“You could just turn around, you know, you don’t have to do this.”
“What are you going to get out of this anyway?”
“Is it financially logical to go out there?”
“What about all the strangers? You have a great friend group in Atlanta.”
“What if you get murdered while camping in your car?”
Every morning, I wake up and I have only myself to hold accountable to leave on time- to get into the driver’s seat and continue west. Every morning and night I’ve had some variation of these thoughts, especially while camping alone in my car in a state park near a correctional facility. I’ve done the drive to and from the western parts of the United States several times, usually with friends. Never, had I been entirely alone until this trip. I am staying in state parks, climbing areas, and at the houses of family and friends. I am talking to strangers.
The first night on my drive to Utah that I spent alone, was in a state park in Illinois. It was next to a correctional facility. The county was under a boil water advisory. I had never been to Illinois, and after spending five hours listening to podcasts about true crime, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to camp alone in the woods in a strange state next to a correctional facility. As a climber I tend to associate leaving my comfort zone with taking lead falls, not with the rest of my life. As I sat in the humidity that had followed me from Georgia, preparing the few items I had brought with me as dinner, my heart stopped as another car pulled in, parked next to me and a man got out. His name was Chad, he was the park ranger. He stayed and talked with me for a while, sharing stories of his time over seas in the military and, after another car pulled in and set up a tent down the way, he told me I could stay in the nicer campgrounds if I felt uncomfortable. I thanked him, shut my trunk, and began settling in for the night.
Before long the flashing lights of a police car pulled up along side me. I opened my door to the local officer. He told me the ranger had sent him to check in on me, that I was camping alone. In most instances like this, two men approaching me in my car, would have me on edge. Instead, I asked him questions about his life. He told me about his daughters, the six degrees he had earned and his desire to pursue a Phd in psychology, and his complaints with the police force. We talked about how much he loved the body cameras and about how upsetting it was that they had little money to train officers to be better equipped in handling the job. He talked about how if he had to engage in a threatening situation, he was often alone, with only an assault weapon as back up, the actual human back up being 45 minutes, at least, away. The precinct only had a hand full of employees for the entire area, comprising somewhere between 24 and 35 square miles.
Hidden Brain did an episode, “The Lonely American Man“, about how America’s concepts of masculinity creates lonely men. In the episode they discuss a study done about the satisfaction of commuters during a train ride when they are left to their own devices versus engaging in pleasant conversation.
“People reported being happier, less sad and having a more pleasant commute when they connected with the person sitting next to them than when we randomly assigned them to a condition where they were asked to sit in solitude. […] This distorted belief keeps us and the strangers around us from connecting with one another, opening a conversation, making small talk.”
I expected to have a lonely night, maybe talking to a friend on the phone, or scrolling through Facebook and Instagram. Instead, I learned about the prospectives of two people I would’ve never bothered interacting with if I hadn’t been alone. They aren’t life long friends of mine, they aren’t new climbing partners, but they are people who, without knowing me, made sure that I was ok.
The following morning, as I was preparing my coffee and breakfast, the man who had camped down the lot from me offered me farm fresh eggs on his way out.