Friday, February 28, 2014

Shakin' all over

After a smattering of rain earlier, the storm that has been pounding the coast is blowing into the desert. I battened down the solar panel just in case. The van is rocking anyway without the panel's sail effect. Maybe some Slab City trash will get blown out of here.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Storm's a-comin'

The forecast is for thunderstorms here in Slab City this Friday and Saturday. Yeah, okay, these things happen. Can't have perfect weather every day.

But this morning a bicycle-mounted Paul Revere went from camp to camp warning us of the coming storm and to caution us to prepare to stay put until it's all over. There could be flash flooding and road washouts and great sinkings into sands. There might have been mention of frogs falling from the sky (one of my favorite scenes from Magnolia). We shall see.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Outside the wire

There's a limit to how long I can hang around an artist commune. Turns out it's about five days. Then the social structure, politics and individual personality quirks start to bug me.

This afternoon I packed up and made a supply run to Brawley. When I returned to the Slabs I moved to a different neighborhood. Far enough from the big RVs (which are fewer as the season is winding down), and hostile-looking compounds, and trashy spots, and yapping dogs.

I'll stay in Slab City a few more days and then decide whether I want to stay longer or move on.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

As for the arty part of my day

I took the sign (I'm aware of the irony) that I wrote about the other day and sliced it into strips and scrambled them. I have some thoughts on what I might do with it next. Fabulously artistic thoughts. I hope.


One of my work-in-exchange-for-meals-and-toleration-of-my-unhipness projects at East Jesus has been making additional planting beds for their "Thunderdome" garden. The hard part was scrounging the lumber. And driving stakes into sandy, gravely dirt. The soil for the beds is not my responsibility.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Obligatory tourist photo

Almost as roomy as the Rolling Steel Tent.

Stop, or I'll...

When we live outside societal norms—in a van, a tent, a squat, a shack in the wilderness—we can develop a heightened sense of vulnerability. If it’s easy for us to grab everything we own and leave, it’s also easy for someone else to grab all our stuff.

As a result, some of us are armed. And some of us threaten potential troublemakers with signs like this:

While I understand the sentiment, it’s troubling. Really? You’d kill someone over pots and pans and a sleeping bag? Sadly, some people would. Some people have. Some people have killed over far less. Over words. Or looks. Or imagined words or looks.

However, if you read the sign differently, there’s an opposite meaning I hope is intentional. Rather than nothing here being worth you losing your life over, it's that nothing here is worth me taking your life to defend it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Don't think too much

Imagination is one of the greatest human assets. It’s also one of our curses. Because no matter how good our lives might be, we can imagine something better. 

Not only can we envision perfection, we can then make that perfection more perfect with chocolate. 

And bacon. 

And chocolate covered bacon. 

Deep fried. 

And dipped in chocolate again. 

With bacon sprinkles...

Contentment is hard. It requires us to either ignore the ways we might improve things, or it requires us to be unimaginative. It’s not ignorance that’s bliss, it’s the inability to think of anything better.

Imagination makes it harder to take joy in even our most imaginative accomplishments. “Eh, it could’ve been better. With chocolate. And bacon.”

Now that I’m back in the art saddle (at the moment), I find I’m more content if I just fiddle around with the materials without a grand vision in mind. What am I making? I don’t know. I have some general directions and limitations, but I’m not out to make the perfect version of something. It will be whatever it ends up being. I’ll get my joy from the process. And chocolate covered bacon.

Studio in the rough

The artistic urge hit finally got large enough for me to drag out my supplies and start work on... a thing. I don't know what yet. But it will involve a piece of scrap plywood and litter picked up around me. And scribbling. I feel like scribbling. After I lay down multiple layers of stuff. And colors. And stuff.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Back at the Slabs

I paid a brief visit to Slab City this past October. After exploring Salvation Mountain, I drove around a little, feeling like I was intruding, not knowing what was considered proper behavior, wondering if my presence would cause trouble with the more secretive and suspicious residents. Besides, the flies were pretty bad. So I moved on.

Between then and now I learned about an artist colony there: East Jesus. It was founded by Charlie Russell, who died a few years ago. It's now run by as much of a board of directors as a group of antiauthoritarian artists can hold together. They also have a website that provides behavioral guidelines for visitors.

So I emailed East Jesus about spending a few days with them. They were welcoming, so I decided to go. When fellow van dweller, Lesa, learned where I was going, she wanted to come along. So here we are. (And that's three uses of "so" in the same paragraph. Not good.)

Besides turning junk into art, East Jesus is experimenting with low-water vegetable gardening and has a very impressive solar power system. They use composting toilets and recycle/reuse as much as they can.

Guests are asked to contribute an hour's labor a day. No problem. They can have more if they want. The rest of the time, we're free to work on our own projects.  There's a stockpile of scrap materials we can use in our art.

I've been carrying around art supplies but I've had no desire to use them. My need to make art dried up a few years ago. It's rather sad. I thought a place like East Jesus might get the old juices flowing again.

Well, after being here a day, I've started having artistic thoughts again. Not great ones, but sufficient for me to want to make some stuff. I don't know exactly what, yet. But that's not important.

I started the morning by cleaning up some litter in the area around my campsite. Old papers, wrappers, foil, bits of plastic and metal... Hmmm, I could do something with this. I'll start small, see where it goes.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

This land is your land, this land is Niland

There's not much to the town of Niland, CA. There's even less since a fire took out three storefronts some time back.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Meanwhile, at the fashion dumpster

Low-cut cowboy boots are inappropriate camping footwear.
And so five minutes ago.

The yoyo of consumer satisfaction

Yesterday I was downright blissful over getting a $200 tire for $35, complete with rapid, competent service. Based on past experience, I expected similar joy refilling my prescriptions in Los Algodones, Mexico.

Eh, not so much.

Last time, I had no trouble getting jars of fifty 600MG Gabapentin. This time, no one had 600MG tablets, only 300MG. And only in boxes of fifteen tablets. And only three or four boxes in stock. And the prices were nothing special.


I guess swarms of diabetic snowbirds have cleaned them out of the good stuff.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Worth the drive

In a previous episode I told about my flat tire.
Today’s episode is about getting it replaced.

I had hung around Blythe over the Presidents Day weekend, twiddling my thumbs, telling the story of my flat tire to other van dwellers, waiting for the tire stores to reopen. 

I was at a shop that sold Michelins bright and early. After several minutes fumbling around on their computer and frowning, they informed me they didn’t have the tire I needed in stock, but they could have it by Friday, and with tax and labor it would come to $283.67.

"No thanks. I need to go to Yuma anyway. (For Mexican meds.) I imagine I can get the tire there. Today."

So off I went, hoping I didn’t get another flat, what with the spare already on the van.

Since I’d originally bought all new tires for the Rolling Steel Tent from Discount Tire in Charlotte without needing to special order them, I figured my chances were good they’d have one at the Discount Tire in Yuma. 

The clerk tippy-tapped on his keyboard and a second later informed me that, indeed, they had them in stock. $208. He then got my info, found me in their database and said, “Oh, you didn’t purchase the replacement warranty.”

“Uh, no, I’m not real big on warranties.”

“Well, you could buy it now for $35 and we’ll replace the tire for free, including tax and labor.”


The place was very busy, so I thought I would be asked to set an appointment for tomorrow.

“Give me your key and we’ll have it done within an hour.”

And they did. Customer for life.

I told them I wanted to see what it was that had punctured my tire. Here it is.

A tire weight. That’s sort of like a horse being crippled by stray horseshoe.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Plan ahea....................d

When I was in Yuma, the thought crossed my mind that I should get my prescriptions refilled in Mexico. I decided not to because I had enough for a couple more months.

Then I realized today (while I'm 93 miles north of the border instead of only five) that by the time I run out pills I'll probably be hundreds of miles from Mexico.

So, if I can get a new tire in the morning, I'll backtrack to Yuma and Los Algodones.

Hola, mis amigas! Quiero quinientos pastillas de gabapentina.

Food tips for the modern van dweller

—If you make spaghetti using sweet Italian sausage, leftover minute steak and Newman's Own Sockarooni Sauce, and if you then reheat the leftover spaghetti in a small sauce pan over a single burner propane stove on a warm and lovely desert evening, stirring often to avoid burning, it will smell exactly like a Sbarro. But it will taste better.

—If you put an opened can of soda back in your refrigerator or cooler to keep it cold for later, don't forget it's there when you go digging around for leftover spaghetti.

Migration season?

It's warm here in southwest Arizona. Very warm. So part of my brain thinks, "Well, I've been hanging around this part of the country for the winter because of the weather. Now that it's warm I can go north or into the mountains."

But then the other part of my brain thinks, "No, stupid, it's only warm (or warmish) in the southern part of the country. And only at the lower altitudes. It's still February, numbskull, not April or May. Oh, sure, the daytime temperatures might be sort of okay, but look at the nighttime temps on Accuweather. Sub-freezing, dude. And there's still snow on the ground in a lot of places. Don't go there."

Then the first part of my brain thinks. "I hate it when you're right."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The good, the annoying and the ugly

The good: The other day I wrote that I hadn't noticed any snowbirds from Manitoba. Now I have.

The annoying: After this happening about six times, I figured it was time to move the bungee cord.

The ugly: Somewhere between Yuma and Blythe I pickup up something about the size of a railroad spike. And didn't notice until I was driving on the sidewalls. And the tire stores are closed until Tuesday. (Not that I had to be anywhere before then, but still.) I mounted the spare, so now I'll just chill for a few days.

Time to move

The calendar says I've been here at Fortuna Pond for two weeks, which is the BLM limit, but my internal clock and my desire to wander told me I should have left maybe a couple of days ago. And the flies have been telling me to go somewhere that they aren't. I will miss the water and the birds.

I'm going to drift a little eastward, like the other side of Phoenix. Maybe.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Full-ish moon

The moon is big and bright tonight. It got me wondering whether moonlight works on solar panels.

Short answer: No.

True, moonlight is reflected sunlight, but essential charged particles, like photons, get lost in the bounce. Oh well.

Longer answer here.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

But Fridays we're open 4 AM to 7:30 PM

And whatever you do, don't call us in the event of an emergency.

Adding on

Lesa got a second-hand tent that attaches to the back of her van. It also has a screen room. Now she has shade with protection from annoying insects. I’m a little envious. It got me thinking about options for myself.

One of my rules is that I want to be able to live and sleep in my van without needing to unload anything and without needing to climb over stuff. So If I were to get some sort of screened tent it would need to pack away compactly into a space I already have. Or I would need to get rid of things to make room for it.

I went online to see what was available. It looked like everything was either too large to store or too small for my purposes. I’ll keep looking.

Meanwhile, I got out my tarp and set it up. It doesn’t keep the bugs out, but it shades the side door so I can keep it open for ventilation. And a view.

Maybe I can rig something up, like clipping netting around the edges of the tarp. That might work. I know exactly where I could stash the netting. Hmmmmm...

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bienvenue à ma cauchemar

Southwestern Arizona is one of the natural habitats of the Canadian Snowbird. Most of them are from British Columbia and Alberta. A few from Saskatchewan. I have yet to see someone from Manitoba. I guess they go elsewhere. Texas, maybe. Or Nebraska, which is downright balmy compared to Winnipeg.

Eastern Canadians tend to go to Florida. I used to see slush stained vehicles bearing Ontario and Quebec plates migrating through North Carolina when I lived there.

So I was a little surprised to see a pickup with Quebec plates ahead of me in Yuma. Driving very slowly. Like twenty miles per hour under the speed limit. Perhaps he was stunned by warm weather in the middle of hockey season.

Whatever the reason, I was growing impatient. I am American, after all. I dredged up my junior high French. Because, being American, I think everyone in Quebec speaks only French. 

“Allons-y!... Allez!... Plus vite, s'il vous plaît!... Où est Pierre? Il est à la bibliothèque!”

If I’d had a better command of the language, I would have shouted that the speed limit was in miles per hour, not kilometers per hour. And if I’d been familiar with Québécois idioms, I might have also impugned his manhood.

But my destination came and I survived the horrible ordeal without starting an international incident. Ce qui est pour le déjeuner?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Good evening

It's in my nature

There have been people in every age of human history who believed their current world was hopelessly corrupt, that there existed somewhere in the misty past a time when man lived in perfect, blissful harmony with capital-N Nature. Eden, Paradise, Utopia, whatever. So they headed off into civilization-free territory to live as they imagined humans were meant to live. Or they built religions on the idea. Or both.

The trouble is, it’s a myth that there’s a magical man-nature relationship—at least one where humans don’t come out on the short end of the stick. The natural world is filled with things that can wound, break, maim, sicken, poison, freeze, burn, starve, wash away, blow down, crush and kill us. If nature were sentient, one might conclude that it hated homo sapiens. And that was long before we started messing up the planet.

Humanity has always struggled to survive, not because nature hates us, but because nature is totally indifferent to our existence. The natural world wasn’t made just for us. (Insert crushed egos here.) We’re just one of 8 million or so solutions to surviving in the existing conditions. We are not essential to the planet. We’ve been around only about 160,000 years of Earth’s 4.5 billion.

The way I see it, going off into unpopulated places to “become one with Nature” is actually about rejecting humanity. It isn’t introversion, it’s misanthropy. 

“People are bad. Except me, of course.”

The irony, though, is that humans have been able to survive precisely because we aren’t all lone wolves. Even the people haters out in the wilderness depend, to some extent, on things invented and produced by society, including knowledge.

“Say, Mr. Rugged Individual, where did that knife come from? How did you learn to make fire?”

What lone misanthropes often learn, though, is that their grievances remain. Because, however far from civilization they go, they are still stuck with their own malignant selves.

I’m not out here living on the fringes of society because I hate people and the civilization they’ve created. I actually like cities and their conveniences. (Thanks, everyone, for my van and the Internet.) Sure, some folks are awful, but not humans in general. I’m out here because it’s a less expensive, less complicated, freer life. And, right now, in this particular part of the planet, the weather is wonderful. Thanks, Nature.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Peace be unto the humans

The Dog Whisperer taught me that there are no bad dogs, just bad dog owners. So I blame the lazy, clueless people camped nearby whose bulldog hasn't stopped barking for more than 20 seconds in the past two hours.

Rather than allowing myself to be provoked to violent action (and the point was getting very near), I packed up and left. I hope they're only there for the weekend, because the place is very nice otherwise.

Peace be unto the fishes

Fortuna Pond is stocked with trout, bass, sunfish and catfish. So, naturally, there are anglers here.

This morning, as I sat enjoying the morning sun, a fisherman set up at the shore in front of me. He checked me out and asked, "You don't fish?"

"Nope. I figure the fish are happier where they are."

He looked at me like I was some kind of kook.


Recharge the phone. Recharge the laptop. Recharge the wifi hot spot. Recharge the camera battery. Recharge the batteries from the touch lights. Repeat. This is one reason I have solar power.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Welcome to the desert

It's not all rocks and cacti.

The 3:10 to Yuma

Though my current campsite at Fortuna Pond is nice in many ways, one drawback is a very active rail line about a mile away.

I was having one of those nights where my brain and/or body didn't want to turn off and go to sleep. So I became extra aware of the trains passing through, blowing their horns at crossings. Not only was there the 3:10 AM train, but also the 3:22, the 3:41, the 4:12...

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

How I got here

Two high school friends changed the course of my life.

I’d been raised to believe success (or at least being a good person) was a product of following the rules exactly, of being able to recite all the correct answers, and of deferring to the superior wisdom of authority figures. That’s certainly how it had been in school. Obey and conform.

Then I met Paul and Joel in my senior year sociology class. They were brainy Honor Society types. I don’t know why they took me under their wings. Maybe it was my pathetic, lost, depressed vibe. If so, then pity can be a good thing.

The assignment was to do a research project, on a topic of our choice, either alone or in small groups, and present the findings to the class. I pictured dreary hours in the library. Joel and Paul pictured something completely different. They would turn the presentation into our “research.”

We gathered a random collection of slides—vacations, families, mundane objects we photographed ourselves—and loaded them haphazardly into the carousel. Then Joel rewired an old phonograph so it played backwards. Paul supplied a record of Polish folk songs. Then we created a multiple-choice questionnaire with nonsensical answers, such as:

And elderly person is trying to cross the street. You should:
(  ) Buy new squirrels for your car
(  ) The 3rd Amendment
(  ) Pie 
(  ) What light through yonder window breaks?

The day of our presentation, we showed the slides and played the backwards record while classmates worked on the questionnaire. Then we gathered the questionnaires and threw them in the trash.

Paul then explained that we had been testing how people react when a situation is totally different than expected. We asked our classmates what they had been thinking and feeling.

I went home with no idea how our presentation had gone over with the teacher. I was hoping for maybe a C. We got A-pluses. Holy cow! I’d never gotten an A+ on anything before.

Joel and Paul later explained to me that teachers get tired of the same old thing year after year. They also explained that originality is more valuable than conformity, that human progress was the product of people stepping out of line. Originality is a rare, and therefore precious. Conformity is only worthwhile to those who want your obedience in order to advance their own purposes. Conformists get exploited. 

This was 180 degrees from what I’d been taught. 

I applied that insight the rest of my life, with excellent results.  For the most part.

Then, a couple of years ago, I realized I was very unhappy with my life. Not for having chosen the nonconformist road, but because I’d become trapped in the whole homeownership thing. Because I’d been treading water for about five years, waiting for some sort of positive change to happen along. I’d become passive. I realized I had to take action, to step out of line.

“Live in a van? No house? Are you nuts?”

Maybe, but I had to give it a shot.

Presto, a complete change in attitude. New possibilities, new challenges, and that glorious old nonconformity. Yes! I liked myself again.

I’m not changing the world, but I’m changing myself.

Paul and Joel? I looked them up on the web a few years ago and thanked them for changing my life. They had no idea.

Here's to Alex Supertramp

I've started reading Into the Wild, the story of Chris McCandless, who wandered the country and died in the Alaskan wilderness. (Yes, that's an oversimplification.)

His path and mine cross at a few points, starting with where we were born: the Washington, DC area.

But it's here, along the Arizona-California state line, that things get very familiar. When the book tells of him canoeing down the Colorado River, from Bullhead City to the Sea of Cortez, I could see it perfectly. I know that stretch of river. He must have floated past places I've camped. I've seen the tangle of canals where the river enters Mexico.

I can picture the Arizona wash where he abandoned his flooded-out car, and the deserts where he camped. I've camped in places just like them.

I've been to Niland, The Slabs and the Salton Sea.

Most of all, I know about the kind of people he met in the desert, the unconventional souls living in vehicles. Because I am one.

As Jon Krakauer says of us non-house-owning vagabonds:

...a teeming itinerant society—a tolerant, rubber-tired culture comprising the retired, the exiled, the destitute, the perpetually unemployed. Its constituents are men and women and children of all ages, folks on the dodge from collection agencies, relationships gone sour, the law or the IRS, Ohio winters, the middle-class grind.

There are some bad seeds and some genuinely scary characters out here, but, by far, most of the people I've met are kind, helpful and interesting.

I don't have McCandless's craving to live an extremely minimalist life in a life-threatening environment. But I understand his desire to free himself from society's anchors. It's not glamourous. I don't have Jack London fantasies or Henry David Thoreau ideals dancing in my head. I just don't want to be tied down. I wore that straightjacket for 60 years. It was enough.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Not far

A friend asked if I'd been wandering a lot or staying put. The answer is wandering a bit in a rather small area.

Since returning from the coast in November, I've stayed pretty much in an area between the Colorado River and highway 95. Parker Dam to the north, Yuma to the south, Quartzsite to the east and Blythe to the west. More or less.

I drifted east to Tonapah a couple of times, to Joshua Tree for a few days and made a run to Las Vegas just before New Year.

There are two reasons for the limited geography. Weather and free camping. Come spring, though, it will be time to roam northward again. Or maybe west. Or east. Or all of the above.

My next home

A upstairs master suite? Oh yeah!

Monday, February 3, 2014


Many mornings there will be a brief groggy moment as I'm waking that I don't know where I am.

. . .

Oh yeah, in my bed, in my van, parked at such-and-such place.

It's pleasant rather than disorienting, because it means I'd been far removed from the concerns of waking life. The bed was totally comfortable, so it wasn't intruding on my thoughts. Living in the van has become natural, so it doesn't cause anxiety. My location is pleasant (or at least benign), so I can relax completely.

What's more, I rarely need to know what time it is when I wake up. I have no schedule. Neener neener neener.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The caravan diverges

Social groups form for various reasons. Affinity, convenience, curiosity, support, etc. For various other reasons some members of the group might find the situation just isn’t working to their satisfaction. One of the big advantages of the van dwelling life is that we can pack up and move on. Since a lot of us van dwellers are introverts, it’s sort of expected that groups will be fluid, even if some feelings get hurt.

I’d followed seven others to the spot mentioned in an earlier post mostly to see what it was like. Unless you got one of the three primo spots on the shore (I didn’t), the site was kind of blah. And cell reception was very poor and spotty. There had to be better places.

Another member of the group had grown weary of the social dynamic that had developed. So, together with a third person who happened along, we set off for a new spot. I like it a lot more. Before arriving here I thought I would be doing a bit of wandering for the next few weeks. I can see myself staying put here for the 14-day max.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Ugh, flies

My current location is on the edge of an agricultural area. That means plenty of water and things for flies to prosper on. Yet, for some reason, many of them choose to fly around in my van or buzz around my head. "Hey, fly, go munch on some kale or parsley or something, and leave me alone."

This doesn't happen out in the more barren desert regions.