Accepting the kindness of strangers

April 1st, 2008 by scott

I woke up this morning and was trying to visualize how we would camp during our shakedown cruise around Lake Ontario in June, and I couldn’t quite see it. It will be difficult (not to mention expensive) to find campgrounds every time we want to stop, since we’re planning on riding about 80 km per day. The idea of going up to people’s doors and asking to camp in their backyard seems like an imposition, and finding a place to camp where we’re invisible seems tricky even in Canada, let alone in the US.

I am inspired by Kevin Kelly’s 2007 Christmas Essay about willingness to accept generosity, although it will certainly require effort to reach out past my shyness and ask.

One might even call the art of accepting generosity a type of compassion. The compassion of being kinded. One year I rode my bicycle across America, from San Francisco to New Jersey. I started out camping in state parks, but past the Rockies, parks became so scarce I switched to camping on people’s lawns. I worked up a routine. As darkness fell, I began scouting the homes I passed for a likely candidate: neat house, big lawn in the back, easy access for my bike. When I selected the lucky home, I parked my bag-loaded bike in front of the door and rang the bell. “Hello,” I’d say. “I’m riding my bike across America. I’d like to pitch my tent tonight where I have permission and where someone knows where I am. I’ve just eaten dinner, and I’ll be gone first thing in the morning. Would you mind if I put up my tent in your backyard?”

I was never turned away, not once. And there was always more. It was impossible for most folks to sit in their couch and watch TV while a guy who was riding his bicycle across America was camped in their backyard. What if he was famous? So I was usually invited into their home for desert and an interview. My job in this moment was clear: I was to relate my adventure. I was to help them enjoy a thrill they secretly desired, but would never do. My account would make an impossible dream seem real and possible, and thus part of them. Through me and my retelling of what happened so far, they would get to vicariously ride a bicycle across America. In exchange I would get a place to camp and a dish of ice cream. It was a sweet deal that benefited both of us. The weird thing is that I was, and still am, not sure whether I would have done what they did and let me sleep in the backyard. The “me” on the bicycle had a wild tangled beard, had not showered for weeks, and appeared destitute (my whole transcontinental trip cost me $500). I am not sure I would invite a casual tourist I met to take over my apartment, and cook for him. I definitely would not hand him the keys to my own car, as a hotel clerk in Dalarna, Sweden, did one mid-summer day when I asked her how I could reach the painter Carl Larsson’s house 150 miles away away.

The other option is to stealth camp, which requires finding a quiet corner of wilderness (or abandoned area). This will require a fair bit of bravery the first few times I expect. I try to remind myself that it’s all about opening myself to the experience.

On a more practical note, I found a great article on erecting a tent in the rain which clarified my thoughts about that. I’ve always done the “spread out the the fly first” approach, but never with the elegance of the author’s approach. I’ll try it with our Mountain Hardwear Viperine 3 and see how it works. Since the poles anchor to the tent with clips and not sleeves, we should be able to do it.

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