Without a commitment in the world for 3 weeks, and with a reservation for a camper van, I couldn’t wait to flee the Bay Area and my life. I would have liked to pick up the van at 5am and race away before the millions of douches hit the road to build their dumb “Uber of ___” start-ups, or uber to a breakfast meeting for their 5-million-dollar-a-year investing jobs, but the van wouldn’t be ready until 11. So I took Oscar and we ran up a mountain at sunrise to feel like we were starting our vacation.
I’m always surprised at how much time it takes to do any run we have to drive to, and even though we’d hit the trail by 5:30am, by the time we got home there was hardly enough time to do half of the things that I still needed to do before we left for vacation. I rushed through packing up the car and taking out the trash, leaving the other tasks like ordering more checks and picking up around the house for after I returned. I checked over my checklist one more time, locked both deadbolts on the door, and rushed to the rental center in Hayward (which is not far, but inconvenient to get to).
The rental office was staffed by a cheerful REI-type millennial who was friendly and competent. The office was about what I expected to see: a lost-and-found type collection of odds and ends that people could use for their trip, a few found-at-the-side-of-the-road type couches, desks from the same source, turn of the century desktop computers, bad K-cup coffee and a guinea pig in a cage in the back. Everyone loved Oscar, which put me at ease and made me excited for the trip. I can always tell whether I’m going to have a good day or a bad day based on how people react to my beautiful, friendly, barky, pitbull-looking dog
Rental paperwork signed, orientation completed, and keys handed over, all I needed to do was transfer my stuff from my car to the van and get going on vacation. I had called ahead about where I could leave my car, and had been told that there was a BART station nearby. My car would probably be broken into, but I thought that replacing a window was a small price to pay for the most needed vacation in history. Before saying goodbye, I asked the cheerful millennial for directions to the BART station.
“It’s only about 3 miles away…” she said. “You’ll take this road over the freeway…” I deflated. When I had called, the person on the phone had led me to believe that the BART station was only a few blocks away. I had the dog with me, and had never tried to get an Uber with a dog, but anticipated problems. Also, this was not an easy 2.5 miles. My GPS said that it would take me nearly 15 minutes to get there. In fact, it took more, as there were a number of those 5-minute traffic lights between me and the destination. I could not wait to get away from anywhere where a 5-minute traffic light cycle was necessary… The parking lot proved to be one of those places that stymies GPSes. Every time I drove around the parking lot looking for an entrance, the GPS would change its mind and tell me that the lot was now 2 blocks away.
Finally I found the parking garage… which was full of commuters’ cars. My nerves were wound so tight that even this minor aggravation was enough to have me screaming out my windshield. I circled and circled the parking structure until finally I found a spot on the roof. I did a final once-over to make sure that there was no junkie bait sitting on any of the seats, and then debated whether to leave my doors locked or unlocked (to spare the windows), and then left the car. I had walked only a few feet before I saw the sign about the 24-hour parking limit. My head spun as I drove back to the rental place with close to an hour of my vacation wasted.
As I drove back, my mind raced through all the reasons why this was the fault of the rental agency:
They needed to have a reliable place to recommend that clients park within walking distance. They hadn’t even bothered to check out the place that they were sending people, and couldn’t direct them there. If I were running that business, every employee would have to visit the parking garage as part of their orientation, and they would have printed maps in the office. Their incompetence made this their problem, not mine.
Why couldn’t they just have me sign a liability waiver and leave my car in their lot? Why couldn’t I just pay them to leave my car in their lot? One thing that I had learned while working in venture capital is that there is no problem that money can’t fix. Why hadn’t they solved this problem already?I was wasting my whole vacation driving around the industrial part of Hayward, and they were charging me for this day!
I walked back into the office fuming. When the sweet millennial saw me walk in, her face fell. She paused the check-in that she was doing to discuss the problem with me, then went to get permission for me to park in their lot from some shady manager figure in the back. When the verdict came back “no,” the curtain of stress dropped over my brain and I stopped being able to think clearly or form memories. I do remember snippets of the conversation…
“I know they allow long-term parking in a certain part of the lot…”
“I’m telling you, they don’t, or you sent me to the wrong lot. In any case, I’m not paying the rental fee for a day when I’m just driving around Hayward because you are giving your customers wrong information…”
“I will sign a release of liability! I won’t be mad if my windows get broken, and there’s nothing of value in my car. It was going to get broken into at the BART station anyway. I just need a place to leave it, please!”
“I can’t go home to drop off my car. Mountain View is close, but it’s not THAT close. And what am I going to do with my dog if I have to take an uber?”
Finally the manager said petulantly. “Fine. Park in our lot. But we’re not responsible for any losses or damages, and we had a homeless lady sniffing around here last night. I’ll probably get fired for it, but whatever…”
“Thank you,” I said, trying to switch gears from angry to grateful without stopping at dumbfounded in between. I tried to hand her my keys.
She threw up her hands and jumped backward like they were radioactive. “Oh no you don’t!” she said. “That’s even more liability.”
“It’s fine! I’m not going to hold you responsible for my car. Don’t you want them in case it’s in the way?”
“Okay then, where should I park that won’t be in your way?” She signaled vaguely to a corner of the lot as she walked back to her back office cave.
“Thank you so much,” I said to the millennial, who was looking at me stunned and sympathetic.
For the next hour I fought my way through Bay Area traffic and plotted how I was going to get the rental manager fired. I had to admit, it did make sense that they couldn’t take on the liability, and that protecting cars that were parked for long periods of time was probably prohibitively expensive. And it probably wasn’t as common as I thought for people to turn up in one vehicle just to rent another… But that didn’t excuse her for being rude! It wasn’t until I came over the Richmond Bridge and my tires hit Marin County for the first time that the solution hit me like a thunderbolt. Why hadn’t I just left all my stuff and the dog at home, taken an uber to pick up the van, and then started my trip from Mountain View? Duh. I had been so wrapped up in making an untenable plan work, ready to throw all kinds of money at it to see a successful outcome, that I hadn’t seen an obvious alternative that required only abandoning my dumb plan to begin with. That’s how everything had been lately. My problem solving had become so myopic that I was lamenting my bad luck and how the world was out to get me as I tore down walls brick by brick rather than turning around and trying to find a door.
There’s just something about Marin… I have had other terrible experiences there many, many times. Marin is where I cracked my bike frame in half with my snatch and had to ride home 40 miles on a bleeding and infected wound. Marin is where I drove back and forth from Stinson Beach 3 times and missed the start of a race. Marin is where I had suffered my mental breakdown a month earlier. Marin is the site of dozens more less dramatic but still aggravating instances of me being lost. But even with all this history, there is something magical about Marin. It is so beautiful that it can suck the stress out of you.
We stopped in Santa Rosa for coffee and a snack, and then left the freeway for the back roads, heading generally toward the coast. We went through the redwood forests near the Lucas estate that always seemed like something that might be haunted by witches and trolls in some fantasy world. Then we climbed over the open hills with the curly trees that may be oaks, or I may have made that up. And finally we found the coast highway along Bodega and Tomales Bay.
Because of its terrain, parts of California get country really, really quickly. You may be only 15 or 20 miles as a crow flies from a major metropolitan area, but in places isolated by mountains and nature conservation land it could be all banjos, pick-up trucks and no cell service. We stopped for bathroom breaks at picnic grounds and I let Oscar off his leash for the first time in the trip and watched him sprint and climb, sniff and explore the rocks and water. There is something restorative about watching a dog have fun, and finally, for the first time in years I began to unwind.
I had ridden my bike on all of the roads through Marin and out to Tomales and Bodega Bay, but once we reached the open ocean it was all new terrain to me. As the bay gave way to the ocean and the coastline became more rugged, our speed dropped down below 30mph as I nursed the van up and down the hills and sharp turns along the coast. The sun was clear, and the ocean sparkling and impossibly blue. It looked like Big Sur, only less imposing, the coastline more open and sections of the road covered with eucalyptus and Spanish moss. I couldn’t believe that this coast had been only a few hours’ drive from me this whole time and I had never seen it. I used to explore… why did I stop? Whatever life held next for me, I promised myself that I would not overcommit myself again to the point where I couldn’t explore the area around me again.
At a beach access parking lot, I was prepping Oscar and the van for our next leg of the drive when a man in the next car started a phone conversation in an obnoxiously loud voice. “Yeah, man…” he said in that thick surfer’s accent that always sounds ridiculous on men over 40. “I had like a midlife crisis and quit my job like a year ago. I’ve just been a dive bum off the coast of Costa Rica for the past 6 months. I think I’m going to become a diving instructor and just be a dive bum forever… It barely covers the child support, but South America’s so cheap and what more do you need…?”
Oh, I don’t know… I thought …Access to good medical care, for a start. And a plan that will continue to give you access to competent doctors and hospitals when you’re older and can’t dive anymore. And an emergency fund, in case one of your kids gets in a traumatic accident and you need to come back to the States and pay an American cost of living again, but can’t work because you need to be in the hospital every day. And enough retirement savings that you can come back here in retirement if you want and don’t have to grow old in a country that is not handicapped accessible…
I had jumped without a safety net before, and I never wanted to expose myself to that kind of risk again. For years I had been cutting down on frivolous spending, saving money, and trying to figure out how to live like a vagabond. But I refused to commit to any plan that wouldn’t provide health insurance and allow me to save a minimum contribution toward my retirement. It was not just this man’s California accent and loud voice that were obnoxious, and I felt justified in my scorn of his irresponsible choices as I drove away.
…But on the other hand… Health insurance and my retirement goals only amount to a minimum wage annual salary. However much more I had to work to cover food, shelter, electricity, transportation, and lifestyle were up to me. I could work more to live lavishly, but every dollar that I spent was a dollar that I would have to earn again next month. Alternatively, I could live humbly and never have to earn all that money in the first place. And work comes at a cost. Not only the emotional cost of stress, but also the time cost of days and years that you could be doing something better. The reason that I had not been on this coastal highway before was because I was stuck working in an office, so that I could pay for the dog care while I came to that office, and so that I could pay for a (ridiculously expensive) home close to that house. There had to be a more efficient and still responsible way of doing this…
I don’t come from an outdoorsy family, so when I pulled in to the first campground I saw after sunset I was shocked to find out that a tent spot could cost over $50 for a night. I don’t think it costs $50 to park at the airport short term parking overnight…! I filled out the after-hours registration and nosed my van into my spot. I slept immediately and soundly, but I woke up fully and irreversibly at my usual wake-up time: 4am. It was cold, so I went to turn on the ignition so I could blow some heat into my new home. I turned the key in the ignition, and got nothing but clicks and flashing lights on the dashboard. In my ignorance, I thought that the flashing lights and the fact that the dome light was still on meant that the battery was working, and the lack of a grinding sound meant that there was something wrong with the engine. I checked my phone: no signal. I have AAA, but without cell service I was stuck waiting until the little store at the entrance to the campground opened at 8. I was in a beautiful beachside campground, but suddenly it had become a prison. I took Oscar to the beach and let him explore while I searched for a cell signal. To the casual observer it may have looked like a leisurely dog walk on the beach at dawn, but in my mind I was pacing in an 8×10 cell.
As I wandered the campground, I saw many luxury RVs, but I was surprised to also see a number of gorgeous and tastefully decorated tiny homes. Many of them looked to be bigger than my own tiny studio unit, and much more thoughtfully designed. I had watched all of the documentaries and YouTube shows I could find about tiny homes, and had surmised that many of them gathered in one place, but it had never occurred to me that that place must be a campground or trailer park. I wondered if this was a good possibility for me, or if I would begin to feel trapped if I committed myself to such a lean lifestyle, only to live in one place for so long.
Finally around 9 I got a jump from one of the camp employees and was able to carry on. Without cell signal I hadn’t been able to find any nearby running or hiking, so we continued toward our next waypoint in Eureka, CA and hoped that a trail would come to meet us. The highway eventually left the coast for 100 miles or so, and wound at frightening angles through the Humboldt Redwoods State park and the forest wilderness that surrounds it. But there was a surprising derth of trails. Every time I passed something that looked like it might be a trail, I was already past it before I was sure it was even there. The roads had too many blind turns for it to be safe for me to maneuver the van through a 3-point turn. In other places I could see the open spot coming, but there were also “no parking” signs to keep me moving along the road. So I drove on and on with my eyes on the trees at the side of the road, rather than the road ahead of me. I made it all the way to Arcata before I saw a sign for a wilderness preserve, and drove 10 miles off the highway to visit it.
The first part of the trail was a kind of museum to the mining history of the area, and there was old rusted out mining equipment all along the trail. Modern California is so uptight about rules and leaving no trace on the wilderness (not even some dog poo), that it was surprising to remember that the history of the area. The people who settled this place came from far away and were drawn here for no other reason than the minerals in the earth. They made the voyage as fast as they could, tried to get rich quick, and abandoned everything when they realized all the hard work it was going to take. It didn’t take much creativity to see the parallels between the mining boom of the mid 1800s, and the start-up boom we were in today. But just like the dive bum from the day before, there is something that inspires scorn about someone coming to California to try to strike it fabulously rich with a unicorn start-up, spending 2 or 3 years trying to turn an idea into gold, and then just abandoning the employees and customers when things don’t pan out within a couple of years. I craved a more midwestern pace of work that emphasized the patience of planting seeds and making them grow.
I was freaked out by the battery issue, since I hadn’t done anything the night before to excessively drain of the van’s power. So I decided to spend my next night in Redding, which is near Shasta Lake and is the last town of much size before Oregon. I picked a campground somewhat outside the city, thinking that there would be more nature there, and that it would be reasonably priced. I arrived just after sunset and rang the bell to summon the camp host.
A plump and friendly woman just the other side of menopause showed up a few minutes later in a golf cart. She waited until after she’d gone through all the check-in procedures and received my $35 before adding, “And because you’re a woman alone, I should tell you… You’re safe here in the park, but don’t go leaving the campground by yourself. There is a lot of prostitution and sex trafficking along here.” Then she said a name I didn’t recognize, but in a meaningful voice like I should, “…was kidnapped just a couple miles up this road, and they had her for 6 months…” It took me a moment to read between the lines about exactly what had happened to this woman. Was she a sex worker? Or was she just in the wrong place at the wrong time? They ‘had her for 6 months,’ which means that she eventually got free. Something about that seemed even more ominous. This woman hadn’t been some sicko’s cheap thrill. She had been some human trafficking entrepreneur’s asset. For some reason, that made my skin crawl even more than a Norman Bates style psycho. I’m not one of those people who goes through life remembering to be scared of all the things that could possibly go wrong. I tend to think that you would have to be incredibly unlucky and also pretty stupid to be the innocent victim of some sensational crime. But living in my van and drifting from one trailer park to the next I realized that I had unwittingly stepped a world where that kind of risk assessment didn’t apply. In this trailer park in a modestly-sized city where kids were probably just as likely to die of an overdose as they were to graduate college, the world was a much darker and more dangerous place. I got the impression that most of the people in this park weren’t on vacation, but poverty, addiction, or a court order to disclose their sex offender status had forced them into this place.
Despite carefully avoiding any battery draws while getting ready for bed, battery was already dead before I went to sleep. So I set my alarm for early so that I could overcome this hurtle as early as possible and hit the road.
I was not ripped from my van and raped or sold into sexual slavery overnight, and I woke up at 4:30 so that I could call the rental company’s roadside assistance service at 5. I explained the issue to the dispatcher (a woman with a Boston accent you could cut with a knife and a gravely smoker’s voice), and asked her to send someone to jump me and bring a new battery. “Oh wow. It’s wicked early over theyuh,” she said. “Yes, well I was really hoping to get this fixed early so that I can get on with my vacation…” I explained. However, she was having trouble locating my records.
An hour later, she called back to let me know that she still hadn’t located the records, but she had gotten clearance to call a tow truck. “You mean you haven’t even called anybody yet?! I started this an hour and 20 minutes ago!” I was beyond irritated, because I hadn’t even had coffee yet. Every time I started to boil the water, my phone would ring again and I would have to turn off the stove to climb around the car looking for more information.
“Well they’ll be theyuh in the next howah to an howah and a half,” said my gravely partner.
“What?! Why is it taking so long?! I’m 2 minutes off the freeway exit, practically in the city.”
“Well they don’t open until 7…”
“You mean you don’t provide 24-hour service?! What’s the point of 24-hour assistance if you don’t provide 24-hour service? Can you please at least have him bring a new battery, in case that’s the issue?”
“They don’t do battery replacement,” she said. “But I’ll give you some places in the area that we pahtnuh with. They open at 9…”
I was flabbergasted. I had had AAA change batteries in my driveway in the past, and it took 20 minutes and cost less than $150. Now I was going to have to spend another couple of hours at a mechanic fixing the issue. I was apoplectic.
The “tow truck” (actually just a dude in a pickup with some jumper cables) showed up an hour and a half later. When I popped the hood I asked, “Do you have that machine that checks to see if a battery is holding a charge?”
“I know what you mean, but I don’t have one of those… They’ll have one at the mechanic, though. I can tell you just based on what I can see here that they’re not maintaining this vehicle. I wish they’d said something, I would have brought out a new battery for you…” At which point my head exploded.
With the van started, I drove to the approved mechanic and spent the next 2 hours negotiating for service even though no one could seem to find the company’s record in their files. Once I promised to just pay for the damned repair myself, I sat in the front parking lot listening to a meth addict have a meltdown while they replaced the battery. There were a couple of Harley guys with eagles on every piece of clothing they wore sitting on the smoker’s bench, so I went to sit on the lawn instead. Even though this was the auto mile, and I couldn’t picture anyone living within half a mile of here let alone walking their dog along this stretch, there was dried up old dog shit in the grass. So I just paced the parking lot, wondering if I would ever be free
This was not the way that I had planned to spend my vacation… I went back over and over everything that had happened to lead me here. There had to be a moment where I had tried to take a shortcut that had brought me here. But I could see no place where I had done anything irresponsible enough to bring on this string of bad luck. So I went back again: maybe I was just acting like an entitled Bay Area privileged douchebag? But no, I was pretty sure that it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that I was renting a working van. No matter how I turned it over in my head and tried to find a silver lining, this situation just sucked. With two weeks of travel still ahead of me, I wallowed in the anxiety that the whole trip would be like this.
It would take another several days for the trip to take a turn for the better, but we’ll pick up that story in the next post.