“You travel with protection don’t you?” asked the man outside the post office. “You know… a gun? A hunting knife? A big hammer or something?”
“Um… well no…” I replied, taken aback. “We have the dogs I suppose.”
“You are a braver man than me,” he said, an unfaltering wall of intensity. “Aren’t you scared of being attacked?”
“Attacked by who?”
“Crazy people!” he said with a trace of indignation entering his voice. “Crazy people are everywhere. I sleep with a gun under my pillow. I would never leave the house without my tazer.”
The man, a Michael J. Fox-esque bastion of middle America, lifted up his sports jacket. A tazer was indeed sitting upon his belt, sheathed and poised to defend against the crazed masses.
“Make sure you always camp in well lit areas…” he continued. “I’m serious! You’re not going near the border are you?”
“Man, be careful!” he interrupted. “You should be carrying a hammer or something. Those crazy Mexicans will slit your throat for a dollar. These are hard times in America.”
The sun hadn’t set on our first day of cycling in America and I was already being told to arm myself with guns… knives… hammers? Was cycling across America really so dangerous? And when in American history did open resentment of black people transfer over to Hispanics?
Several days later we pulled over to a roadside diner in rural Florida on an icy morning. The sight of smoke and smells of grease lured us into a hut lined with license plates and confederate flags. A plaque proclaiming the right to carry concealed weapons commanded the line of sight upon entry.
We had only just opened our styrofoam containers loaded with hearty servings of biscuits and grits when a family walked in. Word of our bicycle trip with dogs came quickly to their notice and the father in the camouflage hunting cap began questioning us.
“You two carrying a gun?” he soon asked, as if this was as an everyday follow up to how’s it going? and how ‘bout this weather?”
“I wouldn’t even know how to use a gun,” Zoa replied, trailing off into laughter.
“Well there’s not much to it,” the man said with amusement at this strange breed of city folk. “You just point it and pull the trigger!”
The daughter, a picture of blonde cheerleading innocence, weighed into the conversation by lifting her purse towards us.
“I bought a gun only the other day,” she said. “A woman down the road sold it to me real cheap. I carry it everywhere with me. You got to be ready to protect yourself.”
“Against who?” Zoa asked. (I hadn’t passed on the enlightenment from the Tazer Man at this stage.)
“You know… against bad people!” the father added with a hearty laugh.
As we continued pedaling west through Florida past giant ‘correctional facilities’ and teams of prisoners cleaning toilets and collecting roadside rubbish, the warnings continued.
The most intriguing warning of all though didn’t come until a small farming town in Texas. A retired lady had finally exhausted exchanging her favourite quilting tips with Zoa, when the talk turned to the local wildlife of the Texas Hill Country.
“There are panthers in these here hills and they can be mighty dangerous. If you happen upon one,” she said pointing to Paco, “you have to be prepared to throw that little dog of yours at the panther and run.”
We scanned her face for traces of sarcasm. None registered.
For a country so wrapped up in its own ideas of freedom, it is amazing how many Americans are choked by fear. Maybe we are passing along in our own little happy cycling bubble, but as we continue across the country we are meeting nothing but generous folks who go out of their way to help us out.
Footnote: Now that we have written about how friendly everyone is, it would be fitting that we shall be mugged sometime in the following week. So to all you crazy folks out there, be warned. We are armed with spare spokes and a multi-tool and we are not afraid to use them…