There are only forty-nine states as far as I’m concerned. No, Alaska counts. So does my current place of residence, Hawaii. I’m not even talking about Utah, though it is, similar to its alcohol content, more like half a state. It’s the slightly penis-shaped landmass, which shall henceforth be known as “Hell” to play up the drama in this story, that should be removed from U.S. maps.
Hell is a big place as far as relative size is concerned, and well populated, too. Unsurprisingly, it’s warm there. Warmer still in August. It’s the middle of August and I’m in Hell!
This was my first trip to the southern United States. I hitchhiked south on I-95 from New York City and got a trucker ride that brought me from North Carolina straight down into Hell.
There was no adjusting to the local flavor by exploring South Carolina or Georgia first. I was thrown right into the middle of Hell without any preparation. I thought it was fine. I was twenty-four years in age, full of optimism, and wanting to explore a new place. I was ready for a new experience. I was a total idiot.
My first warning sign should have come when the trucker who brought me into Hell wouldn’t drop me off in Jacksonville. He lived near Fort Lauderdale, which is where he was headed and offered me a ride all the way there.
I turned down the offer because I was on a deadline of sort. I needed to be back in Idaho by the end of August so I could attend my first Burning Man festival. I wanted to stay near I-10, which would take me back across the country all the way to California.
I told him I wanted to go to the beach. He told me Jacksonville was a shit hole and that I should go to Daytona instead. I took his advice. He dropped me off and wished me great luck on my adventures. He was the first and the last resident of Hell to give me a ride. All further hitches inside Hell would be with people who didn’t live there.
Daytona Beach was the only part of Hell I was able to enjoy in any measure. It was hot, but at least there was an ocean and a cool breeze that came with it. That first day there I met “Cocomo” and “Two Coyotes and Wolf”, a broke Native American couple who liked my stories and let me crash on the couch at their cockroach infested apartment. I got a shower and by the time I put on clean clothing I was drenched in sweat. Such is the air in Hell.
The couple didn’t have any food in the house and Cocomo looked weak from hunger. Two Coyotes had just been released from the hospital with a broken arm and wasn’t sure when he could work again. I wove some storytelling magic on the beach boardwalk and hustled up twenty dollars in as many minutes. I used the cash to buy them food at a Rite Aid. Daytona City proper doesn’t have any grocery stores, the nearest one is over a couple miles away.
The next morning I awoke to Two Coyotes smashing a roach crawling up the wall. “The transparent ones are the ones to get,” he tells me, “Those are the pregnant ones.” I decided the beach in Hell wasn’t the place for me. I traveled north to I-10. Picked up decent rides all day, slept in a field overnight, and made it to Tallahassee early the next day. This was where the Panhandle truly began.
This was where I would learn firsthand what it means to be “trapped in Hell”.
I got dropped off near the west edge of city limits around noon. I assumed a few more rides, a few more hours, and I’d be out of Hell and headed for my next street performing destination, New Orleans.
After watching cars pass by my outstretched thumb for three hours, I needed a break. I don’t know what the temperature was but I was getting dizzy. I had listened to nothing but car engines, the 24-hour constant buzzing of a thousand cicadas, and my internal monologue that was set mostly to catchy pop tunes from the 60’s. I get Neil Diamond stuck in my head a lot for some reason.
I moved into the shade for breaks, occasionally returning to the onramp and trying my luck until the heat became unbearable. I looked pathetic. I was sweating buckets and trying not to breath in the insects. I tried using my umbrella to block the heat but umbrellas hurt your chances of getting picked up by reducing your visibility to drivers. They want to see your face before they pull over.
Not that they would have. Apparently the drivers in Hell are even less used to hitchhikers than other places because they looked at me like a fucking alien. They laughed at me. They sneered at me. I even got a middle finger. Can I use this opportunity to mention that Hell has a law that places blame on the pedestrian if a car strikes them? Yes, Hell hates pedestrians and wants them all to die or at least pay for car repair and perhaps any suffering you might have inflicted on the driver when they smashed into you at sixty miles per hour with their one-to-two tons of metal.
But I digress.
Evening came and I welcomed the small decrease in temperature. It wouldn’t drop below eighty degrees at night and I’d have to contend with insects while lying on top of my sleeping bag. I took a meal break at a nearby Wendy’s and decided to hell with it, I was gonna stand on that onramp until something took me somewhere. Anywhere but here, I told myself. Any-fucking-where but fucking Hell.
The ride came. Twelve hours later. A Hell State Trooper. Yarooh…
The officer didn’t like me standing on the freeway onramp at night. She felt it was too dangerous and offered me a ride a couple miles up the road to a rest stop where I wouldn’t be standing near fast moving vehicles. She figured I’d come across more long distance travelers that way, too. I thought it sounded reasonable and accepted the ride. Didn’t really want to argue hitchhiking strategies with a state trooper anyhow.
She dropped me off and wished me luck on my way west. Some cops want to help you out, others just want you out of their city, county, or state. I couldn’t tell which she was, but I was thankful for a couple less miles she could have made me walk.
I hit up a few late night drivers for a ride to the next town and was shot down each time. The rest stop quickly became devoid of travelers, and I guessed that this would be my bedroom for the night.
In Hell, they have a security guard onsite at each freeway rest stop ’round the clock. I approached the guard and told him my situation, asking if there was a safe place nearby I could sleep. He pointed to a row of covered picnic tables and said no one would bother me. I thanked him and bunked down for the night on the bench. At least if it rained I would be sheltered. Big plus in my world.
Starting fresh the next day, I kept optimistic that I would find a ride and soon be on my way. I was approaching people directly to solicit a ride, something I hadn’t done much of in the past as I always had mixed to poor success. That summer was as much a shedding of my social anxieties as it was an adventure, and it was forcing me to interact with total strangers in ways most people never have to.
The people of Hell don’t care about you. This might be too strong of a statement to hold up in anyone’s mind, but I’m telling you the people of Hell don’t care about you. It was:
“Sorry, I’m only going a few miles up the road.”
“I just can’t help you out. I’m sorry.”
“But I just need a ride to the next town so I can get out of this rest stop. It’s illegal for me to walk on the freeway.”
“I really wish I could help you out, but I have to go. Here, take this money.”
“I appreciate the gesture, but what I really need is a five-ten minute ride up to the next freeway exit. Please.”
Fuck you, Hell. Fuck you so much right now.
A lady from Orlando sat down next to me and gave me cigarettes and we talked. She didn’t have a ride for me, only five dollars.
Now it’s the afternoon, I’ve lost another day of hitchhiking to this godforsaken, purgatorial stop in the middle of Swamp Fuckall. It’s where the flies are the size of small lizards, and where the spiders are the size of your hand. Seriously. Where the nonstop alarm clock cicadas remind you exactly where you are and fuck your thoughts because buzz buzz buzz buzz buzz buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..
I cracked. I walked to the very back of the rest stop area to get as far away from people as possible, and I bawled my stupid face off. I cried and felt sorry for myself for a good hour. All I had to eat was the vending machine food with the money those fucking pricks who wouldn’t give me a ride kept dolling out to me. It was all sugar and it all tasted like shit.
I tried to take my mind off the situation. I had a laptop. I had access to electricity. There was no Internet but I had e-books. I tried reading. Got bored. I had one film on my computer. Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. I watched it. It made me angrier. I wrote a short story about an ant that gets a species-change into a spider, and how the other ants ostracize her for it so she kills the queen ant, harvests her reproductive organs, mates with another spider, and has her spider-ant broodlings devour the rest of the colony.
Shit happens. This was the low point of my entire first hitchhiking trip. The lowest. It couldn’t get any worse.
Yes it could.
Ten-thirty that night I’m sitting against the wall of one of the bathrooms with a sign that says:
I gave up talking to people directly. I had been sitting there for hours, I looked terrible. I smelled terrible. My eyes were flush red from the constant outpouring of salt and mucus. I wasn’t looking at the waves of people dropping in to urinate or buy coffee as they passed by me.
An extremely attractive women walked up and handed me a twenty dollar bill. She probably didn’t even read my sign. I hated her. I wanted to hatefuck her gorgeous body.
Karma came to my desperate thoughts in the form of him.
He has a name, but he never gave it to me. He was huge, like a linebacker. Two-hundred fifty to three-hundred pounds. A black man with a drawl. He read my sign. He told me to hop in. I was so dumbstruck I grabbed my pack and got in his SUV before checking him out. I wish I had.
It only took a few moments of seeing him drive to realize he was shitfaced drunk. He kept asking me obvious questions, to which I had simple answers. I told him he could drop me off anywhere. The sooner the better I was thinking.
He asked me if I would purchase him alcohol. I should have said no but I didn’t want to anger him and get kicked out on the side of freeway, so I consented.
On the way to the a convenient store he decided I was alright. He didn’t like the idea of dropping me off in the middle of the night with nowhere to sleep. He said he could take me to his place and I could get a shower and sleep on his floor. Awesome. I was all for that.
After I bought him a six pack, of which he began drinking one as he drove, he changed his tune and decided he wasn’t comfortable bringing a stranger back to his house. Okay, fine. Just drop me off at a onramp and we’ll call it good.
No, he wants to do me one better, he wants to get me a motel room.
Now I’m suspicious. This guy doesn’t strike me as the altruistic, charitable type. He takes me through a McDonald’s drive-thru and buys me dinner, then stops at a motel and purchases a room for the night.
This is very important. This is real life: He wanted to get US a room for the night.
He didn’t tell me that. He simply expected I would be okay with it. I was thinking about a bed and a shower, so I took my chances and entered the room with him.
We ate and watched TV. He crawled onto the bed and asked me to join him. I declined. He insisted. I declined. He kept asking. I was in no mood. I was tired and angry. I wasn’t interested in sex, not with some drunk stranger who thinks it’s obligatory for me to please him physically simply for giving me a ride and buying me shitty food. I sat, watched TV, and thought about exactly where in my pack the pocket knife and self defense spray I carried were.
The alcohol did its magic and he passed out. I deemed him not much of a threat and fell asleep on the floor. In the morning I woke and he was gone. Soberness and a hangover revealed to him his actions and he made a quick getaway. From shame and guilt? I didn’t care.
I quickly showered and got the fuck out of there. I picked up a couple more quick rides and I was in Alabama, a.k.a. Heaven. My nightmare in Hell was over.
There were no expectations that summer, I had lived my entire life up to that year west of Denver, Colorado. I wanted to believe that I was capable of being happy anywhere I went. With fifty different ways of living in this country, one of them had to give me my worst experience.
But then again, I haven’t been to Arkansas yet.
J.W. Wargo is a Nomadic Bizarro Storyteller originally from Boise, Idaho. His travels have taken him from Budapest to Honolulu and all points in between. He has a Bizarro fiction novella out called Avoiding Mortimer.