Dare to be me
A Reno man spent years living under a bridge so he could save money to travel to the Holy Land
“I wrote it in my diary on this trip,” says Jerry Sloss. “Finally, I wrote, ‘I dare to be myself.’ Because I was facing all these religions, I got turned off to religion—even to Jesus when I was there for a while in Jerusalem. I thought I’d get closer, but it didn’t happen that way. I got turned off to it. So many wars have been fought over that, so I got turned off to it.”
Sloss is a 56-year-old Reno resident with an open, honest face—the kind of face that, even with a mustache, reveals every passing emotion—and an unbridled enthusiasm for life and the natural world. The enthusiasm can be overbearing, and his unguarded emotions can make him socially awkward, but he’s an animated and entertaining storyteller and a naturalistic thinker. He’s like a combination of Forrest Gump and Henry David Thoreau. He’s part wandering monk, part hobo clown.
“In school, they always told me I learned slow,” says Sloss. “But I could be very intelligent once I got it.”
Last fall, Sloss fulfilled a lifelong dream by traveling to the Middle East—Egypt, Israel and the West Bank. It was a nine-week trip that found Sloss visiting many of the most historic—and politically tense—sites in the region, as well as getting robbed and hospitalized. In order to afford the trip, Sloss worked off and on for 10 years at minimum wage jobs at casinos and, most recently and prominently, as a clown at Walmart.
To save money, he went homeless.Under the bridge
During the summers, he camped in an open field, a 15-minute walk from an RTC bus stop north of Reno. During the winters, he slept under a bridge. This went on for “several years. Several. I can’t remember exactly how many,” he says.
His “summer quarters” were in a beautiful sagebrush-covered valley.
“I love waking up mornings and seeing flowers and stuff,” he says. “I keep it real nice and clean. I respect the land.”
He would go to his camp only at night and would carefully conceal his path, using a piece of sagebrush to clear his footprints.
“It’s a beautiful walk here, and it keeps you in shape,” he says, during a recent visit to the location.
He says he would see more coyotes near his camp than people. “I sleep with the coyotes,” he says. “Sometimes, I’d wake up and there’d be one looking right at me. Just looking at me. But they know me. They think, ‘That guy, he’s not too bad for a human.’”
His “winter quarters” were under a bridge not far from his summer camp. In the evenings, after dark, he’d again take a bus out of town, get off and hike to the bridge. He had two carefully concealed sleeping bags in separate locations near the bridge, as well as pieces of cardboard to serve as a mattress.
“Cardboard is excellent insulation,” he says. The cardboard provided a barrier between him and the cold concrete.
“I’m a wimp!” he says. “Everybody thinks I’m hard and rugged, but I’m not.”
His winter quarters were at the top of a concrete embankment, very close to the bridge overhead. A dull roar of traffic could be heard from the road above, punctuated by heavy, clunking rolls when trucks would pass by.
“My big fear is an earthquake,” says Sloss, when revisiting the bridge. “I prefer this sound over the loud TVs and radios above me where I am now. I sleep better here than where I am now.”
With financial assistance from his mother, Sloss is currently living in an apartment in central Reno.
More than the noise, the problem with sleeping under the bridge was the wind. Sometimes it would be so fierce that Sloss was afraid he’d be blown away. Depending on the direction of the wind, he might sleep beneath the other side of the bridge.
But overall, Sloss says he was happy with these accommodations. “If I can’t be seen, I can’t be hurt,” he says. “That’s the golden rule for finding a place to sleep.”The Holy Land
During his nine-week trip abroad, Sloss did as much as he could. In Egypt, for example, he climbed Mount Sinai and stayed in Saint Catherine’s Monastery. In Israel, he visited Masada and the Old City of Jerusalem—including the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock. In the West Bank, he went to Jericho and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. He even visited the mausoleum of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Ramallah.
“There’s just history all over the place around there,” he says. “Every turn you’re making in Israel, you’re seeing more and more history.”
Sloss dived into the history of the region. He’s an avid photographer and diarist and recorded as much about what he saw as he could. For every photograph he took, he wrote in his journal where it was taken, at what time of day, and as much historical information as he could cram on the page.
“I learned a lot there,” he says. “I’m finally starting to put it together. It took me a while. I’m a slow learner, like I said. I learn slow, but once I get it!”
He covered a lot of ground. A taxi driver told him, “We see you everywhere! We see you in Jericho. We see you in Nazareth. You really get around.”
Sloss encountered his share of traveler’s hardships. As is his wont, he camped out as often as possible. While he was sleeping on the beach near Tel Aviv, someone opened one of his bags, scattered his stuff all over the beach and left with his watch and calculator. But the hardest time of the trip for Sloss was when he had to spend a few days at a hospital after he woke up one morning with some mysterious bites on his body. The doctors weren’t even sure what had bitten him—a snake or an insect.
“I was in some bad shape,” says Sloss. He says he was very upset at the time and cried all night because he’d come so far only to squander time in a hospital bed. But he’s more philosophical about it now.
“On every trip, you have your good and your bad,” he says. “Once I got better, I went at my trip even harder then I did before. I said, ‘You think that’s going to stop me from this trip?’ All those times I slept under that bridge? Is anything going to slow me down? No!”
Sloss mostly traveled using his favorite method: hitchhiking. He first arrived at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport and then hitchhiked to Tel Aviv.
“Everybody was saying you can’t just walk away from the airport,” says Sloss. “You’ve got to take a bus or a train. I go, ‘Oh no, I don’t. I do whatever I want to do. … I saved hard. I went homeless for years. When I got off the plane, I want to walk out into the night. … I’m so happy to be in Israel. I went to be alone. This is a special moment for me. I want to walk into the night.’ They’re looking at me like, ‘Nobody just walks around here!’ And I go, ‘This man does. This man does.’”
Sloss encountered the infamous religious and political tension throughout the region but did his best to get along with everybody. “I’ve learned that all these years traveling—to try to be understanding to people,” he says. “You don’t always have to agree with them. A lot of times they’re not going to like you if you’re too agreeable. They’ll know you’re being phony.”
The most overbearing tension he encountered, he says, was in Hebron, the West Bank city that’s home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, supposedly the final resting place of the Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their wives, and other religious figures. It’s one of the holiest places for the Jews, but it’s also the site of the Muslim Ibrahimi Mosque.
Sloss met a Palestinian who lived in Hebron. The man said to him, “Tell the American newspapers that there are Israeli soldiers all over our city. They harass us all the time. They spit on us and throw rocks at us. We live like prisoners here in Hebron. There were 1,000 shops here; there are only 100 now.”
It was partly this request that led Sloss to the RN&R offices. “I’m finally keeping my promise to that man, right at this very moment,” he said. (It should also be mentioned that Sloss is the kind of man who likes to show off his vacation photos—especially to newspaper reporters—regardless of political requests.)
Sloss says there are two sides to every story. He visited the mosque and was given a tour and treated very kindly, but he also acknowledges that the mosque was built over a holy Jewish site that was there hundreds of years before the Muslim religion began.The Middle Eastern sojourn was not Sloss’ first trip. He grew up in South Lake Tahoe, but for all his life, he’s been an adventurer. Every year or two, he’d quit whatever job he had to travel—sometime by bike, sometimes by foot, often by thumb.
“This is just another one of my trips. The only thing different is I just went on the other side of the world,” he says of the Middle Eastern trip, which he titled in his diary “Whirlwind II.” The first “Whirlwind” was a Northern California backpacking adventure. That he would consider a trip to Egypt and Israel a sequel to a backpacking trip less than 100 miles from his hometown tells you a lot about Sloss’ travel philosophy.
Many of his recent trips have been by bike. The Four Corners region is a favorite destination. He has a nice Bianchi bicycle that he loads up with camping supplies and other gear, but sometimes, especially when going uphill, he doesn’t even ride it, and instead pushes it like a cart. He’ll also catch rides from passing trucks whenever they offer.
“I’m not a bicycle purist,” he says. “I’m not a purist of any kind. If I’m a pure anything, I’m a pure freedom-lover. … I’m as free as I can be on this world. I’m one of the lucky ones. I haven’t been burdened by a career.”
But even though he loves to bicycle, he defiantly never wears a helmet.
“When somebody tells me I need to do something, you can be sure I’m gonna go the other way,” he says. “The only things I really need to do are drink water, eat food, and shit sometimes.”A spark that shines
“He brings an incredible work ethic and an openness and honesty that’s really refreshing,” says Colin Warren, the store manager of the Walmart on Kietzke Lane in Reno. Sloss is currently employed in the maintenance department, but he also works as the store’s “safety clown.” Warren says it’s the safety clown’s job to engage with employees and customers and help them be mindful of safety concerns. Warren says that, with his outgoing personality, Sloss is perfect for the job.
“He’s kindly and warm, and he has a heart of gold,” says Warren. “I envy him. He’s lucky to be able to drop everything and go on his trips.”
Sloss is, first and foremost, an adventurer. Second to that, he’s a storyteller. He loves to tell his stories, and, given an inch, he will regale past the point of saturation. He speaks tangentially, often digressing in the middle of one story by announcing, “That reminds me of a whole other story!”
In the middle of describing “Whirlwind II,” for example, he shifted into his account of a run-in with the law outside Carson City when he was 18 or 19. He and some friends were driving down Highway 50 from Spooner Summit, tripping on mescaline. Sloss tells the story with vivid detail, like it happened last week rather than 40 years ago.
“It looked like people were getting buckets of paint and throwing them over the highway—green and yellow!” recalls Sloss.
They were pulled over, and he and his friends were taken to the Carson City jail, where Sloss says they were abused by officers who butted them in the heads with their rifles. Sloss was going to be charged for a whole heap of crimes, but for reasons Sloss can only guess at, the judge dismissed the case.
Sloss has kept careful records of his adventures for the last 35 years. He has carefully labeled boxes filled with his travel diaries and meticulously documented photos.
When he was homeless, he kept these boxes in a storage unit, but now he keeps them in his small apartment. He plans to write a memoir using the diaries as source material. He’s already crafted an outline and has written large chunks of the book, which he plans to title A Spark that Twinkles and Shines.
“I’m no longer just doing this for me now, because I can’t forget all these people who have given me all these rides all these years,” says Sloss. “They go, ‘Jerry, someday write a story about your trip, and someday mention us, that there are nice people in this world, there are nice people in the United States. So it’s for them, too. It’s for the American people as well as myself. It kind of sounds corny, but I’m telling you these people over the years have been so nice to me.”The rebel
“I attribute my success to three things,” says Sloss. “One, I’ve been extremely lucky. Two, good common sense. Three, possibly somebody watching over me.”
That possibility is something that Sloss explores on a daily basis. Spiritual exploration is almost as important to him as freedom and travel.
“Sometimes I pray to God, ‘I’m not sure if you’re there or not. But if you are there, I pray to You. If not, then I’m just praying to myself to be a good person,” he says.
Sloss feels conflicted between his spiritual desire to be a good person and his own propensity toward sex and drugs.
“You can’t get rid of the sex,” he says. “The drugs you can give up, but the sex, it stays with you. It keeps working that way. … Sometimes when I pray to God, I just say, ‘You know, I’m not sure because I don’t want to be a hypocrite, God, I don’t want to call myself a Christian when maybe I’m not. I don’t want to do that. I see people do this all the time.”
His interest in religion is part of what propelled him to take his trip to the Middle East.
“It was a very religious trip, but it made me less religious,” he says. “Everybody was saying, ‘What religion are you? Are you Christian? Are you Jewish? Are you Muslim? What are you?’ And I go, ‘Why do I have to be anything? Can’t I just be me?’ So I started saying I’m just going to call this right now, ‘I dare to be me.’ … For some reason, that meant so much to me, just saying that, because I don’t know what I am. Once again, sorry for my doubts, God, but I’m not going to lie to you, I’m not going to lie to myself. … Jesus, I kind of believe in you, you’re my hero, but until I know for sure, I just need to be me. You wouldn’t want me to be phony, would you, God?”
Sloss says that “Dare to Be Me” is going to be a chapter in A Spark that Twinkles and Shines.
“All I know is I’m alive, my name is Jerry, and I’m going to die one day,” he says.
Even though he says the “Whirlwind II” trip made him less religious, Sloss still feels it fulfilled his lifelong dream to see the places he’s read about in the Bible.
“I got these stories from the Bible,” he says. “Man, there’s these old prophets going around. Elijah raised the dead, so the story goes … now you got Jesus coming here. And he was a rebel. Just like me. Always being slapped in the head. Always being kicked out of town. That reminds me of me, so I can’t help but identify with Jesus. He seemed to be a rebel figure, right up my alley. So I go, ‘I kind of dig you, Jesus, because it seems to be we have a kind of connection here. We’re not part of this world. We don’t fit in. I don’t fit in. You didn’t fit in.’”