I am fairly new to cycling (4 years) and touring (8-9 minitours of 2 to 9 days total lifetime) and have wondered about other tourers' experiences about how we are perceived by the "non-cyclists" we encounter during our trips.
Since I live in North Florida and tour mostly North Florida and South/Central Georgia, my experiences could easily differ a lot from those in say, New England or West Coast, especially those who frequent the Adventure Cycling routes. The Deep South is not generally plugged into the cycling culture, even though the TA passes through my hometown of Tallahassee. When I vary north or south from that line, I am a very rare bird. I have encountered fewer than one touring cyclist per week on the road, for instance. (Regardless, even before getting into cycling, I could always spot a touring cyclist and tell the difference from a bike rider who cycles out of economic necessity.
My experience is that on tour I am almost always assumed to be a "homeless guy." Though I have changed from a mountain bike qand improvised panniers to a "real" touring bike (Jamis Aurora Elite) over the years and have taken on the "look" of a tourer (front rack, four panniers, helmet, cycling shorts, Screaming Dayglow Yellow shirt) I believe that a high percentage of restaurant staff, passing motorists, hotel owners and fellow campground residents think I am homeless, with all the connotations that involves.
Once, while napping before putting up my tent, I was given a can of soup by a kind soul in Georgia who asked when I had last eaten. I quickly realized what the thought was and did not protest/correct the assumption for fear of embarrassing my benefactor. On another trip, I was approached by a state park ranger who admitted that neighbors had called the park offices to report that "a man had just checked in on a bike, with no camper or car or anything!" The ranger was friendly and somewhat apologetic but it provided insight nonetheless. Also last week, a waitress who had just seen me ride up on a couple grand worth of gear and bike, still took me for someone homeless just out wandering the land.
Anyway, I have not been mistreated, run off, etc. That is not the issue -- all my interactions have been fine and only rarely have I even been honked or gestured at. Still I would prefer to avoid being feared or mistrusted. It also could be a negative should I ever need to hitchhike due to injury or a major repair situation. The waitress I referenced volunteered she didn't think that most people would pick me up in those cases (I didn't press her on the "why" of this statement.)
So -- do any of you experienced tourers find yourselves assumed to be homeless? If so why do you think it happens -- lack of the public's familiarity with touring? your appearance? your location? And what impact if any does it have in being welcomed, treated well, getting the desired accomodations, directions, etc?