Summer’s almost upon us, friends, with its wide fields of opportunity: to swim in mirrored lakes, cavort on grassy dancefloors with beautiful people, and explore the width and depth of our great continent. For those who find themselves on the doorstep of this freest of seasons without permanent housing, summer presents another opportunity, one with which I’m well acquainted, and the topic of this here BC Musician article: to savour the unique joys of making a residence of one’s vehicle.
In the opening words of my 2009 sleeper hit single “This One’s on the House” (which is still sleeping, thanks for asking):
“I live in my van, and it’s a fine place to live /
I sleep where I please, and wake smilin’…”
The van in question is a 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan named Old Blue, and he and his predecessor The Rockpod have been the roofs over my head for the better part of the last seven years. So while I’m admittedly something of a rubber tramping evangelist, I endeavour herein to offer an unvarnished account of vehicular living, in all its gritty glory and pathos.
Let’s start with the glory, shall we? The first selling point of a home on four wheels is the rent. Why pay for both a house and a car? And if only one, why not one you can relocate whenever you tire of the view, or the neighbours? Especially when there are festival fields to live in! While other folks are roughing it in tents with air mattresses, you’ll be sleeping in your own bed and mixing cocktails out the hatchback. ‘Nuff said.
Of course, making a home out of a car requires some doing. My setup’s fairly simple: mattress behind the passenger seat, with my kitchen, pantry and bar in stackable crates behind that, and tools, boxes of CDs, music gear, wardrobe, water jug and fridge (a cooler that plugs into the cigarette lighter) taking up what’s left along the driver’s side. I’ve seen much more elaborate arrangements, often involving a shelf made of 2x4s to raise the bed so that two can sleep comfortably with the gear underneath; great for hiding the gear but not so great for sitting up in bed.
Nowadays I roll with a bike rack on the back, which feels kinda like having both a house and a car after all, with the added bonus that a bicycle is a car you can drive when you’re drunk. The hydraulics on your average hatchback won’t hold up a bicycle for long, though. If they give out, don’t replace them; get a cheap pair of vice grips and slap ‘em on the hydraulic post when you raise up the back. Voila. If that’s all you get out of this article, it’s been worth your while.
A bigger ride can fit your bike inside, and while it’ll cost more to drive, the space might make up for it. My UK troubadouring tourmate Jez Hellard’s van has room enough to stand up in, and even sports a small wood-burning stove for the bitter English winters. My buddy Luke on Cortes Island has an old short bus with a second storey built onto it, complete with a rough-hewn wooden balcony extending out over the hood. In the seventies, he tells me, they used to cruise down the highway drinking cocktails on the veranda. Oh, for days gone by.
The key thing about making your home in a car, of whatever size, is bringing along the comforts of home. As some of you readers know, I roll with a wide selection of single malt whiskeys, a full complement of whole spices with mortar and pestle, and a motorized disco ball. For some people it’s gonna be the coffee grinder, for others it’s gonna be the TV. Whatever blows your hair back.
Lastly, I should mention the double-decker sprouter that keeps me in fresh greens on the road. I’ve sprouted lentil, chickpea, mung bean, adzuki bean, fenugreek, radish, broccoli, and alfalfa so far, and have been dreaming of a rooftop greenhouse to do actual gardening in. But all that healthy gourmet fancy talk makes me think it’s time to get around to the pathos.
First and foremost, there’s the fact that no matter how you slice it, you live in your car. My aforementioned song’s chorus joyously affirms that “there’s no shame in being a hobo,” but let’s face it, I wouldn’t mention the shame if it wasn’t out there to be felt. Border crossings are always especially interesting, no matter how tidy I make everything look. And some members of your preferred sex might not think you quite so shaggable when they find out your bedroom is behind your passenger seat. Then again, as wise friends have told me, “you don’t need those kind of chicks in your life anyway.”
The weather’s another thing to contend with. Some savvier friends of mine have sorted out electric space heaters that cycle through a second battery for toastier winter wake-ups. But maybe the best strategy is just going where the climate suits your home.
There’s also that other, less friendly kind of heat to bear in mind. Discretion is paramount. Vagrancy’s still vagrancy, even if you’re traveling with fancy spices in your pantry. And as far as the law’s concerned, being in care and control of a vehicle when you’re over the limit (even asleep with the keys) is the same as having driven it. Thankfully, in seven years I’ve never run afoul of the law. For starters, I’m living in a van that screams “soccer mom”, rather than letting my freak flag fly in a custom-painted VW. The most important thing, though, is reading the signs. If a sign says “no camping or overnight parking,” it’s there because plenty of hippies have done so and gotten busted for it. There’s plenty of great real estate you can occupy for free without being a heat score. A handy little book called Camp Free in BC has directions to some choice spots, www.allstays.com has oodles of places, and there are always more to be found along forest service roads, off-road through a break in the trees, or along the little dirt tracks often found beside river bridges.
If you’re in a pinch, you can settle for residential neighbourhoods, rest areas, truckstops, (again, read the signs) and the ubiquitous Wal-Mart parking lots. For getting clean, you’ve got lakes and rivers, or showers in public pools and some truckstops. And our benevolent dictators Tim Horton and Ronald McDonald have been kind enough to provide all the hi-tech hobos with free wifi, usually accessible from the parking lot.
I’m writing this article from Muang Ngoi, Laos, living out of a backpack, and I must confess, it’s got me feeling kinda homesick for Old Blue. I hope it’s been helpful, and hope to see you out along the trail somewhere, however you arrive. We can sample a few scotches in the disco ball’s nostalgic, slow-turning glow. Happy motoring. PS: Download the car-camping anthem for free.