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.