When I recently read about Angel Hess, an artist who has converted a 1953 bread truck into a garishly colored mobile home, I scoffed. At the moment, Hess is reportedly traveling around the country to promote his project and solicit donations. He even has a Web site (purple53.com) where he boasts that he's "attempting something completely new." Anyone who has read John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley or seen Federico Fellini's La strada is likely to take issue with Hess' claim.
The bombast of Hess' "Purple53" project doesn't excite me, probably because of the three and a half years I spent living in a van, traveling and working throughout North America. Hess seems pleasant enough in his earnest attempt to "expand his client base as a photographer and artist," but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans living in their cars—either by choice or economic necessity—and most of them aren't making a media show of it. When I was doing it, I tried to keep it a secret from practically everybody.
I was a year out of photography school when I hatched my own travel plans. Serious about experiencing the full light-and-dark spectrum of American road culture, I had read Steinbeck, Hermann Hesse, Jack Kerouac and others, and suspected that life on the road could be rough. In most places, sleeping in your car is a violation of a state code or local ordinance, or, even more provocatively, infringing upon someone's perceived property rights.
To do so flagrantly is to invite trouble, as "Chris," a van-dweller I met on the West Coast, attested to. Chris says that one night he was sleeping in a posh neighborhood when he was roused by a furious middle-aged man in a plush robe. Apparently ready to do violence, the man screamed, "I pay a lot of money to live here!" I imagine that Chris' gutsy reply further inflamed the situation: He told the comfortably robed man that he was sorry that he had to pay to stay there—he could do it for free.
Once I had quit my photo-digital illustrator job in Charlotte and was out into the yonder, I had few tense moments myself. One night while parked beside a peacefully droning waterfall, I was rudely awakened by two flashlight-wielding roughnecks who were blocking my escape route with their pickup truck. Beating on my van, they demanded that I immediately show myself. I was naked (as I always sleep in the nude unless it's cold) and had no intention of emerging to meet them. Since they couldn't see inside, I decided to bluff. In my lowest, meanest voice, I snarlingly suggested that I wasn't someone they would necessarily want to come out. Reconsidering the situation, they left but promised to "be back." I had to find another place to spend the night.
Between 1996 and 1999, I spent over a thousand nights bedded down in my van, and only on a handful of occasions did I have encounters with police or vigilante enforcers. My theory was that most people wouldn't really pay much attention to the comings and goings of an old conversion van, and the theory proved mostly right. If your rig doesn't look out of place, and no one knows you're inside, the night is yours.
That's not to say that I always slept unawakened through the entire night. But one adapts. I developed the ability to sleep with a part of my psyche remaining cognizant of what was happening in the waking world. If my brain needed eyesight to determine the source of an unfamiliar noise, I would briefly stir to identity it. After quickly assessing that my situation was secure, I could easily drop back into a peaceful but alert slumber. I believe this is how wild animals sleep, and it felt fine at the time. I was glad to be becoming a wilder human.
In my open-ended travels, I found that beyond campgrounds there were at least a few places where it was possible to live openly and freely in an auto—though I found that those particular places weren't for me. In San Francisco, where I spent considerable time holding interesting but low-paying jobs, I discovered numerous vehicle-dwellers sheltered by relatively hospitable circumstances. There were even sprawling postindustrial areas in the eastern districts that had been reclaimed by vehicle-squatters. These "camper communities" were not inviting scenes. When I made reconnaissance walkthroughs, the residents glowered moodily as they hung clothes to dry and worked their pit barbecues. I noted a sign on one of the battered RVs. Under a crude illustration of a pistol, it said, "I HAVE A GUN. EVERYTHING OF VALUE HAS ALREADY BEEN STOLEN. IF YOU TRY TO BREAK IN I WILL ASSUME YOU ARE COMING TO DO ME BODILY HARM AND I WILL SHOOT YOU."
Forgoing San Francisco's squatter-jungles, I did most of my van-steading inconspicuously at a municipal park that had a swimming pool, and therefore easy shower access—not that I really needed to bathe to keep my job when I was working as a bicycle messenger.
By mid-1999, I had used the capital that would have otherwise filled landlords' coffers to visit the 48 continental states, as well as take short trips into Canada and Mexico. Bolstered on by innumerable adventures that would be impossible to relate in a newspaper article, I decided that it was time to see Hawaii. (Alaska held little appeal: Besides the fact that I detest the cold, the account of Christopher McCandless' fate in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild seemed extremely discouraging.)
Aboard an airplane for the first time, I flew to the Big Island and took a position as the manager of a hostel near Volcanoes National Park. The proprietor turned out to be alcoholic and rancorously right-wing—his computer even played Tricky Dick when booting up: You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore....
Incompatible with the oft-inebriated hostel owner, I soon found myself truly homeless, stuck on an island without a van. I was a turtle without its shell, and I had to find a new way to live. And I did. While spending the "winter" hitchhiking and backpacking around the islands, I discovered that going on foot and sleeping under the stars in the tropics is often much preferable to the vanlife I knew so well.
When I returned to the mainland on the cusp of a new millennium, I found that the van had lost a substantial amount of its charm. After it was burglarized twice (I wasn't inside), I decided that it was time for a change. At the Durham Food Co-Op, I saw an advert for an interesting and affordable rental: On the Eno River, someone had converted an old school bus into a house. It seemed appropriate.
I moved into the house-bus and made my bed in the retrofitted loft above the still-in-place steering wheel and gear shifter. Though I didn't request donations, as Hess is doing now, I did turn the school bus experience into an art project by making Home, Again (2001), a short 16 mm film. As is concluded at the ending of the film, I found it comforting to still have a "home with an ignition switch"—even if the particular home wasn't going anywhere ever again.