We arrived in Everett, Pennsylvania, a town with less than 2,000 people, as dusk was falling. Before this week we had mostly slept in the homes of friends and family friends, of couch surfers, camped in state forests, and, occasionally, we stayed in motels or Airbnbs when there was still snow. However, as we moved further west, and reached less populated areas, our connections became fewer, and we began to look for other options. Thus, yard camping.
In theory, yard camping is simple. You walk up to a house, knock on the door, explain to the person who you are, what you’re doing, and then ask to pitch your tent in their yard for the night. Of course, there is the obvious complication that yard camping requires an enormous amount of trust between strangers. There is no review system for someone showing up at your house, like there is for couchsurfing or Airbnb. There is no exchange of monetary goods like there is at a motel. There is no implicit understanding that you won’t kidnap a person’s dog, like there is when you stay with a friend. Needless to say our first time yard camping, we were nervous.
The first house we considered mistook our wave as a greeting, waved back, and drove off before we could offer our bizarre take on an elevator pitch. We were 0 for 1. A few minutes later, we were entering a more densely populated part of town, and spotted another house. With a welcome sign out front, a spacious backyard and a small dog barking at us from the window, we agreed to knock on the door. A woman opened the door with a kind, welcoming smile, and the same small dog in her arm, with that merciless bark. We pitched it exactly as we had practiced. “I know this might sound kind of crazy,” and “we would totally understand if you say no,” were our opening and closing remarks. And with a kindness and generosity we didn’t expect, she invited us to stay in their yard. After two minutes of talking with her husband, Bill, who was outside grilling, he offered us the warmth and shelter of their garage. After we brought our stuff over there, grateful to have a roof over our heads on a rainy night, their daughter, Mallory, came to the garage and invited us in for dinner. All the anxiety we had had about where we would stay that night, and about approaching people asking to camp in their yard, had worn away with each kind gesture the Waltman family offered us.
We set our tents up in the garage, and went inside for burgers. During dinner we talked about the logistics of the walk, and joked about craziness of it. We talked about the ways homelessness affects a small town like Everett, and a lot of the experiences we had while working in a shelter. They told us about a number of other camp sites we could use in the next few days. More than simply discuss these topics, we convened with this family at their dining room table, laughing and relaxing with them the way you would with your own family. After dinner, Teri, the mother, and Mallory, took us to The Igloo, the local ice cream shop, and treated us to some much-appreciated butterfinger blizzards. We learned about these people, and related to them through shared experiences. We learned Teri grew up in Everett, and had lived there much of her life. We learned of Everett’s nickname as the “little town that can.” We crashed that evening in our tents, filled with a warm meal, showered, and grateful that little dog had caught our attention. We all have that dinner table that we break bread with our loved ones at. On this trip, complete strangers have opened their doors for us, and welcomed us to break bread with them like we were family as well.
On our second night yard camping camping, we were less nervous and more strategic in choosing our location. We decided to add proximity to a gas station or convenience store as part of our criteria for choosing a house. We were grateful Bill and Teri had invited us in, but we knew we could not expect, or count on, that kind of hospitality. Being near a gas station would allow us to use the bathroom, brush our teeth, and get changed before bed. We knocked on a door in Central City, Pennsylvania, and could see an elderly couple, and two kids, who we later learned were their grandkids, watching us from their living room. After giving our pitch, and handing over our business card, they advised us to set up on the side of their house to avoid any of the flooding in their yard. After a good night of rest, we got to talking with the elderly couple in the morning, and they graciously invited us in for coffee and a shower. Then, after parting ways with our hosts, and a few miles into our walk, we received a Facebook message from the mother of the two grandkids we had seen the day before. They had looked on our website, seen that their house was on our route, and the kids wanted to give us a gift for our trip. They even had a sign on their mailbox to make sure we did not miss them. When we got there, we were greeted with Gatorades and fruit, and hung out with the family while the two grandsons played basketball. Their grandparents even drove to the house to say goodbye one more time! For us, it was another moment of connection and friendship, and another example of the incredible kindness people have offered us along the way.
What is interesting about yard camping is it goes against what we are taught growing up. Don’t talk to strangers. Mind your own business. Be careful; there are dangerous people out there. Be self reliant. We view yard camping as an opportunity for strangers, and us, to see the basic goodness in others. Yes, there are risks, for us and them. But it is a chance for humans to see what happens when they let their guard down a tiny bit. For our part, we present our most gracious selves, trust the strangers hosting us, and try to be good receivers. In some cases, that can mean being quiet and non-invasive, and simply respecting the land we are on. Other times, that might require us to be gracious, engaging guests, grateful that we were lucky enough to be invited inside. We look forward to meeting and connecting with people through yard camping in the near-future, knowing the kindness that is possible.