Racoons in the Wheel-Wells: The End of the Road

San Francisco. Photograph by The Paltry Sum

I miss those days when we would stow everything that could go flying while we drove in the class C camper, and take off down the road. There was a pattern to getting ready to leave the campground for a long trip. Billy was obsessed with having enough water. He would go and wash out the water jugs, and refill them. We always carried at least ten gallons, plus what was in the camper’s water tank. I had no idea how much water a family used until the only way to get water to flush the chemical toilet, to wash hands and cooking utensils, bodies and food, let alone the amount each person needs to drink, is to go to a faucet, fill a container and haul it back. Very few camping spots have a water faucet as well as electricity. We often would not bother to pay for full hook ups – sewer, water and electric, and instead be content with just electricity. Sometimes months would go past without electricity either.

You can survive in warmer weather without electric. The main issue is with communications – telephone and internet. Sometimes you can get a little charge from the cigarette charger up front, but this damages the vehicle’s battery if you rely too heavily upon it. Sometimes there is an electrical outlet in the public bathroom that you can stand next to while your phone charges up.

Sometimes you just have to accept there is no phone, no electrical based information, education or entertainment, and just get on with it. Years went past with no television shows and no movies at all. Without electric there is also no recorded music. Instead guitars are pulled out, and the big Bob Dylan book of lyrics is produced. You play one, I play one. I would swap a Just Like a Woman for a Lay Lady Lay. Children sing along, as the sun goes down on another day. Campfires are kept lit, animals and birds appear and disappear. Sometimes there are racoons in the wheel-wells and once or twice a trapped cat in the bowels of the camper yowling, and stuck, so you have to go out there with that eerie noise and work out where it has crawled into and set it free.

One night I got up in the small hours, to work out where the meowing was coming from, moved some stuff from the lockers underneath, set free a small female cat, only for her to squeeze back in somehow and scream to be helped out again. I boarded up all the gaps so no creature could crawl in and eerily scream for help at 2am.

Children had books – all their school books and reading material came from used book stores, they read at night by headlamp, and in the day at picnic tables outside under trees. I would sit and write songs, or make supper, or clean the trailer. Days were spent in a quiet sense of nothing much to do except survive. I miss the peace of these days. I miss standing by a sand dune, or under a tree, or by a swamp or a lake and knowing there was nothing else to do but exist. The stress quotient of such days tends to be low. If I was lucky, I’d go fishing. I had an ancient tacklebox, and an even more ancient rod and reel, which was patched up to the point that nothing original was on it. Bobbing around on a lake in Minnesota, with the children in their life vests, rowing against the currents, line in the water, staring down turtles while I got sunburnt and exhausted, was such a simple pleasure.

I’d catch crawpie and sunfish. Never anything huge. The fishing in Oregon dismayed me. It is nothing close to the joy of fishing in Minnesota. Lean and sparse and kinda boring. Billy would gut ’em and I would cook ’em, and we would have fried fish and potatoes to eat over the fire. Summers came and went in the pattern of quietude and peace. My favorite campgrounds had lots of shade. I loved driving into a place that hadn’t been plucked and primped to the point of parking lot uniformity. I liked foliage and bushes, tree canopies and privacy. Hedgerow Prison took this too far – walls of privet hedges walling off tiny camping spaces, looming over you intimidatingly, but in the nicest campgrounds, the temperature in summer was much cooler under the trees. One particularly lovely campground had a limit of a two week stay, but a river ran through it, and the trees formed a green dome of coolness and dark. In winter this could get depressing, but in the heat of summer I welcomed it.

Of course over the years these places got busier and busier until there was no room left to live at all.

What I would give to sit quietly in an empty campground once again, with my entire family around me. To spend a day collecting water, fishing, cleaning floors and playing Dylan songs on my old Martin. What I would give to say I was going for a walk and to walk outside safely, swinging my arms and breathing clean air, saying hello to the aerial chipmunk family that strangely lived in a tree, or watching mink hunt in a river, or catching glimpses of badger on a pathway, us terrifyingly scaring each other. There is nothing more intimidating than a scared badger. How I would love to walk arm in arm under a canopy of trees and sit by the lake. It has all gone now. We are not even the same people. Some innocence was lost somewhere along the road.

Lines get drawn under different chapters of life. I can divide mine into sections. Childhood. Young. Mother in Japan. Mother in the USA, before and after the Girl. Camping and on the road, and now here in San Francisco. Each chapter has it’s tenderness and it’s joys. The city moves quickly and burns you out, especially when it descends into lawlessness. It makes me miss the gentle pace of life in the camper and the privacy of the RV, but there is no going back. Those doors are closed. There is only forwards.

When I remember that campground in Washington state where Racoons ran the world, I smile. There were racoons in the bathroom, racoons in the wheel-wells, racoons stealing anything that was not tied down. It was a racoon world, but they are nothing without a camper to rob blind and intimidate. An army of little zorro’s in furry bandanas. I think I prefer them to the crackhead on the corner that yells bitch at me every time I walk past, for no perceptible reason at all. I’d rather lose my trail mix than my life. I imagine racoons with switchblades taking over the city, fighting armies of rats for the scraps from the trash cans of life. They ain’t nothing without us humans. Scavengers all of them.

I prefer animals to most humans. I think I’ll shut my eyes, and think of the park with electric, but no signal, large spaces and roving gangs of raccoons, where I felt as if I could breathe. I had to go. I wasn’t going to last another winter outside in that ancient camper. I couldn’t tolerate Billy’s behavior, but I loved the peace while it lasted. I can’t believe, looking back that I lasted five years outside with children. This is the end of the road for me, here in San Francisco, regrets and dangers, shootings and threats. It is what it is: time clipped my wings.

Leech Lake. Copywrite The Paltry Sum


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