Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 9, 2005 Logistics.

People Ė well, my mother Ė sometimes ask me ďbut whatís it like living in the van? Where do you put your stuff? Where do you sleep at night? Where do you take showers (and use the toilet, but they donít ask that)?Ē

When I first thought about going on the road, and about returning from work overseas to a van instead of to my house in Virginia or my apartment in New Jersey, I was a bit worried about it. Wouldnít it be depressing, coming back to ďliving in a car?Ē Kind of sordid, you know, as if I were a homeless person.

Well, it isnít. Matilda has become my home. When I returned from Malawi, it was delightful to be dropped off with my luggage at my van, just as it used to be delightful to return to my house in Virginia when I lived there. Better, in a way. When I returned to my house in Virginia, I would drag my luggage inside, pull out all the dirty laundry and toss it in a heap. Iíd scan the piles of mail that had arrived, throw the junk in the recycling pile, put aside bills I had to deal with, and mull over what to do with the rest. And then Iíd wander around the house aimlessly, trying to figure out what I was expected to do next. Returning to Matilda, itís clear what to do. I have to unpack instantly and put everything away, or I wonít have room to move. And there is no mail to deal with, which is a luxury. And then Iím home, and I can read a book or pull out my computer, or whatever. Itís very easy. And Matilda really is home.

Space is at a premium living in Matilda. Or maybe I just have too much stuff. I tell people itís because Iím full-timing, and because I work, so I have to carry all kinds of things that short-term travelers can leave at home. A big box of files. A cupboard full of documents and CDs and computer equipment. A scanner (though no printer). And then thereís the winter clothes. And the fact that Iíve got all of my clothes with me, not just what Iíll make do with for a week or a month. For a while I even had a party dress, because I knew Iíd be going to a formal Passover seder with my relatives in Virginia. Thankfully thatís back in Virginia, but still I have nice shirts and nice shoes and way more choice in clothing that people who are just on vacation. Or than people who donít have to dress for work. Or maybe just than most guys have.

Thereís a lot about the stuff I carry that I think is particularly female. Iíve never seen a guyís van with two small stuffed bears, a small stuffed lion, a shiny green beanbag frog, a blue ceramic hippo, and a wire and bead lizard on the dashboard, or a tiny painted wooden dog with a bobbing head and a miniature stuffed pig perched in front of the

speedometer. Iíve never seen a guyís van with a crystal hanging from the rear view mirror spraying rainbows, a wind chime hanging from the passenger side visor, or butterflies stuck to the windshield. Iíve certainly never seen an original painting on the wall in a guyís van. Nor a woven bag filled with jewelry and barettes hanging from the side of the van.

A lot of stuff hangs in my van. Clamped to a bit of a ridge near the side door is a yellow canvas totebag, which I use to store dry foods and fruit. Next to it on the ridge is a green bag that contains cleaning stuff Ė dish soap, sponges, dirty dishes waiting to be cleaned. Vanagons donít have gray water tanks, so I donít wash dishes in my sink if I have a choice; I pack them in the green bag to

cart off to whatever sink Iíve found in a campground or truck stop. Next to the green and yellow bags I clamp a plastic bag for garbage. Extra garbage bags Ė supermarket bags Ė are stuffed in the green bag with the cleaning things.

The poptop bar is also handy for hanging things. Half a dozen clamps are attached to it, and I use them to hang wet bathing suits, sweaty gym clothes, laundry that was still damp after going through the dryer, and occasionally my purse just to get it out of the way. I used to hang the dirty laundry bag there too, but lately Iíve been tossing it behind the back seat instead. I have to remember to move all that hanging stuff when I drive, of course, or I wonít see anything at all out of the rear view mirror. And when I drive I have to make sure everything else is in place, so it wonít go flying if I hit the brakes suddenly. Daypack with my laptop always travels on the floor. I donít care if the Kleenex box flies, so it stays where its lives on the table. A few things are stuffed behind the jewelry bag on the back seat, usually they stay in place in sudden stops. I know a vanagonaut who rolled his van in an accident; if I had to pack to meet his standards, Iíd never be able to drive anywhere. But I assume Iím going to remain upright on the road. I hope Iím not mistaken.

I actually have choice in where I sleep. The Vanagon supposedly sleeps four, and if I didnít have so much stuff it would in fact be possible. With the poptop up, the upper bed folds out into a cozy but not very comfortable sleeping nook Ė not very comfortable because the mattress is thin, despite the egg crate foam Iíve put on top of

it. And the back seat pulls out to make a more comfortable bed, because its cushions are much thicker. Where I sleep depends on my whim, and whether Iím camped legally. If Iím just sleeping in some parking space, I donít pop the top because itís much too obvious, so I have to sleep downstairs. Which is fine, even though it means moving all sorts of stuff that usually rides behind the back seat.

Which is quite a bit of stuff. My clothes live in a small plastic three-drawer dresser, the kind that they sell at Target for $25 or so. The box of files is back there, and the duffel bag I use to carry my stuff when I travel, now filled with winter clothes, shoes I donít wear much, things I only need when Iím overseas, and Iím not sure what all else. My gym bag gets tossed there Ė I go to the gym pretty

often, actually, whenever Iím in a town with a YMCA. Then my ďbed in a bagĒ lives back there, the big stuff sack with my pillow, my sleeping bag, my fleece blanket, and my pjs. And the small rolling suitcase that I use for carry-on when I travel, but on the road provides storage for my scanner and my Vanagon repair manuals. When I pull the seat into a bed, I move all the stuff over to the left side and I sleep on the right. It works just fine. And itís quick to make up again in the morning, which is nice. Some vanagonauts seem to spend an age getting their stuff packed to move in the morning, but I donít.

As for where I put Matilda when I want to sleep Ė well, it depends. When I began my travels, I stayed in state parks and other campgrounds whenever I wasnít visiting friends. On the east coast and in urban areas thatís the easiest thing to do. And I was inexperienced at just parking and going to sleep for the night Ė stealth camping, itís called. But since

then Iíve gotten tired of paying $10 or $20 just for the privilege of parking my van and using a bathroom Ė a lot of public campgrounds donít even have showers, or you have to put quarters in a slot to get a couple minutes of hot water. Very annoying. First I expanded my sleeping options to include truck stops, especially when I was traveling across the Midwest. I quite like truck stops. They are designed precisely for people who are on the road and need a place to sleep. They are busy, and well lit, and no one thinks it odd that youíre sleeping there because thatís what everyone is doing. They arenít nice places to hang out once you wake up in the morning, of course, but when you want to be on your way they are great. I also expanded my repertoire to include highway

rest stops, but they arenít as good. I donít feel safe there, because they arenít as busy and often they arenít staffed full time. But occasionally they have been useful.

Then I expanded to include anyplace that has a bathroom that will be open at all hours and is legal to park in. And even places without bathrooms, if I can pull off the road in nice surroundings and inconspicuously use a bush if I need it. Some vanagonauts carry porta-potties, but I havenít gone that far Ė Iím not willing to give it to the space and not willing to deal with emptying it.

As I write this, Iím ďcampedĒ in the parking lot of a 24-hour Safeway in Port Angeles, Washington. Last week when I was here I parked in the street near the same Safeway. In Pennsylvania, I stayed one night in a municipal park that happened to have a lot of clean portajohns. In South Dakota, I slept in a parking lot next to a town park. Last week I stayed in a turnout off the road overlooking the Strait of San Juan de Fuca, with a stunning view of the sunset over the water outside my windows. A few people pulled into my turnout during the night, but they didnít bother me Ė actually, I think they were there to use a handy bush themselves, though I wasnít exactly checking.

Contrary to what I would have expected, itís not weird at all. Iím sitting in my van right now typing away. The doors are locked, the curtains are drawn, and I donít have any lights on, so from the outside unless someone looked pretty hard they wouldnít know anyone was in here. Stealth camping is more of a nuisance when I want to read, but I manage. Iíll admit, occasionally I do feel like a kid reading under the covers with a flashlight! But it works. Inside my van, Iím at home, no matter where Iím parked. In the morning, I pack up my bedding, fold up the back seat, and Iím ready to be off to wherever Iím going next.

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