As the sun dips behind the trees, we decide to call it a night. People don't pick up hitchhikers at night, Ethan says. Exhausted, we make camp in a dense group of bushes in front of a Motel 6 a few miles up the road. I watch a hooker get out of a truck, her legs wobbling on the way to her motel room. I force myself to sleep.
When I return with coffee the next morning, sheriffs' deputies have Ethan surrounded. One questions me, while another searches my backpack. Ethan, according to the authorities, fits the description of a local drug dealer. But after the cops run our licenses, he's let go — just in time for a huge thunderstorm to pour through. We spend the morning under an overpass.
When the rain dies down to a sprinkle, we head to a gas station to ask about the nearest truck stop. Maybe we'll have more luck on the other side of the city. It's already 2 p.m., and I'm beginning to think we'll be stuck in Orlando forever. That's when the van of thieves pulls up next to us, offering a ride to Tampa.
We have 40 miles behind us when a Wal-Mart employee, suspicious of Blue, refuses to return his merchandise. He walks back to the car, his face red and puffy.
"Motherfuckers," he mutters. "They got some uppity Wal-Marts around here. We need to go back to Orlando."
I protest. But Blue dismisses me.
"I know a few stores in the ghetto that'll take this stuff," he says. "Then we'll be on our way to Tampa."
The kids in the back start screaming again. Blue turns up the gospel rap.
After hitting the second Wal-Mart in Orlando, Blue hands us a gift card, telling us to grab some food and cigarettes for the ride into Tampa.
"We'll be back before you're finished," he says. "We have to make a deal with this guy and he can't see you."
I look at Ethan and nod. I open the van door, step out and then glance back.
Never leave your pack.
I reach in and hoist it on my back. Ethan follows my lead.
"Why you taking that?" L.A. asks, but I don't answer and close the door.
The van never comes back for us. The gift card, I find out later, is empty.
"That's the worst ride I've ever had," Ethan says.
Worse than the heroin addict that shot up in front of you? "Yep."
Worse than the guy who propositioned you with a 10-inch silicon dildo? "Him, too."
I take out our map. The closest highway is the Florida Turnpike, more than 10 miles away. I-4 is even farther. The sun is setting. We're stuck in another Orlando suburb. I have to be at my desk tomorrow, and there's no way I'm spending another night in the bushes. I break down and call my roommate to come get us. I feel dejected. I'm a weekend warrior. Traveler kids hate those.
Sitting on the bench, Ethan recaps our adventure.
"What do you think," he asks, "about hitchhiking?"
"Well," I think for a minute. "It's better than the Greyhound."
When I see my roommate's car, I step to the curb and stick my thumb out.
"Where ya heading?" she asks.
A Hitchhiker's guide to Florida