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What I learned living home-free in the Valley

For Hampshire Life
Published: 9/20/2019 9:23:41 AM

In early spring of last year, faced with another rent increase, credit card debt and medical bills, I decided that my apartment was a costly luxury I could live without. My Ford Explorer SUV became home for seven months — long enough to pay off the bills and to save money for a winter escape vacation.

Even before I moved out, I made progress on my goal when I sold furniture, books, LP’s, one of my bikes, and a guitar. Much of my clothes and some furniture went to charity. I stashed the rest in a small storage unit in Sunderland that cost $60 per month.

The SUV had plenty of head room in the rear, and with the rear seats folded down it was long enough for all 6’3” of me to stretch out and sleep comfortably. I bought an $80 massage table, converted it into a bed by removing the legs, and added pillows, sheets and a puffy comforter. I christened my new home the FU-V, as in “F You — the rent’s too damn high,” and headed out on April 1, a fitting day for friends and family so sure I was on a brief fool’s errand.

I’d read blogs and forum posts by many people in the “van life” community. One good tip I followed was to join Planet Fitness, where I could workout, shower, use the toilets, Wi-Fi and fill bottles with cold fresh water. I also bathed in local community pools, creeks and lakes. Puffer’s Pond in North Amherst became a favorite for a morning cleansing.

In the early days, wary I’d be noticed and ordered to move on, I slept mostly in parking lots outside Planet Fitness or Walmart, blending in with other cars, as many of their locations are open 24/7. I soon saw that nobody noticed me or bothered me if they did. I became bolder in picking spots to spend the night, and this eventually attracted some police attention.

One night at Sheldon Field park in Northampton, two officers woke me with flashlights and taps on the window. They said “overnight parking isn’t allowed here.” I lied, saying “I got a late start returning from Vermont to Connecticut, and I got drowsy. So, I pulled off route 91 and found this park.” They stepped away a few minutes, then came back and announced I could stay the rest of the night.

I learned that if I parked near a “Closed at Dusk” or “No Overnight Parking” sign there was chance of getting rousted. If I parked right out in the open on the street, even in downtown Amherst or Northampton, I never had a problem other than excessive street lighting. For that, I stretched bungee cords across the top of the windows, and hung towel curtains to create a cozy dark tent.

When I started out, I saw the move only as a sacrifice of comforts in exchange for cutting out rent and bills for electric, water, cable and wi-fi. Yet, I still had lights, power, heat, A/C, streaming video on my phone, a good radio/CD system, and a comfortable bed.

I didn’t expect the many other benefits, especially better sleep. Within days, my circadian rhythm kicked in, and most weeknights I fell asleep by 10:30 p.m., slept great and woke with dawn light and birds around 5:30 a.m. That meant a much earlier start to my job as an independent sales rep, which I’d previously done mostly from home. Now, most work days ended by lunch time, freeing up the afternoon for hiking, biking or seeing a film.

My new life challenged my usual diet of unprocessed healthy food, and tempted me to overspend by eating too often in restaurants. At first, I ate too much fast food. I had a gas backpacker stove and a few basic kitchen items with me, but lacked a practical way of setting up a “kitchen.” I cooked only in parks with picnic tables, until I found a 2’ x 4’ piece of smooth-finish plywood I used to slide out from under the bed with the tailgate open to create a cooking counter and table. From then on, I made big breakfasts of coffee, bacon, eggs or oatmeal, and proper dinners of fresh food.

Another surprise benefit from life out in the open is meeting so many friendly people. The aroma and sight of my tailgate cooking attracted curious strangers everywhere, such as the parking lots at Puffer’s Pond and nearby Mill River Park, and various hiking trailheads and boat launches. Visitors were fascinated by my wood box cupboard of spices, olive oil, fresh eggs and vegetables, cans of sardines and beef stew.

I discovered that many people in the Connecticut River valley spend the night in vehicles. None of them were the wandering selfie-stick Instagram vloggers in pricey customized vans, who have popularized and romanticized the lifestyle. Instead, outside Walmart for example, I’d wake up and look out on a row of occupied cars, pick-ups, and SUV’s on both sides. Like me, these late arrivers selected darker spots on the edge of the lot, often near trees or a line of shrubs for added privacy and darkness.

Some of these vehicles held young children and one parent, while the other parent worked the night shift inside the store. A couple times nearby voices speaking in Spanish woke me when mamá or papá came out on their break to check on the family, bringing drinks and snacks. Apparently, the rent is too damn high for these workers, too.

At the end of October, as cold weather set in, I moved into a smaller, less inexpensive apartment that was perfect for my new downsized lifestyle. I’d accomplished all of my goals and so much more. Friends and family still joke about me being “homeless” or “living in a van down by the river.” I remind them that homeless people lack adequate income for food, much less shelter, whereas I enjoyed comfort and security living home-free.

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