I meant to write this post a few weeks ago while on my camping trip, but better late than never.
I’ve noticed when traveling to western U.S. vacation spots but also while camping or hiking trails that there seems to be a different behavior than normal life that people, at the very least, speak to strangers, even if just to say hello. However, rarely did this surface friendliness lead to much conversation. But when I began to travel solo I discovered that longer and pleasant conversations with strangers was common. It means that while traveling alone I rarely feel “alone” and that is an unexpected consequence.
So I wondered why this is. So here’s some of my ideas.
- herd effect: Everybody does it so quickly all people accept this is the standard behavior. At home it’s different, contact with strangers is rare, but under these circumstances most people seem to adopt this behavior.
- the code of the west / custom: In general it seems more typical for local people in the western places, esp. national parks or other outdoor recreational spots, to be friendly and this is a role model for others. Or, perhaps, since there is an element of risk in outdoor places we feel a connection to other people for safety.
- accessibility: A simple explanation is just that people are OUT, walking instead of in the steel box of a car or a home. I’ve walked miles in Manhattan with huge numbers of people around and not had this same experience, but in the more sparsely populated areas where encounters with strangers are less frequent it’s easier to engage. Also in camping, at least more primitive (not the jammed together commercial camps) we have less barrier than at home. Even the RV types are often sitting outside and tenters certainly spend a lot of time in public view. So it’s much easier to say hello and then possibly start a conversation.
- good mood: With some notable exceptions, people who are on vacation and out in the open usually are in a “happy” frame of mind. The worries and hustle-and-bustle of home life is put aside and the whole purpose of the trip is recreation and contact with other people just fits into that mood.
- no turf: I actually think this is the most significant. At home we have our places that are “ours”, home, office, school, whatever, and perhaps the natural instinct is to then be protective of our turf, so strangers are more of a threat than an opportunity for pleasant engagement. In a campground at a National Park everyone is a stranger and has no more than a temporary claim to the ground they occupy, so the normal protective instinct is removed.
- small talk is easy: Especially in camping there are always some simple conversation-starters topics: where are you from, where are you going, where have you been, what have you seen? What do you say to a stranger on city street, after you get past “nice day”, but while traveling exchange of trivia is part of the experience and thus a lubricant to easy conversation.
- people are lonely: Even those traveling with others, not just solos, are away from their normal social circle which is probably adequate under “home” circumstances. But now with almost everyone a stranger most conversations will be with strangers. Camping has a lot of free time to fill so talking to strangers is a good way to do that. ‘lonely’ is probably not the correct word as it is just more that your normal contacts are not available.
- less technology: Even the people in RVs with generators and satellite dishes are more cut off from the other communications and thus plain old-fashioned talking to other people becomes more important than TV or texting or Facebook or surfing the Net. Getting unplugged to technology offers opportunity to be more connected to real people, not just virtual interactions on a screen.
- protection: Things can happen where there is some degree of threat. Information about storms coming spreads like wildfire in campgrounds. Wild animals (esp. bison wandering through the campground or bears cruising for scraps) are events that get notified to others, sorta like the ubiquitous prairie dogs barking to alert others there is some threat in the area.
- boredom: Camping does involve lots of free time with little to do. People watching becomes a source of entertainment as people are constantly in view. So without all the normal distractions the value of interaction with strangers is much higher and therefore sought.
- easy to break off: There are other things to do, so when you start talking to someone and wish to stop there are lots of excuses. So the risk of getting drawn into a longer conversation than you want is avoided. And usually the conversation does revolve around travel trivia and thus avoids the divisive conversations we might encounter at home.
- homogeneity: In our normal lives we stratify ourselves in our pecking order in life, but people are more evened out in a campground. It’s actually quite a luxury to have both time and money to do this so right away that selects a smaller slice of humanity. The poor can’t afford it and the rich are at fancy resorts, so the crowd at a campground is relatively small subset of all people and they share common features. So the other campers are more like us than a random stranger back home.
In short the western travel (I focus on this since coastal travel tends to be more urban) plus camping is an unusual world for most of us and so we act differently.
I’m sure there are many other reasons and it’s probably a combination of several of these that triggers the interactions. But it’s been unexpected to me that as I often go to “wilderness” (hardly wilderness if you can drive to it) for solitude I actually end up spending far more time chatting with strangers than I ever do at home. And that is certainly, for me, an unexpected but pleasant consequence of this type of travel.