Monthly Archives: November 2017

Half-Wild Beach Cows

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When I was in middle school, my parents went on a camping kick.

I suspect it was my dad who decided the family should go camping. Why would my mom want to camp? It only made extra work for her: making sure everyone in the family had packed everything s/he needed for the weekend; packing every ingredient for every meal, as well as appropriate pots, pans, and utensils; listening to the children complain; gathering and packing necessary bedding and towels; washing sand out of everything when we returned from the beach.

It was to the beach we went on our first few camping trips. This beach was not a white-sand beach in Black White MosquitoFlorida or the ruggedly beautiful coast of Oregon. No, the beach we frequented was the nasty oil-slicked beach of the Louisiana Gulf Coast where the water was brown, trash washed up on the sand, and the mosquitoes were huge. This beach was ugly, but it wasn’t very far from home, and camping there was free.

Our first camping shelter was an old-school canvas tent. I suspect my dad got it, like so many items from my childhood (scratchy wool blankets, BAND-AID® brand adhesive bandages in bulk, Mercurochrome) from a discard pile of mythic proportion from his days in the National Guard.

After a few trips to the beach, my dad liked camping so much, he decided to buy a tiny camper to pull behind the family truck. He bought the camper from an old couple, and it was only after he got it home that he discovered the pressboard it was made from was mostly rotten. My father dismantled the camper down to the frame, then replaced every bit of wood and every scrap of insulation before putting it all back together again.

As far as I was concerned, he could have saved his energy. I had no desire to camp. There were no showers at the beach, no hairdryers, no flush toilets. To young teenage me, the beach was barbaric.

I can’t remember how many times my family went camping at the beach in our refurbished camper. I only remember the night of the half-wild beach cows.

A friend of the family had come with us. She was in her 60s, flamboyant, liked board games, and was patient with my sibling and me. I have not idea why she wanted to spend her weekend at the beach.

The family friend was supposed to sleep in the screen ten, but my dad built the campfire too close to it and melted the screen. No way could she sleep in a tent with a huge hole in it; the mosquitoes would have carried her away. Instead, she had to sleep in the camper with us.

It was already tight quarters in the camper at night. The kitchen table folded down into a double bed; that’s where my parents slept. My younger sibling slept in a bunk that folded down from above the table. (My mother was afraid my sibling–a tween at the time–would  roll out of bed and meet death on the camper’s floor, so she crocheted a huge net to stretch across the bunk.) I usually slept on the cushioned bench across the front of the trailer, but on this night I was relegated to a pile of blankets on the floor so our elderly guest could have what barely passed for a twin bed. If I was uncomfortable–and I was–I wonder how our rather large friend managed to stay on her narrow bed.

animal, black and white, cattleNo one was sleeping well when the commotion started outside, but we were soon wide awake. We heard animal noises and hooves hitting the ground, and it was all very close. It was so close, we began to hear and feel thumping on our camper. The camper swayed and rocked as one or more big somethings bumped it.  In the distance we heard humans yelling. What could possibly be going on out there?

My dad must have grabbed a flashlight and shined it out the window in order to report: cows. They were half-wild beach cows, let loose to graze, I suppose, although there wasn’t much in the way of tasty grass where we were parked. It must have been open range out there, and the cows were allowed to move about freely on the beach.  We had come into their territory, and they seemed none too happy about it.

I don’t remember how long the attack lasted, but we couldn’t get back to sleep after the cows moved on. I don’t think any of us got much sleep that night.

In the early daylight of the next morning, when we emerged from our little trailer, we saw the aftermath of the visit from the cows. Tents and temporary clotheslines had been knocked down. People must have spent a long night in cars to escape mosquitoes and marauding bovines. What else can you do when half-wild animals knock your tent on top of you while you’re sleeping in it? My family had been lucky to have a sturdy camper to keep us safe.

 

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/black-white-mosquito-86722/ and https://www.pexels.com/photo/animal-black-and-white-cattle-close-up-551618/.

Biker

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I was working the main parking lot on the penultimate Saturday of the season. I hadn’t been there clouds, countryside, forestlong when a bunch of folks on motorcycles pulled in. That’s when I remembered the same thing happened late in the season the year before. There was a motorcycle rally in the valley and the bikers were coming up the mountain to enjoy driving the winding, turning, curvy roads. Lots of bikers roared past the parking lot, but just as many decided to stop and see the sequoias.

The majority of bikers were men, and most were traveling in groups of 3 to 6. I did see a handful of women and a few lone wolves, but while none of the groups seemed to be organized gangs, men traveling together was the order of the day.

At one point, a small group of guys was milling about near the front of the parking lot. Most of them were probably in their 20s, while maybe two of their number were middle age. One man was older, with glasses and a grey ponytail. He looked like Jerry Garcia might have looked had he lived another decade. I could see the older man was looking at me, but I thought I probably had dirt on my nose.

Finally, he approached me. He must have been looking at me trying to get his courage up because he asked me in a low voice, as if he were embarrassed, Is this hike hard? I’m an old man. I don’t get around like I used to.

headlight, motorbike, motorcycleMy heart went out to him. Here was this tough guy biker, hair in a ponytail, wearing black clothes and boots, worried he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the young bucks on a walk through the trees.

Don’t worry, I answered softly so none of his buddies would overhear. It’s more of a stroll than a hike, It’s paved and wheelchair accessible. There are lots of benches on the trail too, I told him. If you need to sit and rest, just tell the others you’re basking in the glory of the trees.

After my reassurance, he walked away with a grin on his face.

Even the toughest of us will be old someday, but we’ll always want to be able to keep up with the kids.

Images courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/clouds-countryside-forest-idyllic-319833/ and https://www.pexels.com/photo/headlight-motorbike-motorcycle-vehicle-1658/.

Scruffy

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Shortly before Labor Day Weekend, two coworkers quit suddenly. The Man was sent to work my old job in the parking lot, and I continued to staff the mercantile. The manager and I worked alone on the two days the other had off each week, and we worked together on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

After Labor Day, weekdays were very slow. Some weekdays, the mercantile took in less than $100. Slow was fine with me. I entertained myself by writing or reading, and I got paid the same no matter what I sold.

One Wednesday I was working alone. The weather was cold and rainy, and only a few people had been in the store all day. Late in the afternoon, a man and a woman—both with totally white hair—came in.

Are y’all here for the trail? I asked the couple.

They said they were. I told them there was a $5 parking fee.

The fellow with the white hair started to laugh. That’s what the guy down the road told me, he said.  I told him to take a hike!

I assured him the parking fee was real. The fellow with the white hair insinuated The Man (who was working the parking lot alone that day) was an imposter ripping people off $5 at a time.

Don’t you think it’s a long way to come up this mountain to hustle people?  I asked the fellow with the white hair. It’s a pretty slow day for that too, I told him.

He didn’t have on a uniform, the woman said.

He didn’t have on a uniform? I asked incredulously. I was confident The Man was wearing a uniform when he’d dropped me off at the mercantile that morning. He wasn’t wearing a jacket like this? I asked,  gesturing to the company insignia on the jacket I was wearing.

He was wearing a uniform, the fellow with the white hair said, sounding irritated.

That’s not what you told me, the woman said.

The fellow with the white hair looked at me and said, He was kind of scruffy.

I was aghast. That’s my boyfriend! I told the fellow with the white hair. He had the decency to look embarrassed.

The Man has facial hair, it’s true, and his jacket may not have been pristine clean since we live away from civilization and can’t always do laundry the moment our outerwear gets dirty. However, I’d call him handsome, perhaps rugged, but not scruffy.

The fellow with the white hair continued to defend his doubts about The Man’s validity as an employee empowered to collect parking fees. He knew a woman, he said, who hustled people by collecting money in parking lots…

Where? I shot back at him. Grateful Dead shows?

He nodded, while his lady friend grew increasingly embarrassed.

I told him again it sure was a long way up the mountain on a slow and rainy day to tell lies just to get a few bucks. He continued to look embarrassed, but not nearly as embarrassed as the woman with him.

The fellow with the white hair may have doubted The Man’s valididy, but he didn’t doubt mine. Not only was I wearing a uniform and a photo ID, I was standing behind a cash register in a store. I collected that old coot’s $5 parking fee before he went back to his car.

 

Elf

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It was the end of a long hot day of trying to sell hemp jewelry and shiny rocks on the side of the highway. (Total sales for the day: $36.) I was eating dinner and reading a copy of the David Sedaris collection Holidays on Ice I’d picked out of a free pile behind a thrift store.

Holidays on Ice
The first story in the collection is “SantaLand Diaries,” a memoir of the pre-Christmas season Sedaris worked as an elf in NYC’s Macy’s store. Early in the essay, Sedaris recalls how he imagined his life in the Big Apple. Of course, his life didn’t go the way of his imagination, and he writes,

But instead I am applying for a job as an elf. Even worse than applying is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn’t even find work as an elf. That’s when you know you’re a failure.

Ouch. That hurt.

I had applied for a job as an elf some years ago. Like David Sedaris, I applied to be a Macy’s elf. Unlike Sedaris, I did not apply for elfhood in NYC.  I was in the Pacific Northwest, where I’d recently moved to live with my boyfriend in an apartment his parents had paid a deposit and a month of rent on. The boyfriend didn’t seem to be concerned about finding work (I suppose he’d had a long history of mooching off his parents), but I was scrambling to find a job, any job.

First I called Manpower, the temp service I’d worked through for three years in the medium sized Midwestern town from whence I’d come. The Manpower employment specialist (or whatever they call themselves) who took my call seemed absolutely bored. I asked him if I should go into the office to meet with someone. No need for that, he assured me. There weren’t really any jobs anyway. (No jobs? I wondered. In a major U.S. city? No temp work at all?) He said I could email my resume if I wanted to. They’d keep it on file, but there were currently no jobs.

I dutifully emailed my resume to Manpower. I never heard another word from the Manpower office.

I dutifully spent hours looking at the online employment ads. I dutifully sent off my resume any time I found a position I was even marginally qualified for.

I discovered the bowling alley near my apartment was hiring but didn’t want anyone with visible tattoos. Since when was a bowling alley so concerned about the image of its employees? I could cover my tattoos (so I dutifully sent off my resume), but it seemed like every second person in the city had visible tattoos. Maybe I’d get hired by virtue of my undecorated skin. But no. No one from the bowling alley ever contacted me for an interview.

I discovered the regional chain of convenience stores was hiring, but planned to do a credit check on all applicants. I’d never heard of a potential employer doing a credit check on a job applicant. How could a person with poor credit pay the bills if s/he couldn’t get a job because of poor credit? The no visible tattoos bowling alley tipped me off that the job market was tight, but the credit check for folks applying to work not for a bank or an accounting firm or the freaking CIA  but for a convenience store really convinced me the job market was in the employer’s favor.

I continued to read the want ads, complete online applications, send out my resume, but my phone didn’t ring and my inbox was empty. I started to grow panicky.

Then I saw it: Macy’s was hiring elves. I’d read “SantaLand Diaries,” and thought, If David Sedaris can do it, I can do it to! In fact, I was qualified for the job.

Qualification #1 I am short. I’m under 5’5”. Sedaris recognized the importance of (lack of) height to a career as an elf. Despite being pretty sure he failed his drug test,

still they hired me because I am short, five feet five inches. Almost everyone they hired is short.

If Macy’s was looking for short, they were looking for me!

Qualification #2 I’ve worked with kids. I spent my first two summers out of high school working at a camp for kids with disabilities. Sure, that had been 20 years ago, but I’d done some babysitting since then. I didn’t think kids could have changed too much, even in 20 years.

Qualification #3 I knew a thing or two about taking photos. I’d worked as the assistant to the photographer my first summer at the camp for kids with disabilities. The second summer I’d been promoted to head photographer. I was sure I could handle whatever camera system Macy’s used to take souvenir photos of kids with Santa.

Qualification #4 I’d worked in high volume, high stress retail situations before. I’d been the cashier on multiple occasions during Mardi Gras and Jazz fest at a t-shirt shop on Bourbon Street. I doubted screaming, shrieking, bawling, pissing children and their bossy, rich parents could be any worse than drunk tourists.

I dutifully answered the questions on Macy’s online elf application. I took the application very seriously. I attached my resume. I did my best. It was only a seasonal job, but it could get me through until the next employment opportunity came along.

Macy’s never contacted me, not a phone call, not an email. Nothing. Of course, not hiring me was a good move on Macy’s part because during the first week of December, my boyfriend convinced me we should ditch the apartment and travel the world on foot and via Greyhound.

Still, I was devastated. I didn’t even make the first cut for a temp job as an elf, a job I was actually qualified for.

I’d felt like a failure then, and here was David Sedaris, eight years later confirming that indeed, I’d been right.

Suffering

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It doesn’t matter why we were in Fresno, CA at 9am on a Friday morning.

I was jacked up on coffee, it is true, and I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before, but the sun was shining and the temperature had dropped on that first day of autumn.

I’d exited Highway 99 to get breakfast at Taco Bell and use the internet. When it was time to get back on the 99, we could see the highway, but due to the one-way street we were on, we couldn’t get directly to it. The Man was working with Google Maps to get us to our destination, and I found myself driving through an industrial part of the city that looked sketchy to my no-longer-accustomed-to-an-urban-environment eyes.

Make a left, The Man told me.

Here? I screeched. I could see railroad tracks, but no street.

Here, The Man confirmed, and I turned. There was a street there, narrow and running next to the tracks.

It wasn’t a place where I’d expect to see people walking around, so I noticed the woman near what appeared to be a warehouse. There was rubbish piled all over, and while the woman was standing, she seemed somehow hesitant, as if she’d stumble if she took a step. I didn’t get the impression she was drunk, but imagined she’d recently awaken and emerged from a nest in the trash. Maybe she wasn’t fully awake and still unsteady on her feet.

I glanced at her and made assumptions about her in a second or two while I was driving, then put my eyes back on the road. When I looked at her again, I realized something else.

She was an African-American woman, thin, wearing a red ball cap and a long red shirt, but I’m pretty sure she wan’t wearing pants. I didn’t see any private parts or underpants, and maybe she was wearing short shorts under he long red shirt, but I don’t think she had on pants or a skirt or any sort of bottoms.

Some people would make a joke here about a woman who forgot to put her pants on, but I didn’t see anything funny, only felt profound sadness.

After telling her about the woman, Nolagirl said in a text, She probably has some mental illness which makes it hard to remember you need pants. That’s probably true.

It shouldn’t happen to anyone—mentally ill, living on the streets, sleeping in a pile of trash, no pants or the recollection that pants are a necessity—but it’s not a way of life we associate with the developing world, not here in the good ol’ US of A.

I know people are homeless, I’ve seen them, and I’ve been one of them, but even I can be shocked when confronted. No wonder so many folks who’ve never lived on the streets can pretend it’s not happening in their country and can believe those homeless people are different, a foreign other.

In seconds, we had passed the woman. The Man never even saw her. Out of my sight isn’t out of my mind, though. The woman haunts me. I wish I could have done something for her, but what?

What could one stranger passing through, a stranger in her on edge-living situation really do to help? I suppose I could have given her a couple of bucks or a pair of pants, but would either of those things have really helped her? My tiny offerings would not have changed her life. Still, I feel as if I should have done something.

 

 

Nice Day

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Toward the end of the camping season, the mercantile was closed for inventory. The manager worked with two ladies from the corporate office to count everything in the store. Apparently four people would have been one too many for the task because when I showed up for work, I was told my services were not needed. The Big Boss Man didn’t want me to lose pay, so he told me I could work in the campground to make up my hours. I walked over to the parking lot where The Man had my van and changed into a cobbled together camp host uniform. Back at the campground, I cleaned restrooms, raked campsites, collected access fees, gave directions, and had a very nice day.

guide, idaho, mapFor a slow parking day, I gave a lot of directions. So many people who pull into the campground or the parking lot are unsure of how to get where they’re going at best, but usually out and out lost.

I talked to a lovely young woman who wondered if she and her guy should take the time to visit the nearby national park. I told her they totally needed to visit. As I told her, while our trees are beautiful, the national park is like a magical fairy land of giant sequoias. That’s what she wanted to see, she said, so she and I discussed the best route to take.

The next people who needed directions were an old couple from West Virginia. They were totally lost. They were supposed to meet the woman’s brothers in a national park, but followed their GPS (which had been programed to our coordinates while they were still in West Virginia) to a campground hours away from where they wanted to be. I told them how to get where they wanted to go,, and they hoped the brothers would still be there.

Another older couple pulled in later in the day. I noticed their big ol’ Chevy conversion van right off. I explained the access fee of $5, and the woman in the passenger seat asked if her Golden Age card would cover it. I said it would not cover parking, but it would get them half off camping. Most people who want to use an access pass to pay for parking don’t want to camp, but this couple decided to do it. I told them what sites were available, and they drove through the campground to pick one.

I talked to them quite a bit that afternoon. The man said they were from Illinois, and when I asked about their Southern accents, he said they were from southern Illinois. I thought he was joking until he told me they do their grocery shopping in Paducah, KY. (I always forget Kentucky borders the Midwest.) They also spend a lot of time near Gulf Shores, AL, which I’m sure also enhances their accents.

I asked the fellow about his van, then told him about mine. He and his wife aren’t full-timers, but they do travel extensively in their van. Las year they’d visited the area (their daughter lives nearby) in a Chrysler Town and Country minivan, but the mountains destroyed its transmission. They already owned the conversion van, so this time they decided to travel in it. The minivan was really too small for two people, they agreed, and they were really enjoying the extra room in the larger van.

The fellow asked me if I watched YouTube videos, and I said not so much. He said he really liked watching van-build videos. He talked more about van builds, and some part of our conversation led me to say, If you go to Quartzsite, AZ in January, you can go to, and we both said, the RTR. He’d heard of the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous! He said he’d never been but would love to go. I told him I’d been to three RTRs, and I became something of an instant celebrity. He was quite impressed to learn I’d been where he wanted to go.

When The Man came to the campground to pick me up that afternoon, we went over to the couple’s campsite. I wanted to introduce them to The Man, and I wanted to give them my business card with the name of my book (Confessions of a Work Camper) and my blog address on it. The four of us had a good conversation about minivans and transmissions and traveling. When we left, I said, Maybe I’ll see y’all at the RTR someday. They agreed that maybe I would.

Between meeting the people in the conversion van and going home that afternoon, I met a group of adventure, camping, forestyoung people on a birthday celebration camping trip. I showed them to their campsite and told them how to get to a secluded waterfall. They were mellow stoners—love kids—and I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the area.

It was fun to be a camp host again, especially on a slow day near the end of the season. I didn’t have to work too hard, and I met nice, interesting people. If every day as a camp host could be that good, I’d never want to do anything else.

Photos courtesy of https://www.pexels.com/photo/map-navigation-guide-108942/ and https://www.pexels.com/photo/forest-trees-adventure-tent-6714/.

I Don’t Like People

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The black SUV pulled into the campground early one Sunday afternoon late in the season. The Man and I were working as camp hosts there, and I’d stationed myself near the overflow lot to collect access fees while he worked the main parking area.

The fellow driving the black SUV was rocking the wet look; he’d gelled his curly dark hair to within an inch of its life.

I asked the man if he wanted to park so he and his passenger could walk the trail. Curly said yes. I told him about the access fee and pointed to the dirt area where he could park. He gestured in front of himself and asked what was all of that. I told him it was a campground. He asked if there was any parking in the campground. I told him the parking in the campground was for people camping.

My confusion must have shown on my face because the woman in the passenger seat said, He doesn’t like to park by other cars.

Yeah, curly agreed. I don’t like people!

O-kay! I thought, but I found a spot where he could park the SUV away from other vehicles.

As I wrote the parking pass, Curly explained himself. It wasn’t really that he didn’t like other people. I’m a people person, he proclaimed. The problem was door dings. He didn’t like door dings, and people are just not careful with car doors. It was ok if the wind flung a door; he understood the wind sometimes caught doors and crashed them into other cars. However, he didn’t want to park near people who might be careless with their doors.

It’s going on three years, and not one door ding, he said proudly.

The woman in the passenger seat just grinned. She had heard this all before.

I don’t really understand the preoccupation with keeping vehicles “nice.” I live a rugged life and my material possessions—including my van—show wear and tear from the way I live. But to each his/her/their own. If Curly wants to spend his time and energy worrying about door dings, that’s his business.

Before paying me for his pass, Curly jumped out of the SUV and ran around to the other side to open his companion’s door. After the exchange of payment and pass, I watched Curly and the lady walk away, one of his hands in hers, the other carrying a picnic basket. I was glad I could help him have a nature experience free from the worry of coming back to a dinged door.