I can’t remember his face, but his name was Arsenio and he drove a battered red truck patched over with bondo. When he stopped for us we’d just passed the last airport drop-off and were running out of sidewalk, dawdling like turtles with our huge backpacks toward a knot of interchanges and ramps.
We’d landed late the night before and slept in the airport until security gave us the boot. Now it was morning, but hot. The kind of hot where everything undulates and thrums. We threw our gear in the dirty truck bed and slid into the cab with me volunteering for the middle.
Arsenio asked if our ride had forgotten us. This idea—that we were somehow forgotten—would be repeated by many. We were hitchhiking, we told him, heading north toward Altamont Springs. Just traveling. Just living, man. I was nineteen and Ryan was three weeks past twenty-one. Has anyone ever been so young?
Arsenio told us that when he drives through the area surrounding the airport he takes the handgun from his glovebox and holds it between his knees. He watched me watching Ryan watching the glovebox. For protection Ryan had some pepper spray and I had a penknife and we both had calf eyes and a belief in the inherent goodness of people and especially in our own goodness and the infectiousness thereof.
He drove through a tangle of Orlando’s highways, a complete fucking mess of lanes slapped overtop hot poverty. Past the city and sprawl Arsenio said, “Yeah Altamont Springs. I’m just headed up there right now. Yall’s lucky day.” Even then I knew he was lying. And he wouldn’t be the last person to take us out of their way. There was a retired teacher near St. John, the pastor near Gainesville, the hippies in Ohio, the construction worker in Kentucky who was returning from a dear Aunt’s funeral—for miles and miles, re-routing their lives for us.
It was 2007, and the closest that most Americans came to hitchhiking were two new movies: The Hitcher and The Hitchhiker, a lower-budget version of the same plot. In both movies young naïve roadtrippers pick up good-looking psychopaths in the desert. In The Hitcher Sean Bean chains a teen heartthrob between two semi trucks and pulls him apart at the waist.
I hadn’t seen either of them but a teen mom with a baby summarized them for me after picking us up south of Ocala. Ryan took the front and exercised his lowkey charm while I was stuck in the back with a sleeping baby. The situation made me think of the lone hitchhiker from my small Pennsylvania hometown. The town kids called him the cockroach cowboy because he wore a black denim jacket and a big black Stetson hat. Sometimes he had a black garbage bag slung over his shoulder. When I was young, my dad would often pick him up and drive him to Kane thirteen miles away. I can remember the smell of him—cigar smoke and yesterday’s sweat.
My dad told me that the man would hitch twenty-five miles each way to go see his kids. He was the only hitchhiker my dad would pick up with us in the car. “Sorry,” he said to himself once when we passed a traveling man with a big pack. “Wish I could. Got kids.”
The baby spit out its blue binky and the mom asked me to put it back. Fearfully, like a campground raccoon, I grabbed the binky in my grubby paws and returned it to the baby’s mouth. Shortly thereafter the teen mom left us at an intersection in a national forest and broke west toward her mom’s house. I wanted to tell her not to pick up hitchhikers but instead we wished her well and walked into the woods to eat tuna from the can.
Back in Pennsylvania, on the night before we left, we’d sat in Ryan’s shithole kitchen and discussed some hitchhiking rules he found on the Internet.
- Always stay with your bag.
- Never walk along the freeway.
- Don’t tell the driver your destination in case you want to cut the ride short.
And to those we added another: don’t get stoned before hitchhiking. But rules mean so little to the young, and if I’d been the kind of turd who cared for rules I wouldn’t have been there in the first place. So when Ryan said Smoke, I said Yes. We were sitting in the dry red dirt below a power line, surrounded by skinny slash pine, the whole place scratchy and buggy and subtropically hot. Ryan rolled a stout joint. This is the effect that a person like Ryan has on you—everything seems easy, everything A-OKAY. He’d called me in July to tell me he was planning on flying to Florida and hitchhiking back after checking out a punk rock music festival in Gainesville. He said I should come.
“It’ll be rad,” he said. Rad.
We’d been friends since our early teens. Ryan was always capital C cool. He had a van, he played in bands. He didn’t care about college, he didn’t care about nothing. Unlike my brooding scrawling-in-a-notebook brand of bullshit, Ryan made wistfulness seem hip.
It took me about an hour to decide that I’d come along and another day to drop out of college. My father wouldn’t speak to me for nearly a month.
We were back on the road for only a minute when a purple Buick with a rattling muffler passed and stopped and highwhined in reverse toward us. A big bent man stepped out to greet us. He resembled Mr. Larson, the giant construction worker from Happy Gilmore that gets a nail stuck in his head.
The man popped the trunk for our packs. I said I’d just hold mine and he said there was no room. His name wasn’t Mr. Larson, but Dan. The squat woman with him was called Angel, or Sue, or maybe Jessica. They looked poor and gritty—like people from our hometown, which felt good. Since Arsenio had driven us through the ghetto, we’d seen mostly subdivided retirement hellholes and fenced groves of oranges ripening out of reach. We’d wanted the real America, after all, and at nineteen I couldn’t accept the fact that cul-de-sacs were it.
We threw our bags into the trunk, which held no fewer than four VCR’s, a mess of cords and cables, and a framed poster of Tony Hawk high above a ramp. I thought that they must have a son. That they’d surprise him with this flea-market poster. How nice. Then Jessica got into the driver’s seat and Dan took the backseat behind her. Ryan eyed me, I shrugged. It seemed a little off but I was super high and this was Florida so I took the front and away we went.
A few hundred yards down the road Dan clapped me on the shoulder and said, “So I’m guessing you guys like to party.”
A fuckity fuck moment came in which I saw myself from the outside-in—a stupid entitled kid who could always afford to be a stupid entitled kid. And in the side mirror I saw Ryan differently too. Not as the effortless guy, the A-OKAY guy. Just another snarky punk with so few hurdles in life he had to make his own.
The gist of it was that Dan and Jessica sold pills. They thought we were rainbow people, those part-time hippies that converge on national forests for weekends of drugs and fucking. Apparently there was a gathering nearby. Dan and Jessica wanted us to take them there so they could sell pills.
When we explained that we were just traveling, man, Dan flopped prostrate back into his seat and sighed. I thought maybe we could just buy some pills and make this problem go away. But I was on a budget and didn’t particularly like pills. And I should know. I’d spent the summer in my hometown with my old deadbeat friends drinking Icehouse and snorting Vicotin from the user’s manual of my 1995 Buick Century. A couple months before, I’d gotten very high and drunk and came home on a Friday night and laid on my parents’ back porch sobbing to my mother that I didn’t even know what I wanted in life. Home or away, college or something else. College felt fake, abstract and insincere. And home felt, well, the way home always feels. Swaddling feels good until you start to sweat.
Turning to me, Jessica said, “We’ll get you where you need to go but we just gotta make a few stops first.”
Everything felt off, canted and precarious. Ryan had that can of mace in his pocket. My knife was in my bag, in the trunk, but there was a heavy crescent wrench on the floor near my feet. Ryan and I tried to make eye contact in the side mirror. We tried to talk without talking. I thought about my mother, about having to call her after these people stole our stuff. She had texted me the night before to ask if I wanted her to schedule me a dentist appointment for when I returned.
I can’t say how much time passed on the road but eventually the turn signal clicked and Jessica wheeled onto a red clay road framed with slash pine, dead and burned black. This was the place where I figured they would kill us. Or rob us. Something bad. Ryan kneed the seat hard behind me and it became, for a second, obvious: I must punch Jessica in the face. It was clear to me that the only recourse was to punch Jessica straight in the side of her ruddy face. We were moving slow down the road. Bouncing in the ruts. I would punch Jessica, Ryan would mace Dan, and we would jump from the moving car.
Later, in talking to Ryan, he’d been thinking the same thing.
If this happened now I’d probably actually punch Jessica and bail. Or maybe I’d pull out my phone and discretely call 911. Or maybe I’d just ask her where we were going.
To which she would have replied, “a trailer park.”
The first trailer was white, or had been once, and was roofed in rust-streaked tin. Sitting under a droopy swamp oak, it could have been a photograph, an exploitative piece on rural poverty. The woman standing out front was pregnant in a summer dress and shoeless. She came to the car stepping lightly over the hot gravel and Dan got out to meet her.
A little boy came from the backyard and ran to see us. “Uncle Jimmy,” he cried into my open window, where I was smoking a reservation cigarette I’d bummed from Jessica.
“No,” Jessica told him. “That ain’t your uncle Jimmy and you know it.”
The kid scrammed and Dan talked with the pregnant woman. I overheard some of it. She wasn’t using anymore but her dad needed them because of his back. Dan got mad about something, some debt owed, and in the end they argued a little and Dan got back in the car without selling any pills.
Now Jessica was angry, calling the pregnant woman a cocksucking-cunt-skank-whore. We took off on the dirt road through the trailer park, dust trailing us like a comet’s tail. We passed a little trailer-daycare with junk toys out front and no fence, a sign by the road reading something like SLOW DOWN: DAYCARE. But Jessica didn’t slow down. A woman outside hollered at us and ran towards the road with hands raised slow down but Jessica punched it, sending sand and rocks skittering as we peeled out onto the hard road again.
She was high, yeah, and driving like she had fair and equal access to both sides of the road. On a straight stretch she put her purse in her lap and looked into it for so long the car drifted and drafted. So long that Ryan slapped me on the shoulder and as a car approached opposite us I reached for the wheel but Jessica grabbed it at the last second we lurched back into her own lane. She sneered at me.
She pulled a bottle of crushed pills from the purse and snorted from it with a plastic straw.
I thought of this time when a friend and I got my car stuck up an icy mountain road. We’d struggled and pushed and when we got the car turned around, we slid with locked brakes down toward the valley. He’d said, “Light ‘em up because we’re going down” and lit a cigarette. With that in mind I bummed another of Jessica’s.
After a while Dan said they had to go see Jessica’s grandma and we turned from the two-lane onto a siding road of little white bungalows. This time Jessica went inside while we waited with the car idling and nobody talking at all. It could have been a few minutes and it could have been thirty but eventually Jessica came out—hurrying, waddling, waving at us like a fireman in a parade—and thumped down into the car and handed something back to Dan. It was square and small and paper. It was a script, an old lady’s script she’d just stolen.
The driving only got worse from there. Jessica almost ran a pack of bikers wearing black leather vests off the road and they screamed and revved their big Harleys. I kept looking in the mirror, waiting for the biker gang to swarm us. She was going faster and faster on the narrow road, pines and telephone poles buzzing by. I don’t know why I never asked them to just let us out—maybe I was afraid they’d think we were rats—but I just checked my seatbelt again and again and waited for Ryan to give me some sort of sign. He didn’t.
Cops, carwrecks, bikers, robbery, gators—I tried to rank my fears in their order of probability. But before I could finish, the ride ended just as innocuously as it began. Whipping around a turn, Jessica chirped the brakes and stopped in front of a sign that read SALT SPRINGS CAMPGROUND & RECREATION AREA. It was the place where we’d told them we were thinking of camping.
“They ya are,” she said. We got out and Dan handed us our packs. Then he asked for our names and phone numbers because they lived just up the road and maybe we could party after they got all their work done for the day. We told them our names were Jack and Roger and gave them a fake number and snuck through the woods into the campground, where we swam in a salt spring and said Dude over-and-over like an incantation.
There you have it. My first and possibly my only real adventure because maybe adventure can only happen once. After that its just (re)creation. Travel—like youth and probably even love—is usually better in memory than in moment. Usually when I tell my hitchhiking stories, at bars or on dates, it sounds fun and wild and Cool.
But the truth is that I was miserable on much of that trip. Bugbit, sunburned, bored, tired, helpless, stuck. Sleeping skyfaced on a patch of concrete behind a Panera Bread. Standing in the snow in Northern Ohio trying to fetch one last ride home. And once stoned to the bones and electrically paranoid on a Greyhound bus after smoking pot peppered with opium, too high to hitchhike to Alabama.
But it’s hard to tell it that way. It’s hard to find meaning when expectation and reality slap hands. While traveling, I’ve been miserable so many times and none have felt particularly profound. Miserable in cold wet tents and hungover to the point of tears in airports and once calling my mom collect because my debit card stopped working abroad. Often, when I’m elsewhere I wish I was in my apartment or back in my shit hometown sitting on my parents’ porch watching the treetops swim in the wind. And I know I’m not alone in that.
Now I’m a college professor with a used Subaru and two suits off the rack. It’s good to no longer be the kid crying on the porch, or the stoned kid on the bus, or the kid in the Buick too tongue-tied to say Pull Over. But still I hope there’s something out there to be found. Because, either way, most days I feel wistful for the never seen. Most days I feel the pull of my backpack. Its hot blue light glowing under the closet door like a phone call in the dark, calling to say “This next one. This next trip will be the one that changes everything.”