On Van Life: Month 1

It’s been a month now.  Five weekends.  

The first two I didn’t get out of the city, because I still had moving out to do and a few projects to finish on the build.  

The first weekend I finished moving my stuff into storage and hooking up the solar electricity.  I bought a deep cycle battery at Interstate, a battery box at Home Depot, and though still intimidated by the project of hooking up a solar system, I managed not to fuck anything up.  

Late Sunday night I mounted up the water pump and ran what hose I could to get the sink operating, but I was short a couple of hose clamps and was very tired so I called it quits just short of completion.  

One day the following week, I stopped by the house to hang out with my cat and finish up the plumbing.  He slept with me in the van that night, first curled up on the driver’s seat, but as the night cooled down he ended up next to me.

The next weekend I was so burned out that instead of making a rugby trek into the mountains, I opted to lay around the house with my oldest best friend and binge movies.  It was 100% worth it. I was feeling 6 months of working overtime weeks and van build weekends and I was tired. I may still be, but the more I minimize, the more centered I feel in my decision to make such a radical change in lifestyle.  I’m finding rest in a variety of places now and doing my best to listen to my body and my mind’s desires to be still.

Here are a few reflections from the last month.

1. Firsts are difficult.

The first week was the least comfortable. The first morning I cooked eggs and chorizo on the camp stove was the least graceful (the propane kept leaking). The first time I peed in the middle of the night in a wag bag was the weirdest (as I squatted just a few feet from my pillow). The first time a coworker asked if I needed a place to stay was the most awkward (he completely understood my decision once I explained). Now all of those things feel regular.

2. Food is a relationship.

I purposefully didn’t design a fridge in the build because my intention was to only be traveling in the van.  I was also considering that they use a lot of energy and a bit of space and I didn’t think I needed it. I don’t.  I’m at the grocery store every couple days and I’m (mostly) eating everything I buy. I currently have a jar of strawberry jam and I’m afraid I’m going to be sick of PBJs before it’s gone.  I’ll get back to you about that. So far, the small cooler I have is perfect.

3. Solitude.

I’m alone A LOT which generally suits me since I’m an introvert (also because I’m trying to find an artist’s way aka hustling all my waking hours to do something meaningful), but it has made my weekend interactions more intentional and my chosen tribe more apparent. I’m also very productive, because I have no excuse not to be. Equally, my sleep schedule is on point.

There’s so much more to say, but I’ve run to the end of a train of thought.  More to come another day. Peace.

Reflections after my first Protest

I’ve been thinking a lot lately.  Thinking about writing this post. Thinking about breaking my blog silence.  Thinking that I want to be more than just someone who writes about wild times out drinking while they’re traveling.  Thinking about all the things I’ve always cared about.

I don’t remember hearing about much civil unrest when I was a kid.  Some dissent was spewed from a few relatives, but generally in my family, politics was a topic excluded from polite conversation with guest or relatives or basically anyone at all.

The first I remember really hearing about it I was a teenager and my mom was telling my brother and I that she and my stepdad always discussed who they would vote for president because if they voted against one another, their votes would cancel each other out.  I’m not really sure if that’s a real memory, because none of the details were ever discussed.  

I remember hearing how Gore won the popular vote even though Bush was reelected by the Electoral College.  I thought this was weird, but I didn’t understand why it happened. I thought it was just a one-off situation.

By the time there was a Presidental Election that I was eligible to vote in, I had a fire burning in me.  Some of it was undoubtedly teen angst, a manifestation of my trauma. Nothing was ok in the world including the way I grew up, but the discomfort radiated out of me in all directions.  

I remember being a young college student and learning about China and telling my parents how amazing the landscape was and how the culture was so different than ours (likely in a condescending or judgemental way) and how my mother got defensive, demanding I shut my mouth and praising America as the greatest country ever to be.

I used to smoke a lot of weed, often with my brother and his crew of friends.  I remember one time being so fired up about some injustice in the American institutions (likely how slavery has just changed it’s mask) that I stood up from my chair in a huff, proclaiming to the circle of friends that I would give my life for something that I believe in and asking them (with naivety) if they would.  I remember the look on their faces, sheepish looks as they shook their heads. I don’t remember any words spoken as I exited the garage.

It’s been a decade now since I’ve been able to call myself a teenager but the feeling never went away.  Through my 20s, the economic and political landscape has changed drastically from the one I grew up in at least it appears this way, although mass incarceration began under the noses of my parents’ generation and those flanking them.  It seems the more I learn historically about the last three decades of the 20th century, the more I notice general apathy from voter base, or at least little evidence of upheavel within the majority (read: white population). I’d love to be proven wrong.

So now I ask, why?  Was the privilege too great?  Were the paychecks too good and the houses too cheap?  Did no one realize that suburbanization was another substitute for segregation or was it just too comfortable?  Were y’all scared to change? Did mass incarceration laws coo the screaming baby whose symptom was economic disparity to a population outside of nursery?  Were y’all afraid to accept that the injustices of our past do not have to hide, continuing into our future? Did you find it easier to bury your head in the sand and spout phrases like ‘let them pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ when the opportunities to have bootstraps weren’t even given?  How about now? Do you feel safer knowing that thousands of people fleeing from physical harm and economic disparity are being imprisoned without the basic necessities of life?  Do you feel more comfortable knowing that racism and sexism is being justified by the head of our exective branch?

I just don’t get it, but I’ll say one thing more.  I don’t want to live in a world where people aren’t willing to use their voices and their power to help the oppressed and disadvantaged, and since I generally want to live, I have resolved the only thing I can do is use my voice, and challenge those around me to use theirs too.  Power to the People. Not to a corporation. Not to a PAC fund. Not to a 1%er. Not to white Americans. POWER TO ALL THE PEOPLE.  

New Orleans, Part 3: An Impression of Katrina

Elena’s toes pressed against the windshield as I cruised across Lake Pontchartrain back to New Orleans for the last day. I yearned for coffee and donuts. It was mid morning already and my belly ached for sustenance.

The lake extended for miles and miles ahead of us, like the pavement of our vast interstates, broken evenly by light ripples. The road seemed to float just above the surface.

I circled the block once, finding a parking spot just outside the doors of District Donuts Sliders and Brew, in the Garden district of New Orleans. The roads leading to it were lined by rows of shotgun homes alternating with much prettier plantation style houses. There were a series of blocks that were very obviously lower income, but just as they were noticed, larger house began to pop up again.

We enjoyed a variety of donuts. One made into an ice cream sandwich and another a breakfast sandwich toppedwith a dippy egg and the last two of odd flavor- strawberry lemonade and root beer float. Each one was delicious in its own way. They were by far the best we’d had on the trip.

I insisted we do a bit of exploring of the urban decay from Katrina, though I’m sure my compadres wouldn’t have gone without me.

We rolled down Claiborne Avenue towards the Lower Ninth Ward, but passing it first, only finding refurbished homes and new builds spaced out by vacant lots in a nearby parish.

“This isn’t that bad,” Ellie started, “but you know all these grass patches used to be houses. See,” we all stared out the windows, “driveway there, and there, and there.”

I followed the road to the end of land, looking for water, but only finding manmade hills of earth, at their crest a barrier ran the extent. Finally, I found Claiborne and followed it back to a main stretch of the Ward, where now the vacant lots and refurbs became neighbors to boarded up ranchers and gravel cross streets, many closed. It was obvious they had been paved in the past, but now stones lay rubble to their history.

I was hypnotized, in complete awe of the extent of desolation and decomposition. Around every turn, another site awed me. I ventured down one of the side streets to find it closed just a hundred feet ahead. I began my three point turn, and looked up to see an entrance stairway standing alone, wild grasses growing alongside it. It announced an empty lot, grass lush and glowing green in the intense summer sun.

We cruised slowly down a main stretch out of the Ward. Two building sat next to each other. The first, a corner store, the shattered front glass and boarded windows a solemn testament to decay; the other, a barber shop still open for business.

Farther down the block, an aged black woman stood on her front porch, separated from the commercial buildings by three grass lots, the driveways still distinct, but just barely. She looked out in the street, watching us pass by from her front porch, living the life she’d always known, but knowing so much change, so much heartache, so much pain. I could see it on her face, even from the shelter of window glass, potholed pavement, and stop signs.

New Orleans, Part 2: Hand Grenades on Bourbon Street

Elena noticed a ‘For Rent’ sign above our heads just before we found Bourbon Street, with an extra plack that hung below reading ‘Not Haunted’ and pointed it out to me.  At the corner of Bourbon we stumbled upon our destination, Tropical Isle, where we made friends with the bartender, Angela.

We each ordered a hand grenade- it was a ‘when in New Orleans’ drink- and sat down at the end of an L shaped bar across from Angela. Her fine sandy blonde hair fell down past her shoulders, her pencil thin eyebrows were darkened, and her smile was a little crooked.  Her smile was nice though, charismatic and welcoming. She wasn’t young anymore, but we’d soon find out that her spirit was youthful.

At first, she didn’t speak.  I took a few sips of my frozen drink.  It was refreshing against the hot, humid New Orleans weather, and took a moment to survey my surroundings.  Across the bar from us an empty nook full of classic video games, on its perimeter, a breathalyzer test. I pointed it out to my companions and we made a few halfhearted jokes.

Behind Angela, two tall large cardboard boxes were tucked underneath the drink counter, full to the top of plastic hand grenade cups.  They were translucent, flourescent green with shape similar to that of a tall vase, but the base the impression of a miliary hand grenade.  We each held one ourselves, and they were ours to keep, if we wanted them.

I looked up at her, “So how many of those boxes do you go through typically?”  I wanted to talk.

I don’t think she expected my question, responding, “Well, that depends on the day.”

“How bout tonight?”  It was a Saturday. “I bet you go through a lot.”

“Yeah, well…” she started, thinking about it, “On a busy day we’ll go through almost ten boxes.”

“Wow,” that was a hell of a lot more than I expected.

“Yeah, it’ll get crazy in here later.”  It was only early afternoon now, and the bar was busy.  Not packed, but busy. I imagined it later on, shoulder to shoulder with tourists just trying to get close enough to the bar to talk to her.  I heard the loud hum of a busy bar.

Her manager came from out of the kitchen, opening the guide on the television.  He changed it to Half Baked, at her request. I stared at it for a minute. It was the date montage, the scene with the money counter in the corner.

“I love this movie,” I said, turning back towards her.  She nodded. She hadn’t opened up to conversation just yet.

Elena broke the silence, “So… what’s in a hand grenade?”

She smiled at us, “I can’t tell you.”

We both gawked at her, our jaws fell and our eyebrows lowered.  Ellie had gone outside to talk on the phone.

“No really,” she started again, “I had to sign a release when I started working here.  It’s patented. I’m not allowed to tell.”

“That’s so crazy!”  I exclaimed.

“Yup,” she replied, “but it’s true.”

“Will you tell us if we guess?”  Elena had the right idea.

She grinned at us, “Go ahead.”

“151?,” my first guess.  She shook her head.

“Absolut?” I guessed again.  I knew it had to be a clear liquor.

She shook her head again, “Think higher alcohol content.”  We both paused.

Elena guessed, “Tequila?”  Wrong again.

“Nope, higher.”

“Oh, oh…” she paused, the thought on the tip of both our tongues, “Everclear?”

“Bingo! And triple sec, pineapple juice, and the special mixer.”

We both cocked our heads at that one, wondering.

“Yeah, see this,” she picked up automated drink dispenser, “It’s premixed.  There’s a button for the regular hand grenades here and sugar free here too.”

“Wooooow.”

“Mmhmm,” she was proud of it.  It was very cool.

We went on, talking about nonsense, learning about her background.  We shared with her about the road trip, how much I already was in love with New Orleans, about camping on the other side of the lake.  

She was originally from Missouri, had moved to NOLA with her first husband and then back home briefly.  She couldn’t stand being home.

Then, we found out her age.  She was 37, but I swore to her she didn’t look a day older than 32.  She accepted the compliment graciously. I told her I’d been to Mexico, Missouri for a wedding a few years back, and she commented on her hometown.

“There’s just nothing to do there.  I knew I had to come back here,” she went on, “And the people…  The people here are so much nicer, they’re friendly.”

“Yes!” I agreed with her. “I love the South for that.  Nobody has a problem talking to you, even if it’s about nothing.  The people here that we’ve met, just in the last few hours, are great.”

We chatted a bit more, as the hand grenades started to set in.  It was only two o’clock, but I was three drinks in and I was feeling heavy.  

We left, but not before exchanging affections for the friendly conversation with Angela, and headed east on Bourbon St, towards a whole lot of commotion.

People were starting to flood the streets.  All of the sidewalks and the bars alike were packed full of tourists.  We heard about as many foreign languages there as we heard in the National Parks, but it was crowded and we were drunk, not quite ready for more drinking.

A humid, laborious walk, with a couple pit stops, landed us at the St Louis Cemetery, the most famous of the New Orleans burial grounds.  I tried at first to disregard the signs stating that you must be accompanied by a certified tour guide, but I was stopped by a large, tall black man.

I joked with him, “I was gonna make a run for it,” smiling goofily up at him.

He laughed, “Go across the street there,” he pointed to the grass median, “the woman in the red skirt is Jennifer.  She’s the best tour guide around.”

New Orleans, Part 1: My first taste of Magic

We woke up hazy from our late night endeavor of pitching the tent at Fontainebleau State Park.  Ellie had hardly slept, overcome by her irrational fear of bears. Elena had slept some, but me, I’d slept like a baby.  The moon shone brightly in on my face through the side window of the tent which we’d opened for air flow.

I’ve always slept wonderfully in the woods and that night was no exception, even as the temperature dropped and I curled up tightly in my blanket.  The rhythmic humming of bugs provided the perfect white noise for my slumber.

The first drive over Lake Pontchartrain was breathtaking.  Thirty miles of four lane highway across the massive body of water.  In the center, only a faint outline of the New Orleans skyline was visible.  We ‘ooh’-ed and ‘ah’-ed at it for the first fifteen miles, and for the last fifteen, spent time trying to capture a good photo of it.  I didn’t realize just how extensive the Lake was until I was in the middle of it, although the map never lied to be. The actual experience is always so much more than what a book can tell you.  We found our way into the French Quarter but first wandering into downtown and passing the St Louis cemetery on the way.

As we wandered back down to the Quarter, I was full of anticipation.  The next right put us just on the outskirts. My jaw dropped. Beautifully stylized rowhomes lined the streets, many with cast iron rungs on porches hanging above street level.  The detail in the iron work amazed me, but they weren’t all adorned with porches. I glanced down an alley between homes and was teased by half an image of courtyard with a water fountain overgrown with lush, green plant life.  

We found a parking lot to leave the car between Decatur St and the Mississippi River, which was a struggle to get into, the street flooded with tourists.  We passed Cafe Du Monde. I craned my neck around, trying to take in the white and green awning hanging above all the tiny tables. The line of people to get the most famous beignets extended down a couple of blocks.

We decided to explore around, find food elsewhere, and not lose time standing in that crazy line.  Just before the parking lot while we were stuck at the an intersection, I noticed Cafe Maspero on to our right.

“Let’s go there,” I suggested.  “My friend’s friend grew up in New Orleans and said we should try it out.”

They agreed.  

On foot and ready for a meal, a girl with beautifully clean blonde dreads greeted us at the door.

“I really like your dress,” she told Elena who glowed with satisfaction.  It was the jumper she’d bought in Daytona, which I’d approved in the beach shop dressing room.  

She seated us across the dining room against a window which opened outwards like a shutter.  The glass was frosted slightly from age. Across the restaurant a couple archways separated us from the bar, atop which two large glass infusers were full of olives, pickled onions, roasted red peppers, and vodka.  I soon learned that vodka infusions were a specialty of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Later that day at the Royal House, an infuser sat atop the bar directly next to me. Their kicker in the mix was spicy green beans.  Our lovely bartender Cindy had handed us an entire cup of them for munching.

I scooted my chair in as far as I could, shaking the whole table as I bumped my knee against it.  Soon, our waitress stood above us, young and tan, dark-haired, and smiling.

First she brought us a round of bloody marys, which were exceptionally good, the spiciness exactly what I wanted it to be.  Then our food came out.

We’d worked out quite a spread of creole dishes.  Jambalaya, red beans and rice, a famous Muffalata, and an alligator sausage sandwich.  We dug in, passing around our plates periodically, so everyone got a bit of everything.  

The food was absolutely amazing, full of flavor and authenticity, and filling us with our first NoLa experience.  Ellie stepped outside to smoke as Elena and I waited on the bill and our to-go drinks. That was a completely new, but captivating idea to me- the to-go drink.  I even learned a few days later that in Mississippi, you are not only allowed to have an open container, but you’re allowed to have it open while driving, just so long as you blow under the legal limit.  I was stunned.

We walked away from the bay, deeper into the Quarter, more wandering than anything, but hoping we’d stumble upon Bourbon Street.  We were on a mission for our first hand grenade when the bright sounds of a brass band caught my ear. I looked back at the girls with a look on my face of excitement while picking my feet up a bit faster.  

The end of the block revealed to us was an eight piece band, the lead trombonist sliding around on a solo, the tenor sax and trumpeter hitting chords behind him through the changes, as two men held down the percussion alongside a standup bass.  

My heart exploded in my chest at least twice as we stood there listening to the group play with their hearts and their lungs, all dancing a little as they grooved out notes.  The song ended and the crowd that had formed around us clapped. The bass brought in the next tune. The horns joined in after eight bars. I recognized the Ray Charles standard, as the trombonist lowered his horn and began belting out,

“I got a woman/Way over town/She’s good to me”

Elena and I danced in the street as his voice echoed off the quaint Quarter homes, leading alongside the timbre of his horn friends.  We stood still for the rest of the song, and I fell very deeply in love with New Orleans.

My first taste of SoCal, courtesy of Old Town San Diego

09.15.2017

I’m finally having a Southern California experience.  The idea was to wander all the way to the water, to the Ocean, for a spiritual Pacific sunsets.  The ones where pinks and blues stain the coarse sand grains as waves crash over igneous rock formations.

I realize in the middle of writing that sentence how far in the past my imagination was.  My venture began for nostalgia, remembering a Big Sur sunset, one from more than two years prior.

My instincts don’t lead me to far though, about five blocks from the hotel.  I zigzag along the streets looking for Old Town San Diego, guessing its location by the directions of well dressed Californians.  Women wear long flowing dresses with round-brimmed straw hats and sunglasses, and men sport short sleeved button ups and loafers or sandals.  The energy that flows through their small groups is magnetic like the start of every great Friday night. It allures me to follow.

It’s Friday anyway and though most all of my teammates are back in the hotel playing games, swimming, or sleeping, I thought it best to get out and away for awhile.  I invited Sal along, but she was enjoying the pool to much to venture with me.

I knew I was getting close when I noticed locals with handmade ‘$5 parking’ signs on the street pointing in their driveways.  It only took a couple more blocks North before the street I’d been flanking ended into Old San Diego square.

The beginnings of it underwhelmed me, a candy shop and a cafe and a couple others selling taffy and popcorn.  There was more sidewalk space between them than I’d seen in a historic area ever. The sidewalk was concrete and for pedestrians only, but wide enough for at least two lanes of traffic.

Then as I noticed a man ‘cawwing’ back to his running partner, I realized that I’d stumbled right into the grassy knoll of a historic square, just the way I’d known them.  A grand old tree leaned towards me at the corner and up into the air more than two hundred feet, extending its canopy out over a wooden picnic bench where no one sat. I told myself I’d go back and sit with the tree sice it’d spoken to me so clearly, but for now, it beckoned me forward.

I continued along slowly, trying not to lose the tree, but not ready to stop quite yet, while making mental snapshots of beige stucco buildings with low awnings and ceramic red roofs.  Looking up at their roofs, I notice the hills of houses around Old Town and their contrast of scenery, lush green palm trees and assorted hues of cacti.

The square ended so I made a right, noticing a man snap a photo of an overgrown bonsai underneath which his friend sat posing.  I overheard them compliment the beauty of the bonsai tree.

I strolled past a Mexicali restaurant smelling heavily of hot peppers and spice that lacked a single open patio table.  I gazed in as a pair of patio patrons cheersed one another and took a sip from their oversized margarita glasses. I caught glimpses of others grabbing bites of fajitas between the tortilla that lined their fingers.  Then the real attraction.

Casa de Reyes.  Fiesta de Reyes.  Tienda de Reyes. I entered another era beneath a log decorated archway announcing its contents.  Immediately I noticed a stage at the center of the block where people were beginning to fill in the split log benches.  Half a wall and low height garden alternately divided the center section of music and food from the perimeter shops. It was impossible to see the world beyond this, the authentic Old Town square.  Shielded by pepper trees and wooden awnings, the stucco buildings only broke to the street where I’d just entered and then barely at the corners. Even the hills and houses that had hung above it disappeared.  Stone walkways gave way to brick ones and then back again. Lush palms and cacti stood testament that anything could grow here.

I walked slowly still, peeking into the shops on the north walk, hearing more Spanish than English, loving the rich colors of blankets, pottery, and hand painted tile for sale.  I found my way around the square and up to a blue Southwest patterned rocking bench, taking a seat to write, just as the band started playing.

Now couples poured in alongside families.  Most of the seating inside the courtyard was already taken, but none of them were deterred.  The garden surrounded them carefully like a barrier from the wanderers. These people knew what they wanted.

A few times, families arranged themselves in front of me for a photo op.  My bench was just barely offset from the grand archway of Old Town, but even now that I’ve lost my seat, I’ve found another nook for tourists photographing.  There are no places hidden from the eye of a tourist here, not even a place to sit and write.

Where I sit now, two vases painted vibrant colors sit on a stone ledge, leaves and latice lay below them.  Wrought iron handrails adorns tiles stairs that lead up to some private place with a little awning for peeking down at the stage.  It’s perfect for a full body photo, for the young and old alike to remember, at least a part of their stroll around the square.

A few minutes ago my pen ran out of ink.  This is how I lost my rocking bench, the first place to write, but the man at the tile shop was kind enough to give me another.  It was the second time tonight he was kind without uttering a word. It seemed he chose only to communicate in head nods, even when I tried a little Spanish with him.

The band really got me going for a little while too, first with a transitions perfectly executed from “Oye Como Va” to “Black Magic Woman.”  I fell in love with them on my way back from the tile store though, singing in Spanish again to a bachata beat, while the women spun beneath their partners lead hands.  Others moved without rhythm. Others still kept along, awkwardly with their hips, but keeping their feet moving patterned with the salsa.

Here is culture.  I am surrounded by it, and though I am different here, I am surrounded by something that intrigues me.  I can’t say it’s not American, but it isn’t strictly something else either. It’s a split, it’s a meld, it’s Californian.