We’ve all seen them, trail users who look like all they possess in the world might be with them on their bikes. They pitch their tents under bridges, tucked away along a river levee, in a park, along a trail. Usually where they feel safest without being too obvious. If you’ve been riding the MoPac the last few days, you may have noticed a small group camped along the trail between 26th and 25th streets, not hidden at all. They have a group of old bikes, a tent, and a few random possessions. I’d passed them twice on Sunday and again on Monday, so I finally just had to stop and learn a little about them.
Even in the best of times there are those who’ve hit bottom and haven’t yet found their way out of the circumstances that caused them to be there. In times like the present, their numbers increase, as do the reasons.
Bike packing and bike camping is great for the rest of us. We may even stay with Warm Showers hosts (during normal times) if we don’t want to rough it. These are not the same riders as those wild camping on a coast to coast tour, though sometimes that line can blur, and I’ve talked to those riders, too; those who ride through three or five states to visit -or stay- with a family member, sometimes one day ahead of the coming frost.
When I stopped to learn a little about the story behind these campers, there was one fellow there keeping an eye on the campsite. He said he’d recently arrived by bus from Texas, and that none of the bikes there were his. He’d heard his father had cancer and was living in Lincoln. The only clue he had as to where he lived was a street called Old Cheney. He worked construction so he’d been applying for jobs. Soon, the bike riders came back with boxes of food from a local Food Net site, it appeared. They were a married couple accompanied by some young adults, perhaps their children. I asked if they were passing through, and the woman said no, that they’d come from Omaha to Lincoln. The man said he was originally from Scottsbluff. COVID refugees, first they’d lost their jobs, followed by their housing. Now they’re living on the side of the bike trail. By the looks of it, they have some creativity and mechanical skills. They seemed to be collecting cast-off bikes. One of the young men had fashioned a sort of trailer he had loaded with food and was pulling by hand behind him as he biked. It looked in equal parts scary and fun to do. The woman stressed she didn’t want to bother anyone. They had first tried setting up camp around the corner, but a man there was very rude and ran them off, so they moved to where they are. They planned on going to Matt Talbot for a meal and to see what kind of housing they could find.
I know some riders are afraid of riding trails under bridges where people are congregated. Sometimes people are there to pass the time drinking, and things could possibly get dangerous. Almost always however, I’ve found that no one is interested in bothering me, and those that seem to be living there are more interested in not being bothered, themselves. Currently, I’ve heard some of these campers are afraid of staying in overcrowded conditions where people might have COVID.
Whatever the case, I think the numbers of homeless people along the trails might be on the uptick as more people lose their housing. We may have to share the trails with wild-campers and riders we may not be so used to seeing. Let’s hope they get the help they need.