California fever

14 October 2010, from America by housetruck

The crickets are in an uproar. They are the only noise, besides my tomato sauce bubbling on the stove and the moths tapping against the lampshade. Yet the racket soothes: finally I am not bouncing along the freeway, being quickly passed by the crazed California drivers. Nor am I in the streets of a city, negotiating the unsaid crosswalk protocols. Or hunched and cold below the frigid fog and jagged cypresses of the Central Coast. Instead, I am somewhere near the shores of Santa Margarita Lake, northeast of San Luis Obispo, on the other side of Questa Pass. Cell reception flits in and out, and the wifi at the campground office doesn’t reach this far up the hill. I am far from the coast, and relieved to be so: I’ve always felt most comfortable a few miles inland, knowing the big water is out there, but comfortably ensconced behind a mountain range or two.

Now, finally breathing, I look back at the last few days and see only an insane blur. Can I detect shapes, recognize figures in that blur, that madness? If it has ended, then where and when did it start? I try to think back through the foggy blur.

Sitting in the housetruck, parked outside Sara’s little bungalow in Sebastopol, I survey my possibilities of visiting San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, and beyond. I expect to find a variety from which to choose, at worst an over-developed RV park, I am stunned to find only a scant handful of places at all: perhaps three in each city, each quite far from the city center, with dubious public transit, and even more dubious safety, not to mention aesthetics. Quite literally, each site is described by several reviewers as “parking lots with hookups.” Yuk.

I ask the few friends and acquaintances I still had in the city whether they have a driveway I could park in. No luck; it’s a dense city, and most people live in apartments. I remember the dirty and dented RVs parked around the perimeter of Golden Gate Park; no, I’ve sworn to myself (and to my friends) that I would not sleep in the housetruck on the street. (Sebastopol was an exception that proved to be okay.)

My heart sinks. Here it is, only a week into a planned six-month trip, and I already feel completely thwarted. Is this how the trip will go? Spending hours simply trying to find the next place to stay? Driving itself takes up major portions of each day; add some time on a recent contracting job that has come my way, and even basic socializing seems impossible, much less anything off the schedule.

Finally, I simply sail through San Francisco without stopping. It just seems easier. Perhaps I’ll visit on the way back; perhaps on another trip altogether. Navigating the narrow streets of western San Francisco, I hit a huge pothole that threw open the glove compartment and scattered its contents onto the floor of the truck. I am certain I’ve cracked some windows; when I check later, luckily I haven’t. The sidewalks and corners are full of people, looking vaguely into the distance, never cracking smiles.

I roll through Bay Area late afternoon traffic, over the hills to Santa Cruz where Patti’s sister Jeannie lives, and where Patti has been visiting. I’d received an invitation to park in the lot of her artist studio residences for a day or two, and so I negotiate my way into a small parking space. A loft neighbor of Jeannie’s walks over, gazing and clasping her hands: she feels she’s been a gypsy in a past life, and was reexperiencing it right now. A young man pulls up next to me and asked me about what he hesitatingly called my ‘contraption.’ I invite him back the next morning for a tour.

The next morning, after preparing coffee on the little alcohol stove, several people stop and say hello, and I find myself again doing the little song-and-dance explanation of the housetruck. One woman, well-dressed and coiffed, admires the wagon, but then says that she’s from management, and unfortunately they do not allow large vehicles in the parking lot – and that I need to move. She suggests a few side streets nearby, observing that she’s seen other campers parking there. Another neighbor, Janelle, calmly listens to my frustration and nods: her grandmother was Roma, gypsy, and yes, this is what happens. You can’t stay here, you must move on. The old story. Another local, Joe, who lives in the bushes by the river along with the majority of Santa Cruz’s homeless population, urges that I avoid sleeping on the street, for the city awards such nomads with a $300 ticket.

Janelle suggests I move the housetruck a few miles down Highway 1 to New Brighton Beach, a beautiful campground by the sea, still close to town. Patti helps me with a convoy of car and housetruck, and I obtain a pleasant little site not too close to the water. It is foggy, but quiet, save the whooshing either from the freeway or the waves – I can’t tell which.

The morning is quiet; most of my fellow campers seem to have left much earlier. I have one of my first genuinely relaxing mornings, making coffee, programming, watching the sun cut through the fog, and the stray cats wander the campground. I have two sets of visitors, polar opposites. The first is a couple with a large, fully outfitted RV, here for a few weeks, relaxing and enjoying the coast. The second drives by slowly in a beat-up 1980s American sedan, the woman shy about her missing front teeth, the man fascinated by the housetruck construction. They are homeless, not sure where they’ll stay next, or how far they can go in their car, low on gas. I give them $3 for another gallon, hoping it will help.

These are the inexplicable citizens of these roving cities of nomads: the well-off and the destitute, somehow living next to each other. They are residents in a common country, one that is both familiar and foreign.

It takes me hours to get out of Santa Cruz. I consider stopping for groceries, for coffee, for bizarre sights, for a phone call, for a restroom. Uncomfortable, but driven crazy by this city, I finally escape, piercing the fog on Highway 1, head towards the sun-lit hills to the east.