I held my sign firmly, peeking up at the dreariness weeping above in swirls of gray, hoping for a lift out of the last stretch of Whanganui before desolation. The gas station produced little luck but local rides and I needed a long hitch straight to New Plymouth. So I stood roadside before the 100 kph sign. The blinker to a double wide Mainfreight semi flashed over the hill of pavement and her engine came to a sweet halt just feet from me. I grabbed the door and clumsily scaled the ladder with my pack fighting me all the way up until I grabbed onto the seat for stability. A thin middle-aged Kiwi man in his early forties greeted me. His short, flat, black hair matched the stubble lightly cast along his round face. He wore shorts hiked up well above his knees and a t-shirt in this cold front while I sat in my repertoire of clothing trying to fetch warmth, but falling short.
“Good day mate, I’m Darryl.”
He spoke in a thick New Zealand accent and reached out with his grizzly hand, gripping mine, in a firm handshake. I felt the callousness of his skin rub against my palms as my thumb cuffed his enlarged knuckles, the hand of a former dairyman.
“Thanks for the lift man…thought I was gonna get stuck in the rain again.”
“Always stop for hitchhikers…me boss don’t know, and I’m not sposed to, but just tween us.” He pointed at his phone and I closed my lips, unsure of whom he spoke to on the other end.
We lollygagged along the main highway through the open countryside of dull skies and glum pastures. Cows plopped down on the grass and the onset of a dusting mist sprinkled the landscape for another bout of treachery. I looked around the inside of the truck, at the new interior, dash cam, and took a whiff of the fresh, new upholstery then diverted my eyes to the blurring verdant landscape scattered with wet tears. A smile curled on my face as raindrops splattered across the windshield and trickled down the passenger side window, slowly washing away with the wind. The palpable sense of comfort struck me as I thought about the whirring winds and misty touch of scattered rainfall sitting beneath the gas pumps of the last Caltex in Whanganui.
Air belched from the vents, freezing my toes to a numbness as the hairs on my arms shot up like a prickly cactus. Darryl sat there in shorts and a t-shirt, handling the wheel nonchalantly, completely oblivious to the cold, as the truck hummed along highway 3 hauling a load for the Stratford Countdown. A slight smirk perked up on Darryl’s face as his phone beeped multiple times, vibrating from the cup holder of the truck center console. He looked over at me smiling, trying to keep a grim fatherly face as he read the text messages from his irate wife.
“Gotta call me wife soon so the language might be fucked…kid’s bein a lil arsehole…gotta straighten it out with the missus…see what he did now?” He laughed.
He dialed his wife and she screamed on the other end of the phone, bickering about their irresponsible 16 year old. Darryl squeezed in a few words edgewise, calming his wife in an endearing tone, stressing his manliness with the typical words, “I’ll handle it when I get home.” The phone clicked and he sniggered. His eyes twinkled as we cruised closer to Stratford. “See what ya have to look forward to mate when ya have kids?” He glared over at me and chuckled.
“Not anytime soon I hope.” I choked on laughter.
“Hear that…me arsehole kid, the middle one, took his mates for tea today, spent all his allowance on em, even though the missus packed him a lunch. Fuckall gonna take the card away. Tryin’ teach him responsibility, while he’s out treatin’ his friends to a tea…the missus is pissed…”
“Sounds like a handful.”
We chugged along Highway 3 down the beaten road of paved rubble and moist dirt, thumping and bumping around, as he downshifted, driving between the orange traffic cones. The turn for Stratford cut straight by Mount Taranaki without meandering the coast as we hugged the rusty rail lines on our way to Countdown where Darryl hauled his second to last load.
“Ya gotta stay in the truck while I drop my load…it’s policy without a badge…”
It sprinkled touching the windshield lightly with a blinding fog clouding the sky. The weather bellowed above twisting and turning, following my tracks like a panther, as storms continued to manifest over the North Island. I felt naked and perturbed from its misery, hoping New Plymouth offered sunny shores rich with light, and free of gloom, but not anticipating much other than the dismal skies before me.
The door cracked open and Darryl pounced up into the driver’s seat, shaking like a leaf in the wind. Water droplets dripped down his hairy legs and forearms as he gripped the wheel.
“Mate it’s fuckin’ cold out there eh?”
I looked at him, and chuckled, pointing at his get-up.
“Man, you’re dressed like you’re hittin’ up the beach…how are you survivin’ in shorts and a t-shirt?”
He looked at me, aloof in thought, as if I uttered words of blasphemy while his teeth chartered upon slamming the door. Once the chill in his eyes subsided along with his dumbfounded expression he trickled back to an entertaining raconteur, bragging about his former skills as a lady’s man.
I never much spoke of my past love affairs, let alone with complete strangers. With age came little concern for it, as I already married a beautiful, intelligent woman, and saw no reason to think about past one night stands with women whose names I could have pulled from a hat. Simply because I did not remember them and they were never important, just another regrettable night of drunken coitus lacking emotion.
He blabbered on about his past love affairs as I zoned out the window, diverting my attention to the white cloud engulfing the mountain in the distance. The white cotton candy wisps danced across the landscape as the truck blurred past Mount Taranaki. I never saw the peak. I never saw a sliver of mountainside through the onset of the vicious snowstorm.
Nearing New Plymouth the sky finally winked subtle rays of sunshine gifting hope to my future wanderings, but intermittent showers teased the landscapes for the past weeks. Darryl dropped me by the McDonalds.
After hopping down off that beast, the joy of my throne slowly stripped away from me as my foot left the last rung. As his truck rumbled away towards his last stop, the tension of another ordinary city weighed me down. I walked the same roads of my past, separated only by a different country, and British accents, with the same mosaic of life and faces scrambled around me.
I finally reached the coast. A brief moment of golden sun flaunted the sky masquerading behind the snowy pillow of clouds from Mount Taranaki. No sooner did I glimpse at the port, did raindrops plunk from above, as an ocean of gold settled with the sleeping sun. The soft pitters slowly erupted into a storm of fervent spills. As I turned away from the majestic light disappearing into the ocean, I glared at a double rainbow behind me, poking through the dark abyss of storm clouds.
A coastal buildo lay just feet beyond me, with three levels of scaffolding, as I scurried through the torrent of rain for shelter. Just as I started to squeeze behind the chain linked fencing a stout man exited the adjacent house and stared at me. Rain trickled off my grungy Carhartt and as my eyes gazed at his face the words instinctively slipped off my tongue, “Hey buddy, you know of any hostels or shelters nearby…just got dropped here and tryin’ to flee the rain.”
He looked at me with a blank stare on his pudgy face. His eyes crinkled and after some thought he finally released a response, “Nah mate, don’t know of any, but there’s a shelter that way, the one with the white roof, I think…good day.”
I wandered off casually. The rain smacked my face like pellets of winter as I began to soak up water like a balloon. The plump man sank into the seat of his work van, and after the rough start of his engine, he rattled off down the road. I scampered back to the chain linked fencing and shimmied my way between a small opening and the cinder retaining wall, quickly filling the shadows of the next hallway near a stack of drywall leaning against the wall.
Rain plunked. It stormed. It thrashed down in a frenzy of loud spattering, and dusk filled the air between the thick clouds. I set up camp right there in the hallway, lying on bits of crumbled dirt and concrete, with a slight smirk flickering on my face, happy for the dry night of sleep that lay ahead.
Twelve hours passed and I woke on the cold ground, slowly packing my gear, just waiting for the sun to spawn from the deep blue and bless the sky with its paintbrush of colors. I walked around to the front behind the checkerboard of fencing. My eyes adjusted to the calm dark blue current swishing against the jetty of rocks and quickly they shifted to the orange sliver embalming the horizon. Silence filled the morning air with a soothing melody freeing me of thought. I climbed the scaffolding to the next story, crawling to the corner of a recessed wall of window panes, just waiting for gold to strike the horizon.