I raced the sunset into enormous dunes south of Florence. The last time I’d seen the Pacific up close, I was swimming in it in Hawaii. Here in Oregon there was no question of getting in the water. Enormous breakers, having rolled uninterrupted for tens of thousands of kilometres, crashed with thunderous force into the North American continent. Sighting the ocean after a long absence is always a cherished moment on my trip. Which is odd, since I am a devoted landlubber, out of my element at sea. And sand is an overrated substrate in my book.
Crossing the state east to west in the last week I’d gone from riding shirtless in the heat of Hell’s Canyon, to digging the tent out of snow on the volcanic, Mordor-like summit of MacKenzie Pass in the Cascade Range. I’d hit the coast right in the rainy season, although it’s not clear if the Pacific Northwest has any other. The forecast was dismal for the next few days, so I’d arranged to stay with a Warmshowers host, hoping to stay dry at least one night.
My host, let’s call him Chas, had an armful of good references. The only vaguely bum note in his profile was a request to ‘come with an open mind’; mysterious rather than off-putting. When I arrived, his place was spacious but cluttered. You could tell at a glance it was a bachelor pad. He shared it with a full-blood husky and another large dog of indeterminate breed. Chas was friendly and disarmingly candid from the start. He mentioned that he was separated from his wife and child, who had gone east. He was still in touch with them and hopeful of being reconciled.
We chatted about touring as I stowed my bike in his garage. Chas had toured with his dogs, towing them in a trailer. Warmshowers never works for him as a guest he said. Nobody wants to host a single guy. He attributed it to his imposing physical stature, over two metres and built like a heavyweight boxer. This didn’t add up to me: people don’t know how big you are before you turn up, and really who would care?, I asked. I ventured that maybe bringing two big dogs was putting off potential hosts. And then, so much comes down to luck and timing. I’ve had runs of months when I didn’t get a reply to requests. You mustn’t take it personally.
Chas had had a bumpy relationship with Warmshowers. He confided that his current WS profile was his second. The first had been removed after a tit-for-tat feedback spat with a guest got out of hand. In his version of events, an older European couple stayed with him then left negative feedback, implying that he’d tried to get them to eat magic mushrooms and take other drugs, making out that he was an unfit host. He was incensed. Subsequent guests egged him on to leave a bad review for his accusers, to pay them back. This he did, claiming they’d messed him around, turned up late without explanation, rejected the perfectly wholesome food he’d prepared and were rude and uncooperative.
The guests reported his feedback for being false and retaliatory, and Warmshowers asked Chas to withdraw it. He refused, pointing to his hundred plus positive references. He says the WS board acknowledged his track record, but nevertheless issued an ultimatum: remove the retaliatory comments or his account would be deleted. As nonsensical as all this sounds, he claims to have stood his ground. Hence the new profile with an added middle initial.
We move into the kitchen, where Chas was preparing the wild morels and field mushrooms he’d picked that afternoon (no liberty caps today!). I offered him a share of the bottle of beer I’d brought. He declined in favour of a hit from his bong. Oregon is one of several states of USA that has legalised cannabis. He offered it to me, but after a hard aerobic day on the bike and still getting the measure of this conversation, I didn’t fancy it. I had previously sampled some weed in Oregon, home grown rather than the medical grade sold in shops. It had been strong and unpleasant, making me tense and anxious rather than mellow and I wasn’t keen to repeat it.
In view of the business about his negative feedback spat, the admonition in his current profile ‘to come with an open mind’ now made more sense. Chas said that for him marijuana was a medical necessity. He had served in the military in Afghanistan, but was medically retired with a traumatic brain injury after a shell exploded and sent shrapnel into his head. Weed was the best pain killer he’d found.
There was an archness about Chas. He enjoyed provocative banter. He remarked that cyclists using Warmshowers are basically freeloaders. I smiled and asked if he really thought so. ‘Definitely, the ones on long trips, you know they’re only in it for what they can get. They’ve never hosted anyone in their life. Total freeloaders.’
I leaned back and screwed up my face, squinting at him to discern his sincerity. I told him that whether or not someone has had the opportunity to host, hospitality is a two way exchange – or it should be. I only stay with people when I can be sure I will have energy to sing for my supper. To be ‘on’ for the night and tell my story, bring some of the adventure to my host’s household, play with their kids and pets, represent my country and culture – that’s the deal, isn’t it? It doesn’t cost money, but there’s an energy cost. Sharing yourself, your thoughts and experiences – that is the basis of the exchange from each party. A bed and maybe a meal are incidental.
Chas wasn’t buying it. “No, you’re in someone else’s house, eating their food, giving nothing in return. That’s freeloading”. “But you offered it”, I countered. “I don’t need a bed and I have a pannier full of food. I’m not poor. And I brought you a beer.” I explained that when travelling alone for days at a time, it’s good to come down off the mountain once in a while and check-in with humanity. Money and consumption and the rest of it, they’re not what it’s about at all. “Are you a communist?” he asked abruptly. I laughed, and said I just don’t think that everything is reducible to money.
He rounded on me, waving a kitchen implement theatrically. “That sounds communist. If you are a communist, get out now.” I just looked at him. My failure to react seemed to irritate him. “I’m not kidding,” he said, his voice becoming forceful. “If you are a communist, get the fuck out right now”. I said that I was not, but nor was I a great fan of capitalism. But… what the fuck? These are just abstract ideas, I said, not reasons to throw someone out on a cold, rainy night. “No man, it is a reason. I hate communists. They beat up my best friends, almost killed them.”
The conversational non sequiturs were coming thick and fast now, and it was hard to follow the thread of his narrative. From what I could gather, during some demonstration in a city of uncertain location, Chas and his friends had been attacked by people claiming allegiance to a communist cause. It was an incoherent story and I was none the wiser for it. I suggested that evil-doers will always co-opt political badges to suit their own ends. It’s opportunist, not ideological. Even Buddhism has been appropriated by those who would seek to spread terror.
By turns, the ugly moment was defused and Chas relaxed again. He admitted that calling guests freeloaders is a favourite experiment of his. “There are two kinds of people. The ones who just laugh uncomfortably and try to brush it aside politely, and the ones who argue back. Now I know which kind you are”, he grinned. O-kaaay … (If there really are only two kinds of people, then they’re the kind who divide the world into two kinds of people, and the kind who don’t, but that’s another story).
We moved on and he baited me with a few pro-Trump remarks; just his attempt at badinage rather than his real beliefs. He talked about recent guests, in particular a couple of female cyclists he’d hosted. “They were a lot of fun, but I prefer feminists”. Oh … really? Where was this going. “It’s much easier to bed the feminists. They all have daddy issues”.
We were joined at dinner by a couple of Canadians, car-camping travellers. They’d bumped into Chas in town and he’d invited them to stay a few days. He served up a good feed; tagliatelle, mushrooms and broccoli in cream and pepper sauce for me, and lots of it; homemade meatballs for him and the Quebecois. The mushrooms were superb. “What have you got against plants, Dan?”, Chas teased while he drained the broccoli, “Don’t you think they have feelings too?”
After dinner the Canadians hit the bong then hit the sack. Chas sparked up the Playstation. “Do you know Westworld?” he asked. I remembered the Yul Bryner film from way back, but that’s all. He starts explaining the premise of the video game version of the TV show, taking another bong hit while the next level loaded. He’s rambling about it being an ‘exploration of what people could become when there are no rules enforced’. But I’m trying not to get involved. From what I witness, the game is photorealistic first person point-of-view, where the player’s in-game character goes around doing whatever they like. In this case, killing and raping other characters, which are meant to be lifelike androids, apparently. It’s foul, and I tell him I’m not a fan.
By this point Chas is engrossed and not talking. I wonder if he’s pissed off because I rejected his game. Suddenly he goes off to bed with hardly a good night, leaving me to figure out how to get the enormous dog off the sofa that I am supposed to sleep on. (The stoned Canadians were occupying the outbuilding normally given to Warmshowers guests). The dog growled menacingly every time I approached, but eventually I managed to coax it off the sofa. I spread out a sheet and the dog jumped straight back on again. We went through this charade three or four more times and were about to do it again when I heard the click of Chas’ bedroom door opening and a gruff shout. Both dogs trotted off, the door slammed shut and I finally got my head down.
I didn’t sleep much, sliding around on the leather sofa. But I’m not a great sleeper at the best of times to be fair, especially in a new environment. In the morning, I made breakfast from my own supplies and cleaned up the kitchen from what looked like several days’ worth of encrusted dishes, pots and pans and empty wine bottles. There were no signs of life in the house and I pondered what to do. It was pouring with rain. I was tired from two consecutive big days over the Cascades then the Oregon Coastal mountains, and had a dull headache from a fitful night’s sleep.
Around 10am Chas surfaced and came in to chat while doing morning exercises. He extols the virtues of his regime, telling me that most people do push-ups all wrong, but he can show me a workout that would transform me. “Get down and show me your technique”, he says. I look at him. “Dude, this isn’t army boot camp!”. Your loss, he says.
Chas tells me how his physical size has marked him out for a life of trouble. He tells me a story from his past, of betrayals and regrets, of violence, incarceration and brutality so phantasmagorical it is scarcely believable. Something lifted from a Cormac McCarthy novel. Tears welled in his eyes and his voice faltered. I could see that whether true or not, it had a hold on him. He believed it. I had no words. That’s a hell of a story, I said, I’m sorry if that really happened to you. He took a deep breath in, held it, then released it slowly.
He asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of the day – why not stay another night and sit out the rain? I’d been deliberating the same, but there was no question of getting any rest there. I told him thanks, but with limited time on my US visa, if I’m taking a rest day then I need to make it count and do some writing. And I don’t think I’ll get much writing done here. No, he said. You’re not going to get any work done here.
I loaded the bike and suited up for the rain. I thanked him for dinner and wished him good luck with his family and on his tours. He wished me well on mine then we shook hands and I left. The sense of relief was immediate as I pedalled down the road in the downpour. But the relief soon turned into a malignant irritation with everything, not helped by a dull headache and gnawing hunger. For the rest of the day my mind was in turmoil. Snippets of dialogue from Chas’ diatribes kept replaying in my head. I was badly out of sorts, drained by the encounter.
The rain didn’t let up all day and the coastal highway was as treacherous as any I’d ridden in North America, often narrow and busy with trucks. The towns were devoid of character. Cookie-cutter strip malls, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, dollar stores. Depressing. In the evening drizzle I approached a sketchy-looking, narrow bridge across an estuary where the fast rush hour traffic was constricted with no shoulder or footway. Nearby a motel promised low rates. The owner was willing to drop to $40 – an unthinkable amount under normal circumstances, but I decided to cut myself a break, dry out my gear and reset my mental balance.
Over the next few days I found myself revisiting the encounter with Chas, trying work out why it had affected me so much, and exorcise some of the chaos it had introduced into my thoughts. I decided that he was a troubled guy with mostly good intentions. Sure he went off the deep end about communists. He had played infantile mind games with me. And he had said things that could easily be construed as misogynistic. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to condemn him. If half of what he’d told me about his life was true – hell, if 10% of it was true – then he’d endured traumas that would leave most people a gibbering wreck, and that deserved some compassion. I speculated that he’d shown me a side of his personality that he probably didn’t show to everyone. I just wasn’t able to reciprocate in the way he wanted. Ultimately, I think he wanted a confessor, someone to talk to.
I make a point of always leaving feedback for hosts, partly to say thanks, but also to contribute to the Warmshowers network. But what could I say about Chas? I’d already thanked him in person, so whatever I wrote would simply serve to encourage others to stay with him. And I couldn’t do that in good conscience. Privately, I could give him the benefit of the doubt, to assume a good heart and a rough exterior. But he’d said what he’d said. I couldn’t disregard it and pretend that he had been a good host when he hadn’t. I resolved to draw a line under it and move on. No feedback, no further contact. I continued down the California coast.
Several days later I got an email to notify me that Chas had left feedback for me. My heart sank. I had hoped to forget about the matter. I had no fear of reprimand, but he could be erratic and obtuse, so who knew what he’d come out with. I relaxed when I saw the feedback was marked ‘positive’. Then I read the short review that followed. ‘Dan is well travelled and has seen a lot of the world, but it doesn’t seem to have done him any good. … Tailwinds to you. PS – you ARE a FREELOADER, get used to it!’. What is one to make of that? I flagged it with the WS help desk, who removed it immediately for breaking the guidelines about being factual and non-judgemental. Walking away. End of.
As an epilogue, while fact-checking this story I see that Chas has now moved to another state. His WS feedback continues to be overwhelmingly positive. Since I stayed with him, one male traveller has left a review marked negative. In it, he mentions Chas’ ‘unique’ views about race and gender and how forcefully he expressed them, which might make some people uncomfortable. The reference is tactfully written, with the criticism sandwiched between layers of thanks for the hospitality and remarks about Chas being a genuinely good person, just holding some provocative ideas. It sounds like they’d parted on good terms. Visiting that user’s profile, one finds a long, rambling, defamatory review from Chas – clearly retributory. He accuses the guest of theft, deception and using a fake identity amongst other things.
They say a leopard never changes his spots. But they do camouflage very well, and attack with astonishing ferocity when you back them into a corner.