Richard, A Free Range Man
He was walking towards me with a “found” walking stick on old abandoned highway 395 South of Bishop, CA. The highway was closed in the 1950’s and is not blocked off by CA Water and Power. You can still drive on the rutted and pot holed old road for miles. It turns out this was one of “our” all-time favorite camping spots. Richard hated to pay for camping too. After chatting for a bit in front of my truck I asked him if he would like to sit down, chat some more and have a cold drink and maybe a little tequila as well. Said he didn’t drink much anymore but sat right down and started to drink the tequila in one of my marbled Bakelite cups. I don’t think he’d ever had a fine sipping tequila. Turns out he also liked pot and had some experience with psychedelics from back in the day. Something about a long drive to somewhere in CA while tripping.
Richard was 80 years old, never been married had 4 teeth, one plastic eye and get this, he had been living out of his car for 12 years. Well a Pinto station wagon until about three years ago. Now he has a 1972 yellow and white van he bought for $1200 from a 90 year old woman in Big Pine. He told me there were periods here and there when he lived for free in a regular structure but, most of the twelve years were in the car or van. Yes, he’s poor and living on about $500 per month, but damn, Richard was living the dream. He was a happy guy. The only tech thing he owned was a cell phone his sister gave him. He said lots of old guys die in their cars and campers out here and the locals don’t like it. I’m not sure how a cell phone would help any of that. But none the less, he was truly amazed every time he called his sister in San Diego from the middle of nowhere. “It’s the most amazing thing!”
Both of his parents were born in Italy and he grew up in Mass. What are the odds of two pure Italianos from New England meeting in the middle of Nowheresville east of the Sierras? AND, both of us feel like “Free Range Adults” while living on the road. He was my hero, freakin twelve years on the road alone. He said it didn’t count as being on the road unless you were alone for at least three weeks. I felt relieved that in his eyes I had been out long enough many times for it to count.
Richard wanted to show me his van which was parked about a quarter mile down the abandoned highway. Before we started walking he eyed the tequila bottle once more and said “That’s really good, do you mind if I have a little more for the walk?” I just smiled and said me tequila es su tequila. It might have been a mistake, because he kept dropping things and not walking too straight along the way, but we made it, although he did drop my Bakelite cup with the last drop of tequila in it just as we got to the yellow and white beast.
It was not what I expected at all. It was an actual camper, extra-long, with a high enough ceiling to stand up. It was completely full of stuff and everything seemed to be brown. This gave the inside the appearance of a living thing. It seemed to be moving and I couldn’t focus on any one thing. Perhaps I’d had too much intoxicants. He showed me all of his treasures and told me how much he had paid for each. Most were free, but nothing had been over $5.00. After a while I wandered back to the Casita and went to bed.
Richard stopped by the next morning on the way to his next camping spot. Said it was great to have someone to talk to, because sometimes he went weeks without talking to anyone and he occasionally got lonely. We talked some more. He told me he spent most of his time moving around the Owens Valley, not staying one place long enough for someone to get annoyed with his presence. There were several hot springs on his route so he could bath and wash clothes. When he first moved to LA from New England he had been a Junk Man and almost got married a few times.
Both of our grandfathers were in the Italian Army during WW I. They were in the same trenches in Austria fighting the Germans. It’s my understanding that thousands of Italians were killed here as a diversion to hide what the Allied Army was really up to in their fight against Germany. My grandfather used to show me the scars on his upper arms. He would hold his arm above the trench in the hopes of getting shot so he could go to the hospital. Its amazing either Richard’s or my Grandfather survived.
I would be like Richard if I were homeless. Live in my vehicle, and stay someplace warm with hot springs around and few people. I would never stay in a town or city….I guess if I were addicted to something I would have to. Richard doesn’t seem to be addicted to anything except open space, warm natural springs and being his own man. He never asked me for a dime, but obsessed over giving me a gift for being so generous with my intoxicants and most of all my company. He gave me a map to help me find a hot spring in the valley I had never been to. I thought about giving him a $100 just for enriching my life, but I truly believe he would have been insulted.
I will never forget Richard and always hope that our paths will cross again. I will never understand why I didn’t get his cell number. It just didn’t cross my mind. I guess I still wasn’t much of a cell phone person in 2013. Now I have a phone that seems to be “smarter” than me.