A month has come and gone. It’s been illuminating. Unfortunately, when you add light to dark places, sometimes what’s revealed isn’t pretty.
Before we set out on this venture, I was assured–in glowing terms and by not a few people–“you’re going to LOVE California!”; “I did something like that when I was young–it was great!”; etc.
I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. California sucks.
Granted, like every place I’ve been, it has its upsides. There are some amazing, beautiful, rare places, people and experiences in California. I love that I can walk to the shore from my brother-in-law’s place in Monterey, sit down on a rock, and play Norwegian Wood to a passing sea otter (he left when I started playing Hawaiian). That’s amazing.
Not the same otter. This one was just hanging out napping in the Moss Landing marina. This sort of experience makes it easy to forget these guys are seriously endangered.
I love the climate on the central coast. (As a northern-European-mongrel human, I always was a little out of place in the year-round sun; my skin just can’t take it. Clouds and fog are much more comfortable.) I like the neo-hippy ethos, despite the occasional excesses of Newage (I pronounce it like “sewage”) crazy. I really like that the “weird” people here seem to feel free to express their styles and let their freak flags fly–that’s not something you’ll find just anywhere, and it’s an undervalued trait in a culture.
But California doesn’t want us, not as we are; and that makes her really hard to love. (I’ve been over my masochistic someday-she’ll-want-me-if-I-just-try-harder phase for a while now).
There are a few reasons for this feeling of exclusion: 1) we are currently neither willing nor able to hand over our limited wealth to the local feudal lord(s) for the privilege of having a place to sleep, 2) we are not lords (aka landowners) ourselves, and 3) we therefore do not live in a house, condo, motel, RV park, campground, or other such “official” accommodations.
Unfortunately, this means that our basic existence often becomes illegal along about 10pm or so (it varies) each night; when the sun comes up, we are magically transformed once more into US citizens with the right to travel and peaceably assemble. This is especially clear in upper-class neighborhoods, where signs like this one are the norm:
Paraphrased: “get off my lawn, you damn kids”. Unfortunately “my lawn” somehow got redefined as “this entire municipal region”.
I’m starting a collection of pictures of such signs. They’re ubiquitous here. Maybe I’ll make a collage or something. But the signs aren’t really the point. It’s the attitude behind them that’s important.
California has a deep, wide authoritarian streak. This is not very different from US culture in general; we’re pretty big on the Rule of Law ’round here–and boy are there a lot of those. But California takes it to a level I didn’t encounter often in my native Arizona. This isn’t too difficult to navigate if you are conventionally-homed, because the Rules are set up to favor you. You’ll have very little worry, typically, of being woken by law enforcement banging on your door–as long as you are not having a raucous late night party or otherwise breaking one of the well-known Rules.
When you live in a vehicle, the Rules are much less favorable, and suddenly the world looks a lot less fair and reasonable. It’s also much more difficult to avoid becoming an accidental criminal.
Let me be clear: we have been going out of our way, from day one, to be respectful of other people as we travel. We clean up trash from parks and beaches, and don’t leave any ourselves. We search painstakingly for the best places to overnight, where we won’t bother anyone or get in the way. We don’t park right in front of houses to avoid alarming homeowners. We don’t make noise, or leave behind any messes. We always pick up our dog’s poop. We obey all posted signs and parking rules. In other words, we do our best to be responsible citizens wherever we happen to be.
Didn’t stop somebody from calling the cops on us, though. At least they waited until it was light outside, so that was a plus, I guess.
BANG BANG BANG BANG went the steel door, at 6:30 this morning.
BARK grooowl BARK groowl BARK BARK went our dog.
“Just a minute!” damnit, where’s my shirt?
I peeked out the curtain to see two blue shirts, two pairs of sunglasses and two very shiny badges. Damnit, damnit, I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later. I waved and held up a finger for them to hang on a second. Crap, where are my pants?
Some moments later, mostly dressed and very much awake with police-induced adrenaline: “Morning, officers!” My very best fake-friendly voice. Hopefully it’s more convincing from the outside. At least maybe they’ll appreciate the effort. Meanwhile, the dog is doing his best to scare them away–not so helpful, at the moment.
Law Enforcement Officer 1: “Nice dog. He friendly?”
Me: “Probably not if you try to come in here, no.” Hope that didn’t sound too much like a threat…
LEO1: chuckle. “All right then. Can I see some ID?”
Me: “Sure thing, here you go.”
LEO1: “I see you’re camping in your vehicle–we’re here because someone in the neighborhood called you in…”
Me: ‘Camping’? This is my home! “We’re not trying to bother anyone, sir, just traveling and needed a quiet place to sleep for the night.”
LEO1: “Did you know it’s illegal to sleep in a vehicle anywhere in the City of Monterey?”
Me: what a ridiculous law. “No, officer, I didn’t know that.”
LEO2: “Yep, only place you can overnight is down by Veteran’s Park, they just charge a small fee…”
Me: “Well, that’s the problem, we can’t afford much in the way of fees–is there anywhere else we’d be able to go?”
LEO2: shrug. “Not around here, don’t think so. Especially if you park in these neighborhoods, people are gonna call you in.” [We’re parked up the hill a bit, in a quiet upper-class neighborhood, but in front of an empty woodlot and not in front of anyone’s home or driveway–our standard tactic to avoid just this kind of unpleasantry.]
Me: “Well, we were going to leave as soon as we got up anyway, so we’ll just move along.”
LEO1: “All right then, you have a good day.”
LEO2: “Is that a solar panel? Cool!”
A fairly pleasant interaction, as law-enforcement encounters go. But what really bothers me is that the first interaction we had with any human beings in the area was police officers waking us up in the early morning and telling us to leave. And we’ve been expecting this to happen, everywhere we’ve gone.
If a non-official person had come up to us, asking who we were and why we were parking in the neighborhood, we would have been happy to speak with them–and we would have left willingly, too, if they were really bothered by having us there. Instead, someone asked the government to remove us.
It’s this whole attitude that gets to me. Anyone different is a threat. Threats are to be removed, by force if necessary (I am under no illusion that the pleasant demeanor of an on-duty officer is anything but a compliance technique–they would have arrested us if we refused any of their “requests”).
The problem is, where are we supposed to go? The answer, mostly, seems to be “somewhere else”.
Well, we’re headed to the National Forest for a while. Maybe the neighbors will be a bit more welcoming there. (The problems with public lands in California deserve a whole post of their own–we’ll get there.)