Van Dwelling California
Most of my blog covers my adventures bicycle touring, hitchhiking or tramping around living an alternate lifestyle outside the norm of society. However, the recent change to apartment living as a temporary wage slave in Goodyear has changed my method of travel. I am no longer traveling solo and without a car, which brings forth other obstacles: sleeping, and higher expenses. So we decided to road trip by van dwelling.
With the recent holidays passing by this brought time off work for both Kelly and I. We decided to hit the road for a few days and check out California, specifically San Diego, but left it up in the air for adventure since the unknown is the best part of traveling. I grabbed my usual gear and threw my backpack in the car and she packed lighter than usual bringing just a small suitcase of items, warm clothes, toothbrush and toothpaste, pillows and blankets (we learned from blacktop boondocking (van dwelling on asphalt) in Colorado the essential importance of more blankets).
We hit the road later at about 5 PM for the long five hour cruise to San Diego, California. We watched the sunset as we hit Highway I-8 and continued for miles through the dark, deserted, desert. I never slept the night before and my eyes watered as I forced myself to stay awake focusing on the road. Despite the lack of traffic I despised driving after sunset due to the lack-of-scenery leaving my eyes to wander only over the endless highway lines and blacktop instead of the endless desert, dunes and mountains cast in the shadows of darkness. The monotonous drive felt infinite but cruising through Yuma into California we stumbled upon a number of blinking windmills picking up the energy from the strong desert winds. Hundreds of them perched on both sides of the highway blinking red lights in off-set patterns for above aircraft. I wondered what they looked like during day-time. How tall they were? How many there were and how fast their blades spun on a windy day? I rescinded from my trance as the car meandered through the mountains ascending and descending steep grades as we approached Southern California. My body started to shut down from lack of sleep and I tried pulling off the road to sleep near a rest stop, but instead we found ourselves blacktop boondocking at a casino.
It took a while for me to adjust to sleeping scrunched in a ball in the front seat of a small Corolla, but after a few hours of nestling under the covers I managed to finally find a comfortable position. I found placing a pillow underneath my back helped fix the small arc from the seat and I substituted a sweatshirt as my pillow. Kelly passed out snoring within a half hour, and the calming of the raindrops gently thudding on the roof of the car and trickling down the windows helped ease me into a peaceful slumber.
We awoke in the early morning to bright rays shining in through our windows covered in condensation. I turned on the car and threw her in defrost and we hit the road for San Diego shortly after. Our first night of van dwelling turned out successful and the road screamed for a day of adventure exploring the beaches of San Diego.
We arrived downtown around 9 AM and checked out Pacific Beach. I walked up to the ocean bundled in long pants, a sweatshirt and sneakers, reached down and touched the chilling water as it crept on the shoreline attacking my shoes. I jumped back and ran away like a scared little kid, but deep down I felt extremely happy to see my third ocean (Indian, Atlantic and now Pacific) and this one was with my fiancée. We roamed along the shore plodding through the sand. Kelly took off her shoes to scrunch her toes between the wet sand and feel the ocean whisk against her legs with each break of waves. I stood back and watched smiling in the distance, squinting from the fierce cloudless sky. I followed her footprints in the sand while we enjoyed the beauty of the beach without a worry in the world. Part of me wanted to stay there for a few months and leave the doldrums of the Arizona Desert, but with her teaching job and the Grand Canyon coming up I knew this was not feasible. We lounged around outside relaxing in the sun and took in the views around us from Pacific Beach Pier until our 2-hour parking was up.
Traveling the coastal roads we landed a few miles away in La Jolla. Tourists bombarded the area snapping selfies with their selfie sticks, and fancy iPhone 6’s. I eavesdropped on a few conversations to find that generally people concern themselves so much with materialistic possessions they lose focus on nature and do not appreciate the beauty of a higher power in front of them. Complaining about wet sand ruining your new shoes or the “bad” smell of a beach covered in sea lions are not problems. Sadly, this complaining and cluster of people ruined some of the views. I separated myself as far away as possible climbing down onto the huge embankment of rocks looking out into the Pacific. Every few seconds hearing a splash of waves knock up against the rocks and slowly trickle away taking bits of sand and pebbles hostage back into the ocean. Amazed at the clarity of the water I stood there looking down at my reflection as I waited for Kelly to come back from the restrooms. Pelicans, sea lions, seals and seagulls flooded the beaches. Some lounged in plain view while others remained incognito on cliff ledges, lone rocks in the ocean or caves protected by the high tide. Much of our day we spent animal watching along the coast and I envied the hitchhikers who tramped the coastline. They got the privilege to enjoy this rapture at night, alone, and away from the noise of society. Nonetheless, San Diego beaches filled our day with peaceful, beautiful moments of bliss.
We finished it off with a little trip to El Campo cemetery in Old Town San Diego, the birthplace of California, to pay a tribute to the dead, but really just because of Kelly’s obsession with cemeteries. Some of the graves restored the original headstones with little blurbs about each person ranging from famous town political figures to petty thieves and murderers.
On the walk back to the car we stopped and “oh my god…that’s right” I stepped foot in a store solely dedicated to mermaids. Every corner and shelf of the store covered in mermaid mirrors, clothing, bottle cap openers, clocks, and other mermaid trinkets made it a mermaid heaven. The irony of the store came crashing in with a tiny mermaid notepad that read in all caps, “LESS IS MORE” smothered between other useless mermaid products.
I looked, but did not buy anything, since I only wandered in to grab Kelly. The expensive prices dissuaded her from being a spendthrift so after a short stay we roamed back to our vehicle parked along the street to continue our journey. Where would we go now? She checked Trivago for cheap motels, but nothing remotely in-our-price-range popped up so we decided to spend another night boondocking in the vehicle, but where, we did not know yet? We hit the road to catch the sunset as we drove down the Coastal 101 taking us to Solana Beach. I missed the turn and ended up on a hill in a random neighborhood. I kept my head on a swivel about to turn around when I noticed a few cars pull up and park along the curb. Strangers sat along the guardrail overlooking Solana Beach and off in the distance a beautiful sun began to set a blend of its vibrant reds, yellows and oranges off in the horizon. The colors shimmered off the shallow, calm waters of the coastline as everyone sat along the rail in awe of nature’s beauty and at that moment I began to respect some of humanity again.
We continued on along the highway until I became groggy and found refuge in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Black Friday did a great job of making my blacktop boondocking experience danger-free as Kelly went on a mini spending spree in the store gathering food and other supplies for our next adventure. After watching, “Into the Wild” and being a member of “Squat the Planet” hearing many misfit travelers, hitchhikers, train-core kids, and van dwellers talk about Slab City I always wanted to check it out on my travels so we made it happen.
After my 2-hour nap we packed up the car and hit the road for the Salton Sea. Slab City was about 3 hours from our current location so we hit the desolate desert roads of California to find a nice spot to sleep. Call boxes lined the roads every few miles with the occasional, “REPORT DRUNK DRIVERS CALL 911” signs as we drove through the middle of nowhere towards Slab City. We punched in a few rest areas into the phone, but Kelly spotted an inconspicuous pull-off outside of a state park that allowed overnight camping. We decided to boondock there behind some bushes dozing off to the sounds of the desert as we looked up at the bright full moon hiding behind the clouds. In this moment I think she finally understood freedom and we shared the experience together which made it more special.
We awoke simultaneously as if in unison with one another. After a few minutes of morning duties we continued onward toward the slabs: THE LAST FREE PLACE IN AMERICA! I remembered spotting the Salton Sea on my phone while scouting for directions, but as we approached Salvation Mountain and Slab City I never realized the vastness of this sea. Up until that point most of the scenery remained flat desert, with the occasional mountain fading in and out of view, with cities of RV’s parked all over the National Forest land. The desert of Southern California hosted a vast majority of minimalists living out of all different kinds of campers, vans, and RV’s all of them scattered across BLM land as we cruised down the highway. A blue hue rose up in the distance catching our eyes so we changed our course. We headed towards it turning onto a minor paved road and took it until our tires meshed the sand. I pulled between two dirt roads and parked the car. Our legs braced themselves for an interesting trek down a sandy road covered in salt and calcified pieces of torn up pavement. We held hands and shivered as the wind mauled us from every direction blowing salt into our orifices, but after a mile we made it to the sea. The water looked a deep sea blue with the shoreline covered in salt and a backdrop of the mountains. With each step we evaded a myriad of dead fish and bird carcasses. I wondered how they all ended up on shore, but the only information we learned about the Salton Sea was that it was created from the Colorado River years ago (technically it should be called the Salton Lake).
We wandered back to our car as the wind died down and drove the last few miles until entering Salvation Mountain. A mountain dedicated to Jesus who Leonard Knight made out of adobe and paint in the 1970’s when he found God and dedicated his life to him. I expected us to be the only people there, but for some reason an influx of tourists scattered around the mountain on that blistering sunny day. Despite not being a Bible thumper I respected the amount of work and effort Knight did in order to make this piece of art and the maintenance required over the years to keep it in pristine condition. People from all over the world gathered to see his masterpiece and give thanks over the Thanksgiving holiday bringing their loved ones for Christmas photos and revering the artwork around them.
Upon climbing the mini hill with a huge cross at its apex, off in the distance, I noticed two abandoned water tanks covered in graffiti. We walked closer to examine them and noticed a political mural underneath all of the pointless tags that covered the tank. After doing some minor digging we learned a few years ago a young kid spent a few winters on the mural, which despite its sexual content, depicts more of a political message about America and its corporations. If you are interested in looking at the mural I suggest you check out these links below:
Slab City Murals from 2012
As we approached Slab City I took note of all kinds of life living at the last free place in America. Train hoppers, homeless veterans living off government checks each month, people squatting in abandoned RVs, houses made of plywood and palm tree leaves and on the other side of the spectrum 100k RVs with solar panel roofing installed, along with normal everyday vans and campers. A conglomerate of culture lived in the slabs all of them for different reasons, but mostly due to it being the last free place in America. The lack of water and electricity made it hard for permanent residency, but I spoke with a few people who lived there year round and they gave me the following tidbits:
• Most people get 300+ gallon water containers delivered to the slab or buy water in-bulk to avoid constant traveling to and from the slabs (permanent residents).
• A communal shower exists in the slab that is shared among the community for bathing.
• For electricity many use small solar panels to charge items such as phones, laptops or lights or they go without it. Although I saw a few huge RVs with plywood framing surrounding their homes and a series of solar panels installed on the roof (this being the exception).
• For food many make weekly commutes to Wal-Mart which is a 20 mile trek by bicycle, car or walking.
• That pretty much sums up the simple life in the slabs.
We cruised around the dirt roads admiring the simplistic lives of the residents. During the winter many snowbirds from Canada come down to spend a few months van dwelling or boondocking in their vans or RVs otherwise around 300 residents live on the slabs year round. As we drove around I noticed the surplus of trash from non-resident travelers stockpiling in vacant desert lots. Piles of beer bottles, cans, tires and trash scattered throughout Slab City ruining the beauty of its freedom. But most of the littering came from non-residents traveling through not respecting the land. Just months ago a free library existed, but upon our recent visit, it appeared trashed and torn down. As we wandered further into the slabs we came upon East Jesus. A site of modernized art from recycled trash stood before me. I followed the path into East Jesus and set eyes upon abandoned cars and vans covered in bottle caps, skulls and bullet casings. I passed a wall covered in glass bottles and a fence of televisions painted white with red slogans spread across them. A huge lizard covered in tiny plastic bags framed in metal looked at me and an elephant constructed from blown-out rubber tires and plastic tubing crouched above me with its droopy eyes jiggling in the wind. Slanted homes stuck out of the ground along with an exquisite bus with a mural cast upon it. A bright silver face of a fictional character spawned out of its side separating it from the shades of blue in the background. Suitcases depicting irrational statements about dolphins and mermaids followed the walkway and other randomized modern art took over the slab in the area known as East Jesus. This helped turn the garbage of the slabs into something beautiful.
I planned on van dwelling that night to experience slab city night life, but we needed to head back so Kelly could catch up on lesson planning. We hit the road for our apartment in Goodyear, but not before making one last stop in the sand dunes of California. As we cruised down highway I-8 we stopped at a turn-off on the border of California and Yuma, AZ admiring the dunes as hundreds of ATVs, dune buggies, 4×4 trucks and motocross bikes whizzed by us. We took off our shoes and played in the dunes running up and down them as our feet sunk in the sand. With each step we felt either a cold chill or hot rush through our body depending on where the sun cast its rays on the dune. I looked out into the horizon to enjoy the peaceful beauty of the endless sand dunes dispersed throughout the desert and that ended our trip to California.
However, it spawned my idea of van dwelling and roaming around the USA for a bit with Kelly exploring the beauty of our country. I did some digging on van dwelling and RV living and highly recommend checking out an eBook written by Bob Wells, a 10+ year van dweller. At $3.00 and 171 pages of juicy information it’s worth the read if you are considered van dwelling in the back-country or the city. Once I finish the book I will give a brief outline of what it covers below. You can purchase his book How to Live in a Car, Van or RV–And Get Out of Debt, Travel and Find True Freedom and check out his website on van dwelling at Cheap RV Living