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The Nomad Van & The Golden Plunger

It’s Sunday and I am unloading my travel van from my trip I took a couple weeks ago. I had already gotten the packed clothes, food, cat food, and cooler cleaned out right after my return home, but now it’s a different kind of offloading of belongings. This time, I am emptying out the van, complete with bedding, shelving, and an area for my travel cat, for the final time, to sell it.

I love Starshine Van, as it/she’s called (she even has a social media hashtag, #starshinevan). I bought Starshine in 2017 after signing over my co-owned black painted schoolbus RV to my ex. Our co-owning the vehicle we took our Los Angeles-based Pixie Dust Ranch rescue animals to schools and public events in wasn’t working out any longer. I realized when he was rock hunting in New Mexico and I had to bring our (in)famous peacock, Rad, to a Huntington Beach school, that the plan was flawed. Poor peacock had to ride in my Infiniti to get to the classroom, his tail carefully looped up against the back window to avoid breakage. That was when I realized I needed my own peacock-travel vehicle.

I started looking for a van to replace the schoolbus. Something more user-friendly that also wouldn’t be illegal to park in my suburbia driveway, which the schoolbus was. I was hoping to be more stealth in the van than in the schoolbus and still be able to travel frequently, something I try to do about once a month, even if just to visit friends or go to an overnight music event. 

Starshine the 1986 Vandura Rally GMC van popped up on Craigslist like a beacon of hope. She was only $1200. I thought I could swing it even though I already own and “rehab” a few vintage cars and really didn’t need another one. In fact, owning and keeping old cars running is my expensive hobby. It’s even my hashtag, #catshomeforoldcars. My mechanic Ken looked the van over before I bought it and said, “Offer $500.” I did and, maybe not surprisingly, the owner was willing to let Starshine come live with me for that price. 

I have had a lot of work done on her since, including a rebuilt transmission, alternator, battery, tires, starter, A/C and heat repaired, windows repaired, added a tow bar, air brakes, brake pads, adding a spare tire and new rack, door repair … my theory is that Starshine must love going to the mechanic, because she gets worked on so often, but that’s just how it is with older vehicles.

I wanted a van because I figured it would be easier to camp and stay at places like truck stops, rest stops, and tourist stops, though I enjoyed my many travels in the wilds on the schoolbus RV. Once in 2017 we took the bus for a work and book tour promoting my novel The Fairies of Feyllan. As usual, we were traveling with the peacock and two big dogs, my ex driving. We headed south out of the state of Washington on our way home after our two week journey. We climbed out of the bus at a gas station in Oregon and a little girl nearby said, “look Mommy, homeless people!” Here I was, dressed professionally, technically at work, having just taught a conference course on animal communication in the Twisp area of Washington at a three-day event. I was pretty offended by this random kid’s incorrect opinion of us. I lived in an upscale LA community, my ex lived in one too, in Phoenix. We weren’t homeless, we were on an adventure.

Going forward, that girl’s ignorant comment made me rise up like a warrior princess in defense of nomadic travel and living in vehicles, if that’s what someone wants to do. “Houseless, not homeless” was the nomad motto I preached. I even eventually bought a 38 foot-long 1970s lime green schoolbus RV to travel in, but have since found the van to be more convenient for trips, and so we now use that bus as a guest suite. 

There’s a 2020 award-winning movie called Nomadland that details nomadic life, and we have on occasion, along with thousands of others, attended the annual Arizona desert “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous” featured in the film, but we are not living full-time out of our vehicles like many others in the one-million strong American nomad movement. I don’t consider those who live in RVs homeless. The nomadic creed rings true to me: “Home is where you park it.” 

I was ready for a road trip now that Starshine Van was running well after a few mechanical setbacks. During the recent heatwave I was at the mercy of the weather gods as I planned my trip south. The van A/C died (again), so I was watching the weather predictions and realizing during our heat wave last month that I couldn’t get from the coast to Lake Tahoe due to the 112 degree weather that only cooled to the high nineties at night. My plan was to take highway 20 East to Lake Tahoe and then take the 395 toward Mammoth for the June Lake Jam Fest music concert, and go to LA from there. I had to cancel. I wasn’t happy about it and my decision didn’t come easily, but it wasn’t safe for me and the cat, now my only animal travel companion, to go in that intense heatwave.

The heat finally broke some so I was ready to hit the road. I’d forgotten that Starshine’s current repair issue is that the interior compartment headliner is drooping. I have tried to fix this in various ways to no avail. The most “doable” temporary solution I envisioned was to cut a madrone stick and prop the roof up. I didn’t get to that plan before I left on my trip, though I did measure the distance from the built-in tray by the steering wheel to the van ceiling, and I had the stick chosen and ready to go. I realized as I packed up the morning I was leaving that I’d forgotten to follow through and do the cutting and fitting part of the project. I went into my house in a hurry to leave to find the materials to do that task quickly, when I noticed by the kitchen sink a brand new unused Dollar Store plunger. It was a plunger, yes, but more importantly, it was a stick! It seemed short but I took it out to the van. Lo … it worked perfectly, I could stick the plunger part to the top of my dash and wedge it to hold up the headliner so it didn’t droop right above my head, something that made me uncomfortable when I drove. Ugly but functional, I thought. I continued on my trip to my LA destination.

I took Philo-Greenwood to Elk, then turned left toward Los Angeles, staying close to the coast with that sparkling Pacific Ocean to my right like my co-pilot. What a gorgeous drive. California is such a beautiful state. I took that route on highway one to avoid the inland heat and even though it took me three days, I enjoyed every second of the drive. 

I stayed that night in a parking lot with other RVs in Santa Cruz. My favorite part of the trip was going through Pebble Beach the next morning, which set me back $11.25 and was worth every penny. I love the architecture of the homes there and especially the white sand beaches. I used to go to there often as a kid because my brother was a prodigy golfer from the age of 9, so country clubs were where we spent our family vacations. I wrote my first novels in the country club lounges while my brother played his 18 holes during his golf tournaments. 

Starshine at Pebble Beach

It was in Big Sur when I stopped at a museum and tourist trap that I noticed how obvious the plunger looked as 5 men in a new Mercedes Sprinter van pulled up next to me and got out, looking a bit uncertain about the comparatively elderly Starshine Van. I realized that stupid plunger took the Fun out of Functional. It’s one thing to be traveling in a somewhat derelict-looking old van, but another to use plumbing parts to fix it. It bothered me. By the time I reached Cambria, a quaint town on the coast south of San Simeon, I had made up my mind to hide the plunger by decorating it. I would make it into a quaint fairy-like tree, I thought as I drove, hating the sight of it. I’ll paint the wood to look like a tree trunk, add branches, glue moss to the base. But I realized I couldn’t wait until I was in a big enough town to find a craft store. In Cambria I stopped at a gas station and hunted around in my van’s Crafting Basket and found a piece of gold material, a gold ribbon, and a cute little sparkly gold clothespin. In 30 seconds I covered the plunger base with the material, tied a golden bow around it, and pinned it with the sparkly clip. Viola. I could drive again without the plunger reference and all its implications echoing in my mind about my van. The Golden Plunger solution was officially in action and competently hid the true nature of the fix.

I spent the second night in Santa Barbara parked in front of a friend’s house. Jen drove me onto the clackety wooden Santa Barbara pier after we had dinner out and got caught up. We found a musician playing the Grateful Dead on the pier that we liked, so we tipped him and listened from the car. 

I arrived in LA on Day Three in time for a pre-planned dinner at my brother Kevin’s restaurant called Pacific Standard Prime in Redondo Beach with my son Kodiak, his beautiful girlfriend Taylor, and my dear friend Clarice. I looked forward to a wonderful reunion.

I parked Starshine Van in the underground lot by the restaurant. I noticed a lot of people driving by were looking her. Okay yes, Starshine is from the 80s. She is faded red with silver racing stripes. When I got her, she was “balding”… the paint on the raised roof was peeling off so I had my ex repaint her roof hot pink. I disliked the orange color of her GMC logo so I painted it lavender, and added silver glitter paint to the grill too. Her back windows are covered with stickers representing music and nomadic vanlife, and to keep the interior both private and shaded, I hung red decorative tapestries and other scarves over the back and side windows. Starshine sports a decorative pirate head sculpture my son gave me that stares out of the front window from the dashboard. And, she’s always dirty from being parked at my house off a 2 mile dirt road. Okay. Admittedly, Starshine is weird. And she demands attention.

If the plunger problem was the only issue I encountered on my trip, that would just become a quirky amusing tale. But it wasn’t. While in the South Bay area of Los Angeles (where I grew up), I was helping my dear but injured friend Gin, who is also my co-worker, in her home where we have both worked since 2009. I parked Starshine under a tree on the east side of the road in the mornings until the sun moved, then moved the van to the west side to keep my travel cat (who sleeps all day and parties all night) shaded. 

On the third day of parking in Gin’s neighborhood, a woman approached me as I stood by the van loading my work papers into my briefcase. I had seen her down the street minutes earlier whispering to another neighbor.

 “Hi,” she said, gazing at Starshine. I said hello. “Are you living in your van in front of our houses?” she asked, point blank. I noticed the hidden plunger under the gold material and was glad I’d made that adjustment when I did. I could imagine her tone being even more snotty if she saw that sneaky object for what it truly was.

“I work here,” I said, pointing toward Gin’s house. “I’m waiting for my co-worker.” Gin was getting ready to run an errand with me but was slow because of her current hand injuries. I was standing there alone, the imaginary crickets starting to chirp as I realized it would likely be several minutes until Gin arrived, my only proof I wasn’t really a vagrant homeless person living in my apparently objectionable van.

 “Well, you can’t sleep here. We have been having a problem with that,” she insisted. Yeah, I thought, there’s a bed in my van and hell yes, I do sleep in it. Starshine is my bedroom on wheels. I save hundreds in hotel bills and travel much more safely being able to nap at rest stops in Starshine. But I don’t just sleep in random neighborhoods. The only time I do stay in residential areas is if I am staying overnight at a friend’s house. Geez, lady. 

But I didn’t say any of that. “Have you seen me here overnight?” I asked her. I happened to be staying with my friend Donna on this trip in my previous neighborhood I lived in. 

“It’s a real problem if you are,” the lady insisted, ignoring my question. The lady walked away to gossip with the other neighbor again. Finally Gin arrived and we climbed into her van parked in front of mine to run errands. I told her what happened.

“That lady causes problems all the time,” Gin said. “She even keyed my car once because she didn’t want it parked in front of her house.”

I was shocked. Gin, also a nomadic type, has a van that is what we call “stealth” in the vanlife movement. It’s just plain and white and you’d never know there was a mini-apartment inside. Yikes. I wondered about the safety of Starshine with that lady around. I was even more glad I decorated the golden plunger. Just imagine the shade I would get from the lady, let alone from her tree, if she could tell there was a plunger holding up my headliner and overhead compartments. For the first time ever in all of my years of being a vintage car rehabber, it didn’t feel carefree and fun like it was supposed to be. I realized I felt uncomfortable about my unusual vehicle and how it seemed to affect some people. Even if the people weren’t particularly nice. 

My work trip continued well but I was missing Mendocino. I was on the 5 freeway heading back to Philo with a plan to stay overnight in Sacramento with my sister-like friend I’ve known since babyhood, Melinda. As I drove north I was still bothered by Gin’s neighbor lady. I was taking a driving break when I got an email snip in my LA friends group chat from my friend and former neighbor Susan. “Cat is famous. The HOA sent this,” Susan said. It outlined an email sent by a “concerned” neighbor on my old street about a “van” with a “woman in it” parked in front of some houses in the area. The houses of friends I was visiting. On the street I grew up on. The street my family lived on nearly 50 years. The street that my van, the same one being complained about, was parked on from 2017 until I moved north in 2019. “At least she didn’t know about the golden plunger,” Susan quipped. I had shared the plunger story with my friends at dinner one night. Susan wasn’t kidding, it could be worse. I couldn’t believe it was happening again. The Homeless Lady stigma was following me wherever I went. 

I took it upon myself to contact the HOA president because I happen to have been the HOA president years previously and I’ve known the current one, Pam, most of my life. I mentioned to Pam that she might recall my van and that the complainer must be new to “our” street. She replied, saying that the complainer was indeed new to the neighborhood. Pam seemed relieved to learn the vanlifer nextdoor was just me. A known threat must be better than an unknown one.

As I continued my drive I had a revelation that maybe my vanlife days are behind me. I drove under a miraculously cool and cloudy sky to Melinda’s house. She has often hosted Starshine Van and even my huge green bus in front of her home in her nice neighborhoods over the years. Even the black bus once parked in front of her Tahoe vacation home, on that same trip we took from LA to Washington when that girl called us homeless. 

I love visiting Melinda on my way home from LA, then taking the 20 West back to Mendocino County. I enjoy the scenic route and often take back country roads to my destinations, because in the schoolbuses, my ex and I would find amazing unknown lakes and remote campsites. We would park free on Bureau of Land Management land and remote camp in our various rigs. I felt safe under the stars in the wilds, in the deserts or woods, our travel animals with us. We were a happy odd little family living out our nomadic fantasies. 

But my reality as a single female part-time nomad is different. I mostly stay overnight in rest stops, truck stops, driveways of friends like Melinda and Donna, but now when I do stay in a residential neighborhood, even if I am sleeping inside the house like a normal guest, I notice I do get “the look” as I load up the next day to leave. The girl you had better not be homeless sleeping in front of my house look. 

The hugest irony is that I’m not homeless. I’m the opposite of homeless. I own 40 acres in Philo. I have a schoolbus RV and a van to house me if I ever needed it. I have an unoccupied house on my property just for guests, with two king size beds in the upstairs suite. I live in a private hidden tiny home and sleep in a 4 foot high princess bed. At bedtime, I literally have five beds and three couches to choose from that I could sleep on at home. Yet I am getting the societal shade of one who has no place to be. Freedom has a price, apparently. The price is others looking down on you if you have it. Others judging you just because they don’t understand your hobby happens to be collecting odd old travel vehicles and fixing them up, and enjoying them, and sometimes, yes, living the nomadic dream. 

After a great evening visiting with Melinda, I found myself looking around the next morning to see if any of her neighbors seemed concerned by my van. I did see a couple of stares. As we went to breakfast, Melinda drove me by a house in her neighborhood. A black 1980s van she has been eyeballing for a few months was parked there. It’s for sale, and I know it is completely renovated inside by the photos I’ve admired online. It has a bed, storage, wood floor. “It just went back on the market,” Melinda said. “I’m tempted.”

I considered how it would be to have a stealth van like Gin’s or the one Melinda was considering. By the time I got home from my trip I felt discouraged and was considering selling both the green schoolbus and Starshine Van and just getting an SUV, something safe and newer to travel in. Something I could take a nap in at the rest stop on the way to LA to the hotel room that would be waiting for me. But timing is everything. Melinda just sent me a text tonight. Today she test drove the black For Sale late-1980s nomad van she’s been scoping for several months. The price just dropped. The rearview mirror popped off during the test drive but she’s still smitten. And I could see it. The two of us going up to Tahoe or to the coast, camping out in our mutual nomad vans. Exploring beautiful hidden places together. Safety in numbers.

Even though I was offloading my van with the idea of selling Starshine this morning, now I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll wait to see if Melinda buys that van we are jokingly calling “Dark Star” before I try selling Starshine Van. I’m glad I haven’t fully emptied Starshine out yet. And maybe instead of selling her, I’ll figure out a better way to keep that headliner up, or maybe I’ll just go ahead and decorate that golden plunger like a fairy tree. Maybe add flowers on the moss base. And butterflies. Lots of butterflies.

One Comment

  1. Paul Modic November 2, 2022

    THAT was a very fun read (in the paper paper)

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