The Scariest Experience

On her first-ever bicycle tour, during her first-ever stay with a Warmshowers host, Emily Loberg found herself alone in a basement with a man who was alternatively propositioning her, sharpening a chainsaw blade, and asking to take her photo. In other words, Emily was suddenly living inside of every female traveler’s worst nightmare.

How did Emily cope with the raging fear of that moment? What was the aftermath, and how did she find the courage to continue her epic four-month solo journey across the United States? For the first time in print, Emily tells this story.

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“He begged me not to say anything to his wife because he ‘couldn’t afford to lose his kids.’ Then he asked if he could touch me. I said no.”

Emily, tell us about the scariest experience of your bicycle tour.

It was the first time I tried Warmshowers. I stayed at a house in Lewistown, Montana with a host named Brandon Beriault. He was married with two children, and he let me sleep on the couch in the basement and cooked a frozen pizza for me. In the evening, I sat with the family in the living room writing postcards. His wife and children went to bed, so I finished the postcard I was writing and stood up to do the same. Brandon looked at me and said “I want you.” I said no, and he apologized for saying anything, but I went to bed with my heart pounding, terrified that he might come into the basement and try something.

Perhaps I should have left, but it was after 10 p.m. in an unfamiliar town, completely dark out, and I had no idea where to go and no access to Internet or GPS to figure that out. Furthermore, I had clothes in the dryer, toiletries in the bathroom, and everything else in the basement. I didn’t want to alert Brandon by running around gathering everything. I didn’t sleep well.

At 5:30 a.m. Brandon came downstairs saying he needed to find a tool for work and proceeded to sharpen a chainsaw that was in the room while trying to strike up a conversation. He apologized for the night before and said that he’d never encountered a solo female cyclist and that he shouldn’t host them because he couldn’t help himself. He begged me not to say anything to his wife because he “couldn’t afford to lose his kids.” Then he asked if he could touch me. I said no. He left and came back a few times, asking if he could take a picture of me and if I would hug him. When he finally left for work, I packed my stuff and cycled away.

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“He apologized for the night before and said that he’d never encountered a solo female cyclist, and that he couldn’t help himself.”

How did you recover from that incident?

It took me days to feel good about the trip again. The most helpful thing I did was calling friends to talk with them. One friend who I’d met at the beginning of the tour and had cycled with for a couple days was extremely supportive. Even though we hadn’t spent that much time together and he was already several states ahead, he called me to make sure I was okay.

Did you report Brandon’s behavior to Warmshowers?

Yes, eventually.

I thought that I would feel immediate relief upon leaving Brandon's house the next morning, but instead I just felt tired, scared, and alone. Riding East on Highway 200, I was plagued with visions of Brandon tracking me down. I wanted to leave a negative review on his page, but I imagined him retaliating with angry phone calls and e-mails or nasty reviews on my page. I felt really vulnerable that day.

However, my friend Zack Goodman, a cyclist I'd met on the way up Washington Pass at the beginning of the tour, urged me to leave a review. He reacted with shock and outrage upon hearing what had happened, and his support helped me feel a bit better. When I reached my destination for the night, the tiny town of Winnett, I logged onto a computer in the public library and sent an e-mail to Warm Showers about my experience. I sent this email:

Hello,

Is there any way to leave feedback for a host anonymously? I stayed with Brandon Beriault in Lewistown, MT and felt rather unsafe while I was there as he tried to initiate a sexual encounter and I wasn't interested. I want to warn other women traveling alone not to stay there, but am worried about him tracking me down through the Warm Showers site or on my phone. What advice would you give me?
Thank you,
Emily

I wanted to report anonymously, since I was afraid of retaliation. After sending the email, I felt good about taking some kind of action and headed to the city park to set up my tent.

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“My friend Zack Goodman, a cyclist I'd met at the beginning of the tour, urged me to leave a review. He reacted with shock and outrage… His support helped me feel a bit better.”

The next time I had Internet access and was able to check my e-mail was about a week later at a public library in South Dakota. This was the response from Warm Showers:

Hi Emily Loberg,

Feedback needs to ve factual and you need to be willing to say who you are.  If you give me the members information I can follow up if there are any other complaints.

Jack T.

Help Desk Volunteer 

I felt really queasy after reading that. I think my situation was serious enough to warrant further investigation at the very least, and I definitely think administrative feedback would have been appropriate, not a “help desk volunteer.” (Notice the typos?) I also think I deserved a more concerned response.

Did you ever leave a review on Brandon’s Warmshowers page?

Yes. I finally wrote a negative review on Brandon's page last month. I feel really, really bad that it took me this long, because it's really important to me to speak out about sexual harassment and prevent it from happening to others.

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“I kept having nightmarish visions of Warmshowers accusing me of giving a "non-factual" review and demanding evidence and character references from people who know me.”

What kept you from writing the review until now?

I've always intended to go back and write a negative review on Brandon's page. I guess a combination of fear and procrastination kept me from following through, which I feel terrible about since I know how important it is to let other women know not to stay there. I realize this is probably absurd, but I kept having nightmarish visions of Warmshowers accusing me of giving a "non-factual" review and demanding evidence and character references from people who know me.

The more time passed, the more I feared this kind of response. I do struggle with anxiety and depression, so I guess this kind of catastrophic thinking is a symptom of that, and I was diagnosed with ADD in February, which helps explain why I so easily get overwhelmed and let other tasks and priorities take precedence. I kept intending to report Brandon, but it wasn’t until I shared my story with you that I felt motivated enough to do it.

Do you feel that Warmshowers will handle this kind of report better in the future?

On their “Frequently Asked Questions” page, this is part of their answer to the question 'what if I have a problem with a Warmshowers host or guest?':

"If the situation involves serious misbehavior (theft, sexual misbehavior, etc.), please let us know the facts of the situation by using the contact form. We will ask you for specific factual details of your experience and ask the other party for their view. In serious cases we can post an administrative feedback (anonymous for you) on the member's account, or delete the accused member's account, if that is warranted."

So it IS possible to leave anonymous feedback. I can't remember if that was in the FAQ back then or if it's been updated since my bike tour. I do remember that I used the aforementioned contact form.

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“I kept intending to report Brandon, but it wasn’t until I shared my story with you that I felt motivated enough to do it.”

Did you continue to stay with Warmshowers hosts on your bike tour across the country?

I didn't try Warmshowers again for a while since that experience left me feeling icky and wary. I'd heard only glowing remarks about Warmshowers from other friends and cyclists; unfortunately, Brandon was the first Warmshowers host I'd ever stayed with. I didn't stay with another one until I reached northeastern Wisconsin, nearly one month after the encounter with Brandon. Enough time had passed for the intensity of the fear from that incident to fade.

When I reached Wisconsin and set about planning the next stretch, I found few options for inexpensive camping on the route—especially as it approached tourist towns on Lake Michigan. I’d also asked other cyclists I'd met along the way about their experiences with Warmshowers, and no one had experienced anything like what I did. So it was a combination of hope, limited options, and trust in the experiences of others that led me to log in to Warmshowers at a public library in Osceola, WI and seek potential hosts on the upcoming stretch.

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“Staying with kind, generous hosts definitely helped me trust people more and feel less vulnerable. I don't think anything can fully remove the lingering fear, though.”

What were your experiences with subsequent Warmshowers hosts?

I ended up staying with six more Warmshowers hosts during the trip (one in Wisconsin, one in Michigan, two in Indiana, and two in Vermont) and had only good experiences. I had a magical experience in Wisconsin, where I stayed with Barb and Dan Benson by a lake in the gorgeous Northwoods outside of Conover. As it turned out, their daughter owns the bike shop in Portland, OR where I had taken my best friend to buy her bicycle, and their son Brian is the author of the book Going Somewhere about his own bike tour from Wisconsin to Oregon. He’d gone on a speaking tour for his book, and I’d attended his talk in Salem. I didn't discover any of this until after I arrived at the Bensons'.

I also had a delightful time with a family in Michigan. Like my parents, they were conscientious objectors to war and had worked abroad with the Mennonite Central Committee. They also had a daughter my age who had biked across the country alone at age 18. They felt like real kindred spirits.

Another couple I stayed with in Indiana accepted my last-minute request and provided me and another cyclist with one of the biggest feasts I'd ever seen. Their son was away from home on his own cross-country tour, and they were worried about him and missed him. They said that they viewed any touring cyclists they met like their son and treated us the way they hoped other hosts would treat their son during his tour.

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“More women traveling alone will send the message that it’s a normal and acceptable thing to do, and will inspire and reassure others.”

Did staying with other hosts help you recover from that experience in Montana?

Staying with kind, generous hosts definitely helped me trust people more and feel less vulnerable. I don't think anything can fully remove the lingering fear and distrust from that experience, though.

Are you glad you continued your tour?

Yes.

What would you say to other women who want to travel alone, but are scared to do so?

That was the only night on my entire four-month tour that I felt scared and vulnerable as a woman. I’m not saying that it’s not a big deal—it’s really horrible and not okay that it happens at all. But don’t let that stop you from going. More women traveling alone will send the message that it’s a normal and acceptable thing to do and will inspire and reassure others. We can celebrate and empower each other with our adventures.


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Emily Loberg now lives in Salem, Oregon, where bicycling is her primary transportation. She’s a bike mechanic at The Northwest Hub, a tour leader for the Adventure Cycling Association, and organizes an annual event called Open Streets Salem where local residents can walk, run, ride, or rollerblade on streets free of traffic. To learn more about Emily Loberg and her awesome projects, visit her ACA tour leader profile.

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