When the pandemic hit and businesses started closing, cities issued shelter in place orders, and masks became a regular part of each wardrobe choice (unless you’re Donald Trump), I read a story about what #vanlifers should do during this uncertain time. The author urged van dwellers and others on the road to park it at their parents’ house and sit tight. Which, I think was sound advice, if you had parents close by, the money to get to them, or a job that allowed you to be away for extended periods of time.
I didn’t have $1,000 to get to Florida and back, where most of my family resides. My close friends in the Front Range are essential employees (grocery, health care, public health) or lived in townhomes without ample parking. I deemed it selfish to insert myself into stressful days and crowded driveways. What’s more, my job is closely tied with Colorado schools, whose schedules remained uncertain through March. Basically, I couldn’t park it at my parents’ house, as much as I wanted to.
Extreme Social Distancing
Fate stepped in via a telephone call. The man I was seeing in Fort Collins found himself stuck in Red Feather Lakes, in his broken down 1989 Itasca Sunflyer RV and needed some provisions before the next spring storm rolled in. Red Feather Lakes boasts thousands of acres of Forest Service land, with minimal camping regulations and plenty of dispersed spots – home sweet home.
Nourishment, water, and boxed wine in hand, I arrived on March 28 to rescue my handsome friend, who I was praying would turn into my quarantine boyfriend, and maybe even stick around post pandemic (spoiler alert: he did). Turns out, there were a lot of people hiding out up in northern Colorado. The first night, we heard gun shots from a campsite across the way followed by some hootin’, hollerin’, and a whole slew of swear words. Enter campsite left: Pat and John.
This dynamic duo quickly became our best friends in Red Feather. They left Illinois with the promise of seasonal work at a restaurant in Fort Collins when lo and behold, they worked one day before COVID-19 restrictions shut the whole thing down. With almost no money, definitely no home, and a 1994 Nissan Pathfinder whose front bumper was held on with hopes and dreams, they headed up to Red Feather and made camp.
“Camp” is an understatement for their forest home. They arrived a few weeks earlier, securing a secluded spot behind some rocky outcroppings. Between the rocks they strung gigantic tarps for wind blocks and a roof for shade. Their fire pit wasn’t so much a ground-level ring but rather a stony hearth about waist high, backed with scrap metal. Across, it was as wide as a VW bug.
Fueled each day by Busch Light and American Spirits, they spent hours chopping wood, fixing their tents, or driving to town to re-up on beer. The boys were in the process of designing and building forest furniture – a food storage cabinet, coffee table, and chaise lounge. It really was quite the operation they were running.
We started spending evenings howling at the moon with Pat and John, spotting UFO’s that were surely just satellites, and listening to music crackle through Pat’s AM/FM, battery operated radio. Heated games of Yahtzee ensued followed by jam sessions, midnight snacks, and deep talks.
Nothing I Expected, Everything I Needed
If it were regular life, we probably wouldn’t have crossed paths with these two lovable outlaws, but it wasn’t regular life and for that, I am grateful. We didn’t have much in common except for a love of card games, campfires, and lukewarm beers, but it didn’t matter. We were all stuck in some way or another, be it financially, mechanically, or emotionally and found solace, comfort, and a home in each other.
Eventually, we met more of the community, who were already isolated in a town of 350 and now even more so with COVID-19 restrictions. A young couple who live in Red Feather year-round quickly became staples next to the campfire and invited us over to shower, use the internet, and hang out. A Louisiana native would swing by on his four-wheeler with homemade moonshine for us to sample. We became a roadside stop on people’s way to and from town. They’d check in on us, ask if we needed anything, then tip their hat and toot the horn as they drove away.
Wings and Roots
When the world started opening up again, it was bittersweet for me. Wonderful in that I could resume regular work and see my friends, but melancholy in that I’d have to leave this place I started to recognize as home. #Vanlife is inherently nomadic and attractive because of its impermanence. Rolling on through town after town has its freedoms but also its limitations.
The open road is romantic and magical. A small space forces you outside and makes you appreciate creature comforts all the more. But you also dig in less – to people and to places. You truly are on your own, no one knows where you came from or where you’re headed. People don’t dig into you either because you’ll be gone in a few short days and life, especially now, is wearisome as is.
Quarantining in Red Feather gave me my own little community, people who checked in, people who cared. There’s something so deeply satisfying in seeing the sun creep up each morning over the same stretch of pine and make its way across the sky, to set over a ridge line whose peaks and edges you’ve been able to learn just by sitting still and looking.
The pandemic put me in my place – in the lap of mother nature and in the arms of people who wanted to know how I was, where I was, and if I’d be sticking around for a while. I never would have guessed that a nomadic lifestyle or a global pandemic would instill the desire to root down in one place and pack my wings away for a different season. Then again, life is anything but predictable nowadays.