We slept in the van, drank cheap beer, and generally rode this out for a month or so until one morning I woke to find the water in my dog’s bowl had frozen over.
He wore corduroy Ocean Pacific shorts every day and always left the top button open, suggesting easy access to his treasure below.
By Hannah Day
Initially, my wanderlust took me from sunny Southern California to the majestic forests and hip beach communities of Santa Cruz. My stay in Santa Cruz was interrupted by a clinging boyfriend who suddenly appeared—having secretly followed me up the coast. With a little talking and a lot of kissing, he convinced me to keep him along for the ride, a journey that would be full of unusual experiences. We decided to check out a Grateful Dead show at Boreal Ridge, not far from the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. The Dead were playing for one day only, my 20th birthday, at a ski lodge. I pulled out a map and headed northeast up Highway 80 to the top of Donner Summit.
The boyfriend, Tim, was a construction worker who convinced me that money would not be a problem because he could pick up a job anywhere he went. He stood a couple inches shy of 6 feet, was well-built with large biceps, a nice head of auburn hair, and a smooth tanned chest that he loved to expose. He wore corduroy Ocean Pacific shorts every day and always left the top button open, suggesting easy access to his treasure below. This practice also relieved the pressure of his newly forming beer belly.
We arrived a few days before the show at a lodge that was equipped with a small ski lift and a concrete strip that ran down one side of the main ski run. During the hot summer months, the owners ran carts like large skate boards down the strip lining the side of the hill. Riders sat on the contraptions and used a hand brake to slow themselves at the bottom of the run. This was the lodge’s way of making money through the lean summer months. The posters that covered the windows of the ski lodge read: One Day Only — Trip and Slide with the Grateful Dead. I was where I was supposed to be. As Ram Das said, I was “here now.”
Tim hustled a couple days’ work from the crew that was building the stage and setting up the sound system. I tried to get them to hire me too but they declined my offer. Anxious to get me working, Tim taught me his trick: I should go to the swap meet and buy a set of leather bags, the kind that hangs from the waists of construction workers. The belt should have at least two compartments for nails and a hook on which my hammer would hang. I needed to buy the bags used so I wouldn’t look so green. The hammer had to be a Vaughn framing hammer. Apparently, buying the wrong kind of a hammer could send a signal that I had no experience.
In exchange for labor Tim received some cash and a backstage pass, which he was happy to give me, as he wasn’t too impressed with the Dead. I’d seen many shows by that time but had yet to get backstage. I put on my favorite worn out jeans and a tie-dyed tank top and was surprised to find I was the only tie-dyed person back stage. Bob Weir was talking to a very pregnant and beautiful young girl. Mickey Hart was playing air drums. I must have been staring at him too long because his drumming began moving slowly to the right, further and further away from his face. He continued playing the drums in the air as his outstretched arms pulled my stare away from him. He shot me a cute grin so I didn’t feel so bad about my girlish gawking. Suddenly, Jerry opened a door, breezed past me, stepped on my cigarettes, and squished them. A friend later asked me, “Jerry actually stepped on your cigarettes?” “Yeah,” I replied. “So what did you do with the pack?” he asked. “Smoked ‘em, what else?” I wondered if my friend would have created a shrine to honor the magical pack.
When I rejoined the crowd in front of the stage I found my boyfriend had gotten extremely drunk and by the third or fourth song he was jumping up and down and acting ridiculous. He jumped about spilling beer on the heads of this intimate group of dedicated followers. He didn’t seem to realize that this event was akin to a religious experience for most of us. During one song, Jerry was peering over his eyeglasses, like I’d seen him do so many times before. But today, he was peering at me, paternally shaking his head from side to side. He seemed disgusted with the drunken fool I was with. I felt ashamed.
When the show was over, the crew packed up and went home. Tim and I spent the following weeks living in my van in the forest. The area was peppered with large boulders and tall Douglas Fir. It had all the splendors of nature a person could want. Patches of wild flowers grew on the forest floor and surrounding hills. The air had been sweet that summer, though the seasons were beginning to change. The altitude made for a dry climate but we were blessed with several clean water sources. Donner Lake and its tributaries were nearby.
I spent the days hiking with my dog and enjoying the foliage that was beginning to transform. As time passed, we ran out of food and money. This created tension between us and as the tension increased, I began to think of the Donner Party and wondered how far we were from their camp. This surreal moment motivated me to hustle two gallons of gas to make the 30-mile drive to Reno.
In Reno, I found a pawnshop willing to purchase some of my simple jewelry. With the few dollars I raised, I found a swap meet, bought the leather bags and a Vaughn hammer, filled my pouches with nails, and headed off to a construction site at the far south end of Virginia Avenue. The men at the site were charitable, and gave me a job sweeping sawdust out of the newly framed buildings. Tim worked as a framer. They let us act as their security guards at night in exchange for our camping on-site. The security job required nothing but our constant presence. We slept in the van, drank cheap beer, and generally rode this out for a month or so until one morning I woke to find the water in my dog’s bowl had frozen over. It was too cold for us to continue living outside. We headed south the next day.
The stretch between Reno and Vegas is a mother. There are Indian reservations, secret government operations, and small towns populated with people who, for the most part, were as broke as we were. Each town might not have a gas station but it almost always had a bar. Tim sold some of his possessions in one tavern and I sold some of my tools in another. We eventually made it south to Tucson. We arrived at dusk and I offered to mop the floor of the local taco joint in exchange for two burritos. Arizona was warm and dusty and I found a construction job the next day performing “pick-up” work. Pick-up work meant that if there was some part of another crew’s job that didn’t get finished properly, I would complete it, pick it up.
With no money for gas, I hitchhiked to the job site each day. After a few weeks, we had enough money to rent a tiny aluminum trailer in a small park. Unfortunately, I had to leave my dog tied to the trailer during the days when I went to work. My dog wasn’t accustomed to being away from me and he barked all day long. Eventually, the park manager came out to complain. He was a scroungy looking guy in his mid-50s, dressed in old blue jeans with no shirt. He had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. His crude, lifeless military tattoos had spread into large unidentifiable black smudges on his forearms. He had an impressive-looking long-barreled side arm hanging from his brown leather belt. He told me something terrible might happen to my dog if I couldn’t keep him from barking. The manager stroked his gun as he threatened my dog. He told me he used to be a cop. Of this, I had no doubt.
I looked into the fenced area surrounding the manager’s garbage pile of a home. He had his own dog, who would roll about all day long playing fetch with a 10-pound bowling ball.
“How long you had that dog?” I asked in reply to his threats.
“Well, I had ‘im for goin’ on …” he stopped talking and looked me straight in the eye. Apparently, he understood what I was getting at. He turned and walked away. My bluff gave me the upper hand, but only for the moment. The next day I moved out, taking with me my beloved dog and my god-awful boyfriend. Someone told Tim there was work in a new town called Laughlin, Nevada, so we headed back north.
At that time, Laughlin was nothing more that five casinos, one tiny gas station, and a ferryboat that took gamblers across the Colorado River from Bullhead City, Arizona. We parked the van on a little sand peninsula that jutted out into the river directly across from Don Laughlin’s Riverside Casino. The peninsula was surrounded on three sides by tall bushes and trees with the front section open to the river. Compared to the last few months, living outside on this sandy, warm peninsula was paradise. The dog ran free and the river kept us clean and satiated. At night, we’d sit around our campfire and gaze dreamily toward the hotel casino towering above us, wondering what we’d do if we had a pile of money.
Our limited funds ran dry quickly and before long we were stuck again with no gas to help us wander. One morning, I took my bags and hammer and bummed a ride out to a construction site that I had heard about seven miles west in the Nevada desert. It was a small site so it was easy to find the boss. He was tall, fat, and grumpy looking. “How’d you git here,” he asked, “I don’t see no car.”
“I got a ride from Bullhead,” I replied.
“And what-a-ya think you can do for us,” he asked.
“Whatever you need,” I smiled, “pick up work, light framing, cleanup, whatever.”
There was a very large pile of 2 x 6 wood stacked neatly on one side of the dirt lot. Each piece was about 12 feet long. “You go move them pieces from here over t’ there!” he commanded.
“OK, sir, you got it!” Off I went, piling two or three boards at a time on my right shoulder. I’d wrap my right arm around the wood like a bundle and balance them with my left arm out in front of my body. I carried all those big sticks several hundred yards across the lot. There was a lot of wood but I was eager to show them how sturdy I was. After a few hours, I had moved every last piece from one side of the lot to the other. I was hot and tired, but I felt proud.
“OK, now what do you want me to do next?” I asked. It felt great to be working again.
“OK, now you move ‘em all back over t’ where you found ‘em.”
My heart sank. “What’s that?” I asked.
“You heard me! Mov’em all back over t’ where you found ‘em!”
I spied a forklift across the lot. “I know how to drive that fork lift,” I said softly. “How about I use the fork lift to move them back?”
“You think you’re gonna git smart with me, you little piece of shit.” Ouch, this was beginning to hurt, and I was becoming concerned for my safety. We were seven miles out in the desert and there were but a few men on this site. None of them were anywhere near me and the boss. “Maybe I better get going”, I responded. “Where can I pick up my half-day’s pay?”
“We don’t pay quitters!” he shouted. I looked him in the eye and sized him up. He was mean and ugly, inside and out. I didn’t feel I had much option other than to walk away. So off I went, back down the dirt road, out to the open highway, and over the seven miles back into the town. I was home to my peninsula paradise before dark.
After that day, I felt I’d have to get creative if I was to continue living in this tiny oasis. The desert can be a brutal place. I met a tall, 60-something year old man who had white hair and beard and boasted that at one time he had been the owner of the first seamless gutter machine on the West Coast. I liked him immediately and enjoyed listening to his stories. He let me know how I could survive out here in this desert town. He explained, “First you gotta come up with enough gas money to drive into Kingman. Once you get there, you find the only Texaco station in town. Over by the cigarette machine, you’ll find a metal rack with free coupons to the Edgewater Casino’s all-you-can-eat buffet dinner. Take a whole bunch of ‘em but leave a few so they don’t know what we’re doin.’ Then, you go to dinner at the Edgewater each night and smuggle out enough food to feed yourself in the morning. Now, don’t get caught or you’ll ruin it for everyone.”
He continued, “Now back in town you’ll need to come up with a little bit of change. Maybe you’ll find some in a pay phone, slot machine, or on the floor of a hotel lobby. Once you get some change, you go over to the Riverboat Casino. It’s the only casino in Laughlin that has penny slots. Now be real careful and you’ll turn your bits into dollars for gas to get back to Kingman for more coupons.” Sounded simple enough.
For the next month or so that is what I did. Each day, I filled my belly at the Edgewater and lined my purse with foil or plastic so I could smuggle out enough food out to feed my dog. Life was good until one day when Tim became particularly agitated.
I don’t recall what set him off…it never did take much. He was driving my van late at night and we were miles outside of town. He pulled over to teach me a lesson and I jumped out and ran like hell — through the black desert and into the night. I ran and ran with him chasing me all the way. When I gained a little ground, I cut right and hit the sand. I’ll never know if he saw me there and changed his mind or if I had successfully blended in with the landscape. I held my breath until I sensed he had walked away. I slept alone on the cold desert sand that night. At dusk, I headed back to the highway. I walked a few miles closer to town and saw my blue van. The driver’s door was open, the stereo was blasting, and there was my dog. I snuck up so quietly my hound dog barely noticed me. When he did, I hushed him with soothing maternal commands. Tim was there too, in front of the van with his back to me. He was pissing all his beer out over the edge of a little cliff. My timing was perfect as I jumped into the driver’s seat, started the van, and drove off like a maniac. Tim barely had time to zip up his pants. I drove back to our peninsula; left his belongings stacked neatly beside the fire pit, and pointed the van west. Having temporarily satisfied my wanderlust, it was time for me to head home to California. My trip had come to and end…for now. §
Hannah Day is a freelance writer who lives in South San Luis Obispo County.