The border guards just laughed at me. I'd given myself 10 days to get to Florida & back to Winnipeg; a 6,500km round-trip that included 2 nights in Chicago, 2 nights in Nashville, 3 nights in Gainesville & one night in Kansas City.
Needless to say, I went slower than anticipated, had to skip a bunch of stops & spent Halloween at a rest stop in Georgia instead of enjoying the first night of Fest. Although hitchhiking in a rush defeats the purpose of enjoying the ride, I always end up doing that to myself.
Fest is renowned as the best punk festival in the world. Hosted by the college town of Gainesville, Florida, it is designed to be as inclusive as possible by spreading the acts between 20 venues and a massive outdoor stage for headliners. It's got a homegrown feel to it, as if we would have all been venue hopping downtown anyway. As an added bonus, the Florida Gators played in Jacksonville that weekend, so the vacancy of college kids & sports bros was nicely filled with punks.
Who played? The Descendants, Hot Water Music, 7 Seconds, Lifetime, Less Than Jake & more than 350 other bands unheard of outside the punk community. Bands are stoked to be there to see their favourite bands. A weekend of moshing to great music, & high fiving other sweaty folks who made the pilgrimage makes for an epic festival. Fest lives up to the hype.
When it was all over, it was already time to head North. I had spent the morning looking for alligators & most of the rest of day wedged on the side of concrete turnoffs onto the interstate. Momentum is important, and the first ride out of an urban area can be worth more than a bus ticket, but Florida's infrastructure is particularly unfriendly to pedestrians of any kind. My saving grace was a grandmother with her grandkids. When I explained that I was going to Tennessee, the boy exclaimed "Good Lord!"
I wasn't at the next stop for more than 2 minutes when a woman in a pickup truck did a U-turn in front of me & pulled over. She shoved a McDonald's bag out the window & said "Here's a sandwich in the name of Jesus." Just as suddenly as she'd stopped, she was gone.
Amused & confused, I went about my way baiting my sign to catch the next ride. Within minutes, a dude ran over on a bicycle. At first he was taken aback that I was a woman, but soon enough we were chatting about Fest & the hitchhiking life. He gave me some local advice about the area - where the closest truck stops were, and some good spots to camp if I needed. I was still making my sign, when he came back with his arm extended & said "Here. Take this. I used it when I travelled to jimmy open locks to abandoned buildings. It's good luck."
Some themes in life are so pervasive, they follow you everywhere. In this case, as an apprentice bike mechanic, I had just been handed a part for a bicycle. I was staring at it in disbelief, as he rode away saying "May you have fair wind in your sails..."
Hitchhikers are optimists by nature, and today southern hospitality has yielded me lunch & a quick-release lever for a seat post clamp.
I was flying the flag of Fest, in the form of many wristbands, hoping to attract some likeminded punks. Julie was so excellent to give me a dose of normality on this strange day. It was her first Fest too! It was so nice to gush over the experience together! She used to run an infamous venue in a trailer in Mississippi, & knew most of the headliners. She drove me as far as possible without going too far out of the way, & for a moment I entertained my idea of heading west through a few new states with her. Unfortunately I still had so far to go in an impossible deadline. She was so rad! A breath of fresh air for sure!
My next ride was a strange exchange from two fellows willing to help me head further North. I was happy to keep moving, but I could barely understand their accents over the blaring music. I understood when they asked if I was cool, but it was the next 50 times of asking some derivation of "how cool are you" that I started to feel like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. (I originally thought it was harmless conversation, but gradually began to think maybe I didn't fully get what they were asking.) They dropped me off at their turnoff - the most podunk town in Southern Georgia. There was tumbleweed.
I had been stifling the feeling of getting sick. They called it 'Fest AIDS'; brought on by the influx of punks to worship in Gainesville, Florida. It was an absolutely amazing weekend, & we all paid for it with our health. I've never hitchhiked sick before, & hadn't thought of the implications. Even more so than a dirty, smelly stranger, no one wants to pick up someone who will make them sick. I was trying to be charming while I focused on repressing the rotten feeling of contagion.
Since no one has a reason to turnoff there, I wasn't in a position to refuse when the same two incomprehensibles returned. The passenger was more paranoid this time around, afraid of cops at every turn. I was happily eager when they dropped me off at the only sign of life in a world of concrete - a gas station.
Luckily, it wasn't long until I was picked up by Harriet & Mike from Atlanta. They were genuinely good folks, riding high after a weekend getaway. We shared an outsiders perspective of some Georgian nuances - confederate flags, cotton fields, chicken & waffles, & general conservative religious values - and it was a good opportunity to ask questions, since they'd been living in the area a few years already.
Meanwhile, my condition was deteriorating. I was trying not to expose my new friends to whatever was setting up camp in my esophagus. They offered me a swig of vodka to help cure me - it felt so good in my chest!- and asked me to open the window because of my sneezing. I couldn't hold it back.
Dusk was soon approaching & it was time for an ultimatum. I was feeling like crap, & was offered a bed at their place in Atlanta. I knew that if I wanted to make it to see Matt in Nashville, I only had a short window to catch another ride before darkness let the crazies out. (Although I have hitched a couple times at night, it is a circumstantial decision; the risks are greater, including drunk drivers & getting hit by traffic.)
My poor body just wants a bed to curl up in, but I gambled on the road & it paid off, once again.
Dwayne, a trucker from Florida, was happy to drive me into the heart of Nashville. He enjoyed the company on the road, & although my charm was caving in from illness, he didn't seem to notice. He dropped me at the truck stop downtown - literally downtown, which also happens to be across from a massive wreckage yard - where I had time to change & freshen up before my friends whisked me away to kareoke at the famous Santa's Pub.
***They didn't serve vodka so I had hot water instead, & still smashed out a version of Intergalactic at kareoke, although I feel bad for whoever used the mic after me. The next day when I woke up, I'd felt like I had been thrown up & out of the belly of a snake. Only 2,100kms to go.***