Today, I was asked, “Have you ever been camping?” and boy, is that a loaded question for me.
I had always loved the outdoors, and I was excited to take my family on camping trips in our new Winnebago Chalet. In the Winnebago, we had been to beautiful places such as Big Sur, the California Redwoods, and Baja Mexico. We were seasoned campers. It wasn't until my husband went on disability due to a freak accident that we learned what it was like to camp for more than six months nonstop.
It was in 2009 that we packed up the Winnebago, gave the keys to the house we were renting back to the property manager, and downsized our life aggressively to fit into the Winnebago. Not wanting to face eviction, we had given our 30 days' notice. We had officially fallen on hard times and were homeless, but I convinced my kids that they were just going on an extended camping trip. We had chosen to camp in the city areas around the San Jose Bay area, where they could still have access to basic amenities and services.
My husband needed physical therapy every other day to recover from his injury. His arm would spontaneously come out of the socket as a laptop strap slid off his shoulder. We didn't know this at the time, but he has Ehlers Danlos, a hereditary connective tissue disease.
I explained to my kids the difference between city camping and camping in the woods. We needed to be respectful of our surroundings in the city and maintain an extremely low profile. It was like a game, one I did not want to play. We searched for spots to park in, out of the way parking lots near laundromats and coffee shops. The best places were the ones with free WIFI and little foot traffic. We were all used to the Winnebago, and the pros were that we had access to clean water and a restroom in the RV. Showers were much trickier. When in a campground, we could use the facilities like showers and bathrooms. In the city, there was no access to enough water for showers. We also had to be mindful of our black tanks. Going to dump them usually meant a drive out to a station equipped for that.
One night, we parked next to our old bank on El Camino Real in Santa Clara. Ironically, the bank had closed, and its workers had been laid off, and the mall was essentially a ghost mall. We needed water, and getting water in the city was harder than we expected. Well, we got a good laugh because the bank hadn't turned off the water spigot outside yet. So we went all the time to fill our water tanks at the bank. It was a funny thought that we were getting an essential survival supply from the bank, almost as if we were robbing it.
All that considered, it was a “Dry Camping” experience. Another positive was that we could also easily get food and supplies from nearby stores, keeping our meager budget in mind. On the other hand, camping in the woods offered a more natural setting, where we could fully immerse ourselves in the wilderness and disconnect from the city's hustle and bustle. City camping was very stressful.
On our trip, there was no escape from the hustle and bustle and dangers that lurked in the night. Animals far more dangerous than bears and wildlife. Humans were out there, people who could ask questions, questions that could lead to troublesome answers, and we did not want to have to answer to a potential CPS (Child Protective Services) inquiry. Caring for our children was the priority. They were homeschooled, and we maintained their schooling at the library and coffee shops long before online meetings and zooms were a thing. They logged into school and went about their daily learning tasks, all while we were camping in the city.
On our first night in the Winnebago, the kids were excited to sleep in the bunk bed and table bed set up. My husband and I had a bed in the rear part of the chalet. We slept with one eye open and raised at the first light, so we moved on before the city dwellers took notice. The next morning, we set out to explore the nearby parks, shopping centers, colleges, and suburbs. We enjoyed a picnic lunch by the lake at Vasona Park and fed the ducks some stale bread crumbs. It was actually a picture-perfect place to be homeless and spend a day. Almost so surreal that one could think it was a vacation.
However, as the days went on, we all started to notice some of the cons of city camping. The noise and pollution from the nearby highways were constant, and we couldn't fully escape the sounds of the city. We also felt very uneasy at night, knowing that we were parked in a public area, and anyone could approach our RV. Having our small dog was like having a little live alarm as he would rustle then huff and puff warnings if anyone approached our vehicle. We appreciated that more then ever.
Despite the challenges, our family tried to make the best of our situation. We spent our days exploring the city and enjoying each other's company. We took walks in parks at every neighborhood between Gilroy and San Francisco. We soon found a rhythm and pattern to our favorite spots. The kids were happy to be on an adventure, and I felt grateful for the chance to spend quality time with my family. Almost too much time.
As the days turned into weeks and months, I began to worry about the future. I knew we couldn't continue living like this forever, but I also didn't know how to get out of the situation. How long would it take for Jaime, my husband, to recover? When would companies begin to hire again? It was a large recession. Many companies had laid off people en masse. In fact, it was the second year of the hard times. In the new year, Jaime started looking for new job opportunities. The disability payments stopped and unemployment had kicked in. None of it enough to support our family in the San Francisco Bay Area. We had tapped out all resources the year prior when laid off in 2008. So the double whammy of 2008/2009 crushed us. We decided in April of 2010 to surrender the RV. It was the last thing I was trying to hold onto – a semblance of dignity, something of our own. But it wasn't ours; it belonged to the bank. I had started the bankruptcy process, and I knew the repo man would soon be looking for the RV. So I arranged a surrender and moved the family into a rented trailer. I was determined that the experience was not going to be memorable in a negative way for the kids. With the handing over of the keys, our city camping trip smoothly ended. We moved our few possessions into the rented campsite and adjusted to a new routine.
In the end, our family learned a valuable lesson about resilience and adaptability. We made the best of a difficult situation and found joy in the simple things. I hoped that one day my kids and family would be able to look back on this experience as a reminder of their strength and perseverance. Our journey to recovery was just over the horizon.
Once we were back in a brick and mortar home my daughter wrote this song about the experience.