60 miles out of Little Rock, by late evening I found myself on a horrendous, loose-gravel road just north of Kensett, Arkansas. I would precariously pedal for 50 yards or so before the front wheel would slip out from under me. At least half the time, this meant that I simply crashed to the ground since I couldn’t get my feet out of the clips in time. On the whole, then, in fits and starts, I lurched along at about four miles per hour. And each time I’d hit the ground, I’d let out a torrent of curses that would make an Italian sailor blush! Finally, wisely, after fighting for a couple miles, I gave up. I looked to my right and found a break in the woods between the road and the railroad tracks. I tucked in 30 yards from the road, out of sight, and a mere 30 yards from the tracks as well. Not a bad campsite overall, though I would have slept better were it not for the dozen or so trains that passed through the night and shook the ground beneath me like rolling bundles of thunder!
Incidentally, given that the principle virtue that engenders safe, satisfying stealth camping is discretion, strategically speaking, I wouldn’t recommend hurling hair-raising profanities into the dusk of a quiet rural community before settling in for the night.
The following evening I enjoyed some of the best riding of the tour through the foothills of the Ozarks. I glided effortlessly along a ribbon-route, dipping through forest and lake and then bobbing to the surface again to enjoy a wide-angle view of sprawling, jagged tree-topped waves of green. At one point, I passed a boy waving and shouting enthusiastically to me from his porch below. I looked and saw several adults with him, and so turned into the drive and asked if they could either let me camp on their land or recommend another place for the night. One of the men pointed me to a city park in Mount Pleasant a couple miles further. Arriving ten minutes later, I pitched my tent in a discrete spot behind the park, introduced and explained myself to a couple of locals who were running and lifting weights there, and enjoyed a quiet, restful night at last.
(For parents who find the above image…well, somewhat troubling, let me assure you that it is exceedingly unlikely that there are bicycle tourers lurking in the underbrush behind your local playground! And in the rare case that there are, they should be departing early morning without leaving a trace.)
Upon crossing the Missouri border the following evening, I once again found myself cruising through pristine rolling hills with minimal traffic. Looking for a place to camp for the night, I spied a man, Peter, sitting beside a small catfish pond in front of a campground, enjoying the dusk. I rolled over the grass toward him and we chatted about hiking and biking and the like. A native of Austria, at 75, Peter still bikes 20 miles a day after years of hiking and mountain-climbing. At one point in the conversation, I asked him how much he charged for tent-camping. He said $20 but told me to name a price. I offered $5 but he wasn’t going below $10. We continued to chat awhile longer, and then I filled up my water bottles, intent to push on to find free camping. As I straddled my bike to leave, he invited me to camp for $5. I took advantage of the facilities, delighting in a hot shower (as opposed to sponge-bathing in the woods with a single water-bottle’s content of water [the other two being reserved for drinking and food-prep] while simultaneously shooing away mosquitoes)—a real stealth-camping luxury!
The next night proved to be one of the more dramatic of the tour. I’ve learned that, if you want someone to stop and give you directions in a decent-sized rural town, just stand at the intersection of the town-center looking confused. So I planted myself on the corner of Main Street and U.S. Hwy. 17 in Willow Springs, MO, and waited. Within a minute or two, Jim parked his motorcycle next to me and offered his services. After learning that I study theology, he excitedly removed his helmet, dismounted, and told me he spends 8-9 hours a day with his New King James Bible and Strong’s Concordance. An unusual conversation on biblical history and interpretation ensued. Finally, we got down to business. He gave me some great advice for a route and even recommended a place to camp. Eighteen miles later, I found the turnoff he suggested, leading to a creek below. I set up my tent and was satisfied. However, as I was getting ready to sleep, I checked the weather forecast. 30-40% chance of scattered thunderstorms! And because I anticipated a hot and muggy night, I had left the rainfly off. I peered into the night sky. Clear. I’d take my chances and enjoy the cool breeze without protection. Ten minutes later, I noticed flashes of light from the north playing on the trees above. I was in no mood to get out of the tent, so I tried to apply the psychology of denial. “It’s just my eyes adjusting to the dark…no…it’s the headlights of northbound traffic,” I tried to convince myself. But of course, it was neither. Resigning myself to reality, I crawled out of the tent, ran up to the road to survey the situation (naked except for shoes!) and caught an utterly fantastic electrical storm dancing in the clouds headed my way. I ran back down to the tent and, rather than put on the rainfly, simply dragged everything under the bridge. The rain came, the wind howled, lightening and thunder struck, but I stayed dry.
After sulking out of the tent the next morning on very little sleep, I set off and pedaled another sixty miles. Upon arriving in the city of Rolla, I spied a large park run by the Lions Club: frisbee golf, a large lake with a fountain and bridges, gazebos, multiple playgrounds, walking trails, covered picnic tables galore with functioning electrical outlets, porta-potties, and as I was to discover later, unsecured Wi-Fi blanketing the whole park! A veritable stealth-camper’s paradise! I was preparing dinner in one of the picnicking areas when a local named Don approached me. I asked him what he thought of my camping for the night in the park, and if he had any advice. He thought it was a fine idea and, after talking with me, took the matter to one of the “lions” lounging about the place. He returned shortly thereafter to relate to me that the lions don’t care, but the police who patrol the park at night might, so just keep out of sight of the road. Later that night, having set up my tent tucked in along the tree line of the park, the patrol came shining bright spotlights into the park’s nooks and crannies. And they were thorough!
Now, here was the problem—my tarp still lay out in the open grass and would likely be seen. With no time to hesitate, spotlights already raking dangerously close to the spot, I ran for the tarp, grabbed hold, ran back and dove into the woods, crouching in the dark while the spotlights sprayed the trees. In truth, both I and my tent were well hidden, but the imagination reeled! Think hobbit running from orcs in The Lord of the Rings! Think human hiding from Agents in The Matrix! How exhilarating! In fact, I was so in love with this place that I took the following day off and spent a second night. I tried to stage another close-call near-chase scene but no such luck. The patrol never came round a second time.
You see, when I talk about stealth camping to non-tourers, their first thought is that I’m placing myself in danger. But the fact is that, over thousands of miles, I’ve never met with any trouble worth mentioning. Surprisingly, I felt most vulnerable on this tour while house-sitting alone in a rural home. Here I was, after all, in a large structure that virtually screamed to all comers, “He’s in here!” In contrast, the majority of my stealth-camping sites render me invisible. In fact, even if a person knew in general where I was camped, they’d still have a very difficult time locating the specific place even if they tried. Of course, there’s always a twinge of insecurity while searching for a site each night, but by the time I get settled in, I usually feel very secure as far as humans are concerned. Animals may be another story, but aside from being kept awake by the occasional inquisitive armadillo or other harmless creature, the worst animal experience I’ve had is having a raccoon eat my granola. In the absence of real excitement, then, I found it refreshing to be able to manufacture at least a moment’s high drama in the shadow of the lions.
As for the lions themselves, they didn’t care.
Coming soon: a highly thought-provoking podcast interview with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina, on relocation, redistribution, and economic repentence.
Next stop: Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage/Sandhill Farm in Rutledge, Missouri.