Something Doesn’t Look Right

When I travel in my van, which is all the time, I look for places to camp that are remote yet within a few miles of a town so that I can get cell coverage. I do go off the grid if I must, or if there is some draw like a gorgeous view to be had (and not shared with a cast of thousands of other campers).

To find such locations, I employ a cluster of apps. These are a combination of crowd sourced data from people like me who like to wander around in the woods, and official info from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife, etc. That way I know for sure I’m on public land and nobody is going to sic their bulldog on me.

I whiled away this summer wandering around the gorgeous state of Oregon, beginning in the Cascade Mountains, and when they caught fire, fleeing to the coast where I shivered in the cold fog but loved the quirky isolated coastal communities that somehow manage to go on being blissful even though there is a seriously overdue tsunami lurking just offshore. The plethora of road signs warning of tsunami danger is unnerving to a mountain-bred girl like me, who gets panic attacks at the roar of the ocean.

Summer ended, as summers will, and time came for me to be heading back to sunny Arizona, where I will at last do something about my left shoulder (two “high grade” rotator cuff tears, greater than 50% torn) and my left wrist (now missing a bone because the surgeon wasn’t expecting to find the joint so completely trashed at arthroscopic examination, thus had no permission to do anything more than remove one bone that was rattling around in pieces.)

I meandered down I-5 through the over-logged parts of southern Oregon and into Northern California, where the people of the towns like Yreka (pronounced Why-reeka) and Weed fly the flag of Jefferson. My first campsite in NorCal took me way, WAY off the grid, to a public campground managed by a small power company that had dammed up a piece of the Klamath River and made a lake out of it.

It was a lovely out-of-the-way place, accessed via a terrifying one-lane whose pavement was falling off to one side and the other, as pavement tends to do in California, due to the general inability of everything there, whether from earthquakes, mudslides, or precipitation, or lack thereof.  I drive a lot of dirt and gravel Forest Service and fire roads, and they are nearly always better than California paved back roads.

When I finally arrived at the campground, I found it filling up fast. There was a bass fishing tournament that weekend and everyone in NorCal had their bass boat and their generator all ready to fire up. I got as far away from the crowd as I could. While setting up my camp (read: get out lawn chair), I noticed a very loud silence in the vicinity of my Malinois, Atina. Doggy silences spell the same thing kiddie silences do: trouble. It seems we had a visitor:

This juvenile possum had hardly any teeth. Nevertheless, it was staring at Atina, who was staring back. I got a pair of gloves and nudged it with my walking stick, whereupon it fell over “dead.” I picked it up by its prehensile tail and placed it back in the bushes where it came from. Atina looked disappointed, but oh well. It’s a dog’s life.

Also in attendance was a herd of feral horses.  This is the gorgeous Appaloosa stallion, who came over to check us out, then set up his camp next door:

I fantasized about running back to Weed to buy a horse trailer….

A couple of days later found me on the California side of Reno. I located a likely spot to camp on my Free Campsites app (did I mention I try not to pay for parking?) and set my GPS. The road was California nightmare again, this time featuring deep sand and worn signs that warned travelers away in case of inclement weather: ROAD IMPASSABLE IN INCLEMENT WEATHER. OK, today is passable, but if it rains tonight, I’ll be stuck? Wouldn’t be the first time. Onward.

As I negotiated the tight turn into the abandoned (as it turns out) Forest Service campground, I wondered aloud whether the review I’d read from a person who allegedly camped here with a 35′ trailer could possibly have been misfiled. Between the sand trap and the tight turn….I dunno. As I rounded the bend, a very clean, late-model Prius came into view. It was parked at what remained of the first campsite. Seated on the rotting picnic table was a woman close to my own age.

She looked up from her smartphone and waved. I didn’t see any tent.  After wedging my van into an incredibly small parking space, I gathered up Miss Dog and went to introduce ourselves to the neighbor. I can’t tell you how many times in the 3 1/2 years I’ve been traveling, that a simple “hello” has made the difference between struggling with some problem all by myself, or having a helping hand. (And since I only have one hand that works, that’s saying something.) I made plenty of noise as I approached. Never good to sneak up on anybody in the wilderness! She was still sitting on the picnic table, despite the two aged canvas deck chairs she’d set out. It’s a common ruse for single women camping, to make it look like there was someone else. I’ve been around this block a few times, though, and it was clear she was out there alone–just like me, most of the time. We started with the usual small talk, sizing each other up. Atina immediately liked her, and rubbed a layer of dog hair all over the woman’s black pants.

Did you know there is a whole subset of homeless people who live, specifically, in Priuses? The back seat folds down and (she explained) makes a space exactly 72 inches long. Since she is only 60 inches tall, that’s more than enough sleeping space! (She said.) “I make sure the windows aren’t blocked and the floor is clear, so I can stealth-park,” she explained.  Everything she owned was black, to match the upholstery and hopefully fool the flashlights of police checking parked cars for homeless people.

“But what do you eat?”

I am so spoiled from having a fridge and a microwave and a two-burner stove that you can’t use both burners on because they’re too close together, but never mind. I’m spoiled. She gazed at me with patience and restraint. “I have a little, you know, cooler box, and a butane camp stove,” she said. “This morning I had eggs and ham and tortilla.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling stupid. “Real food.” She chuckled and nodded. Over the course of the evening and the following morning, her story came out. She had worked all her life in higher education, retiring with a pension that would have been bigger if she’d stuck it out to 65. But her adult daughter had come down with an inoperable brain tumor, so she retired early in order to have more time with her child. They made the best of it, traveling together, until the inevitable happened. After the funeral, her marriage came apart. Her ex got the house. She hit the road, and has been on it ever since.

So here we were, these two ladies in much reduced circumstances: she with a Ph.D., me with my jumble of letters, sharing tips and tricks for life on the road. I marveled at her resourcefulness, living in such a tiny time capsule. Her refuge in her grief, from losing her only child, her life. But she is uncomplaining; in fact, the opposite. Instead of a pity party, we celebrated our freedoms, and especially our freedom to choose this lifestyle. The next weekend, she told me, she would visit a friend who is part-time on the road. He’s at home now in his stix-n-brix, as we who live in wheeled conveyances call a fixed residence.

“Well then, does he have a spare bedroom?”

He does.

“And where will you sleep?” But I already knew the answer, because once you get used to sleeping out in your vehicle, no bed in a stuffy old house can tempt you indoors.

Homelessness Could Happen To YOU.

Let’s face it: I’m homeless.

Not “house-free,” as people joke. “A house is not a home,” after all. Yes, I am high-class homeless: I live in a Mercedes Sprinter van (the same kind FedEx uses to deliver stuff) that has a camper built into it. Posh, for a homeless person! But I don’t have a physical address. I don’t have a home to return to, when I’m weary of the road. I don’t have a family, a family doctor, a community, etc. Nevertheless I’m blessed to have shelter and transportation.

A month ago I was camped by a lovely high meadow in Sequoia National Forest, in Forest Service Dispersed Camping. This is where I live: I wander from forest to forest, camping for free in the thousands of informal campsites sprinkled all over the largely unpaved Forest Service roads. Most of the time I’m fortunate to find isolated spots with no one around for miles. This particular time I was fortunate that there was another camper, a few hundred yards off.

It was a Chevy van, obviously a DIY conversion. Pretty neat, really. One man, no dog. I wondered what his story was. I hoped he was benign, but I tucked my pistol into its concealed carry holster nonetheless. I was miles from help, and no cell service. Of course I have my Doggess, my personal Enforcer; but as my Marine K-9 trainer taught me, if they shoot your dog, that gives you an extra 15 seconds to get your weapon ready. But I was hoping not to have any truck whatsoever with my neighbor.

Turns out, I was the one to introduce myself to the guy I’ll call Bob.

This Mercedes van isn’t like a Mercedes car. It’s a truck. Bells and whistles, none.

For instance: If your car (any make at all) is less than 20 years old, it probably has a nifty little switch that automatically turns off your lights after you remove your key, so your battery doesn’t run down because the lights were on while you were asleep in your snug bed.

Even my old ’97 Dodge truck had that feature….but not this 2016 Mercedes truck. Nuh-uh. It has four wheel drive and a granny gear, which is why I bought it, but if you forget and leave your lights on, you’re S.O.L.

Which I was, the morning after I left my lights on all night.

Quite luckily, I had recently charged up my external jump charger. It was red hot and rarin’ to go. But my Mercedes van is made of solid metal and lots of it, which is the other reason I bought it. Only thing is, with my various infirmities, I often cannot lift the hood. That was the case this particular morning.

My neighbor looked like he was finishing up breakfast, but I did not see a sign of a coffee cup. Hmm, that means either he doesn’t drink coffee, or he doesn’t have any. I’ll take a gamble and see if I can offer him some. Then I’ll move in for the kill and ask him to help me jump the van.

Paydirt! He was fresh out of java. I fixed him a good strong one. We drank coffee and chatted. He seemed like a good sort, although I maintain clear boundaries at all times when interacting with characters I meet on the road.

He cheerfully lent me his arms and took over the jump start task with manly pride in being useful. I made him a second cup, and while we let the truck run to get good and charged up, he told me his story.

Bob was 64 years and 7 months old. Up until four weeks ago, he had been the IT guy at a medium-sized development company in Sacramento. He was the guy who kept all of the machines updated, virus-free, and running cleanly. He was the guy that did all the backups and made sure everybody’s data was safe and secure.

On the day he turned 64 1/2, he was laid off, along with a new hire that hadn’t worked out. Bob had been there for 12 years. If he had worked another 6 months, he would have been able to collect company pension.

“Wait a minute!” I cried. “Isn’t this a clear case of laying you off to avoid paying your pension?”

“Clearly it is,” he said. “But my lawyer pointed out that they were careful to let a younger person go at the same time, so it didn’t look like a pension avoidance. They claimed the company was downsizing.

Suddenly Bob was jobless.

In a state of shock, he reverted to his main competency: analysis.  What is the algorithm for sudden, unexpected unemployment?

You find a new job, of course.  Bob blasted out his resume, which includes a long stint at Apple, another with Microsoft.  Bob is a smart, talented, high level techie.

He’s also an old techie, and as he discovered, nobody wants to hire someone who’s 6 months away from their 65th birthday.

Bob put in for unemployment.

Gotta hand it to his former employer: at least they fixed it so he would get unemployment insurance up until he was eligible for Social Security, which was much less than his pension would have been, but at least it was something; and via COBRA, he would have his health insurance until he was eligible for Medicare.  Pretty slick.

Meanwhile the bills continued to roll in as usual.  Bob, like so many members of the Middle Class, had very little in the way of savings to fall back on.  He quickly saw that what funds he did have wouldn’t last long, paying $1,700/month for his tiny studio apartment.  He rented a storage building, put everything into it except his camping gear, and moved into his van.

He’s an organised person, so within a week he had his infrastructure in place: a membership at a gym franchise provided shower access; he developed a rotation for overnight parking so he wouldn’t become a target for thieves or police.  His portable kitchen was still a work in progress.  He was learning to live out of his van.  Learning to be a member of the high-class homeless.

I often hear and read self-satisfied, superior comments about homeless people.  The assumption is that homeless people are all alike: lazy and shiftless.  If they just got a job, they wouldn’t be homeless…right?  And they’re all on meth anyway, so why should I care? 

Uh, sure.  Just…only…that’s very often not the case.  Like Bob the IT guy, who got the hook because he’d been loyal enough to his company to happily stay until retirement.  Except he got laid off at age 64 1/2, with no warning at all, no time to prepare for the retirement he had every reason was waiting for him.

I used to joke that if all else failed, I could always be a greeter at Wal-Mart.  That used to be one of the only jobs available to the Medicare crowd.

Bob had that same idea.  He applied to every Walmart in the State of California.  He found out that most Wal-Marts have discontinued the greeters.  Too expensive.

He tried fast food places.  “Over qualified” for those, naturally.

He’s still sending out resumes.  Fortunately, he’s still able to afford to rent a mailbox that gives him a physical address, so he can receive his rejection letters.

He’s adjusting to van life.  He does love camping.  Of course there are challenges, like, how do you keep your possessions from being ruined when it’s 105 degrees?  You yourself can go walk around in the mall, but your “house” is still going to bake in the parking lot.  Your soap will melt, your shaving cream can will blow up….

And what about the future, that looked so comfortable with your pension, formerly adequate for your needs?  What will happen when you get sick, develop diabetes, have a stroke, get crippled up with arthritis….?  What if you need surgery: where will you go to recover?

Please remember, dear reader, this valuable adage applies to us all:

There but for the grace of God go I.

(And for you who are smirking because your 401k or your Keogh is coming along nicely….all it takes is another 2008 and you’ll be sitting right where Bob found himself.)

Higher and Deeper

The wind howls and rocks the van.  We feel like we’re in a space ship, hurtling through a hostile zone:

“The wind blew and spit icicles in their faces…” –Carl Sandburg

Periodically in the night we were awakened by crashes as layers of ice and snow slid off the sides of the van and smashed on the punky snow below.

Poor Atina was frantic to go out at first light, but we couldn’t risk it due to extreme high winds.  And since every window is covered either by Reflectix or by handy insulating layers of snow and ice, the only way to check the situation would be to open the main hatch and risk having the door blown shut on some body part–not worth the risk.  So I told Atina to cross her legs till the wind took a break!

When things settled down to where I was pretty sure we would not be impaled with flying tree branches, Atina watched anxiously as I slowly and deliberately donned layer after layer of mountaineering gear: double layer of silk underwear, water and windproof pants, microfleece vest, mask, thick wool socks, high altitude ski parka, ski gloves, and I sure wish I had a pair of goggles but I don’t.  I’ll have to hope that the anti-fog stuff I sprayed on my glasses actually works.

My parka hails from my ski bum days in the ’90s.  One of the benefits of my recent shocking weight loss is that it fits me again, over multiple layers of other warm things. Yay!

The hood of this parka snugs up into a visored helmet, thanks to a system of drawcords that don’t even get in the way like some annoying others I’ve had.  It’s designed for extreme conditions.  I love my good old EMS parka!  (Eastern Mountain Sports, not Emergency Medical System)

When I get finished with the ski togs system, not a square inch of exposed skin will remain, with the exception of what gets around my glasses.

Blizzard footwear: a pair of knee high fleece lined rain boots.  Love ’em.

Hiking sticks, because I fall over easily.

Had to kick the main hatch, also known as side door, open, as it had, as expected, frozen shut during the night.  A dangerous shower of icicles and chunks of solid frozen junk clattered off the roof.  I shut the door again to let the debris pass before trying to exit.  Atina bored holes in me with desperate eyes.

When it seemed safe, I opened the door and stepped out into a howling wasteland of grey.  Atina jumped out and made a yellow spot.

Very, very unfortunately, the sky has made layers of snow, sleet, freezing rain, and back to the beginning.  So instead of having nice drifts of light, fluffy white powder, we’ve got….crud.  It’s all frozen together.  Tomorrow it will be rock-hard.  The night time temperatures will be in the teens, with daytime temps above freezing.  That means a melt/freeze cycle that will just create a foot or so of nasty grey ice that would take a jackhammer to bust through.

My nice RV park people plowed out my driveway yesterday, but today you can’t even tell they did it.  I sure hope they’ll help me get out of here after this storm passes.

I wish I’d taken a shower before the storm hit.  I was so busy making preparations that I didn’t get to it.  Oh well, I thought, I’ll walk over on Saturday and get a nice hot one.

Well.  Snow is one thing, but I hadn’t counted on this wind.  I ain’t going out there unless absolutely necessary.  I’ll stay dirty till tomorrow.