The Road to Independence

Written by: Anna Bernard

Some of the best adventures are the result of failed plans, ideas that hold consequences, and ultimately, risk. The time spent planning, mapping and timing renders useless. There is a saying that says, “Regardless how well you prepare, you will always be unprepared.”

I was used to adapting on trips. Whether it was forgetting the gas stove, wearing the same pair of socks for four days or changing paths midway through a hike, I normally expected the unexpected, and often times, welcomed it. Backpacking, hiking and nearly any other activity outside has taught me to embrace adaptation and has given me independence more than anything else.

Nearing the end of a ten day backpacking and road trip down the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, I had grown comfortable with the unexpected. It was with two of my best friends, April and Vita, that I was heading north along the coast where we would then head back down south, cross a few more hikes off our list, and return home a few days before our flights back to the States.

All was well – or at least sufficient – in our 1997 Holden Astra. We bought it for less than $700 US dollars a few months back. It lacked a rearview mirror, the ability to go over 40 mph and a wide variety of other things that suggested it refrain from road travel. It was not the best car, but it was good enough. We suffered a horrendous flat that tore the tire to shreds, snuck out of a ticket for having an expired warrant of fitness, and had to pull over several times to keep the engine from smoking too much. By the end of the trip, I was driving without power steering and watched the battery light flicker on and off.

We had dropped off April in Nelson so she could continue on to the North Island; it was just Vita and me now. The visitor center was the closest place to us and the front desk was able to recommend a mechanic about nine miles away. We eventually reached the mechanic, where he told us the string of issues with our car, the primary being that the alternator belt and the pulleys that aligned it were no good. With a look, Vita and I decided to ditch the car. “We’ll just hitch hike home,” we agreed. The mechanic’s wife drove us to the highway and wished us luck.

Anna Bernard waiting on Highway 6 in Nelson. Photo: Vita Rice, 2015.

We could have not been farther from where needed to go. However, in a sense, it was freeing. We had ten days worth of clothes and food, a tent, day packs, 50 liter packs and sleeping bags, but were lifted the weight of a car that we knew we shouldn’t be driving. We were going to hitch hike. We were doing something we were told to never do, especially as women.

Hitch hiking in New Zealand is far safer than it is in the States, and not illegal, but to be two twenty-year old girls in a foreign country, we were not doing what we were taught to do as young women. Young women do not break the rules, they do not create their own independence and they definitely do not trek almost 500 miles across a foreign country via the courtesy of strangers’ cars.

It was probably the most exhilarating part of the trip. The rush of a new car pulling over to offer you to your next destination, the empowerment of travelling in an unconventional way. It was a way of proving independence, intuition, and was one of the most fulfilling trips my adventurous heart has ever experienced. I did something that most people do not do, and that even less women do.

An outline of the stops taken while hitchhiking. Starting at Nelson, to Picton, Blenheim and then to Kaikoura on the first day. The second day starting in Kaikoura, heading to Christchurch then arriving in Dunedin. Map by Anna Bernard, courtesy of Google Maps, 2016.

Over the course of the trip, I met an electrician that initiated our two day trip down the South Island. I met a father that belonged to the ocean and showed us around the small surf city of Kaikoura. I met businessmen who never spoke to us, and a group of hippies that treated us as old friends. I had no idea who would take me to my next location. I didn’t know when exactly I’d get home, and at one point Vita and I wondered if we were going to make our flights back home to the States.

It was different. At times it almost felt wrong, as though I was taught to stray from ideas like these. I was. My parents taught me to prioritize by safety for fear of getting too hurt. Society taught me to prioritize my safety by limiting myself and my actions. Gender expectations have hindered women of the chance to explore their potential, and in many ways, robbed them of their independence.

Hitch hiking was freeing, it was different from any other travel experience. It was raw, stressful at times and ultimately rewarding. While it was done in a safer country, it was a result of risk, stubbornness and luck. Though some of the best adventures are derivatives of the unexpected, they can prove to be the most empowering and fulfilling.

#backpacking #hiking #newzealand #travelling

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