Is this what a tsunami feels like? That's what I thought as I awoke to find my home violently rocking back and forth. I cursed myself for not paying attention to the tsunami evacuation route signs lining the windy roads along the Pacific. But I wasn't wet and there were flashlight beams forcing curious slivers of light through the opaque fabric lining of my bedroom. The Cannon Beach police were not happy to find me sleeping in a van on a quiet street in their pleasant beachfront community.
I knew this day would come. After 74 hassle-free nights living in a van in Portland, I thought it would be safe to make the 80-mile trek to the coast to clear my head and enjoy what was left of the summer. Back in May, the week before the Sasquatch music festival, I moved here and started living in a van to save money while I tried the Pacific Northwest on for size. I hoped to figure out my life by MusicfestNW, but a week after the festival I was still uncertain about my future. I needed some space to think, so I drove to Cannon Beach and dropped anchor in what appeared to be a legit parking spot in a cul-de-sac adjacent to an oceanfront hotel that charged $280 per night for a room. This is where Oregon's three most bored cops found me.
I knew they couldn't see the drifter inside through the shades, so I deployed the vandweller solution to unwanted encounters with the fuzz: I played dead. It took them a good 15 minutes to get bored with banging on my windows with flashlights. As soon as they left, I followed the handy evacuation route signs and got the hell out of Cannon Beach.
No sooner did I see a sign pointing me back to Highway 101 than a white SUV made a U-turn and turned on its red-and-blue lights.
The cop had a modest beer gut and the kind of goatee you'd see on a college freshman attempting to buy beer with a fake ID. He was far too young and portly to be an ex-military guy. I liked my chances.
"I saw your van a few minutes ago back in town by the Land's End inn," he said. "Did you know camping is illegal in Cannon Beach?"
After politely telling him I was minding my own business reading a book as my vehicle was apparently being broken into by a clumsy junkie, he took note of my VIN number and let me go. I hung a right and headed south on 101. Unless they radioed ahead and told the next town over that a young guy in a sketchy van was looking for a place to crash for the night, I figured I'd be fine in Manzanita.
I turned off the pitch-black highway and drove around Manzanita until stumbling upon a dimly lit road with plenty of parking. I settled between an RV and a Subaru occupied by a young couple splayed out under an unzipped sleeping bag.
I woke a few hours later to a faint whooshing sound and wondered if I'd left the 12-volt camper fridge I'd bought on Craigslist the day before plugged into my cigarette lighter. Being marooned at the beach with a dead battery would be worse than going to jail. I opened my window and immediately realized it wasn't my fridge making the noise—it was the ocean.
I flung open my side door and whipped up a pot of French press coffee and an omelet on my butane camping stove. I bought it two months prior at an Asian supermarket thinking it would save me a ton of money on food, only for it to sit under my bed while I spent at least $20 a day eating out. I wasn't sure how long I'd be calling the van home at that point—I figured I'd find an apartment or get jettisoned by the neighborhood watch no later than Labor Day. But other than the incident in Cannon Beach, it'd been smooth sailing in my home on wheels.
With a layer of gray clouds overhead, I decided to head back to Portland. I stopped by the coffee shop where I recently scored a barista gig and crunched some numbers on my laptop. Barring cataclysm or major home improvements, sticking with the van plan for a year would put my finances almost $1,000 a month in the black. I would even have enough money for a golf-cart battery to power my new fridge! Oh shit—did I leave the fridge turned on? I sprinted back to the van, jammed the key in the ignition and got nothing but clicking. The food was still cold, but my van was dead.
"Sounds like you need some help, van man!" I heard as a guy with buzzed gray hair in a sleeveless Vandals T-shirt jumped out of a powder-blue VW bus covered in surfing stickers. If it weren't for his hair and a decades-old case of sunburn on his face, it'd be safe to assume this guy got carded everywhere he went. "I was trying to take a nap in here, but it's like 95 degrees, so I thought I'd help you with a jump," he said. I offered to buy the guy a beer after my home was brought back to life, but he declined. "Sorry man, truth is I'm way too stoned to be drinking in public right now," he said. "If you wanna hang out some other time, though, just gimme a shout!"
Later that night, I hit up a Safeway to pick up some eggs. As I approached the checkout lane, I encountered an unsavory young lady I knew from my stint working at a well-known doughnut shop. She forced an encounter, then looked confused when I told her I hadn't been fired like she thought, but was in fact picking up a shift later that week. "I live down Powell a couple miles—are you close by?" she asked. I told her about the van, assuming this was old news. I told her about my new gig and offered to hook her up with a cup of coffee if she ever stopped by.
I realized I was done shopping and turned back toward the register. While at the self-checkout, I overheard her talking frantically to a bag boy at the end of the counter. "That guy got fired from my job, and I guess he lives in a van now?" she said. "Seems like a real winner if you ask me."
I stood no more than 10 feet away, but she never noticed me as she demonstrated her hipness to the bag boy. I considered the irony of the situation: Rather than scrape up enough money to rent an apartment surrounded by stripper poles and $1 cheeseburgers, I'm saving close to a grand every month by living in a van in one of Portland's most livable neighborhoods. I've learned to live without water and electricity just fine, and have mastered the art of making an excellent grilled cheese sandwich by flashlight.
I've only begun to scrape the surface of paying off the loans I naively took out to major in talking, but I won't let the Keystone Cops or the grubby scene chicks get in my way. Can I do this for another year? Of course I can. And I will. My life has been overrun with dumb decisions, but moving to Portland to live in a van wasn't one of them.