“He is the happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

On Sunday, November 30, 1997, I officially became homeless. I’d filed bankruptcy, my house had foreclosed, and I’d put all my possessions in storage. I didn’t have anywhere lined up to stay, so I loaded up my 18-foot travel trailer (pictured right) and headed for a local county campground. Although they didn’t accept long-term residents, they had a 90-day stay limit during the winter, so I had time to figure out what I would do next. I had optimistically assumed that 90 days would be plenty of time to find a better place to live.

My time at the county park was a very healing experience. Even though I was still more or less broke, my living expenses were extremely low, and I was surrounded by nature. I could walk to the nearby shores of the lake and watch the mist gathering on the waters at dawn. Sometimes I saw deer wandering through the empty park. Once, I saw a large vulture with a six-foot wingspan scavenging a dead animal near the path where I was walking.

In many respects, my life had become much easier. The collection calls had stopped, I was able to save a little money and contribute the maximum to my 401(k) plan at work. My commute was cut in half. Things became very simple. I went to work, I came home, walked the dog, made dinner, watched the one grainy channel I could pick up with my outdoor television antenna, and went to bed. I’d spend the weekends running errands and hauling my laundry to the laundromat.

I kept trying to find a house or an apartment and had zero luck. The combination of bad credit and pets proved to be fatal, so I had to find another option. I considered urban boondocking, or parking on a different public street each night, but ruled it out as being too risky. I was offered, and seriously considered, a job as camp host at the county park. It would have enabled me to stay, rent-free, for as long as I wished, but it required a weekly work commitment of 20 hours. If I didn’t already have a full-time, professional job, I might have jumped at the opportunity. Since I didn’t see a way I could juggle a minimum work commitment of 60 hours a week, plus an additional 5 hours of commute time, I turned it down.

As my time started running out at the county park, I started looking at various mobile home and trailer parks. Some were too far from my job. Others were so seedy I was afraid for my safety. Finally, I settled on a commercial RV park located 45 minutes from my job. It had some very nice amenities, was clean, safe, and cost close to what I paid at the county park. I filled out an application, and they claimed they were going to check my references and get back to me.

I never heard back from them, but I knew they were pretty much my last hope. Once a week, on my way home from work, I would stop by in my professional clothes with a smile on my face. “Have you found a vacancy for me yet?” I would ask. Every week, the answer would be no.

In February 1998, I found myself hunkered down in the middle of an enormous El Niño storm. My cat, dog and I weathered 80 MPH gusts of wind as we trembled in our tiny trailer. The wind howled, the rain poured, and the thunder crashed all around us. During the storm several trees came down in the park. One landed within inches of my truck, and I thanked my lucky stars it hadn’t landed on top of us. My aging trailer would have been completely crushed.

Shortly after the storm, the power went out and a major landslide knocked out my path to work. One highway was gone, and another was flooded, so I missed a day or two of work. After the flood subsided, my 30-minute drive increased to an hour and 20 minutes, as I had to navigate my way around the landslide.

I was nearly at the end of my stay at the county park. A sympathetic ranger told me I could stay another 90 days if I was willing to leave the park for 24 hours, but he told me I wouldn’t be able to stay beyond that, since the summer season would be starting, and then they would have to enforce the 14-day stay limit.

I called the commercial RV park, prepared to beg. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. They had suddenly found a place for me. For once, my luck had taken a turn for the better. I said goodbye to the helpful rangers and moved that weekend.

Lessons learned:

1. Living in an RV isn’t a bad way to save money, if you already own your RV. I’d paid cash my trailer, secondhand, a number of years before, so I had very little overhead. The combined cost for space rent, electricity and propane was comparable to what I would pay to rent a room in a nice home, or a one-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood. Although I was certainly cramped for space, the trade-off was worth it. At the county park I had amazing nature right at my doorstep; at the commercial RV park, I had access to a heated swimming pool, hot tub and cable television.

2. It’s quite amazing how little stuff you need to be comfortable. I had gone from living in 1,500 square feet of house to less than 150 square feet of trailer. Other than the clothes I used every day, a few books, financial papers, pictures and CDs, everything had to go into storage. It was surprising how little I missed my stuff.

3. Putting things in long-term storage is expensive. Although I anticipated staying in my RV for only a few months, I ended up living in it for almost four years. At first, I stayed because I had no alternative. Later, I stayed because I realized the financial benefits of doing so. If I’d known ahead of time, I would have simply sold or donated the majority of my possessions as I could have purchased everything new for the cost of four years of storage fees.

4. Living on the edge is much less scary when you have a dog. There were many times where I would have been really frightened had I not had a dog with me. She went with me everywhere, and I never felt vulnerable. When I went to work, she sat in my truck with a water dish and the windows down. If I had to work late, she would come inside the office with me. I’d spent the time and effort to make sure she was well-trained, calm and obedient, so she made a very insecure part of my life feel more secure.

Next in series: Keeping Sane

Photo credit: Alex