The Night I (almost) Slept in a Tree
Water dripped down my face as the rain beat on the leaves above my head. Adjusting my legs in the branches, I sighed.
It’s going to be a long night.
The ill-fated Dover adventure
It started innocently enough. I was beginning my free travel week on a study abroad trip in England. Nineteen years old, ambitious, and almost flat broke, I’d scraped together enough for a weeklong standby bus ticket, and a few extra pounds to live off of for the next seven days.
For one week, I could go from anywhere, to anywhere.
After sleeping in the Heathrow airport the night before and waking up with a gentleman’s shoes in my face, I explored London. I visited Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, and the London Tower Bridge. Walking along the river, I found an odd little colorful park and heard a man playing a melancholy tune on a stringed instrument I’d never heard of before. I ate my lunch, a piece of fruit, on the small lawn by Westminster Abbey.
It was the classic “poor man’s tour” of London, and by mid-afternoon I was tired, hungry, and lonely.
Sitting on the ground outside an office building, I got the worst brilliant idea ever. I’d always wanted to see the famous White Cliffs of Dover.
The bus ride there would only be a few hours, and I could easily be to Cambridge, my next destination, by lunchtime the next day.
Googling Dover, I decided it looked like a quaint town and wouldn’t pose any safety issues for me, a single young girl. Planning to sleep in the Dover bus station that night, I set off with renewed energy and excitement.
When the bus stopped in Dover, I looked around for the bus station. Surely something was wrong. I didn’t see one.
All I saw was a bench on the side of the road.
I got off the bus and put my concerns to the side, setting off to find the White Cliffs.
What I ended up finding was a pier that went out into the harbor, from which I could barely see the dirty-looking gray edges of nearby cliffs. Standing on the pier, straining my eyes to see the cliffs, I groaned.
It was drizzling.
Searching for a bed
Evening was coming, and I still needed a place to sleep. I walked back through town, evaluating the different parks and wild areas, trying to choose a place that was out of human sight and sheltered from the rain, but not overrun by bugs.
I found a few small parks, but none seemed right.
I walked by a hostel, but I didn’t go in. I had a bad feeling about it. The shades were crooked, paint was peeling, and there were no lights on. I kept walking. The drizzle had stopped.
Down the road, I came to a bed and breakfast. I knocked on the door and asked the hostess, a friendly older woman, what her rate was. She told me she only had double rooms left. Her rate would be all I had to live on for the next week — so, I sadly turned down her offer for a room and kept wandering.
Nearby, there was a small churchyard. I sat in it for a while, pondering my fate. It was gradually growing darker, and I had nowhere to sleep. I thought about sleeping in the church yard, but there was nowhere to hide, and I didn’t want to be out in the open.
Eventually, I set out again and found a tiny park with a small, dense tree that was partially obscured by a bench.
I crawled under the tree, laid down, and counted the hours in my head until 5:30 the next morning, when my bus was scheduled to leave. A while later, a group of high schoolers arrived at the park. They had a dog.
Smoking and slightly tipsy, they wouldn’t have noticed me, but the dog smelled me and started whining, straining on its leash in my direction. Before long, they saw me.
“Look! There’s somebody under there!”
At their beckoning, I crawled out from under the tree.
“Are you okay?”
I explained to them that I had nowhere to stay and no money. Eager to help, they recommended I go to the police station. They pointed me in the general direction, and I set off.
But unfortunately, the police station was closed.
I turned back, and as I walked back toward town, I saw the perfect place to spend the night. Up a small hill, in a residential neighborhood, was a large tree in the median of the road. It was a bushy deciduous tree with thick foliage, so the inner section was practically invisibly.
Now that it wasn’t raining anymore, the mid-July night was warm and still. I threw my backpack up into the tree and pulled myself up after it.
Darkness falling, I climbed up high in the tree, wedging myself in a nook of branches where I wouldn’t fall even if I went to sleep. I sat on top of my backpack to keep my camera dry, pulled out a book to read in the last vestiges of daylight, and sighed in relief.
At least I’m not under a park bench.
Time passed slowly in the cramped tree nook, and I had plenty of time to think. My prevailing thought was,
I’m doing this so that when my children are old enough, I can tell them not to sleep in trees.
Somehow, my flawed reasoning felt adequate. So I leaned my head back against a branch, closed my eyes, and tried to go to sleep.
Forced humility and hospitality
That’s when the drizzle started.
Oh the irony. Stubborn and determined, I slipped my raincoat hood up and folded my arms. A little mist wouldn’t stop me.
But soon the drizzle turned into a steady rain, and before long, it was pouring.
Exhausted, hungry, frustrated, and lonely, I started to cry. It wasn’t my fault I was a poor college student who couldn’t afford to sleep in an expensive bed and breakfast. I floundered in self-pity, miserable because of my own choices.
Soon my clothes were soaking wet, but I was determined to make it through the night in the tree. And that’s when I heard my older brother’s voice in my head.
“Don’t be so stubborn. Go back to the bed and breakfast.”
That gave me a new idea. Maybe the lady would let me sleep on the floor in her front entryway. Or at least on her front steps, so I would be in out of the rain. Determined that anything would be better than getting drenched all night, I pulled my backpack down and walked through the dark, deserted streets, back to the bed and breakfast.
And when I knocked on the door, I got an entirely unexpected welcome. She threw open the door almost immediately and blurted out,
“I’m so glad you came back. I was so worried about you.”
I was about to begin my humble plea to sleep on her front steps, when she interrupted.
“Just pay what you can. You can sleep in a bedroom.”
She walked me upstairs to my room and told me to take a hot shower. A few minutes later she was back with a steaming cup of hot cocoa and a few biscuits.
After my shower I laid on the bed in the thick white bathrobe she’d given me, and sighed in relief.
It wasn’t the first time my spontaneous decisions had gotten me in trouble, or the first time a kind stranger had bailed me out. But perhaps it will always remain the most memorable.
Full of gratitude, warm, dry, and not hungry for the first time in several days, I drifted off to sleep.
Help and be helped
I learned a few important lessons that night in the tree. I learned the value of planning ahead. Spontaneity, while it offers a lot of exciting possibilities, can lead to moments of sheer desperation.
I still make spontaneous decisions, but now I don’t plan trips unless I know where I’m going to spend the night. And I don’t plan on sleeping in bus stations.
I also learned the importance of humility. I didn’t want to go back to that bed and breakfast after admitting to the lady that I didn’t have money to stay there. But at the end of the day, even an awning over my head was better than sleeping in a tree.
Forced, desperate humility is better than no humility at all.
The experience gave me more sympathy for people who live every day not knowing where they’ll sleep that night, hoping for a dry place where they won’t get run out.
And, perhaps most importantly, I learned the value of generous hospitality. That woman had no idea who I was. I don’t know if I even ever learned her name. But she let me stay in her house for a steep discount and she did her best to take care of me in small, meaningful ways.
It taught me an enormous lesson in kind hospitality, one that I hope I can replicate to others for the rest of my life.