Lightning flashes and fills the sky with a blue and white color that matches the light emanating from the lamp in Robert Pennington’s tent as he settles in for the night.
His bed, however, is not the expected sleeping bag, but bed sheets spread over a pair of old couch pillows with faded floral patterns. The nature surrounding his tent is a landscape divided not by trees in an open wilderness, but by chain-link fences.
Robert Pennington is not the average camper. The 58-year-old truck driver moved to Hutchinson last month from Ellinwood in search of work and made camp in the backyard of a friend’s neighbor at 527 E. Ave. D.
“I felt like I took a big leap of faith when I came up here,” said Pennington. “I really couldn’t afford to rent a place, and really I hadn’t looked too much. I didn’t have a job yet. People look at me like I’m nuts, but it’s not a bad tent.”
Pennington was living with his 94-year-old mother in Ellinwood, who moved in with his sister in Wichita. He came to Hutchinson accompanied only by his dog, Sweet Pea, a miniature dachshund less than a year old.
“I had a few hundred bucks, and Mom and I’d been on food stamps,” said Pennington. “I’ve always kind of gone back and forth between driving big trucks, operating heavy equipment and working in an oil field. But I’d gotten in kind of a rut where I wasn’t working a heck of a lot and just kind of sitting around.
“I thought I would move to Hutchinson because the economy is so much better here.”
Pennington has been touched by the kindness of friends and strangers alike since coming to town.
Albert Wise, a friend and former employer, found Pennington a campsite on a vacant property across the street from Wise’s house. After buying a single-day pass to the YMCA and chatting with the front desk attendants, Pennington was given a free week’s membership.
“It restores my faith in humanity,” Pennington said of the help he has received. “I wasn’t worried about starving. I had a tent, you know, but ... having strangers be so kind and helping me out so much. ... I’ve been having a really good time.”
On Aug. 29, Pennington got a phone call that fulfilled his faithful leap: He was hired as a truck driver with Rawhide Trucking in Hutchinson.
“I came up here and met them and I had an interview ... and I didn’t hear from them for three or four days, and I thought, well, that’s it, I’m going to have to start scrubbing toilets or something else,” he recalled. “I love to drive, but I thought it wasn’t going to work.”
After passing a driving test and a drug test, he got the final word that everything was a go.
“They called and said I had the job and said come get your truck,” Pennington said. “They’ve got a loaded trailer sitting there waiting for me.”
Pennington broke camp the same day and moved most of his belongings, including the packed tent, into the cab of the company truck.
“I think Mom’s going to move here and I’ll have a house here and some friends here, and basically I plan on spending a lot of my time being a professional tourist,” Pennington said optimistically.