To Hitchhike, Part III: To Hunt Pigs with a Cleaver

Nelson, New Zealand . March 2007

After being dropped off, I hitch a short ride with a very friendly, frightfully dull driver who talks at me about housing rates, orchard dispersement, subdivision codes, and types of grass. I thank him for the ride.

Almost immediately after he drops me off, I’m picked up by a Maori brother and sister. The brother is a chiseled beast-man who smiles with the furious intensity of a tribal mask.


His sister sits in the passenger seat with her arms crossed, sunglasses and frown on, unimpressed with all surroundings and events. She murmurs, “Hellew.”

The brother has just come from a wild pig hunt. He describes the hunt: “I ran right through the forest! I chased that pig, yeh? I saw him a coupla times! I got close, eh?!”

He wears only a tank top, shorts, and sandals. I ask him if he hunted like that.

“Well, I didn’t wear the sandals,” he says.

I’ve been to the rain forest he describes hunting in. Precipitous hills cut through it, and dense undergrowth hides the true ground. Bounding through it seems impossible, at least for a human. He’s unscathed, white teeth gleaming.

“Look at this!” he says. He reaches under the seat and pulls out a horrible cleaver. He hands it to me with the excitement and insistence of a child. Wet leaf blades still cling to it.

“I was in the military!” he says. I think of anyone I know, military or not, who could hunt pigs barefoot in a rain forest with only a cleaver.

He talks about his military training and how much he loved it. He interrupts himself when he sees a sign for a scenic overlook (“Hey! Look!”) and veers the car to it. Up to the lookout, he explains how he and his sister are on their way to visit another tribe’s area for the first time in his life, that they’ve only recently been granted special access to visit. This vista will give them a view they’ve never seen.

An elderly British couple with binoculars stand looking out, quietly pointing out landmarks. As soon as the brother stops the car, the sister almost leaps from her seat and hustles out to the vista’s edge.

“Ah fuck, it’s fucking beautiful!” she yells. “Fucking shit, that’s gorgeous, innit?!”

The British couple gasps and clears their throats. They shuffle back like hens disturbed. They all but say, “Well, I never!”

“Ah yeah! Real nice!” says the brother.

The view is beautiful, even fucking beautiful: the plush green of pig-hunting jungle sloping down to the Cook Strait. We admire it for several minutes, the sister shouting amazed epithets every so often. She might wipe away a tear. I envy her astonishment.

We get back in the car and the road splits soon thereafter. “Too bad, eh?!” the brother asks. “Real nice helping you out!”

I thank him, unable to match his enthusiasm, grateful in a lame way. He roars off, honking up to a dozen times. I watch him go, then stick out my thumb.


To Hitchhike, Part II: To Ride in the Back of a Volkswagen Bus

Picton, New Zealand • March 2007

On the road, out of Picton, I meet two young travelers living the bygone hippie dream: a girl from Massachusetts and a guy from Inverness, Scotland. They met in a hostel and rented a Volkswagen bus and left. They saw me on the road with all of my gear and pulled over honkingly.

I crawl into the back of their van. I clamber onto large lumpy mattress covered in travel detritus, the payloads of two rucksacks erupted. Loaves of bread lie smashed. Travel guides splay with spines broken. Shoes support each other like Stonehenge dolmens. Clothes flop and unfold in crime scene silhouettes. I lie back on all of this.

The guy floors the van around curves, accelerating into them, laughing as the van skids and wiggles. The girl asks me, “You’re just hitching around? That’s so cool. Have you heard Bob Marley? He’s marv. So much marvy music from that era.”

They lean in and kiss blindly, the van swerving where it will. I grip the sides of the mattress, ready to roll myself in it like a pig in a poke as the van tumbles side over side.

“Which one is the politician slash freedom song?” the girl asks.

“They’re oll ‘politician slash freedom’ sengs!” The guy laughs. He winks in the rearview at me. “God bless you Yanks.”

They offer no weed, nor smoke any, so maybe my vibe’s not right, too observant, not participatory enough. I lean back and watch out the windows.

They argue over the definition of “redundancy,” she arguing it’s an abstract noun, he arguing it’s a workplace term for someone who’s about to be fired. I tell them it can be either. They accept this, disappointed.

They shut off the Bob Marley. They ask me, “Have you ever heard Dane Cook?”

“No,” I say, fingering my own headphones.

They put on the Dane Cook. I lean back in the van and place my own earbuds in. I hear only a burst of Dane Cook before my music drowns him out. I listen for their laughs and laugh accordingly.

We pass sun-washed hills, hairpin curves, background mountains, and mussel farms.

I do not learn their names, because names are not important. We share an experience, an experience best seen through van windows. The best comments are short observations, acknowledgements of the beauty and experience without. These comments are succinct and sincere, unprofound and true.

They wish me the best, and I wish them the same.

To Hitchhike, Part I: To Ride in the Back of a Moving Van

Burnie, New Zealand • March 2007

I take a Christchurch city bus outside town one spring evening. I get out, wearing my rucksack on my back and my backpack on my front. I walk backwards with thumb extended. How this isn’t known as turtling I’ll never know. The sky darkens as the cars pass on by. In thirty minutes I have a ride.

Three young student boys with a moving van are on a supply run back to their house in Burnie, a hundred miles to the north. With all three boys in the cab, there isn’t any room. One of the boys nods towards the van’s cab: “If you’re okay with it, we’re okay with it,” he says. I’m okay with it.

I ride in the back, lying in total darkness on an old mattress that slides from one side to the other as the boys roar around curves and sprint down straightaways. They hurtle over potholes, the mattress hopping loose. I see only darkness, the lights of the highway sneaking in and framing an rectangle around the door’s edges. My gear tumbles and rolls across the floor. I feel giddy and nauseated. I laugh, feeling like I might throw up, not caring. I hear only the roaring engine and the laughter of the boys.

They’re drunk and effusive. At one point they stop to piss, pulling the sliding door up and asking if I need to go. I tell them I’m okay. “Good on yeh,” one of the boys says. He whoops and throws his beer bottle far off the road. The boys stretch and look around. “Welp,” one says, “Back in you go!” He slams the sliding door shut, and I resume the fluid darkness. They continue. It is a hilarious, nauseating trip. I could be cattle.

In Burnie, they pull up to a house where a party is in full effect. The boys let me out and look at the house party, then at me. They don’t really want to invite me; because we were separated in the van, we didn’t commiserate nor sympathize. To these boys I’m a harmless barnacle, a chuckling anecdote notable for it’s “So get this” factor. The lead boy shuffles his feet like an altar boy and asks, “So, uh, you wanna party or…?”

I tell him thanks for the ride, but that I’m going to keep moving. That night, I sneak into the Burnie hostel, arriving after the hostelier has gone to sleep. I find a dorm room, pick a bed, get into it, and set my alarm for 5:00 a.m. I leave the next morning before the hostelier wakes up, off and out and back onto the road, my thumb out, moving farther and farther.

(How) To Hitchhike

Motueka, New Zealand · March 2007

  1. Smile. Always smile. No matter if you’re having the most miserable day in the world, smile from ear to ear, beatifically, giving the world your best. And wave. Wave at every driver as he passes. If the driver heckles you or flips you off, wave at him.
  2. Move. Never, never sit and try not to stand still. If you have to stop, always remain standing, and leave your bag on your shoulders. The lazier you look, the less likely you are to be picked up. The more effort you show, the more drivers are going to perceive you as a hitchhiker in earnest, not one doing it as a freeloading lark.
  3. Consider the driver. Even the most charitable driver can’t pick you up if you don’t give him ample pullover space. If you find a good spot, especially one before a busy road with narrow shoulders, stand by it. Remain standing and smile. Intersections are recommended.
  4. Make eye contact with every driver you see. Oftentimes this means you’ll have to walk backwards, and as such, walk backwards. Run backwards. Letting the drivers see your eyes incurs last-second pangs of conscience and humanity which otherwise might be second-guessed or dismissed. Never, ever wear sunglasses.
  5. Do not hold a sign. Holding a sign merely reduces your chances of being picked up. If a driver is going almost where you’re going but not quite, you’ve lost a great opportunity by pigeonholing yourself to a destination. You may get rides incrementally, and that’s fine. Take them where you can get them, and get them.
  6. Do not flip off drivers as they pass you. No matter how strong the urge.
  7. Never give up. Whether you have to wait ten minutes or ten hours, you will find a ride.
  8. Use the elements to your advantage. If it’s raining torrentially, don’t hang out inside waiting for the weather to clear. Head out. You’re likely to win the sympathy of the first driver you see for braving such conditions.
  9. Ask. If you come across gas stations or other waypoints of civilization, stop and ask drivers if they might be able to take you up the road. This small act forces generosity by denying drivers the privilege of anonymity. There are far fewer excuses for not picking up hitchhikers when standing face to face with one.
  10. Avoid cities. There is a ten-kilometer rule for hitchhiking in major metropolitan areas; within that distance you don’t have the faintest chance of being picked up. In the city, there are bus services, taxicabs, and trams. In the city, hearts are colder.
  11. Upon being picked up, greet the driver and tell him or her your name, looking him or her directly in the eyes. Shake hands with the driver. If a driver refuses such nicety, refuse the ride.
  12. If you are with the driver for a while, offer to buy him food and drinks, and if need be, offer to take the wheel for a spell. Great and lasting friendships can be formed through hitchhiking.

To Go Elsewhere Unknown, Part II

Outside Nizhnevartovsk, Russia · March 2008

As soon as John and I are done eating, Sergey asks us, “Hochetye devoshki?” Do you want girls? He nods at the Tatar man and tells us he has daughters, four daughters. Sergey points at the doors: “Adin, dva, tri, chetiri.” One, two, three, four. He takes a large bite of lamb and winks.

John says “Nyet, nyet,” but Sergey waves over the Tatar father. Sergey asks him to show us one of the girls. The father goes to the second door and opens it. He beckons the girl inside and she walks out, looking fifteen. She wears torn stockings, black heels, and wrinkled maroon lingerie, one shoulderstrap flopping. Her hair is tousled and oily. She looks very bored.

Sergey says, “Pyatsat.” 500 rubles. Eighteen dollars. We tell him no again, more forcefully. The young woman shrugs and walks back inside. Her father looks neither hurt nor relieved.

Sergey frowns at us. We don’t want to incur his wrath, but we also don’t want this prostitute. I feel trapped. I want to tell him, “You go for it then,” but I probably wouldn’t even if I knew the words. I consider leaving, but I’d have to use Sergey’s phone to do so. Neither John nor Susie nor I have one. We are trapped: Here we are.

Davai!” Sergey says. He leads us outside and we plod through the mud. Scattered outside the buildings stand more silhouettes, smoking and talking low. Sergey takes us to one of the buildings, where a band is playing what sounds like polka. Inside, the people are dancing, twisting around under the building’s lights.

We see a couple taxis outside this dancehall. We look at each other and head for one. My spine tingles: I’m scared of the wall of silhouettes, scared that I’ll be trapped here, scared that I’ll inevitably anger Sergey, not knowing how to talk to him. I don’t know where we are or how we got here, and this is too much. I don’t like giving in to these kneejerk paranoias but I can’t talk to or trust anyone around. John and Susie seem to feel the same thing, judging by their eyes. Despite Sergey’s camaraderie, everything here seems less an Authentic Cultural Experience than a mistake. So we get in the taxi, all of us in the backseat.

The taxi floor is full of frozen meat. We tell the driver, “Nizhni, nizhni!” and he nods and starts the car.

Sergey opens the passenger door and asks, “You go?” We say we’re tired and we’re lost, talking too quickly for Sergey to follow us. He holds up his hand. “Ladna,” he says. Okay. “You go.”

The taxi driver gutters through the mud, seiching his way out of there.

Later, when we see the lights of the city appear in the distance, John asks, “Does anyone know where we where?”

Susie and I shake our heads. We don’t speak again until we arrive back in Nizhnevartovsk.

To Go Elsewhere Unknown, Part I

Outside Nizhnevartovsk, Russia · March 2008

The sky darkens as we leave the township of Nizhnevartovsk, Russia, in a Lada taxi. Sergey drives us. “You guys,” he says. “You luff it.” We do not know where Sergey is driving. We are John, Susie, and I, all teachers in Nizhnevartovsk’s English school.

As soon as we leave the city the world devolves into dark. Our headlights shine into inkblack primordial mystery, the endless birch swamp forest that is Siberia. We can’t tell where we’re going, the road dark without streetlights. No houses appear. The snow is the only light in the world, casting ghastly and pale the birches to either side of the road. Then we arrive somewhere.

It looks like an abandoned carnival, this place. It has no sign or name. Four buildings stand lit by halogen lights over a parking lot rutted with wet tiretracks. Our student, Sergey fights the mud, slaloming into a parking space. Stepping out of his Lada, my foot squishes shin deep into the mud.

Everything is too dark, but we can see silhouettes everywhere, a Potemkin village of menace. Only the lit ends of their cigarettes glow. They stand in groups like lighthouses on a bay, with their pinpoint beacons in the darkness all around. Sergey leads us into one of the buildings, squat and indeterminate. John and I give each other a look. It says, This is foolish but there is no escape now. This is what is called an experience and we walk in and ever onward always.

Inside, we sit in a brown booth lit overhead by a hanging lantern. More brown booths line the left side of the building like a noir photostill. Along the right wall closed red curtains hide their rooms. A Tatar man comes to our booth and flips open a small notebook. “Davai,” he says. Let’s go. Order. What do you want?

John and I order beers, Susie a tea. I think that’s risky, and the Tatar man mentally confirms something with himself before writing her order down. Sergey orders for two minutes, the Tatar man nodding the entire time. Sergey smiles and laughs, a figure of comic absurdity. I guess we are in a restaurant. The Tatar man leaves, into the back.

We wait. Outside we can hear the thump of techno in a neighboring building, the very heartbeat of peril. Systolic, diastolic. Sergey repeats that we will love this place. His head nods to the music.

I hate to say it feels like a dream, but it feels like a dream. Or rather, it feels like a movie I hadn’t agree to play in, and whose director left abruptly. It feels like we’re all posing for an elaborate light study, oil on canvas.

Ten minutes later the Tatar man brings us all a broth of lambmeat and soaked garlic with our drinks. The Tatar man gives Sergey an entire bottle of vodka. We tuck in to our lamb, the meat moist and elastic. Sergey toasts to various things and we drink to them, not understanding a thing. At this point he’s given up on our possible understanding, and talks as he wishes. I try to look to the back of the restaurant, or whatever this place is, but I only see shadows and suggestions. The Tatar man meets my eyes and narrows his.

To Seek an Evil, Part II: To Wait for Darkness and Go

Ramah Reservation, New Mexico · June 2007

Anthony writes OK on a note and appends a piece of Scotch tape to it. “For your windshield,” he says. “We have a market full of good food if you want to look.” I thank him.

I drive around Ramah that day. Most of the land is farm and ranch land. The few houses stand in two neighborhoods. Curling barbed-wire fences delineate emptiness.

At the market I talk to a schoolteacher, an older white man named John. When I ask him about skinwalkers, he says, “The kids believe in them, but it’s not a scary ghost story thing. They’re not bogeymen; the kids learn about them and then learn ways to avoid them. Their parents are as scared as anyone. They consider them very, very real.”

“The kids won’t discuss them with me,” he adds. “But they write about them in class, in their journals. They hear noises outside their windows, see eyes in the night. Their dogs and cats panic. When they talk about it, they whisper.”

I go to yardsales and tell their merchants I’m interested in “Navajo mythology” to learn more about skinwalkers. Many laugh me away. “You want to learn?” one man asks. “No you don’t. You don’t want to know this.” One woman will talk to me next month. I don’t know if this is a joke or an honest offer, but I can’t take it regardless.

I wait for darkness and then start out into Unit Five, the End of the World, my Jeep’s bright headlights on. My heart hammers. I drive fifteen miles an hour, then ten. My headlights chase ghosts out of the sagebrush; the lights illuminate shapes in the dark tethered to their shadows. The road, bumpy and ill-used, hides what lies to the left and right of it. The stars above shine like diamonds but here on the ground the world is jetblack and impressionistic. Looking through my windshield, I don’t know what I see. No houses appear, just disused driveways that stretch back and back.

I get out of the car and look for any lights or anything, listen for rustling in the chaparral. The night smells as cool as deep water and I stand in it, seeing little. My heart beats hard still, and I squint into the darkness, trying to will something into existence. The mystery of skinwalkers still harbors itself in my imagination. The deeper I go, the more reverent I become, less ready to linger outside among the supernumeraries of night.

I don’t stand outside long. I feel chilled and phobic, certain I need to leave now. I have to be caught in such a situation to live it; I won’t engineer the same situation for myself now.

As I drive I think civilization is killing our ghosts. If I venture far enough away they can still exist, hidden in their wilds, not needing exposure or acknowledgement. Out here, the certainties of cities seem foolish and irrelevant, less certain every mile farther away. If the residents who live here know the skinwalkers are here, the skinwalkers are here. The deeper I venture into Unit Five, the more skinwalkers become the certainty.

I do a three-point turn to exit Unit Five. I look in my rearview but it gives me no answers, and so I drive on, onto the macadam of Unit One and then away from the Ramah.

To Seek an Evil, Part I: To Not Steal a Goat

Ramah Reservation, New Mexico · June 2007

Neither Russell nor Virginia, both Navajo, will discuss the topic of skinwalkers on their Rez. I find them as I get lost while driving deep desert backroads in far norther Arizona.

“If you want to know about them, go to the Ramah,” Russell says. The Ramah (ray·muh) Reservation is an offshoot of the main Rez, a smaller and more distant tribe. “Here they are quieter. They are around, yes, but,” he pauses, “not as loud. I don’t know how to explain it. In the Ramah, man, they scream.”

I thank Russell and Virginia and give them some gasoline. In exchange they give me a vial of crushed forbs. “Hang this in your car if you want to look for the walkers,” Russell says.

I drive to the Ramah Navajo Reservation, marked by a tiny sign dwarfed by three larger signs. The first sign argues against childhood sexual abuse; the second says, “Stay healthy…stay fit! Diabetes is not our tradition!” The third says, “Please don’t forget us.”

I drive around Ramah’s backroads, looking for I don’t know what. I see rows of mobile homes along dirt tracks without street signs, the residents sitting under eaves made from corrugated siding. I find a gas station and a small school, its children chasing each other in the blazing sun.

I drive back to the Reservation boundary and walk into the Tribal Government Center, a one-room metal square. I ask the secretary inside if I may talk to someone, and she directs me to Anthony. Anthony is round and conspiratorial; he wears a rancher’s ten-gallon hat and a mustache that fidgets when he smiles.

I sit in Anthony’s office. When I tell him I’ve been driving around, he says, “You drive around out here and tell no one? You’re lucky no one shot you! People will think you’re here to steal their goats!”

I ask him about the Ramah Reservation. He says, “This place is a place for us. We’re a different type of Navajo—it’s not worth getting into how and why and all that—but here we are.” He points at a map of the Reservation, which looks like half a parallelogram.

“The Ramah Reservation is divided into five units,” Anthony says. “We are here, in One. Two and Three, those have the houses and the school. Four is for farming and such. And Five, Five is…well, the school’s bus drivers call Unit Five ‘The End of the World.’ Of course, that’s where the really weird things happen. Out there last week, they caught two teenage kids wearing animal guts all over themselves, stalking around scaring people. When they found them, they just sent them back to the main Rez. To avoid it being a big newspaper story and all, getting people stirred up by some kids’ horseplay.”

The Ramah Reservation’s five units are divided by borders that seem hesitant or unsure somehow. Where the world ends, I think, is where skinwalkers hunt and lurch and gather, creating bone powders and dark-magic fires. I know this is where I’ll go, the temptation having risen again.

To Miss a Connection, Part II: To Miss a Connection

Melbourne, Australia · March 2007

I retreat to a waiting area and spread my effects over several seats. I think this could be easy, fun, a good ending to a rotten night. I can always ask Gemma, point blank, if she’s ever had an American. I don’t know if anyone else does this, but I strategize lines ahead of time that will sound feasible after a few drinks, as counterfeit courage. I don’t know if I have the gall to pull the line off regardless. I scheme in my sitspot, surrounded by the departing and arriving.

After an hour or two of jittery reading, I resign myself to a darkened recess to lay down in. I try to will sleep so I’ll be able to stay up later. I’m very tired, more than anything dreading the long night ahead. I stretch out my sleeping bag. Travelers walk by; babies scream wild murder. I shift and fidget, not sleeping.

I somehow manage to steal some slumber, here and there, I still don’t know how. I wake up at 11:43 p.m., jump to action, and gather my stuff, jamming my sleeping bag in my rucksack. I go to the airport bathroom to brush my teeth, wash my face, and muss my hair. My mind runs through possibilities.

The best situation would be party–>sex–>sleep–>back to the airport the next day. The worst situation would be to lose Gemma with all my gear in her car, being stranded in a foreign city. I think she could say no, she’s not sure, she’s tired, she has previous plans, and so on. I think I could lose her in the crowds of revelers, she could drop me off at a hotel, that I could just end up sleeping on a filthy couch while an unmentioned boyfriend stays with her in the next room. Actually having sex opens up another can of worms. I know I won’t be able to last till daylight partying. If we are out all night, I’ll have to find my way back to the airport somehow. I think, anything can happen.

I hustle up to Rip Curl, bags flopping on my front and back. The girl is not there; Rip Curl is closed and locked and dark. I look at a nearby clock: 00:10! Damn! In my sleep deprivation and waffling, I took too long, wasted too much time. I thought Gemma would have to close down shop, tote up the register and secure the premises, but clearly, like all young workers stranded at a boring job, she did this at 11:00 or earlier, leaving for good at zero-zero, zero-zero. I wait a moment for her to appear out of the back, but of course she’s not going to—of course that’s the last I’ll ever see of her.

I go to the glass windows overlooking the city, wondering how many Gemmas are out there. I think that I purposefully blow opportunities so I can regret them later, knowing regret is more poignant. Looking back on this later, I realize I should have just gone, thrown the bags in some storage locker and made the most of the evening. Looking back later, it feels less poignant than frustrating.

I go back to my recess and lay down on the cold tile. I do not sleep.

To Miss a Connection, Part I: To Make a Connection

Melbourne, Australia · March 2007

I’m traveling from Melbourne, Australia to Christchurch, New Zealand, on a Saturday night, when the agent says my ticket is no good. Through some bureaucratic oversight, my ticket has escaped approval, and so I cannot fly. The agent tells me I can fly the next day at the soonest. I don’t know what’s happened, but I’ve missed my flight in the discussion, so I say okay.

I call some hostels but the taxi to get to any of them plus the rate of the hostel plus the taxi back to the airport the next day plus the hassle of all that exhausts me. I’ll camp out before I go through all that falderal.

I seek out a spot to camp out, but there are so few. Everywhere in the airport is bright and fluorescent and loud. My sleeping choices include filthy tile floor or filthy metal bench. I harrumph and go in search of food.

I eat at Hungry Jack’s, Australia’s Burger King variant. The food tastes like solid air. I eat it. Reviewing my prospect of not sleeping, I decide to make the most of it, to invite myself out for a night on the town. It is Saturday, after all, and a one-night stand looks to be the most promising option.

I consider the rake’s strategy, that of showing interest in someone I’m not interested in, just to secure a bed. Once we get to the bed, I’d fall asleep hard, impossible to stir. This strategy requires a great deal of time and effort, as well as sustained playacting, and is more diabolical than I prefer.

I aggressively mill about the airport, browsing duty-free chocolate and kangaroo T-shirts. I’m hobbled by my gear, a rucksack and smaller backpack I wear respectively on my back and front, like a new father. I walk past shuttered newsstands and blackened restaurants.

And then there she is, working at Rip Curl, phenomenally bored. She’s a rote epitome of Aussie hot: blonde, surf-tanned, and busty—”sporty.” She wears a tanktop, tight jeans, and cockeyed surfer hat. A one-night stand, in other words.

I take a preparatory lap to steel myself, then approach the Rip Curl cash register. Her name’s Gemma. I explain my position to her and her coworker, reminding myself to make equal eye contact between the two. I ask her where I can find the best time in Melbourne on a Saturday night. Because it’s an army-remembrance holiday weekend, she says it’ll be an especially wild night. It might as well be flirting. The girls like my accent, and I like that they think I have an accent.

It’s about 8:00 p.m. Gemma says: “I’d take you out myself if I didn’t have to work till midnight.” I can’t believe an airport surf store stays open until midnight, but tell her I may still be here then, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise. I sound like my own grandfather. This garners a patronizing laugh, but also a “Yeah, all roight then. Let’s do it!” I agree and leave before I say anything worse. I feel like I’ve just accomplished some subterfuge, like I’ve just sold her some snake oil, and I feel very good.