I awoke with a start to the rattle and bang at the door. I sat up and pulled the blanket around me. I was dreaming before, images quickly escaping to the rhythm of my jolted heart. Headlights infiltrated the covered windows and left unwelcome stains upon the bed. A voice penetrated our private cocoon.
“Hey! Hey, you can’t sleep here!” Bang, bang, bang. Flashlight. Security guard, cop?
Eric threw on a pair of jeans and went to the door, rubbing his face, already resigned. He opened the latch and a flashlight beam struck an exposed shelf loaded with pots and pans.
“There weren’t any signs.”
“You can’t sleep here.”
“We were waiting for them to open.”
“No overnight parking.”
“We’ll move,” he muttered, and closed the door.
I worked my body into some clothes, already feeling the chill of the night air from Eric’s brief interaction with the security guard. Those lights still stabbing into the trailer, we didn’t need to turn on any of our own. I half stumbled to the van and we drove to another spot. It’s hard to remember during those times how long a certain drive might take – a strange combination of fear and exhaustion set in and time got fuzzy. We might have found a rest stop far enough up the line, or a Walmart, or a casino.
Another time. We share a Planet Fitness membership and we found one nearby in a shopping center. It was late, though I couldn’t say just how late now – 12 a.m., 2 a.m.? When you’re a musician, it’s always late. The moment we pulled into the parking lot I saw the security car. It raced to catch up to us. He parked halfway across the lot, his vehicle facing us with its headlights pointing an accusatory beam in our direction. I went back to the trailer to change into my gym clothes. I knew what it all meant. I was seasoned.
Moments after we closed the door, we heard him pounding, fist heavy. Eric opened the door and I squeezed in front of him, waving my Planet Fitness ID in front of my face.
“We’re members,” I half shouted, aggressive with resentment. “We use this gym, okay? Were you going to wait even a minute?”
“You can’t park here.”
“We’re using the gym.”
“The moment you’re finished, you have to leave.”
“I’m just doing my job.”
I laugh at the joke, but mostly I laugh out of anger. One of this gym’s mottos is “No Intimidation.” I told the staff that we were harassed in the parking lot by security because of our vehicle. They seemed pretty surprised. I wish I could’ve said the same.
Walmart is often a safe bet, but never in California, where everyone shakes their fists at any sign of a camper. We scope out lots for other RVs or semis. Their presence is a good sign. If there are other shops in the shopping center, it’s more risky to park there. Is that a street sweeper I heard, or a security vehicle hired by the mall to kick us out? I’ve stayed up for hours in the grip of anxiety, checking and double-checking each passing headlamp.
RV parks run expensive for our budget. $45 a night to sleep in our own vehicle? It’s hard to justify the cost. Rest stops are free. So are Flying J, Loves, and other truck stops. Falling asleep to the idling hum of semis on either side of you, knowing you’re flanked by a world of weary travelers welcomed to these concrete camping universes, is hugely comforting. The idling of a truck is quick to ease me into sleep.
But imagine the hotel rooms. More expensive than RV parks, such questionable quality. I lifted the blanket and noticed the corner of the sheet, upside-down with the tag exposed. Were they on this way because the staff put them on incorrectly, or because they didn’t wash the sheets? A stranger’s hair clogged the drain during one shower. Stained curtains, mystery spots on the carpet. I would’ve hated to take a black light tour of some of those $85 rooms.
The alarm went off well before we wanted to be up. The blackout hotel curtains shielded us from daylight, but we knew it was close to 10 a.m. Early check-out times as an artist that works until the wee hours of the morning were nightmarish. I felt the sleep in my muscles for hours after. Sometimes, if we were lucky, the hotel would give us a late check-out. Most of them charged by the hour. How much is an extra hour or two of sleep worth? The night before, I might have said nothing. In the morning, eyes lidded and still heavy with sleep, I would’ve paid my weight in gold for the alarm to disappear into a black hole somewhere.
We found our way to the lobby and drank bitter hotel coffee out of Styrofoam cups. We took a soppy red apple each from the hotel’s sparse continental breakfast options and lugged our bags out to the van.
Another time. We met up on the road with one of our favorite artists, David Paige. After sharing a bill, we found ourselves parked in a hotel parking lot. All of us – including David’s two bandmates and our merch girl, Meg – crammed into the full-sized bed and the bunk above. We laughed and talked while Eric made his world-famous tacos on the stove, passing the delicious and filling food down the line to each of us in the bed like a vegan Jesus feeding the multitudes at Bethsaida.
Another time. A flurry of March snows greeted us as we weaved our way down Colorado’s Highway 50 in the dark. The roads were icy and white with recent snows. Maps told us there was a river below, but we saw nothing but blackness. I slowed the van, searching for a pull-off that wouldn’t be plowed in if the snow got too deep. As the only Midwesterner in the van, I was glad to be the one driving in the black slush.
We crossed a bridge and found a rest stop, sign half obscured by snow. The stop backed up against a steep wall of rock, its color and features obscured in the dark. Two pitted toilets marked the space, but no other vehicles were to be found. The three of us hurried back to the trailer.
We were happy to have a working heater again. The December before, we hadn’t been so lucky. I laughed about this with Meg; she hadn’t been there for the last tour. The three of us crammed into the quickly-warming space of the trailer, brushing teeth and trading off sink time and talking about the success of the show earlier in the evening.
We crawled into our respective beds, Meg clambering onto the top bunk and Eric and I nesting below. We joked about freezing sheets, shivering as we allowed our body heat to warm our covers. Meg placed a few of her things on the wooden shelf Eric built for her beside her cozy bunk. The blower motor in the heater hummed along happily. I was pleased with the familiar lumpiness of my favorite pillow. During those nights, every side of the pillow was the cold side.
When I awoke, the warmth of the trailer was paired with the cold, clear light of a late spring morning. I pressed my hand against the glass of the window to check the temperature and was greeted by a bright chill. Eric was already brewing a fresh pot of coffee on the propane stove. We dressed in layers and stepped out, carrying our mugs of hot coffee made with beans from our favorite local roaster in Seaside, California.
We found ourselves backed up against an orange wall of steep rock. Stone and snow crunched beneath my shoes in an icy hello. We quickly discovered a hiking trail that led down to the Gunnison River, banks low and muddy before the seasonal melt of mountain ice. The altitude and bright sunlight kept most of the snow from sticking beyond the shadow of early morning. We breathed deep. We talked. We laughed. We sipped our hot coffee. Crisp, cold air filled our lungs and nipped our cheeks.
That would be the last time our trailer would see snow during that tour. Its tires were muddy, eagerly camped behind our giant and damn-close-to-regal Sprinter. It was serendipitous that we woke up there, that we chose to park when we did, and that we weren’t holed up in an unfamiliar hotel room along the highway.
How lucky we are, to have our tiny house attached to us whenever we tour. These parking lot attendants will never know the 60 thousand miles this little rig has traveled, through snow and rain, sleet and hail and sunshine. They’ll never know about the parks we’ve visited, the countless delicious meals we’ve made on our stove-top, the hitchhikers we’ve transported, the show’s we’ve performed. They’ll never know the countless load-outs and load-ins, the endless work, the lack of sleep. They’ll never know the times we’ve invited other musicians or new friends to join us for Eric’s famous tacos or a bucket of popcorn or a beer. To them, the van and the trailer are an unwelcome stain on some parking lot somewhere; but inside, there’s a universe of life and experiences, warmth and comfort and food and friends. But if they ever wanted to join us for a bowl of home-made soup, they’d be more than welcome, so long as they don’t mind eating in the bed.