The Sounds of Silence
October 14, 2019 – Gleeson, Arizona
Getting out of Washington was no easy task. On top of his torn rotator cuff, Brent had thrown out his back and the slightest movement was causing him pain. Summer was over, and the dry warm weather had turned into cold, wet drizzle. Most of the campsites at Penrose Point were now unoccupied. We managed to put new sides on the trailer, then stain and urethane the plywood in between rain showers, but I honestly didn’t care how the trailer looked. Each delay fueled my yearning to get to Arizona. On the evening of the 4th, Brent went to bed early, and I started filling the truck with all the shells and rocks we’d collected on the beach—got them all in with some room to spare. Brent had suggested we put all the heavy stuff in the truck to ease the weight of the trailer, but poor Betty was so low to the ground, she looked like she’d drag over the slightest bump in the road.
When I bought the Ford Ranger (Betty) I thought she had a 6-cylinder engine, but it turned out to be a 4-cylinder. The Gypsy, as we call our trailer, had gained a lot of weight since we bought her—she was wider around the middle, and packed lots of extra lumber inside. But at least she wouldn’t be packed with the heavy stuff.
We decided to take the back roads instead of the highway. It would add extra time to our trip, but would give us a much more scenic and relaxing ride. Besides, we weren’t sure if Betty could keep up with the cars on the highway. It’s a little humiliating being passed by semi trucks. One thing we didn’t foresee was the mountainous terrain. Instead of driving over the mountain ranges, we seemed to be literally following them the whole way down. Once we reached the top, it was deceptively flat until we had to make the descent. Everywhere we went, people made the same comment as they looked incredulously at our small pickup and makeshift trailer. “That’s a heavy load you’ve got there,” they’d say. But Betty could handle it. On the downside of the hills, we’d step on the gas, going as fast as we could to gather momentum for the uphill climb.
Brent likes to drive at night, and I don’t blame him. By the time we reached Reno, the daytime temperatures had soared, so nights were more comfortable to drive. I figured he’d stop by 11 or 12, but he wanted to keep going. It was 2 am before he quit driving, which was fine if you get to sleep until 10:00, but by 7:30 or 8:00 the temperature in our sleeping loft was unbearably hot and I had to get up. We slept at Walmart or truck stops—no sense in getting a campsite when you arrive that late.
Three and a half days after we left Washington, we pulled into my property near Gleeson, Arizona. Gleeson is a ghost town in the Southeastern corner of Arizona at an elevation of about 5,000 feet. Summer there can get uncomfortably hot, with temperatures in the 90s, but winters stay relatively cool. Once the sun goes down, temperatures dip to the 50s, so sleeping is comfortable. In January, 29 degree nighttime temperatures are not unusual and it can snow once or twice a year.
It’s another world here, one that’s closer to the America of 200 years ago than it is to anything I’ve experienced. Rolling, scrubby hills dot the horizon, with the occasional house perched on top. Though the trees (mostly mesquite and scrub oak) are short and stubby, the silence goes on forever. There is no traffic noise, no airplanes flying overhead. Sunrise and sunsets are spectacular, and the nighttime skies are dotted with thousands of stars. Our property and the acreage around it once belonged to a cattle ranch and cows roam freely through the area. It’s part of the purchase agreement and gives us a break on our taxes. Loki loves it here. He’s fascinated by the cows and can sit there staring at them forever. One of our neighbors cleared out a small space for the trailer near the dirt road to my property, but that’s not where we’ll stay. The other side of the property, which is harder to access, is close to the well and power lines and there are lots of beautiful spots available for the trailer. We just need to decide on one, then figure out how to access it.
Ed, my neighbor, invited us to a cross planting the other day in Douglas, Arizona near the Mexico border. It’s a group of volunteers (including Franciscan monks and Native Americans) who plant commemorative crosses near the spots where immigrants have died trying to cross the desert. I was surprised that Brent agreed to come, since he’s not exactly pro-immigration, but he joined in the ceremonies. Ed’s daughter, who is a devout Christian, remained on the sidelines.
I’m happy to be living near Ed, one of the wisest, kindest, and most interesting men I’ve ever met. It’s been almost four years since I’ve seen him, and he looked frailer and a bit sadder. He’s 86 years old now and suffers from macular degenerative disorder. It’s hard to realize by looking at him that he has lost 85% of his vision. He walks without a cane, still plays the drums, and lives in a beautiful home that he built himself 30 years ago. Recently his daughter moved in from the Midwest to take care of him and I’m sure he’s frustrated that he can no longer drive or get around by himself. I share coffee with him in the morning, greeted by the two pregnant donkeys he recently saved from a rescue shelter.
We’re slowly getting set up, though don’t want to put in anything permanent, since we’ll be relocating soon. We bought a couple of privacy tents and staked them down carefully since the wind can get intense up here. One houses a makeshift shower, which works well, though we’re not heating the water yet. The other is the “loo”, a wood box with a toilet seat that Brent put together so we no longer have to use the bushes. There are lots of mesquite trees on my land and they’re painful to rub against. Sharp spikes dig into your flesh and if you don’t pull them out right away, they rake through your skin. I’ve learned to look down when I walk since the desert is home to rattlesnakes and scorpions.
It feels amazing to have a place to call home. There’s no park ranger telling us it’s time to leave, no loading and unloading boxes, and plenty of blue skies and sunshine. Best of all, we have friends and neighbors to support us. In two days, I’ll head to Hawaii to celebrate my granddaughter’s birthday. Brent will join me in a week or so. Meanwhile, Kevin, our resident road digger will be making a path to our new home site. Can’t wait to see what it looks like when we get home.
Magic Mushrooms and the Trail That Wasn’t
October 3, 2019 – Penrose State Park, WA
On Saturday, my son and his family headed home after 3 days of camping with us, and I was feeling bluesy. It had rained all morning, but by early afternoon the sun poked through the clouds. “Let’s go for a hike,” Brent said, trying to cheer me up. “I found a new trail I want to show you, and the mushrooms are out. Maybe I can find some along the way.” Brent hated slimy fungi in his spaghetti sauce, so I knew he was in search of the magic (psilocybin) shrooms.
“Ok, but don’t expect me to eat any. My dad almost died from eating wild mushrooms. Some of the poisonous ones look just like the edible ones. Please be careful”
Brent gave me a “shrugging his shoulders” look, and ten minutes later we headed off down the trail. Every few minutes, he’d spot a patch of mushrooms, bend over to pick up a sample, turn it upside down, then throw it back on the ground. Each time I’d breathe a sigh of relief. Then, he found something that looked totally different from the others, but not in a good way. It was yellowish, slimy, and underneath, instead of gills, was a spongelike substance. He squeezed the stem and a bluish, inky color popped to the surface.
“I think this is it,” he exclaimed, his eyes sparkling.
I’ve since read up on psychoactive mushrooms, and one statement stuck in my mind. Things get even more complicated when it comes to magic mushrooms due to the fact that the psychological profile of the persons willing to try this type of mushrooms includes a higher tolerance for risk.” Yep, that’s Brent, I thought to myself. Apparently pleased with the blue-veined mushroom, he broke off a piece and popped it into his mouth.
“Shit”, I thought to myself. There were a few possibilities, mostly unpleasant. It could be poisonous, in which case I’d face the unpleasant task of calling 911 and trying to explain where we were so he could be evacuated to the emergency room. It could cause him to hallucinate and do something crazy, or it could do absolutely nothing. Brent has a very high tolerance for any type of medication, so even if it was a magic mushroom, it could have no affect on him at all.
Thirty minutes later, we continued as normal down the trail, and Brent had (thankfully) stopped searching, at least for shrooms. We took another path that led down to a rocky, log-strewn beach. After beachcombing for a bit, we rounded the tip of Penrose Point and spotted an old bench on the shore overlooking the ocean.
“Let’s stop here”, Brent suggested. “This looks like a good place to eat lunch and there should be a trail that runs parallel to the coast. We can take it back to the campsite,” We hopped over a piece of driftwood and pulled ourselves up to higher ground. After lunch, we headed off to find the trail.
Logic told us there should have been a trail leading off from the bench. Why would there be a clearing with a bench overlooking the water in the middle of nowhere? But there was no trail—maybe there was at one time, but vegetation had taken over. We set off to look for it, Brent in the lead, hacking away to make a path with his machete. Forging a trail was no easy task. The vegetation was dense, and we frequently had to get down on our hands and knees to crawl under fallen tree trunks. We emerged onto a sunlit clearing, thinking we’d finally found the elusive trail, but it was nowhere to be seen.
We still had phone service. “Let’s try our GPS,” I suggested and opened Google Maps. It showed our location, a tiny dot around the corner of Penrose Point, but when I requested directions, it told us we were 2 minutes from the campground. Obviously, Ms. Google had no idea how to get us back. I downloaded another app that was specifically for trails, but that one didn’t work either, so we headed off again, hacking and crawling. By this time, my pant legs were soaking wet, and I’m sure Brent’s were as well.
I have no innate sense of direction. I can get lost driving around the block, forgetting how many turns I’ve made. It’s one reason that I never hike alone. Ten minutes later, Brent got us back to our starting point, and I breathed a sigh of relief. At least we could hike back down the beach. I sat down on the old wood bench to rest my legs, looked out over the water, and noticed that something was missing. There was no rocky beach—the tide had crept up and covered the whole thing. I picked up my phone again to check the tide tables.
“High tide is one hour from now, so it’ll be at least a couple of hours before we can get out of here, probably more. In two hours, it’ll be just like it is now.” It was already 4:30, so that meant we’d have to hike back in the dark, with only our phone flashlights to guide us.
With no sun to warm us, the air quickly grew cold, and I started to shiver. I found myself wishing I’d worn a jacket instead of just a sweatshirt, but who knew? I noticed there’d been a fire here recently, and so did Brent. He’d already taken off with his machete to hack out wood chips and gather kindling, but making a fire was no easy task. It had rained all morning, and everything was wet.
“Do you have any Kleenex on you,” Brent asked hopefully. “I need something to start the fire.”
I checked my pockets and came up with part of a Kleenex—the part I hadn’t used when I’d peed earlier. I’d carefully torn it in half in case I had to go again.
I don’t know how Brent did it, but he managed to start the fire. For the next two hours, I stood close to the blaze, absorbing the heat through every pore of my body. By 8:00 the tide was low enough to escape and we took off down the beach. Though I had my phone flashlight to guide me, the going was rough. The rocks were slippery with seaweed and water since the tide had just receded, and the beach was strewn with huge wet logs to go over and under.
About halfway down the beach, I heard a loud thump and a moaning noise. Brent had gotten ahead of me, and he sat next to a huge log, moaning in pain. He has a high tolerance for pain, so I knew right away it had been bad.
“I got to the log and didn’t see this branch sticking out. It rammed into my head.” He touched a spot right above his hairline and his palm came away sticky with blood. After a few dabs with the shirt he’d torn off, the blood flow had stopped, so we started out once more. 30 minutes later, we reached the campsite, emotionally and physically depleted. All we wanted to do was sleep.
We’re paid up until Friday at this campsite, and I’m hoping we can leave by then. Brent has finished putting up the sides on the expanded version of the trailer, but along the way he screwed up his back. I’m used to seeing Brent in pain, but this time is different. It’s an intense pain, and the only way he can stay comfortable is to sleep. Today I’m taking him to the doctor, but I’m not sure what she can do. Maybe a back brace for support? I’m worried now that we won’t make it by tomorrow, or even Saturday. Without Brent, how can I pack all the stuff into the trailer? I think I can do it, but it’ll be slow going. At this point, I just want to get out of here. My brain is screaming, “Arizona” and my flight to Hawaii (from Phoenix) is only 13 days from now. But worrying accomplishes nothing, so I need to stay positive. One way or another, we WILL get out of here.
September 25, 2019 – Joemma Beach State Park – Gig Harbor, WA
Sitting here in the trailer at an actual table, typing my blog and drinking coffee makes me realize how much I’ve missed the small comforts of home, especially now that the weather has gotten cold and rainy. It’s nice having a roof over our head that doesn’t leak, a place to eat meals together, a base to come home to. It’s a work in progress and I’ve enjoyed watching it evolve. When we bought the shabby old 4’ x 8’ plywood farm trailer for $150 on OfferUp, we saw it simply as a vehicle for hauling our stuff; it was accumulating to the point where it would no longer fit on the small rack we carried in back of the pickup.
The roof was Charlie’s idea. We met her at the campground in Anacortes, and the small, energetic army veteran was full of them. We hadn’t intended to get such a big camper top, but it was free so we couldn’t turn it down. Not only did we have a roof to protect us, but now we had windows to let in light. It hung over nearly a foot on both sides of the trailer, but I could see Brent’s mind working overtime. We could use it to our advantage by extending the sides of the trailer out to get the inside shelving we needed without taking away from the 4 feet of space inside.
I don’t expect perfection from Brent, but he expects it from himself. He worked for many years as a finish carpenter and is his own harshest critic. I don’t have the patience for this kind of work. I slapped paint on the house in Italy without sanding the old paint off and of course it peeled off way earlier than it should have. He can sand for what seems an eternity until the surface of the plywood is as smooth as glass. I’m the finisher—I love to paint and stain.
Brent and I are always throwing around new ideas, but I wasn’t happy yesterday when he brought up the possibility of getting his shoulder surgery done here in Washington instead of Arizona. I understand why—he already has a doctor here, one that he trusts, and change can be a scary thing. But major surgery means recuperation, and how can he rest when we’re on the road?
“I’ll just do everything with one hand,” he replied when I questioned his sanity.
“How can you load heavy boxes with one hand? Not to mention all the stuff we need to do once we get to Arizona. I thought we both agreed to wait, and now you’re talking to a surgeon about getting it done here? I told you a couple of weeks ago that I’d bought a ticket to Hawaii in mid-October, so we have to be in Arizona by then.” I was in Hawaii for my granddaughter Eris’s birth and I’ve never missed a birthday since. I knew Brent wanted to come as well, and I was already trying to figure out how to get around the Loki issue. I couldn’t afford tickets for either of us, but I’d think about paying my credit card off later even if it meant getting a job for a few months in Arizona. If we were considering moving to Hawaii, now was a good chance to see if Brent would like it.
Our neighbors pulled out yesterday, along with their four kids, and we both breathed a sigh of relief. Cam and Kelly were from the Pacific Northwest, but they’d tried to make a go of it in Alaska for six months. Jobs fell through, and they moved back to friends and family, apparently with little cash. Cam found a job here as a framer, and they were biding time until his first paycheck came in and they could rent an apartment. She was a spitfire of a woman, full of energy—that first day, she brought over extra food they’d gotten from the food bank. He was kind, with more than enough patience to make up for her lack. Four kids, all pre-school age, kept them busy from dawn to dusk. The two boys came from another marriage, but the twin girls were theirs. It took me a while to realize that the two-year-olds were indeed separate entities—they looked identical, and they both screamed non-stop from sunrise to sundown. When I say “scream” I mean it literally. It was a high-pitched, shrieking noise that not even a cranked-up stereo could muffle. Of course, you can’t just give 2-year old toddlers free reign to explore the park, so they put together a makeshift corral with sheets of plywood and, judging by the noise, the two girls hated it.
Fortunately, Cam and Kelly were gone for most of the day. She’d drive him to his job, then hang around till he got off in the evening. That last day, before they pulled out, Cam came over to say goodbye.
“Sorry for all the noise,” he apologized. “The kids are teething, and there’s nothing we can do to pacify them.” I thought that was kind of him, given the fact that we’d made a lot of our own noise while renovating the trailer.
Though I long to reach Arizona, like Brent with his surgery, I’m wary as well. The other day I reflected on the impending move, and fear raised its ugly head. We’ve been nomads for so long, I can’t imagine living any other way, though I do want to settle down for a bit. But do I really want to live in the Arizona desert, away from the ocean, away from civilization? Suppose Brent doesn’t like my friends and neighbors? Suppose they don’t like him? What about medical care? Suppose I’m bitten by a rattlesnake or suffer a heart attack? I remember my friend telling me of her neighbor who had to be evacuated by helicopter to Tucson, or was it Phoenix? Either way, if time was of the essence, I could be dead before I reached the hospital. I’m not getting any younger and neither is Brent.
But I’m sure, like the many changes I’ve made in my life, that things will work out in the end—and if they don’t, I will have learned so much along the way. It’s easier when you’re an adult—at least you have some control over your destiny. At the age of 14, my dad packed up and moved us all from Canada to the States (Philadelphia). Initially, I was excited. This was a country where everything was happening—there were movie stars, rock stars, endless possibilities for cool boyfriends. Then reality set in, and I realized I’d probably never see my best friend again. Sure, we could exchange letters, but who could I confide in every day?
Moving to Philadelphia was a culture shock. At first, I was struck by how friendly everyone was. They all said “hi, how are you?” on the streets and in school, but it was a superficial friendliness. Making actual friends was something different entirely. What were my parents thinking? They had dumped me into what was probably the most preppy high school in existence. Though there were no prescribed uniforms, the girls all dressed alike—pleated skirts, knee socks, penny loafers, and pastel shirts buttoned to the neck, held in place at the collar by round, broaches embossed with their initials. Many years earlier, I’d rebelled against my mom for sewing my sister and I identical dresses, so you can imagine I wasn’t pleased with the situation. By my senior year, I’d taken up with the intellectual, nerdy crowd, getting high after school and trying acid for the first time.
But there’s a reason for everything and, if I hadn’t moved to the States my life would have been drastically different. Tomorrow we’ll be camping out with my son and granddaughter, and I’ll have the opportunity to celebrate her birthday before we leave. My next post should (hopefully) see us on the road.
September 14, 2019 – Joemma Beach State Park – Gig Harbor, WA
Though summer is not officially over, I can already smell the musky scent of fall. Nights are cooler, rain is moving in, and the flow of campers has slowed to a trickle. By the end of the month, both Penrose and Joemma will close most of their campground, leaving only a few sites available and no showers—just one more reason why we need to get out of here. But we’re camped in the most beautiful spot in Joemma, on a hill overlooking the ocean, and it’s hard to say goodbye to paradise. Last night it rained, but we stayed warm and dry in our trailer loft, and with the new memory foam pad, I woke up feeling refreshed for the first time since we started this journey.
One of the things I’ll appreciate most when we get to Arizona is having neighbors. This can be a lonely existence, especially now with few fellow campers. Aside from the occasional visitors, it’s just me and Brent, and I wonder how the pioneer women survived without going crazy. No matter how well you get along with someone, it’s hard spending 24-hours a day in a small closed area.
Yesterday, I told Brent, “I’m so glad I’m experiencing this with you. I don’t think I could have done it with anyone else…”
…and it’s true, to a point. (I should mention I said that after he’d woken from a long, 3-hour nap and I was bored shitless.) I tend to get into my head a lot, so I need to be around someone with high energy to keep me sane. It shouldn’t be that way, I know; my mood shouldn’t be dependent on those around me. I long to reach the point where I can be fully confident in myself, where I can radiate happiness to those around me instead of absorbing theirs, and I’m getting closer every day.
Sharing common goals and ideals is important to a relationship. Brent and I both enjoy the nomadic life, living off the grid and having few possessions. But other things we have in common can be problematic. We’re both overly sensitive, emotional, defensive, rebellious, opinionated, and analytical. Years of growing up with criticism have led us to turn it inward, striving for perfection in even the most mundane tasks. We slip into arguments too easily, and we argue about the stupidest of things, like how to slice tomatoes for hamburgers. On the positive side, I’ve learned to give in a bit, instead of stubbornly resisting, and he has as well. Now, when I see an argument coming, I retreat instead of fighting back. Retreat doesn’t mean running away as I used to do, i.e. getting in the car and visiting a friend. It means taking a walk or going to bed early. I no longer threaten to leave since I know how deeply it hurts–I’m learning his trigger points, and he’s learning mine.
It’s the emotional, analytical side of our personalities that cause problems. For me, it’s been the homeless issue, exacerbated by reactions from friends and family. For months I wavered between two drastically different versions of Brent—the manipulative, homeless guy trying to take advantage of me, and the kind, gentle (often impetuous) person who wants to be with me because he truly likes me. In the beginning, the ratio was 70-30% in favor of the homeless version. As time went by and I came to know him better, the scale tipped in favor of the kind, gentle Brent. Now the numbers have flipped to 30% vs 70%.
For Brent, it’s the age issue. I’m sure that when he met me, he thought I was younger. I had no idea how old he was—deep wrinkles in his forehead from living on the street made him look older than his years. But, unlike me he’s always been transparent about the issue. I should be proud of my years, not ashamed, but in this culture, there’s a stigma attached to aging, especially when it comes to women. We don’t think twice about a 68-year old man dating a 51-year old woman, but when the situation is reversed, the woman is deemed a “cougar.” I don’t make a conscious effort to pursue younger men—it’s just that most men my age have that “old age” mindset. They’ve lost their enthusiasm for life and are resigned to living out their final years with as few challenges as possible.
I was terrified from the beginning that Brent would discover my true age and run the other way. He’s always dated younger women—his last girlfriend was younger than any of my kids, so this is a new experience for him. I tried to avoid situations where I’d have to reveal my age, but that was next to impossible. The first time we went to the food band meant filling out an application for assistance which of course included date of birth. He didn’t say anything, so I don’t know if he saw what I wrote that day, but eventually he learned the truth. It’s nothing but a number of course, and homelessness is nothing but a short-lived experience, but in our minds, we blew things way out of proportion, and we’ve been trying ever since to regroup and put things into perspective.
We’ve always been accepted as a couple by others, so I don’t think the age difference is noticeable. The one exception was when we visited the local food bank to pick up some stuff. Brent went through first, and along the way saw some fruit juice he knew I’d like. When it was my turn to go through, the man in charge commented as we passed the drink section,
“Your son told me you’d like this, so he saved it for you.”
It’s the only time to my knowledge that I’ve been taken for his mom and the rebel in me wanted to reply, “That’s nice. Did he tell you we had sex the other night?”, just to see his reaction, but I bit my tongue.
I think that the age issue is bigger than Brent wants to admit. He’s probably flipping back and forth like I did between the old lady and the young girl in me, and I’m not sure where the ratio stands with him. Or maybe I’m over-analyzing the situation.
Right now, we’re dealing with other issues, like how to fix up the trailer, put everything in order and get out of here by the end of the month. I’m excited that we get to camp out with my granddaughter Emmy for a couple of days. She’s coming up with my son the day after her birthday (Sept 25), so it’ll be a great way to celebrate and say our goodbyes. By the 29th, we’ll be on the road, heading for a new life.
September 5, 2019 – Joemma Beach State Park – Gig Harbor, WA
Thanks to Brent, our trailer is slowly morphing into a livable structure. At 8 feet long, it will be the tiniest “tiny home” on record, but it’ll only be temporary…or maybe not? We found a free camper top on Offer Up, so that’s become the trailer roof. It’s high enough now that we can stand up inside, and soon we’ll have a loft bed to sleep in. Doors on the back mean we can now protect our stuff, i.e. the beachcombing supplies we’ve been gathering for months. Eventually there will be a table that can convert to another bed and a cooking area.
The trailer as we bought it
How it looks now, though the roof has since been centered
A couple of days ago, I made my yearly visit to the dentist. My tolerance for pain is pretty low—I anticipate the stab of the needle, imagine it piercing the inside of my mouth, so of course it hurts even worse. It’s hard to escape from that automatic reaction of tensing up when the dentist approaches my mouth with a foreign object. That reflex stems from years of poking, prodding, and drilling numerous cavities when I was a child in England, I guess they were behind the times, or maybe Novocain didn’t exist back then. Whatever the case, my dentist didn’t use it and the effects of slow drilling with no painkiller will linger on for the rest of my life.
Brent, on the other hand, has had to deal with major pain for all his adult life and there’s no doubt his tolerance surpasses mine. It’s easy to forget he’s in pain most of the time because he pushes through it like a bulldozer moving a pile of rocks. Two major car accidents, one of which broke his back, a fast-moving baseball that destroyed the cartilage in his right knee, and numerous other injuries from pushing too hard all contribute to his discomfort. He “forgets” to wear gloves when working, so his hands are crusted with sores and splinters.
He hasn’t complained much lately about his left shoulder, the one that was operated on, so I assumed it was healing ok, albeit slowly. It’s been three and a half months and his movements should be back to normal, but they’re not. After one particularly loud “ouch”, I asked him:
“How’s the pain relative to what it was before the surgery? Does it seem like it’s getting better?”
Brent paused for a moment to think. “It’s definitely less painful than it was before the surgery, but it still hurts when I move it the wrong way.”
He scheduled a follow-up MRI to make sure everything was healing properly, and yesterday he visited his doctor to get the results. As he approached the car following the appointment, I could tell by the pained expression on his face that the results hadn’t been good.
“What’s going on? Did they totally screw up the surgery?”
“No”, he replied, and I breathed a sigh of relief, but I shouldn’t have.
“He told me the tear was worse than before. Not only that, but I have another small tear under my scapula on the same side.”
I sat there, stunned, but why should I be surprised? Brent is the perfect poster boy for what not to do following surgery. The day after the operation found us stranded on a remote hillside for three days and he was forced to use his shoulder to get us out of that mess. Not only that, but he’d fallen directly on the affected side that same day. How could any of that not have had an impact? Not to mention the numerous times since then when he’d busted pallets to get wood for the fire, raised the roof of the trailer, hitched and unhitched it…ad infinitum. This lifestyle is in no way conducive to recovery from rotator cuff surgery. He still insists that it hurts less than before the surgery, though I wonder how that’s possible.
Now what? The doctor hasn’t called back yet (he was out yesterday, so Brent talked to his assistant), but I’m pretty sure he’ll recommend surgery. It doesn’t make sense to do it here, though—we’ll be stuck in the same situation where Brent will be forced to work, so we’ll wait till we get to Arizona, then do whatever we have to. I hate to think of him going through all that again, but there may be no other choice.
Brent and I share a fondness for the nomadic life. We’re ready to settle down for a bit, but we’re already throwing around new options for the future. We can’t imagine not living near the ocean, so it’s unlikely that Arizona will be our ultimate home, though who knows? We could get there and absolutely love it, but I don’t think that will be the case for the following reasons: (1) I love Hawaii. Like Italy, it has a way of sneaking up on and getting into your blood, with its laid-back culture, strong family values, and stunningly beautiful scenery. (2) My kids are scattered all over now, but I’d like to be close to at least some of my family, and (3) Though Brent has never been to Hawaii, he’s convinced he’ll love it and we can both imagine him there so easily, fitting into that lifestyle.
Right here, right now, these are the plans. Go to Arizona, stay there for a year, save some money, then try to sell my land. If I can get a decent price for it, we can buy a cheap piece of land or a used sailboat to live in and moor it somewhere on Oahu or the Big Island. Or, possibly hang on to the land just in case. You never know when we might change plans again, and at least that option will be open.
I’m sure many of you are thinking, “What the hell… can’t she ever make up her mind?” But dreaming, to me, is what keeps life interesting, and it’s an integral part of the road map to eternal youth, at least the mental aspect. I don’t want to grow old wishing my life had gone in a different direction, regretting time not spent with my family. So, I’m keeping my options open.
August 26, 2019 – Joemma Beach State Park – Gig Harbor, WA
Early this week, my daughter Lia and her Italian husband packed up and moved back to Italy. Of course, I was sad to see them go, but I understood why they left. Lia lived in Italy from the age of 14 and she’s always told me she feels more Italian than American—Italy is her home. Diego picked them up from the airport and drove them back to our shared house near Palombara Sabina, where conditions were as I suspected—atrocious. Diego told them he’d just washed the sheets in the master bedroom, but that first night they slept on bedding that was soaked in cat urine. He’d left the window open in the house so our cats could come and go freely. Of course, that meant the stray cats as well. They are everywhere in Italy and probably spread the word about free food and water on Colle Fagiano.
I’d warned Lia in advance of the extremes Diego takes to please others. Throughout our relationship, he told me what he thought I wanted to hear, which was often not the whole truth. Last night, as Brent and I sat around the campfire, I shared some of my stories.
“Remember, I told you about Diego working long hours? During the last few years we were together, he’d leave the house at 5:30 in the morning and I wouldn’t see him till 8:30 or 9:00 at night.”
Brent looked me in the eyes. “Hun, you really believe he was working all that time?”
As usual, I tried to make excuses for my ex, or were they for myself?
“After his breakdown, he became very religious. He told me he’d stop by the church every morning and go to mass before work.”
Brent wasn’t having any of it. “Yeah, well I’m sure he was having an affair. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.”
“But he told me he wasn’t interested in sex after his breakdown.”
“How convenient.” Brent gave me a ‘how-could-you-be-such-a-sucker’ look and I began to wonder how I could.
Looking back over those 18 years, there were so many things I made excuses for, so many things I overlooked. Just a few months after moving to Italy, I found a pile of printed emails while cleaning. They were written to a woman during the period I was working in Germany, just before I came to live in Italy with Diego. I didn’t read everything, but enough to see there were passages that could have been pulled verbatim from the emails he wrote to me in our courting stage. Feeling betrayed and confused, I confronted Diego.
“I can’t believe you were writing to other women at the same time you were writing to me. What a bunch of bullshit. I thought you were so sincere, but the whole time you were playing games with me.”
Diego stared down intently at a crack in the tile floor. When he looked up, his eyes were wet with tears and he tried to explain.
“There was this guy at work who was sending emails to an American girl and his English wasn’t so good. He came to me for some advice—he knew I’d been sending you letters—and I decided to help him. I let him copy my letters to you so he could write to her in English.”
I wanted to believe him, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, but there were so many holes in his story. There were paragraphs in those emails that were not quoted verbatim, material included that wasn’t in his letters to me. It didn’t make sense, but he pleaded me to stay and I’m a sucker for tears. Over the years I found several strange notes lying around the house, and heard more odd stories, but we were getting along well and I chose to ignore them.
Ten years into the relationship, after he suffered his breakdown, I began to see things in a different light. There was another letter, written in Italian talking about “the 2 days we spent together, lying next to each other on the bed…” The email mentioned stories that I thought had been shared only between Diego and I, personal stories, and I felt betrayed. Again, I confronted my ex. He told me they’d been written by a mutual friend of ours, a Swedish woman. Knowing she’d had a crush on him, I chose to believe him, and I sent her an angry, accusatory email. “How could you sleep with Diego? I can’t believe you would do that.”
She replied, equally angry. “Why would Diego say that? I haven’t seen either of you in two years, There is nothing between me and Diego—nothing!”
I confronted Diego once more, and the story he came up with this time was even more bizarre.
“I was on a business trip to Saudi Arabia. The hotel rooms were all booked, so I had to share a room with one of my male co-workers.”
Was Diego gay? He’d mentioned many times how he was a magnet for gay men. Regardless of his sexual orientation, why would he share such intimate information with a work colleague? I didn’t believe that story either. He’d already shown that he was more than capable of lying when forced against the proverbial brick wall.
Brent isn’t always the best listener, but that night he listened intently while I ran through my litany of Diego stories.
“Now I understand why you pull back sometimes. I knew about the breakdown, but not about all the other stuff. At least you don’t have to worry about me beating around the bush. I’m always straight with you.”
“Yep… you go to the other extreme.” I laughed, but it was true. Like me, Brent tends to verbalize his thoughts, which aren’t always positive.
Now we’re back at Joemma Beach—it feels like home to me, though it’s a long way from civilization. This week will be a busy one. We’ll be in the Seattle area for three days in a row, which means leaving the trailer here and sleeping in the back of the truck—most likely in the Walmart parking lot. It’s those times when I feel homeless rather than just houseless. I may as well just stay up all night—though we’re always in a remote area of the parking lot, spotlights glare through our camper windows. Cars and people pass by until the early hours of the morning. Around midnight or so, Walmart closes its side doors, leaving only one way to enter and exit. Inside Walmart, people come and go. You can tell the ones who are camped out—like me, they head straight for the sign reading “Restrooms.” I carry my purse so I look like a customer, though I’m sure the night watchman knows the truth. But why should I care what he thinks of me? I’ll never see him again.
Brent’s been fixing up the trailer and it’s starting to look very cool. It now has fenders and a locking back door. We picked up a free camper top and set it on the plywood sides to serve as a roof. Eventually it will be raised to create a sleeping loft—the whole trailer could become a mini home once we get to Arizona. Tuesday we take it for inspection so we can (hopefully) get tabs and not have to worry all the time about being pulled over.
I know I’ve been saying this for months, but I can’t wait to get on the road!
August 15, 2019 – Joemma Beach State Park – Gig Harbor, WA
Humans, like cats, are creatures of habit. We may succeed in breaking those we detest, but we quickly form new ones to take their place. Every morning, while drinking my coffee, I go online to check the tide tables—low tides are best for beachcombing, when the sand bars are exposed. We’ve been to a lot of beaches, including Ocean Shores and Westport, but the Key Peninsula beaches are the best we’ve found for beachcombing. Joemma Beach State Park is beautiful, cheap, and relatively unknown to travelers. Best of all, it’s a no-reservation campsite. That means we can stay for the 10-day high-season limit during July and August, peak seasons for camping, while reservation-only parks like Dash Point are booked way in advance for the weekends.
Yesterday, about an hour before low tide, I set off for the beach with Loki. I would say that I took him, but in reality, he took me. He’s gotten into the bad habit of pulling and I’m trying my hardest to break him of it. No doubt he wondered why I was taking him on such a strange walk, zig-zagging back and forth over sand and rocks from the waterline to the high-tide line. When I felt him yank the leash, I’d stop and wait about 20 seconds, then continue with the “heel” command. After an hour of this, I was exhausted, and he was starting to tire. The method seemed to be working, but it could have just been the fatigue.
When Loki’s feet touch the water, he wants to run. Maybe it’s the nature of the breed. One day I was beachcombing, up to my ankles in seaweed sludge when he decided to take off. I’d neglected to shorten his leash, so by the time he hit the end of the line the force was equal to ten dogs. My body went forward, face-first, into a mix of ocean water and slimy seaweed. As I pulled myself up, looking no doubt like the creature from the black lagoon, I pulled out every swear word from my vast repertoire and threw them at Loki. Now I keep the leash short.
I like to beachcomb the right side of the beach where I’ve found most of the sea glass. Somewhere, underwater, there’s a seemingly endless supply of vintage glass bottles. We like to think they come from Joe and Emma Smith, who lived near the beach from 1917 to 1932. Maybe it was their trash pile which has since been covered by the encroaching sea. Though glass bottles were much sturdier back then, they rarely survive intact from the ocean to the beach, so I was thrilled to find an old, barnacle-encrusted ink bottle yesterday all in one piece. As I ran my fingers over its beautiful ridges, I imagined it sitting on Emma’s desk, saw her carefully dipping a pen in the ink, writing a letter to faraway relatives about the beauty of the beach that would later be named after her.
Four days ago, we left our plum-infested campsite at Dash Point State Park. If we thought we could leave without Ranger Danger’s habitual hassling, we were wrong. We like to use scavenged pallets for firewood, it saves a ton of money, but they need to be sawed up a bit first. The night before we left, Brent hooked up the saw to our portable battery and proceeded to dismember the pallet. Ranger Danger, a wisp of a man, with a severe Napoleon complex, marched over to our campsite, flashlight in hand. “I could hear that noise all the way down by the restrooms. I know it’s not quiet time yet, but it’s still annoying to your neighbors.” Brent sounded contrite as he politely apologized. The ranger’s next statement left us puzzled—we both swore he said, “You know, it’s against the rules to burn interdimensional firewood,” but of course that made no sense. We nodded our heads and tried to look serious as he walked off into the sunset.
Because there are a limited number of state parks in the vicinity of Seattle, we tend to run into the same “houseless” folks repeatedly. Melissa looks to be in her early 30s. She’s beautiful, but I’m sure she doesn’t think of herself that way. I can tell by the way she talks that she’s used to being put down, and her boyfriend Ryan is one of many who have mistreated her. She drinks to ease the pain and it’s not unusual for her to down a pint of hard alcohol in one night. Why she stays with Ryan is beyond me. A few weeks back, we ran into them at Joemma Beach and her face was horribly swollen. They both joked about it… “I was practicing my spin kick and accidentally kicked her in the face,” said Ryan, but they repeated the story so many times, we knew it wasn’t true. It’s a sad story, one of many I’ve heard in the last 6 months. He quit drinking a week ago, but his critical comments when Melissa is around tell me it hasn’t made a difference. Habits are hard to break, especially the bad ones.
Brent started his work assignment today, and I was reminded how I hate waking up at 5:00 am to the sound of an alarm. Not to mention negotiating the hoards of cars on the freeway to get to Seattle. But we made it on time and that’s all that matters, I guess. Day one of five, then we’ll be free to leave for Arizona.
Brent is a creative guy, especially when he’s stoned. One time, back in the winter, he emerged from the cold air into the warmth of our tent. “I think I saw a polecat out there…,” he said, and I took him seriously at first. “…but it was too small for a polecat, so it must’ve been a pole kitten.” The other night, when I thought he was sleeping, he tenderly expressed his affection, “You’re on my heart hook,” he whispered sleepily, and I smiled.
Last night, we slept in the back of the truck in the parking lot of the Auburn Walmart. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep. It was warm night, and I reached over to slide open the window. It made a strange squeaking noise, unlike anything I’ve heard before. Brent raised his head from the pillow. “Holy shit, did you just step on an ostrich?” Yep, he has a weird sense of humor, but I love it.
August 6, 2019 – Dash Point State Park – Federal Way, WA
We’re back at Dash Point, the campground where we started this trip in the snow and ice almost 6 months ago. But it doesn’t look like Dash Point—we’re in the upper section of the campground, the part that’s closed during off-season. It’s a little more primitive up here, though it’s supposed to be a “full service” campground. There’s a nice bathroom sitting right next to our campsite, but it’s being renovated, has been for some time now—poor planning I guess, or maybe state park funds got cut—who knows? That leaves only one bathroom (with two unisex stalls) available to service nearly 80 campsites.
Then there are the plums. Don’t get me wrong, I love plums, especially the wild variety, and our campsite is full of them, wild plum trees bursting with small, round fruit. Yesterday, I filled a gallon Ziploc bag and took it to my son’s house, but it failed to make a dent in the plums which continue to fall like slow intermittent rain. They’re everywhere—on our picnic table, our camp stove, our pots and pans, falling on Loki. Some of them explode on impact, leaving gooey trails ready to be stepped on. The soles of my shoes are caked with black gunk, a mixture of exploded plums and dry dirt. On the positive side, nothing has fallen yet on my head, and Brent has decided to make plum wine.
We thought Brent’s 5-day work assignment was this week, it’s the whole reason we chose Dash Point. We’d looked at his papers a while ago and I distinctly remember them saying he had to report to work on August 5th. But, when we reviewed the papers again a couple of days ago, they stated he had to call and schedule an appointment by the 5th. He called yesterday and was initially told that his case was closed. After more prodding on Brent’s part, the woman finally found his papers and told him she’d call back to schedule the orientation on Wednesday. Hopefully it won’t slow things down.
I’m looking forward to having a place to settle down, a place to call home, but I’m not sure Brent is. Yesterday, he was lamenting the fact that “we won’t have any more adventures”, but I assured him we will. My life is a never-ending stream of adventures and I can’t imagine they will suddenly stop just because I’m in Arizona.
Though I’ve worked all my life, I’ve always made time for adventure. In my early twenties, I quit my job at the University of Pennsylvania and decided to backpack through Europe. I didn’t intend to travel alone, it just worked out that way. I couldn’t find a friend who was willing to take the gamble and come with me. My itinerary was vague—I had several addresses given to me by visiting professors who wanted me to visit, and I had a place to stay in London, my first stop. The American Express office in those days was a traveler’s hub—it’s where you picked up mail and money, if you were lucky enough to have some wired to you. Back in the 70s there were no cell phones and it was kind of nice that way. Nobody knew where you were and each place you visited was an opportunity to invent a new life, start over.
But my goal that September day in 1974 was not to pick up mail. I was looking for a travel companion and an interesting place to visit, and I found both. My boss at the university had enticed me more than once with his descriptions of magical North Africa, and there it was in front of me, an engraved invitation pinned to the American Express bulletin board. “Travel to Morocco in exchange for gas money.” A week later I found myself in a beat-up old blue van with a British couple, Richard and Jenny, who planned to settle in an abandoned house and start a new life in North Africa. It amazes me how little I needed to live on back then—just a small backpack, 3 changes of clothing, and a sleeping bag. At night, we pulled over to the side of the road and slept on the ground in our sleeping bags—I remember well the chill of the Spanish desert.
Morocco was my first taste of a truly foreign culture, and I loved it. In the port of entry, Tangiers, I met an Italian woman named Claudia. She’d been there for some time, supporting her brother in jail, buying him food and tobacco to keep him sane. He was caught with “kif” in his luggage as he was leaving and, since it’s a mixture of hash and tobacco, they doubled the smuggling charge. What it would take to get him out was money—lots of it, so Claudia appealed to her dad for help. Once her brother was released, we’d take off in her car together and travel through the Moroccan countryside.
Claudia’s father agreed to release the money, and her fiancé, Marco, would bring it to her hotel in Morocco. The only problem with this scenario was the fact that Mathilde had no intentions of marrying her fiancé, in fact she had already taken on a Moroccan man as her lover. When Marco showed up unexpectedly a few days later with the money, I unwittingly opened the door to let him in. Just as he crossed the threshold Jimi, Claudia’s lover emerged from the bathroom, a tribal savage naked but for the small towel barely covering his genitals. Italian insults flew, rude hand gestures exchanged, then Marco made his retreat, slamming the door behind him. I assumed that meant no road trip, and I was right. A couple of days later, I left in search of new adventures.
It’s been another adventure, this camping trip. It hasn’t always been easy, but I can’t imagine not having done it. And I can’t imagine having done it with anyone other than Brent. As much as we butt heads, he gets me, all of me, like nobody has before. I was afraid he’d be bored stiff while I was up in Canada, but no. He had his own adventures up in Anacortes. The camper across from us had a boat and offered to take him out salmon fishing, and friends came to visit from Bellingham.
The people we’ve met along the way are a big part of what has made this trip so special. Just before leaving our Anacortes site, Charlie came over to say goodbye. She’s been homeless for only a week, an army veteran, fleeing from an abusive relationship. Words gushed from her mouth like an erupting volcano, as though she’d been in solitary for weeks and had to make up for lost time. Some of the most interesting people I’ve met on this trip have been homeless, and some of the kindest ones as well. As we prepared to leave, she brought over one thing after another, cigarettes for Brent, a sweater for me, food for Loki–it was a never-ending stream of gifts. As we pulled out, she wished us a safe trip. “Stay strong”, Brent replied, and I prayed she would.
Let it Be
July 26, 2019 – Victoria, B.C., Canada
Visiting relatives in Canada has given me time to rest, reflect, and just be. “Let it be” is something I’ve always aspired to, but never attained, so maybe it’s time to figure out why. Like many others, I grew up in a tumultuous household. My dad, no doubt unhappy with his life, stirred up whirlwinds of negativity wherever he went. Staunchly opinionated, quick to anger, and impossible to please, he’d quash any objections with a single word, “Nonsense.” If he couldn’t (or didn’t want to) answer our questions, he used a word he’d invented for that purpose, “entressman.”
But every situation has its moments of humor, and there are certainly some to be found in his behavior. A staunch atheist, he flew off the handle when I told him one day I wanted to go to church with my best friend, Nancy. He looked at me with that familiar scorn-filled expression. “They’ll fill your brain with rubbish,” he replied, but I went anyway. I’ve always been a rebel and his condemnation made me determined to go. Later, as I sat in that quiet, stifling place of worship, I wondered what all the fuss was about.
Shortly before leaving England, my dad decided to take us on a tour of Europe in his old 1942 Austin. Crossing the alps was our first ordeal. The car engine overheated, and we stopped often to cool it down as my father fumed. By the time we reached the top, the prized vehicle had become a noose around his neck and he couldn’t wait to get rid of “the bloody thing.”
Though he’d never admit it, my father was the stereotypical tourist, the type who is feared and despised by locals. Rather than make an embarrassing mistake, he’d resort to just about anything to avoid uttering a foreign word. On our trip, we stopped one night at an inn in rural Switzerland. We had just settled into our quaint little room, when the inevitable problem arose. “There’s no rubbish bin here. What kind of a civilized place is this?” (anything that didn’t fit my dad’s expectations could be classified as “uncivilized.”) A call to the front desk produced the maid, and he echoed his complaint, though it got him nowhere since she didn’t speak English.
My dad resorted to a rudimentary form of sign language, moving his right arm in an arc while gripping an invisible trash can with his left hand. It seemed to be working and the maid’s eyes lit up with renewed hope. She appeared minutes later with an object in her hand—a bottle of milk. Frustration darkened her face once more as she saw my father’s mounting anger. She returned with several different items, on the chance that one might work, until finally she hit upon the right one. Fortunately for her, we departed early the next morning.
Brent can’t join me in Canada—they have strict rules on admitting anyone with a DUI which is a felony up here. It’s possible to bypass, but it requires time and effort. My son can’t come here either, due to a 20-year-old felony conviction. He’s not a violent criminal, his conviction was for property damage in excess of $500—property damage perpetrated by his friend no less. It’s ironic that our so-called “justice” system commits so many injustices. Many of those charged, like my son, are forced into making plea bargain agreements which basically are admissions to crimes they haven’t committed—in other words, they’re lying in order to avoid the possibility of going to trial and getting convicted. For those unable to afford a “real” lawyer, there’s a strong possibility of conviction with public defenders who are overloaded with clients. But, as my son likes to point out, he got away with a lot during his teenage years, so maybe it was just karma coming back to haunt him.
I’ve been saying this for months, I know, but Arizona is getting closer every day. Brent will complete his 5-day work assignment on August 9th—then we’ll be free to leave. We’d like to sell some of our shells before that, so we have funds for our trip. After the 9th, we’ll head back to Joemma Beach for 10 days and hopefully sell stuff at the weekend swap meet. By the end of August, we should be out of here.
Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to work on “letting it be”—no drama, go with the flow, stay positive. My solution, up until now, has been flight—when the relationship won’t work, it’s easier to leave than work on my issues (not saying it’s all me, but I’ve certainly contributed.)
Arizona, here we come!
Personality…and then some
July 17, 2019 – Joemma Beach State Park, WA
We all inhabit multiple personalities. When I’m tired and hungry, I behave like my cat in Italy. She loves to sit on my lap while I stroke her gently, then suddenly, with no warning, decides she’s had enough and lashes out with her claws. When I’ve had a few too many glasses of wine, I become argumentative, and just one puff of weed is enough to turn the most mundane event into a hilarious comedy routine.
After five days without Lyrica (the drug he takes for fibromyalgia) Brent was able to get a refill, but I wasn’t prepared for what followed. Throughout his withdrawal Brent, though suffering, had been amazingly positive about the situation—no doubt, the copious intake of beer had something to do with that. This was a decidedly different man. Instead of staying up half the night polishing his rocks, he just wanted to relax in the tent, cuddle up, and watch movies before drifting off to sleep.
Within two hours after taking the first pill, I noticed a dramatic change. He morphed into the “caveman” Brent—limitless energy, limitless ego. The drug had pushed him in the opposite direction, but had taken it a little too far, and I began to wonder. Had I fallen in love with the passive, cuddly, kind Brent? I certainly wasn’t attracted to this one. The next few days were rough, as I tried to adapt. Overnight, our peaceful, loving relationship turned into a battleground, and my days were marked by anger and tears. How could a drug designed to block pain signals have such a powerful effect on someone’s personality? Was it really worth it, or should we have just let him go through his withdrawal and tried to find another solution for his pain?
The day after the first pill, we took off for Oregon to meet my Arizona friends, Karen and Dave. Fort Stevens, near Astoria Oregon, is the king of all state parks. With over 700 campsites packed close together, it’s anything but peaceful. Crowds of kids rode their bikes and skateboards up and down the road in front of our picnic table—parents screamed at them to slow down. We made the most of an awkward situation—we’d stepped into the middle of a mini family reunion, and my friend Karen was pulled in two directions. She hadn’t seen her son and grandkids for a long time, but she hadn’t seen much of me either, not for the last 10 years (we’ve been friends since our kids were small).
For the first couple of days, Karen and Dave spent their daytime hours with me and Brent. Dave and Brent got along well, with their mutual interest in fishing and rock hounding, so Karen and I had a lot of time to catch up on the past. However, by day three I could see there was tension brewing. Her son was offended that she hadn’t spent the day at the beach with them, so we decided to take off early and let them spend time with the family. Brent and I were still at odds, but we’d managed to conceal it, whispering angrily inside the truck after they’d gone to bed. We spent the next two days exploring Oregon and Washington, before returning to Joemma Beach.
But I can’t blame it all on Brent’s situation. He’s back to normal now, and I can see things more clearly. During this period of chaos, Brent commented that I enjoyed arguing, and I shrugged it off as a hostile remark. Later, as I lay in bed waiting for sleep to take over, I thought about his comment. As I looked back, one by one at my relationships, I saw that chaos had indeed been a pattern in my romantic life. Of the eight long-term relationships I’d had, I couldn’t think of a single one that wasn’t marred by arguments and emotional turmoil. I was always the one that broke things off—it was easier that way. The why’s were something I’d leave for another night—I was too tired to face them now.
Visiting my friends has made us all the more anxious to get to Arizona. The only thing holding us back now is Brent’s 5-day work assignment, which is dependent on recovery from his shoulder surgery, but we should be out of here by the end of August at the latest.
I can’t remember a recent summer that’s been as cool as this one, but I’m thankful it’s been dry and we’re not suffering from the 90-plus degree weather that has hit other parts of the country. The climate has been going crazy everywhere, though the Pacific Northwest has stayed pretty stable. No doubt that’s why it’s one of the fastest growing areas in the country right now. I can’t help but laugh when I read the arguments about climate change, whether it’s caused by humans or part of a natural cycle. It’s like arguing why the boat is sinking instead of taking the time to bail it out. There’s no doubt that the climate is changing, and we need to find ways to deal with it.
My friend is convinced that the “big one” will happen any day now, but I don’t worry about it. Anything can happen at any time, and I refuse to live in a state of fear. Maybe my longing for a permanent place to settle has something to do with the chaotic state of the world right now—it probably does. But I’ve done enough analyzing, and in the end, analysis doesn’t accomplish much. I’d prefer to work on coping—trying to keep a positive outlook, curb anxiety, adapt to change, and live in the present.
Yesterday, I stood by the picnic table, feeling drained from lack of sleep and overdose of emotion. Brent put his arms around me and held me close. As he was holding me, a voice rang out from the phone clutched in my hand, “I’m glad you liked it”, she said and we both smiled. “Hey Google” rarely gets it right, but this time she nailed it.
Crows, Moon Snails, and Love
July 9, 2019 – Penrose State Park, WA
This morning I woke to the loud squawking of crows. I’m sure they talk to each other and there are times when I think I understand them. According to all I’ve read, they’re intelligent creatures and experience tells me it’s true. A few weeks ago, we left an unopened bag of chips on the picnic table while we set off to do our beachcombing. I knew, as we headed back, that they’d found our stuff. When we approached the table, I heard the crow in the tree above us screech a warning. “They’re coming back… get out of there!” His friends, feasting on the bag of chips they’d managed to open, heeded the warning and took off flapping their wings.
For the fourth day in a row, Brent is not himself. I look into his eyes and I see he’s suffering. He doesn’t want to beachcomb, doesn’t want to work on his shells and rocks. Yesterday, when he woke up, the first thing on his mind was beer. When it ran out later that day, he crawled into bed. It’s not something I’m used to, and I hope I never have to deal with it again. For several years he’s been taking a drug called lyrica that was prescribed to treat his fibromyalgia. Suddenly, with no warning, the doctor refused to refill his prescription, saying the insurance company hadn’t approved it. You’re kidding, I thought to myself. July 4th weekend, and no way to resolve the situation until Monday.
Withdrawal set in quickly—sweating, lethargy, and pain. He’d changed from an active, go-getter, to a passive, lethargic shell of a man. All he wanted to do was drink and sleep. Yesterday he called his insurance company, and they said it had to do with changing his policy, but that was three months ago. It just didn’t make sense to me. On Sunday, we had to pack up camp since we’d reached our ten-day limit. Fortunately, we were moving just a few miles down the road, because all Brent could do was pick up a few things—the rest was up to me. The prescription should be filled in the next couple of days—meanwhile, we’ll have to deal with it.
The Fourth of July brought a hoard of campers to Joemma Beach, and every site was full. Across from us were Lamont, Misty, and their son Leo, whose face I rarely saw. When he wasn’t in the trailer, he sat huddled around the campfire, scarf pulled up over his face like something out of Star Wars. It was a yearly ritual for the couple, who come to Joemma every year for the Fourth. When they pulled in, Lamont came over to introduce himself and to buy one of the walking sticks Brent had made from driftwood.
The night before the Fourth, we sat around the fire with the couple, drinking beer and trading stories. Later, after one glass of wine too many, I got into a spat with Brent and Misty tried her best to patch things up. She put her arm around my shoulder as we walked together to the bathroom, trying to reassure me. “He really cares for you, you know. I can tell by the way he talked about you when you were gone.” (I was in Oregon visiting my daughter). “Lamont and I have been together for ten years now. We’ve had our ups and downs—still do. It’s not easy, but I guarantee if you stay with Brent it’ll be worth it.” We neared the campfire and she lowered her voice, conspiratorially. “Lamont and I fight like cats and dogs. One time I broke his arm and another time I messed up his kneecap. But it’s all good.” Holy shit, I thought to myself… and I thought I had problems. You don’t want to mess with this woman. Yep, we’ve met some interesting people in State Parks.
We’ve taken a temporary break from working on shell designs. It’s not worth getting everything out for three days, then putting it back again. Yesterday I beachcombed by myself—walked out on the sandbar that’s exposed during low tide. It’s impossible to see everything at once, the naked eye can only pick out so much among the jumble of rocks and shells. I try to zig-zag while looking for one specific thing, otherwise my brain goes crazy—kind of like life, there are a million things that can distract you along the way, but if you stay focused you’re more likely to find what you’re searching for. Yesterday it was moon snails, my favorites, and I found six of them.
There aren’t a lot of beachcombers, and they typically look for sand dollars, ignoring the moon snails since most are unaware they exist. Often the shells are covered with seaweed or disguised as rocks, but we can pick them out by their spiral shape and distinctive eyes. Even the fragments are beautiful—they break into unique shapes and the eye part, being the strongest, generally stays intact.
So here we are, waiting for Brent’s prescription to be filled so life can return to normal. But “normal” has changed. I can pinpoint the day I let down the walls. It was July 5th and I’d returned from visiting a friend. I realized how much I missed Brent, how much I loved him. For the longest time I resisted–the more I resisted, the more he pushed back. It was a silent (sometimes not so silent) battle, and I’m happy it’s over. In a couple of days we’re driving down to meet friends in Oregon, and I’m excited to bring Brent into my life.
July 2, 2019 – Newberg, OR
Synchronicity – the simultaneous occurrence of casually unrelated events and the belief that the simultaneity has meaning beyond mere coincidence. (Dictionary.com)
Synchronicity has been a huge force in my life—it’s the reason I ended up in Italy. In November of 1998, a windstorm blew through Western Washington, uprooting a huge evergreen tree and sending it crashing through my Whidbey Island home. I managed to escape through the bedroom window, but the entire front part of the house including the kitchen and living room, were destroyed. It was a catastrophic event, the first in a series of occurrences that would alter my life.
A week after the tree fell, I found an email in my in-box from an Italian named Diego. He’d stumbled across my personal web site, one that I’d just created, with stories and photos from my travels in Central America. How did he find it? He had a friend named Barbara and that day, December 4, was her Saint’s day. His plan was to send her a greeting. He searched Yahoo for the name “Barbara” to find her address, came across my web site, started reading, and was inspired to contact me. We began an email correspondence, met, and were immediately attracted to each other. I had no home (it was demolished), so I took the insurance money and moved to Italy.
Though I stayed with Diego for over 15 years, I can count on my fingers the number of times we travelled or hiked together. He was inextricably tied to his job, leaving the house at 5:30 in the morning and stumbling in at 8:30, so exhausted he would eat and go to bed. On the weekends, he wanted to hang out at the house. “I’m too tired” is a refrain that no doubt is embedded in the walls of our Italian home. I thought he was an adventurer like I was. His emails were full of stories about hiking, parasailing, travelling—had he suddenly changed? Was it something I’d done or not done? At least he didn’t object when I disappeared on weekends to hike with friends.
Brent has said from the beginning that “we met for a purpose”, though I’m still not sure what exactly that purpose is/was. Coincidentally, I met Brent in November of 2018, almost 20 years to the day after the tree fell on my house. I’m not normally in Washington State at that time of year—it’s cold, wet, and dreary—but things were a little “off” in Hawaii and I decided to come back for a bit. It was Emmy, my granddaughter, who brought us together, through her love of dogs and her outgoing nature. Why was Brent there? His campsite was in Auburn, a long way from Renton, but for some reason he decided that night to come to PetSmart in Renton to get food for Loki. Synchronicity?
Brent, like me, would be incapable of looking at the mountain top watchtower in front of my Italian home and not hiking up to see it. He loves adventure, lives for it. The “No Trespassing” signs don’t matter, they’re minor inconveniences. I’ve been exploring alone for years, and finally I have a travel buddy. Sure, we rub each other the wrong way sometimes—along with the positive traits, we share a lot of the bad ones. We both fight the effects of growing up in negative environments and what we criticize in each other are, ironically, the same things we secretly harbor in ourselves.
Did I say Brent was impulsive? The other day, at Joemma Beach, the strident sounds of a female voice drifted up from the parking lot below. “Get the fuck down here. What’s taking you so long?” A male voice from an adjacent campsite replied. “Be there in a bit. I’m getting my fishing stuff.” She persisted with the name calling, though it obviously wasn’t working. Then Brent chimed in. ”Hey, give him a break. He just wants to go fishing.” My stomach tightened as I turned to him. “Don’t get involved.” But for some reason, probably because fishing is the one thing he loves to do, he took it personally. “Give the guy a break,” he persisted, but she’d had enough. “Who the fuck is that up there?” I heard the sound of angry footsteps coming up the hill towards our campsite. Not one, but two young women appeared through the overgrowth, and they weren’t happy. Brent was sitting in his “man cave” polishing shells and the table was strewn with stuff he’d worked on. “Don’t be giving shit to my sister”, yelled the taller one and she lashed out with her foot, knocking over the table and its contents. Oh shit, I thought to myself. I hope Brent doesn’t lose it, but he didn’t.
As they both made their exit, he scooped up his stuff and recovered what he could. The boyfriend came down to apologize, though I thought Brent should have as well—getting involved only aggravated the situation. About ten minutes later the two girls came down—they’d morphed into contrite children. “I’m so sorry. I was just trying to protect my sister. Let me help you clean it up.” We hugged a few times, then they left.
We love Joemma Beach, despite all the drama, but we’re also anxious to leave. We’ll get that opportunity for a few days in July when we drive down to meet friends camped near Astoria, Oregon. Then, hopefully, in August, we’ll head out to Arizona. We’ll likely stop at Burning Man in Nevada on the way. I’ve always wanted to go, and now will be the perfect opportunity. Right now, I’ve momentarily stepped out of my vagabond life to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Newberg. It felt strange last night being surrounded by four walls. I felt claustrophobic, stifled, and I asked if we could open the windows to let in some air. It’s what I’m used to now.
They’ll be leaving to go to Italy at the end of August and I’ll really miss them. Their goal is to start a family, so it looks like I’ll be forever tied to that country, though that’s not a bad thing.
Freedom is a State of Mind
June 24, 2019 – Joemma State Park – Gig Harbor, WA
Yesterday morning, I savored my morning coffee, thinking to myself, you know, this is total freedom—no walls, no deadlines. It wasn’t the first time I’ve felt that way since we started our camping adventure five months earlier, but it was the first time I’ve said it and meant it so sincerely. We have a tent, but we no longer use it—except for sleeping in the truck, we spend all our time outside—no doors, no windows to lock. It helps that the weather has been atypically rain-free.
My musings were interrupted by noise coming from the outhouse just a short distance down the road. I heard fragments of conversation, “Holy shit” was the first one and it couldn’t have been more appropriate. Two young girls stood by the open door and the smell of raw sewage drifted down to our campsite. “I dropped my phone in the toilet,” she lamented. “I can see it. It’s sitting on a pile of poop.” “Are you sure?”, her girlfriend replied, reaching for her phone. “No, don’t call it, it might vibrate its way down.” I looked at Brent, trying to stifle my laughter, imagining her phone vibrating itself down to the bottom of a cesspool. Meanwhile, two guys had joined the group, while the girl discussed different options for getting the phone out, one of which included holding her boyfriend upside-down by his legs while he fished it out (no surprise that he nixed that one). They settled on calling the ranger, who sent out the poor maintenance man to do his dirty deed. A few minutes later, the cleanup guy emerged from the outhouse with the cell phone dangling on a stick. It was enclosed in a big plastic bag, as though it were a priceless specimen.
Little by little, we’re putting things in order. More than seven months after charges were filed against Brent for his involvement in a flight while camped out near the Green River, he was finally offered a plea bargain. In exchange for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge, he would be a free man. No more calling in every morning before 10:00 to report his whereabouts. There’s only one stipulation—he has to pay the other guy $500 for 5 days of lost wages. If it weren’t for the fact that the other guy was homeless like Brent, I’d say he deserved it, but hell—he wasn’t working at all at the time, so what wages did he lose? Brent doesn’t have the money, so he’ll have to schedule five days of work to earn it. I was thrilled at the outcome, but also perplexed. Why couldn’t they have offered the plea deal at one of the earlier hearings? Why did they waste taxpayers’ money to fly the other guy to Washington (he’d moved to another state) just to question him, when they could have done it over the phone? Why did the case have to drag on for so many months?
Initially I was thrilled that everything was over and a future in Arizona loomed closer than ever. Then I suffered a major meltdown. Things had been going smoothly until I rocked the boat and started a fight over next to nothing. For a couple of days, I lashed out at Brent and he was ready to call it quits. “I give up,” he exclaimed as he stomped off to take a walk. “There’s no pleasing you,” and he was right. There was no pleasing me, not then. I couldn’t understand why I was lashing out, but later I realized—it was the uncertainty of it all, the prospect of change. We’d been living this nomadic existence for over five months, just Brent and I, in a tent. Now we’d have to go back to living a normal life and, most of all, if we decided to stay together, I’d have to figure out how to integrate Brent into my life, and the prospect terrified me. Now I’ve settled down and feel ready to face whatever comes next.
The other day, we wandered down Joemma Beach looking for the “hippie shack.” A guy named Brad had told Brent there was a “hippie shack” not far down the beach, a place that was open to those who wanted to spend the night. “Just bring a couple of cans of food,” he said, “to replace the ones you use. It’s just past the dragon on the point.” We set off down the beach, past a sign that read “No Trespassing”, and ran into a group of guys harvesting for Taylor Shellfish, who apparently owned that part of the beach. The whole concept of “owning” part of the beach was ridiculous in my eyes. In Hawaii, all beaches belong to the State and anyone can walk on them. How can you “own” the beach and where does the ownership end? Where the ocean starts? At high tide or low tide?
The head of the crew approached us with a scowl, and I knew what was coming. “This is private property—no trespassing. Didn’t you see the sign?” Brent, being a good salesman, managed to talk the guy into letting us look for the cabin. In fact, by the end of the conversation, he was giving us a guided tour of the geoduck farm, on land rented by Taylor Shellfish. Geoducks (pronounced “gooey-ducks”” are large, phallic-looking shellfish that are prized as a delicacy in parts of Asia, and can be sold for $50 apiece when mature, but they take at least 10 years to reach that stage. They can grow up to three feet in length and live up to 150 years.
As we left the geoduck farm in search of the “hippie cabin”, I was hopeful, but confused. It seemed strange to me that it would be located on private land. We rounded the corner, and the cabin came into view. It did have a distinctly hippie aura—wind chimes made from driftwood, bright red door, but another “No Trespassing” sign hung over the entrance. I peered inside the glass. “This looks like someone’s house.” I turned to Brent and saw that he was as confused as I was. We left our two cans of food (just in case) and backtracked to the beach.
When we neared the campsite, I noticed a “Taylor Shellfish” truck parked on the boat ramp. An elderly man stood on the beach, hand on hips, but it took me a while to make the connection. Brent had been walking ahead of me and I wondered why he’d suddenly stopped. Then I realized—we were in trouble again. “I understand you were walking on our property. That’s private land, no trespassing.” We’d made friends with the Taylor guy earlier, and he’d ratted on us to his boss, but I guess that was his job—he’d be in trouble if he didn’t.
We managed to talk our way out of it once more. “Sorry, we didn’t know. This guy named Brad told us about a hippie cabin down the beach, a place people could spend the night, and we were just looking for it—we even brought a food offering and left it.” The boss looked at us like we were crazy, “Well, Brad doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. There haven’t been hippies on this beach for 30 years or more.” Wishful thinking, I guess, on our part. Maybe Brad was just pulling our leg, or maybe we had the wrong place. Who knows?
The hippie shack incident got me thinking once more about freedom, or rather the lack of it. Rules and regulations abound, and with the new REAL ID policy, our every move can be tracked. But, when you come down to it, freedom is nothing more than a state of mind. We can choose to worry or not to worry about something that could or couldn’t happen. When we live in fear—fear of being robbed, fear of traveling abroad—we limit our options. For me, it’s the fear of what others may think that hems me in, but I’m working on it. No, I won’t take off my clothes and jump into the Trevi Fountain anytime in the near future, but I’ll try my hardest not to please everyone because I know it’s futile—and I’ll try not to be so hard on myself, cause that’s another trap as well.
I often wonder, when I’m dead and gone, what my grandkids will say about me. “Oh yeah, that was my crazy grandma. She ran off to Italy to live with an Italian, then she ran off to live in a tent with a homeless guy.” Yeah, that about sums it up. Impetuous, adventurous. I may not always make the best decisions, but I live life to the fullest and try not to hurt anyone along the way.
Hard to be Hard
June 13, 2019 – Joemma State Park – Gig Harbor, WA
We’ve adopted Joemma Beach as our home base. It’s cheap, beautiful, and close to the places we love to beachcomb. Now, during high season, we’re allowed to stay for 10 consecutive days, then leave for at least three. For those few days, we move over to Penrose Point, just a few miles down the road. It’s a majestically forested park, but for the past couple of weeks the mosquitoes there have become unbearable. When they start attacking me, I know we’re in trouble. There are certain people, like Brent, whom mosquitos love to feast on (is it something in their blood, their sweat?) Fortunately, I’m not one of them, but the night before we left Penrose the little she-devils (only the females bite) were feasting on my blood as well.
Dash Point State Park, though conveniently located, has been crossed off our list for now. Phone service is spotty there since I switched from T-Mobile to AT&T and Brent’s phone doesn’t work well there either. But the fact that I have service now at Joemma and Penrose is a huge plus and worth the hassle of switching providers. When we need to be in Federal Way or Auburn early for Brent’s appointments, we spend the night down there, rather than rising at the crack of dawn and facing rush-hour traffic.
Aside from the mosquitos, Penrose Point is home to a large population of crafty raccoons. We thought we could outwit them by hanging our trash from a rope, but somehow they managed to rip the bag open and sift through its contents. The first night we let Loki sleep in the truck, figuring he’d be safer in there—I’d read that raccoons can be vicious. When he heard the invaders, Loki went crazy, jumping around the cab and scratching at the windows in a vain attempt to defend us. After that we tied him up outside, which was enough to keep them at bay.
In Dash Point it was the squirrels—good sized ones who were bold enough to creep in front of Loki in order to steal whatever they could find. Maybe it was my overworked imagination, but I swear they worked in pairs. One would distract us while the other would rush in and grab whatever he could. Not even the candy bars were safe. Chocolate bar wrappers on the ground attested to the fact that squirrels have a sweet tooth just like we do.
The day we left Dash Point, Loki took his revenge and lunged at one of the villains. I thought for sure the squirrel would escape, but not this time. He was dangling from Loki’s mouth and I prayed it was just a game and Loki would drop him. “Loki, stop. Put him down!”, we both yelled simultaneously. Loki glanced our way and dropped the fuzzy animal, but by then it was too late. The poor squirrel lay lifeless on the ground and Brent tossed him into the bushes. I felt guilty—guilty that we’d left food around and paved the way for his delinquent behavior, guilty that the other squirrel had lost his partner-in-crime.
How long will our campsite hopping continue? I have no idea—there are still too many unknowns. It’s not a question of having something to go “back to.” I can’t go back to where I was. There’s a reason why I left that life, a reason why I need a permanent place to call home. My nomadic existence worked for a while, the one where I spent the spring in Italy and the winters in Hawaii. Now I have no “home” in Italy. I’m selling my share of the house to my daughter and her husband. I love Italy and I’ll never give up visiting, but for now I can’t call it my home. As for Hawaii, it worked out fine staying with my son on a long-term basis, as long as I could help them out. When Eric owned the store, I worked there every day, helping him take care of the kids. For the rest of the year, I’d stay in the Pacific Northwest with friends and family. I loved that nomadic existence and I’m happy I got to spend so much time with my grandkids, but at the same time I was getting tired of living out of a suitcase.
Unfortunately, I can’t afford to live near my kids on my limited retirement income. Both Hawaii and Washington are ridiculously expensive. If I did have a home here in Washington, I wouldn’t be facing the dilemma I’m facing now. I could visit Italy, visit my family in Canada without having to worry about throwing Brent back on the street. There was a time, less than two weeks ago, when I had no qualms about leaving him to face his fate alone. He’d always been somewhat cocky and critical, but since the surgery his negative behavior had become unbearable. We argued just about every day over trivial things, and I’d threatened to leave several times.
Then, just like that, his demeanor changed from agitated to peaceful and calm. Maybe it was the pain medication, I thought to myself, my cynical brain at work. I couldn’t believe someone could change so radically overnight, so I asked Brent.
“It’s not the medication, it’s my mindset”, he replied.
I scrolled through my phone messages, trying to determine when the light switch had flipped in his brain. It was the night I’d run (as I’m prone to doing) to my son’s house to spend the night following a particularly nasty argument. The next morning, he messaged me: “Had to tell you that I’m sorry. I’m so hard I need to let up a lot and I know it.” That was it, the key word, “hard.” That shell was the homeless Brent’s way of protecting himself from the scammers, the hardships of living on the street—it had turned him negative and cynical. It was that protective shell he’d finally dropped and he’d become so much softer. I hope it’s permanent.
Over the next few days, I searched for signs he’d revert to his old behavior—I’d semi-sub-consciously test him, throw out things that before would have set him off, and he passed the test every time. In fact, I had suddenly become the aggressor and he the pacifier, de-fusing the situation before it veered out of control.
We haven’t argued since then and “hard” has taken on new meaning. How can I be hard on someone who is treating me with love and kindness? How can I throw Brent back on the streets like a stray dog? If I were a kind and understanding person, I tell myself, I wouldn’t think of doing something so “hard”, even before, when his behavior was “hardly” civilized. My feelings have grown for the new, softer Brent and life has become harder in a different way. I should go to Italy, but what about my partner? He’ll survive on the street for a month, I have no doubt about that, but will he revert to the “harder” Brent?
If I can stay positive, I’m sure I’ll figure things out. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying this amazing summer weather, and working on my mindset. If Brent can do it, I can too.
June 6, 2019 – Joemma State Park – Gig Harbor, WA
Last weekend’s Memorial Day fiasco lingered like a bad hangover. The stress of our camping mishaps, combined with Brent’s painful surgery, left us on edge for a few days and brought out the worst in both of us. We fought over trivial stuff like why we shouldn’t buy a big jar of salsa, or whether we could afford to buy urethane to paint our sand dollars. At one point, Brent got so nasty that I took off and spent the night at my son’s house. I came back the next day and things were good for a bit, but 24-hours later we were at it once more. I’d planned on going to visit again that weekend, and Brent wanted me to drop him off at Walmart so he could try to sell some of his shell creations. “Don’t worry, I’ll Uber it back to the campsite. It won’t cost more than $10 or so.”
It wasn’t until he reached the store that he actually checked the price—turns out “or so” was $30-$40 for a 26-mile Uber ride. By then, I was fed up with his negative attitude. He’d criticized me non-stop all the way to the store, and I just wanted to leave. I loaned him half the money he needed for the ride, figuring he’d earn the rest with his sales (he’s a good salesman). He’d have to work his way out of this one.
Though it was Saturday, traffic was a mess. About two-thirds of the way to Renton, I glanced over and noticed Brent’s cell phone dangling from the charger. Damn it, I thought to myself. Not only would I have no way to contact him, but he’d be unable to make his CCAP call in the morning. One of the requirements, as part of his jail release back in February, was calling in every morning before 10:00. Under normal circumstances, I would have turned around and brought him the phone, but would I be doing him any favors? Wouldn’t that just enable his irresponsible behavior?
My phone rang—it was an unknown number, but I knew right away who it was. “Is my phone in the car,” Brent asked.
“Yes,” I replied. “Can you make it back to the campsite? I’ll drop it off tomorrow morning.” I’d planned to visit my friend the following day to pick up my new debit card, but now I’d have to go back in the morning, and I wasn’t happy about it. Neither was Brent, judging by the exasperated sigh that followed his answer, “No.”
The next morning I drove back, still pissed that I’d had to shorten my stay. When I reached the campsite, there was no sign of Brent. The foam pads and sleeping bags lay in a pile in front of the trailer, and I knew he hadn’t made it back that night. Where was he and how the hell would I find him without a phone? I got in the truck and headed back towards the Port Orchard Walmart, the last place I’d seen him. Two minutes later, my cell phone rang—another unknown caller. “Can you please give me the CCAP number. I only have 20 minutes left to make my call.” Brent sounded stressed and I fumbled to get the number.
I could have stayed longer, I thought to myself, now that I knew he’d made the call. I need to quit babying him and let him handle the fallout of his actions. I knew now that he could be responsible, even without my help and I wasn’t doing him any favors by always bailing him out. When I reached Walmart, he was sitting in a grassy patch of sunshine over in the “homeless” area where we’d camped out a few nights earlier. Next to him was a newfound friend who went by the nickname “Lucifer.” His long, grey hair, unkempt beard, and leathery-brown skin testified to the fact that he’d been living outdoors for some time, and his beautiful husky-shepherd mix dog lay unleashed next to him. He’d already made friends with Loki.
Like many homeless folks I’d met, there was a grain of truth behind his crazy-sounding stories. “There’s two groups that control this world, the Catholics and the Corporations.” He quoted from the Bible to support his theory, then pointed to a man nearby, sitting on a curb. “I don’t have to sit over there and hold up a sign. I can make $40 a day just sitting here ‘cause everyone knows me. One time this guy drove past in his car and handed me a big, fat envelope. I opened it up and it was all hundred-dollar bills. When I counted out the money it came to ten-thousand dollars. Can you believe it?” Could I? I’m not sure.
Turns out Brent had slept on the ground with Loki that night. He’d befriended another homeless man, sharing his bottle of whiskey to ease the pain. That guy had some stories to tell as well—like the time someone pushed him off the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Yes, he claimed he’d been shoved off a bridge that sits about 300 feet (or 28 stories) over the water. It was a windy day, as it normally is in that area, and the guy spread his arms out as he fell head-first into the water. Claims he was picked up by a nearby boat, but I’m not sure if I believe that story either. Maybe I’m too cynical? Did I feel bad that Brent had spent the night on the ground? Yes, I did, but it wasn’t the first time that Brent he’d acted impetuously and I felt it was time he faced some consequences.
Hypocritical, many would say since I’m about as impetuous as you can get. The past few months have given me an opportunity to look inside myself, analyze my behavior. When things go wrong, more often than not I switch into flight mode. There was the time many years ago when my ex was making life difficult. He’d re-married and suddenly sued me for child support despite the fact that I was the sole provider for my two older kids (he’d taken the two younger kids and promised I could see them whenever I wanted since at that time there was no such thing as joint custody in Washington State.) I fought him in court and got the support drastically reduced, but I was furious I couldn’t see my kids when I wanted. So what did I do? I made matters worse by taking off to Florida to join my boyfriend at the time. Three months later I returned to Seattle. I couldn’t handle being so far away from them.
I realize I’m not the easiest person to be in a relationship with. Besides my rash behavior, I’m headstrong, independent, hyper-sensitive, and emotional, not to mention slightly cynical. None of these attributes are conducive to a long-lasting romance. And what’s the first thing I do when Brent and I go at it? I threaten to leave. No wonder he feels like he’s walking on eggshells. “You’re always telling me what to do”, is something I’ve heard from more than one of my exes, so maybe I should look at my behavior next time instead of running.
No matter how it all ends, I wouldn’t have missed this experience for the world. It has taught me so much and made me a stronger person. But there will come a time when I have to return to the “other” world and that time will come soon. My daughter and son-in-law are going back to Italy to live in August. Lia lived in Italy for half her life and she’s told me many times that she feels more Italian than American. They’re going to live on Colle Fagiano (Pheasant Hill), in the beautiful home that Diego and I created but no longer inhabit. I need to go through all of my things, decide what I want to keep, then mail them back to the States. I have to close my Italian bank account and transfer my Italian pension to my U.S. bank.
So, I have some decisions to make. I can’t afford the plane ticket and I won’t be able to support Brent financially when I’m gone, nor do I have a home for him to stay in. What will he do? Most likely he’ll go back to Ray of Hope, the homeless shelter that housed him before he went out to camp on his own.
We’ll regroup in September and head off to Arizona. I’ve loved this experience, but I’m ready to settle down. For the past few days, Brent has been wonderfully kind and patient. I could be cynical and say it’s because he knows I’m leaving, but I’d prefer to stay positive (something else I’m working on) and say it’s because we’re both pulling back, examining our behavior, and making changes for the better.
May 29, 2019 – Joemma State Park – Gig Harbor, WA
Recovering from major surgery is trying, even under normal circumstances. When you’re living in a tent, and the stars line up against you, it’s next to impossible. We’d planned on being in one place so that Brent could recuperate, but things didn’t work out that way.
Day 1 (Thursday) – The Surgery
We set off for the clinic at 8:00 am—he’d never admit it, but I could tell Brent was nervous by the cloud of silence hanging over us in the car. I thought we’d be out of there before midday since his rotator cuff surgery was scheduled to take no more than two hours, but with prep time and recovery, we didn’t leave until after 3:00 pm.
Brent was surprisingly lucid considering he was only two hours out of surgery. Everything had gone smoothly with one exception. “They told me I had an irregular heartbeat when I was under—wanted me to stay overnight, but there’s no way I’m staying.” His heartbeat was normal now, but I was concerned, nonetheless. “Maybe it has something to do with your sleep apnea.” I wanted to believe that was the case, but who knows? I’d expected to see his shoulder and upper arm encased in plaster; instead it was supported by a cushioned sling and straps which passed over the opposite shoulder and around his waist. Damn, I thought to myself. This is going to make things tricky. With so much freedom of movement, how do I stop him from using his left arm?
The last thing we’d planned on doing was changing campsites the next day, but we had no choice. We decided on Saltwater State Park which was a short distance away. According to a friend, there were primitive sites available for $12 a night on a first-come first-served basis.
Day 2 (Friday) – On the Move
Brent had packed most of our stuff in the trailer the night before his surgery, though he still needed to hitch and unhitch the trailer. There was no avoiding that chore, the hitch was way too heavy for me to manage. We rolled into Saltwater State Park around 2:00 pm, the earliest time we could check in, only to find out that there were a meager 22 sites available and they were reservation-only. It was a beautiful spot to camp, with only one drawback—the sites lay directly under the flight path of Seatac Airport. Never mind, we’d only be there for a few days, we thought.
The young woman at the ranger station greeted us with a big smile. “Do you have a campsite available for 3 days?”, I asked hopefully.
“We only have two open right now. Drive around, pick out the one you want and let me know. You can only pay for one night, though. For the other two you’ll have to call the park reservation line.” We picked out number 10, unhitched the trailer, then called to reserve the remaining days. “Sorry, but the site is taken on Saturday and Sunday,” he replied.
I could see Brent was already tired, but he pulled himself together. “It doesn’t make sense to stay here for one night, then leave. Let’s drive up to Joemma.” Joemma Beach State Park didn’t accept reservations and wasn’t even on the official list of State Parks, so we figured they’d have room for us, but we figured wrong. After the 90-minute drive, we pulled up to a big sign that read “campsite full”, and my heart sank. “Ok, let’s try Penrose Point. They’ve got over 80 campsites—they should have something available.” Ten minutes later we pulled up to the ranger station. I’d never seen the place so full, teeming with vacationers, kids riding bikes, trailers and tents. I expected the words before I heard them, “Sorry, but everything’s full through the weekend.”
We were both at the point of exhaustion and I felt homeless in a way I’d never felt before. We literally had no place to go. I wanted to fold down into my seat and cry, but I couldn’t. I knew that Brent felt worse than I did, and I had to stay strong. “Let’s go to Walmart,” he said. What the hell was he talking about? We need a place to sleep and he wants to go shopping at Walmart?
If you’ve ever passed through the parking lot of a Walmart Superstore at dusk, you may have noticed lots of cars parked in the remote lot over to the side of the store. On any given evening, I’d estimate that up to 80% of those cars are there for the night. Blankets covering car windows were a sure sign that nobody was in Walmart doing their shopping that night. A few RV’s and several trailers had pulled over on the outer edge of the lot. While Walmart doesn’t invite homeless folks to spend the night in their parking lot, they won’t kick you out either. They’re open 24-hours a day, which means there’s always a bathroom available. Despite the ever-present lights in the lot, I slept soundly that night. At least we wouldn’t have to unhitch the trailer—less work for Brent.
Day 3 (Saturday) – The Call of the Wilderness:
By Monday, Memorial Day visitors would begin to trickle home, but we had no desire to spend the next two days sleeping outside Walmart. I noticed Brent was engrossed in his phone, a rarity for him. “I just downloaded this app. It shows all the places you can camp for free.” He pointed to some dots on the screen that were clustered together. “There’s some spots over here near the Olympic National Forest where you can pull over for the night. I bet they’re really pretty.”
We pulled out of the Walmart parking area around noon, heading up the coast along the Hood Canal, an area I’d never explored before. Under normal circumstances I would have been excited, but Brent had already been using his shoulder more than he should have and I was worried he’d reverse all that had been mended. Following a two-hour drive, I pulled off the main highway onto a dirt road, SR #24. The gravel road was in decent shape, but we hit several large (unavoidable) potholes which no doubt aggravated the pain Brent was feeling.
We made it to a dead-end pullout late in the afternoon. The view was magnificent—rolling, forested hills surrounded the winding Hood Canal below. The site itself was barren. It had been stripped of trees who knows when and, except for the birds, wildlife was non-existent, but we agreed it was a nice place to spend a night or two.
“We should turn the trailer around, so we’re ready to leave when we want.” Brent was already trying to figure out how he’d accomplish this feat. There wasn’t a lot of turnaround space. His first idea was to unhitch the trailer and pull it around by hand, but he couldn’t manage to unhitch it and I didn’t want him to hurt his shoulder even more. What we didn’t realize at the time was that he’d forgotten to remove the pin from the hitch, so of course it wouldn’t release. Otherwise, we’d never have attempted what we ended up doing—backing it up with the truck and reversing it.
Brent carefully cased out the dead-end road where we’d parked. There was a substantial graveled area, but only a small part of it was level. The remainder sloped slightly downwards toward the vista below. Slowly and carefully he pushed the trailer back with the truck, trying to free up enough space to turn it around. At a certain point, the gravel thinned and the truck, with trailer attached, began to slip sideways. Brent stopped and got out to free up the trailer, which by now sat above the truck—he figured he’d have a better chanced of getting the truck out without the extra load to pull. But the truck was sitting on a pile of bark and loose soil. The more he accelerated, the further down it slipped. We were really stuck now. We were both exhausted. Tired and cranky, we went to bed early, sleeping in the back of the sideways-facing truck. Brent had jacked it up a bit so it wouldn’t be quite so slanted, but we rolled into each other nonetheless.
Day 4 (Sunday) – More Bumps in the Road:
I should have been enjoying the incredible view that morning, but all I could think about was how we were going to get out of this predicament. We didn’t have much water, though we were in no danger of dying of thirst—it was less than a two-mile walk to civilization. “I think we can get the truck out”, Brent said, as I tried to figure out how he would accomplish this miraculous feat with one good arm. “We just need to build a road.” It sounded impossible, but Brent isn’t one to give up. We could have called a tow truck, but it was the worst possible time to get help, Memorial Day weekend, and neither of us wanted to sleep sideways on a hill for two days.
That day I scooped up I don’t know how many buckets of gravel while Brent shoveled out piles of loose bark around the tires with his good hand, trying to level things out and get down to solid soil. He jacked up the rear tires, placed gravel underneath, then put more gravel in front of and behind all the tires.
Dusk had already crept in as Brent got into the truck and made his first attempt to get it out. Betsy (our truck has a name) rocked and rolled and her tires gripped for a bit, long enough to swivel the vehicle around 90 degrees. Her tires dug themselves into a rut and it was obvious she was done for the night. At least she was now facing forwards. We crawled, exhausted into the back of the truck. This time we were slipping downwards as we slept—by morning our blankets were halfway out on the ground.
Day 5 (Monday) – Freedom (at a Price):
I woke up at 5:00 on Monday to a gorgeous sunrise and paused long enough to take some photos. I wanted to get back under the covers, but there was too much on my mind, so I brewed up some coffee and waited for Brent to wake up. Our conversation by now was pretty much limited to the task at hand. We were both too exhausted for small talk and Brent had run out of weed, which had played a big part in alleviating his pain (aspirin wasn’t doing it and they’d given him only a few pain pills).
We returned to the task of digging, gathering gravel, and distributing it around the tires. My hands were sore, my back was sore, but I couldn’t stop now. The truck was almost out, and so was our water. After about six loads, we decided to make another stab at getting Betsy unstuck. Brent got in and I held my breath. She rocked and rolled, then the tires skidded like hell, creating a ditch. Just when I was sure she’d lose it again, she grabbed the embankment one last time and managed to free herself from the rut she was in. Slowly, surely, she inched up the hill, finally getting to the top. We’d done it!
We loaded up the trailer and hitched it to the truck. I got into the driver’s seat and headed down the dirt road, feeling like every ounce of energy had been sucked from my body. I could only imagine what Brent was feeling, but at least we were free. We had something to look forward to and, best of all, there’d finally be available campsites.
Brent noticed my yawns. “Don’t worry. Once we get there you can take a nap.” I headed up the hill towards the T-junction and about halfway up I felt the truck slow down. Instinctively, I reached for the gear shift to shift it down, then realized there was no “down.” I was already in first gear. I sat there helplessly as we slowed to a crawl, then stopped. Brent wasn’t happy. “You should have given it more speed”, he chastised me. Yep, I should have, I thought to myself, but it would’ve been nice if you’d told me that a couple of minutes ago before we got to the hill.
“Let me drive.” Brent got into the driver’s seat and tried to back up, but the trailer wouldn’t cooperate. It was teetering on the edge of a ditch, so he turned off the engine. “We’re done,” he said, and I knew we were in trouble. At that point we had two options. We could drive into town and look for someone with a big truck who could tow us up the hill, or we could unload the trailer, drive it up the hill, then carry all the stuff up and reload the trailer. We opted for the former—we were both exhausted. We drove back to civilization, but couldn’t find anyone to help us, so we turned around and headed back to the stranded trailer, resigned to spending another night on the ridge. We parked and Brent fell asleep in the driver’s seat.
Tuesday the 28th, was Brent’s birthday, and I’d be damned if he’d wake up to a stuck trailer. I needed to do something. A quarter mile down the road was a makeshift shooting range and we’d passed 3 guys who’d opted to spend Memorial Day target shooting. “Excuse me.” I shouted as loud as I could, hoping to get their attention through the earplugs they were wearing. “Do you think you could help us out for a bit. We’re stuck down there where the road turns and we need some help getting our trailer out. My boyfriend just had surgery and we can’t do it by ourselves.” They agreed to help, though they’d driven for miles to find a place to shoot and I could see they weren’t happy about the idea.
We unloaded the trailer together and they helped Brent hitch it up and get it to the top of the hill. Then they left. I hate to criticize anyone who has offered to help, but in this case I will. They had a car and they could have easily driven all the unloaded stuff back up the hill to the trailer, but they wanted to get back to their target shooting so we did it alone. Little by little I dragged the stuff up the hill and Brent loaded the trailer. Something that could have taken 15 minutes with a car ended up taking an hour and a half.
Finally, we were on the road! Brent passed out in the passenger seat and I got us to Joemma Beach State Park which by now was almost empty. After two nights of sound sleep, I’m starting to regain my energy. Brent is smiling again and, despite his shoulder, is happily working on staining the wood siding of the trailer. I can’t wait to hear the story he concocts for the doctor at his upcoming his Post-Op visit. “Yep. I took it easy—put ice packs on my shoulder, didn’t use it, kept it clean.”
Where the Heart Is
May 23, 2019 – Dash Point State Park – Federal Way, WA
In a scene from the movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, the Black Knight with no arms left after battle proudly proclaims, “It’s just a flesh wound.” That’s Brent in a nutshell. He suffers from the effects of old sports injuries, fibromyalgia, and years of “who gives a shit” behavior, but he pushes through the pain like no one I know. Aside from occasional exclamations of ”ouch” when he twists something the wrong way, you wouldn’t guess he was hurting.
We’re back at Dash Point, not because it’s our favorite campground, but because it’s close to civilization. Brent is scheduled to undergo surgery tomorrow morning for his torn rotator cuff. It’s outpatient surgery and pretty routine, but I’m more concerned about the after-effects. Who’s going to load up the heavy stuff, hitch up the trailer when we change campsites every 10 days? Like he said today, “It’s going to require teamwork—no time for arguing.” Easy to say, but I see endless possibilities for conflict. Four to six weeks of healing loom on the horizon, and the man does not follow doctor’s orders. He’s going to hate not being able to do the things he normally does—how will he handle my efforts to rein him in when he tries to do them anyway? I see endless possibilities for arguments, but I can’t dwell on them and stay sane. As Brent likes to say, “one step at a time.”
The fact that we’re living in a tent doesn’t exclude us from the ups and downs of daily life—it’s just a different sort of roller coaster. A few days ago, at Joemma Beach, we thought we’d lost Loki. He loves to run, so we occasionally let him off the leash while beachcombing. That day we both wandered off a long way down the beach and were so engrossed in finding treasures we forgot about our husky. Normally when that happens, we find him back at the campsite which is walking distance from the beach, but this time there was no Loki and we panicked. After 20 minutes of shouting his name to no avail, I headed back down to the beach to look for him, then noticed a message on my phone. I couldn’t access my voicemail since I had little or no reception, but I did have internet access so I Skype’d into my voicemail to check.
“Hi, my name’s John Casey. I think I found your dog down on the beach. I’ll hold on to him for a bit, then… anyway, give me a call.” Great, I had a dysfunctional phone and he hadn’t left a number. Not only that, but because I didn’t have good cell phone service, there was no missed call showing the number. And what did he mean by “then”? Then he’d take him to the shelter? Then he’d let him go again to find his way back? Then he’d take him home and keep him? My mind raced with all the unpleasant possibilities. As I walked back up to the campsite, I realized there was only one option—we needed to drive to a place where I had phone service in case John tried to call.
Brent was stressed, I was stressed. He’d almost lost Loki a few times when he was homeless, and I couldn’t believe it was happening again. We drove about 20 minutes until the phone worked, then pulled over to the side of the road and waited. No calls. There has to be a way to find the number, I thought to myself, dialing voicemail again. This time I selected #6, advanced options. #5 on advanced options was “header information”. I punched 5 and finally I was able to retrieve the number. At least we didn’t need to sit any longer on the side of the road. I sent John a message with Brent’s phone number (his phone works at the campsite) and we drove back to our site. On the way, his phone rang. We both jumped, but in the rush to answer it Brent knocked it on the floor. By the time we got to it, it had stopped ringing. Shit, I mumbled to myself, as Brent grabbed the phone and called John back. Finally, we made a connection. It was a local kid and he’d drive Loki over in a few minutes. The car pulled up and Loki jumped down, overjoyed but slightly puzzled. Like a kid who’d wandered off to have some fun, he wondered what all the fuss was about and why he’d taken such a roundabout route to get back to the campsite.
One of the most frustrating things about camping out is constantly looking for things that we need. It’s not that there aren’t places to put stuff, it’s that the places continually change. We’re not using the tent right now since the weather is nice—we string a tarp up over the picnic table to protect our food items, then sleep in the back of the pickup. As a result, things that we normally put in the tent had to be relocated. Not to mention the fact that we’re both kind of spaced out when it comes to remembering where we put things. My mind races a mile a minute and I’m often thinking about something completely different when I put things away.
But that’s no excuse for losing my ATM card. It’s always in my wallet, but I looked for it the other day and it wasn’t there. It’s not the first time I’ve lost it, but it’s a lot more inconvenient when you’re camping. I tried to blame it on the ATM—generally they spit your card out before dispensing your money, but this one (like the time before) had done things backwards. I was so excited to retrieve my $50 that I forgot about the damn card.
I was thinking the other day how nice it would have been to do this 200 years ago. Sure, there were many more things to fear—wild animals, disease, early death—but the payoff was total freedom. You didn’t need a building permit to construct a house, a fishing license to catch trout, a hunting license to shoot your food, a license to drive your car, a license to register your dog. You didn’t have to follow your four-legged friend around with a plastic bag, you could just let him poop in the meadow. You can’t even use a metal detector anymore without a license. But one thing we’ve been doing for thousands of years is sitting around a campfire.
I would love to have seen this country when it was teeming with wildlife, when buffalos roamed the prairies and the air was so clean you could see for miles. But, despite all the roads, all the people, there are places that remain to be discovered even today. On a tour of the Olympic Peninsula, we pulled onto a dirt road in the middle of nowhere to rest a bit and stretch our legs. We strolled down the road with Loki and found a hidden paradise—two huge holes formed by mining excavations had filled with rainwater. They sat there sparkling like turquoise gems in the sunlight, surrounded by bright yellow scotch broom. Best of all, I had someone to share in the magic, someone who likes to explore as I do.
If I died tomorrow. I’d have no regrets. I don’t have a lot of money, but my life has been filled with riches. I’ve seen the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, the great pyramids of Egypt, the rolling hills of Scotland and Ireland.
My experience with homelessness has taught me the importance of friends and family. So many people on the streets are there because they have no one to fall back on. I’m fortunate to have friends and family—having someone to love makes all the difference. I hope that I’ve made a difference in Brent’s life, given him a chance to start over.
Yesterday he sat in a chair, eyes fixed on a piece of driftwood, slowly and carefully burning out the letters, “Home is where the heart is.” I thought he was making it to sell, but I was wrong. He finished the last letter, walked over to the trailer, and nailed the driftwood to the front panel where everyone could see it. “What do you think?”, he asked proudly.
May 14, 2019 – Joemma Beach State Park near Gig Harbor, WA
“The tent fell down.” As I groggily opened my eyes to the sound of Brent’s voice, I noticed the night sky was no longer visible through the mesh above me. How could we both have slept through the collapse of our home? I reached up with my right arm and felt the tent fabric just inches above my face. Shit, what now, I thought to myself. I remembered telling Brent that evening as we sat around the fire that we needed to tie Loki up in a different spot—he’d almost pulled the tent down the night before and it looked like he’d finally succeeded. Brent was already outside the tent declaring pessimistically that it was beyond repair.
I fumbled my way to the door and looked at the damage—the two poles near the door had snapped off. It didn’t look good—a fitting end to a weird night. One of the strangest sounds I’d ever heard had kept me awake that evening, shivering under the covers. A high-pitched animal noise (I’m assuming it was an animal, it didn’t sound human) went on for a good ten minutes. “Did you hear that noise? What was that?” I woke Brent up, needing reassurance from someone who knew just about every animal noise there was. He agreed it was odd, then went back to sleep.
It hasn’t always been easy, this tent life. There have been times, usually following one of our arguments, that I’ve threatened to walk out on Brent, go back to my old life. I’m not used to spending this much time with anyone, never mind with a man who is as stubborn, sensitive, and opinionated as me. I jumped into Brent’s world, not knowing if we could form a relationship, but hoping we could, and it’s been a rocky road. When things get bad I tell myself, Isn’t this something you’ve always wanted, someone to share your life with? I’ve had many relationships, but few have involved shared adventures. With Diego in Italy, it was the house that kept us together. We worked on projects, tiling the porch table, building the mandan hut. But he didn’t understand the value of shared time. He was so caught up in earning money to support those around him, that he forgot how to enjoy life—it was the ultimate sacrifice, one that eventually destroyed us.
But Brent is different. He’s slowly evolving from that homeless mentality—he no longer threatens to panhandle when money gets scarce. It’s a two-sided evolution, one that affects me as well. In the beginning my brain flipped back and forth like a light switch. One day I’d see him as “homeless Brent”, the man who couldn’t keep it together, couldn’t adjust to living a “normal” lifestyle, relying on weed to alleviate his chronic pain. The next day the switch would flip up. I’d see the man whose talents were endless, who could build something from nothing, fix our computers, make me laugh so hard I was literally crying, someone who had never known what homeless meant. As time passed, the switch stayed up longer than down, and I realized that the “homeless” Brent had its positive sides as well. His resourcefulness has helped us survive when money is scarce. He knows where to find pallets to stoke our fires, how to build a shelter from nothing.
I’ve lived in Washington for many years, but every day I’m discovering new and beautiful places. It’s one of the best parts of this journey. If you search for state parks on the internet, you’ll see a list of the biggest and most popular places—the smaller ones don’t appear. If it weren’t for the road signs, I wouldn’t have found Joemma Beach State Park. It attracts mostly day visitors, coming to enjoy its long stretch of beaches, fishing, and boating. There are 20-some campsites here—ours has a peek-a-boo view of the water, lots of room for the car and tent, and majestic evergreens. Best of all, it’s considered a primitive site, so it costs only $12 a night. There are no showers here so heating up water and taking a sponge bath is the only option. But we are free to use showers at any of the other state parks, which we did the other day. Across from our site is a glorified porta-potty, but I don’t give a shit (no pun intended). I’m happy I no longer have to make a long trek to pee at night.
As we adjust to this life, we’ve been scaling down, especially when it comes to basic “necessities”. When we started this trip in February, our sites included showers, power outlets for our heaters, and running water. The first thing we gave up were the power outlets—once the below-freezing weather ended we figured we could endure the tent with no heaters. Then we moved to Penrose Point—incredibly beautiful, but no showers. We still have running water—couldn’t do without that, and we invested in an inverter so we can power small devices using the car battery and work on our craft projects.
Not so long ago, just a few seconds in the span of human evolution, we lived like this, without all the frills, but ask anyone today if they’d be willing to stay for even a week at a campsite with no showers and you’d likely get a resounding “no”. But it’s worth thinking about—what would you be willing to give up if you had to scale down? Would you be willing to give up the dishwasher, the clothes dryer? These are the first items I relinquished when I moved to Italy and I didn’t miss them. The weather was nice enough most of the year to dry clothes outdoors—when it rained, we pulled the clothes rack inside and fired up the woodstove. It was primitive living compared to what most people experience. Our bedroom under the porch used to be a cantina (where wine-making equipment was stored) and wasn’t connected to the main house. Waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom entailed a small trek from the bedroom to the house. Though the porch roof shielded me from the rain, I shivered in the winter. We had no automatic water pump, just a manual one that cost about 100 euros and served us for 15 years. Sure, we had to flip a switch to turn it on and get water pressure, but it was no big deal.
I’m used to living without, but I do need a working phone and I need internet access, things that didn’t exist a hundred years ago. I have spotty phone service here at Joemma, and that’s an issue for me. The phone is my lifeline, it’s how I keep in touch with friends and family—without it I feel lost. So that situation will need to be remedied, even if it means changing providers. And of course I require internet access to publish my blog. Fortunately, there are libraries everywhere with free internet, so that’s not a problem. Most of all, I need a vehicle. Without one there is no way for us to get around, not to mention carry the things we’ve been accumulating for our craft projects.
People think I’m “tough” for doing this—others may call me crazy, but I don’t see it that way. It’s true that most people my age (I’m 68) would never conceive of voluntarily living in a tent and, if you’d asked me a year ago whether I could do it, I’d likely have said no. But I am doing it and not only am I surviving, I’m thriving. It helps that I’m in excellent health (no meds) and very active. That doesn’t mean I’ll do this for the rest of my life. I still want to create that home base, a place to store my things, a place to take off from.
My body is aging and I’m not as active as I used to be, but my body is only the superficial part of “me”. In my heart and in my soul I’m still that 12-year old girl who lay in bed at night with her fingers on the radio dial, moving through the static, trying to find the furthest of places, and imagining what life was like on the other side.
May 3, 2019 – Penrose Point State Park, Gig Harbor, WA
I’m happy to be back at Penrose Point. What it lacks in convenience is more than made up for by Its soaring, old-growth trees and abundance of wildlife. Aside from the campground host, we’re the only campers occupying this 20-site area, most likely because showers aren’t operational until the middle of May. There are lots of beautiful trails to hike here, and an abundance of oysters and clams to harvest. We’ve been gathering sand dollars and shells, cleaning and finishing them to help finance our trip to Arizona.
The day before we left Dash Point, I pulled into the campground and was startled by a flashing light in my rearview mirror. Ranger Danger exited his vehicle and strode over to the driver’s side of the car, leaving the light brazenly flashing so all the campers would be aware of my dastardly act. Since Brent had already informed me of the nature of my mistake (he loves to do that), I was prepared for what followed. “You might be wondering why I pulled you over. You didn’t stop at the stop sign.” Well, I’ve never stopped at that stop sign, but I guess I should have done so when I saw the ranger parked on the side of the entrance road. Since the sign is directly in front of another one reading “Stop at the booth to register,” I figured I didn’t need to stop when there was no ranger there (in the booth, I mean). I put on my meek face and apologized, hoping to pacify him, and it seemed to work. “I could give you a ticket, but I’ll let you off with a warning this time.”
Later that night as we sat around the fire, I concocted a different scenario for the stop sign incident. “Instead of apologizing, I should have put my foot on the accelerator and taken off. Can you imagine us driving in circles around the campground pursued by Ranger Danger with his flashing lights? It would’ve been the talk of the campground for years to come.” Even before the stop sign incident, we were on the rangers’ radar, since Brent likes to do naughty things like plug his power saw into the adjacent overflow outlet so he can work on the truck. It’s not that we don’t want to pay for a power hookup, it’s that none are available this time of year. Dash Point is a popular site and the campground is only partially open right now. When the ranger chastised Brent for stealing the power, he offered to pay the extra money, but his offer was not-so-politely refused.
The other day I had a phone conversation with my sister. “Brent is a little quirky,” I told her in what could be the understatement of the century. “You’ve always been attracted to those kind of guys,” she replied, and she was right. First there was Peter, my high school sweetheart, a tall and lanky nerdy sort of guy who introduced me to acid and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Our favorite place to get stoned was Stotesbury mansion, a huge abandoned building with spooky underground passageways and hills to roll down.
Then came David, a lover of the blues and Gallo Vin Rose. Recently out of the navy, he was an outgoing, feisty kind of guy whose favorite expressions were “Does a bear shit in the woods” and “colder than a witch’s tit.”
That lasted two years before I was stolen away by Jerry, a tall, dark Italian, and an amazing writer and poet who seduced me with his music. His room was plastered with egg cartons to muffle the sound as he composed his songs, playing all the instruments himself and overlaying them using his reel-to-reel tape deck. He called me Boo and we rode together on his Honda 350 to Miami to attend the Republican National Convention. Instead of protesting, we played on the beach, taking advantage of the free campgrounds that had been set up for the occasion. By the time I’d split up with Jerry he’d already changed his name to Blake and moved on to greener pastures.
But the quirkiest of all has to be Chuck, the father of my two older kids. When I met him he was squatting in an abandoned building in Powelton Village, home to the “back to nature” group called Move, and the infamous “mayor” of Powelton, Ira Einhorn who later fled to Europe to avoid arrest after killing his girlfriend and stuffing her body in a trunk. Chuck had a heart of gold, but no work ethic. He loved people and he loved getting stoned. Oh… and did I mention he was a little eccentric? One day, on the way back from the lake, we stopped at McDonald’s for a fish sandwich. When Chuck returned to the car with his bag, he was incensed to discover he’d been short-changed. He opened the paper bag, pulled out his fish sandwich and removed the filet, tossing it aside and replacing it with one of the small fish we’d caught that day. Unaware of its fate, it was innocently swimming around in a bucket of water on the floor of the car. He marched into McDonald’s with his improvised fish sandwich, placing it down on the counter and exclaiming “The least you can do is kill your fish before putting it in the sandwich.”
So, yes, Brent is one in a long line of so-called “quirky” guys. He’s a hard-working, creative, resourceful, stubborn, bossy, cocky, tough but sensitive, spontaneous, funny, absent-minded kind of guy who loves to party and hates to be categorized. He’s closer in age to my kids than he is to me, and I’m constantly reining him in. “Can you please turn down the music. It’s after 10 and we’re not supposed to be making noise.” He’s on medication and shouldn’t be drinking, but he does. One night he drank three of his “Hurricanes”, high-alcohol shitty-tasting beer, and he turned belligerent. After that I restricted his intake—no hard liquor—though sometimes it’s out of my control. The night before we left Dash Point, cowboy Johnny pulled into the campsite next to us. He strode over with a bottle of cinnamon flavored whiskey, asking us to put it on ice, so I wasn’t at all surprised when he returned an hour later and poured us all some shots. Brent had found his “bro” mate—a cowboy who partied as hard as he does, who could build a palette fire with flames and sparks that shot higher than ours. God help us all!
April 25, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
When it comes to decision making, I’m impetuous, but there’s a method behind my madness. I spend hours weighing the pros and cons of each option, only to throw it all away and act on instinct. At other times, circumstances intervene to push me in one direction. Brent’s hearing was postponed yet again to the end of May, and it looks like his shoulder surgery will be scheduled soon. With hot weather moving into Arizona, it makes sense to spend the summer in Washington, much as I long for a place to call my own and to store my things, a place to call home.
Arizona is the state we’ve chosen. Brent is from there and I already own the land to build on, 10 acres in the southeast corner near Elfrida. There’s nothing in Elfrida—a gas station, a small western shop, and a café. My favorite place, the Rattlesnake Crafts Gift Shop, closed its doors a couple of years ago. The shop was tiny, not much more than a shed, selling belts, wallets, and other items made from rattlesnake hide. “We don’t kill the snakes,” the owner assured me one day, “They’re made from road kill.” But it wasn’t the snakes I was interested in. Outside the shop was a veritable museum of western items salvaged from the desert—saddles, rusted rifle barrels, tin coffee pots, bleached out cattle skulls—a photographer’s dream.
Some don’t see the charm of the desert, they see only scrubland, snakes, and cactus. But they’ve never seen it after the monsoon season, when the dry brown landscape becomes rolling green hills reminiscent of Scotland, or in the spring when cactus blooms turn the desert into a Monet painting with splashes of red, yellow and pink. At night, the silence goes on forever, and the skies are bursting with stars, creating a twinkling canopy of natural light.
But that is the future, and the present is now, here in Dash Point. The interesting cast of characters that populated the park during the off-season, have largely disappeared, replaced by weekend campers, mostly families and young couples. The maximum stay of 20 days has become 10 days, so we’ll be packing up camp more often now. A few homeless people remain, mostly car-only campers like our neighbor Rob. He’s an amiable, talkative guy in his forties—his teeth are brown, chipped and stained by years of chewing tobacco which he spits out periodically. He’s one of the many people in the area that have been pushed into homelessness by the exorbitant cost of living here in the Pacific Northwest. He has a job, making $14 an hour, but that isn’t enough to pay for an apartment, so he camps out, sleeping in the back of his white station wagon. When the 10-day limit is up, he gets a cheap hotel room for 3 days then moves back to Dash Point.
It’s hard to believe we’ve been camping now for almost 3 months. Who would have thought I could live with a man 24 hours a day and emerge unscathed? It’s not my natural state, but I’m getting used to it, growing to like it even—and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve always been a high energy, impulsive person with a tendency to impose deadlines on myself and others. That’s fine when you have a plane to catch, but it makes no sense when the deadlines are self-imposed. Yesterday, we planned to play drop-in pickleball (finally!) and I deliberately avoided setting a time to be there. The only limit I set was waking up Brent at 8:00 am—the rest was up to him. He’s notoriously bad when it comes to being on time and he hates when I try to hurry him. I’m beginning to relax, working on developing patience.
The other lesson I’m struggling with is living in the moment. Usually in the spring I’m in Italy, enjoying the onset of warm weather. I loved to watch the flowers emerge, one by one—first the mimosa trees with their bright yellow fragrant blooms, then the wisteria, purple magnets for bees—later the irises (my mom’s favorite flowers), then finally the roses. During the day I tried to relax and enjoy the flowers. I’d sit on my swinging chair in the garden, take a deep breath, inhale the aroma. Then my eyes would move up to my rock garden, spot the weeds growing between the cracks, and minutes later I’d be down on my knees yanking them out. So much for living in the moment.
Here it’s different. The smallest of things are accomplished in slow motion—the dishes carefully washed, rinsed, dried, and placed in a bin. Making the bed at night in the camper is a ritual of setting down foam, two layers of sleeping bags, a top blanket, then tucking the sides in to make sure they don’t come loose during the night. My days are full of these small chores, and the few obligations we have are taken care of quickly so we can go stroll on the beach and collect shells. I have a feeling that summer will be good this year.
Weeds in the Garden
April 16, 2019 – Penrose Point State Park, Gig Harbor, WA
Ranger Rick caught up with us. We thought we could extend our stay beyond the 10-day high season maximum by registering under a different name, but he was wise to our antics—gave us two more days at Dash Point, then we’d have to leave for 3. We found a beautiful site to the southwest called Penrose Point. The campground is less than half open and there are no showers, but the majestic trees and relative isolation, combined with (limited) phone service make it an ideal alternative to Dash Point.
Our neighbors across the way look like they’re in it for the long haul. Their beat-up car, contrasted with their upscale tent setup, suggest to me they’re homeless. The campsite includes two tents, a bunch of tarps, and a portable shower/outhouse. An inverter converts power from their car battery to AC, so they can run small appliances and the lights they keep on at night while sitting round the campfire. More than just lamps, they are spotlights, illuminating an ever-changing tableau of mother, father, and two kids, invoking a Christmas nativity scene. “Maybe they’re filming a reality show,” I suggested to Brent last night, only half-joking. These days you never know.
When I told our neighbor we were going to Arizona, his eyes lit up. “You know, you can get a free trip there from the State of Washington. They’re happy to send homeless folks back where they belong—give ‘em a free bus ticket or train ticket.” I remember friends in Hawaii complaining that much of America’s homeless population had been given free one-way tickets to Oahu by states anxious to get rid of them. They didn’t mention that these folks had ties to Hawaii—now it made more sense.
The raccoons here at Penrose Point are the size of lynxes and aggressive as hell. They emerge after dark, their eyes twinkling like miniature stars as they catch the beam of our flashlight. Loki keeps them at bay, standing at the base of whatever tree they’ve chosen, pacing nervously, wishing he had bear claws. The other night, Brent climbed partway up a tree, engaging with the raccoon, daring it to come down. For a while it looked like he would comply, inching closer and closer to Brent’s head, but at the last minute he took a detour, clinging to a low out-of-the-way branch, then dropping to the ground.
The nearby beaches provide us with an unending source of food –most notably fresh clams and oysters. Yesterday we collected a couple dozen and I steamed them up, then fried them in butter and garlic. As I proudly served them up to Brent, I could tell by the pained look on his face that “These are amazing” just wasn’t going to happen. “I don’t mean to be negative, but they’re kind of gritty”, he said tentatively. I popped a couple in my mouth and they tasted wonderful, but he was right. The copious amount of sand clinging to the clams was hard to deny. Brent quit after 3 or 4, but I proceeded to down the rest, ignoring the grit.
We’re alone in the campground now. The family across the way disappeared a few nights ago, following a loud argument with their teenage son. They took off in the car, a rickety convertible with roof half-eaten away by Washington drizzle, the rest coated with slimy moss. We heard movement that first night they left and we saw lights. Apparently, the son had stayed, but by the following night, everyone was gone. This morning, a different car pulled up and a man emerged, grabbed a few things then vanished, leaving me to wonder what was going on.
Camp life is starting to wear on both of us. It’s not just the day-to-day hardships—I’m used to heating up water to wash dishes, cooking over a camp stove, going to the laundromat. I love living under the trees, especially now that the warmer weather allows us to spend time outdoors. It’s not the day-to-day routines, but the uncertainty of everything that gets to us. Our end goal has always been Arizona, but obstacles pop up like weeds in a garden. Tomorrow we move back to Dash Point. There’s a lot of work involved in moving and Brent doesn’t do anything half-way—he’s constantly proving that not only can he do it, but he can do it better than anyone else. Each time we move, his shoulder suffers.
Last night his doctor called with the results of the MRI—a significant tear in the rotator cuff requiring surgery. So now we’re faced with decisions. Assuming the hearing goes as expected this Friday, we’ll be free to leave. But is that the best thing to do? Wouldn’t it make more sense to get the surgery done here, then go to Arizona where Brent will be free to work, free to do his carpentry? But if we stay in Washington, it’ll mean more tent living and, since it’s high season now, we’ll have to move every 10 days. I’ve heard the recuperation from this type of surgery is slow and painful. How can he heal his shoulder camped out in a tent? Alternatively, we could go to Arizona and get the surgery done there when we’re more settled.
As I sit here writing, I’m watching Brent building storage compartments under the canopy of the Ford Ranger. In the few months I’ve known him, I’ve never seen him more content. He’s obsessed with this project, something that will make our life easier, allow us to sleep more comfortably. He’s told me more than once, “I think we met for a purpose” and I think he’s right. For Brent it’s a chance to pull together the fragments of his life, carve a new path. For me, it’s a chance to heal old wounds.
April 8, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
Life can change in an instant—just one catastrophic event can throw things into chaos. It’s how many become homeless, through the loss of a job, the loss of an un-insured house, the cost of an un-insured medical condition. Though I’m living in a tent, I haven’t considered myself a “homeless” person, until last Monday that is.
The day began with the promise of sunshine and a game of pickleball. I’d been yearning to play since leaving Hawaii 3 months ago, and finally we both had paddles. Our plan was to find the closest court and hit the ball around a bit, so I could teach Brent the basics of the game. Then, the next day, we’d drop in at an indoor session and play some real games.
We picked up Brent’s prescription, then headed to the pickleball courts. Halfway there, in the left turn lane, the Jeep stalled out. It refused to start again, but fortunately gravity was on our side. I threw the car into neutral, Brent jumped out, gave it a quick push, then jumped back in while I coasted onto the side street of a nearby apartment complex. Our first concern was the battery since we’d recently had the car tuned up and were told we needed a new one. We walked up to a nearby auto parts store, picked up a battery, pulled it back a mile or so on a trolley, and plopped it into the Jeep. It started up this time, but it sounded like shit, rattling and shaking like an ancient tractor. Coincidentally, another mechanically-challenged car sat parked right in front of us and a local mechanic had stopped by to take a look at it. He heard our clanging engine and his grim expression told us this wasn’t going to be a cheap problem to fix.
What in the hell would we do without a car? We couldn’t survive. Not only did we need it to haul our stuff, but now that we were in a tent site with no power, we depended on it to charge our phones. Brent had two important appointments that week. An MRI (finally!) was scheduled for Wednesday, and his court hearing for early Friday morning. Getting to the hearing would require two hours travel time on four different buses.
My brain was on overload, trying to find an exit route from the mess we were in. I sat around camp, as paralyzed as the Jeep on the side of the road, running by different scenarios which, in my negative state of mind, all led to the same place—I’d be stuck with a car payment for the next 3 years on a car I no longer owned. Not only that, but I’d have to get a new loan for another car. How could I handle that? I couldn’t.
The first time we ventured out of camp carless was the first time I felt truly homeless. But it wasn’t all bad. Brent had mentioned many times the negative side of homelessness—the tweakers, the scammers, the cold rain—but that night I saw a different side. As we sat with Loki on the curb outside Safeway, I noticed for the first time two distinctly different worlds. There was the world of hustle and bustle, shoppers who came and went, hurrying to grab what they needed, rarely talking to others. Then there were the homeless, more than I’d ever noticed. They shared a common bond and didn’t hesitate to approach us, share information, request a smoke. It was Brent’s world and, though I didn’t understand it as he did, I was beginning to feel more at home in this other place, where people spoke their mind—no bullshit here. We hiked back that night, both of us wearing heavy backpacks, and my aching body the next morning screamed “get a car!”
The Hotline website advertised a rental car for $10 a day. “Let’s rent a car for a week while we decide our next step.” I’d paid $10 just the day before to get Brent to his MRI appointment by Uber, so it sounded like a good idea to me, at first. I thought I’d reserved the car for the same day, but as we sat on the bus headed for town, I noticed the reservation began on the following day (Friday). Brent’s court appointment was early Friday morning, and we needed the car right away. I called the main number for Enterprise and, judging by the heavily accented voice on the other end, I’d reached a call center in some distant country. I explained that I needed to move the reservation up a day. “No problem,” he told me in broken English. “You can pick up the car at 10:30.”
We arrived at the rental agency and the woman behind the counter set me straight. “Sorry, we don’t have any economy cars available right now. We tried to call you, but we didn’t have your phone number.” What?, I thought to myself. You mean the call center didn’t relay the number? Surely that would be considered vital information??
“We should have one available this afternoon around 2:30. I’ll give you a call.”
We strapped on our packs and hiked down to a nearby mall, looking for ways to kill time. A couple of hours later, I called the agency for a status report.
“Sorry, we still don’t have any economy cars, but we do have a compact car available. We’re not supposed to hold them, but if you can be here in 30 minutes I’ll save it for you.”
“Great.” I wasn’t happy about having to pay more, but surely it couldn’t be that much more, I thought to myself. Turned out there were two available, and I decided on the blue Nissan Sentra. Then we got down to the nitty gritty. “Do you have insurance?”, she asked.
“No, I cancelled my policy when I realized my Jeep was totaled. I can probably re-activate it, but it’s liability-only coverage.” I’d rented cars in the past and they’d always accepted my insurance, even though it wasn’t full coverage. In fact I spoke to someone a day later who’d recently rented from Enterprise using only his liability insurance.
The agent didn’t look happy. “We need to protect our cars. Without full coverage, you’ll have to purchase our insurance, but don’t worry, I’ll find the cheapest rate for you.”
Great, I thought to myself. Not only do I have to pay for an upgraded vehicle, but now I have to pay for insurance as well. My car rental had jumped from the advertised $10 a day to more than $30.
Two days later, we shopped for used cars and found a 2010 Ford Ranger truck with canopy that would be perfect for our travels. They would pay off my old loan and give me a new one, with a monthly payment not much higher than the other. I turned in the rental car and composed a letter to the Enterprise district manager, requesting a refund for the insurance charges and the upgraded vehicle cost. On the receipt, I noticed they wrote that I had “accepted” their “optional” insurance policy. Right …
Finally, things are looking up. We have a decent vehicle and it’s a stick shift! That’s all I drive in Italy and I prefer them. Brent is already making plans for improvements. He’s building storage cabinets for the back under the camper shell, and a bed on top of that so we access our stuff and sleep as well. It won’t cost much since he’s using wood from pallets scavenged from the back of stores.
We don’t have results yet from Brent’s MRI, but the hearing went well. The prosecution hasn’t been able to locate the homeless guy yet (the person on the losing end of the altercation), though they’ve left numerous messages. If they can’t locate him in the next two weeks, the case will most likely be dropped. It’ll be at least 3 weeks before we can head out to Arizona. By that time, we’ll be close to warm weather in Washington and hot weather in Arizona. I’d be tempted to stay here until the fall, but not sure I want to continue camping. These same old clothes are starting to get to me—last night I was back in my long johns again—and water is starting to seep through the tent floor.
As I’m writing this, rain has moved in, and the sky is overcast. Loki is losing his winter coat and tufts of fur dot the campsite. The more aggressive birds, mostly crows, are hopping in to retrieve it for their nest building. Though it’s a weekday, we’ve entered high season for camping, and Dash Point is nearly full. Across the way sits a small yellow school bus, its rear end adorned with stickers. There’s a big one across the top stating “PRIVATE CARRIER” and a handicapped sticker below a window adorned with an abstract dove. At one point I look up from my typing and see that the bus is rocking and rolling. The wild gyrations continue for a couple of minutes, then cease. It’s a scene I’ve seen played out in numerous comedy movies and I laugh silently. Handicapped, eh?? Not where it counts, I guess.
When in Need…
March 27, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
This morning I woke to the sounds of wind blowing through the tarps and the strident cawing of crows prowling the grass in search of camp leftovers. It’s a long way from the gentle cooing of Hawaiian doves, but it is no less magical. Brent is up, but only temporarily. He’s making his CCAP check-in call, the one that enables him to avoid lockdown while waiting for his hearing on the 5th of April. It’s their way of ensuring his whereabouts, a quick name and date which he inevitably follows with “Have a good day.”
As I heat water for coffee, I hear the neighbor’s shiny new white pickup pull up in front of his equally new shiny white trailer. He’s not the typical retiree who inhabits Dash Point RV sites. He’s younger, in his 30s or 40s and he keeps to himself. I’ve seen him only a few times in the couple of weeks he’s been here, clutching a small tan-colored dog in his arms, scurrying from his truck to the trailer, never saying hello. Every morning he wakes up ridiculously early, 4 or so, starts his truck and pulls out, returning around 7 or 8 am. I try to imagine a job that would call for a schedule like this, and all I can come up with is newspaper delivery man. But what could be more absurd than that—an independently wealthy man who feels a need to keep in touch with his roots by working at a menial job? No, it must be something else, but I can’t imagine what.
On the other side is an ex-military man who’s done two tours in Vietnam. By the way he walks and talks, I can see that army life has taken a toll on his health, both physical and mental. Unlike the dog man, he’s friendly and likes to talk about his past. The other day he regaled me with a story of a 3-year old husky he owned when he was married to the woman he now shuns (he’d like to move to Oregon where it’s warmer, but she lives there now). He blames her for the dog’s disappearance, though the fact that it disturbs him so much after all these years surely means he harbors some guilt.
The poor dog was kept in the back yard by herself. “She would whine and whine all day, you know how huskies talk?” He looked at Loki and I nodded in assent. “My wife just left her in the yard, never paid her any attention. One day she dug under the fence and got out. Never came back.” He turned back towards his trailer. “Well, I have to go make lunch now. Try to have a good day.” Try? I was puzzled by his farewell. Did he somehow sense I was having a bad day (I was), did he see how his sad story had affected me, or was he simply telling himself not to have a bad day?
Yesterday, I accompanied Brent to his doctor’s appointment. “I’m not leaving until they refer you for an MRI”, I told him, though I wasn’t at all sure that either of us could accomplish this seemingly impossible task. It all started when Brent was struggling to survive in his Auburn encampment. His feet went out from under him and he instinctively put his left hand down in the mud to brace the fall. Something tore, most likely the rotator cuff, and he’s been in pain ever since. The last doctor refused to schedule an MRI until he followed a course of physical therapy. For the past few days, sleep had been virtually impossible due to the pain in his left shoulder, and his tossing and turning had kept me up as well. The doctors prescribed Lyrica as a painkiller, but that Friday as he called to renew his prescription, he discovered it had elapsed. He’d have to wait three days until his doctor’s appointment to get it renewed.
I’m well aware that the older you get, the younger everyone around you appears to be, but I wasn’t prepared on Tuesday when the doctor opened the door and strode into the examining room. She looked no older than 20, but short of being a child prodigy, how could she have accomplished so much so quickly? Evelyn Wood’s condensed medical school? Brent proceeded to give her a list of every major physical injury since his youth (quite a few), and I could sense the doctor’s confusion. Why, exactly, was he here?
Doctors today want you in and out. Just get to the point. They’re saddled with so many patients, they don’t have time to listen, to evaluate. The exception to this was my first doctor in Hawaii. He loved to talk, but not about my physical ailments. He was fascinated by my house in Italy. “What’s it like there? Do you speak Italian? How’s the food, I’ve heard it’s wonderful?” I tried unsuccessfully, to steer the conversation towards my physical ailments. Shortly before my allotted 15 minutes was up, I succeeded in addressing my major problem, but didn’t get around to the other items on my list. I switched doctors, trying to explain why. “He’s a little too friendly”, I began, switching tracks as I realized where this was heading.
Sensing the confusion in the eyes of Brent’s doctor, I re-directed the conversation, knowing we had to hurry. “He’s here about his shoulder. He needs an MRI.” I tried not to look desperate while she explained the issues. “It’s a question of insurance coverage. They want to make sure the problem can’t be resolved by physical therapy before they recommend an MRI.” It was a special, insurance company kind of logic no doubt, but there were a lot of holes. Was this really saving them money? Not only would they have to pay for a course of physical therapy but, if the issue wasn’t resolved, they’d have to pay the $2500-$3000 cost of the MRI. “Move your left arm up and tell me where it hurts.” Brent quickly raised his arm, so quickly it was impossible to determine exactly where the pain began. The doctor looked as pained as Brent as I gave her the “boys will be boys” look, trying to pacify her. “I can recommend an MRI”, she told him, but the insurance company could turn it down. We left it like that, with a slip specifying a number to call to schedule an MRI appointment.
Today we’re moving campsites and I can’t wait to get out of here. By “here” I don’t mean Dash Point State Park—seems like we’ll be here forever, only because it’s the convenient place to be. “Here” is this particular campsite where we’re living under a spotlight. We’re right in the middle of the campground in an open meadow. The one tree near us has been recently cut down. A large branch fell down onto an RV during a windstorm and, instead of just pruning the tree, they whacked the whole thing down. Now we’ll be in a tent site, shielded by trees. We’ll no longer have power, but that’s a small sacrifice. The library has become our new favorite home—internet and power at no cost.
Brent has shaved off much of his beard and I love the way it looks. To me, it’s symbolic of his new life. I look at him and I no longer see the homeless man fighting to survive. During the time I’ve been with him, I’ve come to realize that “homeless” is not just a situation, it’s a state of mind. Once you’ve been there, you never fully return.
To most of us, homelessness is a condition, one that renders those afflicted invisible. But Brent rarely passes a homeless person without making contact. The other day, as we neared the end of our walk with Loki down by the river, I sensed movement to the right. If it wasn’t for Brent, I wouldn’t have noticed the homeless man huddled in the crevasse. “How you doing boss…you need a smoke?” A gnome-like face emerged from the inky darkness under the overpass and Brent handed him a cigarette. It was a small gesture, but sometimes that’s all it takes.
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Ranger Danger and the Case of the Abandoned RV
March 20, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
Last night, the RV on the lot next to us was unceremoniously removed by Pete’s towing. The 20-foot trailer home pulled in a few days ago, popping and sputtering, one foot in the grave, as though Dash Point would be its final resting place. Trailing the RV was a faded and dented car. The two men who emerged from the vehicles could have been twins—slender, gray-haired men who greeted me with a smile and a warm hello. They proudly set up their new home, pulling out the awning and decorating it with twinkling red Christmas lights.
The following day, under blue skies and unseasonably warm weather, a bright red sports car drove up to visit our neighbors. The young woman who stepped out was the daughter of one of the gray-haired men. In her hands she held a house-warming gift, a small green plastic flower pot with miniature daffodils which she placed on the picnic table. By the third day, a shiny new U-Haul truck had taken the place of the rickety old car, and I wondered. Why would they need a U-Haul? Surely they could fit everything they had into the RV.
That morning, “Ranger Danger” showed up at their doorstep. He pounded loudly several times on the metal door until one of the men cracked it open. The ranger proceeded to itemize a list of unpaid fees, $30 a night for three nights, plus $10 a night for the U-Haul truck. “You were supposed to register at the front entrance when you arrived”, he admonished. I found it hard to believe that the two men could be naïve enough to believe they didn’t have to pay just because there were no rangers sitting at the front entrance.
And that brings up another issue. Who’s the boss here? There are no rangers manning the entrance station, only a nearby trailer that houses an invisible “campground host.” We’ve driven by the host RV many times, morning, afternoon, evening, but the small, black-lettered sign inevitably states that the host is “OFF DUTY.” I want this job—free housing and no responsibilities. As for the rangers, they make their rounds in the morning to ensure everyone is legit, clean the restrooms, then leave.
Another day passed and, by the look on Ranger Danger’s face yesterday morning, I could tell the two gray-haired men had yet to pay their bills. He marched over to the door of the RV, pounding on it several times until his knuckles must have hurt. The U-Haul truck had vanished, and I was quite sure that any more knocking would prove useless. We could hear as he radioed his supervisor with details of the RV. It hadn’t been registered since 2006—not a good sign, and the ranger couldn’t locate the VIN. I was sure he’d be over to ask if we’d seen the men, but he wasn’t interested in talking to us. The door to the RV was unlocked and he walked in to case the place.
As he emerged, he noticed the bright yellow daffodils sitting on the picnic table. Fearing their demise, I’d watered them hours earlier. He asked if they belonged to me and I shook my head, immediately regretting my actions. He didn’t look like the nurturing kind and, sure enough, he set them inside the RV and closed the door, sealing their fate.
When the ranger car drove off, I wanted so badly to open that door and step inside. I needed some closure. Who were these men and why did they abandon their RV? Was it all planned out ahead of time or was it a spur of the moment decision? Was the daughter in on the plan? Given the fact that she brought flowers, it didn’t seem likely. I conjured up scenarios in my head. The two men were gay lovers. They’d been hiding it from the daughter, but she’d discovered the truth. The men, knowing their secret was out, decided to flee the state. They couldn’t take the RV or the ancient car, which they no doubt left at the U-Haul place, so they stashed all their stuff in the U-Haul and left in the only vehicle that was fit to drive.
As Pete’s Towing worked to resolve the seemingly impossible task of RV removal that evening, I couldn’t help but feel sad—not for the men’s abrupt departure, but for what I hadn’t done. I should have talked to the gray-haired men, gotten to know them. Maybe I could have understood why they abandoned their vehicle. Then again, sometimes imagination can be more interesting than the truth.
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The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful
March 13, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
Brent likes to tell the story of his mom when she was camping, how she would pull out her curling iron first thing in the morning and work her hair into perfection. For me, it’s my cappuccino, the one connection with my “old” life that I follow faithfully every morning. There’s something comforting and familiar in the routine of measuring out the water, adding the coffee grounds, frothing the milk.
Yesterday I woke up with a sore back and aching neck from sleeping on a slightly deflated air mattress, and I flashed back to Brent’s list of ailments. Maybe homelessness should be considered a disease. It takes a huge physical toll on those who sleep on the ground every night, constantly on guard to make sure nobody steals the few things they own. Brent’s physical ailments should qualify him for SS disability, but thus far he’s been denied. He’s forced to live on $197 a month plus a $200 food benefit, which some would claim makes him a “leech” on society. I get a decent retirement benefit, but since I’ve had to pay the $400 a month camping fees, I’ve been having a hard time making ends meet. Without a roommate, I couldn’t afford to live on my own in an apartment.
As I stumbled to the bathroom that day for my morning pee, I was greeted by the homeless lady living in a tent across from the ranger station. I’d seen her before, she fit Joe Blow’s concept of a homeless person—oversized clothes, missing teeth, unwashed, age hard to determine. Unlike the guy in the kilt at Deception Pass, she does have serious mental issues. What I gleaned from our conversation was that she needed a cigarette, her boyfriend liked to drink, and her daughter almost lost her kids. Her boyfriend had been arrested the day before and hauled off to jail after going on a drunken binge (that explains the cop cars we’d seen). “At least he can’t drink in there” the homeless woman said, seemingly unconcerned about his misfortune. Thankfully, the rangers didn’t kick her out of the campground to fend for herself. “They’re sending me to a mental facility”, she announced, as though she’d just won the Lotto. As she said her goodbyes, she looked at me with soft eyes, “You look like you’re homeless too.” I wanted to shrug off her statement as a byproduct of her mental condition, but shit, maybe I was starting to look homeless.
When Brent was released from jail in February, he chose not to return to his campsite in Auburn. Instead he would stay at the “over 50” Seattle homeless shelter. He figured that the exclusion of younger men would mean no problems with “tweakers”, meth addicts he equates with vampires since “they sleep during the day and suck people dry at night,” but he was wrong. The first night at the shelter, he noticed a man walking around in one of his coats, easily recognizable by the personal items hanging out of the inside pocket. “Hey, man, that looks a lot like my jacket.” The accused tried to turn the tables on him, “Leave me alone, what are you doing to me?” “After some cajoling, and a few threats, he returned Brent’s jacket, and the man was asked by the director to leave the shelter. I remember that night. When I dropped Brent off, it was already down in the 20s, one of the coldest nights of the year so far. Brent followed the guy outside and asked if he had a place to stay for the night. “No”, was the reply. “Maybe they’ll let you in if I say something.“ Brent returned to the shelter and persuaded the director to let him stay one more night. It’s a story I like to tell those who doubt his intentions.
But we all have our flaws, and Brent’s is being a smart-ass. Like me, his sense of humor can be cynical, and we both like to be in control. Not long ago, I was standing in my son’s kitchen telling my daughter-in-law how nice it was driving with Brent. “He’s so mellow,” I bragged, not thinking I could be insulting her since she’s the direct opposite of “mellow” behind the wheel. But as I got to know him better, his “backseat driver” tendencies surfaced. He never yells, but he makes his feelings known: “You realize, right that the speed limit is 40 and you’re only going 30?” “You know, you can back up a lot further when you’re turning around… you’re not even close to the car behind you.” When I’ve had enough, a curt “fuck you” does the trick. He listens, apologizes, and stops (until the next time).
When we returned to Dash Point, we lost our old campsite. It was forested, secluded and beautiful. Now we’re sandwiched between two RV’s, suburban living in a campground. When I pee at night, I have to navigate the long, soggy road to the restrooms, where another homeless woman has made her bed. I’ve never seen her face, but I see her feet and her blanket underneath the door of the 3rd stall down. Last night she was in the shower. I understand—she wants to stay warm. This morning the cop car appeared near the restroom and I’m afraid she’s gone.
Over the past few days, Brent’s become convinced we’re living in the twilight zone. It’s true that things mysteriously disappear in the tent, but I’ve chalked it up to lack of organization, or one too many tokes. Last night we both swore that the bag of potatoes was sitting on the floor of the tent when we went to bed, but this morning it had been mysteriously sucked out of the tent and onto the grassy lot of our RV neighbor. I’d blame it on Loki, but I’ve never met a dog who ate raw potatoes. Maybe it was the strange creature we heard in the early hours of the morning, howling in a tone unlike anything I’ve heard. It was an eerie sound, one that convinced me I wouldn’t want to do this thing alone.
The harsh winter weather has loosened its grip and Spring is on the horizon. This morning, I woke to a chorus of birds and I thought of Italy. If this were any other year, I’d be at my home on Colle Fagiano, strolling around my garden, listening to birds warbling, watching to see if my roses had bloomed. But I’m living another life that is no less beautiful. As I sit typing on my computer, I hear the rasping sounds of Brent sanding wood, working on his latest project. Yesterday it was a bow he made from a piece of driftwood he found on the beach. Today he’s sanding the hiking stick. We’re both doing what we love to do at this moment in time—life should always be this good.
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The Man in the Kilt
March 8, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
Yesterday, we packed up and headed back to Federal Way. It’s closer to civilization and easier to do things from here. The hotspot on my phone has stopped working, so the only way to get internet access is a trip to the library or Starbucks. I’m sorry to leave beautiful Deception Pass, but at the same time it can be very noisy here. The sounds of nature are frequently lost in the roar of jets flying from Oak Harbor Naval Air Station.
Before leaving, we drove down to Rosario Beach to watch the sunset. There we met an interesting man. Said he was German, though he didn’t talk with an accent, He looked to be in his sixties, and he wore a kilt-like gray skirt which fell to just below his knees. His legs looked cold and chapped, but his torso was swathed in a padded windbreaker. Gloveless, he gripped a small briefcase containing all his photographic equipment which he was anxious to set up before the sunset waned. “Better than sex”, he exclaimed (referring to photography) as he pointed his lens to the sunset. I could tell by the look on Brent’s face that he didn’t agree.
I didn’t take him for crazy, the man in the kilt, though some might have. He talked to himself on the way to the beach, but it wasn’t gibberish. it was me, alone in the house, having a one-way conversation. As we stood on the beach taking photos of the sunset, he explained this was no normal lens. It was a zebra lens, no doubt named because of the regularly spaced, striped black markings. Between taking photos, he explained the intricate workings of his German-made lens, though none of it sank in. All I could think of were my hands, red and sore from holding my camera with no gloves. After the sunset died, the kilted man closed his briefcase and walked back to the car, leaving behind an aura of sadness. As he pulled out of the parking lot in his vintage Mercedes, I wondered where he came from, what kind of life he led, whether he had anyone to go home to.
Before we met, Brent was floating, trying his best to survive. He’d been homeless off and on for three years, since the forced closure of his medical marijuana shop. In the past he’s worked diverse jobs, from computer support (Honeywell) to carpentry, DJ, deck hand, among others. When my computer is acting up, I give it to Brent—he can solve problems I’ve long given up on.
He has a slew of medical problems from decades of rough living, and most recently from life on the streets. Yesterday, he showed me his medical report, a page of ailments ranging from sciatica, elbow problems, sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, and asthma. Among this list of ailments was “homelessness,” and I had to laugh, though it wasn’t funny. Since when was homelessness a disease?
Now Brent could add one more item to the list, his shoulder. He fell on the left one a couple of times and it’s causing him constant, severe pain. It hasn’t improved over the last month, though he tries not to use it, and that concerns me. In jail it was x-rayed, but they found nothing. I’ve known people with similar symptoms, and I’m convinced he tore his rotator cuff. The only way to know for sure is by doing an MRI, but Brent’s insurance is making things difficult. His old doctor refuses to recommend the MRI until he does a course of physical therapy, but that seems ass-backwards to me. Physical therapy is based on the nature of the injury, so without that information, therapy can do more harm than good. He just changed doctors and is waiting for them to retrieve his records—hopefully they’ll approve an MRI. Meanwhile he medicates to alleviate the constant pain—the doctor won’t prescribe pain pills, so he relies on weed and the occasional beer.
When I adopted Loki, Brent’s dog, back in January, I didn’t foresee complications, but of course there were. One condition of the adoption was that Loki be neutered. I knew Brent wouldn’t be happy—he wanted to breed his Siberian Husky, but to me it was a small price to pay for saving his dog, and maybe it would stop Loki from roaming. I had no home for Loki, and that meant paying for a kennel until Brent was released from jail. I found a place right down the street from my son’s house where I was staying, a vet with kennels in the back. It was the perfect place for him to heal from his surgery and I visited regularly with my granddaughter, taking him for walks.
After three weeks in jail, Brent was released on condition that he call in every morning before 10:00 to report his whereabouts. I had one thought on my mind—Arizona. I was anxious to escape from this nastier-than-usual Pacific Northwest winter. One thing I love about Brent is that he’s up for almost anything. Two nights into his stay at a Seattle homeless shelter, I kidnapped him and told him we were heading down south. We picked up camping supplies, I threw some clothes together, mostly warm weather clothes since I wasn’t planning on being up north for long, and we headed southward. We didn’t get very far. Just past Oregon, snow moved in and crossing the pass was more than I could handle. In one of my rare “think logically” moments, I asked myself why we were heading down to Arizona when in a couple of months Brent would have to come back to Seattle for his court hearing. It didn’t make a lot of sense. So, here we are, waiting—waiting for warmer weather, waiting for the hearing (scheduled for April 5), waiting to start life in Arizona.
I’m thinking once more about the man in the kilt. In my nomadic existence, I’ve met others like him—once so-called “productive” members of society, now floating, rootless, victims of circumstance, crushed by one too many misfortunes. But there are others who have chosen this life—the couple we met at Dash Point who traveled the country, working along the way to fund their next trip. They were the happy ones, radiating love from every pore of their being. I’m living a nomadic existence, but I’m lucky to have a close circle of family and friends who love me.
Recently I read that the purest form of love is to love someone without expecting anything in return. I’m still working on this one, but I’m getting better every day. When my mind wanders, when I over-analyze, wonder why I’m not getting what I’m giving, that’s when the trouble starts. But when I’m “in the flow”, when I let things go where and when they want to, it’s then that the magic begins.
Impulse, Instinct, Love
March 3, 2019 – Deception Pass State Park, Whidbey Island, WA
We drove over Deception Pass on the evening of the last day in February, greeted by one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. I love to travel, no matter the distance or the place, no matter that I’ve been there before. It’s always different—different hues, different experiences, different companions, different state of mind.
Our tent stands in the midst of old-growth trees, tall and majestic. As I sat by the fire last night, I found myself thinking of the first settlers, what life was like for them. In fact, I think about that a lot here. Last night, in darkness, as I exited the tent in the middle of the night to pee, I headed to my usual spot, that invisible border where the campsite ends and the forest begins. Turning my back to the trees, not wanting to imagine what creatures might be lurking in the inky blackness beyond, I reminded myself that this was only a tiny taste of what settlers had to go through every day. There were wild animals, disease, hundreds of things that could have ended their lives at any moment but, despite all of this, I think they lived a much fuller life than we do today. They were in touch with their environment, their senses were heightened without the help of drugs.
It’s obvious that Brent is in his element. He’s a cowboy, the “regulator”—he should be riding the range —he doesn’t fit into this modern, corporate world. Yesterday I watched as he unrolled tarps, spreading them out to make an extended porch in the back. No matter that we’re staying here only a few more days, he puts hours into designing, modifying, improving, and he’s enjoying every moment of his work. I choose to see it as a sign that he’s starting to come out of the dark place he was in.
In January 2019, just before leaving Hawaii, I noticed an “extreme weather” warning on the Weather Channel for Auburn, where Brent was camped out. High winds were expected that night with gusts up to 60mph. I warned him of the impending storm. “You might want to move to a shelter for the night,” but I don’t think he took me seriously. The high winds ripped down the tarp over the hammock where he was sleeping, and the tent covering his supplies was hit by a tree limb. Then, the rain moved in once more, steady, pelting flood rain. I imagined the Green River overflowing and washing his tent away.
Two days later I returned to face one of the coldest winters ever in the Pacific Northwest. A reunion with Brent was the main thing on my mind as the plane pulled into SeaTac Airport. I would figure out a way to quash the warrant for his failure to appear on the assault charge, figure out how to get him out of this mess. At my son’s house, I sent him a text message: ”Let me know if you want to meet up sometime for coffee/food/conversation,” but got no reply. Most likely a dead battery, I thought. When I hadn’t heard from him by lunch time the next day, anxiety crept in.
Instinctively, I opened my cell phone’s browser and performed the search I’d done many times during the 6 weeks I was in Hawaii, the list of King County jail inmates. I scrolled down and there it was, his name, taken in on Friday at 3:20 pm. I silently chastised Brent. How in the hell did you manage to get picked up the same day I was leaving? This just isn’t fair. At least I’d no longer have to worry about inclement weather—he’d have a roof over his head. I checked visiting hours at the Kent Regional Justice Center. Reservations were required 24 hours in advance—it would be Sunday before I could see him.
That first visit was the best, and the worst. I was happy to be sitting face-to-face, even separated by a pane of unwashed glass. Brent looked like he’d been through hell. His eyes were wild—it was obvious he hadn’t slept and had likely been abruptly pulled off his anti-depressant medication. Not good. He looked at me sheepishly like a child who’s been chastised by his mom. “I hope you’re not mad at me.”
“No, but you could have timed it better”, I replied. “What about Loki? Is someone taking care of him?”
“I think someone took him, but maybe you can check. Last I remember I was standing in front of the ‘Ray of Hope’ (homeless shelter), bending over to pick up my backpack. I think they got me there, but maybe it was my campsite ‘cause I noticed my pants were all muddy.”
The Ray of Hope did not have Loki. I contacted the Auburn Humane Society and discovered he’d once more been picked up. Since this was a second “offense”, it would cost much more to get Loki out, and we’d have to get written permission from Brent to retrieve him. By that time, the fees would be astronomical. There was only one logical way out of this mess. I’d have to adopt Loki.
I got the usual feedback from friends and relatives.
“What? Brent doesn’t remember how he got picked up? That’s a common story and it’s a cop-out. He just doesn’t want to remember.”
“So, are you going to keep Loki after you adopt him? Brent’s obviously not in any condition to take care of him. Look how many times he’s escaped? He’d be better off with you.”
Why am I here, at Deception Pass State Park living in a tent? It was a knee-jerk reaction. I was tired of listening to the negativity coming from those around me, tired of having to depend on others for room and board, and most of all, without a place to call my own, it was the only way I could get to know Brent. But most of my best decisions in life have been impulsive, based on instinct, rooted in love.
… Your Own Medicine
February 26, 2019 -Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
This morning as I wash the coffee pot, my eyes are drawn to my hands—deep cracks creep out from under my left thumbnail like blackened branches of a tree, infused with dirt that refuses to come out, even in the shower. The beginnings of a blemish redden the bottom of my chin. Later, I spread out my yoga mat and go through my familiar stretching routine for the first time in days, as though it will miraculously counteract the effects of 4 weeks of camping out.
It still amazes me that Brent and I are co-existing in this environment. On the surface, we’re miles apart. He’s a meat and potatoes guy—with all the junk food he consumes and the cigarettes he inhales, he shouldn’t be able to out-hike me, but he does. We’re both strong, opinionated, sarcastic, but below the surface we’re as soft as Loki’s fur. I’ve picked up some of his rough ways and I like to think that his edges are more rounded. We have our disagreements but, unlike most men I’ve known, Brent doesn’t run, he talks things out.
Two nights ago, we were “blessed” with new tent neighbors. For them, talking things out means throwing insults. I’ve never seen them, but I can imagine what they look like. He’s a bear of a man—his voice bellows out that first night like the roar of my son’s motorcycle. “Fuck you, bitch!”, “What’d you do that for?” Her voice is softer, lilting—I can’t pick out the words, but I can tell by the tone she’s taunting him, and she won’t let up. I drift into sleep, then wake to the sound of clanging metal. He shouts out one more insult and suddenly the night is quiet. I imagine her lying on the floor of the tent, unconscious in a pool of blood, and I think I hear him crying—or maybe it’s drug-induced coughing. Should I call 911? Then, after a few minutes, her voice chimes in once more. The next morning, we hear the bear again. He’s walking down the road with a young boy. Brent and I look at each other—we can’t believe the poor kid was in the tent listening to all that shit.
My granddaughter in Hawaii was nicknamed “Baby Chaos.” To stop her from screaming her lungs out when she was only a few months old, I would get in her face and give her a taste of her own medicine. She didn’t like it, and probably didn’t expect it, but it worked. She settled down immediately. The following night in the tent, we tried that theory on our neighbors. We’d give them an exaggerated dose of what we’d been listening to. Brent settled into the role almost too easily, going as far as getting out his belt and whacking it on the bed. “Get the lime off the floor, bitch… that’s for my Corona!” Every time my lines came up, I’d lose it—just couldn’t stop laughing, which no doubt hampered the dramatic effect.
Brent has always made me laugh, even in the most trying situations. On December 4th, I flew back to Hawaii to stay with my son and grandkids. Living conditions weren’t optimal, and they became worse as time went on. My back was crying “help” from sleeping on the couch, and every morning I was jolted awake by the roar of my son’s motorcycle on the porch as he headed off to work. Then came the new puppy, who, apparently taking me for a substitute mom, whined and whimpered all night in between peeing and pooping.
When Brent’s phone had power, we talked until it died. He’d take me through the long bus ride and walk back to his campsite, his panhandling trips to Walmart. The Weather Channel became my new favorite app and I gave him regular updates on pending rain, wind, or anything else that could affect tent life. Christmas came and went.
On December 27, I got a voicemail. “You know how I always tie Loki up outside the tent? Well, a couple of days ago he escaped and was picked up by the Auburn Humane Society. They want $90 to get him out and if I don’t have the money by tomorrow morning, they’ll put him up for adoption. Is there any way you could lend it to me?” I couldn’t imagine Brent without Loki. I had no car, but Walmart was only a mile and a half away, so I packed up my granddaughters and we took off on foot. It was easy to wire the money, but no easy feat to pick it up. Battling sickness and weather, Brent had missed a crucial court hearing for his assault charge and a bench warrant had been issued. On top of all that, his wallet had somehow dropped out of his backpack and now lay waiting to be picked up at the Kent Police Station. Without any valid ID, he couldn’t pick up the money I’d wired him.
But Brent managed on his own. That evening he headed out to his panhandling spots and told people his story. He’s good with words, and he managed to bring in more than enough to retrieve Loki the next day. When I told the story to my son, I found myself once more on the defensive end of what would soon become a litany of “he’s using you for the money” charges against a man nobody had met. When I think of Brent, many words come to mind, among them impetuous, stubborn, cocky, but never mean, conniving, or selfish. Smokes too much, but he works his ass off in camp, keeping things clean, cooking, making improvements to our “home.” He’s kind, thoughtful, and unlike most men I’ve met, he doesn’t get defensive or take things personally. He’s a talker, a negotiator.
On Thursday we move up north to Deception Pass State Park. We’ve reached our 20-day limit at Dash Point. Despite the neighbors, it’ll be hard leaving what has become our home.
A Question of Balance
February 23, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
We’re supposed to be in Arizona, Brent and I. When I discovered he was not only a skilled construction worker, but also born and raised in Arizona, my brain started working overtime. “Why don’t we go down there? I have 10 acres of land near Tombstone and we could build a small house, something underground so it stays a constant temperature all year round.” Unlike anyone I’ve been with in the past, Brent is open to pretty much anything, and he quickly agreed.
So, a couple of weeks ago, we set off southward, hoping to escape the miserable Seattle weather, but we didn’t make it very far. Just south of Portland, we were socked in by slushy snow. I checked the forecast and the weather was bad all the way down to California. I momentarily exited that familiar “flight mode” and tried to think logically. Brent had a court hearing scheduled for the beginning of April in Washington and it could be moved up at any point, meaning we’d have to turn around and go back. We needed to take care of everything first, even if that meant enduring more cold rain.
Being thrust into a tent with someone you barely know could have been a disaster, but somehow it wasn’t. After meeting Brent on that cold November evening in Renton, we kept in touch, thanks to Obama’s decision to provide homeless folks with phones. But phones don’t do much good if you don’t have a place to charge them. Our conversations often died abruptly, along with his battery. That week, I made my rounds visiting friends in Washington, while Brent was struggling to survive on his own. After fighting with the homeless guy and ending up with an assault charge, he decided it was best to go it alone—no homeless encampments, no gospel mission shelters (“full of sex offenders,” he said). So, he set up camp on the edge of an urban development in Auburn. To avoid detection, he chose a gully near the Green River.
Brent is savvy. If anyone could survive the apocalypse, he would be the one. He can make something out of nothing, and his physical and mental strength exceed that of anyone I know. Despite all that, I could tell he was struggling. That Thanksgiving, as I sat at a table piled with food, I wondered what he was going through and kicked myself for not being able to help. All I could give him was my time on the phone, and even that was limited. Normally I’m not in Washington for Thanksgiving, I’m with my son in Hawaii. But this year, living conditions were bad—my back couldn’t stand another day of sleeping on the couch, so I went back to Washington for a bit.
A few days before my scheduled return to Hawaii, I got a text message from Brent. “My tent is underwater and so am I. Just bought hip waders so I can retrieve what I can.” After a day of sustained rain, everything he owned was under water—he was paying the price for trying to stay under the radar and in the gully. Everything was wet, including the clothes he was wearing. He texted me his sizes and I went on a search for dry stuff that would fit him. I shoved everything into a backpack and took off that evening to meet him at the Landing in Renton.
We shared a hot meal together, lingering as long as possible with Loki, trying to soak up the heat while the waiter hovered over our table, his overdose of politeness inviting us to get the hell out of there. We sat that night on a cold curb outside the restaurant. Brent took off his boots–his socks were steaming as he changed them. He’d spent the whole day in wet clothes, but that didn’t seem to phase him, or maybe it did. He was chain smoking—cigarettes, weed, cigarettes, weed, telling me stories about his uncle, a hunting guide in Arizona. He offered me a hit, and I took one, then another—suddenly the stories meandered. About halfway through, I’d forget the starting point, leaving the endings dangling in a mass of confusion. As the cold and dampness seeped into my pores, I grabbed my son’s jacket and threw it across my lap. The occasional stranger passed by and stopped to pet Loki (always the women).
It was getting late and I needed to get back, but what about Brent? He had nowhere to go but back to his wet sleeping bag in a wet tent. We walked across to the store and I got him a sleeping bag. It wasn’t much, but it was the best I could do…that night he found a covered spot in a baseball dugout and slept—at least he was dry.
Now we’re sharing a tent together. It’s a long way from his Auburn encampment which has been abandoned and stripped of anything worthwhile. On the surface we’re an odd couple, thrown together by a chance encounter, but maybe there’s a reason we met and maybe it had to be that night. Consider the scale (I like using that analogy since I’m a Libra). The weight on one side are the hard times that Brent has gone through and the weight on the other side my own struggles. Keep piling on the weight until the scale is balanced. That is the point we meet, where we’re “in the flow.” It doesn’t matter that Brent’s side of the scale is piled with rocks, and mine with sandbags. It’s only the balance that counts. The question is, what happens if and when the scale tips?
Houseless, not Homeless
February 19, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
The women’s bathroom at Dash Point State Park is a microcosm of off-season camp life, and it is there that I’ve had some of my most memorable encounters. Two nights ago, I entered to the sounds of a concert, unlike anything I’ve experienced. She stood near the sink, a blond-haired waif of a girl, dressed in glittery sandals, jeans, and an oversized black jacket. She gripped a phone in one hand, tilting it down as though about to snap a selfie. Her eyes told me that life hadn’t been easy.
As I stood at the mirror brushing my teeth, she burst into song. “…o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” voice bouncing off the walls of the restroom infused the song with an otherworldly quality.
The stranger taking a shower didn’t hold back.
“You have an amazing voice. You should be singing professionally.”
“I like to sing in the bathroom. It gives the song an echo effect.”
“You don’t need any effects. Your voice is incredible without them.” said the shower girl. And it was. Maybe it was the unexpectedness of it all, but I swear it was the most angelic voice I’d ever heard.
The woman with the voice told us her story. “You know, I auditioned for American Idol way back when Paula Abdul and Randy were still on the show. They were in Seattle and 6,000 people showed up. I got to sing in front of the judges. Ryan Seacrest is nice—very down to earth, but he’s really short. You wouldn’t know that by watching him on TV. Anyway, I didn’t get through, the judges had their minds already made up by the time they got to me.”
We shared stories about the campsite host, the one Brent calls “Ranger Tiffany.” The day after the big snowstorm, when we lost power, she made the rounds, visiting all the tent campers and declaring we had to leave due to an impending storm which never materialized. But I suspect the real reason was not the snowstorm. Some of the tent campers are “houseless”. They are part of an itinerant population who, during the off season, wander from one park to another, staying for 20 days, the maximum allowable stay. The “American Idol” girl was booted out of her tent that day, but I managed to persuade Ranger Tiffany to let us stay. Later that night I returned to the restroom and American Idol girl was still there. “It’s warm in here,” she said wistfully, and I hoped she had somewhere to sleep.
Living here in the tent is my “fuck you” to everyday routine, the one I’ve followed faithfully for the past 10 years, while waiting for the miraculous de-transformation of my ex-partner Diego. For Brent, it’s a bit of both. Negative circumstances (loss of a business, the death of his mom) dumped him on the path to homelessness, but it’s his rebellious, “fuck you” attitude to society with all its rules and regulations that put him there as well.
The night I met Brent, my eyes were opened. Friends and family were horrified, concerned for my safety, worried about my sanity. Even my daughter-in-law, who is one of the most open-minded people I know, didn’t want me to take Brent anywhere near the house (I was staying with them at the time.) She is internet-savvy and the best person I know when it comes to getting things done. So naturally she did a criminal records search.
“You know that Brent just got released from doing 30-days in jail on an assault charge?”
I was prepared. “Yeah, he told me that. When he was at the homeless encampment, a couple of guys came into his tent and threatened his dog Loki. He got into a fight with one of them and the guy ended up in the hospital. But I’ve checked his background too and he doesn’t have any other assault charges, just a couple of DUI’s and controlled substance (marijuana) charges.”
Ok, I’ll admit it, if my daughter hooked up with a homeless guy who had just been released from jail, I’d be horrified as well, so on some level I understand their concern. But my answer to their warnings was always the same. “So, you say you’re not trusting my judgement of people?”
I’d talked in depth to Brent and I knew in my heart that he was a kind and honest guy. I’ve been on this earth for more years than I care to mention, and my built-in “radar detection” hasn’t failed me yet.
In just under a week, I was scheduled to return to my son’s house in Hawaii. Visits with friends and family in Washington would take up just about every day of that week. I wanted to get to know Brent, but how do you get to know a homeless guy? Go visit him at his tent? It was the first time I’d felt the disadvantages of my nomadic existence.
Now, we’ve met halfway. It’s the only way we can be together. I laugh more than I’ve done in years, rarely use my phone, and I’m reading again—real books with pages to turn. Sleep comes easy now. In my old life, I would wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, then toss and turn until dawn. Maybe it’s the quiet, the fresh air, the warmth of a body next to mine?
Some would say I’m crazy, and by their standards I guess I am. But If you sit back, go with the flow and trust your instincts, life can be more rewarding than you ever could have imagined.
Hearts and Clubs
February 15, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
Foreword: It is my intention in this blog to be as honest as possible. If you feel you could be offended, or don’t care to see certain aspects of the “real” me, feel free to stop reading. Though I have many friends, there are few (if any) who have seen all aspects of the essential “me”. If I were to put them in a room together, they may find they have little to talk about—I’m selective about what I show and to whom I show it.
Yesterday, Brent awoke to find me in tears. “I hope I haven’t done something wrong.”
“No, it’s nothing you did. It was a text message I got.”
“Was it something bad?”
How could I explain and make it sound the least bit logical? No, it was nothing bad, at least not in theory. I had sent a WhatsApp message to Diego in Italy, wishing him Happy Valentine’s Day, and as I pressed the return button to send it, a message from Diego popped up on my screen. We’d sent the same greeting at the exact same moment. How could I explain to Brent that the love of my life had been incapable of returning that love for ten years, that the relationship had withered long ago after his breakdown, that I had continued to hold on, hoping and praying that things would somehow return to “normal?” I should be in Italy now, but I’m not. Instead, I am crying over what I’ve lost, what could have been.
Sitting here in a tent, experiencing the basics of survival, has given me a rare opportunity to reflect and analyze. For others, however, it is a daily struggle to exist. I met my friend Brent just before Thanksgiving, which coincidentally is the same time period 20 years ago when the tree fell on my Whidbey Island home and uprooted my life, sending me to Italy on a quest for love. But back to Brent. My granddaughter Emmy and I, having just seen the Grinch movie, were passing time in Renton until her mom could come and pick us up. Emmy is a dog lover—she can’t pass one without saying hi, so of course she wanted to visit the pet store. She ran ahead and I heard the familiar refrain, “Can I pet your dog?”
I looked up and spotted a lone man sitting on the bench with a beautiful Siberian husky named Loki who Emmy was already caressing. Long black hair, a wool cap, beard and moustache, kind eyes, mountain man. I don’t remember much about that first conversation, though it went on for some time, long enough to elicit “I’m cold… let’s go” from my granddaughter, which is almost unheard of. I do remember one thing, the way he talked to Emmy. When she informed him at one point that Loki’s harness could be fastened in a better way, he didn’t take it personally (i.e. Who is this kid trying to tell me what to do?), he listened carefully and followed her suggestions. About 10 minutes into the conversation, Brent casually mentioned that he was homeless. Though I hadn’t expected to hear that, it didn’t surprise me either. Said he was new to the area and didn’t have friends, would I give him my phone number. Surprisingly, without hesitation, I complied.
That day, Valentine’s Day 2019, Brent tried his best to make me feel better, and I knew I’d made the right decision. This “mountain man”, who had led a life that was crazy even by my standards, was indeed a kind and sensitive man.
Our intentions that day were to find a doctor in the area for Brent so he could take care of his shoulder which he’d injured a month earlier while trying to survive in his Auburn tent. He’d had two x-rays, but nothing was broken. He needed an MRI, but the doctor refused to prescribe it without first trying a course of physical therapy.
We never made it to the doctor. We stayed in the tent, listened to the rain, played rummy and cribbage. I tried to beat Brent, but he’s a tough one to get the better of in a card game. I noticed that in between hands he was doodling on the “Readi Board” we had placed across a storage container to make our card table.
That night, over a bottle of wine and a bit of weed, on that day of love and romance, we performed a rite of cleansing, hashing out our numerous relationships, why they didn’t work, what we learned or didn’t learn in the process. When things “flow” as Brent puts it, we can talk forever.
I don’t ask for much in a relationship, that way I’m not disappointed. On Valentine’s Day that night, just feeling the warmth of Brent’s body next to mine was about as good as it gets. I’ve missed that.
But today is another day. We have things to do and places to go.
February 12, 2019 – Dash Point State Park, Federal Way, WA
It’s the first time since we’ve been on the road that we haven’t had to pack up and leave in the morning. Brent, Loki and I have been here for a few days now, though I can’t remember exactly when we arrived. Here, away from civilization, time is measured not by obligations and appointments, but by morning coffee, washing dishes, drying clothes, playing cards, and the occasional shower (when I feel brave enough to face the cold).
Yesterday the campsite “host”, or should I say “hostess”, stopped by to inform us that all tent campers had to pack up and leave due to upcoming inclement weather conditions. This made no sense to me, since we’d already made it through the worst of it … 6 inches of snow, no power (meaning no heaters), and temperatures near the single digit range. The new forecast was for a mere 1-3 inches of snow, turning into rain as warmer weather moved in from the south. She eventually softened, informing us that we needed to “take responsibility” for anything that might happen, though I assume we had already done that when we reserved our tent site….and that’s how we left it.
Our tent is about as comfortable as a tent can be. In theory, it’s built for 8 people. In fact, it’s the perfect size for two people and a dog. There’s more than enough room for chairs, a queen size blowup mattress, camp stove, and supplies. Two electric heaters keep the temperature around 60 degrees inside. For Brent, this is luxury living—for me, it could be considered a step down from living in a house, but I don’t look at it that way. It’s an opportunity to be independent, to do what I want when I want.
I’ve always had that nomad mentality, for as far back as I can remember. As a child I slept with a radio next to my bed, one hand on the dial, searching through static, trying to pick up the most distant station I could find and dreamed of being there, wondering what it would be like to live that alternate reality. But lately I’ve been feeling the need to settle down, find a place I can put my belongings, a place to call home. That doesn’t mean I won’t wander—it’s an integral part of who I am.
How did I end up living this nomadic existence in a tent? It’s a long story, one that will slowly unwind as this blog progresses.