What did I think would happen when I packed the household detritus of 22 years of Bay Area life into storage, loaded my Tacoma pickup truck and drove off to the Eastern Sierra to live in a BLM campground?
1. A JOLT -- to untangle myself from having gotten snared in some bad emotional and mental habits, such as: resentment and bewilderment at aging, disappointment over unrealized career hopes, inability to accept compromised behavior in the institutions to which I had become attached, overindulgence in sweets. I hoped to be cracked out of stagnation, to become available for, or perhaps to engineer, a renewal of possibility, appreciation, engagement.
REALITY: Cutting losses is good, but not the same as regeneration; I am dislocated, but not yet re-located, not re-oriented in a new habit of living.
2. A REST -- recovery from fatigue; to restore deeply depleted reserves.
REALITY: Car camping has its own problems, (note previous Blog entries) time taken up meeting basic needs: get clean, get water, get grub, get wildlife washed out of my truck... hassling with money, shelter, neighbors, heat, wind, lonliness and the lack of customary conveniences.
YET IT IS ALSO TRUE that as I run out of, and stop using, a variety of medications the prescription of which had been escalating through Kaiser Permanente's attempts to mitigate my proliferating manifestations of stress, I do feel better. Romping around in a campsite stretches and reconditions muscles I hadn't been using while sitting for long hours at a computer. I am not in conflict with anyone or any institution. The low-rent lifestyle is low-key and dull, there is little traffic in the desert towns along 395. I have few and simple social contacts, no exterior responsibilites, no personal drama. Desert rest is boring; but perhaps this is exactly what I need.
3. Cheaper Living --to save money even while living only on the reduced income of EDD benefits. So far, per month:
BLM campsite rent -- $100.00 per month (or less if I stay longer on the LTVA permit plan)
Ice -- $40.00
Propane -- $20.00 (camp stove only, and it is too hot to cook)
Cell phone -- $40.00
Water -- free (when downloaded from park spigot in Bishop)
WIFI -- $50.00 (coffee drinks to gain seat in Free WIFI zone)
Laundromat -- $50.00 (includes soap)
Showers -- $50.00 (purchase from gas station vendors about twice a week, supplement to bucket baths)
Appx. rent/utilities per month: $350 (if I stick to budget), which is $450 less than my previous rent (for equivalent items, such as refrigerator instead of icebox, electricity and all the things that use it, heat, stove, couch, hot and cold running water, showers, cupboards, stand up in and hang out indoors, etc. So real rent, especially housing that includes air conditioning, is well worth the difference, when you can afford it. But this way I can save some money for setting up in a new situation, whenever I figure out what that might be and have gotten a job there. (Food and gas are not included in the list of expenses above, and can be cheap or not depending on what I choose to eat or where I choose to go, as is true in any circumstance.)
4. A Survival Test. I wanted to know if I could survive a personal economic/circumstantial meltdown by living in my car. I wanted to test my belief that many US citizens live on the fringes of American civilization in mobile poverty by car camping on federal bureau of land management land, "wasteland," and other outskirts, boonies, and vacant property.
There are echelons within the uplugged lifestyle, from dry camping (in designated campgrounds without hookups) and boondocking (dry camping wherever..) to sidewalk hugging. (Full-time RV vehicle residents who can afford RV parks with hookups to electricity, water, wifi, cable TV and sewer usually have incomes that preclude poverty status). I entered the dry camping echelon at about mid-range: no self-contained rig, but a solid vehicle with hardside shelter, complete tent-camping equipment and some cash in the bank.
I got to meet some of the people who live in the BLM campgrounds of the Eastern Sierra. They directed me to free meal opportunities, free water, free showers, health care and town-dump stuff mines. I saw my neighbors help each other with auto and rig repair and modification, recreation and protection from over-zealous law enforcement. They have learned how to get by for years on combinations of disability and retirement benefits, small pensions, food stamps, odd jobs, charity handouts, and sporadic help from family members. They form social networks of information and material exchange that support and protect this lifestyle. I know that legal housing is so regulated and so costly that RV drycamping has become the housing of choice for anyone whose income is not enough, and never will be enough, to buy a residence or rent code-compliant housing.
I found that many, if not most, of my neighbors drink cheap beer most days, all day. I think the cost and debilitation of daily hard drug use brings people down to the sidewalk level harder and faster than beer, but I can't guess if beer drinking is a steady-state condition or a stage on the way down for most drycampers.
Now that I have had a brief and shallow taste of living in a vehicle on public land, I feel I can manage its demands and difficulties if/when I have to. However, long-term and winter camping would be too difficult with the vehicle I have; for a permanent full-timing life on the road I would need a real self-contained RV: insulated, air-conditioned, heated, insured, solar-powered and large enough inside to paint.
5. A Magical Destination --a new adventure within which I will reconstellate as a member of an newly enchanted world, and experience a feeling of having arrived, of being in the right place at the right time.
REALITY: Not a future direction, but nostalgia: I realize I am longing for a return to something wonderful in the past, such as Alta Loma, Upland, Claremont, Haight-Ashbury, Immaculate Heart, Venice Beach in the 1970's, publishing NATIVE with friends, etc. I no longer live in the enchanted springtime, I am 61 years old, and the ordinary world withers under my insatiable demand that it engage me romantically or be judged deficient.
Similarly, while housesitting in Venice Beach for two weeks in June, for an old school friend and her husband vacationing in Scotland, I found everything there to be quite pleasant but murky with my own nostalgia. Beach and boardwalk do not now put me in touch with the edge of something magical, dreamy, transcendent. Everywhere I visit nowadays in the Basin I compare to memories of LA in the 1970's, forty years ago when I was in my 20s and had fallen in love with spacey, laid-back West Los Angeles. I am still haunted by my memories of those years -- probably because I was young, and therefore everything was new and exotic and elicited romantic response.
Summer camping in the desert in itself is neither entertaining nor romantic, or not as much as I had hoped, of course, since in the past I had only visited the Eastern Sierra during the fresh spring rain wildflower time, or the spectacular autumn colors season. And my "memories" are as much formed by photographs and written mystique about the area as they are by actual memories of my own. It has its many charms, but they are grounded in reality, and I am not.
6. An Inspiring Circumstance to nourish some new poems with the juice of reality: the "Crockett Mary" character poems in my new group which I am now calling The Fifth Direction. An experience of living in my imaginary retired narrator's chosen "homelessness", or mobile living RV lifestyle, (I wonder if it means I should try to drift down to Quartzite, AZ, and live the BLM winter life down in the low western desert near the river and the border.)
REALITY: I do not have enough money, nor an adequate vehicle, for an extended RV lifestyle right now, since it would require many additional costs for traveling and purchase of a self-contianed, winter-worthy vehicle. (Although I suppose that many people who have chosen it often did so without enough of anything to do so.)
BUT, ALSO TRUE! -- my current haphazard circumstances for painting (the acrylic dries too fast to mix colors on the palette or alter strokes on the page) is having an effect on how I paint; I am experiencing a loosening of process, much mixed media and messiness. Strong darks, graphic compositions, expressive color. Painting fast and loose. I am very pleased with them so far; I have no idea what this change in style may mean. My poetry, too, is changing. Shorter, less narrative, less discursive -- more like the paintings, perhaps. I had turned towards these forms before my employment changed; my desert lifestyle is supporting their development.