The hitchhiker's guide to Florida

Pirates, savages, Capri-Sun – how to hitchhike Florida and survive

click to enlarge STORM WATCH: Clouds roll in as the author attempts to score a free ride off I-4. - Ethan Clarkson
Ethan Clarkson
STORM WATCH: Clouds roll in as the author attempts to score a free ride off I-4.

This is not good. Not good at all. Lots could go wrong on this one. Cops. Beaten and robbed. Stranded. Definitely the worst ride yet. Shouldn't have gotten in this van.

I glance over at Ethan. He's looking straight ahead. Even his pet rat Echinacea is still. I roll another cigarette and inhale deeply.

We're sitting in the middle of a large maroon van driven by a balding Latino guy named "Blue" who has been in and out of prison for the last few decades, mostly for armed robbery. In the passenger seat is his hustling partner, L.A., named after his city of choice, where he also did time. Both have jailhouse neck tattoos. I suspect L.A. carries a gun under his big Tupac shirt.

In the back of the van is Courtney, Blue's girlfriend. She's wrestling with two of their boys — one of them a long-lashed kid with a killer smile, the other still in a baby seat. Courtney's pregnant with Blue's third child. The kids scream and yell, and she screams and yells back. Blue has a habit of calling his child "Nigga."

For the last two hours, we've been riding in this van while they hit every Wal-Mart between Orlando and Kissimmee, stealing merchandise and then returning it (without a receipt) at the next Wal-Mart for gift cards. Then they take the gift cards, use some of it for gas at the Wal-Mart filling stations, and take the balance in cash. That's been their hustle for the last four years.

Why they decided to pick us up at a gas station outside of Orlando is anybody's guess. Maybe they wanted us to help. Maybe we were the decoys if the cops showed up. Maybe they liked our company. No, not that last one.

We made it clear we weren't going to help them, but once inside the van we were pretty much in for the long haul. Just get us to Tampa, I said. We've been on the road for four days. Ethan needs a shower and I need a real bed.

Blue and L.A. talk in hushed tones over the gospel rap blaring through the car speakers.

"Naw, man, they've been loyal," I hear L.A. mutter. Is he talking about us?

"Well, you wanted an interesting ride, right?" Ethan says softly.

Yeah, but this wasn't exactly what I bargained for when I agreed to hitchhike across Florida with a traveler kid named Ethan and his pet rat. Then again, what did I expect?

The act of sharing transportation has been around as long as there has been transport to share. Even the Bible has a story about a hitchhiker: the apostle Philip, who takes a ride from an Ethiopian eunuch on a horse in the New Testament. In the United States, hitchhiking took hold during the Great Depression when a generation traveled by thumb and by train looking for work on farms and factories. But it was Jack Kerouac's traveling opus On The Road, published 50 years ago this year, that romanticized hitchhiking for the masses.

Hitchhiking went from being just an alternative for the poor and car-less to a form of adventure, or even political statement, for counter-culture types and societal drop-outs. And for countless authors and screenwriters, the idea of riding with a stranger on the open road has conjured up countless oddball characters, enlightening encounters and, of course, Rides From Hell.

click to enlarge ROAD WARRIOR: Ethan Clarkson's thumb has taken through 28 states in the last 16 months, traversing nearly 15,000 miles by hitchhiking and train-hopping. - Ethan Clarkson
Ethan Clarkson
ROAD WARRIOR: Ethan Clarkson's thumb has taken through 28 states in the last 16 months, traversing nearly 15,000 miles by hitchhiking and train-hopping.

Urban legends of rape and murder still hover around the act of hitchhiking, the result of the media hype surrounding a few grisly incidents in the 1970s and '80s, and, of course, paranoia-inducing horror movies like The Hitcher.

Such are the warnings I heard when I announced my plan to travel Florida by thumb. Hitchhiking in the '60s was OK, people told me. But in 2007? No way. There are crazies out there.

Yet 50 years after Neal Cassady and Devon Smith (who held the Guinness Book of World Records title for most miles hitched until 1985), a new generation of disaffected youth has taken up the mantle of thumbing for free rides. Blending a distrust of suburban respectability with a love of punk rock and radical politics, these new "traveler kids" regularly traverse the country by hitchhiking and trainhopping. Through touring punk bands and radical organizations like Food Not Bombs, they've formed a tightly connected subculture, offering fellow travelers places to stay, free food and camaraderie. They've written far-circulated books like Evasion, the story of a punk who steals and scams his way across the country, and have begun websites like couchsurfer.com and digihitch.com.

About a month ago, one of those traveler kids ended up on my couch. Ethan Clarkson, a 25-year-old photographer from Iowa, claims to have traveled 28 states in 16 months, covering nearly 15,000 miles via hitchhiking and trainhopping.

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