Caravan

Greg is singing the praises of a beach-side campsite in northern California.

“Ooh, I have to add that to my bucket list,” says Mary Rose, getting out her phone.

(Mary Rose’s bucket list includes the whole world, as far as I can tell. She is spiritedly racing the clock of debility, before spinal stenosis limits her further. She loves every campsite our caravan chooses. All she asks is that we park close enough that she can socialize without having to walk long distances. Even we introverts willingly scoot together.)

When I don’t reach for my phone to make note of this Edenic campsite, Greg cocks a quizzical brow. I explain that I don’t even have a bucket list; I assumed I’d never be able to do anything on it. A realization is slowly dawning.

“I wonder if I’m limiting myself unnecessarily.”

Greg and Mary Rose both smile.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Mary Rose says. “I don’t think you’ve fully absorbed the freedom your van can give you.”

Image shows a wintery desert scene in evening light. Tufts of brown growth soften an expanse of gravel. In the background rise two low mountain ranges, the nearer one coppery brown, the farther one more grayish. Near Earp, CA. (The sky is 100% blue in all photos unless otherwise noted.)

“We’re having a campfire tonight. Gwen’s bringing her guitar, and I’ll have mine. Bring your ukulele and play a song for us,” Zeke suggests—again.

“I’m not very good yet.”

Zeke isn’t impressed.

Eventually I gather my courage to play and sing “When You’re Smiling.” Cheers follow.

“Charlie Chaplin wrote that,” says Zeke.

Gwen smiles warmly and talks about how playing in supportive groups encouraged her when she started, too. She launches into a Mazzy Star tune, and the songs keep flowing.

Image shows an ocotillo stem from below, the tiny leaves and not-so-tiny thorns on its twisting branches shining against extraordinarily deep, dark blue sky. At American Girl Mine Road in southern CA.

Evan glances away, his voice gentle. “I know you’re not able to hike, but you miss exploring. Is there a reason you don’t break camp to explore by van?”

Oh. There isn’t. I realize that I’ve been conditioned by camping alone in Colorado over the summer not to leave a campsite lest I lose it. Now I have fellow campers who are glad to save my place.

Image shows a dust storm beginning at American Girl Mine. In the background, layers of charcoal and gray mountains shimmer through a fine layer of blowing sand. In the foreground, creosote bush shows bright green against a ground of gray gravel.

“I’m stuck in deep sand. Can you pull me out?”

“On my way,” Zeke texts back. While I wait, I make a cup of tea and relax in desert sunshine with my ukulele. Soon Zeke shows up and unearths a snatch strap from his arsenal of recovery gear. He’s perfectly cheerful about having to break camp and wallow in sand under my van to attach the strap to the front axle. In moments I’m mobile again.

Image shows evening sun bringing warmth to a giant mountain shaped like an iceberg. At Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, AZ.

“I may have to leave,” I tell Tess. I’m not used to socializing. I haven’t conversed with five people at once in years. I struggle to process all the information in a conversation. And people keep dropping by my van to chat, as if they want my company. My brain is fried, and I’m exhausted, unable to recover after a flare-up without full rest.

“No, don’t leave!” she replies in dismay. “We’ll find a way to make it work. You can put up a flag or something when you’re up for company. Just please stay.”

Image shows fog, of all things, on a dramatic, cloudy morning amid the mountains and spires of Oatman, AZ. The foreground is dotted with white “jumping” cholla—extra-spiny cacti that pounce on the wary and unwary alike.

Just please stay.

Except among my inner circle of family and friends I have never encountered people who accepted my disability so readily, with so little judgment; who encouraged me to stretch my limits without denying them; who accommodated them with so little resentment. Not once in the 4 1/2 months I camped with this shifting constellation of people did I feel pressured to “pass” for able-bodied.

My experience in 26 years of illness, including six of disability, is that most people are willing to accommodate limits—right up until the moment those limits affect them. That’s when you become a whiner, an oddball, a wuss; someone without the gumption or will or character to keep up. The disabled, neuro-atypical, ill, or elderly who want full access to a world built for others are not always considered fully fellow humans, but rather an irritating, “less-than” minority making inconvenient demands of the “real” people. We may be accommodated out of pity or under duress, but seldom because we’re desired. Because people want our company.

I have often found it easier to harm myself by trying to “pass” in public for abled or to withdraw from the world of the (temporarily) able-bodied than to be thus diminished. The fight for self-hood can feel like the ultimate exercise in futility, because people who don’t see you as “real”…don’t see you.

Image shows the sunset over Lake Mead. A lenticular (“spaceship”) cloud dominates the upper right sky; to the left are streaks of more ordinary, sorbet-colored clouds. In the foreground, the mountains are layered in midnight and paler blue, with the lake lapping at their feet.

“Just please stay.”

One member of our caravan has hiked the Appalachian Trail; one was a wildland firefighter. One ran ultra-marathons, another served in the Navy for twenty years. One walked across America and rode the rails as a hobo for fun. One raised a child at 16. These are not people who twiddle their thumbs.

What grace made them open to limitations, taught them to understand human value as separate from ability? To care more about the “content of someone’s character” than their capacity to perform up to standard?

Why did they value me enough to accommodate my disability when others have not, even though I have been the same person to them all? Are nomads—people for whom “So, do you have a sink?” is a genuine, curious question—just predisposed to see a broader range of normal?

I don’t know. We certainly had our share of -isms, judgments, and divisions. I just know that in this caravan, ableism wasn’t one of them.

It matters, more than I can tell you, to belong.

Image shows a dramatic sunset at American Girl Mine. A single cloud, shaded from neon orange below to almost black at the top, angles upward across the whole photo. The sky at the flat, black horizon glows hot.

*****************

I encountered my caravan through the Homes on Wheels Alliance. HOWA is a not-for-profit that prevents unsheltered homelessness and supports nomadic communities. Every winter they organize caravans in the desert southwest. I joined one simply hoping for a sense of safety. I certainly found a great deal more than that.

Gnawing Worries

(Or: In Which We See the Light)

Rodents chew loudly; I’ll give them that. You don’t have to wonder, after a long day of chores and travel, when the curtains are drawn against a crisp November night while you unwind by lantern light in pajamas with herbal tea and a mystery, whether something is trying to gnaw through the floorboards under the brake pedal.

You know.

Out you go in your bathrobe, flashlight in one hand, spray bottle in the other, to roust out the intruder with peppermint oil and cider vinegar. (Rawr.) After much stomping and spraying, the chewing stops, and you go inside, thinking the intruder vanquished. Just as you relax, the chewing begins again.

But hey—you know when it does.

You might repeat all that a couple of times before you get a direct hit with the vinegar. By then it’s the rodent’s bedtime anyway, so you can both return to your corners for a breather. If you’re stubborn, optimistic, weary, in denial, me, you’ll repeat this two more nights before admitting defeat.

The light—oh, the light. When the sun glances sidelong at the waning day, the very air glows. Colors spark to life. The saguaros seem both close at hand and far away, as if you’re seeing them through a shine of memory. When tales speak of fairy glamour, this is what they mean. You would gladly follow a will-o’-the-wisp of this light into another world.

Image shows a desert landscape with a generous scattering of saguaros. Some of them have no arms, some half a dozen. They are as individual as humans. The sky is huge and blue, the air sparklingly clear. The sun is beginning to set and warms everything with golden light.

This was the second campsite I’d run from in two weeks. The first time, I’d rolled into Las Cienegas with a swagger. I’d been on the road for six months, conquered the Chihuahuas of Worry, and was handling vanlife Like. A. Boss. I left with my tail between my legs, responding to a deep fear whose source remains a mystery. I am still trying to understand what was real and what imagined. I’m safe; that’s all I know. I drove four miles to a busier campground in the Conservation Area, and the fear left completely.

Now I’d arrived, chastened, on Cactus Forest BLM land north of Tucson, only to be gnawed upon in a vulnerable place. Eventually I crossed the road to a quieter area with cleaner fire rings. I put the hood up, spread mint-soaked cotton balls through the engine compartment, squirted tires and insulated hoses with vinegar, put a flashing light under the engine, and hoped for the best.

I had done all that before. With rodents, I find, you can do All the Things—Irish Spring, dryer sheets, mothballs, coyote urine, balsam fir—and they will work so long as the rodents aren’t particularly interested. Once you’re in their sights, they’re coming for you, friend.

I slept the rest of the week with one ear open. I did not unwind in PJ’s or lose myself in a novel. I researched rodent repellants (ha!) and mobile mechanics.

The landscape itself is fantastical. It operates by rules you never learned. Saguaros, towering sometimes thirty feet overhead, stretch all their arms to unknown gods; tree chollas bristle at you. (At the base of each is a warren of rodent holes. Stretching between warrens are highways worn by tiny feet powering perpetual-motion teeth.) Palo verde trees stand here and there, almost leafless, photosynthesizing through their bark. You find yourself craving green eggs and ham, hunting for rhymes with “sneetch,” while coyotes serenade the stars with songs as high and weightless as starlight.

Image shows more of the desert landscape. It is surprisingly lush (to me). Cat-claw mesquite bushes, saguaros, and tree chollas predominate. The chollas are taller than you, with prickly, finger-like branches and dangling fruit pods. They look frazzled, like they stuck their fingers in a light socket.

I worry that the effort of dealing with mechanical failure—and losing my home in the meanwhile—might sink me under the weight of illness and trap me again in a house. I love this beautiful life of discovery, but something as small as a rodent could end it.

I chewed on worry for the week.

Over Thanksgiving weekend the shooting began. You often hear gunfire on public lands, where target practice is permitted. Usually it’s a modest half hour of potshots while people maintain their skills. This began an hour before dawn and kept going until an hour after dusk, twelve hours straight, three days running, pausing only for a pit stop. Single-shot weapons, semi-automatics, fully automatics, small explosives. I felt like I was sitting in a room during an argument.

Even after sunset the landscape glows with unearthly light—clear, as if the planet had no atmosphere; soft with that memory of shine. A gentle, complex palette emerges that you didn’t see in full light. You realize how alive the desert is, that it is everything but barren.

Image shows the landscape at dusk. The “belt of Venus” stretches pink and blue bands across the horizon. The mesquite and saguaros look fresh, almost spring-green in this light, and the sages(?) glow faintly white against the sand.

I’ve lived alone since the last millennium, been isolated in a house for years. I remained part of a network of care, knew my spirit connected across distances to family and friends through strong ties of love. That had seemed enough. I still thought that because I lived alone, I managed the logistics of life alone. “Self-sufficiency” is one of the great American myths, and I bought it, even while living on disability.

I hadn’t realized how much neighbors had contributed to my well-being. Mine had been good ones—not friends, but people you could ask for a jump-start. We kept an eye out for each other, offered rides to the mechanic, made the occasional casserole, propped up the wall between us while we chatted. We were not interdependent, but we shared.

The sunsets—well. Desert sunsets are legendary and need no further praise here. It’s the hour before dusk that taught my heart what light is, to hunger for its purity, to yearn to be absorbed in that glow.

Image shows a saguaro in the foreground, its arms silhouetted against a glowing, orange-y sky as the sun dips behind hills on the horizon.

The week at Las Cienegas had shaken me from serene solitude to frightened isolation. Now, in the distance, a fellow human trained doggedly to destroy other fellow humans. Rodents had gnawed away—yet again—at my self-sufficiency.

Worry picked up where they left off, chewing loudly, persistently, determinedly, until finally it broke through the floorboards of my long-cherished independence. Up through the opening popped this astonishing thought:

“Maybe this is why humans band together in community?”

Ting! The light shone all around.

Image shows cholla fingers backlit by the sun, haloed by hundreds of prickles pointing every which way, all glowing white. A Ting! of lens flare in the upper left brings home the point that the sun is shining, in case you might not have noticed.

That’s what I needed—to find me some sugar-lending, ladder-borrowing, jump-starting, ride-sharing, casserole-making, dog-sitting, wall-propping, coffee-klatching, portable neighbors!

And so the quest began.

To be continued…

Anything

Where did this algae bloom of fear come from?

I have spent my life in love with the sky. With breathing room. I have gloried in being small in vast spaces, found a perspective in them that freed me from fuss and gave me the right to take action. To be out in the open on a grassy hillside, with nothing between me and the sky—that is heaven.

Image shows the sun just touching an open horizon at dusk, with a lone ironwood tree silhouetted in front of it. The sky is tinged with gold at the horizon but blue overhead. Clouds streak it hither and yon.

I have made my peace with silence. After being forced into it for years, I have lost my horror of what I feared was emptiness. It has become a friend that holds me in its embrace.

And I am at home in solitude. It is my native land, my place of fluency and ease.

So what pinned me, quivering, in a serene, open grassland, like a rabbit in a hawk’s shadow?

I had gone for a short walk at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area southeast of Tucson. It is the kind of landscape that sets my heart singing—a gentle one of rolling, interweaving hills and soaring skies. In mid-November, its blanket of sacaton grasses glowed in late-afternoon sun. The bosque of Arizona ash along that great wonder of southwestern wonders—a year-round river—was just warming to gold. In the distance, “sky island” mountains twisted up from the earth, while the hills in the foreground echoed with birds and the cattle on the Conservation Area’s historic, working ranch.

Image shows late-afternoon sunlight turning knee-high grasses on gentle hills autumn-gold in the foreground. Behind them rise knobbly, gray-brown mountains, with pure blue sky in the background. The feathery branches of ironwood trees partially frame the scene.

I had spent the days since my arrival resting. My buggy is a lovely window on the world, and from its shelter the hills had called out. Just across each rise, they promised, a new mystery awaited. Cattle lowed outside my windows every morning, ambled past to the next grazing ground. A kestrel kept watch in an ironwood tree.

When I arrived, I had neighbors one campsite over. I was glad of them. Signs in this border region warn of drug and human smugglers, and I don’t have enough experience to assess the danger. On the second day, the neighbors rumbled away to journey elsewhere. None took their place.

Image shows the sun setting from a different place in the Conservation Area—an over-bright glow disappearing behind mountains blue with distance. The branches of yet another ironwood frame the photo. Dots of texture stipple the foreground where the grasses’ seed heads catch the light from behind.

On the third day, I returned to life and ventured out into this landscape so suited to my heart. I started with a spring in my step. When I turned for home, though, the sight of my van—my world—stopped me cold. It sat alone on that vast plain, a speck of white sand on a tiny island in an ocean of grass. It was so very, very small.

I stood there for a minute, under the huge sky in the silence of high noon. I stood all alone.

The thought hit me: “You are a sitting duck.”

As I said, the border promotes fear. I hadn’t anticipated being on my own in a land tailor-made for traffickers during the week of the full moon. Perhaps I was just jumpy? I didn’t detect an immediate threat; the hackles on my neck stayed low. The anxious hamster-wheel of “what-if’s” lives in the mind and adrenal glands. True fear runs deeper, bypassing the conscious mind to galvanize the body. This fear ran deeper yet, to chill the soul. I was small and alone, and the world was vast and empty. (Meanwhile, cattle lowed. Birds sang.)

I happen to believe that a little existential terror is good for the soul. After returning to the van, I sat with fear for a couple of days to sift through it, sorting what-if’s from reality, imagination from gut, coming to terms with my place in the cosmos. I realized that part of the fear was the sense that, in this nomadic life, anything could happen.

Anything.

With that, my heart leapt high. When I was trapped inside four walls, knowing to the minute what every day would bring, I had withered. The sense that nothing would happen almost brought me to despair. Knowing now that anything could happen—yes, that might be fear. But it also looked remarkably like hope.

Image shows the same scene as the first photo, a few minutes later. The sun has disappeared. The lower clouds streak up at an angle and are orange-red. The higher ones are wispy and charcoal gray against pale, gray-blue sky.

For two mornings I rode that wave, balanced between fear and hope, keenly, painfully aware of the fragile, astounding gift of life. Every morning, the cows ambled by. Birds sang. I came to a delicate truce, where hope and fear shook hands.

Again on the third morning, I went for a walk, while the horizon stretched out on all sides. Again I was pinned with terror. But this time I knew the difference between what-if’s and the now, between body and soul. This time was different.

No cattle lowed. No birds sang.

A pause to listen. Yes, there—in the distance they did. Just the circle around me was silent.

And then I knew the peace of turning tail and running.

To be continued…