From inside the livestock trailer, I heard a man’s voice say Good morning, so I said Good morning in return.
The man’s voice called the dog. The dog ran to the gate of the trailer, then away from it. The man continued calling the dog in a low, calm voice. At the time, I thought the dog was just being playful, was enjoying being off leash, didn’t want to give up its freedom. But now I remember the dog cowering just outside the trailer’s open gate, ears flattened against its head. Like the girl, the dog was silent.
When the man had the dog, I walked around to the open gate of the trailer. The man was tying the dog to a rope attached to the trailer.
I’d barely identified myself as the camp host when the man said to me, Well, you sure don’t waste any time.
I guess he meant I hadn’t wasted any time in coming over to collect the camping fee. I thought it was a strange thing for him to say. People who stay in a campground typically know there is a fee to camp, and most people are happy to pay up and get the task out of the way.
In that instant when the man spoke to me, my whole plan changed. Maybe the look on the girl’s face had finally registered as fear. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to dangerous men. But what came out of my mouth was, I’ll make you a deal. If you clean up after the horses, I won’t charge you the camping fee. I know y’all got in late last night.
I didn’t fear for my own personal safety. The man didn’t do or say anything I could point to as a threat. But I had a suspicion that if the man got pissed off, I wouldn’t be the one he’d take it out on.
I think he thanked me. Then he asked, If we want to stay another night, should we talk to you?
The last thing I wanted in my campground was this bad vibe man, his cowering dog, his silent girl, and his six shitting horses.
Well, I said, I’ve got people checking in on this site tomorrow, and this really isn’t a horse camp.
No, he agreed. This really isn’t a horse camp. I guess there’s no water either?
No, I sadly shook my head, no water.
We’ll just have some breakfast, he said. Then we’ll get out of your hair.
I continued about my business cleaning fire rings. I kept a watch on the family out of the corner of my eye.
A woman and two younger children emerged from the pile of blankets and sleeping bags on the ground. I couldn’t determine the gender of the youngest child, but the middle kid was a blond girl, probably seven or eight years old.
Two things struck me as strange.
First, after breakfast was cooked (on a high standing stove), the people did not sit down to enjoy their meal. Although there were three picnic tables in the area they were occupying, they stood in a loose circle while they consumed their food. I couldn’t tell what they were eating or if they used plates, but standing during breakfast is not normal camper behavior.
Second, for most of the morning, the man’s voice was the only one I heard. He didn’t raise it high enough for me to understand his words, but I could hear it drifting through the campground. I didn’t hear the women’s voice once, and at least an hour passed before I could hear the kids. Whether the woman and children were whispering or silent, I don’t know.
The man did another weird thing while I was cleaning the fire ring on site #1. He let a horse wander off from the rest of its herd. He didn’t let it go far, but I wondered why he was allowing it to move around freely. Was he challenging me, hoping I’d say something so he could argue with me or have a reason to be be mad?
Typically I would have commented on the beauty of the horse (a muscular, brown creature), but my instinct was not to chit chat with these people.
When I finished cleaning fire rings, I went back to my campsite to get ready for the rest of my day. I started hearing the children’s voices echo through the campground. The kids were not screaming at the tops of their lungs, but I could hear their happy and excited voices.
I was beginning to think I was imaging things and there wasn’t anything weird about these people when I heard the man raise his voice. I was pretty sure he was reprimanding one or more of the children, and I clearly heard him say…yelling out loud! He was reprimanding the children for their happy, exuberant voices! (And really, if a kid can’t yell in a campground at 9:30 in the morning, where can a kid yell?)
Then I heard the twack twack twack sound of something (a switch picked up from the ground? a horse-related tool?) slice through the air and hit something. When I looked up, the man was walking away, but the middle child was standing frozen, with her arms held stiffly at her sides. I didn’t hear any children’s voices after that.
Once again, I was rendered mute by a grown man hitting a little kid, but this time I’d only heard the abuse. What could I do? I know how abusers work. Anything I said or did, the woman or the kids would pay for later. I didn’t even have an excuse to talk to the girl and offer her some small kindness.
Sometimes I feel so useless.
The day after the horse people left, I walked through the area they’d occupied and could still smell horse feces. I started poking around with the toe of my boot and found the man’s idea of cleaning up after his horses was to bury the feces. Asswipe! I ended up having to clean up the horse feces myself, and it was a more difficult task now that it was covered in duff. I will admit I had fantasies of breaking that man’s kneecaps.
When I went to bed, the campground was empty.
I woke up at 12:30am, and I really had to pee. I was so groggy as I pulled out my pee bucket and found the toilet paper, but I seemed to be hearing noises in the campground. The noises weren’t right outside the van, but were somewhere within the campground. Once back in bed, I tried to figure out what I was hearing.
I did not hear the sound of a vehicle’s engine, which kind of freaked me out. If there were people in the campground, wouldn’t they have driven in? Could I have slept through a vehicle pulling into the campground? Probably. As groggy as I was when I woke up, I’d probably been sleeping really hard. If the vehicle were on the other side of the campground, I definitely could have slept through its motor running.
But what were the other noises I was hearing? There was a metallic sound, somewhat like the metal lids on the metal trashcans being jostled, but not very loud. I wondered if a bear were getting into the metal trashcans, but I think a bear messing with trashcans would make a lot of noise. I don’t think bears are carefully quiet when helping themselves to midnight garbage snacks.
I could also hear the sounds of some kind of animal(s). I couldn’t decide what kind of animal it might be.
Are the cows back? I wondered. When I’d closed up the van around eight o’clock, there had been no cows in the meadow. I don’t think cows are the type of animal to go exploring in the middle of the night. Besides, I’ve been around cows at night (me in a house or my van, the cows in a pasture or a meadow); I know what kinds of noises cows make. The noises I heard did not sound like cows.
I was back to thinking maybe I heard a bear. I’ve never heard a bear, so maybe the noises I was hearing were bear noises. Maybe it was a very quiet bear, carefully lifting the lids on the trashcans and replacing them gently.
What didn’t make sense about bears eating from the trash cans is that the campground had not been very busy in the last few days. Any bears exploring those trashcans would not find much to eat.
Maybe I had dozed off. Maybe I was dreaming. But suddenly I was wide awake and I swore I’d heard a footstep. But whose footstep? Man or beast? Bear or cow?
I waited to hear a lid lifted from a trash can or one can crash into another. Nothing.
Nighttime in a remote, empty campground can be very disconcerting. It’s so quiet. It’s so dark. I never know who or what is out there.
One of my personal rules of being a camp host is that I’m in the van with the doors locked by nightfall, and I don’t get out of the fan at night to greet strangers. If someone I already talked to and checked-in while the sun was out knocks at at night, I ‘d get out of the van and help them if necessary. But I’m not going to deal with strangers in the dark, especially if my brain is addled with sleep.
I lay in the dark, still and quiet, straining to hear any and every little noise. Then I saw the beam of a flashlight once, twice.
I was pretty sure even a Ninja quiet bear would not have a flashlight, which meant I was dealing with humans. I didn’t know if I preferred humans to bears. What were those people doing out there at nearly one in the morning? Who were they? Did they just want to camp, or were they plotting evil schemes? And what were the weird noises?
Everything must have settled down, and I must have dozed off because the next time I turned on my tiny flashlight with the red beam, it was 2am and all was quiet.
I was awake with the first light of dawn. I dressed and prepared to face whatever havoc had been wreaked on the campground in the night.
The trashcans on my side of the campground had not been tampered with. So far, so good.
I saw a big pickup truck hauling a long livestock trailer on the other side of the campground. I saw bedding spread out on site #6 (but no tent). I saw a dog, and it saw me. I couldn’t tell if it was tethered in any way, but it didn’t run over to meet me, so I left well enough alone. I didn’t see any people moving around, but at the back of site #6, I saw six horses milling about.
Oh! Horses! That was the animal noise I’d heard in the night. I don’t have much horse experience, so I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t identified the sounds I’d heard as coming from horses.
I also figured the metallic sounds must have come from the trailer–the gate opening, the horses unloading.
I did my paperwork so I could turn it into my supervisor later in the day. I swept the restrooms. I cleaned fire rings. I plotted how I would demand payment from the horse people, no mater if they protested that they’d not spent the whole night. They’d woke me (and scared me, no less), and they were going to pay.
Between 6 and 6:30, I looked over to site #6 and saw some people moving around. When I finished with the fire ring I was cleaning, I grabbed my clipboard and walked over, fully intending to write a permit and collect payment.
I noticed a person walking among the horses. The person had long hair; I thought it was a small woman. I also noticed the dog I’d seen earlier was not leashed and was frolicking around the horses. I think I said, Good morning, followed by, The dog does need to be leashed in the National Forest.
The female person did not turn to look at me.
I said, Miss? Miss?
The female person turned to look at me. I saw she was not a small woman, but a young girl, maybe 11, maybe 12. She looked at me in utter confusion.
The dog, I pointed. A leash, I said.
She didn’t utter a word. She seemed to be frozen. She just looked at me with blank eyes of confusion. I think there was something besides confusion on her face, but I didn’t realize it at the time.
To Be Continued
I realize not everyone checks out my “for sale” pages, so I decided to do a regular post to show off the new collages I made a couple of weeks ago. I was fighting off a cold, so I decided to spend my afternoon sitting in the van being quietly creative. The five collages I show off today are the fruits of my labor.
Yesterday evening, after I’d worked in the parking lot, after I cleaned my campground’s last toilet and poured a bucket of water on a fire campers had left smoldering, after I cooked and ate dinner and cleaned up after, I thought I might be getting sick. As I sat on the floor of my van and did my accounting of the money I’d collected in the parking lot, I felt really cold.
Of course, the temperature was pleasantly cool all day, after a thunderstorm (and what thunderous thunder it was) the night before. I wore my official company-issued jacket most of the day. But as the afternoon depended into evening, I got colder than I thought I should be.
After I finished my accounting, I took off my uniform and put on my new grey Cuddl Duds leggings (purchased new and on sale for only $3 on end-of-season clearance because to most of California it’s summer now) and my blue sweatshirt (purchased ages ago for $1 at a New Mexico thrift store). I realized not only was I cold, but I was congested too. Oh no! Was I getting sick? I don’t want none of that!
I emptied a packet of Emergen-C (bought for half price because the box was crushed) into my water bottle and chugged it down. I closed my curtain before it was even dark out and crawled into bed under my feather comforter (bought at a Goodwill Clearance Center for $6, using a birthday gift card, since I seem to be giving an accounting of bargains). I finished reading Lit by Mary Karr and turned out the light.
A woman I met at the 2016 Rubber Tramp Rendezvous told me she clears her body of all the nasty stuff chem trails leave behind just by thinking about it, telling her body to get rid of it all. I decided if it works (?) for chem trail chemicals, it should work for the common cold. So I told my body to flush out any invaders. Out, damned germ! Out, I say! I also gave my white blood cells a pep talk. Come on white blood cells/you can do it/put a little power to it!
I was probably asleep by 9:30.
When I woke up to pee for the nth time (because of all that water before bed), I was warm enough to take off my clothes before I got back in bed. Maybe a fever broke?
I slept well (and I think I had dreams, but I don’t remember a single detail). I woke to birdsong before daylight, but tried to sleep more until a raven (or maybe a pileated woodpecker or a pterodactyl) shouted Crawk! as it passed directly over the van. Ok! I’m awake! I’m writing!
Now it’s almost 6:15, and I don’t really want to get out of bed. (It’s my day off, so technically, I don’t have to.) I don’t quite have a headache, but more forehead feels tight, my eyelids are heavy, and I have an awareness of my lower back I don’t usually have.
I have much to do today, but mostly, I don’t want to be sick. Maybe I can still sleep it off.
I wrote this piece on June 13. After driving halfway down the mountain to get my mail, I spent the rest of the day sitting quietly in the van creating collages. I felt better the next day and thought I’d fought off the cold. I was good during my workweek (Wednesday through Sunday) until I woke up on Sunday with a sore throat. Now it’s Tuesday again, and I am full blown sick. My throat’s not sore anymore, which is good news, but my head is totally snotty and the cough is settling in. Maybe I should have cheered on my white blood cells a little more.
Four years ago today, I ran away from a bad relationship in the middle of the night. My plan was to kill myself.
My partner had been telling me that’s what I should do, even though he knew I had a history of depression and suicidal thoughts. Things were so bad between us, I believed my death was the only solution.
I was surprised to discover that the farther away I walked from the relationship, the less I wanted to die. I guess I wanted to live, just not with him.
Sleeping helped. He’d kept me from getting a good night of sleep for weeks, and the naps I took as I walked (especially several hours of rest in an abandoned car) really helped clear my head. Being away from his second-hand pot smoke helped a lot too. (I never thought the second-hand pot smoke was affecting me until I got away from it and making reasonable decisions became easier.) And the DMT I’d smoked the night before? I think it saved my life by giving me just enough sense of well being to keep me going.
I started a new life when I snuck off into the night, a life where no one told me I was a bad person. I started a life in which I had friends again. I started a life where no on threatened to kill me, the dog, my entire family, everyone I’d ever cared for, and finally, himself. I started a life where no one yelled about my driving and found fault with everything I did. I started a life where I ate what I wanted and wore what I wanted and did what I wanted.
However, I didn’t quite dance into the sunrise surrounded by animated woodland creatures. I was homelss (as in no house, no van, no tent) for a while. I slept in a rest area, wondering if I’d wake to a rattlesnake curled up on me for warmth or to a man with a gun. I ate out of trash cans and from the special room at the food bank for people who didn’t have stoves. (Cold soup was delicious when I was hungry enough.)
I don’t write these things looking for pity. Pity aggravates me. I’m not looking for anyone to say Oh poor you. I never had it worse (and usually had it better) than so many people in the world who face bombs and famine and rape and torture.
I write about these things because they are true. This is what happened to me. And these kinds of things happen to other people too. Why are we supposed to be ashamed and silent?
Why are we supposed to be ashamed for having been in an abusive relationship? (Maybe our abusers are the ones who should be ashamed.) Yes, I should have left sooner (and I’d actually left three big times before.) According to http://www.domesticabuseshelter.org/infodomesticviolence.htm,
On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good[,]
so I figure I’m ahead of the game. At any given moment, I was doing the best I could to do what I thought I needed to do to protect myself and others.
Why are we supposed to be ashamed of being homeless or living in a van? Why are we supposed to be ashamed of being poor, of living hand to mouth? (Maybe the rich who live with excess while others do without necessities should be ashamed.) Why are we supposed to be ashamed of eating out of garbage cans? (Maybe the people throwing out perfectly edible food are the ones who should be ashamed.)
I write these things in the hope of helping others. I made it through the darkness; I think you can too. If a person tells you you’re stupid and worthless and no one else will ever love you, it’s a lie. Being homeless is not the end of the world and being unencumbered by material possessions can be liberating. Don’t let anyone shame you for living in a van; you have a freedom many envy. Being poor is not a moral failing; the system’s set up so the rich benefit while the poor suffer.
Running away in the night led to hardships, but it led to beauty too. I made new friends. I started selling sage sticks, then jewelry, then shiny rocks to support myself. Old friends found me when I thought no one was looking for me and no one cared. They gave me a bit of money and a bunch of love. I bought a van. I went on an epic road trip practically from coast to coast. I worked at being a good person and helping others when I could.
My first rebirth day was a quiet big deal to me. I’d made it a year. My ex hadn’t found me. I was alive, and I had a van to live in. My friend reminded me of my second rebirth day, and I was happy I’d made it another year without any contact from my ex. Last year I was so busy being a camp host that my rebirth day passed quietly by.
This year I’m commemorating by telling my story. I ran away, and I’m alive. I have friends and a job, and I’m relatively happy. (Some days are better than others, but that’s how it was when I lived in a house too.) I travel and see amazing natural beauty. People enjoy reading what I write. I have a good life.
On this special day of mine, please allow me to whisper in your ear: Stay strong. Don’t give up.
It was the Memorial Day holiday and my first weekend back at the parking lot. I was happy to be back on the mountain.
A Jeep pulled in, and I approached it. The window rolled down, and I got a whiff of what smelled like weed to me. Instead of playing it cool, like I usually do, I said, It smells gooood in here!
The young people crowded into the Jeep remained noncommittal. They weren’t looking for the trail or our parking lot, but had pulled in to ask directions to some other place.
Instead of letting the weed thing drop, I pressed the issue. I can’t remember what I said, but I actually used the word weed (or maybe pot). I wanted them to know I was hip and cool and with it. I wanted them to know that I may be a middle-age lady, but I know marijuana when I smell it. I’m not sure why it seemed so important to me that they knew that I knew, but in the moment it was.
As I talked to them, my tongue went slack and my words were slipping around loosely. I took that as a sign of a contact high.
A couple of the people in the Jeep said they didn’t have any weed. I said, Oooookkkaaaay, as they drove off to wherever they were going.
I turned to my co-worker and said, I know they had weed in there!
He said, So what?! We’re in California. I love to see young people smoking dope.
I explained I didn’t care if they’d been smoking weed, I just wanted them to admit it.
Then I realized (as so often is the case), I should have kept my big mouth shut.
#1 It wasn’t my business if they were smoking weed.
#2 Recognizing the smell of marijuana does not make me hip or cool or with it. Thinking I’m hip (or cool or with it) because I know what marijuana smells like actually makes me pathetic.
#3 If they weren’t smoking weed, I probably came across as really weird.
#4 If they had been smoking weed, I possibly make them paranoid. Here’s this woman in a uniform asking them if they’d been smoking (a still federally illegal) substance. I imagined them driving away, muttering at each other, She knows. Everybody knows.
I totally should have kept my big mouth shut.
But if the people in the Jeep hadn’t been smoking weed, what did I smell?
#1 Maybe the Jeep was a diesel? I once (foolishly) lived in close proximity to marijuana of a diesel variety (sour, I think). For a long time, the smell of it was seared into my memory, and whenever I smelled a diesel engine, I thought of that weed. Whenever that happened, it was more of a dirty exhaust smell with marijuana undertones. The smell in the parking lot was different because a) I didn’t smell it until the window went down and b) it didn’t smell dirty at all.
#2 Maybe I was having an olfactory hallucination? I’ve noticed a couple times this season I’ve thought I’ve smelled weed when I was in a place where such a thing was impossible, like alone in a campground restroom.
I think those people had been smoking weed and didn’t want to tell me. Fair enough. Admit to nothing is a good guideline when engaged in illicit activity.
I’m going to work harder on keeping my mouth shut.