Boy, has it been a busy couple of weeks. Let me catch you up.
In the midst of getting some design work done here, and some van work done there, an employer called on Friday afternoon (this is two Fridays ago by now because I’ve been so busy working that I didn’t have time to write this up) and asked me to fly to Los Angeles on Monday morning for a meeting. I agreed, but opted to drive instead. It sounded like a good opportunity to meet up with Jef, take Gypsy for a test run in the Angeles National Forest, oh, and that Ebola thing sounded like a good thing to avoid.
On Sunday afternoon, Gypsy, Sake, and I headed down to Southern California. We met up with Jef, and then caravanned up a mountain in search of a place to call home for the night.
Nope, not here.
Note to self: National Geographic’s map of the Angeles National Forest leaves out important information.
We eventually found a decent-looking spot a couple of miles up Little Tujunga Canyon Road. I put up some makeshift curtains and we all settled in.
“This is fun! It’s like we’re having a slumber party!” I recall saying. With that, we went to sleep.
2:45 a.m. BANG! BANG! BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG!
“Were those gunshots!?” I asked Jef.
“Yup,” he replied.
I thought about it for a minute. What does a big white van look like to a group of drunk idiots with guns? A target.
I pictured myself waking up in pain, clutching my abdomen, and covered in blood. I turned to Jef, “We have to get out of here,” I said. Jef agreed.
So at 3:00 a.m. we found ourselves leaving the forest, sleepily driving down the 2 highway in search of a safe place to catch a few winks. With no other options presenting themselves, we parked on a quiet residential street in Glendale, and hoped that no one would mind. The irony of fleeing the supposedly quiet and peaceful forest and seeking safety in the supposedly loud and unwelcoming city was not lost on us.
Luckily, big white vans are fairly common in Glendale. No one bothered us for the rest of the night—er, morning—and at 7:30 a.m. I emerged from the van looking like a normal, functioning member of society who had spent the night in a normal, non-wheeled dwelling. With my collared shirt and pinstripe pants, I may have even resembled a polished professional.
But my polished appearance didn’t last long. After a few meetings with some friendly co-workers, a colleague offered to take me on a tour of our project site, which I enthusiastically accepted. They decorated me in construction worker gear, plopped a helmet on my head and said, “If anyone gives you any trouble about being on site, just point to the sticker on your helmet.”
Apparently, the sticker proves I’m certified or trained or somehow approved to be on the construction site. Which I’m not.
Walking up to the site, I stuck close to my colleague. An authoritative-looking lady across the street spotted me, stuck a pointed index finger in the air, and began waving it around. She marched over, and within seconds, her pointed index finger was waving in front of my nose. “I don’t know you!” she exclaimed. She planted her 4-foot 9-inch frame uncomfortably close to mine. She could have been a Seinfeld character. She squinted her eyes up at me and studied all the aspects of my safety costume. She noted the helmet, the safety glasses on top of my eyeglasses (the combination of which obscured a good 50% of my vision), the bright yellow vest three sizes too big and hanging off my shoulder, and my steel toed boots (borrowed from another colleague that I had met literally minutes before).
“Do you know the ?” she asked. She used a specific term, I didn’t even recognize the words she said.
My colleague jumped in and pointed out the sticker on my helmet, indicating that I was certified for whatever safety training I was supposed to have undergone.
Without a word, she nodded and waved me on through.
That’s one hell of a powerful sticker.
For the next hour, I dodged trucks, forklifts, and men carrying large quantities of building materials. Nails rained down on my head a few times. Every step I took had the potential to stab the underside of my foot with a rogue nail or screw. The safety training course may have been optional, but the gear was definitely necessary. My colleague and I carried a stack of drawings, and pointed back and forth from the drawings to the walls that were under construction as if we had some authority over what was going on. It was fun.
After work, Jef, Sake, and I puttered around, killing time before we headed to our camp for the night. I got to have my favorite burger ever, and Jef ordered the most expensive bottle of beer I’ve ever seen ($23!). We may or may not have pilfered 3 gallons of water from a water fountain at a nearby park.
At dusk, we drove 30 minutes east to our selected sleeping spot, Big Dalton Canyon Road in Glendora (in the Angeles National Forest), just to find that it was closed. A large metal gate blocked off the road.
Disappointed and befuddled, I consulted my map for another road to camp on. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson by now to throw away that stupid map. Instead, we drove 20 minutes west to Chantry Flat Road (also in the Angeles NF).
You’ve got to be kidding me. The forest is closed!? You’re closing nature!? How is it okay to do that?
I should probably point out that the sign on the gate said “Closed from 8:00 p.m. – 6:00 a.m.” which leads me to believe that anyone who ventures past the gate and doesn’t return prior to 8:00 p.m. is effectively trapped until 6:00 a.m. when they open the gate again. Trapped. On a forest road. By a man-made gate. In nature. As if it’s jail. Something about that seems completely absurd.
Exasperated, we once again we headed to the city to find a sleeping spot, ending up in a location that was the exact opposite of a nice quiet spot on the forest—a commercially zoned area between the airport and the train tracks. Leave it to me to pick the worst camping spots ever. If there’s one thing I can reliably do, it’s that.
The noise didn’t bother me at all, but that’s probably because I had another problem brewing. The burger that I had eaten for dinner—the one that that was previously deemed my favorite burger ever—was starting rebel against me.
Thank God for buckets lined with plastic bags and kitty litter. I puked and passed out. The roar of trains, planes and automobiles was non-stop, but none of that mattered to me as I slept off my battle with the tainted burger.
The next morning was thankfully uneventful. Everyone woke up rested, and we headed to the park to wash up a bit, and let Sake chase the squirrels. The squirrels love it.
Our adventure had come to a close. After a quick bite, I packed up the van and headed back up to San Francisco while Jef headed south to San Diego.
On the way, a small design work request came in, so I used it as an opportunity to take a break from driving.
Ah, the glamorous life of working remotely.
So that’s my story. Now that I’m back in Pinole, I’m back to the routine of working on design stuff all day while taking care of Dad. I definitely learned a few things on our little adventure, so I’ll share them with you now.
10 Things I Learned On My First Two Nights of Van Dwelling
- If camping in National Forests, watch out for gates. Sometimes the rangers close them, sometimes they don’t, and it appears that there’s no reliable way to tell which gates will be closed when. I can think of a million reasons why I might need to leave my campsite in a hurry (medical emergency, forest fire, lunatics shooting guns at me, etc.), so my advice is to stay away from any road that has a gate, just in case someone decides to close and lock it.
- If camping in urban areas, it makes a lot of sense to arrive late and leave early. Humans seem to start leaving for work at around 7:00 am, so if you want to get a good night’s sleep without being disturbed in the morning by cars zooming by, make sure you’re asleep by 11:00 pm.
- Plan small storage areas. In addition to planning places to keep larger items like clothing and food, also plan where you’ll keep your flashlight, the dog leash, your contact lens case, and the paper towels—it’ll make living in such a small space much easier.
- If your spidey senses detect a threat, move. It really is a lot better to lose out on some sleep than to let yourself be a victim. Keep your wits about you and take advantage of the fact that your house has wheels.
- Carry a water jug. It’s handy for gathering a few drops of water from public water fountains.
- Van life is easier with built-in light-blocking curtains. For rear windows, it’s especially nice if they’re on a curtain track so it’s easy to pull them shut at night, and push them open for driving.
- Blackout trash bags and magnets work, too. If you can’t afford real curtains or just don’t feel like hassling with them, trash bags get the job done. You have to use the Hefty brand Blackout bags—all the other ones are see-through.
- Always have a bucket lined with a plastic bag and kitty litter ready. I would do this even if I wasn’t a van dweller wannabe. It’s great to have in the car if you have kids, and as an adult it can be a lifesaver too. I won’t get into any stories, but some of us have at times had too much to drink, eaten bad tacos…
- Installing lights is totally worth it. Built-in ceiling-mounted lights with a handy on/off switch aren’t essential for every van dweller, but they make life sooooo much easier. It’s even better if you can wire up single pole double throw switches so that you can turn the lights on and off from different locations within the van (e.g. a switch by the head of the bed, and a switch next to the side door).
- Nothing will go as you expect, so be flexible. I didn’t think it would be so hard to camp in the forest, or so easy to camp on the street. The dreaded knock on the door from a police officer never came, although I was fully prepared for it. Everyone has a different experience, and there’s no telling what yours will be until you get out there.