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.
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