Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Warm Showers

A few years ago Ash and I were bike touring in Washington when a car passed us, pulled over, and a couple jumped out and waved us down.  They were bike tourers as well and wanted to hear all about our adventures, since they knew that adventures always lie around the next corner when bike touring.  Then they asked us an odd question:  “Where’s your next Warm Shower?”  I mean sure, we all like warm showers and they are great at the end of a long day in the saddle, but we weren’t necessarily planning our trip around showers and weren’t quite sure where the next one might be.  “You mean you don’t know about Warm Showers?”  We admitted our ignorance.  They went on to tell us about the website  It’s a site where bike tourers around the globe register themselves and their homes as places to stay for other bike tourers who may be passing through.  So you look at your route and it looks like you are going through Salt Lake City and you login to warmshowers and find folks who live there whom you might be able to stay with.  Which is exactly what Benoit (“Ben-wah”) and JP - who hail from France and are on an ambitious North American tour – did this week, and ended up at our house. 

I had gotten a couple of messages from Benoit about when they would arrive, but it was still a bit loose.  I left my little pilates class and started to ride home, went a couple of blocks, looked down 1700 south, and there were two bicyclists with panniers heading towards me.  Of course it was the Frenchmen, and they were delighted to be escorted to our house. That kind of fortuitous occurrence always seems to happen when you need it on a bike tour.  

They were super grateful for a place to do their laundry, sleep in a bed, drink some beer, have some great homecooked food, and – of course – take a warm shower (even hot!).  But what they didn’t realize is that Ash and I were probably even more excited than they were at the prospect of providing them with these amenities, because it was a bit of an opportunity to repay the many people out there who have been so gracious to us over the years as we pedaled briefly through their lives.  Bike touring really encourages personal engagement; I think it’s the lack of the personal barrier that a car represents and perhaps the perceived vulnerability of a bike tourer, but people just want to help.  It reminded us of a handful of the great experiences we have had with locals in their countries:
  • I rolled into a town in Germany with the address and phone number of a guy my dad had met years before at some business conference.  He not only took off half a day of work to show me around his town and take to me to a sumptuous lunch, but also gave me a couple of “special” bottles of wine, a huge, hearty classic Bavarian cake to fuel me up for days, and some “special” Deutschmark coins to remember his country.  I actually drilled a hole in one of the coins and it stayed on my keychain for 20 years til I lost the set!
  • Ashley climbed over a pass between France and Italy on a solo tour and started chatting with one of the many lean, mean, older guys on sweet bikes riding the pass as well, and he invited her to stay the night with he and his wife.  They plied her with rabbit, wine, bread, salad, etc, and all were “our owwwn pro-duction!!!”
  • My buddy Eric and I were riding through Scotland and were trying to make it to a town before getting hit by a thunderstorm and were unsuccessful, and got soaked.  But at least I hit a big pothole and flatted my tire, tossed the food we had just bought all over the wet streets, and broke my rack.  But as we were chuckling at our plight at a gas station we met a nice couple who invited us to stay at their place a few miles away, to which we heartily accepted. And this was "their place":

(that is another whole story unto itself)
  • The next night we found ourselves in yet more rain (it was Scotland, after all) and knocked on a farmhouse door to ask if we could sleep in their barn.  “Nay, me sons are off at university; ya kin sleep in their beds!” and were pretty much  instantly inside being fed lamb that had been slaughtered that day, all the porridge we could handle the next morning for breakfast, and a sack lunch to send us on their way.
  • A few years ago we rolled into the Natural Bridges Monument campground after a long day only to find that it was full, and being a national monument there was no “free” camping allowed and while there was water at the campground, there was no other source for many miles.   But some campers saw us and recognized the situation and immediately invited us to stay with them in their camp and were happy to share their beers and dinner with us. 
  • On the last day of a trip near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico we took an appealing-looking (on the map) detour that turned out to be a really hilly, rough-gravel road that went super slowly and after some hours it became apparent that we were simply not going to make it to PV in time for our flight home.  But the one car that came by stopped, immediately went about the task of figuring out how to fit us, our bikes, and our gear in, then drove us to PV, where they took us directly to a hotel owned by their friend who made a room appear for us. 
  • We rolled into a town in Cuba late in the day looking for a place to stay and quickly found a guy who offered to take us by his own bicycle (that had one brake pad!) to the homes that were allowed to have foreigners stay, but they were all full.  He then checked with his friend who owned a Cuban-only place who agreed to take us in, but we literally had to sneak in, so it was clear that he was taking a bit of a risk himself for accommodating us.  (This was one that we did repay; the guy who showed us around and made the introduction later traveled all day by bus to meet us and we gave him our bikes as we were leaving; we still get letters from him thanking us again and again!)
  • On a long climb up into the Dinaric Alps in Montenegro in late fall I misunderestimated how long it was going to take to get me to the next town and as both darkness and temps were falling precipitously I came upon a shack alongside the road and an old woman shuffling outside.  I used one of the few Serbian words I had learned – “bread?”  - and she just motioned me into her one-room “home”, where I spent the night with she and her husband, who had shown up shortly thereafter with their business:  the cow.  It was a mostly-conversationless night – you can only go so far with “bread?” – but the gleam in their eyes indicated that they knew how appreciative I was for their simple hospitality. 
And there are many more.  So Benoit and JP are off to their next adventures, and we are going to give them the names of some folks we know who might be on their possible route, but undoubtedly they will be the beneficiaries of graciousness by random folks who appreciate the simple beauty and challenges of bike touring. 

Here’s to warm showers!

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