I live with my partner, Alex, and his dog in a little white car — our interpretation of an urban camping lifestyle. A secluded parking spot at a big box store is our nightly home base, and our monthly expenses are usually in the mid-hundreds. This was our choice, in an attempt to catch up on savings and find our footing after we realized we couldn't afford our lease anymore.
We have no intention to buy a physical residence anytime soon, but sometimes, we enjoy home-gazing in opulent neighborhoods. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me who gets off on walking somewhere I don’t belong. It’s like I expect a member of the mythical Neighborhood Watch to stop us with a flashlight and demand the secret password — or to call the cops with a “hippie sighting,” having noticed our dirty shoes and scruffy white (yellowish, really) dog trotting between us. Theatrics aside, it’s pleasant to walk in rich neighborhoods that always smell faintly of white soap and cedar, to stretch our legs and reflect on the day.
I am beginning to believe this is the underlying truth to any station in life, rich or poor, housed or unhoused; it is just easier to realize the importance of staying calm when survival is at the forefront of your mind.
After a particularly rough day this winter, we bundled up and set out on a sidewalk that opened into a suburb of Barbie Dreamhouses planted at the foot of Cheyenne Mountain. A young man stopped us, probably assuming we lived nearby. Distressed, the rosy-cheeked high schooler asked if we’d ever been to the sushi restaurant down the road.
We hadn’t been to a sit-down restaurant in months. Alex was still trying to land a job and I was waiting for my latest freelance check to show up in the mail. We had just listed his laptop on Craigslist because we were down to ten dollars in grocery money. We tend to stay level during times of stress, but that day, we’d been short with each other.
The young man unloaded his story on us, heaving. "I was on my way out, and I said 'Have a nice night' to the waiter. But then he didn’t say anything. I asked him why he wouldn’t say ‘You too,’ and he said 'Because you’re annoying as f*ck.' I am seriously going to cry right now!”
We commiserated. He kept ranting as if it was the first time anyone had criticized him. I thought about offering a hug, but instead suggested he write a Google review. “That sucks, man,” Alex said, his tone warming up from our previous doomsday talk. After another minute of venting, the young man put his headphones back on and stalked away. It was a little thing, but it was enough to bring us out of our slump. His suffering was a reminder of what we knew, viscerally: it doesn’t matter how stressful an actual situation is. What matters is how you react to it.
Alex and I returned to his car and drove it to our sleep spot. With the sun fully set now, the mountains loomed as black shadows set against a deep blue sky. We popped out of the car to begin making the bed. Rough wind swept down the neck hole of my coat and across my exposed hands, which were already cracked and dry from the altitude. Alex put up the windshield cover while I slid the passenger seat forward and started “stuffing the hole,” putting bags of clothing, climbing gear, and book bags into the gap behind the seat.
Nightly, we do this, while Doggie hops from one spot to another like he’s Frogger and our hands are the cars poised to run him over. We flatten camping pads, pat down pillows, rearrange sleeping bags and stuff our coats into gaps to make our bed. Finally, we duck into the backseat, stuff our shoes somewhere toward the front, and huddle into our individual sleeping bags to bring warmth back into our shelter.
On paper, it looks arduous. Maybe it is. Maybe that’s what gives it value: we must work hard, cooperate intensely, and think everything through to completion or it falls apart. I am beginning to believe this is the underlying truth to any station in life, rich or poor, housed or unhoused; it is just easier to realize the importance of staying calm when survival is at the forefront of your mind.
It’s not hard work all the time, however. When the sun warms me awake, I open my eyes to a tangerine mountain range. I tuck my nose under my sleeping bag to laze cocooned in my own warmth. I consider how much happier I feel now that I’m aware and out in the world, rather than existing with loved ones behind closed doors, gazing into separate screens, complaining into a void about politics or weather or sushi.
Images: Free Spirit Colorado; Amanda Low