By: Katie Hennessey
Discovering hospitable strangers in a world afraid of one another.
For Katie to discover the unfiltered truth about the nature of strangers met while cycling across the country, she must learn to silence the stereotypes and prejudices brought on by fear-mongering influences and let her real-world experiences be her guide.
While bike touring across Eastern United States and staying in the homes of strangers along the way, Katie finds a dissonance between the trend of xenophobia messages communicated by onlookers and the actual hospitable interactions she is having with strangers.
Fear-laden messages, seeking to obstruct Katie’s adventure and make an enemy out of the stranger, come up in conversations with passersby met along her trek. When in the North, Katie is told to be afraid of characters in the South. When in white neighborhoods, she is told not to enter black neighborhoods. While biking alone, Katie is repeatedly asked if she is carrying a weapon for protection.
Flashbacks throughout her adventure point to moments Katie has been fed misguided information about the nature of strangers, traveling alone, and interacting with the unknown world. These memories point to the greater conflict: a society afraid of one another.
As Katie interacts with people from many different walks of life, internal dialogue reveals her own generalizations and hard-wired biases that have culminated from a culture riddled with fear.
When even the slightest leaf crunch outside Katie’s tent leads to a paralyzing night of fear, Katie must set a goal to protect her mind from falling victim to fear so she can clearly see the truth about strangers in her path.
Dirty Feet in a Guest Bed
Muddy Tires, Warm Sheets
Tour de Truth, Moving Past Perceptions While Biking Touring Eastern U.S.
To Shake the Sleeping Self, A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regrets, by Jediddiah Jenkins, Random House Publishing, Dec. 31, 2019
To Shake the Sleeping Self is one of the closest comparables to Hospitbale Strangers, both a travel memoir narrating the adventure of a long-distance bike tour that resulted in a new way to see people and the world we live in, but also overcoming a problem in society. In To Shake the Sleeping Self, the cultural problem Jenkins addresses is a stagnant American lifestyle, as he presents the questions what makes life worth living? In Hospitable Strangers, the flashlight is shined on fear in the American culture and how it works to divide us from one another and all that is unknown. Both of these memoirs highlight the role bicycling as a method of travel plays in the adventures and deeper discoveries along the way. Both of these non-fiction narratives though taking place on a bike trip, are much more than a book about a bike ride, but similarly address thought-provoking ideas about the society we live in. To Shake the Sleeping Self was successful to audiences beyond the travelers and adventure-seekers, but to a broad group of individuals seeking a better life for themselves and the community they exist in. The hope is that Hospitable Stranger would also span across a wide range of audiences who are looking to break out of fear and be their own judge for the world they live in.
The Kindness Diaries: One Man's Quest to Ignite Goodwill and Transform Lives Around the World, by Leo Logothetis, Published Dec. 30, 2014 by Readers Digest
While The Kindness Diaries is set on the seat of a motorbike, and Hospitable Strangers is by bicycle, the premise of these two travel memoirs is very similar in the way that both protagonists set out on an adventure to "fall into the arms of humanity" and rely on kindness along their journeys. Both protagonist are on a mission to renew their faith in humanity by way of leaning on the hospitality of kind strangers.
What makes Hosptiable Strangers' concept different is the author's mission to point to a greater cultural problem of fearing one another. The Kindness Diaries doesn't address fear as much as it focuses on how to give back the kindness once received.
Both of these books narrate a travel journey in which is filled with kind interactions with characters met along the way.
The Kindness Diaries was very well received and was later made into a Netflix docuseries in 2017.
Kindness of Strangers, by Mike McIntyre, Published Jan. 10, 2014, Kite Press. Highest achievement: #6 on Wall Street ebook nonfiction
Kindness of Strangers and Hospitable Strangers have similar premises as in both travel memoirs the protagonist sets out on a journey in reliance on the kindness of strangers to create a sense of hope in humanity. Both nonfiction narratives took place in a journey across America, Kindness of Strangers on foot, while Hospitable Strangers on bicycle. Kindness of Strangers differs in that the major take-away was the discovery in strangers who have the most to give, usually have the least to share. Hospitable Strangers adds the element of the antagonizing force of fear that keeps the protagonist, and society, from seeing the kindness in one another. Also, HS' theme of vulnerability as a way of discovering kindness is complimented by the vehicle of the bicycle, which makes this novel unique.
To disprove the "stranger-danger" warning, thirty-year-old cyclist bikes solo across America, surviving off the hospitality of strangers and believing in the magical vulnerability found on the seat of a bicycle.
As Katie seeks to reconcile xenophobic messages with the positive interactions she is having with strangers, she must allow her own personal experiences to dictate what to believe. Quieting the misguided perception of others causes Katie to look in the mirror at biases and her own fears she never realized were there.
When looking for a place to stay late one night in Providence, Rhode Island, Katie sent a message across a bike touring host network and the only person to respond was young female who offered her couch, but admitted she was an online sex worker and “tonight was a work night.” Never having to examine opinions on this type of work lifestyle, Katie found herself in the cross hairs of sleeping on the streets or accepting the hospitality of someone different than her. Despite her hesitation, Katie concludes shelter is better than no shelter, regardless of who’s offering. But when an unexpected friendship forms, Katie regrets her initial inner turmoil that pointed to shallow and narrow-minded preconceptions as she flashes back to her conservative Christian upbringing and sees ways this ideology has separated her from people of different walks of life.
While Katie is enjoying the company of newly made friends joining her as she treks across the country, interpersonal conflict about different travel styles comes up as little annoyances and irritations, but this conflict ultimately points to an underlying issue keeping Katie from her mission of discovering her own truth about the nature of strangers.
Katie has a continuous internal dialogue about the nature of her trip. Is it to complete as many miles as she can a day to make for an efficient trek? Or is the purpose of her venture to take it slow, linger with new friends, unpack and explore a new city for a while? These questions become even more unanswerable as she shares the road with a companion, together they must balance their own desires about their individual journeys.
These interpersonal struggles reveal part of the nuanced makeup and flaw of the protagonist: Katie wrestles with two sides of herself, the side that enjoys spontaneity and surprising adventures along the way, and her competitive side that yearns for accomplishment, brought on by a childhood of rigorous tennis academy training.
When she gets the opportunity to finally bike alone, Katie grows mentally and physically stronger, more confident and she also learns more about her unique method of travel. She realizes that she has used her good fortune of companionship and kind hospitality as a crutch, as Katie has let the company of others keep her from looking internally, facing her own fears, and allowing herself to embrace a solo journey.
By being alone, Katie must face not only the fears within her, but what’s even scarier, the idea that she could be wrong about the altruism of humanity.
Being alone and vulnerable serve as a major theme and key to unlocking the truth Katie needs to see.
· The Seat of a Bicycle
On the seat of a bicycle, there is no barrier between the traveler and the surrounding landscapes and communities. One could travel by car to see the world, I suppose. And when the scenery is redundant and neighborhoods seem a little sketchy, I suppose they can simply roll up the windows, press the lock button and get lost in the radio just as well. On a bicycle, everything is wide-open and unfiltered. There is not a glass-shield, but a 360-degree view invigorating sight, smell and sounds almost too intoxicating to take in all at once. There is no plastic box sheltering the traveler from the outside world, on a bicycle, you’re just out there, you’re in it, good and bad, the world is up close.
· Bicycling as a method of intimate interaction with people- THEME- Vulnerability
Being vulnerable on a bicycle often leads to moments when you’re broken down without the right tool on the side of the road. In moments like these, the bicyclist is forced to turn to mankind and hope that they will be greeted with open arms.
· Bike Touring Host Network: Warmshowers- THEME-Kindness, Diversity
Though strangers to Katie, the homes she took shelter in were a part of a bike touring host network, called Warmshowers. The community is based on the kind act of hosting, assuming those hosted will return the favor when they are back home. But each place she landed housed a person and world completely unknown to Katie. The people she stayed with represented an eclectic array of lifestyles, careers, political beliefs, religious ideologies and travel philosophies. The people’s lives and struggles told the story of the environment in which the lived.
· The North
As Katie biked through the northeast, she hugged the Atlantic Coast for as long as the road allowed. Often it brought her through quaint touristy towns throughout New England, while other times she traced sand dunes and followed boardwalks along a stunning ocean view, taking an afternoon dip when the opportunity presented. Katie’s faces internal conflict with the diversity of individuals home’s she stayed in the North- including a sex worker in Rhode Island and a lesbian couple in New Jersey that pointed out Katie’s failed conservative Christian upbringing in determining the kindness and value of these people groups.
Against the backdrop of the Indian River Bay, Katie watches dolphins play under the lights of Coastal Highway Bridge 1 when a disturbing call comes from her father, as his strict tone takes Katie back to being a punished teenager again. His voice was not his own, it was fear speaking, as this incident marks Katie’s first encounter with the antagonist of fear.
· The South
Virginia and Maryland
It's not long after departing from ocean views and entering the farm-to-market backroads of Maryland and Virginia for the unruly stench of overcrowded chicken coups to permeate every particle of breathing air. Katie spent the night with oyster farmers living on the Chesapeake Bay whose livelihood was threatened by the absorbent amount of pollution produced by dead chickens and feces. Katie realizes she has a lot to learn in the road ahead, the people and the environment will be her guide.
Eastern North Carolina
Eastern North Carolina is a place where cotton grows, peanuts are boiled and folks, young and old, say things like “yes ma’am” and “who are you kin to?” It’s also a place where dogs run at large, making a game out passing cyclists, looking for a quick snack from meaty ankles. Sometimes, the words that slip from the mouths of locals wouldn’t fly in other parts of the country, one wonders if it’s because of racism, a lack of education or a product of living in the sheltered back woods. It’s conflicting, because there’s also this thing called southern hospitality, which is seen in the way people open doors for one another and stop and really talk to each other. Katie got a taste of this hospitality when a bike shop owner fixed her unruly gears and rusty chain at no cost, simply a good farewell for the road. But she wonders, would she receive this same treatment in Eastern North Carolina if she were traveling women of color?
Further South, in Alabama, is a land of pipe-liners, peanut farmers, cotton producers and men who go home with sweat on their back. But also, Alabama is the heartbeat of American Conservativism, deep Christianity and strictly divided racial lines. Katie camped out with a group of boiler renovators when the alligators close to her campsite caused her to seek shelter with strangers. What she didn’t expect, was that she would spend the entire night befriending tobacco-spitting, Bud Light consuming, gun-toting Conservatives. As Katie grows stronger physically and mentally on her journey, she learns that she has more room for people’s stories, no matter where they are on the map, because she is no longer allowing outsiders to dictate how she sees humanity.
Racial separation and apparent paranoia of “the other,” is a trending observation as Katie rides though the South. Biking through white neighborhoods, she is told not to enter black neighborhoods. In black neighborhoods, she is warned about rude people in the upcoming white suburbs. While taking rest in a park in Biloxi, Mississippi, two black women ask Katie to join her at their table, where the pour out a 2-lb bag of boiled crawfish and teach her how to peal the creatures while they sip tall boys of Budweiser. But before they dig into the local flavor, one woman says, “Don’t worry, we like white people,” to Katie. Wishing this need not to be said, Katie later realizes that black people in the South have reason to be leery of white people.
· Africatown, Alabama- CLIMAX
While in Africatown, Mobile, Alabama, where the supposed last slave ship was found, Katie meets members of the Elks Lodge Community when she stops for a water break. The community is working to keep their dwindling culture alive, fighting against air pollution killing trees once flourishing in fruit. The progression of gentrified neighborhoods has led to environmental degradation in Africatown. Their ancestors were illegally brought over to America in a sleazy bet, and they cultivated a land that resembled their homeland in Africa. Remnants of that land is becoming harder and harder to hold on to. This experience changes Katie. She has been fighting her own battle of learning to write her own story by silencing the divisive opposition for almost 2,000 miles, and here is a people group who has been actively trying to build their own habitat in the face of antagonism and xenophobia for the entirety of our countries existence. Their opposition, while not what it once was, is still actively working against them, and may always be. But this hasn’t stopped their efforts of creating a viable, fruitful world to call their own. In a sense, this is what Katie is trying to do with her thoughts and her own world, a lesson from the book of Africatown shows Katie that true resilience doesn’t wait for the opposition to respond or meet you half way, Africatown must fight to for their identify regardless, their lives depend on it, after all.
· New Orleans- Denouement
Storms plague Katie’s last day of biking into New Orleans, she is 50 miles out, exhausted and looking forward to cajun food, jazz music and celebrating the end of the journey, but there are no good roads into New Orleans and the weather is grim. At a rest stop, she does something she refrained from doing the entire ride, hitchhike. When she catches a ride from a trucker, who grew up in the 70’s, he informs Katie that hitchhiking was more common back in his time, people were less afraid of strangers, he said. In a final act of resilience, Katie spends the next hour sharing her tales of all the hospitable strangers she met along her trek.
· Gulf Coast- Final internal takeaways
Dipping tire into the muddy, warm Gulf Coast as a celebration of arriving at America’s Southern coast. Watching the sunset, thinking about how far Katie has come from the northern part of the Atlantic Coast to now where she sits on the Gulf coast, reflecting on all she learns and inviting others to take their own journey into the unknown, encouraging vulnerability and emphasizing resiliency of hope.