The morning sky poked up over the lake with a blink of dim light and at 5 AM I found myself inebriated, patting every pant pocket, shuffling through my frayed jacket, and searching frantically for my wallet. Where did it go during the shenanigans of skinny dipping at the thermal spas? Did I misplace it, slipping into my pants? Did one of my new encounters slip their thieving hands into my pocket and pilfer it? Shit…my head pounded with each racing thought as the cheap wine wore off to a state of throbbing punishment. With less than two hours until sunrise, and no trace of my wallet, I did what anyone would do. I lay there incapacitated, shut my drunken eyes, and worried about it in the morning.

I never slept that night, waking just an hour after resting my head on the cold, damp, ground at Reid’s Farm. Taupo felt like a refrigerator with the breath of the lake chilling the air frigidly through the night. I sat up, slipping into layer after layer of clothing until I wore every article in my pack, holding my knees, as my googly eyes adjusted to the cluster of campervans and tents scattered throughout the lot.

Aaron lay next to me on the tarp bundled in multiple fleece blankets and a cheap sleeping bag with his face tucked away in the sheets. His short frizzy curls of black hair poked out of the mess as he lay there, resting his head on his pack, motionless. I looked up at the two sedans parked beside us their windows covered in a steamy film of condensation and heard the squishing sound of a finger rub against the glass. Dan took his long, skinny finger and scribbled, “Hi Brian,” with the “n” backwards.

“Hey…hey Dan…did you guys find a wallet last night? I think I lost it or someone snatched it at the springs…I don’t really care about much, but my license.”

“Damn, that sucks. Nah, we didn’t see anything. We’re headin’ that way in a lil…we can swing through and let you look for it.”

“Thanks man…”

Dan rummaged through his trunk for food, pulling out a bag of roast chicken. The fat solidified to the bottom of the plastic Ziploc, drooping off the legs and bones as he shuffled his fingers through it, ripping wings off and chomping down tenaciously on the cold meat like a caveman.

“Grab some mate…no you ain’t got no money.”

“Thanks…I’ll be fine though…I’ve traveled on little to nothing before, it’s just harder.”

I reached in and snapped off a wing, flicking the fat to the ground, before biting into its smoked savory texture. All of us stood there with grease glossing our lips and fingertips, while the other three slept in their drunken stupors.

Dan shifted from the front of his car to the back, moving boxes, backpacks and a camping stove, just enough to lock a backseat into place.

“Can you ride with your pack on your lap?”

“Yeah sure man…thanks for the lift. I doubt it’s there now, but worth checking…”

I squished in behind the front seat, stashing my pack on my lap, as I slid over the suede upholstery just enough to shut the door. Dan and Jen packed into the car with a bit more room, but we all looked smooshed in the tiny sedan, with my arm squeezed up against the glass. The car bumped along the dippy dirt lot, thumping through potholes until we reached the paved roadway.

Dan turned off looping around the Waikato River to the Spa Thermal Park. My eyes glued to the landscape for a completely new adventure as the coniferous trees blazed by opening up to an overlook of Lake Taupo, its blue aura rising to the clouds as the morning dew dissipated with the fog. It all looked foreign to me as daylight highlighted the terrain. The same roadways we stumbled the night prior in the ebony sky with alcohol permeating our breath, laughter belching our lungs and our tour guide, Andy, slightly off on his estimated time calculations, made this day trip even more special as I remembered it slowly. Yes, I lost my wallet. But, it all felt surreal like a magical fairytale or a puzzle as I slowly put the pieces back together of the events that transpired.

The so-called 15-minute walk proclaimed by Andy, became more like a 10-minute drive. Dan skeered around the turn for the Spa Thermal Park and scanned the parking area at the end of the road for a parking spot. He pulled up along the curb and put her in park.

“Alright, we’ll be here while you search…hope you find it bud.”

“Thanks.”

I popped the door open, leaving my pack behind on the seat, taking in the surrounding area between squinted eyes of nausea. My head pounded from the bright light, beaming down through baby blue sky, as floaters swam around in my eyes and I tried to concentrate. I swiveled my head. I paced back-and-forth looking out in every direction, drifting back to the parking lot. Jucy Campervans, minivans, cars and campers covered the asphalt as people walked the narrow pathways, up and over the rolling green hills, with towels and swimsuits, ready to dip into the thermal spas.

I scratched my head and walked back to Dan’s car, knocking the window with my knuckle.

“Yo…guess I was more drunk than I thought…where am I goin’ exactly?”

He snickered and pointed at the path meandering down and around the verdant hills that opened up to the Waikato River.

“Down there on the right…just remember the bridge…”

I stumbled along the pathway down the rolling hillside towards the Waikato River. The cold teal ripples rushed quickly between the banks, glowing vibrantly as light cast out beyond the cloudless sky. When I reached the wooden pedestrian bridge, an alcove of steamy pockets tiered up through the smooth rocks of cascading thermal spas. People basked in swimsuits, sitting in the teacup indents of earth with steam and heat drafting upward in plumes of sulfur clouds. Clothing decorated the wooden railings of bridge, trailing all the way down to the square rocks bordering the banks of the spa.

Between the towels and heaps of shoes I searched for a contour map of the Grand Canyon, folded and sewn into a map wallet, my wallet for the last two years. I rubbed the crevices of smooth rock where I sat the night prior. I searched the ground between the crinkled shirts and pants. I checked under the bridge and near the wet, slippery seats of rock, but I spotted nothing. My wallet slipped away to depths unknown, most likely falling out of my pocket as I struggled to slip into my pants the prior night. I would never know.

I wandered back to the car and the slight throbbing of my head worsened to stifling pain of my skull. The alcohol finally wore off and my flaky, white, lips felt like a prune, dehydrated, cracking and encrusted in a smelly film. Dan looked at me through the window and I just shook my head as I opened and slammed the car door.

“No luck, huh?”

“Nah man…someone probably grabbed it by now…not really lookin’ forward to gettin’ a new license is all.”

“Sorry bud…least it’s off your mind now that ya know ya looked.”

“Yeah…thanks for the lift.”

Dan’s car skittered under bits of gravel by the entrance to Reid’s Farm and I let myself out, waving and walking back to camp. Vehicles cleared from the dirt lot as the late hours of the morning struck with the sun blazing above, unmasked through the clear blue.

When I reached Sandra’s car, the windows still fogged over from the morning dew. Her whole trunk of camping gear piled high in the front seats and the car shook briefly side-to-side as her and Andy “moved” about in the tight space of trunk and folded seats.

Aaron lay in the same position on the cold ground with the blanket wrapped among his head and the three of them still snoozed the day away from a night of heavy drinking. I stood there looking through the foliage towards the roadway wondering what in God’s name I would tell my wife.

My mind rippled with the passing of time as my hangover worsened and I pondered leaving the others behind to hitch into town so I could dumpster dive for food. But, that thought faded after much contemplation and watching the leaves sway above with the whistling of wind.

Hours drifted past and I waited patiently as the others slept dead still, cradling time with their resting eyes. Dan and Jen pulled back into the lot, laughing and shaking their heads at the others and then the crack of Sandra’s car door rattled the air. Out stepped Andy, all googly-eyed, with crimson eyeballs and cattywampus dreads poofed atop his head. He stumbled towards me barefoot, his toes digging into the loose mud and slapped my chest.

“Found yer wallet mate…left it by the spa last night…”

I looked at him in shock, scrunching my forehead as my eyebrows sailed wide across my face like rainbows.

“No fuckin’ way dude…I thought fer sure someone stole it by now…musta fell outta my pocket puttin’ my pants on last night.”

“Sorry for not giving to you sooner…”

I smiled, happy to hold my wallet back in my hands, for the fiasco of gaining a new license would have been problematic in the states.

“So whaddaya guys wanna do,” gruffed Dan.

“Coffee…I need a coffee. We head to the lakefront to find a cafe?” inquired Andy.

Aaron nodded. Sandra stood close to Andy brushing up against his arm in a flirtatious manner and the others all looked at each other through groggy eyes, and dirty clothes, shaking heads in agreement.

Aaron, Andy and I all squeezed into Sandra’s car again cramming our packs on our laps using every bit of empty space available. And off the car bounced through the parking lot towards Lake Taupo. Sandra drove in circles looking for an empty parking space outside the Burger King, and my trepidation from her maneuvers ended once she finally crept off the sidewalk into a vacant space. I wondered what lay ahead for the bunch of misfit traveler’s whom all met the night prior in random fate, with booze, spas and the adventure of experience goading our paths.

Hitchhiking Lake Taupo
Lake Taupo with new friends
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Brian Cray is not a cyclist. He’s not a hitchhiker. He’s not a train hopper or an adrenaline junkie. He’s just an ordinary man with gypsy blood in his veins, who can’t seem to settle down. Nothing defines him. He goes wherever this world takes him on this journey we call life, roaming the world, at will, by any means. He aspires for a life of indefinite travel, a tiny home in the woods for him and his wife, and any work that keeps him wanderin’. Brian Cray is a travel writer at heart, sharing his stories with the world one keystroke at a time.

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