Well Ive gotten into the lapse again, and missed a few days, but Ill start regurgitating it now...
I had Mannish at the front desk book a wake up call for me at 830am, that way I could come down for the complimentary breakfast before it was done at 9, and return to bed until checkout time. Well of course I ignored the wake up call and had Mannish himself and a cleaning lady staring at me in bed.
It was 12.
I love my habit of pushing checkout times. But it comes with a price. I don't love being woken up by people staring at me half asleep, in my underwear, Bob Dylan hair all over the place, absent mind fresh out of dreamland, on the REM highway.
He reminded me of checkout, and I promised to be out in 15 minutes. I didn't unpack anything, except my computer and camera gear, so it was a quick pack up.
I laced on my super stinky boots(yours would be too) and got my things together. I flicked off the TV that I never let rest and headed out. I took a bar of hand soap, and a facecloth, it was necessary, I promise.
I walked out, right to the highway. The on ramp was a stones throw away, so I got there asap, as it was already past noon. There was a steady flow of traffic on this ramp, as it was stemming from 2 major highways, and a massive shopping centre and hotel row. Several Canadian license plates passed me. I think I would have had one if my sign said something about Canada, but this one didn't. They were the only ones who would wave back, or smile. The backpacks were posted up, and I noticed 2 signs laying on the freshly cut grass beside me from previous hitchers. They were both to the town 20 mins away.
Still wearing my morning face.
It was about another 20 minutes before my ride pulled over.
A large, new model 4-door red truck pulled over. I tossed B1&B2 in the bed, and hopped in.
It was a young family. I was pretty surprised, I knew there was a couple, but when I saw the young lad in the backseat, I was kinda surprised they stopped.
Nontheless, I climbed in, introduced myself, and the chatter began to flow. They all had strong southern accents, included the David, the 8yr old kid. His might have even been the strongest... They were on their way back from visiting their folks, and were able to take me a few exits down, in a town called Brunswick. The hotel I had just stayed in was in Darien GA, and it was a good start.
They were both young, Matt wasn't too much older than me, maybe 30 at most. I never got her name, but she was very nice. David was shy and quiet, and the only one who seemed to think it was weird a hitchhiker was in the car.
I asked him if he played sports, and he said he wanted to play baseball, but his grades had to go up first.
David the trooper!
"Thayats rayght" his mum chimed, adding he wasn't far off from achieving it, but still needed to focus. I told him my grades weren't very good at his age either, and told him that he needed good grades to get cool cars and the cute girls in his class. It was funny, because the way I said it, totally registered with him, and he made this little look like 'huh. Yeah, that is totally true'. I don't know, its probably just me, but it seemed that way.
I asked them if they had been to Canada, they told me no, and I recommended going. Matt just blurted out "heard they got good weed up thurr". I smiled, and he asked me if I had any. I told him no, and he threw a bag at me. "Syours".
He was a good guy, and they were nice people, but I really didn't agree with them being so open about smoking, and the weed. Even if he didn't know, David was too young, and should never be around it. Probably the root of the whole bad grades situation.
I quickly crammed the bag into a pocket, because I knew refusing it would create suspicion for him, and I don't think he even noticed the transaction. I wasn't going to make a fuss over nothing, and just went with it. They asked me a bunch of questions, all related to the trip. They couldnt beleive I had come so far in such short time, as they thought hitching was a lost cause, or a suicide mission.We pulled into town, and they dropped me off in a parking lot next to the on-ramp I would make my next attempt into Florida from.
I thanked them, told them to drive safe, and for David to become a world famous Baseball player. I gave him a high five, shook their hands and she slipped a bill into my pocket. I tried to decline, but they insisted. They were truly great people, I don't know why they trusted me so much, as I sat behind them with their child beside me, but they were brilliant. I didn't agree with all of their methods, mostly concerning their open actions, but I just took it has a 'hearts in the right place, heads kinda backwards' deal.
They were truly nice people, and I was again so fortunate to have received such generosity while on the road. I didn't film it, due to David being there, but it was yet another example of exactly what I was after; complete strangers breaking down stereotypes.
They drove off, and I immediately resumed hitching. This spot wasn't as great. Same amount of traffic, but only a small space for people to pull over. I hitched for what I would say felt like half an hour before I got frustrated and hungry.
Just as I was folding my sign, preparing to walk to the plaza across the street to barter a meal, a car pulled over.
It was an orange Honda Element, and I could see the driver was a big bearded man. I laughed to myself how I was just about to pack it in, and then the ride comes. I asked him where he was off to, and he told me Jacksonville. Finally, I would be entering Florida today. It was roughly 9 days of hitching from Ottawa, and I would be getting into Florida. I accepted his ride.
Despite the man's image, which most would have declined immediately, I could see he was no threat. Despite everyone having a gun tucked into their lunchbox in this area, and he probably did too, I was never worried. I climbed in, and off we went, Florida bound.
He was an immensely obese man, with 2 feet of white hair, and over a foot of white beard. He looked like Santa after a bender. Most people would have been deathly afraid, but he was a soft spoken, genuine man. I will say my guard was up initially, but it was down after a few short minutes. He was returning from a business call, as he is a custom car and bike parts distributor. He was on his way home to Jacksonville, but not before picking up some Girl Guide cookies for his daughter. We talked about all kinds of stuff, he was a pretty easy person to talk to, never an awkward silence. We stopped for gas, and as I was so hungry, I went to the Subway inside.
I asked for the manager, and despite me not having B1 for some credibility, I told her about my trip, and she was more than happy to be a part of it. It added some more great footage. (I now have over 45hrs of video of amazing managers willing to be a part of this trip, and donate food without reciprocation, in terms of compassion.)
She was genuinely interested, as she feels people have lost all common courtesy. I talked briefly on camera about her disdain for negativity towards people in the service industry. She told me she had just lost an employee, because 'too many rude a**holes were giving them heck'. I can just picture so many of the smug Americans Ive seen along the way, standing there in their Bermuda shorts and Polos, barking orders at some teen behind the counter.
I grabbed my ol' favourite, the Cold Cut combo on Italian Herbs bread. Lettuce, tomato, green peppers and cucumber. Light mayo and Chipotle sauce to give it that kick in the pants. I could eat it everyday for the rest of my life and never get sick of it.
I went back to the car, and realized after the several minutes of driving, we had not yet introduced ourselves. We had been together for over 30 mins, and since the conversation never took a lull, never realized.
His name was Danny, but not many people knew that. Everyone he knew called him Santa, for obvious reasons.
I offered him half of my sub, but he declined, as he was now making a conscious effort to maintain some healthy regiments. I then noticed the abundance of orange in the car. His t shirt, blackberry, Honda, and several small knickknacks were orange. I commented, and asked him, as I have a strong love affair with orange myself.
He told me it was Harley Orange. It all made total sense.
His educated perspectives, soft spoken, polite manner had me totally looking past his image and I didn't even think about him being a biker. I then noticed a patch in the backseat that was biker influenced. I did notice his abundance of tattoos, but thought he was past it. I started to ask him some vague, typical questions about bikes, and bike culture. He was surprisingly open and honest, and took the conversation where I didn't think it would ever go.
It turned straight down Ross Kemp lane, and I started to prod at what I had always wondered about biker life. I told him what I knew, (which impressed him) and what I thought I knew. He was very blunt and honest with me the whole time.
Then, out of nowhere, he looked at the clock, and said "yea I bet some of the boys are there now", and he slowly accelerated, almost in anxious pursuit.
He told me a few more details and stories about biker culture. He was ex-head of a local chapter of a massive world-wide gang, (they hate that word) Basically he used to run the local scene of bikers in Jacksonville. The strip bars, rough bars and several restaurants where in his control, and for a long time, he was untouchable. He described some of the craziness that comes with the lifestyle of a biker gang member.
While pointing out what seemed every 5th or so establishment, and declaring it 'biker-controlled' he pulled into a small plaza, with an old pub on one end, and a garage on the other. I immediately noticed the units above, which looked like a run down 80s motel. It looked more or less vacated, until we swung around back. About a dozen bikes and maybe 2 cars were lined up near the door. We pulled into a spot opposite, and he shut the car off. He knew I had cameras, and I was a writer.
Santa looked me dead in the eye(only time I may ever say that in my lifetime) and got very serious with me. My heart began beating rapidly. It wasn't a fear rush, more of an excited anticipation.
"When we go in there, dont look at anyone. Dont think of speaking until someone speaks to you. If you mention camera, or anything you do, they will kill you". He paused and looked right into my eyes. I knew he wasnt kidding, but I wasnt fazed, as I knew I could compose myself. Again my youth and naive approach had me unaware of the situation ahead of me.
He told me he trusted me, knew I was a good person, and that I wasnt sticking around, so he could entrust me with a bit more. He said he had already told me more than he tells his close friends. Even knowing his name was something the people in his daily life didnt know. I knew of his dark past, and new future. He trusted me, and this was my chance to repay his trust. Although I wouldnt be collecting footage(priceless in this context) I would be able to experience something seldom do in a lifetime, and I couldn't find with years of searching. It was so Ross Kemp on Gangs.
As we approached the doors, he reminded me they would not hesitate to kill me, and beat him to within an inch of his life should they realize Im not reliable. I was nervous, but again knew I would handle myself. I still wasnt fully prepared, as the uncertain future moments were looming larger than my confidence.
He swung open the heavy door. I wasn't able to see a thing, as it was dark and smokey, and the transition from the bright Florida sunshine to the dark cave-like pub had me momentarily blinded. We walked in, past the empty tables. Two were playing pool, and didnt look up. The rest just sat and stared. Stared hard. I could hear their thoughts; "Who the f*ck is that kid?"
He led me into a backroom, through the kitchen. Two loud knocks provoked a small hatch in the door to open. It was like a Guy Ritchie movie.
When it opened, the massive man behind recognized Santa, and smiled. I dont think he saw me.
When the door entered, I immediately noticed 3 guys sitting at a small table, doing cocaine. They were all massive, heavily tattooed, and menacing looking. All but Santa had their sunglasses on. After he slapped hands and fists with everyone, he pointed to me, whom they were already staring at.
"This is Nate, hes a hitchhiked from Canada, and he's hella cool, treat him as us."
They eyed me up and down. Despite my best attempts at playing it cool, I could feel the sweat forming, and not from the thick air of the room. I did my best to relax, forced a small corner smile out, and nodded.
"A hitchhiker?" the bald one asked in a thick southern accent, clearly not impressed wit my presence.
"Yea, I picked him up in Georgia, hes hitchhiking to Africa. Hes one crazy kid, I thought Id bring him down here, hes been on the road a while, and said he'd like a little rest before I took him to the Landing" Santa replied. I could tell he was pitching it in the way they would be receptive, but it wasnt enough.
With that, the pony tailed man I could tell was higher on the respect pole swung out of his chair, grabbed my shoulder and told me to sit in the seat he was just in. He had a gun to my head.
I had never had a gun pointed to my head. It wasnt like in the movies. It was faster. I honestly wasnt scared, as I wasnt worried about anything, I almost knew something like this might happen. Well Im lying, 3 seconds passed and I was scared. I knew he wasnt going to kill me, but I had no idea how these guys rolled.
"How long have you known Santa?" he asked what I assumed was his dont-fuck-with-me, you-have-one-chance-to-answer voice.
I calmly replied only about an hour or two.
He moved the gun from the back of my head to my mouth. I was now officially shitting me pants scared.
He gave me a strong look, but it wasnt as tough as I think he thought, as he had cheap sunglasses on covering his eyes. I quickly looked at him, and looked away, trying my best not to show what was the short circuit of my brain.
Santa pulled his hand down and he didnt fight it. It was over.
It was a test. It all happened so fast, they wanted to see only if I was the type to throw my hands up and start crying-which is instinct for most, including me. They wanted to see if I was some little b*tch and couldn't handle myself, because its those ones who squeal.
He pulled a chair down, and Santa nodded at him. He slapped me on the back, and apologized. He then asked me to tell him about my hitchhiking.
I altered the story. I embellished the cold weather, to make it seem like I was a little off. I told him I had hitched about 10days from Canada to Florida, and I was going to hitchhike a boat from Miami across the ocean.
"Damn boi!" the ponytail exclaimed. They all had dumbfounded looks, and commented on how crazy I was to do this. I'M the crazy one?
I now had their approval. I told them I don't have any money, and played up the hitching like it was forced, not choice. They were cool with me. It took a few minutes of yapping, but earned their trust. I could see peripherally Santa was happy. They cracked me a beer, and we cheersed. I said 'cheers to cold beer in warm sun'. It reiterated my hippie vibes, and they all smiled. I accepted. It was much easier than I thought. Five minutes ago I had the cold metal of his .45 pressed to my skull, now it was like we were old friends. I liked it. I understand gang mentalities, and the loyal bonds which they are built on. I dont agree with some of their behaviours and perspectives, but the loyalty and friendship bond was prevalent. Mind you it would take the snap of a twig to turn it over.
They continued railing lines of cocaine, and rolling joints, while chain smoking cigarettes and sipping cheap beer, joking with vulgar comments about women in one of the strip clubs they own.
They asked about how Santa picked me up, and I told them, and they loved it. Many of them hitched back in their day, and I asked them if they see alot.
"Not this time of year, you crazy sonofabitch" one laughed. We all laughed.
It was kinda weird. No, it was really weird. I had very little I could relate to these guys, and although I wasnt faking my feelings, I was faking my feelings if you know what Im trying to say. I was genuinely happy, but a happy to be alive, and I was genuinely friendly, but in a friendly so they dont kill me way.
We didnt stay long, Santa just wanted to introduce me, show me around. I got their names, but wont repeat them. They were surprisingly open to what they were relaying to me, and I got enough that if they knew who I really was, would kill me no doubt.
As much as they were what they were; high ranking veteran bikers, the ones you dont ever get to meet, or know, they were friends. They had taken me in, trusted me, and made sure I was content. Like I said, Im aware of the activities within biker culture, and dont agree with most, but their loyalties and respect are prevalent and a balance.
They shook hands, and we walked out. The rest of the bikers who weren't high up enough to enter the backroom we just emerged from looked on. I had a rush of adrenaline. I just walked out of the private room of one of the worst chapters of the worst biker gangs, with the 3 highest ranking members. I was the shit. Or so it felt.
We stepped outside, again blinded by the bright Florida sunshine. They didnt flinch behind their shades, I was like Ray Charles.
We quickly smoked a joint, Santa didnt as he undergoes drug testing as part of his medical perscription. It was the weirdest joint Ive shared. They were all easily over 220lbs, tattoed, bearded or moustached, leather vests and Gang patches.(I wont say which one) I stood there, 150lbs soaking wet, shaggy hair blowing in the wind, and I reeked of 'eau de out-of-town'. It was cool though, they told me to get to one of their strip joints, where I was promised to be looked after.
Santa hollered for us to leave, and I shook all their hands. They all shook my hand with genuine interest, and I could feel the sense of comaradery, a long shot from the gun at teeth introductionI was handed. They were genuine guys. I wont mention names, as they have my respect and trust, but that day will sit with me for as long as I live. It didnt change persay how I perceive bikers, as it was mostly just a reiteration of my initial thoughts and feelings, but it did change how I saw other things. We have no idea what is out there, only an imaginative guess. Im not saying go hang out with Biker Lords, but dont be so quick to judge, they promised if I ever needed, they would have a guy there for me to help me out, as they had members in every small town across the country. I was handed a card with only a name and number, and told to call if ever in need, and refer his name. I thanked him, and gave them all the handshake-bro-hug made famous by rappers everywhere. As I walked away, I heard one say 'cool kid'. I had played up the hitching role, and left alot to the imagination. They probably thought I was some kid from a broken home, hitching to freedom. I had their respect, and they had mine. I counted my blessings as I got in the car, and when the door shut, Santa said "you done good boi". He told me how impressed he was at keeping my cool, and said he was never worried about his decision to bring me in there. That gave me the best feeling of all, as it was the only way I was able to repay his trust and kindness.
As we drove away, he started to tell me stories about the people I had just met. I cant go into detail, but lets just say I was just buddy-buddy with some very dark people.
I felt like Ross Kemp had nothing on me, and even though I didnt get footage, I was now full of life expereince. I had just squeaked my way-(with help from an ex-lord) into a very secret society. Somewhere no journalist, unless it was Hunter S. himslef going gonzo, could go.
We drove past rows of car dealerships and back onto the highway. Santa had his errand he needed to run, and asked if I could help him, as he has a bad back. I was so deep in thought I almost ignored him, but told him I would be more than happy to.
We pulled into a church parking lot a few minutes later, and I saw a troop of Girl Guides unloading a U-Haul. It was quite the left turn from our previous stop.
Santa gave me a list, and I went and collected the boxes of 'do-si-dos', Samoas, 'thank you berry muchs' and trefoils, and loaded them in the back.
I caught myslef staring, mesmerized by the squeals of girls running about, excited in the warm sun, wearing their uniforms,and innocently playing around the truck while Moms and Dads handed out boxes of cookies to fund thier next adventures. I couldnt beleive 10 minutes ago I was in what could literally be the polar opposite of where I was standing. I will never get used to the rollercoaster of hitchhike travel.
I thanked them, hoping I didnt reek of cigarettes and joint smoke, and climbed back into Santas Harley Orange SUV.
As we drove off, I suddenly asked him if I could take his picture, to which he quickly replied, 'fraid not'. He told me he couldnt, for a number of reasons. I wasnt surprised, and just carried on the easy going conversation we had going all day.
We drove across the main bridge into Jacksonville, and it was a really beautiful day, and the skyline was nice. I was snapping away on the small camera, and decided to very sneakily snap a candid of Santa, as proof. I know I shouldnt have, but I needed to.
He told me about Jacksonville, what the people are like, and where to stay away from. I knew before coming it has one of the highest crime rates in America, and I woudl be a sitting duck in some places. He gave me his number, and when I showed him the card ponytail gave me, dropped his jaw. It was the top contact in the gang, the head honcho, numero uno. He said hide it, and use it only in dire need. He gave me his card, and told me if I ever needed.....
To look at Santa on the street would have you scared. He was probably too big to ever catch a blowing leaf, but I could bet my bottom dollar he could shoot it out of the air in no time. People were afriad of him, I could see it wherever we went. It was really just a big front, a genrous, compassionate man under layers of biker affiliation and hard stories. But dont get it twisted, he was what he is, and would do what he needed if cornered.
The man himself. I snapped this without his consent, and Im going to take this photo down tomorrow, just posting it as proof.
He dropped me off at Jacksonville Landing, the heart and tourist hotspot in town. He gave me a bottle of water, and wished me luck. I thanked him for everything, and for trusting me. He told me he only did it becuase he knew I wasnt sticking around, and Id have to be half crazy to be doing what Im doing. He said most of his boys wouldnt even do it in todays time, as south USA is full of crazy people. I told him Ill be alright, and with that, we shook a strong handshake and parted ways. I stood on the sunsoaked sidewalk, and watched him drive around the corner. I couldnt beleive what had just taken place. I immediatley gathered my things and headed into the Landing, it was about 3pm.
B1 and B2 getting their tan on....
Officially the whitest kid in the state.
Not including my extended stays in Toronto, Philly and DC, I had succesfully hitched from Ottawa to Florida in just over a week. Several state troopers later, and dozens of amazing people which made it all possible, I was in the sunshine state, where I will catch my boat through the Caribbean, and around the world!
Im going to end this post there, even thought it was only a half day. It was quite the day, but as eventful as it was, the remainder trumps it. Lets just say a week later, Im still with the people I met that day at the Landing.
I will post more later, now Im off to the pool in the south Florida sunshine!
Dont hate, participate!