Note: This piece was first published on ARTIST-AT-LARGE.COM
Growing up in the sixties and seventies, even in rural America, was an explosive and enlightening experience. Everything was changing. Everything was experimental. It wasn’t just new for us, those of us who were new at life, it was new, and challenging, in one way or another, for everyone. Although it may have been easier for the younger of us as we had fewer years of social conditioning behind us.
During my teenage years, there was one family in my town that owned a VW Bus. There may have been more than one vdub in our town, but this one in particular I remember well. I think there were something like eleven kids in that family and the VW Bus served in the same capacity then as a modern day Soccer-Mom Van does now. It carted the family around en masse.
Every time that I saw that van around our little town, or even parked in front of their house I thought to myself, I’m going to get one of those someday.
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My father passed away when I was twenty-three years old. I had already moved to California when his accident happened. When I received the first check from the life insurance, it was enough to do a few things, and one of those things was to start looking for my first VW bus. Oh, and learn how to drive. I had a license, but I was no master of the road, or a clutch.
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When I embarked on living an alternative lifestyle, it never occurred to me that it might be a lifelong endeavor. My idea, when I was a teenager and fantasized about owning my first VW bus, was to take out the seats, create a sleeping/camper environment and travel the backroads of America. To become a free-spirit, untethered by bills and schedules, and rules, and regulations. To take my camera and my sketchbooks and create along the way. My freedom would depend only on the price of a tank of gas. When I got that first insurance check, at the age of twenty-three, that’s exactly what I did. I bought Esmerelda and put a bed platform in the back.
The idea of being an outlaw didn’t even enter into my consciousness, until recently, and even now I think of it more humorously than seriously. After thirty-four years of living in and/or out of either Esmerelda, or the current version, The Escape Pod, it’s become just a way of life. Living in the bus had always been considered to be eccentric, or quirky, or alternative by most folks, and more often than not, after hearing my story most people responded with something along the lines of “Gee, I would love to do something like that if only [insert rule, regulation, or schedule item here].
In the early days, gas was much cheaper and I spent a lot of time driving and exploring the Central Coast of California, often out looking for rainbows or finding solitary landscapes to meditate in. I spent a lot of time in Big Sur, and was based out of San Luis Obispo. I spent a lot of time on the beaches and wandering around with my camera. Living in Esmerelda got me through that last year of university at Sonoma State, a place that was known for the converted school buses, RVs and vans that lived across the the street from the entrance to the campus. Back then it was much easier to find a driveway to park the bus in for a few days or weeks at a time – friends were more open and generous and the world was a little different.
Living in The Escape Pod is not reaalllyy living off the grid, but close. The bus is still dependent on gas and oil. BUT, moreso than others who might not think one way or the other about what resources they use, I am very conscious about how much oil and gas I use. When I’m parked in town, I rarely drive. I’ve found a comfortable spot that is close to a number of common resources – cafes with wi-fi, the library, also with wi-fi, the university campus, and downtown are all within walking distance from the pod, as are the public showers. I walk. A lot.
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A LITTLE Q & A
Q: Thirty-four years? Really?
A: I’ve had some time in a few houses or apartments, but in all but one instance, Esmerelda or The Escape Pod has been kept kitted out for living in or camping, or for a quick escape. Even when I had apartments, I spent some time traveling or weekends camping. There were a few years lapse time in between owning the two pods, I did a lot of couch surfing and housesitting back then. The one time period when The Escape Pod was not kitted out was when I had a live/work-painting studio in East Oakland. Our neighborhood prostitutes weren’t, shall we say, respectful of property, so I made it as uncomfortable as possible and when I wanted to take a road trip, I kitted her out each time. By the way, I don’t condone making it difficult for people to get some shut-eye, but I do have issue with using my home as a free hour-hotel.
Q: If you are doing this long-term, why not get an RV, or a newer Mercedes Sprinter, or at least a VW that you can stand up in?
A: I’ve often considered those options. But there is one big reason why I keep the pod – in all actuality the pod is fairly benign. No one thinks I’m living in it, other than the people who know I am living in it. And by living, I pretty much mean just sleeping in it. RVs are very obtrusive and obvious. Westies are just as adorable as pods, but if you’ve got a Westie that is fully curtained, it’s obvious that you are living in it, especially when the top is popped. People tend to spend more time in RVs and Westies because they are more comfortable.
Living in The Escape Pod, while totally acceptable to a lot of people, is not acceptable to all people. As a matter of fact, it’s illegal to live in or out of a vehicle in most places in the US. So to be as discreet as possible is to my advantage.
Q: What tactics do you take to be discreet?
A: Little things like keeping the pod clean, both on the inside and the outside, as best I can. Waking early, getting dressed and quietly taking off for the day. Returning at bedtime and quietly getting into the pod. Keeping all curtains tightly closed, except when I’m driving. Just keeping a low profile and being polite to the neighbors when I see them.
Q: Do you live in your van because you have to? Or do you live this way for sustainability and environmental reasons?
A: I don’t have to live in the pod. I like living in the pod – most days. I like the ownership of it. I own my own home, outright. As with everything in life, pod living has its excruciating moments, but for the most part it is a joyful existence. It started out as just wanting a free life, being able to answer my calling as a free spirit, but as time marched on, and life for most Americans became more stressful, it also became a political and sustainable way of living.
Q: What does it feel like to be totally untethered to the usual bourgeois norms?
A: I don’t think anyone can be fully untethered and it’s a misconception that I am. I still need to make an income to buy gas and oil for the pod, as well as the services of my mechanic, and I still need to eat. I also have all of my artwork in storage, so there are storage fees too. I’ve always lived within my means – meaning that I don’t spend money that I don’t have on hand. Being off the grid also means being untethered from bank loans and credit cards – and that is rather glorious. I’m not debt-free, I do have a few personal loans to repay, but I have no serious corporate related debt.
Q: Well, then, how do you make your living?
A: Besides being an artist, writer, and photographer, which really have not financially supported me in the past, I am a Web Developer and QA Engineer. I test and break things, like web sites and software. I also house and pet sit.
Q: Do you have a kitchen in that thing?
A: Nope. I have a campstove and a small cooler that I can use when I’m out camping, but there is enough inexpensive food in the neighborhood that I don’t need to worry about it. The pod is just basics – mostly just my bed, a 5-inch extra firm foam pad with an egg crate foam pad and a mattress pad on top of that, my blankies, and my clothes.
Q: What’s the hardest part about living in the pod?
A: Other people’s misconceptions. Other people’s judgements. That look that comes from making those judgements. The silly things people say. Being told, “You don’t look homeless!” – well, that’s because I’m not – or, “You have nice teeth!” – which I don’t, but well, when the misconception is that all people who live in vans make or take meth, well, there you go, all things are relative. I definitely give ample opportunity for people to open their minds to positive, alternative ways of being.
Q: Can you live this way forever? What’s next?
A: Could anyone? Maybe. I’m relatively healthy, but the pod needs a lot of work, and I have been considering leveling up – to two acres of organic land and a tiny house. I’m not exactly sure how to make that manifest, but let’s see how that goes.
Feel free to ask more questions, or share your Esmerelda or The Escape Pod stories in the comments.