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ideas for a new earth

  • Abigail Wilson

Freedom to Rest: social contracts in public spaces

a picture of the Missouri River shoreline, covered with blooming sunflowers reaching toward the dawn light (photo by Abigail Wilson)
©Abigail Wilson

In the sixth week of a wheeled ramble through the wilderness, I almost made a grave mistake. After a grueling ten hours on the road, I almost slept at a South Dakota rest stop.

Sleeping at a rest stop isn’t, of course, inherently a bad decision. I’ve often used rest stops for exactly that - resting. Sometimes for a nap or a meal, but more frequently by rolling out my pad and pajamas in the back for a well-lit slumber party. But in South Dakota, as in many states, doing so could result in criminal consequences.

I assume these rules were made to prevent abuse of the station by “unsavory” types, whatever that means. There is the suggestion that we don’t know how to behave, that without rules we will return to primal hooting and scratching.

But the people I saw there were mostly families or other people of relative means who simply had come a long way and had a long way yet to go, who didn’t want to fork over a day’s wages for some cheap hotel - especially when there’s a good enough bed right here.

Maybe this is the real incentive of the rules: to force us, through fear, into consumerism. That certainly sounds familiar.

Luckily I found another option just down the road: several acres of clear space with a few dirt tracks meandering without purpose towards the river frontage. It was quiet, and dark, and I was lulled to sleep by frogs and grasshoppers instead of the roar of idling semis. More than anything though, I felt safer.

Now why would I feel safer in an unlit vacant lot than in a developed area that was “under surveillance for the safety of visitors”? That surveillance says it all. People are potentially the greatest danger to a traveling individual, especially a female. You’d think I’d be glad for surveillance - but the suggestion behind it is that people do not have the awareness or desire to act ethically toward one another, and must be motivated to it by the threat of Big Brother.

Instead of making me feel safer, it seemed that there was a reason Big Brother was stepping in, that maybe violence or injury were common here. Already my adrenaline was spiking at the thought of spending a few hours unconscious under the blazing lights.

And on top of that, I was almost guaranteed to have Big Brother himself pounding on my window in the wee hours. South Dakota - again, like many states - has a maximum stay limit of three hours. It is a criminal act to seek respite for any longer than that.

In contrast, the free camping grounds I found were spacious to the point of being empty, except the rutted roads and a single sign asking you to please stay no more than a week, and clean up after yourself. Already there is a sense of trust between visitor and anonymous host, a social contract of caretaking in exchange for the hospitable offering.

I gave plenty of space to other campers to respect their privacy - not out of fear of them. In the morning, I glanced over a few times in case they might need some help. Camping culture is almost universal in this sense of collective respect and responsibility. We understand that well-being is something created between us, and that in times of need we will depend on each other.

What does it mean for land to be public? That rest stop was incontrovertibly open to all - but I wouldn’t call it public. When spaces are hedged in by restrictions, rules, and consequences, we lose our freedom to exist. We lose our freedom to belong and to participate fully in that place.

If safety and comfort are found only behind a paywall or our own private door (itself a form of paywall), we become isolated from one another and from a sense of community. We become more concerned with getting or protecting what is singularly ours, instead of tending and engaging with what is collectively ours.

We focus on our rights more than our responsibilities. And we begin to require rules to govern how others interact with our spaces - an external authority replaces the internal, shared authority. Social contracts of trust and reciprocity begin to degrade, as does our sense of gratitude and belonging.

a silver Subaru parked near a grove of trees on the bank of the Missouri River, with the sun streaming between the clouds (photo by Abigail Wilson)
©Abigail Wilson

I am grateful to whatever municipal or other authority let me stay there, grateful for coffee and sunflowers on the banks of the river, and grateful for the feeling of continuity and connection that this exchange engendered.

Because of this sense of community, I am more likely to stop for breakfast in town, or return on a later trip. I give back more generously, because I was trusted with a gift. At rest stops, I usually feel like I am fleeing just ahead of the lash.

When our needs and interactions are enforced by rules and consumerism, doing so becomes bitter. When we are invited to participate in a place - invited to belong through what we receive and what we give - fulfilling our needs becomes a connection. We become public.

By relying on rules to govern the way we connect, we have forgotten that we are beholden to one another. We have forgotten how to love a stranger as ourselves..

When we have the freedom to fulfill our own basic needs without fear, we become more capable of tending to our spiritual and communal needs. We become more capable of altruism.

The dignity of self determination is essential to a healthy citizenry. By trusting in one another, we can begin to build, once again, a culture based on basic morality and personal freedom. We can know that we are, in truth, of the people, by the people, for the people.


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