Living the Good Life

By Al Fry
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Learning to be a traveling nomad can be a great experience.

During the last ten years I have spent less than a dozen dollars a week on an average for direct living expense. My son and I have survived nicely over this period and enjoyed ourselves to boot. After a beatnik period and much discomfort we found that the ideal ace in the hole is a bread delivery van. Anyone who really applies himself can get the shekels together to buy one and most leasing companies in any large city will have used trucks (which they’ve leased to bakeries) for sale. Bread vans are going toward diesel engines because it cuts costs almost in half. Such a used vehicle at any reasonable price is really a hidden gem.

I passed through various stages of step-in vans but finally settled upon a truck with the whole works, paneling and all. Although I have had a lot of portable stoves and closets which served well (some motor vehicle departments don’t check out your modifications so it’s up to you to decide how far you want to go), the Big Three improvements are [1] toilet, [2] water and [3] fuel (gas or ?) in that order.

At this writing a Porta Potti is the best self-contained privy on the market (at a steep $100) but any air-tight can may be used as a chemical toilet if it is laced with Clorox once a day. With this solved, water is no problem: A cheap plastic Jerry can and hand pump will do the job. A small propane stove will handle the last detail and it’s surprising how well a little wood stove works: Some coal or hard wood banked up keeps you warm all night, and everywhere you go there is wood for the gathering. Put a screen over the top of the stovepipe to arrest sparks, watch where you park and you’ll sniff the woodsy smell just enough to learn to love it.

I have a little French Citroen which I pull behind me wherever I go. Cycles are easier but I like my comfort and, at 50 miles per gallon, I can afford the nuisance of towing my little friend along.

California is “my state” and I often feel like a stay in Los Angeles or San Francisco where I am near either water or some of the action that is always going on. Los Angeles has a few places under freeways in the Hollywood area that are good for a week or so until you make contact with a safer area. Sausalito, near San Francisco, is a mecca for bohemian wanderers and you will often see the ultimate in “way out” mobile homes thereabouts although property owners are getting a little hard-nosed in recent years.

My usual procedure for extended stay is to put a mental order in for what I want and then try to spot a fenced-in “safe area” that looks like it needs guarding, protection . . . or squatting on. With a little inquiry it usually isn’t long before you have a safe place to park . . . often complete with electricity and hose water. A couple of hours a week of helping, handyman work or whatever usually suffices for rent. I have camped with permission “gypsy style” near some of California’s most interesting areas. I’ve found quite a few “safe camping zones” in southern California and many thousands are available with a little digging and permission hunting.

The desert is full of beautiful places and surprises. An old favorite of mine when coming or going is Whitewater River Canyon about 10 miles north of Palm Springs just off Indio Freeway. The river runs the year around there and the only hang up is occasional wind.

Did you ever get hung up staying around a hot spring? Let me say that it is my idea of good times; freedom and warm relaxation. There’s a spring in the hills about six miles back of Santa Barbara where the local bohemian element takes midnight skinny dips. Another is fitted as a public camp two miles off the road about 20 miles this side of Lone Pine. In northern California, Idaho and other areas of the Pacific Northwest there are oodles of hot springs. Many are not dammed or tanked but I have camped many enjoyable days around an improvised tub resting in a primeval little meadow …

After finding my domicile it took me years to learn that you can’t stay healthy on human food from stores: Every additive is a poison as far as I’m concerned now. If one gets some green foliage of some kind into his system every day and stops eating sugar, he will beat viruses and most other bugs. Most edible weeds taste great mixed with a little pineapple juice and blended in the blender. You can get good brown rice, lima beans and other healthful staples for around $10 a hundred from the right milling outfit in any large city. You can exist exclusively on alkaline grains and beans and thrive whereas you’ll get sick fast eating only wheat flour and its products. My waffle iron makes me delicious waffles out of any kind of thing I want to grind up in my little health-food store grinder. Bone meal from a feed store mixed with custard and dried in the sun (to make it palatable) will end forever any trips to your dentist, providing you don’t allow tooth calcium leaching due to a very high acid food (wheat, sugar, meat) diet.

Many women have enjoyed sharing my rambling life and girls all over the country are now going the “gypsy way” but, generally speaking, the propaganda of the Big American Dream has taken a heavier toll among women than among men. The times are achangin’, however. I have met retired couples (even under retirement age) who travel from town to town, working a while at the lower paying jobs and moving on again . . . convinced they should have done it years ago. Kids love this way of life and my son is probably as well-rounded as a son of one of the Jet Set.

Our thrift shop clothes–thanks to a little sewing machine work–are the latest thing. With no rent, little food costs and a trifling gas bill I haven’t been gainfully employed for a stereotype boss in years. By choice, the dollars seem to come in through helping people who ask . . . or through odd coincidental bumbling. It’s really only a case of application and accepting a lot less than the next guy gets (and must spend pronto).

Remember, no other nation in the world has thousands of used transportation cars for so little or refrigerators, ranges and appliances available used and second hand so cheap. It’s incredible. You can enjoy life no matter what the brain washers say . . . And everything enjoyed is greater when shared. My greatest moments were usually spent in modest surroundings with good company . . . good conversation . . . guitar picking . . . philosophical feasts . . .

Some people are born with itchy feet and are generally discontented. For such people, being tied to the normal routine is a prison. What amazes me is that so many of these folks resign themselves to it. After knocking around this country and a few of the World’s “last frontier/paradise” spots for some years I am convinced that almost anyone–regardless of education or burdens–can live a satisfying, reasonably comfortable life the “Gypsy Way”.

I’ve tried a number of approaches but, in a nutshell, I think the most comfortable way to live on the road is by investing in a mobile, self-propelled home built from a converted bus or van. At this moment I could pick up a number of such vehicles within a 20-mile radius for less than a thousand dollars apiece. If you hoard a little away and wait for the right deal, you’ll find there are some fantastic bargains available.

I personally favor the converted step-vans but, if I had more than my one son, 1 suspect I would try to get a small Greyhound-type bus which has so much more room at the expense of conspicuousness and gas economy. I have met a number of New Gypsys with these big rigs and some have put in a workshop in which they do leather, jewelry, paintings and whatnot to help pay for their gas along the road. Some hit the national parks and tourist spots. Others work the more bohemian centers or just sell their wares the itinerant way.

Once you’ve made the initial investment, whether for a banged up van (with decent engine) at a couple of hundred dollars or for a ten thousand dollar commercially-manufactured motor home, the rest is easy. Adjustment is mainly mental and this can be helped by absorbing the information in MOTHER or any of the other back-to-the-land material now around for the looking. If money is scarce, sit tight until you get a little nest egg ahead for emergencies. While you’re waiting you can outfit your home on wheels.

Conversion is easy and you’ll find lots of room under the floor of your particular rig. As an example, I have a small, stripped down water heater mounted to the frame of my van and it provides outdoor hot showers when I’m plugged in to service outlets. It also holds spare water when I’m on the road. I .have a lot of tools and paint under my camper’s floorboards too and they make me extra dollars when I spy a painting or sign job to be done.

Getting the hardware you need such as kerosene or propane lamps, stoves and heaters is usually simple and inexpensive at swap meets, flea markets and junk stores. This is the fun part and I have hardware that is as high camp as the imagination can conceive. If you have room for instance, a little wood-burning stove is really a fine thing to have in your van, novel as it may seem.

Your portable toilet can be a chemically laced (most cheap disinfectants will work) airtight G.I. ammo box, plastic pail . . . or the superb (and expensive) Porta-Potti available from trailer supply houses.

No matter what your rig is, it will be simply amazing the amount of stuff you’ll be able to cram in, under and on it . . . providing the vehicle has the bearings to take it. I’ve found, as a general rule of thumb, that if your mobile cabin has tires rated eight ply or better mounted on wheels with eight lug bolts (a pretty standard truck setup), the machine will probably carry (and carry safely) any of the comforts of home you’re likely to pack aboard. You may want to add coil springs to protect the frame if you really travel heavy but, otherwise, weight should never be a problem.

There is one problem to prepare for in advance, however, and that is the fact that the “no overnight camping in our town” laws are occasionally enforced. Getting rousted out of a city in the middle of the night can be depressing and is probably entirely unnecessary if you have your water storage, portable toilet and blackout window problems worked out before you find yourself on a less-than-friendly city street.

The water and toilet aspects are already solved if you have designed overnight self-sufficiency into your vehicle and the windows can be taken care of with covers of heavy black plastic applied as tightly as possible to the panes. You’ll also find it a good idea to skip a couple side windows and install a large skylight on top of your rig when you’re converting it. Your camper’s interior will be brighter during the day and you’ll have fewer windows to seal at night.

If you have the bread to bypass a converted rig and you’re in the market for a manufactured motor home, I advise buying a model with dual wheels for traction and lugging heavy loads, a small six engine for economy (a diesel is even better), at least four speeds forward for steep grades and a body roomy up to the point of ill balance.

There is nothing preventing a good life on the road except a lack of guts and gall. Things work out if you try and jobs are easy to find. Maybe you see a road being built in pretty country and you stop and apply for work . . . or you notice a sign that needs retouching or a building with peeling paint and you give the owner a price for fixing it. There are temporary jobs all over if your attire and smile fit the part.

We come and go as we please in our van and we prefer to live a while in the city and a while in the country. Finding an overnight spot in the city is usually no trouble but longer stays usually take a little scrounging, permission getting, friend making and such. The country is no problem. I prefer to ramble the west and have dozens of secluded and abandoned homesteads, ranches and squat spots where I can grow a garden and enjoy the summer before heading to warmer areas in the winter.

I know several ghost towns in Idaho that are fantastic for the summer. For example, the Boise Basin near Idaho City has a number of easily accessible abandoned towns as does a good portion of the northwest. These places will be gone someday except in a rich memory.

While I haven’t traipsed around the eastern part of the country for a time, I remember some very inviting hideaways from Arkansas on east; places that only a smile and permission would have opened for a lengthy stay . . . or spots that were just there to be used for the night.

We used to work summers in the northwestern United States and go south–often Mexico–in the winter. Now it seems I am slowing down and getting involved in causes to help our planet. It’s almost as bad as a regular job except that I’m concerned and I think it’s worth it and I do it by choice.

I can only repeat that the Gypsy Way is a good life if you just go do it. There will be ups and downs but that’s true of whatever you do . . . and it’s an open road across a lot of fantastic country.