Names have been changed to protect the identities of the innocent.
On a rainy winter night I approached a mini-bus parked at a dirt field at the end of town. There were no signs of light inside and no other sounds besides water droplets bouncing off the fiberglass roof. “Jack! You in there?” I called listening for any movement within. Then the hydraulic doors parted the way they’d down thousands of times before when the micro-bus was in use by the City of Bellflower.
“What are you up too? Come on in.” Jack announced with excitement. He appreciates nothing more than visitors. A wave of heat hit my face as I climbed up the stairs and the mechanical doors closed behind. A propane heater in the back of the bus explained why Jack was hanging out in pajama shorts on this cold night.
“Dude, I was just cooking up a stir-fry. There’s plenty to go around.”
The bus’ seats were removed and a bed built in the back turning the vehicle into a mobile living quarters. Black cloth hung over the windows blocking any light from the outside and his two massive dogs returned to their bunks after they gave me a thorough sniffing.
Jack has lived out of vehicles longer than anyone else I’ve known and has the routine down to a science. His set up wasn’t always this luxurious. When I first met him he used to park a rusty white van at the river mouth where I surfed often. His dogs used to roam the area freely until the city started actively protecting the Snowy Plover, an endangered bird that lives in sand dunes of California. For years Jack parked his van there until his dog Duke ran up to a harbor patrol officer with a snowy plover hanging from the sides of his mouth.
“Since you are the guru of living out of vehicles I decided to ask you a few questions to write a story about how to save money by avoiding rent.”
Jack was actually a marine in his younger years. After camping for years in the jungles of Vietnam and killing numerous individuals all he wanted when he returned was to live a peaceful existence. He had some kids and tried to work a normal job, but had trouble taking orders from any kind of boss. With no rent he is able to live a comfortable existence working the occasional odd job in construction.
“What if someone was to live out of their vehicle and work a normal job. Theoretically they’d be able to stack some serious dough. Don’t you think?”
“Sure dude, I used to pay almost twenty thousand a year for rent in California.”
Jack handed me a beer as the stir fry sizzled before us his face turned serious and he went into the basics of how to live out of a vehicle.
“The idea is to pick a vehicle you can turn into a comfortable living quarters without attracting unwanted attention from the law. The massive Winnebago’s popular among people who like to pretend they are camping, will get you run out of town by the cops. On the other hand, the mini RV’s made by Toyota are under 21 feet long, the legal length of a vehicle to park on city streets.”
Remeber Chris Farley’s skit “I live in a van down by the river.”
“Van’s are truly the ideal vehicle for the renegade camper. They can be fairly spacious, come in many different models including windowless for extra privacy, and they can look like a business vehicle by plastering a fictitious sign on the side.
Always have an alibi and keep your idea in a handy place to keep the cops from coming inside and tearing apart your vehicle. One time a cop woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me if I was camping. I told him, “no, I’m just taking a nap.” It was two in the morning and he just told me to move. Getting awakened out of a dead sleep is punishment in its own.
But I’ve parked everywhere from the mountains to beachside with million dollar views to the edge of a neighborhood the vehicle looks like it could be a resident’s. The first night I ever camped out I parked my van in the parking lot of a twenty four hour restaurant.”
Jack poured spinach over the fry and stirred until it melted into the medley of rice and vegetables.
“I actually eat better when I’m in a vehicle because I don’t have a refrigerator, although I hear I could set up one that runs off solar power pretty easily. Rice, potatoes, vegetables, cereal don’t need to be refrigerated. Anything else like meat I cook up or eat that day. Actually most foods keep longer without refrigeration much longer than people think. Your nose will tell you everything you need to know about if a particular food has gone bad. We should really learn to trust our senses more.
Just remember if you’re going to cook in your vehicle you better have ventilation because carbon dioxide will kill you.”
Jack handed me a plate of hearty hobo food. The way it used to be done before homeless begged for change to buy fast food meals. In fact there is an entire underground culture of people living out of their vehicles which started in the dust bowl era.
Jack took a few bites then returned to our subject. “I find the simplest setup on the inside is the best. I got into building elaborate interior then found that a thick foam mattress from an upholstery store makes the best bed, and it’s easy to make shelves out of pieces of plywood. It’s important to utilize every bit of space in a small living quarters. Just check out the inside of sailboats and don’t be afraid to screw things into the side of your vehicle as long as you don’t puncture a hole to the outside.
You can shower by getting a gym membership, going to campgrounds or bird baths in the bathrooms at fast food restaurants. That’s about all you need to know. The rest you’ll pick up along the road.”
Whether you’re just looking to save some cash or want to live on the edge, your perspective will change after living out of vehicle. Everyone should should do it at least once in their life to experience the silence and freedom of staying in a different location every night without a home to return too. You’ll see drug attacks and other messed up people living out of their cars, but you’ll also see other’s not trapped in the way of life who embody the lifestyle of a renegade camper. At times you will feel like you’ve lost your mind and you probably have. then you’ll see nine to fivers killing each other on the way to work, and realize they’re out of their minds and don’t even know it. Is it better to know your crazy or pretend like your not?
I asked Jack for a closing piece of advice. He thought for a minute then replied, “Be safe and don’t kill yourself.”