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.