Tag Archives: National Forest

Dispatch from the Woods

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The Man and I weren’t doing so well in Northern New Mexico. The invisible biting bugs were horrible, really tearing us up. The intense heat, unusual in the mountains, was making our days, but particularly our nights, difficult to bear. Living in the van together day after day was making us edgy and irritable. Something had to give.

Our lives changed with a call from my boss from the last two summers. The store that was supposed to open last season was finally(!) about to open, and he needed two more people to staff it. He wanted to hire me and The Man. We’d have a free place to set up camp for the summer, and he’d work us each 40 hours a week. Could we be there in six days? We said Yes! and hit the road to California.

I wanted to write a dispatch from the road, but we stayed in the Worst Motel 6 Ever in Barstow, CA, and the internet was down. I was too tired to find either another hotel or a coffee shop with free WiFi.

Crossing the Mojave Desert in a vehicle with no air conditioner was no joke. Part of our problem was not leaving Flagstaff until 1pm. I’d wanted to leave earlier, but it was afternoon by the time we packed up camp; drove to town; bought water, ice, and a few groceries; bought a solar shower, privacy tent, and tarp at  Wal-Mart; went through a bunch of rigmarole to find out Wal-Mart was out of Blue Rhino propane tanks and couldn’t exchange our empty one for a full one; went to a herb shop downtown so The Man could buy loose tea, and (finally!) filled up the gas tank.

It was hot when we stopped in Kingman, AZ to do the propane tank exchange. The Man and Jerico stood in the shade under one of the few parking lot trees while I went inside to pay for the new tank. The Wal-Mart employee who came out to make the switch expressed concern for Jerico’s paws on the hot asphalt.

Back on the road, we soon passed into California. At the agriculture checkpoint, there was a big digital sign like banks have announcing the time and temperature. 119 degrees! It had been a long time since I’d been in triple digit temperatures.

The Man grabbed our squirt bottle full of water (hippie air conditioning, he calls it) and sprayed me down while I drove. He also discovered that opening the windows let in air hotter than the air in the van. Over the next few hours, we did a lot of opening and closing windows trying to catch a breeze or let hot air out, trying to get comfortable. Surprise! There was no way to get comfortable in a van without air conditioning in the Mojave Desert that June day.

I stopped at the first Dairy Queen I saw and got us both Reese’s peanut butter cup Blizzards. I couldn’t drive and eat, so The Man took the wheel. The ice cream didn’t last nearly long enough, and we were back to using the squirt bottle.

Late in the afternoon, the sun moved down the horizon, and the temperature dropped to hot but bearable. Still, as much as I hated to do it, we got a motel room in Barstow. Maybe I could have gotten a little sleep in the sunbaked van had I been alone, but there was no way two adults and a dog could have been comfortable sleeping in there. Even if the van had cooled after baking in the sun all day (which it hadn’t), the body heat of three mammals in the enclosed space would have been unbearable. Even with the windows open, there wouldn’t have been enough air flow to keep us cool.

The air conditioner at the Motel 6 was not up to the challenge of the summer night. Although the air conditioner was on when we opened the door, we were not met with the chilly wonderfulness I’d been hoping for. The room was stuffy, and I had a difficult time deciding if it was cooler inside or out.

The a/c wasn’t a wall unit like in almost every other motel I’ve been in. All we had was a vent above the bathroom door and an ersatz thermostat on the wall. All we could really control were the settings “heat,” “cool,” and “fan.” If I stood in just the right spot a few feet from the bathroom door and stretched my arms over my head, I could feel a bit of cool air blowing out, but it was no match for the desert heat.

I slept poorly all night, although the warm room probably wasn’t as uncomfortable as the hot van would have been.

The Man and I were both awake by five the next morning. We each has another shower and got our things together. The morning air was cool, but we were hot again before we finally made it up the mountain.

When we finally made it to our destination, the tall green trees and the cool mountain air were a wonderful contrast to the drab heat of the desert. My memory hadn’t exaggerated how lovely my home of the last two summers is. I’m glad this place will be my home for the rest of this summer and hopefully into the fall.

If you’re reading this, it’s because the mercantile (the Forest Service doesn’t like the word “store”) has WiFi, and the employees are allowed to utilize it. That’s a definite step up from years past.

This photo I took shows the mercantile/visitor center where The Man and I work.

Special thanks to The Man for getting my computer to connect to the WiFi at the mercantile.

 

 

So Proud!

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My apologies for two posts in one day, but my book Confessions of a Work Camper: Tales from the Woods is now live and available for purchase in the Kindle Store. I couldn’t be prouder!

Confessions of a Work Camper: Tales from the Woods
Click on the image of the book’s cover to go to Amazon to find out more or to purchase. (If you shop on Amazon using this or any other of my other other affiliate links, I receive an advertising fee.)

If electronic books aren’t your style, don’t worry! The paper version will be available soon.

Thanks to everyone who’s helped make this book happen…

Knock in the Night

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I’ve been living and traveling alone in my van since the Fall of 2012. I’ve been through at least ten states and have stayed in cities and on public land. On only two occasions has anyone bothered me while I was sleeping. Once it was a cop harassing me (read about that experience here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2015/09/07/cop-knock/), and the other time–well, I’m still not entirely sure what that was all about.

I was staying at a free National Forest campground in Northern New Mexico. I’d stayed there before. It was basically primitive camping, but there were a couple of pit toilets there. I liked the place, mostly because there was no charge to stay, but also because it was next to a river, lots of tall trees grew there, and the temperature was cool.

I arrived late in the afternoon of the night in question. I’d been selling jewelry and shiny rocks all day. I was tired. I wanted to eat dinner, then crawl into my bed with a book, probably go to sleep early. I was scheduled to sell jewelry and shiny rocks the next day, so I planned to get moving early.

When I’d pulled into the campground, I’d found the most desirable spots close to the pit toilets had been claimed. I looked around until I found a spot to park the van farther out. There was a tent pitched in the general area, but I gave it plenty of space.

I went about my business of cooking and eating dinner. While I was outside, I saw at least one large dog and several young men around the other tent. A small pickup truck arrived, then left. I kept to myself, didn’t try to make conversation, but I noticed it wasn’t a family camping over there. I saw no children, no mother figure, just guys.

When the sky darkened, I got in the van, locked the doors, and closed the curtains. I read my book, then turned out my light. The night was going according to plan.

Suddenly I was jolted awake by knocking on the van’s exterior. It took me a moment to figure out where I was and what was happening. I’m in my van, I remembered. I’m parked next to the river.

The knocking came again.

Who is it? I yelled. Even to my own ears, my voice sounded grumpy and gruff.

The side windows were open to let in the cool night air, so apparently my voice was audible. I didn’t even move a curtain to peek outside, much less open the door.

A male voice outside the van identified itself as one of the neighbor campers. If their vehicle needed a jump start in the morning, would I help them out?

What the fuck? I was thinking. Who knocks on a stranger’s dark van in the middle of the night to ask for a jump start if the situation is not a full-blown emergency? Apparently this guy.

Sure, I told the guy, if you need a jump in the morning, I’ll help you out if I’m around.

I knew good and well that I planned to be out of there early. I’d likely be gone before the sun was up.

The guy seemed to wander away (I wasn’t trying to peep out the windows), but now I was wide awake. (If you’ve ever felt the burst of adrenaline that comes with waking from a deep sleep to the tune of someone knocking on your van, you know it’s not easy to drift off after.) I started wondering what was really going on. Why had the guy really knocked? He must have suspected I was asleep since it was the middle of the night (around 2am when I switched on my light to look at my watch), and there hadn’t been a single light on in the van.

As I lay there wondering if I were safe, wondering if the man would come back, I tried to remember the vehicle situation at the nearby camp. I didn’t remember seeing a vehicle parked near the tent when I arrived. I did remember the small pickup  pulling in, but I was mostly sure it had left. I hadn’t heard another vehicle arrive after dark, but I could have conceivably slept through a car or small truck’s arrival. Could I have slept through the noise of someone discovering a dead battery, discussing the situation with others? Maybe. But I was almost certain the man had asked for my help if the battery were dead. Did he not even know the status of the battery when he asked for my help?

I finally slept again for a few hours more. I woke early, but didn’t get out of the van. When I looked out of the windows, no one seemed to be moving on the other campsite. As I maneuvered my van out of my spot, the van’s engine noise awakened the large dog who barked and barked and barked. I felt satisfaction that perhaps the dogs’ barking would awaken the guy who’d disturbed my slumber.

As I left the camping area, I looked around for a vehicle that belonged to the nearby campsite. I didn’t see any vehicles–not a car, not a truck, not a motorcycle or even a bike. Did a vehicle start and leave sometime after the man knocked on my van? Maybe. But I doubt I would have slept through any noise after the knocking interrupted my sleep and shot adrenaline through my body.

I’ve often wondered what was really going on that night. I don’t think those guys had a vehicle at all, much less one that maybe had a dead battery. As I said before, barring a complete emergency, good manners and common sense dictate that one does not knock on a stranger’s dark van in the middle of the night.

I think the man just wanted to know what I would do if he knocked on my van in the wee hours. Maybe he’d acted alone. Maybe the other man had dared him to knock. Maybe they were drunk. Maybe he was hoping I’d open the door or step of the van so he could what? Rob me? Rape me? Did he just want to know if I’d agree to help? Did the men not want a camping neighbor and were hoping to scare me off?

I suppose I’ll never know what the intentions were that night, but I’m glad there was nothing scarier that night than a knock in the dark.

I took this photo. It is not the river I slept next to the night of this incident, but you get the idea.

I took this photo. It is not the river I slept next to the night of this incident, but you get the idea.

L-E-Os

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The big fire was still burning, but word was the smaller fire—started by a lightning strike—was under control. Word was the one route back up the mountain was open again, although the road I found the quickest and easiest way from civilization to my campground (although not exactly quick and easy) was still closed.

I began the slow, curvy drive up the mountain late in the afternoon.

When I got to the area where the lightning had struck and started the fire, I didn’t see any flames and very little smoke. What I did see were firefighters. The firefighters who weren’t actively fighting whatever fire was still burning were milling about on the road’s narrow shoulders, eating sandwiches, drinking water, catching a little rest. I reduced the van’s speed even further. I don’t ever want to hit anyone with my large motor vehicle, but I particularly did not want to be the asshole who hit somebody working to save the forest.

As I got through the main congestion of firefighters, I noticed a truck was behind me. At the next turnout, I pulled off the road so the truck could pass me, which it did. I noticed it was a Forest Service truck, which didn’t concern me. I’d just passed at least a dozen Forest Service vehicles and wasn’t surprised to see one on the road with me.

I hadn’t gone far when I saw the same Forest Service truck parked in another turnout.

That’s weird, I thought. What kind of game is the driver playing?

I passed the truck and it pulled out behind me.

It’s just going to have to go slow while it follows me, I thought, because I’m not pulling off for it to pass me again.

I slowly made my way through the mountain road’s curves while the truck followed behind. Just as I approached a large turnout, I saw the truck had lights on its roof, and those lights were flashing.

What the fuck? I thought, as I realized the truck was carrying at least one L-E-O.

“L-E-O” stands for “Law Enforcement Officer.” L-E-Os work for the Forest Service and carry guns. They’re tree cops and I think of them the way I think of any cops: don’t trust ‘em—don’t like ‘em.

Immediately after maneuvering the van into the turnout, I fumbled around to silence the podcast playing on my phone. I was listening to Risk, and I didn’t want a bawdy story or salty language making the upcoming interaction unnecessarily awkward. I also didn’t want to have to shout to be heard.

The second thing I did was put my hands on the steering wheel. I didn’t want to get shot because a tree cop thought I was reaching for a weapon.

There were two L-E-Os, actually. One came to my driver’s side window. He was probably in his early 30s, tall, with dark hair and beard both clipped short. He would have been handsome but for his chosen profession.

I told him through the small triangular window on my side of the van that the main window on that side doesn’t roll down. He said he’d go around to the passenger side, where the window goes down halfway.

Right off, he asked me if I were alone in the van. I told him I was.

He said, Because I can’t see in there. I don’t know if someone’s in there pointing a gun at me.

I thought, If I had a job that made me constantly worried about being shot, I’d get a new job. I succeeded in keeping the thought to myself. Instead, I repeated that I was alone in the van, and I told him I had no guns. Then I told him I was a camp host heading back to my campground.

I thought I’d probably been pulled over because there were so few people headed up the mountain. Maybe I looked suspicious by virtue of being on a road currently barely traveled. I thought when I said I was a camp host, I’d immediately be sent on my way, but no.

First, the L-E-O wanted to know what campground I was the host at. Fair enough, so I told him. Then he wanted to know the location of the campground. He was new to the area, he said, and he didn’t know his way around. Riiiiight. I know when my story’s being checked out. But I went ahead and explained the campground’s location.

I suppose he had to justify his reason for hassling me, because he told me he’d pulled me over because of the cracks in my windshield.

Really?

Those cracks have been in my windshield since I bought the van. They do not obstruct my view. No city or county or state cop in New Mexico or Arizona or Nevada or California had pulled me over because of the cracks in the windshield, but suddenly a tree cop was worried about it? Is a cracked windshield really a federal issue?

I was both annoyed and trying not to laugh at this guy. I told him I was working as a camp host so I could get the windshield replaced as soon as I returned to my home state. (I didn’t bother to tell him I’d planned to get it replaced last year but the $500 of transmission work, the four new tires, and the installation of a new fuel pump had blown my windshield budget.)

The entire time I was talking to L-E-O #1, L-E-O #2 (a young, short, bald guy) was walking around the van, looking underneath it, trying to peer into all my windows.

Then L-E-O #1 asked if he could see my driver’s license, if I had it handy. (I wonder what he would have said had I told him in fact it wasn’t handy.) It was in my bag next to my seat, so I fished it out and handed it to him. He walked off with it; I think it’s a good bet he took it to his truck to call in my name and license number. Surely L-E-O #2 had already called in the number on my license plate.

When he returned my license to me, L-E-O #1 said that while having a cracked windshield was a ticketable offense, he wasn’t going to give me a ticket since that doesn’t seem to be what you need right now.

(Does anyone jump into her or his vehicle and think, What I need right now is to get a ticket because I have a cracked windshield I haven’t been able to afford to replace?)

Then L-E-O #1 thanked me for driving carefully around all the firefighters. To me this meant he and his little tree cop buddy had to make up a reason to pull me over since they hadn’t seen me violate any traffic laws.

When I got back on the road, the L-E-Os followed me for about a quarter of a mile. I thought they might follow me all the way back to my campground, but they must have gotten bored with my slow and careful driving, because they turned around and headed back toward the firefighters.

No one else has had anything to say about the cracks in my windshield since that afternoon. Getting the windshield replaced is as the top of my list of things to do, just as soon as I get out of super expensive California.

 

 

Excuse Me, Sir

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As I’ve mentioned before, the forest I’m in is experiencing a very strict fire ban. One of the restrictions is that people are not allowed to smoke outside. Smoking is only allowed in a vehicle with the windows rolled up to within an inch or so of the top. (Although smoking is allowed in buildings, neither my campground or the parking lot has a building suitable for smoking.)

The ban on outside smoking was not my decision. It was not the decision of my boss or his boss. The Forest Service made this rule, and I’m just doing my job telling people what’s up.

I hate having to approach people in the process of smoking cigarettes. (It’s always cigarettes people are smoking, never pipes or cigars.) I know people are addicted to the things, and I know they’re not going to be happy when I tell them they can’t get their fix in the open air. (See http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2016/08/06/no-smoking/ to read about a woman who went from overly friendly to vicious when I told her she had to get into her car to smoke.) I approach smokers very, very cautiously when I’m about to tell them what they’re doing is against the rules.

I don’t yell across the parking lot at smokers. I get within speaking distance, but not close enough to get hit if the smoker gets violent. I am extra polite right before I thwart smokers. Usually I say, Excuse me, sir (or ma’am). I have to tell you (meaning, I certainly don’t want to tell you this, but I am required to), we are in a very strict fire ban right now (giving them the reason for the upcoming bad news.) You are only allowed to smoke in your vehicle with the windows rolled up. Then I try to get away from the smoker as quickly as possible.

Most smokers comply, probably because most of them think I’m a ranger or at least a Forest Service employee who can write a ticket. But no one has said, What wonderful news! I’ve been looking for a reason to quit.

On the second Saturday in August, I had to speak to two men puffing away.

The first guy was a senior citizen with white hair and a short white beard. He was wearing fancy hiking clothes, and looked sort of like Santa Claus on a forest vacation. I glanced over at the Santa man standing by his car and thought I saw smoke. (With the popularity of vaporizers, sometimes what I originally think is smoke turns out to be vapor. Asking a person vaping to quit smoking is embarrassing, so I try not to make that mistake.) I looked over again and was pretty sure it was a cigarette Santa man had going on over there.

I got out of my chair and walked toward the man. When I was within speaking range, I said, Excuse me, sir. I have to tell you, we’re in a very strict fire ban right now.

Before I could say anything else, he started walking toward me and said, I’m very cautious.

I’m sure any person smoking in a National Forest would tell me s/he is very cautious. Saying it–believing it–does not make it true. I didn’t see what–if anything–Santa man was using as an ashtray. I’m not sure he was letting his ashes fall to the ground, but I’m also not sure he was catching them in a container. He was standing on the asphalt while he smoked–maybe that was his idea of cautious.

As I went on to tell him he was only allowed to smoke in his car with the windows rolled up, he walked over to the trashcan and threw away his cigarette butt. Apparently, I’d noticed him at the end of his cigarette.

The second smoker was middle aged and completely bald. He was wearing what I can only describe as “dressy casual” clothing–long shorts and a shirt with a collar. Perhaps his clothing was suitable for golfing? He was standing on the asphalt too, but near the entrance gate, puffing away in front of God and everybody.

I walked up to him. Excuse me, sir. I have to tell you, we’re in the middle of a strict fire ban. You’re only allowed to smoke in your car with the windows rolled up.

I saw the look of unhappiness on his face as he stalked away from the gate. (I think he was heading back to his vehicle to finish the cigarette, since he didn’t stub it out.)

There should be a sign! he spat at me.

I thought about pointing out the press release about the fire ban posted on one of the information boards, but I couldn’t remember if it addressed smoking or just campfires. I didn’t really want to have a discussion with the guy; I just wanted him to stop smoking out in the open. So I said, Yes, you’re right, there should be.

Then he said, because you’re defying one’s privacy!

What? Defying one’s privacy? Defying his privacy? Ummm, how is it private to smoke a cigarette out in the open, in front of God and everybody? Did he mean I was defying his privacy by speaking to him? How is a sign telling him smoking is prohibited different from me telling him smoking is prohibited? Since I didn’t want to have a discussion with the man, I didn’t question him.

My boss came by later, and I told him about the interaction, told him the man had said we need a No Smoking sign. My boss laughed and said soon we’d have more signs than trees. He probably won’t get us a sign, and I’ll have to continue to defy people’s privacy.

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I took this photo of Smokey the Bear.

If You’re Refusing to Pay

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Sometimes people who want to park in the parking lot also want to have philosophical discussions about whether or not they should have to pay to park on National Forest land.

One Wednesday morning, there were cars already parked in the lot when I arrived. I kept an eye on folks coming off the trail and asked them if they’d put their parking fee in the iron ranger. I asked one guy if he’d paid the fee, and he said he only had a $20 bill. I told him I could make change.

As I was writing the day pass he didn’t need since he was about to leave, he started talking about some lawsuit and court decision related to charging fees to park on public land. From what I understood, someone sued some governmental agency for charging folks a fee to park on public land. A judge decided it’s unlawful to charge people simply to park. In order to charge a day use fee, there has to be something more substantial than a portable toilet and a picnic table available for use; a day use area has to include some sort of improvement if a fee is to be charged.

I tried to justify the improvements this parking lot/day use area offers. Instead of one picnic table, we offer five picnic tables, and we don’t just have a port-a-potty, we have two gen-u-ine pit toilets in a (fancy?) little building. Also, we don’t offer only parking in the dirt; we have asphalt parking too.

Of course, the guy didn’t want to hear anything I had to say. He’d already made up his mind that he didn’t want to pay, and nothing coming out of my mouth short of no charge was going to make him happy. It didn’t even matter to him that the ruling he was talking about obviously didn’t apply to the (much improved) day use area/parking lot he was standing in.

Another time a guy wanted to have a debate while stopped in the parking lot’s entrance lane. I tried to answer his questions, although I honestly don’t know why none of a variety of federal and state passes apply to our parking lot. I don’t know why we don’t give military/disabled/disabled veteran discounts. I don’t know why folks have to pay to park even though it’s federal land which we as taxpayers own.

All I know is that my job is to stand there and collect $5 for each car parked within our gates.

So the guy driving the truck was asking me a bunch of questions I didn’t know the answers to, which was well and good for him, as he was sitting in his vehicle, out of the sun. I was standing in the sun, getting hotter and less patient.

Finally I said, If you’re refusing to pay…planning to follow up with…there’s not really anything I can do about it.

That’s the truth too. I can speak firmly and authoritatively, but I have no way to make people do anything. I don’t write tickets. (Thank goodness!) I don’t carry a gun. (Double thank goodness!) I have no access to a phone, so I can’t call anyone with authority to kick people out. If a visitor refuses to pay to park, I can’t grab him/her by the ankles, flip him/her upside down, and shake the money out of his/her pockets. All I can do if someone refuses to pay is shrug and walk away.

But all I had to say was, If you’re refusing to pay…and the guy changed his tune.

Oh! Oh no! He sounded surprised. I’m not refusing to pay, he said as if he were wondering how I’d possibly ever gotten that idea. He pulled out his money real fast. He wasn’t refusing to pay. Not him. He was paying!

I figure my hourly wage is too low to compel me to get into philosophical discussions with visitors. I’ll have to get paid $15 an hour before I feel obligated to engage in philosophical discussions.