We’d spent the weekend in Westerway, Tasmania, a town whose population could fit on a large bus. He was waiting on the main street, one bulging pack strapped to his front, another to his back, seemingly unbothered by the load. He was tall and strong with generic good looks.
I took one look at him and I knew his story. I knew the second pack belonged to his girlfriend – a tanned beauty with long legs and perfect teeth. I knew they were in their thirties – smart, with high-paying jobs back home, but also adventurous. I knew he was hitching a ride because she’d gone on ahead, though I didn’t know why. In fact, I knew nothing.
His name was Jackson, and although he was from Montana, he didn’t call it, or any other place, home. The second pack didn’t belong to a girl, it was his, and it contained extra bedding; Jackson was more a tent-in-the-wilderness kind of guy than a bunk-in-a-hostel man.
We told him we could take him as far as New Norfolk and he asked us where we were from. When we told him Hobart, he smiled. ‘You’re too clean to be from New Norfolk,’ he said. I wasn’t the only one making assumptions.
In the 30-odd kilometres that followed, Jackson treated us to a collection of stories so bizarre I knew that if I didn’t write them down, and fast, I’d doubt my recollection. So, after we dropped him off, I did.
Jackson, you said this was your tenth trip to the state. You’d recently made your way to Westerway from Mount Field, having spent four days trying to hitchhike from Lake Pedder, and were now hoping to get to a caravan park in Launceston for a hot shower. I wondered why you had just accepted a lift in the wrong direction, and whether you were aware there were other hot showers in Tasmania, but didn’t quite know how to ask.
I did ask where else your travels had taken you. Your answers raised more questions I didn’t know how to ask. You said, with casual calm, that you’d backpacked across Africa; hung out with pygmies in the Congo. You told us the only way your parents knew whether you were alive or dead was when you made bank withdrawals, or when they consulted a psychic, and that when you fell into a bog and cut your leg from ankle to knee on the south coast track, it was the psychic who told them first.
You also said one of the reasons you kept coming back to Tasmania, of all places, was that it had a secret. ‘I guess I can tell you,’ you said, before we even had time to ask, speaking as if we were old friends who’d known each other for years, not minutes; as if the honour had been earned.
Jackson, you told us your ‘secret’: that thylacines are not extinct; that you saw one on your sixth visit to Tasmania; that you were determined to find proof. You reeled off some names of National Geographic editors who had given you the equipment to do it, you said you sometimes slept with ropes tied from your legs to dead wallabies (so you’d wake if an animal came to feed on them, of course), you told us about Andrew Orchard, ‘the tiger guy up north’.
Jackson, we didn’t know what to make of you, or your claims. I did look up Andrew Orchard, and find he’d been profiled in the New Yorker, of all places, but this was the only fact I could verify. Were your stories true? Did you tell them for our entertainment, or for yours? Did you believe them? Did you expect us to?
Jackson, I thought I knew your story. I made it up for you without even realising it, before I even met you. I still don’t know what to make of your tales. I admit that the cumulative effect left me joking they were payment for the ride – entertainment in exchange for transport? Jokes aside, I will say this: just because I’m prone to concocting fiction, and finding it more plausible than fact, doesn’t mean that you are. Either way, you gave us quite the ride.
PS: I’ve changed the hitchhiker’s name as I’m unable to run the piece by him.
Emma Wilkins is an Australian journalist and freelance writer. She’s had work published by The Weekend Australian, Quillette, Ozy, The Guardian and ABC.
Cover photo credit: Janine