Going West, Chapter Two: Comfortably Homeless
In August 2015 I quit my full time job, shoved my stuff into a van and went West, tired of humidity and mediocrity. Reached Montana, found a town I liked and quit drifting. I camped in the National Forests, taking photos of mountains. For legal purposes I used a family address back in Missouri, but for a month I was homeless. This was a challenge, an opportunity, and an experience worth writing about.
For short stretches, being homeless is vacation. I camped, used the bathroom at Walmart, drank coffee from the gas station. Tore down the tent each morning, spread it out in the back of the van and flew down the interstate with the windows open, air dry. I was going, going, no destination except the horizon. No job so I slept in and woke with the sun, to birds and bugs crying out to get laid. My beard extended, my hair became unmanageable. But to stop was to reacquire responsibility – bills and loans traverse the wide sky above my rambling feet, tracking me like prey. They met me smiling at each gas station, fueled by the dauntless constancy of the finest 4G wireless network in the nation.
I do not endorse the raving off-the-grid crowd, who weave the actual products, perceived motivations, and visible actions of companies, governments, and individuals into fantastic conspiratorial tapestries that obscure the truth more effectively than any PR shill ever could. My job and hobbies require taking advantage of the electrical, oil, highway, and internet systems of this country, regardless of their respective flaws. I, like all patriots, have paid for enough infrastructure that I refuse to remove myself from the system as a whole, although to quote The Architect, “There are levels of survival we are prepared to accept”. Ergo, at minimum, temporary accommodations near a library and ubiquitous Walmart were required.
The U.S Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management allow “dispersed” camping, with very few limitations. Consecutive stays can extend 12 to 16 days, depending on the location, and a few parks have rules about a limit on longer periods, such as no more than 30 out of any 60 days, rules designed to prevent squatting by people less creative than I. I dispersed myself into Lolo National Forest, since it surrounds Missoula on all four sides, and comprises two million acres. Rarely used the same site twice, tried not to spend more than two or three nights on the same road. Sometimes a truck or a hatchback under fat-tire bicycles dusted my campsite, but I had no neighbors. Was it legal? Probably not, but I respect private property and little else, so with my tax dollars in the system already I felt righteous laying my head on Teddy Roosevelt's pillow.
Wild I was as I curled into my Spartan's cloak of a tent at night, but when I drove into town I expected the mountain man smell to stay behind. Solutions included baby wipes, which I used daily, without shame. On hot days, a gallon jug of clear mountain stream water would spill refreshingly over my head, and sometimes on cold days as well. I avoided soap and deodorants that could attract bears just like food in the tent would. Speaking of bears, the air-conditioned masses ask as one, “where did you poop?” In the forest like an animal, see “baby wipes” above, and no further questions please.
With high standards of personal hygiene, housing was rendered irrelevant. Another professional photographer I met even commended my choices, after saying he maintained a FedEx store mailbox and lived on a boat when he wasn't traveling. Employers don't ask where you sleep at night, so I got a job, kept my good credit, and lived freely. Pasta softens over a camp stove on dirt as efficiently as in a linoleum kitchen, and the nightly bourbon went down extra smooth with a mountain vista before my eyes.
Getting that job was the critical first step in establishing residency here, because the “chase your dreams” motivational poster in my head disappeared faster than the digits in my bank account. The trip I took sounds romantic, but I had one clear goal of finding a “place” to call home, and after that simple task was accomplished, the hard work of becoming a citizen again started. Montana has all sorts of bureaucratic nonsense in it's books, almost all of which could be negatively applied to my temporary situation. As previously noted, I wasn't hiding in the woods as the expression of an ideal, I lived in the woods for free as a solution to a temporary housing deficit caused by an abrupt and haphazard lifestyle adjustment.
True independence comes not from removing yourself from morally problematic systems when it suits your mood, but rather can be the end result of working within the existing system to mold it to your own purposes. In this country right now, we have the obligation to use the tools inherent in our systems (electrical, agricultural, educational, political, and social to name a few of many) to improve the flaws that have been left for us by previous generations who did not share our evolved values. Allow me the pretension of applying some knowledge gained on my trip to a larger situation: that there are two ways to radically change a life. First, we can destroy all we know, pack away our history (good and bad together) and try to start fresh. But we'll never escape our own nature, and will always retain the character which is the sum of our experiences. Or, we can recognize that small changes applied periodically can affect great and cataclysmic change over time, and that we are capable of guiding our experiences to become the characteristics we desire, and maintaining awareness of the larger contexts within which we must operate.
Not only beautiful pictures, but also a great read with idea behind it, as well as the story...
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