“But there are so many bad people out there!” my friend Wendy said, looking like she was going to cry. It was January 1997, and she was upset about my plans for the trip. "And you'll be all alone…" She hugged me tight as if that could keep me forever away from the world she thought was so bad.
"But there are so many good people out there," I wrote in my journal later that night,
…and I want to meet them. I want to see how people live fulfilling lives in different places. I want to experience life away from home. Psychology books and many adults say that teenagers have A False Sense of Invincibility, but I don't think my optimism is because of that. I just don't believe that evil outweighs good.
Now, as Nate and I pedaled deeper into the rural south, my deepest wish was to prove that Wendy was wrong—that people really aren’t so bad, after all.
But the bizarre incidents kept piling up. On the rainy afternoon when we pedaled doggedly toward Berea, a low-slung green and khaki sportster drove by going in the opposite direction. We didn’t pay much attention, just commented that the roads were getting trafficked. Several minutes later it passed again, the same two guys sitting behind tinted windows.
“Hey, that’s the same car,” said Nate unnecessarily. “I wonder why it turned around…?”
We tried to justify the car’s second appearance, to convince ourselves that the men behind the tinted windows weren’t even paying us any attention. Why would they bother us, anyway? It wasn’t as if we had anything they wanted. We were probably being ridiculous. We looked at each other with worried faces.
After another mile, we came around a bend and saw the car parked on the side of the road, engine turned off and the guys sitting inside, silent and motionless. Trying to be nonchalant, Nate said, “Well, there it is. If it comes along again, let’s get off the road.” His voice held the worry that I was already feeling, and I was glad that for once I wasn’t going to be accused of “taking things too seriously.”
As soon as we passed the car, we heard the engine turn over and the now-familiar hum of the sportster behind us. As it went by again, Nate and I wordlessly and almost frantically began trying to find a place to get off the road. If there had been more traffic, we wouldn’t have felt so urgent. But the whole thing was too weird. We hadn’t seen many people all day, and we were scared. “We could try the woods,” suggested Nate.
“No,” I said practically. “For one thing there’s all that barbed wire fence. And besides, we couldn’t get the bikes up the embankment. Let’s go to…”–I pointed across the street, barely looking–“…that house. It looks like they have kids’ toys in the yard, and hopefully they’ll be friendly.”
When we knocked on the door, a man came out. “I’m Carl,” he said, not unkindly. “Now what exactly is going on…?”
He ended up escorting us out to the main road, three miles away, driving along behind us through the downpour in his pick-up truck. When we reached the highway we thanked him, and Nate climbed into the pick-up to write down Carl’s address so we could send him and his wife some postcards. In the backseat of the truck there was a 9mm handgun and some hollow-tipped bullets. People certainly were very…careful around here.
Nate's way of traveling until he met me had been extreme budget touring. His usual modus operandi had been to enter a town and ask in stores if there was anyone who wouldn't mind if he set up his tent for a night in their backyard. He'd convinced me to try the technique once before, and we'd landed in the living room of a preacher who had tried all evening to convert us to his brand of God-fearing Christianity. Even Nate had tired of his proselytizing.
But on one particular night in early May, we were met with rude stares and unfriendly faces outside the general store in Dorton. Nate came out almost as soon as he walked in. “The woman says there’s nowhere to stay. The church down the road used to have a hostel, but a couple years ago some cyclists vandalized the place. All the local people are suspicious now and won’t let bikers camp.”
Talk about a few people ruining it for the rest of us.
But there was nothing we could do about it, and as the twilight deepened and the sun fell below the tops of the trees, we put on our lights and reflective vests and kept riding. And after about a mile and half, I realized that I couldn’t expect Nate to do all the asking.
A minute later, I saw a woman standing at the door of a small house set slightly away from the road. I saw a tricycle and swing-set in the yard at the same moment that the woman waved to me. I waved and rode past, and then, through the dusky light, I felt something tug me to turn around. A moment later, I pulled up the driveway and my words came out in a rush: “I’m sorry to bother you, but my friend and I are looking for somewhere to pitch our tents for the night. We’d be out early tomorrow, and all we need is a patch of ground… Could we possibly camp in your yard?”
The woman looked at me with a work-hardened face and sharp eyes. Her hair was frizzled and graying, and her clothes were old. But her sharp features softened into a smile, and she said, “I think it would be okay. But…”
I held my breath.
“…I need to ask my husband," she continued. "He’ll be back in a few minutes.”
I exhaled, and started to get scared in the driveway of this stranger’s house, surrounded by yapping dogs and kids’ toys. I wondered if this was the best idea, after all. Maybe this is one of those houses where the wife is ruled by the husband and can’t do anything without asking him. Maybe he’s an awful person. Maybe he’s out getting drunk or something. How do I know that we’d be safe staying here? What if...
A car pulled into the driveway, and a man got out, wearing dirty coveralls and the same work-worn expression as his wife. Then a three-year-old ran out of the house, yelling, “Daddy!” The boy ran into his father's arms, and all my fears and doubts slipped away. No one could hug his child like that and not be a good person.
Of course we could stay, the man said—As long as his wife agreed.
"But it’s too cold for campin'!” the woman, named Sue Ann, protested.
“We got a shed you kin stay in—I’ll jist fix it up a bit,” her husband told us. His name was Jimmy. "She's right about the cold."
After ten minutes of shuffling and cleaning, during which time we kept vainly protesting that our tents were really fine, we entered our home for the night. The shed was spacious and even had bathroom facilities. “Sleep well!” Sue Ann and Jimmy told us. “Knock on our door if you need anything!” Their three-year-old waved shyly as he was whisked inside to bed.
These people had heard about the vandalized church, and that made their kindness to two total strangers even more appreciated
Every day, horror stories of murder, rape, and assault fill the newspapers. It can make you forget that most people are kind, I thought as I fell asleep. It can make you scared to go and see for yourself what it's like out there in the world.
If I ran the newspapers, I decided, people like Jimmy and Sue Ann would make the front page.