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Posts Tagged ‘Stealth Camping Chronicles’

While there’s a lull in the action (that is, a lull in blog-posting action, due to the fact that I am presently too mired in studies to think about much else!), I thought I’d take a moment to answer one of the more interesting questions I was recently asked about my tour by a fellow student. After I brushed off the seemingly mandatory first question, “Were you ever in any danger?” (to which my answer is, believe it or not, no!), I was then asked, “Okay, then what was the strangest thing you saw?”

Now that’s a great question! I have two responses.

The first occurred on the outskirts of Clarence, Missouri. Evening was approaching, which meant that I needed to begin my usual routine of filling my water bottles, then find a place to camp for the night. Just before reaching US-36, I spotted a gas station enfolded by a sprawling cemetery (if you’ve been following along thus far, you may recall that I find cemeteries to make excellent stealth-camping sites [stealth-camping—the legally ambiguous art of camping for free in tucked-away places otherwise not designated for camping]). Perhaps I should have read the gas station’s unusually snug proximity to the cemetery as a hint that something was a little…strange. But at the end of a blistering summer’s day of pedaling a 100-pound bicycle for 70+ miles, my mental reflexes were a little slow.

And so it was that I drew closer and marveled that the cars in the lot all seemed to be from the 1950s, marveled all the more when I noticed that the single gas pump was also of vintage variety, and I was finally shaken out of my mental stupor when I noticed that the price-per-gallon on the pump was well under one dollar.

Yes, strange.

I took a closer look around this eerie gas station-cum-cemetery. The utter stillness among the graves also extended to the station itself, despite the fact that at first glance the place seemed to be bustling with activity. I looked into the windows of the antique cars. Yes, they were inhabited, but the inhabitants weren’t moving either! A closer look: they were mannequins! And not just any mannequins, but mannequins in giant monkey suits, and others with similar macabre distortions to their humanoid features.  Fully lucid now, I stood dumfounded, trying to absorb the meaning of this roadside-frozen-freakshow-museum-graveyard.  No matter how I strained my imagination, though, I couldn’t infer any meaning or purpose. Just…strange. Finally, I shook off the cognitive dissonance and vague uneasiness that had swept over me, pedaled to a real gas station a half-mile away, filled my water bottles, pedaled back to the cemetery, set up camp behind the graves, and slept like a…mannequin?

The second strange incident occurred on the 4th of July in Munson Township, Illinois. Now, on the previous night, I had done something I rarely do on bicycle tour: pay to camp at an actual campground. Big mistake. The place was crawling with four-wheel ATVs being driven in circles by drunk people shooting off bottle rockets long past bedtime. The next day, then, expecting more boisterous patriotic revelry, I determined to camp as far away from civilization as possible. And I was quite successful. On Google Maps I spied a small green dot with the label, “Munson Township Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve.” A cemetery AND a nature preserve? A stealth-camper’s dream! And the place was far from any significant town or road.

Arriving at the cemetery/nature preserve, I was quite happy to find an immaculate hilltop slice of wilderness, peppered with graves over a century old, overlooking an endless rolling sea of soybean fields. I felt so safe in this quiet, isolated spot that I didn’t even bother trying to hide my tent; I slept fairly out in open view of anyone who might happen to drive up. And in fact, as I drifted to sleep on what was by far the quietest 4th of July I’ve ever experienced, I was jarred to full consciousness at midnight by the glare of headlights drawing near. I prepared to get out of the tent and do what I always do in such situations: proactively approach people, introduce and explain myself. But I hesitated because the couple who parked a mere 15 yards from my tent hadn’t yet noticed me; their headlights hadn’t shined in my direction. I waited, listened, watched as the man got out and clambered into the woods in front of the still-shining headlights.

“It’s in a box. I know it’s here! Why can’t I find it!?”

After about 15 minutes of this midnight treasure-hunting, he gave up the search, got back into the truck, and drove away. They never discovered me. I continued to listen as the sound of the motor drifted off into the night, leaving behind only stark silence…and a handful of questions!

After waking the next morning, I conducted a little treasure-hunt of my own. In the place where the man had searched, I found an old toilet bowl and an assortment of rusty, abandoned farming equipment. But no box, nor any clue of the mysterious content of said box, nor a hint of why they chose the middle of the night on the 4th of July to come looking!

Strange.

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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.

City Park, Mount Pleasant, Arkansas

(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.)

Poolside Camping, Lanton, Missouri

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!

South of Houston, Missouri

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!

Hobbit Hideout, Rolla Lions Club Park

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.

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California Touring Companions, Laura and Bob

Leaving the California coast for the rural South was quite a culture shock, and not just for the obvious reasons. The Pacific Coast is the most popular bike touring route in the world. Europeans are nearly as numerous as Americans. Generally, most tourers take advantage of the hiker-biker camp sites in the state parks. Hence, a highly cosmopolitan community develops, with people traveling from one state park to another, meeting and parting and meeting up again further along the way. On my trip down from Big Sur to Los Angeles, for instance, I joined new friends Bob and Laura on their around-the-country tour from Michigan, riding and camping with them over a handful of nights. The companionship and camaraderie were invigorating and a real loss to leave behind.

Now, through Texas and Louisiana, I’m biking off the main touring route so no touring companions, privileging backcountry roads as much as possible. Neither are there campgrounds even if I sought them. Far more than on the Pacific Coast, I am left alone, to my own wits, and often enough to the kindness of strangers. This precarious state of affairs becomes especially acute each evening when I seek a place to lay my head. Here are some snapshots of the outcomes thus far:

Chester’s Trailer, Kerbyville, Texas

1/19 Kerbyville, Texas.
I was following the route penned by Google Maps Bicycle Option when, after pedaling down an isolated country road and not seeing another soul for miles, I was directed to turn down a dirt path for eight miles! Fortunately, a service truck rolled out of the thicket of trees at just that moment.

“Is this County Road 728?”

“Yeah, but it’s a dead end.”

“Really!?…”

And if that wasn’t bad enough, according to the route map, the road I was supposed to turn onto eight miles later was nicknamed Dead End Road. Dead end, indeed!

Not knowing where I was headed but only knowing I needed to get back to a major road, I hightailed it back to US-96. Treading the broad shoulder for ten miles, I landed in the Conoco gas station in the small town of Kerbyville. One cardinal rule of stealth camping: find a site before dark, because it’s much more difficult at night to spot the sometimes subtle signs leading to a good and safe site. At this point, dusk was already settling in and I needed to reorient myself, find a site, and set up camp quickly.

While puzzling over a map I had just purchased in the store, a local named Chester approached and struck up a conversation.

“Minnesota, eh?”

With a jolt of surprise: “What?…how did you know?”

“I saw your driver’s license.”

As is not entirely uncommon in situations like these, five minutes later I was loading my bicycle into Chester’s pick-up, on my way to a cozy trailer on his land for the night: a hot shower, warm bed, a welcome and timely surprise.

1/20 Merryville, LA
Mid-afternoon, shortly after crossing the state border, I pulled off the road toward the tourist info building in Merryville. Immediately, I was virtually run over by Linda who, having seen me from the adjacent gas station, enthusiastically rushed over in her car to meet me. She volunteers at the local museum and, like the town itself, seems to have a special place in her heart for bicycle tourers. In fact, situated on Adventure Cycling’s Southern Tier route, the town bi-annually hosts a troupe of bicycle campers on the museum lawn.

Accepting her invitation, I followed her to the museum, which houses a most eclectic collection of mementos—from pianos to high school photos to typewriters to clothing; something between a rummage sale and your grandmother’s attic. What made it all shine, though, was the love and pride and joy Linda took in the showing. She placed a photo album of past bicycle touring groups before me, telling me their stories. There’s the German couple who stayed on to experience their first Halloween celebration ever. Finally, she offered me a place to camp, anywhere on the lawn. There’s even a bathroom with showers. A bit early to stop but how could I refuse? Right in the center of town, behind a historic log cabin, I spent a peaceful night.

Sulphur, LA

1/21 Sulphur, LA
It was getting late. I came upon a Methodist Children’s Home with a huge, empty plot of land behind it. I tried to find someone to ask permission to camp, to no avail. Finally, as I was pondering what to do, a woman approaches. No, she tells me, I cannot camp because of the children, but there’s a boat launch a few miles down the road. Now, a boat launch on a Saturday night in a rural town is not likely a place you’d want to be as a stranger vulnerably spending the night outdoors, but it was worth a look. As expected, though, lots of pick-up trucks and no discrete space to go unnoticed through the night.

I was starting to panic. Once again dusk was settling in. I had already knocked on one door asking to camp on their land, but they didn’t answer. Now what houses there were had smaller plots, often as not sporting Confederate and/or “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Far from familiar cosmopolitan California, I was getting spooked!

As an aside, although I find myself in this position fairly regularly, pressed at a late time to find a place to camp, in fact I’ve never had real difficulty finding a campsite (with only one memorable exception, in an extraordinary circumstance). In fact, I consider myself a rather savvy stealth camper. And so when I passed a cluster of houses and spotted a hint of a break in the tree line, I swiftly crossed the road toward it. A truck was coming from the other direction so I slowed to a rolling pause. Once out of sight, I hurled bike and body through the dense underbrush to find myself in a spacious forest among saw palmettos. Past the break, there were no more tell-tale bottles or trash. I was in the clear in a fabulous site!

1/22 Laccasine, LA
This afternoon I decided to stick with Google Maps even when it sent me down a gnarly gravel road. And I must say, though biking was terrible, the quietude through rice fields and forest was a delightful, welcome reprieve from automobiles. To recapitulate at least three familiar themes: dusk was settling in, and, having earlier traversed six miles of thick gravel, I balked when I was directed down yet another gravel road. I hightailed it to US-90, which was frankly even more precarious than the gravel: light-to-moderate but fast-moving traffic with absolutely no shoulder, and only wide-open private land to the left and to the right for seeming miles. Yes, once again I was panicking! Several miles later, riding fast, housing density increasing as I approached the small town of Laccasine, I saw two women and two teenage girls standing in a driveway. Desperate, I swerved abruptly across the street.

“Pardon me if this is a strange request, but I’m just passing through, looking for a place to camp for the night, it’s getting late, and this road is making me very nervous. Any chance I can set my tent up on your land?”

They pointed me rather to the cemetery a half mile down the road.

I beg your pardon if this sounds morbid, but I’ve come to consider cemeteries as stealth camping havens: no one is likely to disturb you, almost every town has one, and they’re usually lined with woods in which to discretely tuck away. This cemetery was no exception, save that it was more open than most, though quite large. I planned a spot on which to set up my tent once dark, feeding on leftover bits of fried catfish from lunch while waiting. After dark, the tent up, thinking about how to top off my supper, a large, white, official-looking pickup truck pulls up. I must have been spotted, I thought. Taking a proactive approach as I do in these situations, I walked over to introduce and explain myself. To my surprise and delight, it was one of the women who pointed me here, and she had a container of freshly cooked spaghetti, a cup of ice, and a bottle of coke for me. Wow.

A little kindness goes a long way to a stranger on the road. I was at least as grateful for the care behind the gesture as for the food itself.

Abshire Cemetery, LA

1/23 Abshire Cemetery, LA
Yes, another cemetery, much different from the last, and much less dramatic a find. Having given up on Google Maps, I fortunately asked for directions at a local gas station. I was informed that the road I was on was out for repairs some miles up the road, but that there was another very quiet country road I could take instead. This advice turned out to be a godsend. The ride was smooth, through small farms and rice fields along a bayou. Having been alerted by a sign that I would find a cemetery at some point, I kept my eyes peeled. Sure enough, I found a beautiful spot with a view of the spacious cloud-streaked sky spread over ponds and fields across the way.

1/24 Maurice, LA
The next day, after breaking camp, I biked east against a formidable, relentless headwind. To make matters worse, I knew rain was coming. Eighteen miles later, during a brief stint on a highway with a wide shoulder, clouds growing ominous and heavy, the first drops came. To my right was a large overhang and I made a run for it. Soon those first drops became a torrent. Lightening flashed to the south, the direction I was now turned. I used the time to prepare and eat a simple lunch of a carrot and tuna and mayonnaise rolled up in a whole wheat tortilla. The rain slowed to a steady, moderate drizzle. The next town was only about seven miles away, so I decided to pedal in the rain and find a place to relax with a cup of coffee. An hour later, I watched the rain turn to a torrent once again out the window of the McDonald’s in Abbeville.

Shit.

Appreciating a good adventure but stopping well before the point of masochism, I took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and got busy on couchsurfing.org. Casting pleas for help within a twenty mile radius, I soon received a call from Annie in Maurice who, with her husband Sam, invited me into their home to wait out the storm for a couple days. After that, no more rain in the forecast till New Orleans by early next week.

People are good.

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