Hello friends and family!
Greetings from California, where I’ve been sight-seeing in Joshua Tree, Palm Springs, the Salton Sea and Anza-Borrego State Park. These are magical places that I’m probably going to write about in my next blog post, but not today. Today I’m on another tangent, one that is probably only of interest to my parents, who send me a text message every few days making sure I’m still breathing. It’s the number one concern of most people who hear about my lifestyle: how do I stay safe while living the #vanlife? Maybe it’s because I’ve been listening to a lot of true crime podcasts lately, but I’ve been reflecting on the conscious and unconscious things I do to stay alive and well on the road.
I’ve had my fair share of bad times in the van. In Sedona a drunk driver sped into the pull-off I was camped in; he collided with several boulders while tossing mini bottles of Fireball out the window, and nearly rear-ended my van until another camper chased him off. I’ve spent many nights in terror listening to animals scrabbling around the van. They were probably just raccoons, but something about being alone in the dark turns every rustle into the sound of a serial killer trying to break in and wear my skin like a jumpsuit. Probably my worst story is the time I was chased out of a parking lot in the middle of the night (ok, so there were “no camping” signs, and it was technically illegal) and tailgated for a half-hour down the road by a very overzealous man on a power trip. But considering that I’ve spent nearly two years doing this full-time, the bad experiences have been rare and rather benign. I’m more likely to run out of gas or get a flat tire than I am to be abducted and murdered.
Part of staying safe is knowing what’s out there to be afraid of, and there are no shortage of cautionary tales to be gleaned from conversations with fellow travelers. A few stories I’ve heard: getting the RV stuck in sand, being chased by aliens, being bluff charged by a bear, getting drugged and robbed by a couple of hippies, having the van broken into, puncturing some important piece of a car on a logging road without any cell service, and, the worst one in my opinion, being harassed by drunk teenagers. Before I left on my adventure in fall of 2021, the furor over the disappearance of Gabby Petito was at a peak. She had been on a vanlife adventure with her fiancé across America until he murdered her, later killing himself as well. She stared at me from the cover of tabloids in the supermarket check-out line, a sensationalized illustration of the worst case scenario. People kept bringing her up to me, asking if I wasn’t afraid that something like that could happen to me, to which I now reply: if it does, my boyfriend’s name is Tyler, my parents have his address, and please kick his ass on my behalf.
Another integral part of safety is preparation, and technically I am prepared for anything. I have jumper cables (though only a dim idea of how to use them) and a spare tire (though only a dim idea of how to change it). In a sense, I am armed: I have a crowbar, a rock hammer, an assortment of dull kitchen knives, and a holstered can of bear mace somewhere. However, I know my limitations in hand-to-hand combat (and this is America, so any intruder is apt to be armed with a machine gun and a machete), so I mostly put my faith in the locks of my van. Every night I have to hear the soft thunk of the doors locking before I can fall asleep. I met a guy recently who lives in an overlanding vehicle, sleeping in a soft-sided rooftop tent. I asked him what he would do in an emergency, and he gestured to the knife that I hadn’t noticed holstered on his hip. Plus, he said, opening the driver’s side door and pulling out a knife. Plus, he said, he had a knife under his pillow. Plus, he said, opening his rear doors and fishing around in a drawer for a massive folding knife that looked like the sort of thing Rambo uses to cut the throats of Communists in the jungle. That guy doesn’t need metal walls around him, whereas I’d be easy prey without the comforting thunk of my Promaster’s locks.
I trust my gut, most of all. A week ago I was trying to camp along the Colorado River and pulled into a riverside lot with free camping. Now, I’ll put up with a lot for free camping, because free, but this place was busy with van and tent encampments that looked like they’d been there a while, their sites strewn with trash. The pit toilet was filthy and the whole place reeked of an unwashed vinegary tang, like ketchup chips. I went outside to run my hand in the river and immediately got stung by a bee. Bad vibes. I ended up driving across the river and paying actual money to sleep at a quiet campground just to shake off the evil energy. Now that I’ve done the vanlife for almost two years, I know how to identify the red flags. Broken glass, toilet paper, shotgun shells and piles of mysteriously wet clothing are usually a sign to leave a campsite. Champagne-coloured minivans, for some reason, are the cars of choice for meth-heads and hoarders; the windows of the van are always blacked out with garbage bags or blocked by piled trash. If I see one, I drive away. Overly chatty neighbours are also a red flag, because if someone immediately comes over to shoot the shit with me then they will sometimes keep visiting, over and over again, insinuating themselves into my life until I have to skulk off in the early morning without a goodbye. I’m not ignorant of the fact that being a lone, young, (hot? charming? vivacious?) female traveler can attract a lot of attention, good and bad. When I travel with a man, nobody ever talks to me or invites me over for free food and alcohol. When I’m alone, I have to rely on my gut to sort out who means well and who means to chain me up in their basement.
And when I’m in doubt, the best move is to blend in. I put on my American everywoman camouflage (a hat that literally reads “AMERICA,” and the universally accepted Walmartian uniform of a sleep-wrinkled hoodie and sweatpants). Sometimes I can’t blend in – the Ontario license plate and my use of the word “washroom” are telltale give-aways – so I play dumb. When politics come up, I do as the politicians do and dissemble: “I’m just a Canadian,” I say with my best Letterkenny accent, “so I don’t really follow American politics!” It doesn’t always work. At the swap meet in Quartzsite the other day, I was admiring a tent of Trump 2024 t-shirts and hats, as well as a surprisingly large array of concealed-carry purses patterned with bedazzled Confederate flags. I got to talking with the shop owner, a solid woman in a rhinestone-encrusted “Wine Time” shirt with glimmering pink eyeshadow reaching her eyebrows. “Oh, I’m a big Trumper,” she told me, as if I couldn’t tell from the merchandise. She continued on in reverential tones, speaking of Trump like someone trying to bring you into their multi-level marketing scheme. There had been a Trump rally in Phoenix recently, and her friends had gone. “They’re Canadian, like you, and they’re big Trumpers too,” she noted. I couldn’t use my usual line in this case, seeing as her Canadians apparently do follow American politics. I figured honesty was not a good policy, because talking shit about someone’s prophet is dangerous whether it’s Donald Trump or Jesus Christ or Joe Rogan. Instead, I donned my warmest smile and told her that it all sounded just wonderful, knowing that sometimes it’s better to play it safe than take a stand.