Stuck in St. Petersburg after his would-be host left town, Ethan, a friend of a friend, found his way to my pad with his friendly, cream-colored rat Echinacea, telling stories about his days hanging with Detroit punks, squatting abandoned high schools in New Orleans and bumming around Brooklyn with an anarchist rabbi named Shalom. The tales would be hard to believe if not for his photos.
"I think traveling is the most effective way I can build a portfolio and see the country," he says about his decision to leave home in March 2006. "I spent 24 years in one state. I had gotten everything out of Iowa that I could possibly get. I think traveling is the most amazing thing I've done so far."
The college-educated artist began posting his travel photos on a personal website — starvingiguanas.com — partly for himself and partly for his worried family and friends back home.
"It's kind of like a political statement, too," he adds. "I'm not going to drive a car, I'm not going to work and pay your taxes. I'm going to be totally free."
The more Ethan talked, the harder the traveling bug bit me. I'd done a few cross-country trips by car and bus, but never anything as risky as hitchhiking. So, while sipping whiskey at a neighborhood bar, I proposed an idea to Ethan: Take me with you hitchhiking for a weekend. He agreed on the spot. Two weeks later, we packed our bags for a free ride through the heart of Florida.
Water bottle: check. State ID: check. Sharpie marker for signs: check. Extra pair of socks: check. Blanket and tarp: check. Map: check. Half a roll of toilet paper: check. Knife: check.
I throw on a pair of jeans and thin blue shirt. Ethan wears the same drab cargo shorts and stained white T-shirt he's worn for weeks.
It's been raining since sunrise, and we're hurrying to make up the lost time. Ethan doesn't give me any hitchhiking tips except for rule No. 1: Never leave your pack. No matter if we're at a rest stop and you just have use the bathroom. No matter if it offends the driver. A hitchhiker never leaves his or her pack.
"Without your pack," he warns, "You are pretty much naked on the side of the road."
Around noon, we make it to Creative Loafing's headquarters in Tampa. A classified rep gives us our first ride to Bearss Avenue off I-275. As soon as she speeds away, we realize the mistake.
"This is a bad spot," Ethan says. No truck stop. Barely enough space on the shoulder for a car to pull over. No cardboard sign. "This is a real bad spot."
Undeterred, we get on the grassy median by the on-ramp heading north and do what countless others have done before us: stick out our thumbs.
I feel a little silly. The stares from passing drivers add to my discomfort. A Pasco sheriff's deputy drives by. So do at least two dozen cars.
Then, without warning, a black Tacoma truck pulls over. We jog toward it.
"Hop in," a strong-jawed man with a blonde military crewcut tells us. "Where you heading?"
"Gainesville," we answer.
Our Good Samaritan turns out to be Link, a 36-year-old property manager and Marine who fought in the first Gulf War and has just returned from three tours in Iraq. A stark black tattoo of an AK-47 with the Sunni Arabic phrase "Death before dishonor" marks his forearm. In his spare time, he traps alligators.
"I usually don't pick up hitchhikers," Link says, a refrain we'll hear several times on the trip, "but you guys don't look like killers."
He shoots us a grin.
Link drove supply trucks from Kuwait through the Sunni Triangle. He was discharged this year after he drove over an IED.
"Everything in the back of the truck came into the cab," he recalls. "And I wasn't carrying anything special. Just food and water."
Link carries on about Iraq for the next several miles. He talks about the unguarded weapons at U.S. bases, the infidelity of significant others back home, the nightmares.
"You're lucky there isn't a draft," he continues. "You don't want to go to Iraq, man."
Link turns up Hank Williams Jr. as we pull into an Ocala truck stop. This is our stop.
At the next on-ramp, I'm more confident, standing in front of Ethan and smiling as I stick my thumb toward the road. I'm having fun: the adventure, the characters, the adrenaline that shoots through you when someone stops. I could do this all day; Ethan says we might have to. Thirty minutes crawl by. A sheriff passes but doesn't stop.
Hitchhiking is legal, according to Florida state law, although people are prohibited from walking on interstate highways and must stay on the on-ramp shoulders. However, some cities and towns have their own ordinances, and that's where you get into trouble.