Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 22, 2005 Oh the people you’ll meet: The Pacific Northwest.

I traveled the Pacific Northwest going from person to person, meeting vanagonauts, family, and other listserv friends. I got an email from Andrew while I was on the Olympic Peninsula in response to a Vanagon list discussion of whether VW owners wave to each other on the road. He sent a picture of Crusty, his brown and tan van, and said I should wave if we passed on the road. He also mentioned that if I needed to place to camp on Bainbridge Island I was welcome. Well, as it turned out I did need a place to stay on Bainbridge Island, and I took him up on his offer. I guess I’ve come a long way in my travels; I didn’t even worry about the fact that I didn’t know him from a hole in the ground and for all I knew he might be an axe murderer.

Of course he isn’t an axe murderer. We got along right away, and spent hours chattering about vans, relationships, work, and life past, present, and future. We ate out, picked blackberries until we were all scratched up, and watched a DVD of The Old Man and the Sea. At times we sat at our respective laptops browsing the internet and emailing each other particularly interesting findings.

Andrew is about my age. He hails from rural Maine, but has been in and out of the Pacific Northwest for years. While I was trudging through years of college and graduate school, Andrew owned a small grocery store in a Maine ski town, getting a practical hands-on education in how to make a business profitable, how to manage staff, how to deal with customers and suppliers and whoever else plays a role in the success of a retail operation. His family owned a motel and restaurant, and he grew up working there, so he wasn’t starting from zero. But I sure couldn’t have opened a business at nineteen and actually made it work. In time he segued from retail to construction, and for decades he has renovated homes for a living, including a few of his own. Most recently, he left Gloucester, Massachusetts to move for the third (or perhaps fourth?) time to the Seattle area, agreeing to spend a year living in and fixing up a home that belongs to a good friend of his. He’s not sure what he’ll do after this; he’s thinking of going to college full-time and getting a different kind of education from the one he’s already had. I think it’s a great idea – I can just imagine him immersed in philosophy, say, or thirteenth century Persian poetry, or perhaps creative writing.

Photo of Crusty courtesy of Andrew Martin.

I left Andrew’s house – well, his friend’s house – on a Monday morning and headed to Federal Way to have lunch with someone else I didn’t know. I am on the family clan listserv of Al Gilman, the widower of my old friend Marion. While she was alive, I became friends not only with her husband, but with his first wife Judy and their daughters Anne and Nancy. I often attended holiday dinners with the whole lot of them - Marion, Al, Judy, her husband Carl, children by all of their previous marriages, and various spouses of the children. So it was natural for me to be on the Gilman clan listserv as well.

Jim, whom I had lunch with that day, is also on that list, though his connection to the clan is almost as tenuous as mine. He was born in China, to Chinese parents who were active in national politics in the early 1940s. When he was eighteen months old, his father had to flee to “free China,” and left him with the Browns, an American missionary family who ended up adopting him. When they escaped the revolution and returned to America, he went with them. When he was a teen-ager and in prep school, the Browns returned to China, leaving Jim in the US to finish his schooling. They placed him under the care of another family that had been missionaries in China, Al’s grandfather Bishop Gilman. The Gilmans became Jim's adoptive family; by then he considered the Browns to be his real family, and had lost touch with his biological parents.

On the Gilman clan list, Jim is both feisty and poetic. He likes to travel, and has written lovely, evocative pieces about his trip to Europe with his daughter and his cruise up the Danube with his sister. He has written some fascinating pieces about his boyhood experiences in China, which rendered vivid what for me is a piece of history that I know more from novels than from any other source. He is also a liberal and outraged about the current political situation in the US. So he posts angry emails about the Iraq war, links to blogs from Baghdad, furious thoughts about energy policy, and scathing comments about the elections of the past few years. He and I had exchanged a few off-line emails, and I knew I wanted to meet him.

Lunch included Jim, his Chinese-American wife Eugenia, their two grandsons, and Jim’s sister Ruth Brown. They posed interesting contrasts. Jim is effusive, friendly, at times adamant when he gets going on politics, and very outgoing. Eugenia is beautiful, elegant, and very gracious. Ruth is sharp, witty, and curious, though unfortunately a bit confused about things in the present. She lives in Kobe, Japan, and told startling stories about having just escaped disaster in the recent earthquake in that city. She moved to Japan decades ago when Jim and Eugenia were stationed there, and blames them for her having spent the rest of her life there. She wanted to visit Mt. Rainier, but Jim thought he was too old and couldn’t manage such a big mountain.

I scolded him for that; I mean, there's that mountain hanging in the background wherever you go, how could he not take his sister to see it before she returned to Japan? The grandsons, at ten and thirteen, weren't much interested in the adult conversations, but happily amused each other over lunch. It was very nice to put faces to these people whom I’d been reading about on the Gilman clan list for many years. In some ways they seem exotic, with their Chinese roots and tales about escaping war and revolution. But in other ways they are very American, immigrants who have settled in this country and mixed their past and present lives, just as they have furnished their very conventional suburban home with Chinese furniture and decorations, and replaced the manicured lawn with a Chinese garden.

Next, I stayed with a vanagonaut whom I had been receiving emails from and about for at least a year. Bev is seventy one, and lives in a housing project for low-income elderly or disabled people in Sherwood, a small town outside Portland. She doesn’t have much in common with her neighbors, aside from the details that got her into her apartment. She has long white hair that hangs down her back, and she dresses in tie-dye and Birkenstocks. Her apartment is full of feminist posters, and a sign in her flowerbed reads something like “here he lies, cold and hard, the last damned dog who pissed in my yard.” Whenever she can swing it, she takes off in her Vanagon to visit friends, see other parts of the country, meet up with other vanagonauts, or escape the dreary Oregon winters. While she thinks her neighbors have no use for her lifestyle, several told me they envied her ability to take off, and seemed to live vicariously through her experiences. She is buoyantly cheerful, youthful in outlook, and enthusiastic about other women who travel alone. She was eager for me to visit; when I pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex, she was waiting outside to give me a big hug as if we were already old friends or I were her long-lost daughter.

Bev brings out the generosity of the Vanagon community, I think. Like me, she knows little about car mechanics, and can’t work on her own van. But she is

living on a fixed income, and the costs of maintaining one of these vehicles can be steep. When her last van died a natural death, she figured it was time to move into senior housing in downtown Portland where she wouldn’t need a car, and to give up her traveling life. But her enthusiasm had made her friends everywhere, and they got together to provide her with a “new” van, a 1987 camper that she calls Blue. Last weekend she and Blue went to something called Mogfest, which as far as I can tell is a gathering of people who charge through pools of mud and up rough roads in great galumphing vehicles, to see how well they can barrel over, around, and into the obstacles. Bev said she envied all the folks driving their vans in those conditions, but she loved Blue too much to put her through that. I’m going to see her again at a gathering after Labor Day, and I’m looking forward to it. I can’t imagine her having to stop traveling, if one day she decides she shouldn’t be driving any more. Yet with her enthusiasm, I’m sure that she’ll take to living in downtown Portland just as cheerfully as she takes to everything else. The Vanagon community will just have to go to her once that happens, instead of her going to them.

From Portland I went to Salem, to visit my cousin Elana and her husband David. When I met them last winter at my uncle’s 90th birthday party, they invited me to visit if I made it to Oregon. I liked them both, and was glad to have a chance to see them again. In my family they – or at least Elana – is known for living on top of a mountain in eastern Oregon. (I suppose that in family lore I’m known for traveling to weird countries and then moving into a van.) Elana and David came down from the mountain fifteen years ago, when they decided that it was too hard a life to plan on for old age, and they wanted to build up retirement funds so they could do other interesting things when they got older. David was offered a job in the state Department of Natural Resources, working on the environmental impacts of agriculture, so they moved to Salem, where Elana found a job auditing the labor practices of businesses receiving state funds. They bought a house where they could walk to the work, to the YMCA, to the farmer’s market, and to downtown, and settled into a quiet existence as government workers saving for retirement.

Their lives in Salem seem far too mundane to live up to their past or their plans for the future. I’d always thought of my cousin Herbie, now a professor at Hampshire College, as the hippie of the family, but Elana and David, building a house from scratch on the top of a mountain the Cascades, surely fit that description better. That seems to me to take much more courage than my freelance work in Africa or my travels in a van. They have become serious sailors, and are looking for ways to make a life centered around boats and the water when they retire, perhaps crewing on sailboats, or possibly purchasing a liveaboard. They are also considering fulltiming in their RV, but are uncertain about not having a home base at all. The state of Oregon has just put a major crimp in their plans, by unexpectedly reducing its contribution to employee retirement funds, so they are regrouping, recalculating their situation and rethinking their options.

David and I share a lot of work-related interests, which we discussed at some length – boring Elana to tears, I’m sure. I’m not used to the idea that anyone in my family knows anything about my work, so talking to him was an unexpected pleasure. His work is domestic rather than international, but many of the issues are similar. And he knows the natural science side where I know economics and policy, so his knowledge complements mine. So I could actually bounce some of the Malawi ideas off of him, and he had useful responses. And I could offer suggestions on consulting that might offer him substantive part-time work after retirement. That was a change from most family discussions - most people in my closer family seem to be in education in one way or another, and they don’t much talk shop anyway. He was even interested in my book, so I left him a copy when I took off. Elana and I, on the other hand, gossiped about family – her parents, her aunt Edith, our cousin Sandy, our uncle Harry – and about her work, and what she wants to do once she isn’t working – besides sail and cook, which are her preferred activities now. It’s a confusing time for them – I wonder what their plans will be next time I see them.

From Salem, David and Elana passed me on to their good friend Paul in Eugene, and I camped outside his house for a few days. Paul is a chatty man a bit older than I, who has done all kinds of things for a living. He has been doing yard work for the past few years, since the company where he used to work as a computer programmer succumbed to outsourcing. He looked for computer work for a long time, but seems to have stopped looking, and appears to enjoy his more active and relaxed outdoor life.

I was talking about some of the interesting characters I’ve met along the way, and mentioned the carnies in Arizona last December. Well, it turns out Paul used to be a carnie too, in the mid-Atlantic. Unlike the folks I met in Arizona, he did very well at it. He also only did it on a part-time basis; the rest of the time he was designing database management systems. A really incongruous combination, when I think of the guys in Arizona! He told me more about how the midway games really work – the basket tosses where a hidden paddle bounces the ball out of the basket, the drunken firemen nights when guys who have had a few too many keep upping the ante, doubling the price to shoot another dart into a balloon. If they burst seven balloons, they get a prize plus all their money back, but if they are drunk enough there’s no way they’ll win, and with the price doubling with each dart they can lose a lot before they quit. Paul told me about paying protection each night, too. I thought he meant paying off organized crime so they wouldn’t hold up the carnival workers, but he laughed at that. The carnies were organized crime, he explained. If they paid off the police, he said, the only things that would land them in jail were murder and drug dealing; anything else, and they’d be on their way out of the town the next morning.

Paul didn’t really want a live of organized crime, though, so he left the carnival circuit to concentrate on his computer skills. A good choice, I think, even if he is working as a gardener now.

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