“Look for the Costco garage with the tuba on it.”
My Couchsurfing host had sent detailed directions to her place on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, where I planned to stay for several days. We texted back and forth as I pedaled my way south along the edge of the continent. Dana* and her husband were moving soon, but they were nevertheless game to host a touring cyclist. A big going-away party was coming up, and “we might just put you to work!”
“Sure, I’m happy to help,” I replied. And I meant it. Her Couchsurfing profile mentioned social justice work and a housemate—familiar trappings of my former shared digs in Seattle. After several days of solo camping, I was looking forward to sleeping in a bed and socializing with like-minded folks. I was sure to meet lots of locals at the party. Maybe there’d even be an appealing single guy. And, bonus: I could wear the civilian clothes I had bought at a Salvation Army.
This was going to be fun. And possibly even meaningful.
Ten miles north of Dana’s place, I picked up a hostess gift in Sechelt. Dessert from the local bakery would surely be a hit. Walking back to the bike with a box of apple turnover, a sign caught my eye: fresh wild seafood. Coming off a steady diet of ramen noodles and powdered peanut butter, I was drawn like a magnet. A few minutes later, I left the fish market with a pound of fresh coho salmon and some ice in a plastic bag.
(What’s a little more weight when you’re already pedaling a 100-pound bike down a twisting two-lane highway through heavy traffic and smoky air?)
I stuffed the dessert and fish in my front panniers and set out on the final leg to Dana’s. She was out shopping for the party, but had urged me to make myself at home. “Raid the fridge,” she texted. She alerted me to expect three dogs (I had thought there was only one) and to keep them inside. I should also look for her friend Bob, who might be there loading firewood.
Turning off a paved road paralleling Highway 101, I steered down a long gravel driveway, cedar and fir trees lining either side. The ocean lay somewhere ahead, hidden behind the forest. The path forked and a white tent-like structure appeared on the left. This must be the Costco garage. The tuba turned out to be two-dimensional—a large purply painting.
I stood Peg on her kickstand and pulled out the apple turnover and salmon. Rounding the side of the garage, I stopped short. Before me sat a rundown double-wide, green around the gills with mold. Scattered piles of junk leaned against it. A toothless old man approached with a wheelbarrow. “Hi,” I said. “Are you Bob?” His reply was almost incoherent. Not Bob. Disappointment and distaste crowded my thoughts as I stood staring at the trailer. This was more like “Deliverance” than the Swiss Family Robinson scene I had imagined.
The dogs barked as I approached the front door, which was covered in an orange tapestry. I pushed it open to reveal a dark, cluttered living room with a distinctly canine reek. The worn beige carpet was grimy. A full-size mannequin—wearing what appeared to be a wolf pelt, complete with head and bared teeth—loomed along one wall.
In the kitchen, I set the dessert box on the counter. Opening the fridge to stash the salmon, I recoiled at the odor of rotting food. I crammed the fish onto a shelf and slammed the door shut. This disorder had nothing to do with Dana’s upcoming move; it was a way of life.
I barely had time to text an OMG to my friend back in Sechelt when I heard a shout from the driveway. At the tuba, Dana greeted me with a hug: “Which would you like first, a cold beer or a cold shower?” Choosing the latter, I picked up two bags of groceries and followed her into the trailer. When she led me to the bathroom, I mumbled something about needing to text my nearby friend about plans, and fled outside to Peg.
Twice on my summer 2016 trip, I had walked into similar scenes: the jam-packed house in Burlington where I slept in a quasi-hallway and stepped over cockroaches in the basement bathroom. The Montana home where I stayed with a gay nudist—who remained clothed during my visit—and his five miniature Doberman pinschers. A film of grease coated all the pots and pans in his kitchen cabinets. On one crowded counter top, a two-foot-high wooden dildo stood amongst the detritus.
Why had I stayed? In both cases, I was afraid that I had no better options. And, because these were WarmShowers hosts, the lodging was free. Upon meeting the Montana man, I had recognized that he was starving for companionship and attention. I anticipated that his company would test my limits, but told myself, “It’s not like it’s dangerous or anything. I can handle this.”
And I did handle it, but at what cost? Both “free” places took an enormous toll on my emotional and spiritual energy.
Sure, I could tolerate Dana’s smelly trailer in the woods for a few days. She was clearly a kind and obliging sort, eager to welcome me. But why put myself through the awkwardness and discomfort? I had nothing to prove. There was nothing to gain by sucking it up, putting on a brave smile and making the best of the situation.
Back under the cedar trees, I pondered my next move. It was already 5:00. Maybe I could camp in Dana’s back yard, just for the night? No. I needed to extract myself from this situation, and as graciously as possible. I considered inventing a story about plans with my Sechelt friend. But no. I remembered a time, years ago, when I had decided to cancel a date. A friend offered this guidance: If the situation were reversed, how would you like to hear the bad news?
I took a few breaths, rehearsed some phrases, and walked back into the trailer. As Dana chatted away, I retrieved the salmon from the fridge. Gesturing to the dessert box on the counter, I said, “I’m going to leave these with you. And I’m going to take the fish with me. I’m, um, I’m not comfortable here and I’m not going to stay, after all.”
When she asked why, I said that the situation was chaotic. She agreed. I mentioned the three dogs, but didn’t say anything about the smell. I added something along the lines of, “It’s just not my style.”
Dana took the news in stride, pretty much refusing to take offense. She even pulled out a map to locate the nearest campground. I couldn’t wait to break away, but she kept making helpful suggestions. She even invited me to stay with her and her husband at their new place, hundreds of miles to the east. “You’ve got my number,” she said, good-natured to the last.
Returning to Peg, I replaced the coho in the front pannier and pushed the bike up the gravel hill. Reaching pavement, I paused, considering which way to turn. Directly across the road, a man bent over the edge of his driveway, pulling weeds. I walked up to him with the bike.
“Hi,” I said. “How are you?”
“Good,” he said. “How are you? You look like you have a heavy load.”
“I do.” I paused and probably sighed. “And I have something to ask you.”
I introduced myself as a bike traveler whose lodging for the evening had fallen through. “Could I possibly camp in your yard for the night?”
He immediately agreed, pointing past his flower beds to the adjacent field. “We have a double lot,” he said. “There’s plenty of room.”
“Really? Thanks so much,” I said. “Oh! I have a gift for you.” I presented him with the bag of salmon and ice, babbling in my relief. “It’s Alaskan coho. I had to buy the American fish, since I’m an American.”
Jeff* led me away from the rose bushes, over a footbridge and past stacks of purple and green-painted beehives surrounded by an electric fence.
“To keep out the deer?” I asked.
He was showing me the garden hose when his wife approached, glass of white wine in hand. After she got the full story, Andrea* looked at me and asked, “Would you like to sleep indoors, in a bed?”
“Well, yeah, that would be great.”
“Would you like to sleep in a B&B?”
I blinked and shook my head, not quite believing my ears. “Sure, yes. Wow. Thank you!”
“We used to operate it as a B&B,” Andrea said. “Now we rent it to a friend, but she’s away for the summer.”
They led me to the back of the house, where a separate entrance opened onto a furnished two-room suite, complete with bathroom, microwave and dorm-sized fridge. “There’s tea in here,” said Andrea, opening a cabinet beneath the miniature sink. The Berber carpet was immaculate. All traces of the renter had been whisked out of sight. A slip of paper revealed the wifi server and password. Later, I would discover one of my favorite books, Carol Shields’ “Unless,” on a shelf.
Jeff and Andrea disappeared behind a connecting door, taking the fish and the wine with them. Now that I had access to basic kitchen equipment, I felt a pang of regret. I could have cooked the salmon in the microwave. I had nothing to eat for my own dinner. Not even a package of ramen noodles.
Still, the coho was a small price to pay for a lovely space on a long holiday weekend. The next day, when I was turned away by the nearby hostel, Jeff and Andrea agreed to rent me their suite for five more days. (I’ve got a work deadline on August 9, so it’s great to stay put.) I took the bus back to Sechelt to hit the laundromat and grocery store. That dorm-sized fridge is now crammed with fresh fruit and vegetables.
Best of all? The next time I’m faced with a situation that doesn’t feel right, I can remember the day I refused to make the best of it. As I’ve found again and again on the road, there’s always something better waiting around the corner.
*not her/his real name