“YOU DON’T WANNA CAMP in this weather,” said a heavyset blonde sitting with her family. “Y’all could stay at the church tonight on 4th street. They run a homeless shelter.” She wiped the butter off her baby’s face. “But you gotta go to service at seven.” A hot meal and a roof through the rain sounded great, but it didn’t really seem a viable option. These places, it seemed, weren’t built with people like us in mind.
But we are homeless, if you wanna be honest about it. A few days ago, I strode into a Wendy’s, unshaven and wearing a torn up old Army jacket, digging through garbage cans like a madman, looking for paper. “Excuse me, sir!” I froze, flustered by the manager staring at me from behind the counter. “Oh,” I stammered. “We’re camping and just wanted to get some of your waste paper to start a fire with.” She gave me a soft grin. “Here, take this.” She handed me a packed paper bag. I guess I looked the part, at least enough to earn her sympathy. And a free bag of chili.
So we go through a lot of the motions, but we’re coming at it from a different angle here: hobos by choice. Digital hobos I guess, sleeping under bridges and eating out of dumpsters but pulling cell phones, notebook computers, lenses and microphones out of our sacks when we have something we want to say. We know we can go back to the luxuries of jobs and apartments and beds and cars if we ever want to, a security not afforded to the others at the shelter.
For them, homelessness represents failure — for us, freedom. Over dinner, one man would enthusiastically gush about an apartment he might be moving into and another about how he paid a barber at Wal Mart $5 to shave his head. Our stories were about the fresh rabbit we ate off the side of the road and how beautiful it is to sleep under the stars this time of year. We had been spoiled by lives of availability, and for us eating garbage and sleeping outside meant momentary release from the numbing shackles of affluence.
Wherever we go with these bikes, people ask us: Why are you doing this? Did you just wake up one day and decide to leave everything? Where do you live? Where are you going to live after the trip? Do you have a job? Every question fired at us is met with ambiguous answers and equivocated attitudes. We’re not trying to be difficult. These are just questions we don’t really have answers to ourselves.
People are inspired, confused, curious, and concerned, often all at once. We’ve been preparing for this thing for so long though, it’s life as usual at this point. We’d both been moving around so much for the last few years anyway, and even as teenagers in the Florida suburbs we would read books and watch movies about the lifestyle, fantasizing about one day living on the road ourselves. We weren’t the first and we won’t be the last. We can’t pretend we invented the lifestyle or birthed the ideals, we’re just interpreting the mythology for our own lives, standing on the shoulders of a long lineage of road warriors who laid down the asphalt before we were even born.
In a way, The United States was born on the road. Throughout much of the young country’s history, salvation in the uncertain was exactly the appeal for Europeans looking to uproot themselves and plant seeds in fresh soil. The New World was an open road leading far past the horizon, although paved over those who had lived here for thousands of years.
But as the immigrant country developed at break-neck speed, blank spaces on the map were filled in, unclaimed land became owned, and the American Dream slowly slipped into the realm of myth. Vague but powerful notions of freedom and independence lost their edge, and the Dream became less about courageous discovery and more about comfortable security. It seemed The New Deal put the last nail in the coffin after World War II, when the mass suburbanization of America began. A dream once defined by opportunity in the unexplored came to instead be symbolized by the predictable sterility of the white picket fence.
Finding a camping spot and privacy in November wasn’t hard; even the most avid hikers prefer to be indoors at night this time of year. It’s also easier to get food; the season turns the world into your meat-locker. Animals that die on the side of the road remain fresh for days.
The same goes for food waste. Restaurants cook more than they sell, and at the end of the day, some place the leftovers in the giant metal refrigerator out back, colloquially known as a “dumpster.” This goes for food that grocery stores throw out as well. Nothing can be more disgusting than a food dumpster in the heat of the Summer. In the Winter though, nature provides all the refrigeration needed to discourage maggots and bacteria.
The crueler side of The Road quickly catches up to you though, and at some point all that idealistic jibber jabber has to contend with reality. Like when an angry pickup truck’s blaring horn blows you off the shoulder. Or when you wake up with numb feet and need to sit on the transformer outside a closed mountain inn for an hour. Or when the ‘beautiful vintage red fork’ you used to build your recycled bike turns out to be a cheaply welded antique and collapses under the weight of your own reckless ambition, sending you and your gear to the side of The Road while indifferent cars whiz past.
It was a rough start, a whirlwind of a first week full of progress and setbacks. The mountains, after all, are a place of extremes. The peaks are higher and the valleys lower, but when we hit the foothills in East Tennessee, it all stretched out into a soft, gentle roll, where a whole day would pass while we were just looking forward at that rising and falling horizon. Movement itself became our routine, life our job, and we started to measure distance in days, feeling the Earth move up and down, breathing with us as we carved our wheels across her skin.
As we rode further west, everything changed, the inspiring drama of the mountains replaced by an eerie stillness. Even the sky, sunny and blue in the Appalachians, became encroached in darkness for days, periodically dripping moisture down but barely enough to call rain. Business owners and workers were less friendly and more skeptical, and the highway was littered with broken homes, failed businesses, and signs reminding us of who’s in charge out here. “Vote for Jesus,” one pleaded. “You’ve tried everything else!” We were clearly on our way out of Appalachia, now traversing a quiet, steady stream of hills slowly pulsing with the weakened life-force of a culture in decline.
But there are always profound exceptions to the rule. We were camping on a lake one evening and a pickup truck rolled up, a married couple timidly introducing themselves. “To be honest,” the man said to me through a neatly trimmed goatee, “we were wonderin’… should we or shouldn’t we? We saw y’all riding your bikes back in Sweetwater and then again on the highway. And now here you are right by our house. We were wonderin’ how you even knew about this place. Looks like y’all could use some help… we don’t help people out a lot. It’s true, we want to but we don’t. We figured this would be a good chance.
“My wife’s makin’ a meal tonight, and we’d love to bring y’all down a plate. And I’ll bring some firewood too. We usually sell it but I’ll give it to y’all. It’s pretty wet out here. And if it was to get really bad, our house is right up the hill and we got a big couch in the living room.”
Southern hospitality at its finest. They stuck around and we talked, exchanging stories and laughter, and they brought their children down to meet us. This whole journey is really renewing our faith in humanity. Having to rely on the kindness of strangers on a daily basis is a humbling experience, and after meeting enough people so eager to help out, it’s hard to stay cynical for too long.
It can all be addictive. The assurance that tomorrow you’ll wake up in a new place, leaving everything from the day behind — both good and bad — is a powerful drug. The Road is more than just paved earth. It’s life unedited. And it’s still very much alive in modern America.
Noah and Tim are creating a documentary called America Recycled. They are in the midst of a fundraising campaign in which all donations will be matched dollar for dollar, a prize for winning the USA Creative Vision Award. Fundraising ends April 7, 2013. To see this film completed, please donate at USA Projects.
* This post was published in its original form here.