November 29, 2011
Four months ago, upon arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria to begin a two-month bicycle tour, I met a Ukrainian man named “Slav” at my hostel. Like me, he was an avid cyclist and chronic adventurer and had toured alone through much of Europe. He knew the regions, roads and mountains of Bulgaria like corners of his own backyard. He had pedaled, as well, the entire rim of the Mediterranean Sea, even requiring a tank escort as he skirted the shore of Algeria. Slav’s favorite thing to say about this North African nation was, “Algeria is not touristic. It’s terroristic.” He said so about once per hour.
Slav lived at the hostel. An environmental and social activist, he worked daily to promote bicycle travel in and around Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. He helped lead a critical mass bike ride every Thursday night through the streets of downtown, and each afternoon he led tourists on guided bike rides to the city’s chief attractions. In doing so, Slav pulled in a slight income and managed to sustain one of the most inspiring, freewheeling lifestyles I’ve encountered.
Funny thing was, this man happened to be a vehement opponent of, as he put it, “the emancipated woman.”
“Why must a woman pursue a career?” said Slav, who was 35 and had already been divorced twice. “A man is the hunter, and he provides for his family. A woman takes care of the house, cooks, cleans, watches children. It was that way for thousands of years. Why change now?”
“You ride a bike,” I pointed out. “Ancient hunters didn’t. Do you hunt?”
He admitted he did not. I posed him another question: “What if a woman wanted to go bike touring with you?” He frowned.
Long ago in America, biking did help bring about emancipation (sorry Slav). Civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony observed this in 1896 when she said that “(bicycling) has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” And this year, two books came out in which the authors discuss the bicycle’s historical role in the empowerment of women: It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels by Robert Penn and Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) by Sue Macy. (Since the cold, wet and wintry season of armchair adventuring is upon us, I’ll soon review these books in some detail.)
Today, more pedal-empowered women than ever are avid bikers. In Amsterdam, New York City, San Francisco, Rome and beyond, women zip soundlessly and nimbly through the streets. They take the lane, merge left to turn, assert their rights as commuters, flip on flashing lights for night riding and blissfully bypass one of society’s nastiest illnesses: the traffic jam. The most intrepid of these women sometimes pack luggage onto their bikes and tour the world. As they pedal, the bicycle charges them with strength, spirit and independence.
In Portland, the thriving bicycle culture teems with thousands of women—31 percent of the cycling populace by one recent count. Among them are two prominent writers and cyclists who are further pushing the bicycle revolution: Elly Blue, a journalist with Grist who has authored a remarkable online series exploring the social and economic value of bicycles, and Ellee Thalheimer, a yoga instructor and writer who has been laboring by pedal and pen to promote the thrilling and rewarding experience of bicycle touring.
This, I decided, I had to hear more about, so recently I spoke by phone with Thalheimer, whose personal website even states, “Bike touring is one of my favorite things ever.”
I asked her why.
“There’s just something about putting all your bags on a bike and riding off and being open to experiencing whatever the road brings you that day,” she said. “It teaches you to be open to the world in a new kind of way.”
Thalheimer’s first bicycle tour was a north-to-south Pacific Coast run with her dad about a decade ago, immediately after college. She fell in love with the lifestyle, kicked into high gear and has since toured extensively—in South America, the Caribbean, Europe and the United States. One of her most rewarding journeys of all was her three-month solo ride throughout Italy in 2008, the research end of a book project for Lonely Planet. She loved the nation north to south, credits Italy as being the place “where I learned to really love food,” and remembers Sampeyre in the Alps as one of the most beautiful places she’s ever seen.
“I don’t usually cry when I see pretty things, but when I got to the top of that pass in Sampeyre, the view was just insane,” she said. “It was so beautiful I almost couldn’t believe it.”
She had to come down, though, and eventually go home, but Thalheimer is almost as thrilled by parts of Oregon. She especially loves Crater Lake and the surrounding country, she says, “but eastern Oregon has really captured my heart. The people are as friendly as they get, the land is beautiful, with mountains and some really hard climbs.” (Thalheimer is marked by a personality trait common to many cyclists: In her words, “I love feeling exhausted.”)
To extol the virtues of her home state as seen from a bicycle and to encourage others (“who might be on the fence about bike touring,” she says) to get on their own bikes and go, Thalheimer is now wrapping up a guidebook about cycle touring in Oregon, a project she’s been researching for years. The book is due out this spring. Asked whether she’s at all reluctant to tell the world about her favorite places, she said, “I love seeing other cyclists when I’m traveling. When two cycle tourists meet somewhere in the middle of nowhere, you immediately have something in common with that person, and you connect in a way that you never could in an urban area. Anyway, if we ever had a glut of cycle tourists in remote areas, I think the world would be a better place.”
Millions of us agree. I do, and probably so does Slav, who sings the gospel of bicycle touring and building a bike-friendly society in Sofia. It’s a beautiful melody he croons—except the part where he envisions leaving women at the sink elbow deep in dishwater. No matter, because many women have already left him in the dust.
November 22, 2011
People campaign against plastic and volunteer on beach cleanup days—but what would Malarrimo Beach in Baja California be without its wonderful array of worldly garbage?
Trash of nearly every water-insoluble sort comes ashore on this far-flung stretch of sand. It’s on the north-facing shore of a conspicuous “horn” about halfway down the Baja Peninsula on the Pacific Coast side. The land juts sharply westward into the waters of the California Current, which generates a rich upwelling along the coast but also carries riches of different sort: boat wreckage, clothing, first-aid kits, military gear, toys, preserved foods and so many other curios. The attraction of beachcombing is that one isn’t perusing an actual garbage dump; much of what one sifts through on a remote stretch of sand are valuables lost at sea. Huge logs of Northwest timber, for instance, come ashore at Malarrimo, and there are probably several classy Baja palapas built of California redwood. Lucky beachgoers may find currency notes here and bottles of liquor, too. Happily, the place is far from the main roads of Baja and is very inconvenient to reach. One must turn west at the desert town of Vizcaino, drive 70 miles and then take on the final stretch—26 miles of bumpy unpaved dirt.
Of course, Graham Mackintosh, with whom I spoke last week about his Baja travels, walked to Malarrimo during his circumpeninsular foot tour in the early 1980s. Approaching the beach from the north, Mackintosh had to improvise his way across the mouths of several huge lagoons on Baja’s Pacific Coast—the famed breeding grounds of the Eastern Pacific gray whale. He hitched boat rides with commercial lobstermen and on one muddy shore even found an abandoned skiff in which he made another crossing. Finally, Mackintosh stepped onto the legendary sands of Malarrimo Beach, “reputed,” as he wrote in his book Into a Desert Place, “to offer the finest beachcombing in the world.”
He goes on: “The scene was incredible. It was as if some terrible and destructive battle had taken place off the coast. The shore was littered with planks, buckets, tree trunks, helmets, hatch covers, bits and pieces of boats and planes, and all kinds of military and medical equipment.”
He found canisters of nerve gas antidote, a coconut, contraceptives “and some kind of missile with wires hanging from the back.”
“I could have done with a supermarket trolley,” Mackintosh quips—for the preserved junk food was abundant. He added to his baggage cans of soda, milk and chocolate syrup. He found lifeboat rations. He found “biscuits from Spain.”
Almost anyone who has backpacked someplace hot and dry, where water must be carried in bottles and only lightweight foods can be packed for sustenance, has dreamed of finding a lost bottle of whiskey beside the trail—and some of Mackintosh’s finds were, quite literally, the stuff of daydreams. He swiped up cans of beer, a bottle of Bacardi, another of Martini, and some “very old, very excellent Japanese whiskey.” Over several days exploring, he found more and more liquor, including Scotch, brandy and London gin. He felt compelled to squirrel these all away in his backpack (who wouldn’t?) and even began to wish for an end to the ludicrously lucky bounty. He found a sizeable flask, too, in which—after conducting a proper tasting—he blended all the booze to optimize his backpack ballast.
He left the empty bottles for posterity.
Onward, the treasures kept coming. Of all the spellbinding things from children’s adventure tales, messages in bottles come to rest at this lonely outpost of the planet. Some that Mackintosh found had been written almost a decade before. One was from a curious Chicagoan named Jeff Friedlieb asking for a postcard. Another came from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography from a scientist studying the track of the ocean’s currents. Mackintosh would later reply to the senders.
Twenty-eight years later, Malarrimo Beach is just as far from the world as it was—but is it the same paradise of trash that Mackintosh drifted over? Doubtless it’s a very renewable resource, given the littering habits and material ways of people. But just how renewable is it? What is the rate of deposition at Malarrimo, and how long does a washed up valuable remain here? These are dynamics that have likely changed with the global population growth, the ever-thickening maritime traffic, and the onset of the plastic age, which has surely added colorful clutter to this filthiest yet most splendid of beaches. And shifting sands have quietly buried some items forever.
A 2004 account from a writer named Vince Landis in the Baja Insider.com gives some idea of the post-Mackintosh scene at Malarrimo. Sadly, Landis describes a rather fruitless outing to Malarrimo.
“I only collected a small foam fishing float and a wheel from a Tonka Truck. Was it a flop? Souvenir wise, yes.” And that was almost eight years ago.
But prospective beachcombers are already talking about 2014—the year, experts seem to agree, that a wealth of debris from last March’s tragedy in Japan will probably arrive at the West Coast of North America.
Catch you then at Malarrimo.
November 17, 2011
In 1979, a 28-year-old Englishman named Graham Mackintosh visited America. He rolled west to California and, on a whim, slipped south across the border. He was stunned by what he saw, a wild land of sun, sand and sea that would dramatically change his life: Baja California. Mackintosh spent a month here with just a backpack and, to start, $150. He hitchhiked and walked and went as far south as Cabo San Lucas. Mexican locals astounded him with their hospitality while the bewildering, undeveloped landscape captured his imagination like no place had before.
“What’s over those mountains, I would ask [the locals],” Mackintosh later wrote in a travel memoir Into a Desert Place. “’Nothing,’ was the usual reply.”
Many adventurers have received this answer to the same question—but adventurers know better. Mackintosh returned home. He took up a teaching job, spent evenings at the pub, had a few romantic flurries—but he couldn’t forget Baja and those distant mountains. At last, he chucked everything, abandoning the life path most of us follow to go staggering after a dream. He went back to Baja. He took a backpack, a fishing rod, a tent, a few other necessities and even a clever contraption for turning seawater fresh—and he began to walk. Mackintosh would eventually trace by foot the entire peninsula’s coastline—3,000 miles—while falling entirely in love with the land, the abutting sea and the region’s people.
Today, in many a gringo’s vacation home on a beach in Baja California, Mackintosh’s book Into a Desert Place resides on the shelf. It has become something of a cult classic in the expat community. Even in the Mexican community, Mackintosh is legendary. In remote and rustic fishing camps along the shoreline, a few of the older fishermen still remember a red-haired Englishman who tramped through 30 years ago, asking for water from the well, kindly declining their invitations to stay the night, and finally disappearing around the next point.
Today Mackintosh lives in San Diego and has written four books about his travels through the peninsula. He returns to Baja regularly to camp wild and enjoy the same scenery and stars that people centuries before us did. Like thousands of travelers, he still loves Baja California like no other place, even though parts of it have changed dramatically over the past three decades. I talked with Mackintosh earlier this week about Baja then and Baja today.
“I remember Cabo in 1979,” he says. “It was a village, and I just camped on the beach. I don’t think you could do that today.”
Cabo San Lucas, at the very southern end of the peninsula, has exploded into a hive of glitzy malls, unsightly resorts, cocktail bars and egregious golf courses. Many travelers build so-called adventures around places like Cabo, but Mackintosh no longer visits Baja’s cape.
“It’s a tragedy,” he says. “It’s not the real Baja that I fell in love with. I don’t go to Baja to go shopping or stay at hotels. There are adventures to be had everywhere and most involve seeing no one.”
He also avoids similar sprawl that has spread like infections at several hotspots along the Sea of Cortez coast, including the beaches south of La Paz, around the town of Loreto 150 miles north and near the northern gulf town of San Felipe.
“But you can still get lost out there,” Macktintosh says.
One of the author’s more recent adventures was the month he spent on Isla Angel de la Guarda, Guardian Angel Island. With 50 gallons of water, he took a boat ride to the island, made a base camp and considered himself blissfully marooned. At times, Mackintosh speculates, he was the only person on the 42-by-10-mile slab of rock, and for three full weeks he saw not a soul. But he did, he says, spend a week with company—poachers who kept busy fishing and stocking huge ice boxes with lobster, sea turtles, all manner of fishes and various bottom dwelling invertebrates destined for Asian markets.
“These guys are an ecological disaster but the nicest people,” Mackintosh says. He camped with the illegal fishermen and even witnessed suspicious midnight exchanges between them and other people who motored their skiffs to the beach and “rattled and banged their luggage around for a while before leaving.” Questions aren’t to be asked about such activity in Baja, where drug trafficking is a profession for many, and Mackintosh looked the other way. He describes his time on the island in his most recent book Marooned With Very Little Beer.
In 1997, shortage of beer was not a problem for Mackintosh. He received a sponsorship from the Tecate beer company and, with a burro named Misión for a companion and beer bearer, he walked the spine of the peninsula, visiting many of Baja’s old Spanish mission churches along the way. The mountains of Baja are a different sort of experience than the coast. The wanderer finds remote ranches and cowboys in hats and chaps instead of crusty fish camps and shirtless fishermen in sandals. Water remains the greatest scarcity but is easily had at any inhabited site. Usually it’s drawn from wells and is clear as Lake Tahoe and as safe to drink as the cleanest tap water.
Baja’s missions can be spiritual experiences, whether one is pious or not. Several are located in stunning oasis canyons of date palms, mangoes, avocados and figs, and the old buildings themselves are beautiful sanctuaries, cool and silent inside while the blazing sun scorches the country just beyond the immediate jungle. Mackintosh’s mission-to-mission walk would be the focus of his second book, Journey With a Baja Burro.
Between 2003 and 2005, I developed my own relationship with Baja. I walked wilderness coastlines, hitchhiked along the dirt roads, lived largely off of speared fish and, in many places, certainly walked in Mackintosh’s footsteps. Some people even asked if I was him. I spent 10 months in all backpacking in Baja California and was moved by the same beauty, hospitality and solitude that so affected Mackintosh 20 years prior. As he recalls that first visit in 1979, Mackintosh could just as well be narrating the impressions of a thousand other hikers, kayakers and cyclists who have been spellbound by wild Baja.
“I got all these great rides with interesting people, whether in cars or boats or airplanes, and people invited me out fishing and we had lobster feasts on the beach and I could camp anywhere under these amazing stars, and I thought, ‘This is paradise,’” he tells me. “When I was alone in the desert it was like a religious experience. It wasn’t scary at all and was so much better than what I was going back home to. I felt so free, like I could just grab a donkey and go walking into the sunset and enjoy this place as it was supposed to be.”
And thankfully, beyond the globalized tourist traps, he still can. We all can.
November 15, 2011
Now that I’m home again and sleeping in a cumbersome nest of quilts, sheets, mattresses and pillows—an unnecessary luxury called a “bed”—there is at least one benefit: I can read late into the night without fear of being seen and mugged by good-willed Turkish Samaritans. This, precisely, happened to me in the highlands near Izmir. The other evening I came across the following words in the second edition of Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, by Stephen Lord, and I had to laugh: “An ideal camping place is unseen from the road and not in the line of vehicle headlights….”
This is plain, simple, accurate logic dictated by common sense, and I’ve known it for years.
Yet on one particular night in October in the Aydin Mountains, I was lazy and camped just 15 feet above the road. I was drinking wine and reading a book with my headlamp, flipping off the light each time I heard an approaching engine on the road. I felt graceful, sly, discreet—like I was a fearless, wise cat and the mountain all mine. I saw every passerby, but not a soul on Earth knew I was here—until I botched it at around 9 p.m. A car came around the bend and I wasn’t quick enough. My light, which I had restored with brand new batteries that afternoon, illuminated the entire hillside as I fumbled for the button. In a moment I managed to flip it off—but it was too late. The car pulled to a stop just below me, and a young man stepped out. Fearlessly—but with reassuring innocence—he plodded straight up the bank and into my camp and sat down beside me. We chatted for a few minutes, and he said he would be passing by later with a collection of buddies and that they would be sure to stop.
“Great,” I said.
He wasn’t lying. It must have been 2 a.m. when a van stopped below the road. Five drunk young men—the first visibly intoxicated men I think I’ve seen in Turkey—spilled out and began dancing in the highway to Turkish music from the car’s radio. One by one they clambered up the bank to sit with me. None spoke English, and we struggled to converse for the next 30 minutes. I realized that I was a host for once and these fellows guests in my modest pad. I had no tea but I offered wine. We passed the bottle around while making laborious conversation. They furnished me with all sorts of far-fetched warnings: There were snakes here, they said, and roving herds of vicious swine.
“Eh,” I said, shrugging.
They finally stood to go and insisted that I come with them to sleep in a spare bed. I’ve rarely been able to explain to the civilized people of the Earth—at least not in Turkish—that I prefer sleeping under stars than strange ceilings. Yet I held my ground and my friends departed.
Stephen Lord, I was amused to read, has had similar experiences on the road in the Middle East. “Good luck,” he writes in his Handbook, “in explaining your preference for camping over staying in their home where you will be expected to sing for your supper.”
He also writes that “…one reason to pursue ‘stealth’ or discreet camping is that you will eventually tire of being invited into locals’ homes. This tradition of hospitality is especially strong in Muslim countries…Refusal can be awkward so think ahead.”
And stick to the woods, keep clear of the road and beware of your headlamp.
Tucked into my blankets and comforters here in San Francisco, I’ve also been reading through Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, admiring Robert Louis Stevenson’s simple adventures in the south of France. I’m feeling a growing kinship with the author, for it seems he encountered some of the same paranoia that I’ve observed. One night early in his trip he stayed in a monastery—fashionable today among paying tourists but at the time just another option for the wayfarer—and the monks, Stevenson writes, “…threaten(ed) me with many ludicrous misadventures, and with sudden death in many surprising forms. Cold, wolves, robbers…were daily and eloquently forced on my attention. Yet…the true, patent danger was left out.”
I’m reminded immediately of all the warnings I received of wolves and bears in Turkey while no practical advice was ever offered about true annoyances and hazards to the bike tourist: steep slopes without ground to camp on, no running water in the next 30 kilometers, asphalt so bumpy it’s as bad as cobblestones, and hunters who drive the roads at night with loaded rifles aimed into the bushes.
And the same mis-prioritized system of cautioning tourists occurs in the Republic of Georgia, where I toured for three weeks in 2010 and never received a single word of caution about the perils of the highways, which in Georgia are exceedingly dangerous. I recall the day I entered Georgia from northeast Turkey. In the first mile I saw two vehicles run oncoming cars off the road and onto the shoulder as they made harrowing attempts to pass others, all parties honking wildly at the others. I grew accustomed to simply ignoring this madness of the Georgian highway. But it would have been nice if someone had kindly warned me, “My friend, watch out on the road or we’ll run you down!”
But almost all I heard about, time and again, was the threat of Armenians and wolves. So feared were the latter of these enemies that on one particular night 10 grim-faced people stood around me in the street, all excitedly chattering about wolves. A girl who spoke English said that a pair of folks in eastern Georgia had been killed by wolves recently. These people had their way, in the end, and I was taken to a home. “Can I sleep out here in the yard?” I asked as we entered the gate. “Wolves,” they answered and stuffed me into a dark room with two snoring men.
The next evening, as I camped high in the Lesser Caucasus Mountains, I heard howling in the wind, across the hills.
I later did some research, and guess what? Fatal wolf attacks did indeed occur in Georgia in 2009 and 2010. In the Balkans, I received bear warnings in 2009, though no one spoke much about the landmines—which are, thankfully, clearly announced by ominous signs bearing skulls and the word “Mines.” As for the feared Turkish bears, two people were killed by them between 2003 and 2008. Still, I wasn’t a bit nervous when I encountered a whopping pile of scat in the hill country just south of Bursa this October.
But as I read through the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook from the comforts of home, I’m pleased to find that Mr. Lord is all business and reason; the threat of bears is not even discussed. And Stevenson in his Cevennes account further wins my approval when he writes, “I was much disturbed by the barking of a dog, an animal that I fear more than any wolf.”
November 10, 2011
It takes a degree of enlightenment, a Zen-like grace and contentment, to be able to yawn, stretch and lie down to sleep just anywhere in the world. Relatively few people are blessed with this capacity—or, anyway, been lucky enough to experience the pleasure. In most cases, if we’re away from home when darkness falls, we’ll panic, while authorities are roused and a search party deployed. In the best outcomes, the lost person is restored safely to the world of sturdy homes, hot meals, soft beds and dependable Internet access.
But there are creatures indifferent to darkness and unaffected by attachments to home. When they grow tired, they sleep. They may be comfortable anywhere—on beds of pine needles, on sandy beaches, on cliff ledges, on rocks—and they care not for the fuss of quilts, pillow cases and sheets. Wild cats, for instance, will sleep in trees if that’s where sleepiness finds them, bears will conk out in caves, and deer will doze in tall grass.
Bike tourists, also, are known to pass a night just about anywhere. We’re nomads who travel for months or years and who simply can’t part with 5, 10 or 20 dollars every night just to sleep. For many of us, our lifestyle depends on frugality. We spend our money where we must—a reliable bike, a few essential items to strap on the back, a plane ticket—and then accept what comes our way. When darkness falls, we do what’s natural: We sleep. It may be on the side of a mountain, or in a dark forest, or in a pomegranate orchard, or on a high and windy pass. Pigs may thunder past us in herds, and occasionally bears chase us back onto the road. We absorb it all in stride.
We learn to, anyway. Six years ago, when I first toured in Europe, I would grow nervous as night fell. In Spain, I would ask villagers if a campground was nearby, or even a room. As a last resort I would sleep wild. I preferred not to. It took me another two long rides through Europe to fully learn the way of the wild camper, and in 2009 as I rode through Greece and the Balkans I slept in the open woods nearly every night and grew to love the liberty of the lifestyle; I could ride in whatever direction I pleased without regard for whether I would find “accommodations” or not; everything I needed was on the back of my bike. I didn’t even carry a laptop in those days. I had attained enlightenment. I had mastered the art of sleeping anywhere. When locals warned me that there was “nothing” along the road ahead, I would smile and quicken my pace to get there. Only on my final night on that 2009 tour did I decide to treat myself to an established campground, which in Europe are often unsightly, crowded places paved like Walmart parking lots and surrounded by fences and where the only virtue is the chance of meeting other travelers. I was in Trento, Italy and went to the municipal lakeshore “camping” (that’s what Europeans call their campgrounds). When I arrived, I found the gates locked for the winter—but there was no call to panic; I lay down and slept where I was.
But some bike tourists never can kick their need for proper accommodations. I’ve met and talked with them. They often travel as a couple with matching bicycles and gear, and they tend to carry a guidebook that leads along “the route,” whether it’s the Camino de Santiago or the popular coastal California route or the rim of the Mediterranean. These folks stick to the main roads, research by Internet to locate campgrounds ahead, and often prefer to stay in plush rooms, three stories above ground and with breakfast served at 8. They’re preoccupied with having a daily shower and clean laundry—and such things they miss for it! Like having sheep walk over them at 3 a.m. to fight for leftover melon rinds, or the brisk exhilaration of setting up the tent as a surprise nighttime rain squall begins, or ducking under a ledge to hide from gunmen.
At the Istanbul airport, where I stayed the night, I passed the wee hours drinking espressos with a cyclist named Mark, from Alaska, also flying home at dawn. We had actually met two months prior in Plovdiv and had discovered then that we were flying out of Istanbul on the very same morning. Having reconvened at the airport, we traded stories from our journeys. His had lasted four-and-a-half months, classifying him as a real voyager—but he opted to sleep in campgrounds, resorts and hotels every single night.
“But you can camp anywhere in Turkey,” I blurted, a little shocked.
He grinned sheepishly and said, “I’m 52, man. I need a room and a bed.”
That sounds reasonable enough: He’d rather be comfortable than not. Even Odysseus, the greatest adventurer in literature, preferred not to pass a night without first a massage from a nymph, then an extra virgin olive oil rub-down, a gluttonous feast of goat flesh and wine and finally a soft bed. But what Odysseus, Mark from Alaska and others still held captive by the perceived comforts of down blankets and queen-sized mattresses don’t realize is that wild camping is arguably the most comfortable form of lodging available. By camping wild, we bypass the hassle of locking the bike in the basement, of unloading the luggage, of taking off our shoes at the doorstep, and all the other finicky logistics of dwelling in a well-groomed society.
I finish today with a tip of the hat to Robert Louis Stevenson, who knew the Zen and the joy of sleeping outside. In his 1879 journeying account Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, the author treks across a parcel of southern France, asking peasants for directions, getting lost, and all the while gnawing on a loaf of bread for sustenance. He exhibits a remarkable state of inner peace in a time so fraught with nervous particularities about wearing proper nightgowns and “drawing” one’s bath and “taking” supper. Stevenson dabbles in both worlds—that of guesthouse lodging and that of wild camping—and he learns fast to favor the latter. He describes the misery of sleeping with a dozen groaning and snoring bodies in a damp, stuffy hostel, and he dwells lovingly on the pleasures of camping anywhere. In Stevenson’s words:
[Sleeping outdoors] I have not often enjoyed a more serene possession of myself, nor felt more independent of material aids. The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a gentle and habitable place; and night after night a man’s bed, it seemed, was laid and waiting for him in the fields, where God keeps an open house.