Japanese exchange student hitchhikes to Yellowstone

Originally hailing from the countryside of Shiga, Japan, communication major junior Kenta Ogaki pursues the new semester at Geneseo with a plan: to help as many people as he can reach. While this aspiration resonates with many college students, Ogaki’s motivation originates from a unique personal journey. At 19 years old, Ogaki—having just finished his first semester exams—saw a photo of Yellowstone National Park and devised a plan to hitchhike across the country from his residence in Yonkers, NY.

“Most people don’t think Montana and Wyoming have many things, at least compared to New York and California,” Ogaki said. “But if you open your eyes to the culture, you’ll see really great things.”

Borrowing the idea to hitchhike from a similar trip that his father took through South America, Ogaki began his expedition in Vancouver, British Columbia. There he witnessed the extraordinary colors of the Northern Lights, all before heading toward his ultimate destination: Yellowstone National Park. Without a travel companion or his parent’s knowledge, Ogaki embarked on his journey with a 40-pound backpack containing four shirts, one coat, a pair of jeans, snow-boots, a hat and no more than $500.

“I couldn’t say, ‘Could you give me a ride?’ so I would get in the car and just say, ‘East,’” Ogaki said.

For food and drink, he stopped at gas stations to buy his typical meal—a Hershey’s chocolate bar—and relied on the goodwill of strangers during the Christmas season. Lacking enough money to stay in a motel every night, Ogaki often found himself sleeping on the streets. Here, he befriended the homeless, who advised him on survival techniques and even gave him cardboard to use as makeshift protection until the morning.

“If you travel and don’t have money, you get the chance to connect with the people around you,” Ogaki said.

After reaching Yellowstone, Ogaki planned to sleep in the park despite the frigid winter temperatures. He quickly had to devise a new plan, however, when a police officer informed him of the necessary camping fee before promptly escorting him to the gates.

Over his month-long travels, Ogaki estimated that he encountered more than 100 strangers, who, moved by kindness, offered him food, shelter and new cultural perspectives. Having grown up in Japan, Ogaki had not seen a gun before accepting an invitation into the home of a Montana man.

Reflecting on his experience, Ogaki revealed that of his five weeks spent traveling, his fondest memory manifested from what at first felt like the worst Christmas ever. With no stores open on Christmas, Ogaki hitchhiked 90 miles to the nearest McDonald’s, where he met a random woman standing outside. Insisting that even the next town over was too far away on Christmas, this Good Samaritan invited him into her home to partake in a traditional family party and he ultimately spent the night. To this day, Ogaki remains in contact with this woman, whom he credits with saving his life.

Before leaving for this trip, Ogaki hardly spoke English—he picked up his conversational and colloquial knowledge of the language from interacting with the strangers who reached out to him along the way.

Contemplating the personal transformation that he experienced during his expedition, Ogaki advises anyone with a similar sense of wanderlust to follow their impulses during the summer—a time when a person can sleep outside more comfortably—and to approach foreign cultures with an open mind and vulnerable perspective.