I had come down from the mountain for supplies. It was hot and dry in the valley, and I was dog dead tired. I had one more stop to make before I could head back to higher elevation, cooler temperatures, and the last few hours of my day off from my work camper job.
I went into the 99 Cents Only Store, where some prices were a lot less than 99 cents and some prices were substantially more. I perused the bargain baskets in the front of the store, cruised down the aisles of beans and other canned goods, and grabbed the best looking produce at the best prices. When I got up to the cash register, I told the worker that I wanted two sacks of ice, and I even remembered to extract them from the freezer in the front before I hit the exit door.
I pushed my cart over to my van, which I had parked at the edge of the parking lot. My 1994 Chevy G20 conversion van was a hulking beast and easier to park in places where there were no other vehicles around. I preferred to park easily and have farther to walk to a store’s entrance rather than fight to maneuver into a tight parking space.
This time, there was no car parked on the van’s passenger side. I threw open the side doors, as much to gain access to the interior as to let the parched air escape. I climbed into my van and lifted the lid of the ice chest. Yuck. I’d forgotten to empty it before I left camp. The ice had melted completely and left the cooler half full of water. In the water floated some small broccoli florets that had turned limp and yellow before I could eat them and stray bits of cabbage that had been jostled from the most recent head. At the bottom of the cooler lay the waterlogged plastic ice bag left behind when the ice became liquid. I had to get all of this out of the cooler before I could put the new ice and groceries in.
I pulled the plastic bag from the bottom of the cooler. The water it sat in was tepid and smelled a bit sour. I let the water drain from the bag and into the cooler. When most of the water was out of the bag, I threw it onto the floor of the van. The drops of water clinging to it weren’t going to hurt anything and in the heat of midday would probably dry before I was ready to throw it away.
Next I had to dump the water from the ice chest. I figured since any vegetable matter floating in the water was natural, it was ok to let it fall onto the asphalt. If some bird didn’t eat it right away, it would decompose soon enough. I lifted the cooler and wrangled it to the open doors. I lowered it to the floor of the van, then slowly tilted the container so the water drained onto the ground.
The Man likes to joke that you can always tell when hippies have been in a parking lot because there’s at least one wet spot on the ground. On this day, the big wet spot I left had plant matter in it too.
Once I got the cooler back in place, I wiped it out with a couple of paper towels, then loaded in the two slippery and deliciously cold sacks of ice. After that, I carefully placed the eggs and milk and orange juice and produce and whatever other cold groceries I had that day into the chest.
Some time after I had the cooler and the ice in, but before I’d packed in the groceries, a car pulled in next to my van. Why the driver decided to park next to me instead of elsewhere in the vast parking lot will always remain a mystery. I glanced out and saw an older Latina lady getting out of here car.
When I looked out, I also saw the plastic ice bag I’d left on the floor of the van had made an escape. I suppose the desert wind had kicked up while I was busy packing the cooler and sucked the bag right out of the open doors. I’d have to pick it up from where it had landed on the ground before I pulled out of my parking spot.
I wasn’t the only one who had noticed the bag on the ground. My parking neighbor took a look around and saw the plastic bag as well as the huge wet-but-rapidly-drying spot dotted with limp, yellow broccoli and waterlogged bits of cabbage. I saw her shake her head and say under her breath (but loudly enough for me to understand her completely), Basura.
I don’t know if she saw I was white and thought I wouldn’t understand what she’s said, if she didn’t care if I understood, or if she wanted me to know how she felt. In any case, I’d studied enough Spanish to know that basura means trash and that she wasn’t happy with the mess I’d made.
This is a cautionary tale for anyone considering removing something from their rig before they know exactly what that something does.
I’d just gotten my van back from my mechanic. He’s replaced my fuel pump, and I was back in the business of vanlife.
I was house sitting for a friend, so I used the opportunity of having a parking spot to clean my van. I collected all the trash I’d let accumulate and dumped it into her garbage can. I was pleased to think how great my van was going to look after this cleanup.
While standing outside the van, I reached under the driver’s seat and felt around for any trash that had ended up hidden there. My hand connected with some sort of flat, plastic box. I wondered what it was. I didn’t remember tucking a box under the seat.
I pulled out the object, quickly realizing it was tethered by a cord to something else under the seat. I could hold the box in my hands, but couldn’t lift it more than a foot or so off the floor. If I hadn’t been standing outside the van, I probably couldn’t have pulled it out from under the seat at all. What was this thing?
I looked at the object closely. It was an inch or two thick, maybe eight inches wide, and ten inches long. It was constructed entirely of smooth black plastic, except for slightly raised letters on the top which spelled out “C-O-M-P-U-T-E-R.” Computer? What kind of computer could this possibly?
My van was a 1992 Chevy G20. While not a classic car, it was not a hotbed of technology either. Would something from 1992 really have a computer? Would something important to the operation of the vehicle really be stored under the seat? I didn’t think so! I decided (with no research and not much consideration) that this computer must operate no longer functioning power seat controls. Of course, neither of the seats had any buttons or knobs that might have been associated with power controls at some time in the past, but I didn’t let that detail influence my ideas about what the plastic box was for.
Anyone who’s lived in a vehicle (even a relatively roomy conversion van) knows that space is at a premium. Any little nook or cranny that can be emptied can provide a home for some more important item. I had visions of storing books under the driver’s seat if I could ditch this bulky, unnecessary (in my mind) “computer” box.
As I continued to examine the box, I found the cord was attached to the box by a plug. I simply unplugged the cord and the box was free. Easy! (I left the cord tucked under the seat, out of my way.)
Some guardian angel was looking over my shoulder that day because I didn’t throw the box into my friend’s garbage can. I can’t remember why. Maybe it was because I knew electronics aren’t supposed to end up in the landfill, and I’d decided to find an appropriate way to dispose of the thing. Maybe I had a sliver of good sense and realized it wasn’t a good idea to throw out a part when I didn’t know its function. In any case, the unplugged box stayed on the floor between the two front seats, and I wandered back into my friend’s house.
The next day I wanted to go somewhere, so I climbed into my van’s driver seat and started the engine. I immediately noticed the check engine light was on. Damn!
My first thought was that my mechanic must have caused the problem. Maybe he’d damaged something when he replaced the fuel pump. Maybe he hadn’t replaced something properly. I was going to have to call him and find out how he planned to rectify the situation.
Before I picked up the phone, I contemplated the situation further. Had the check engine light been on when I picked up the van at the repair shop? Had it come on as I drove from the shop to my friend’s house? I didn’t remember it being on. I’ve always been observant of my control panel, so I was confident I would have noticed the light had it been on previously.
I sat there and thought about what had changed since I’d parked the van at my friend’s place. Nothing really. I’d cleaned up, picked up trash, pulled the “computer” from under the driver’s seat…
Oh no! It began to dawn on me that maybe that “computer” controlled more than the movements of my chairs.
I shut off the van’s engine, then located the black box on the floor between the two front seats. Maybe this thing was more important than I’d thought.
I grabbed the plastic box and slid out of the van. I stood on the driver’s side of the van with the door open so I could reach under the seat. After some fumbling, I found the cord the box had been attached to and plugged it back in. I tucked the box under the seat, then climbed back into the van. When I turned the key in the ignition, I was relieved to see that the check engine light did not come on. Problem solved!
Apparently in 1992 vans did have computers, and they were stored under the driver’s seat!
For several years, I thought this was mostly a funny story of my stupidity that I would share on my blog someday. After all, no real damage was done, all’s well that end well, and surely I’m the only person who’d make such a mistake. Then my friend did something similar, and I knew I had to share my story as a cautionary tale.
Without sharing too much of my friend’s business, she cut some wires in her rig that she thought were unnecessary. It turned out that all of the components of her rig’s electrical system were connected and no one wire could be removed without affecting the entire system. Ooops!
My friend’s problem was more difficult and expensive to fix than mine was, but, thankfully, her rig is up and running again.
In any case, please learn a lesson from what my friend and I did wrong. If you don’t really know what you’re doing, don’t remove anything from your rig, unplug anything, or sever any cords. Maybe check the manual, do some research online, or ask a mechanic or knowledgeable friend before you start making changes that could lead to tears and aggravation.
I met Ellen at the very first RTArt Camp in 2018. She camped nearby and attended many of the workshops held during the two weeks of the RTR. She was pleasant to talk to, and I enjoyed her easy laugh. Some of the best times I spent that week were sitting around campfires with Ellen, learning about her life and experiences.
At the 2019 RTArt Camp, I had the pleasure of spending time with Ellen again. She allowed me to interview her and told me why she decided to live on the road full time, how she choose her rig, and what she likes most about the way she lives.
Rubber Tramp Artist (RTA): I am here today with Ellen, and I’ll be
asking her some questions about her life on the road.
So am I correct that
you are a full-time solo traveler?
Ellen: Yes, that
RTA: How long have you been doing that?
Ellen: Since June
2017, so a year and a half.
RTA: What’s your rig?
Ellen: A Ford
RTA: That’s pretty small.
Ellen: It’s teeny
tiny. It’s basically like a minivan, but a little bit taller.
RTA: What would you say are your three biggest challenges of living
in such a small rig?
challenges are…not having a full kitchen, would probably be #1.
RTA: So you cook outside?
Ellen: Yeah. I cook outside. I can cook inside if I need to, but I don’t usually.
I don’t really have space for people to hang out, to have
people over in any type of way.
And…I don’t know if I could think of another thing. I like
having a tiny rig.
RTA: OK. Well tell me about that then. Tell me about the three best
things about having the tiny rig.
Ellen: I get
really good gas mileage. That was kind of on top of my list.
I can park anywhere.
It’s super stealthy, and I can park in any neighborhood or be in a city
parallel parking. Any of that is really easy.
It just keeps my life
really simple. I don’t collect stuff. I avoid the free pile.
RTA: [Boisterous laughter]
Ellen: [joins in
with her own laughter]
RTA: Would you say that you were a minimalist or you had minimalist
leanings before you moved into your rig and went on the road?
Ellen: No. I don’t think so. I’ve always loved thrifting and collecting things and having projects. Maybe that’s something that’s hard about having a small rig is that I can’t set up a project and leave it sitting there. Everything always has to be put away in the right exact spot.
I think I’m not super attached to material things in
general, but I don’t know if I would call myself a minimalist.
RTA: Is your primary way of dealing with living in the small space that everything has its place and always goes back?
Exactly. Everything that’s in there has a very specific place where it goes.
Usually after a while things start to be a little bit out of place, so then [I]
have to kind of unpack everything and repack the whole thing.
RTA: How often do you think you do that?
Ellen: It totally
depends on what I’m doing and where I am. Maybe once a month, once every other
month, sometimes, depending on the season and what I’m doing. I guess I do it
on a mini level every day!
RTA: When you were thinking about wanting to go on the road, did
you already have this vehicle, or were you shopping around for vehicles? If you
were shopping around, what made you decide on this rig and not something
Ellen: I shopped
around for a long time as I was planning on moving into a vehicle. I looked
online at a million different kinds of vehicles. Factors for me [were] gas
mileage and stealthiness…the same things I said I love about it and
affordability for me and reliability. My balance that I was really trying to
find was something that was in my budget that I could afford that was going to
be reliable. [Reliability] felt like a safety thing for me, especially starting
out as a solo female…if I could, avoiding situations where I was going to be
broken down or need help.
RTA: What were some of the other vehicles that you considered
Ellen: I was
looking at bigger vans. I’m definitely drawn more aesthetically to like the
cool, older [vans]. That was really where my heart wanted to go.
RTA: So what year is your
are super easy to get for it anywhere if I need something. It’s very reliable,
but it’s kind of boring. [Laughter] It’s just a white box. It doesn’t
necessarily fit my personality…
RTA: But in 20 years, it will be the hippie van of its day!
laughter] That’s true. Alright. Let’s look at it that way.
RTA: What was your impetus for getting on the road? Is it something
you wanted to do for a long, long time?
Ellen: It’s not really that farfetched for me. I’ve driven around the country
many times and traveled around the world many times. I guess as I grew older and got into my 30s, my life started getting really routine and kind of boring. I had a career and was doing all the stuff, adulting stuff. Then I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 32, and after going through that…it was just very clear to me that I needed to change my life and get rid of stress from my life–probably the #1 thing–and just to be happy. It’s really underrated! [Laughter] I just knew that this was a way that I could do it, that I could afford to not have a 9 to 5 and that I could also spend a lot of quality time with people I care about. That also felt really important to me after coming through cancer treatment. It was really clear how I needed to give more importance, more time in my life for the people I care about.
RTA: How did your family react when you told them you were going to
hit the road full time?
Ellen: Oh, my
family’s used to it. [Laughter] It’s not
A lot of people were like “WHAT?” I think people didn’t
really quite realize maybe how serious I was about it. I think people thought I
was going on vacation. I think mostly people felt like I sort of deserved a
break. I’d been through a lot. I’d been very sick, very sick and sort of stuck
in one place for a while. I think people were happy, my family, my community
and friends…It made sense to everybody.
RTA: Do they now see that at least for the moment this is the
choice you’ve made long-term?
Ellen: Yeah, now I
think they get it.
RTA: They see you’re serious about this; it’s not just vacation.
RTA: Let’s talk about challenges and joys again. What do you think
are your three biggest challenges to being a young woman solo on the road?
Ellen: I don’t
know that it’s necessarily just on the road, but safety in general. It’s not
really a challenge, but it’s certainly a factor. Having to think about where I
am and what kind of situation I’m putting myself in and never knowing from day
to day where I’m going, if I’m going places I’ve never been, I don’t know what
it’s going to be like or how I’m going to feel there. So there’s a little bit
of constant factoring all this stuff in.
RTA: But not anything that would be necessarily unusual if you were
living in an apartment in the city? I mean, you’re in a new place…
Ellen: You mean
with safety. You still have to think about that no matter where you are?
RTA: Do you agree or disagree with that?
Ellen: I do agree
with that. It’s just maybe a little more noticeable, a little more prevalent
I should probably follow that up, I think…I’ve NEVER had any
issues with anybody. Maybe that’s part of it too…deprogramming myself to not
feel like that. Probably something I should look at.
Challenges of being a young woman on the road? I don’t know.
I can’t think of anything.
RTA: What about your three biggest joys of being a young woman on
Ellen: Life is
really awesome! [Laughter]
I think just being outside, connecting with the land and putting myself in a position where I am really outside all the time has been really wonderful for me.
The community, the community that I’ve found here is really
wonderful. I’m a person who has never really felt at home anywhere, and this
community of people for me feels like home.
RTA: Do you mean the RTR community or the Art Camp community or
just the nomadic community?
Ellen: It just
keeps expanding for me. I think it started with coming to the RTR and getting
involved with Art Camp. I’m also part of Mindfulness Camp. I have different
groups around…I guess it would be the RTR crowd. It’s expanded through my whole
year. My whole life [has] really sort of formed around the communities that
I’ve made here.
RTA: You said being outdoors, the communities. Is there something
else you want to mention?
Ellen: Also, just
to expand on that a little bit—the community—I’ve always been a really shy,
introverted person. Not maybe introverted, but shy, and I have just made so
many connections out here. That has really enriched my life greatly. I know
some people talk about people coming out on the road and isolating, but I have
just had the opposite experience. I’ve made more friends in the past couple
years than I have in the rest of my entire adult life. Maybe that’s because I’m
amongst people I connect with, and maybe it’s just me growing. Maybe it’s this
Another thing that I really love…of course, just traveling,
seeing new things, and getting to know this land. I try and get involved in as
much as I can, so that’s really afforded me the time to go to retreats and go
to different workshops and go to places I’ve always wanted to go. So I think
that’s a really healing thing for me to be able to have the time, to give that
time to myself to really do some deep healing work.
RTA: What is your favorite new place that you saw in 2018?
Ellen: I traveled all through British Columbia which was really wonderful, going almost all the way up to Alaska. They call it Northern BC, but it’s actually central BC, there’s just nothing actually north of it. [much laughter] They just call the central part ‘north.’ Seeing that area was really special—absolutely beautiful and the rivers there are something to see.
I’d spent the last two nights in Babylon. The first night was so hot, I barely slept. I’d be surprised if I’d gotten more than a total of an hour’s sleep that whole night. It was so bad, I’d left the van to walk over to the 24-hour supermarket and bought three miniature cartons of ice cream, which helped about in proportion to their size.
The second night was better. The temperature had dropped maybe five degrees from the night before and a slight breeze blew through the darkness. I got maybe five hours of sleep that night and felt functional when I woke up.
I walked over to Taco Bell to get some breakfast. I love their fiesta potato grilled breakfast burritos. A buck gets me potato, egg, cheese, and pico de gallo wrapped in a grilled flour tortilla. Two of these yummies fill me up for hours.
Before I ate, I wanted to utilize the toilet and wash my hands. I’d been in this Taco Bell before and knew right where the restrooms were. I went left immediately upon walking through the entrance door.
The restrooms here were the kind with one (flush) toilet behind a lockable door. Last year when I’d frequented this restaurant, one door had been marked for men and the other had been marked for women. Now they were both marked “unisex,” which was fine with me. I’ve already proven on several occasions that I can use any toilet behind any locked door.
During previous early morning visits to this Taco Bell when the dining room was practically deserted, I’d just turned the handle on the restroom door and it had opened. This time I tuned the handle, knocked , turned the handle again, but nothing happened. The door didn’t open. No one called out, One moment from inside the restroom. Nothing. I went through the drill with the other restroom door. I decided I’d have to go up to the counter and ask a worker for the key.
I stepped up to the counter to find a woman probably in her late 20s standing there. She wore a Taco Bell uniform and looked sleepy.
Hi! I said, trying to sound personable so she would deem me worthy of using a Taco Bell restroom. I’m going to order food, but I’d like to wash my hands first. Can you unlock the restroom for me?
The worker produced a large keyring from somewhere behind the counter or on her person. She found the key she needed from the many others on the ring. All the while, she was apologizing to me. One apology would have been fine, but she kept going on and on with saying she was sorry, even though I wasn’t complaining.
As we walked together to the restroom, she continued apologizing and explained, We had to start locking them because the homeless were taking showers in there. She spoke as if she and I were in this together, as if “the homeless” were a group to which she and I did not belong.
She probably did live in some sort of conventional home, but I certainly did not. I thought it was obvious that I’d been living somewhere other than a conventional home. Today was the second day wearing the clothes I had on. I’d dribbled some of my middle-of-the-night ice cream on the front of my hot pink tank top which was so old it was developing holes just above the hem. My bare arms were dirty, and my hair was unbrushed and unwashed. My skirt was a little too tight across my middle, and it was a little too short to completely cover my hairy legs.
Was this woman really looking at me and seeing “normal”? I didn’t think I looked like a normal member of polite society. How could she not think “homeless” when she looked at me?
Maybe it was my lack of a shopping cart or multiple grocery store bags filled with belongings. Maybe it was my coherent speech. Maybe it was my declaration that I planned to buy something. For whatever reason, this young woman did not see a homeless person when she looked at me. When she looked at me, she saw someone she needed to apologize to for locked restrooms. When she looked at me, she saw someone who was more like her than different from her.
It’s hard to not have a place to clean up, I said to her mildly. I wasn’t looking to get into a big discussion or educate her on issues of homelessness. I really just wanted to wash my hands, then chow down on some breakfast, but I felt like I had to say something in defense of my brothers and sisters in homelessness.
I know! the worker said quickly and defensively. But I have to follow procedures.
She’s the one who brought up “the homeless.” I hadn’t asked for any explanation for the locked doors. I hadn’t even complained about the locked doors. All I’d done is very politely asked her to unlock a door for me. She’s the one who’d offered excessive apologies and explanations. I don’t know why she was getting defensive now.
Well, then y’all have to clean the mess left in the restroom, I said apologetically to let her know I was also down with my fellow workers in the fast food business. I know I wouldn’t want to mop up a restroom that had been used as a shower stall.
In the event my beliefs are unclear, let me summarize.
#1 I believe all people have the right to private toilets.
#2 I believe all people have the right to wash up.
#3 I believe fast food workers should not have to clean up other people’s irresponsible restroom messes.
#4 I believe fast food workers shouldn’t be deciding who is and isn’t homeless and who should and should not be allowed to use the restaurant’s restrooms.
Finally, the worker had the door to the restroom unlocked, and I was able to go into the restroom and lock the door behind me. I didn’t try to wash anything other than my hands, but that hot water sure would have done a good job cleaning various other body parts.
When I left the restroom, I closed the door gently so it didn’t latch. The next person who needed to use the restroom might not pass the Taco Bell employee’s scrutiny as suitable to use the restroom, so I used my privilege to possibly help some other homeless person.