Monday, March 31, 2014

More signs like this, please

Silver City, New Mexico, was on my list of possible places to live, in part because they have a bit of an art scene going on.

Thank you, Walmart, for creating abandoned downtown commercial space that can be snatched up cheap by the art & coffee house community.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The teeter-totter of the van dwelling life

There are places in the US—Quartzsite, for example—where it’s easy to be a van dweller or RVer. Bulk water, sewage dump, bulk propane, showers, RV service and repair, solar energy supplies, good cellular reception, decent over-the-air TV reception, free wi-fi, free or laughably cheap campsites...

The thing is, the convenience of those places makes it very tempting to just stay put. You know, like when we live in buildings. Yet the main reason our vehicles have wheels is so we can travel. 

Some van dwellers talk about living a life of adventure. Not necessarily sky-diving-naked-from-the-edge-of-space-into-a-crocodile-infested-river level of adventure, but at least getting out and seeing the country, going new places. Often.

But travel burns fuel. And finding those needed services and free/cheap campsites means a lot of research. “I’d like to visit _________, but where could I stay for free? Where can I even park my rig?” I don’t know how people did this before the Internet. I guess they depended on word of mouth. (Word of mouth isn’t easy for us introverts. I mean, we don’t want to bother people with our stupid questions, right?)

After spending the winter in a rather small region, I’ve been itching to wander. I kept checking the long range weather forecasts to see where winter is receding. C’mon, dammit!

That’s why I’ve been drifting along the border this past week, checking out areas I’ve never been. It’s why I’ve dared to venture into higher elevations this early in Spring and submit myself to chillier nights. I need to go.

I know the longer I stay in one place, the better I can afford to drive the Rolling Steel Tent all over. It’s a balancing act. I’m fighting competing genetic tendencies: Mom wanted to travel, Dad didn’t see the point (except for business). I was very close to being like my father. I think that’s why I was unhappy as a homeowner, why I just wanted to be rid of that anchor, of that place where I’d just go through the same old routine day after day, becoming so rooted in place. It’s why I needed to go.

Back in New Mexico

I haven't been in New Mexico since autumn, when I was in the northern part of the state. Right now I'm in the southwestern part, near Silver City.

The big change is that I'm at about 6,200 feet. It's not sea level anymore. And it's not summery.

On the way here, about twenty miles northeast of Douglas, AZ, I got pulled over by the Border Patrol. The officer didn't quite know what to make of the Rolling Steel Tent. I think he was a bit disappointed I'm a US citizen and wasn't smuggling drugs or people. And it would have been nicer for me if he hadn't had his hand on his pistol most of the time.

I had a dream

Back before I decided to become a van dweller I did a lot of online research about places I might live. One that was high on my list for a while was Bisbee, Arizona. It’s one of those preserved/restored Western mining towns.

I’d found a place in the real estate listings that grabbed my interest and sparked several fantasies. A big store in the historic district that could be divided into apartments upstairs and, best of all, leave me a big studio space on the ground floor. Ignore all the repairs and modernizations that would be required. Ignore that I didn’t have that kind of money.

Well, someone bought it, and it looks like it’s being used for residential. They probably dumped a lot of money into it. The awnings alone cost several thousand. I’m only a little envious. I'd rather have my freedom.


No wonder they can't find Bigfoot. He's not out in the woods, he's slaving over the stove in a restaurant.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

History quiz

There was a gunfight at the O.K. Corral because:

A) Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne refused to surrender their weapons

B) The Exceptional Corral was already booked

C) So that later generations could make a living misinterpreting and exploiting history

So, yeah, I'm in Tombstone. The fact they don't have a Disney sized budget probably helps keep it a bit more true to the hardscrabble shagginess of 1881. Though I think they had more dirt and less frozen yogurt then.

I hear the food is so-so

The kindness of strangers

I violated one of my general rules. I try not to arrive at a new boondocking spot after dark, especially when the directions are a little vague and involve a landmark that’s almost impossible to see at night. But I had dawdled leaving my previous location.

After driving back and forth on a  stretch of deserted desert highway, I pulled into a convenience store to ask directions. The lady behind the counter didn’t know. 

“Then do you mind if I spend the night in your parking lot?”

“Spend as many nights as you want,” she shrugged.

I don’t know whether she actually had authority to grant permission, but no one chased me away.

Buenos días from Buenos Aires

No, not Argentina. Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, between Tucson and Nogales. What a nice change from the desert. It’s grassland dotted with mesquite, spread over undulating hills. There are designated campsites, which are free. And it’s very quiet. Except when the Border Patrol flies over.

It looks like African savanna. Is there a lion in the grass?

Friday, March 28, 2014

What's in a name?

Some say Ajo, Arizona, got its name from the Spanish word for garlic. Others say the garlic thing is only coincidental and that the name actually comes from an Indian word, one that probably means “get off our land, white devils.” It’s just as likely the name is the result of someone sneezing after being asked the name of the place.

However it got its name, Ajo exists in the middle of nowhere because of a copper mine. Whatever part copper still plays in the economy, the remaining percentage seems to be the sales of auto insurance to tourists headed to Puerto Peñasco, Mexico (which tourism developers have badly anglicized as Rocky Point).

Just a few of the dozens of insurance vendors

Meanwhile, ten miles south of Ajo is the village of Why. The story goes that the place was originally referred to as “the Y” since it was at the Y-shaped junction of highways 85 and 86. “If you’re going to Puerto Peñasco, bear right at the Y.” But postal regulations said town names needed at least three letters. So Y became Why. I’m surprised no one has established a neighboring village named Because.

I used to wonder, too, until I became one myself

But why, you ask, was I in Why to begin with? Because it's on the way to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (where one doesn't need special insurance or copper).

An arch with a Mini Me arch

Even though it's spring, there aren't many blossoms due to a severe lack of rain over the winter. Maybe next year.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Wherein I become a poultry cosmetic surgeon

One of Ceeb's chickens has a condition where her beak grows too long. It makes it hard for the bird to eat. And the other hens were teasing her, saying she's ugly, insinuating that her father was a hawk. Girls can be so mean. So, while Ceebs held the hen, I gave it a nose job with some nippers.



Hey, wait, this isn't the Slabs

The best laid plans, yadda yadda yadda...

I was going to depart Slab City today and start drifting eastward, through the area between Tucson and the border, then work my way northward through New Mexico.

I figured it was a good idea to get my paperwork sent to my tax guy before I hit the road again. But I couldn't find the documents from the sale of my house. I thought I had them with me. I was wrong. I couldn't even remember the name of the escrow company so I could contact them about duplicates. It was part of my homeowner life my brain didn't want to waste any more time on.

Okay, then the papers must be in the box of documents I left in the attic of my ex-wife, but excellent friend, Ceebs. In Los Angeles. Two hundred miles to the west instead of east. At least the box in question wasn't with my buddy in South Carolina.

Bow down and worship its coolness

I was in a Brawley thrift store with Greg and Lesa when we discovered the perfect thing for Lesa's new patio/kitchen. A zombie tiki lamp thing. There are lights inside and a fan that makes a piece of thin fabric flutter like a flame. Woot, fake fire! And only six bucks. Everyone in the Slabs will be jealous.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Zen and the art of sanity maintenance

I was in the middle of a nice lunch prepared by someone other than myself (mmmmm, carnitas) when a familiar antsy feeling started to make itself known.

“Finish up, get the check and get going, mister.”

Then my new, retired, mellow self replied to my old anxious self, “Why?”

“Because it’s what one is supposed to do.”

“What’s so pressing?”

“Um... nothing, I guess.”

“Exactly. There’s no schedule, no agenda. So I’m going to flag down the server for a refill of Diet Coke, play some solitaire on my iPhone and let that roasted pork goodness digest in peace.”

It was a good thing I’d had this little discussion with myself, because when I got back to Niland a train was blocking the road to Slab City. The train wasn’t moving and the line of waiting vehicles was about a dozen long and growing.

No problem. Relax and go with the flow. Others became impatient and turned around. I just turned off the ignition and let the disappointment and stress float away.

A half hour later the train was gone and I was just fine.

Some people might say, “But, but, that’s a half hour of your life you’ll never get back!” 

The half hour was going to pass anyway. Better to spend it relaxed than upset.

One of many

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Well, that wasn't part of the plan

I forgot to move my step before going on errands. I had been good about doing a walk-around before driving off. Too bad there isn't some kind of proximity sensing ignition interconnect warning beeper instead of only the did-I-just-run-over-something bump & crunch.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Mr. Clean

Bathing is a bit of an issue when you live in a van. Sponge baths, wet wipes, the occasional truck stop shower. I make do. To be honest, there have been periods in the past six months when I went many days without washing. Hey, I was alone and I could stand my own odor. And it helped that I don't sweat as much in arid climates.

Now, with the hot spring here at Slab City, I’ve been bathing twice a day. I rarely showered that often when I lived in buildings. Mmmmmm, clean is good. Feeling fresh is good. I’m going to miss the hot spring after I move on.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pilgrimage to Mecca

Box Canyon runs from Mecca, California, at the top of the Salton Sea, to I-10, just south of the Cottonwood entrance to Joshua Tree. Now, according to the definition, a box canyon has no outlet. But you can drive all the way through Box Canyon. Maybe it got its name from a box that was left there. Things have been named for dumber reasons.

The Mecca end of the canyon is below sea level. The other end is at 1,500 feet.

The drive up Highway 111 from Niland to Mecca also gave me a chance to see the east shore of the Salton Sea. Most of the way it's rather bleak looking. I tried to imagine the treeless, crusty, barren dirt was sand and that I was driving along undeveloped oceanfront. It almost worked.

Claiming the Salton Sea is no longer a stink hole of dead fish, flies and toxic agricultural waste, the state has created a handful of beaches/campgrounds. Most are just a parking lot, a couple of picnic tables and some toilets. Some folks like that kind of thing. Mecca Beach is nice though, with a palm grove and the shade it provides.

Speaking of place names, the town of Bombay Beach is totally not a romantic spot. (Consult Google Street View if you don't want to take my word for it.) And the actual beach was closed, which might have been a public service. "Don't waste your time, folks. Trust us."

The north end of the sea is lush with date palms, grapefruit orchards (which I thought were oranges until a grapefruit fell from a tree and rolled across the road in front of me), vineyards and fields of assorted produce.

I'll close with a travel tip: Even if all the other gas pumps are being used, don't pull in behind the guy with a trailer of ATVs. Unless you need a nap.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Amateur night

Saturday night is open mic at The Range. Ratty furniture, snacks, kids, dogs, much weed in the air. Some performers are quite good (especially when backed by the house band) and some are painful to sit through. But whadda ya want for free and in the middle of nowhere?

Ashes to ashes, paint to paint

Today was the memorial service for Leonard Knight, creator of Salvation Mountain. Sort of an odd, not very well organized affair, which is in keeping, I guess, with the general vibe of the Slabs.

His ashes

His shoes

His guitar

Photo op

Leonard's ashes were mixed with paint and the attendees daubed his cremains on Salvation Mountain so that he'd always be a part of his work. I think that's an excellent idea.


I stumbled upon this thought yesterday. It applies rather directly to choosing to live in a van instead of a building, but it’s more than that.

We humans are social creatures. (Some less than others. Hello, fellow introverts.) When we spend time in groups, it means we’re going to spend some time justifying ourselves. Sometimes subtly, sometimes with a lot of yelling.

When asked why she spent her time flying, Amelia Earhart said, “Because I want to.” It’s  wrong that she had to defend her life choices (they wouldn’t have asked a man the same question), but her answer was perfect.

The problem isn’t whether your journey makes sense to others, it’s whether it makes sense to yourself. It does make sense, I hope. If not, it might be time to figure out why and to take steps to fix it—whether others understand or not.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Can't ya smell that smell?

I woke up at about 3:30 last night and became aware of an odd smell. It was like a combination of overheated electronics and rotting fruit, with a touch of mold. I searched all over the van trying to figure out what it was. I stepped outside to see if the aroma was blowing in from somewhere else. No luck. But the smell was fainter, and it hadn't killed me (yet), so I went back to bed.

Today I figured out what it was: the bandaid on my finger. Dear Johnson & Johnson...

Two more plugs

I've camped with both LaVonne and Lois. They're interesting people.

Lois's blog is here.

LaVonne's blog is here

Cleanup on aisle four

This is the area on the edge of Slab City where less environmentally conscious residents dump their trash. (As opposed to the areas within the Slabs littered with junk.) The dump is nicknamed “Walmart” because you might be able to scrounge something you can use, and because a lot of this stuff originally came from Walmart.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The shirt off your back

This is the free clothing pile at Slab City. Too bad there aren't some hangers, racks and shelves. I assume people thoroughly wash the clothes after selecting them. Maybe not, judging by a handful of folks around here.

It's interesting how people who have very little are willing to give to those who have even less. There's a vein of generosity running through the Slabs, through the ad hoc family of van dwellers, and through other communities on the fringe. You need something? Clothing, food, shelter, medicine, tools, materials, expertise, an extra set of hands? Someone will offer it if they have it. It seems like generosity becomes harder to find the farther up the economic ladder one goes. 

I have a hypothesis that those nearer to poverty have greater empathy, because they've been there themselves or can see how they're just a stumble from being there. They know how much a shower, fresh underwear and a meal can mean. And they can see how a tiny bit of kindness and help might lift a destitute person a little closer to at least their own level. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cliff and Lucy

Cliff Danger travels on his small motorcycle, giving away toy bunny teeth.
Learn more here and here

His trusty mount, Lucy, which he bought in Vietnam and rode around Southeast Asia.
Why Lucy? Because Cliff thinks he looks like Charlie Brown.