of the immense Southern Alps. Colossal peaks surrounded in all directions, the car itself on a ledge overlooking a brisk, cold river.
The mountains dwarfed the road, telephone lines, and all human imprints on the land.
The cocoon the man and I occupied felt entirely insignificant in this grand landscape.
“It’s beautiful out there” I remarked.
The man paid no attention.
I asked about the most memorable experience of his lifetime.
“I biked from my small town to Christchurch once, it was a tiring ride. Took me a good half day.”
The man’s narrow-minded nature grew increasingly apparent. Not only due to his rigid conversation, but also unease of matters beyond his perception.
His routines kept accruing, binding him to the narrow impressions of conservative Canterbury life.
The man struggled to recollect details about his family, especially his grandchildren. Their ages varied wildly, from 6 to late 20s. Even recalling their names strained him. Perhaps he already reached a detachment with the world around him. He no longer possessed a need to delve into the details of living. Once the particulars drift away, nothing remains but the physical processes of existence.
The man, on his journey to his dying friend, was grasping at kernels through his fingertips. Each grain a bearer of life, disappeared into the wind, howling through the peaks around us.
I strongly attempted to understand the man’s outlook on life.
His mindset on existence was just as respectable as mine. He was three times older than I was and shaped by years of experience.
Perhaps decades of hard life enveloped him, concocting such a reality.
Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Any effort of compassion I put forward would not be reciprocated.
I’d become accustomed to such disconnect. The array of personalities I met on the road all presented entirely unique mental conditions. No matter how greatly someone varied from me, there persisted a universal sharing of experience.
Most drivers didn’t halt their cars for logistical reasons.
They stop due to curiosity.
I gaze into the eyes of individuals and seek an understanding for my view of the world. Reflections of snow-covered peaks, monumental valleys and wheat-tinted grass color recede behind me. Vistas lack the tenderness of human touch, a connection between mentalities. Loneliness, surrounded by nature, seems an inescapable trait of hitching the road.
From the laughter of girls, to the old conservatism of the man, I feel like a transient drifter.
Transferring between lives, glimpsing at a path, a continuum of someone’s actions; I’m a stranger welcomed inside.
Gently peering around, inquisitive of the particulars. What secrets, achievements, and wealth of the soul are kept obscured. Our counterparts produce a beauty unmatched in nature. New Zealand did not push me to explore the outdoors or my physical limits.
It caused me to stare deep inside. Standing on the side of the road, thumb sticking out, my eyes are peeled for what comes next. For whom stops by and peers inside my life as well.
Once we reached his destination, the man dropped me off with little fanfare.