In The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America, journalist Mike McIntyre takes the leap and decides to abandon every comfort he knows. He says goodbye to his job, his girlfriend, his San Francisco apartment, and even his money, in order to conduct a social experiment. His plan is to hitchhike across the United States–San Francisco, CA to Cape Fear, NC.
The experiment is as much a challenge for himself as for the unsuspecting people he encounters. As someone who has let fear guide a lot of his decisions in life, he feels like this is his last chance to prove to himself that he has courage. For Mike, the comfort zone has become a trap.
He has some rules for his trip: he will accept food, he will accept shelter, he will stay near smaller towns, he will accept rides from 1 man, 1 woman, a man and a woman, a family, but not from 2 men. He will not accept money throughout the trip. Not one penny. He won’t accept it and he won’t carry it with him. When and if he reaches his destination, he’ll call his girlfriend (collect) and have her mail his ATM card to the nearest post office.
And so he begins…
Food becomes an immediate issue, but less of an issue over time. Rides vary depending on where he is traveling.
It is the array of people he meets that really make the story, as well as the growth and trust that Mike develops. In the end, he realizes that the people who have the least, are the most generous. Makes sense, really, as they understand the plight of someone in need.
There were times, at the beginning, where I found myself rolling my eyes a few times at the description of the people who offered rides. As someone who is not very comfortable leaving her comfort zone, I was a bit skeptical at the colorful lives and language of so many of the people Mike encountered. (I’m still a bit cynical after reading James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which turned out to be almost completely fabricated.)
But I decided to give the author the benefit of the doubt. After all, I recently moved from a big metropolis to a small town, and the people are certainly different. Not better, not worse, but different.
After a while, though, I must admit that some of the people Mike met started to run together. I focused, instead, on his own growth, of which there was much. I was also riveted by an experience he had at the end of the book, talking with a man who panhandles for a living. Apparently there is a lot of that, which is unfortunate for people who are really down-and-out.
As expected, Mike returns home a changed man, but not necessarily how he expected. The journey affects the way he sees everything, and makes him re-evaluate what is really important.
This is an unusual book about a man who fights his fears and take a journey most of us would never have the courage to do. It is worth reading. If nothing else, it restores your faith in the American people.