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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.