Where the Wackos Are

by Rob Brunet

In the mid-80s, I hitchhiked regularly on the gulf coast of Florida. As a way of meeting interesting people, it was hard to beat.

It started innocently. My grandparents had a place near Fort Myers and when I found a cheap flight to Sarasota, they suggested I grab a bus partway down and they’d pick me up there. Being broke, I walked to the highway and stuck out my thumb. After that first ride, no matter how often my grandfather would offer to pick me up or drive me all the way, I’d tell him not to bother; I’d call him once I got close.

As fond as are my memories of escaping the Canadian winter for warm sand and water, they’re outdone by the images of dusty afternoons spent sharing short rides with strangers. I wasn’t outright seeking character sketches, but more than a few have taken up permanent distorted residence in my mind.

Sharing those stories with yet another stranger in a bar a couple years ago, it was suggested to me that the danger quotient might have been higher than I imagined. A few minutes on Google confirmed what he told me: the peak years for murder in Florida align pretty well with the times I was standing on the side of the road with nothing but a backpack and a grin.

That probably goes a long way toward explaining why every driver was a bona fide character. No sane person would pick up some guy with a headband and no guitar, and drop him in the passenger seat. As the winters wore on, getting to and from the airport or campground or wherever I was headed in Florida, I looked forward to the people I’d meet almost as much as the sun.

There was the crazy lady who was convinced she could outdo Tommy Bahama if only someone would kick her some start-up capital. We wound up talking in a beach bar until some guy accused me of stealing his change while he was in the men’s room. One look at the size of his equally drunk pal told me it was time to leave.

Another day, a former Wall Street banker turned house framer picked me up before breakfast, fed me beer from his lunch cooler, and decided to skip work and spend the day introducing me to his commercial fishermen friends, drinkers all.

A fruit truck driver charged me five bucks for gas and made me hide in the back with crates of plums when we drove through a weigh station. He detoured home to drop something off to his screaming wife and kids. The ride lasted two hours and I don’t think we covered five miles in my direction, but he gave me a scene I’ll never forget.

I even got picked up in a convertible Malibu by a woman who did her best to convince me I should ditch my grandparents and have an entirely different vacation. It was like I’d landed in the middle of a bad bar joke.

But the most memorable was the dude in the dune buggy who circled back to give me a ride after passing me in a puff of exhaust. His rig was a dead ringer for my favourite childhood Tonka toy—orange with loopy pink and purple flower power decals and puffy seats. The fumes engulfed us until he started driving. He didn’t have to move fast for the seatbelt-less ride to be one of the biggest rushes I’d ever experienced.

After a couple miles on the highway, he cut off onto a trail that led into the bush. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t freak me out. I tried to shout over the roar of the engine, asking him where we were going. He grinned, said something I couldn’t hear, and kept driving. I considered jumping off, but that would have meant throwing myself into the trees flashing by just a couple feet either side of the car. I held onto the front roll bar and prayed.

Less than two minutes later, I saw where he was taking me: a massive sand dune wasteland.

What happens next would be entirely up to me were I writing a thriller, and I have a few ideas. Maybe you do, too. But this is a blog post and I’d like to keep it real.

Turns out, lost in Florida off-road wilderness, we weren’t alone. A half dozen other dune buggies bounced in all directions in a grown-man version of the kind of track I’d built on my hands and knees for my Tonka toy as a kid. I was living a childhood fantasy. To scale. Life-sized.

As abruptly as it started, the ride ended. My driver headed back to the trail and out to the highway. He drove me the rest of the way to Oscar Scherer State Park where I would camp the next couple nights. Had I accepted his offer of a warmer place to sleep, I’m sure the story would have had another chapter, but I opted for a different kind of wildlife.

Dune buggy guy gave me not only the ride of a lifetime, but a character and a scene I’d write decades later. One I’d never have experienced were it not for the naiveté it took to hitchhike in Florida in serial killer season.

Which is not to say I’d encourage my fellow writers to take up jumping into cars with strangers. But sometimes, the people we avoid can be worth a conversation, or more. It’s been a long time since I hitchhiked, but I still meet plenty of characters on buses, in bars, or waiting in the checkout line.

I’m sure half the strangers I talk to are convinced I’m the one who’s wacko. Who knows? Maybe I’ll recognize myself in someone else’s book some day.

ROB BRUNET writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.

To order STINKING RICH, click on the cover below: