There is a desperate poverty on the road, I don’t deny it. Life on the No, not life on the nod, though that nod might be the only relief I got from the wind and the rain that beat down loudly, and the constant no no no of a life lacking almost everything except for love. No gas. No tires. No boots. No food. No camping. No showers. No water. No nuthin’. The only thing I didn’t lack was emotion. Fear. Happiness. Glory. Longing for beauty. Overawed stunned silenced head bent quiet devotion to the freedom and the mountains and the roads that run and run and then run out. That led me almost over cliff edges on mountain passes and tipping into towns that spit me right back out again. The extremes of happiness, of darkness, of experience, are no place to live for extended periods of time, yet I would not change what I found that was out there for anything. Forget the cliches that are bowled at me in their usual attempts to console and provoke, but there is one that holds true: the getting there is almost everything. The staying is the thing that takes an extraordinary amount of effort and discipline. I am still vaguely nervous that I will not be content to stay put, I certainly never have been before.
The brakes are on my highway ways. Michi. The path that those mountain monks are so fond of preaching in a Shintoist projection of philosophical platitudes towards ideals that are so nebulous they fade away like the smoke from their incense on one of those burning Japanese afternoons. A semi magickal superiority jag, of would-be buddhas suspended in their nirvana, while I never can touch or taste mine. Maybe they have something after all, not just wild goose chases towards a perfect emptiness and peace that no one can ever reach or hold onto.
I no longer live by the rhythm of the ice inevitably melting in the cooler, and the rise and fall of a sun that provided our only reliable light, or evenings spent exchanging songs recording the Radio Boy Radio Show for our own amusement only. The brakes are on my high self-indulgent ways. There are no more trailer park baggies of pills, no more liquor store late afternoon runs to secure a bottle before they shut the door on possibility and left us not high and definitely dry. The lack of electricity forces a certain naturalness to life. The days have a rise and fall dictated by the sun.
Whilst I am grateful for the stationary lull in the endless motion, the journey that never ceases, and always carried me towards the sea and the ‘banana belt’ of milder climates and a fine elemental balance of wet and warm, over cold and dry. It was not just the cold and the rain that could make life unliveable in the campgrounds and on the road. Sometimes I feared the heat worse than I feared the cold. The heat had been known to drive us coastwards in search of relief and sometimes more importantly of temperate cooler summers, rather than baking in the EZ bake oven that is the RV in 100 degree plus unforgiving inland heat.
Laying in the back cabin, Billy refusing to open a window, insisting that he was trapping in the cool air, and shutting out the hot, leaves us suffocating and airless, while he muttered about aerodynamics in a strange inability to understand what the word actually meant was an exercise in tolerance that I repeatedly lost. Begging to open a window did nothing: his trailer, his windows, his stupid ideas about how to make things cooler, adding up two and two and making everybody dangerously overheated. He would open windows just a crack, insistent that it would suck in cool air and shut out the hot. He lost his mind in hot weather. Physics meant nothing to him. I would lay flat on the bed, almost at the point of passing out, sweating and delirious with heat, the mosquitos buzzing around my head and leaving me covered in thick red angry allergic welts.
We would run for the coast, for some coolness, for that sea air and the sight of the pacific waves crashing against the rocks the air thick with the salt and the scent of sex and pine trees, moss and swamps. Nothing was ever dry on the coast. Mold grew in the trailer, climbing the walls. Summer or winter, the short cool spring or the blissful fall drier heat, the condensation used to run in fast streams down the inside walls and windows. Opening one of those windows might have helped matters! When the cooler night air came he would throw open doors and windows freezing everyone who had been baking all day until we would shiver and hide under blankets. I have never been much fond of insane dictators.
The lighthouses and moss-covered forests signaled the possibility of living, of camping, of a bit of shade and shelter from the trees, and opened up the playground that was the last of my happy family days as a tight unit, before it was all torn apart. Such a natural life cannot be maintained. No more fairy villages made out of leaves and twigs, moss and sharpie penned banners, no more painted teeshirts declaring we were a tribe that could not be broken. Everything can be broken. Everything can be destroyed. Nothing is forever. Time is built on dry sand and runs away as every grain of silica preciousness slips and slides through the eternal, all possibilities turning into actuality, and then fading away, separated from the present by a glass funnel we cannot turn over. Precious time wasted by people who didn’t appreciate what they had while it was there and mourned it when it was gone.
I sat in the navigator’s seat of the Beast, singing Dylan’s sister loudly and pointedly, as my Boy cried and my Girl smirked with the satisfaction of getting a reaction. Any reaction would do, but negative satisfied her better. His little Boy eyes filled with big fat tears as she tried to smash her head against a wall. I could not carry on. “Sister. Was I not a brother to you?” I screamed along with Dylan, half begging half demanding, half trying to break open her coldness into a warm affection. Too many halves, too much fractional desperation. I could not make any of it add up into anything that I could cope with or that felt bearable. It was too much as she flung cereal over me in an autistic furious spate of anger. I could not cope. Not in the RV, not on the road. The Boy, nursing his scratch wounds and bruises started to whisper. “Stop. Stop. Please. Just Stop.” Billy had had enough, he put his foot to the floor and accelerated dangerously. I screamed. The kids stopped. I turned my attention to the madman at the wheel. “For fucks sake, you crazy bastard, what do you think you are doing?!” The walls were closing in. Me and the Boy were peaceful, but at the mercy of a crazed, demanding, unreasonable Billy, and a mentally ill teenage girl: things had reached breaking point.
We all needed to stop. Stop what we were doing, stop the RV, stop on the road. Stop. Just stop.
We did get to stop occasionally, spending weeks and sometimes months in the same location. Parking lots, federal land, and rest areas, sometimes stealing nights in campgrounds, pulling in late at night, and leaving as the sun rose. The rangers and camp hosts chasing us out, not even letting us sleep somewhere safe for the night. We rarely got a free night camping. One memorable Christmas, we got given one single free night of camping from a ranger who said they thought it would be inappropriate to charge us to stay on Christmas day. Whoopie do. It never occurred to anyone that it was inappropriate to charge us. Full stop. I would keep watch as the children stole showers, or we would pull into a space, charge our cell phones and then get out of there before we were thrown out.
Campgrounds have rules which say campers may only stay two weeks, even if you pay, then they move people on, to stop the people living in vans from living in campgrounds. The barriers to permanent spots are too high. They want campers to be not too elderly or in bad cosmetic condition, plus deposits and a regular income. We rarely had the money to move into a trailer park, even if we could find one occasionally that would allow our elderly RV to park in one of their spaces with electric and water. We were continually moving trying to find a place where we would be allowed to stop. Forget Guthrie’s dream of this land being for you and me. It is for the tourists and the conventionally housed and the rich and privileged only. It is not for the rebels who live on the road, not anymore. This world will run you off the road and then lionize the Kerouac’s and Guthrie’s, the Dylan’s and the Ramblin’ Jack’s and the journeys they make running on empty through a world that chases them down. Maybe one day the hobos and box car riders will be given their proper place within this country. Maybe we will all be chased into sweet little apartments, our guitars on stands not crumbling sodden cardboard hard cases wrapped in blankets. I’ve got soft.
I barely recognize myself nowadays. I look in the mirror and see clean neat hair, at least when it decides to cooperate with me. I have eve been known to style it occasionally, though still havent got myself a hairdryer. I smell like dead sea salt soap and pineapples, not damp and dirty clothes. My eyes look clear. My skin is smoother. I put on enough weight not to be gaunt. I look richer. I look less distressed. I look like a different version of myself. I don’t feel much like it most of the time. I live in a constant hangover from years of things being weird.
I suppose it is a hangover from years spent on the look out for safe spaces to ‘camp’ – or rather exist while being unhoused, that I can’t help categorizing public places according to their desirability and how possible it would be to sleep rough there without being hassled or moved on. It is surprisingly difficult to find places to boondock in a campervan. RVs are large and not particularly stealthy, so paid-for camping is the only sure way to live and not be moved on. Word of mouth between other people who live outside passes on the locations of rest areas, quiet lanes with space to pull over, parking lots and casinos which let people stay there a while before they insist on moving them on. Walmart used to be a sure bet for a place to stay for a few weeks, and with their long opening hours, some 24 hours a day, and cheap food and gas, and a steady stream of people parking up to shop providing cover, they are pretty much an ideal stopping place for people who have no money, and a vehicle which provides their daily shelter.
Looking for these rarer than hen’s teeth places to stop is a reflex reaction. Seeing a beat up old camper van and a barely held together with rust and sticky tape outside the now-defunct and abandoned Lucky Penny restaurant on Geary, parked neatly in the front parking lot, surrounded by lots of nicer-end cars, and a few beaters. It is a great spot for a camper to stop, and for someone housed in their vehicle to live. The business has closed, the parking lot is huge and there is enough room to not bother anybody. Next door is a big trader joes, so food is easy to obtain if the battery has died and the occupant is dead in the water. As far as ‘nowhere else to go’ spots rank, the Lucky Penny parking lot is pretty much perfect. Its location on a major road, with no back lot to hide in when yer tags have expired, would be the only draw back to trying to sleep there. I bet there is only minimal hassle from the cops there most of the time, and the owners of the building surely do not give a flying fuck. It is one of those rare spaces that might be sustainable for a while, and I am so glad for the people who have found it and been able to just stop a while in a country that seems to want the poor to disappear entirely.
The front hallway of my apartment building is open to the air, but enclosed by wrought iron on two sides, with a roof and a strong metal gate. This area is the size of a small room, clean and daubed in thick plaster and paint. It would make an excellent place to sleep if someone could get in there. Everytime I go to collect my mail I think to myself that I could happily sleep there in a pinch, but hope to fuck I never have to. I unlock my mail box and see my sleeping bag in the furthest corner away from the door, a little tarp over the wrought iron, some plastic bags under where I sleep, make a small barrier with my suitcase, my ancient and stinky cuddly mouse I used as a pillow but is now left behind with Billy. My thick waterproof fleece over my thinner jersey hoodie, and my Walmart jeans over a pair of black leggings and two pairs of socks.
When I was sleeping outside the mission in Washington with Billy and the kids a shooting gallery blondie gave me a huge leather jacket from the donations bags. She should have taken it herself, and I to this day, have no idea why she didn’t. She was sleeping inside the mission. I could not because I had the boy – let alone Billy, and it was girls and boys under about ten years old only. So we slept parked outside in the RV in the cold and the damp. They let me and the kids use their showers and gave us food every day. I helped out in the shelter in exchange for being allowed to park in their parking lot. At the time we were so grateful. Being able to park there made life possible for some of the toughest times we had to go through together.
It meant everything just to be able to stop for a time, not be moved on, not have to worry about where to get water or where to park for the night, or where to shower, or how to get enough food to eat.
I am vaguely scared of myself tonight. I half feel like sleeping under the mailboxes to prove to myself I could and it would be survivable, or walking down to the lucky penny and finding a corner to curl up in. I need to not need this. To not need this beautiful apartment, or the window seat, or my comfortable bed, or the guitar stand the guild sits on, or the fluffy pillows, nor the showers or the bookshelves. To need anything as much as I need to be here feels dangerous.
I need this. I need this.
I have got soft. I have got old. I’ve got more than I ever thought I would need.
The lamplight that shines outside flickers softly. It looks as though the fire is going to go out. Just like that campfire in Minnesota that burnt up the wet wood, sending embers crackling and spitting and jumping out burning my hands and making holes in my sweater. and making my eyes run with the burning sap and acrid smoke.
Some day you will look back and remember more of the good times and less of the bad ones. I hope so. I hope you write about them and make people feel the desperation that homeless people feel. I know you can make them want to help others that are in that position. I can’t wait to be able to say, I knew her when she was starting to write and will celebrate with you when you are successful.
You made me cry! Happy tears, that is so lovely of you! THank you!