Category: heading west


Scottsdale Arizona is the unfriendliest place for vandwellers I’ve ever experienced. It’s an elite suburb of Phoenix, a perfect grid of faux Santa Fe mansions, each one dropped onto a massive lot, with stucco fences, manicured palm trees, perfect cacti. Miles of sidewalk, but no one walks here. No parking either: even if I drove a Range Rover I’d stick out, just by virtue of parking on the street.

I’ve stopped here for the night because in the morning I’ll tour Taliesin West, another project of Frank Lloyd Wright’s that just happens to be on my route. In one of his financial low points FLW decided to establish a desert compound where apprentices could pay to come work with him. It jump-started the most generative and inventive period of work in his life, in which he designed the Guggenheim and Fallingwater. When he established Taliesin West in the late 30’s there was nothing here but desert; Scottsdale has grown right up to it’s border, but Taliesin still has a sizable piece of desert property where today’s students go out and build the shelters they design.

It also has about a kilometer of driveway before you get to the main gate, with signs along the way saying that you can’t park there… but I park there anyway because it still seems more hospitable than anywhere in town.  As I pull in I see two big stags in my headlights, and when I turn the car off there’s something extra peaceful about being at the edge… almost in the wild but somehow sill feeling the cars and warm concrete of Phoenix.


Arcosanti is a group of people in the desert north of Pheonix led by a 92-year-old architect named Paolo Soleri. He’s developed a set of theories he calls Arcology, whereby people would live in very dense, self-supporting communities that minimize their impact on the earth in large part by eradicating the need for the car. They’ve been building Arcosanti for the last forty years as a test case, what they call an “urban laboratory”.

They have a 5 week workshop that I’ve wanted to do for years, but this trip of course I only have time for the 1 hour quickie tour. The place feels a bit surreal: concrete arcs, circles and squares sprinkled with slender Italian cedars, an interesting retro-seventies future style. Windchimes are everywhere (the community sells them to fund the project), and the place has a creative, lively feel, although we saw hardly any people.

High density living seems to be theme today… strange that it should be so in Arizona, land of urban sprawl and vast empty desert. In the morning I saw the ruins of a complex of the Holovi people, a masonry apartment block three stories high that housed a thousand people, cultivating corn in the desert and making painted coal-fired pottery that still litters the ground. The Hopi people who live 60 miles to the north are descended from the old inhabitants; their oral traditions say that they left because the area’s mosquitoes became unbearable. Further south, I visit what is still referred to erroneously as “Montezuma’s Castle”, a stunning fortress built in caves tucked high in a cliff face. Around 35 people lived here together for a few hundred years; it isn’t known why they left.

I think Paolo is right, our future depends on learning how to function better as tight communities. People keep talking about ‘green’ building as if it only meant energy savings or materials, but it’s the very form of the single family dwelling that’s so wasteful of space and resources. Yes we all need space and privacy, but perhaps through thoughtful design we can have those needs met while also enjoying the ecological and social benefits of closer proximity. One day I’ll come back to Arco; I want to be part of the experiment.

Family (New Mexico)

Beatrice had a cart that she pushed from town to town in Russia, trading and selling goods to make a living. Being nomadic already (like me!), she was well-prepared to make tracks for a new life elsewhere when the revolution started brewing. But in one town on her way east a man named Jacob saw her, caught up with her on the road, then asked her to marry him. She said yes. Jacob took his new wife to Canada, where they got married and had three children. Jacob sold men’s clothing, and one day a man from the old country walked into his store. They talked about places and people they’d known, then the man asked to have an overcoat Jacob had for sale. Jacob said he was running a business, he couldn’t just give it away. The man said if he didn’t give it to him, that he would ruin his life, but Jacob refused. Next the man went to Jacob’s home, where he found Beatrice and told her that Jacob was still legally married to a wife in the old country, and thus their marriage was illegal and her children were all bastards. Jacob came home that day to find all the belongings that Beatrice considered his out on the front porch, and indeed he never recovered.

I’m in New Mexico now with my aunt Silva, hearing stories from my mother’s side. Silva moved down to this beautiful place three years ago to build a life with her wife Amber, who is from here. Again, we’ve had less contact over the years than other families might have had, but those rare occasions we do get to connect are always a pleasure. I’m really happy to get to see them and their new home.

Amber and the cottonwoods

It’s stunning here. The arroyos are packed with Cottonwoods, and I’ve arrived just as they all turn flaming yellow. The cliffs are deep red, and the air smells incredible. It’s not so good for my poor little van though; apparently diesels don’t do so well in the high altitude. Even on flat it struggles to accelerate to city driving speeds, and as it does black smoke spews out the tailpipe, dirtying the beautiful New Mexico air.



Family (Oklahoma)

Loumen lost both of his parents when he was still very young. But a spare set of hands was a valuable thing on a farm, so his neighbors took him in and raised him to work. When the Civil War broke out he left the farm to fight for the North. At the end of the war he marched to Washington DC for the three-day victory parade, and after that he walked back home to marry his sweetheart from the farm. They had a daughter named Juliana, my great grandmother.

Ducalian was from Alabama, but at some point decided to move, with his family and slaves, to Texas. On the journey his wife became ill, and died. Duke told his children and slaves to stay put where they were, and went back home. He married his old neighbour Martha, and off they went to catch up with the others and continue on to Texas. Duke and Martha had 4 children, one of whom was Richard, my great-grandfather.

Clifford, Darrell, Daisy

Richard and Juliana came to Oklahoma because it was the newest state, and land parcels were being given free to those willing to farm them. They had ten children together, including my grandfather Roscoe.

I didn’t know any of this until yesterday, when I arrived in Oklahoma City and met my second cousin Darrell for the first time. He welcomed me into his house with real joy, sat me down, and we started telling each other stories. Today we had lunch with Clifford and Daisy, more second cousins who were equally delighted to meet me, and who gave me Roscoe’s old harmonica. Later I met Sue, who had the shiniest eyes I’ve ever seen, and who gave me the tightest hug. Darrell and I drove out to the land that Roscoe lived on, and we saw the teeny little windblown graveyard where he’s buried right next to his parents, and just a few stones over from Duke and Martha, my great-great-grandparents.

A whole new branch of family and history, it’s a really amazing thing. When we said our goodbyes Darrell told me he loved me, and I said I loved him, and we meant it.


When I was 9 or 10 years old my family went to New York, and at the MOMA we saw a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. I was amazed at the idea of a stream incorporated into a house, and at what a beautiful thing it was. It was the first I’d ever heard that you could design such things for a living, and I decided then that I wanted to be an architect. Over the years I shied away from that dream, then approached it again, and repeated the cycle many times. I guess even now, though I’ve made a commitment to pursuing it, I still feel doubt sometimes.

Well the strangest thing happened yesterday, while I was stopped at a gas station in Pennsylvania looking at my road atlas: there in the margin was a little photo of Fallingwater, with a caption saying it was in Mill Run, Pennsylvania. It was practically right in my path. An hour or two down the road, and I was at a starbucks booking my tour for this morning at 11am.  Crazy!

It’s stunning, by the way. The living room feels so expansive that it has its own horizon, yet it brings the woods into the room with you… and somehow it also feels cozy and protective. Some people say FLW made ceilings low at entrances to make us uncomfortable and propel us into the rooms beyond, but maybe it’s just tall people who say that. I found the ceiling heights everywhere to be juuuuust right.

Vandwelling NYC (3)

My second morning in the Bronx I wake up to the sound of rain heavy on the roof, a sound I normally love. But I’m feeling dirty, broke, and vulnerable… totally overwhelmed by this massive crumbling city. I’ve seen the place, done what I came for, and skipping town seems so much easier than the alternative: getting soaked on the walk to 170th Street Station and then wandering around downtown all day in the rain, without the money to do anything interesting.

I decide to hit the road, taking one last drive through Manhattan on my way out. I find my way across the bridge to 5th Ave and turn south.

I actually love driving in this city. There’s no expectation that you stay in your lane, or that you signal before you cut someone off, or that you obey any signs. Trucks stop wherever they want to make deliveries, and pedestrians walk blithely out in front of moving cars. Concern for others is misplaced in this town: everyone just has to do whatever’s necessary to get through the madness between A and B. It’s liberating, once you learn that it’s okay to break the rules.

Suddenly I’m happy, swerving through the sea of cabs and buses, gawking at all the wet landmarks from my warm dry van: I see Central Park, the Met, the Guggenheim (#&@% me, that is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful building), The New York Public Library, The Flatiron Building, Greenwich Village. Traffic is clear now but I need to stop and take another look at a map, so I turn off 7th and there, right in front of me… a parking spot. A free spot, til 9am tomorrow. This makes all the difference in the world, and I decide to stay one more day. Like magic, the rain turns to a light mist, and I spend a lovely morning wandering Greenwich Village, and the afternoon walking from times square North about 60 blocks, eventually connecting with a friend at Columbia University. She takes me to an amazing lecture by Juhani Pallasma, we have fantastic tacos with her friends afterwards, and bless her soul, she lets me use her shower. Oh my god, I feel clean and fantastic. Thank you Rand! And thank you New York, now we can part on good terms.

Vandwelling NYC (2)

Subway to the YMCA downtown, eager for my swim. It’s $25. $25!!!!! Too surprised to ask if I can just have a shower, I leave. Geez, can I really continue to get by on baby wipes? Maybe. Or maybe I’ll come back later and cough up. I walk south, quickly getting a crick in my neck from trying to see everything around me.

Eventually I run into Zuccotti Park, without even trying. It’s late morning, and my first take on it is surprise at how small it is: maybe a hundred people that look like they’ve actually taken up residence? Maybe more, it’s hard to tell. Some are curled up asleep, many talking with passersby, many look a little bit fringey… my peeps for sure, I feel immediately affectionate towards them, but I’m surprised that these are the ones that have inspired such hope and action across the globe. I’m too shy to walk up and say “here I am!” … in fact now that I’m here I’m not sure what I have to offer. My involvement in protests has always just been about adding my body, or my voice, to the crowd: a non-verbal but loud “I agree!” Non-verbal because for me the issues at stake are too vast, I don’t know how to articulate them. Another body here right now wouldn’t be helpful, unless it was doing something. For the time being I leave, confused.

A few blocks away is the Financial District and the actual Wall Street, a surreal, spooky place. The streets are strangely narrow, incongruous with the massive stone spires that line them. It’s a sunny day but everything, everything, is in shadow. There are no protesters here, but foot traffic has been corralled with barricades and police on horseback wait in the street. Vehicle traffic is totally absent: since 911 three kinds of heavy fortifications have been built right into the middle of the street, and all three are being implemented now. There is the strong sense that something is about to happen. In contrast to this atmosphere of martial law, the tourists are lively from behind the barricades, taking photos of the cops just like any other attraction.

In the afternoon I go back to Zuccotti Park. This time I pay more attention to the periphery: squads of police vehicles, with hydraulic watchtowers at each corner of the block. In the park, things have picked up. There are far more people who clearly identify as supporters, whether they’re living at the park or not. But the real magic is in the conversations that are happening everywhere, spilling out of every spare corner of the park. Suits and tourists and construction workers are talking to the OWS supporters and to each other, with passion but rarely anger, having this cross-class conversation about corporate greed that would have been impossible a month ago. While I’m there Jessie Jackson turns up, gives a supportive sound bite that I can’t hear, and disappears. I’m astonished again at the magnitude of what these people have accomplished.

I wander downtown for a while, and return to the park at 7 for the General Assembly. I’m fascinated by this process whereby a group of hundreds makes decisions together, where everyone has a voice and the usual ‘majority rules’ idea of democracy isn’t good enough. The reality of it is just as long and frustrating as it is beautiful. For example one idea about using some of their donation money to keep hot herbal teas available for those living in the park gets discussed for the better part of an hour. The people facilitating (guests from Occupy movements in other cities) are learning this process as they go. Sometimes they get lost in the points of clarification, or points of process, each one of which is an interruption in the continuity of decision-making, but each one respected as a valid contribution, and each one helping everyone learn a little bit more about how to make it work. With commitment and tenacity, this is the process by which the group moves forward. Here is one of their major accomplishments, a document that describes a realistic path to non-violent revolution. (Anyone who thinks these people don’t know what they want should read this)

I head back to the subway and to my little home in the Bronx, thinking about what my role is going to be in all of this. All I know for sure is that I’ve learned enough here, the trick will be to bring it home.

Vandwelling NYC (1)

Day 1 was just driving. Beautiful fall colours all through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Had a bit of a scare watching the mileage, but that was after hours of facing a headwind, and uphill; on flatter terrain the mileage was slightly better than I had planned for. On a 9000km trip with very slim financial margins, these things make a difference! Crossed the border after dark and made it to Portland, Maine, where I found a comfortable place to park for the night in about 5 minutes.

Day 2 was just driving too. Freeway and trees, with the odd tollbooth. Paul Simon in my head: “so when I reached my prime, I left my home in the maritimes, headed down the turnpike for New England, sweet New England…” I’m relying on the signs, having completely used up my $25 roaming data by early morning, just from using my phone’s map feature a few times.

Just as it’s starting to get dark I arrive, mapless, in the largest city I’ve ever visited. I take a random exit, turn a bunch of times trying to avoid all the potholes and taxis, and find myself lost in a neighbourhood that’s all latino autobody shops. The Bronx, I learn later. I love that it feels just like non-touristy Mexico, but it takes me a few minutes to adjust. I stop and park, collect my thoughts, and go for a walk. Try to look tough. Can’t find a place to use internet. Definitely no Starbucks. Find a store, buy a paper map. Get back to the van, relieved. After studying the map for about half an hour I go for a drive, manage to find my way to Manhattan, and park around 80th and Lexington. I think I’m allowed to park here this time of night? Go for another walk, find a Starbucks: internet, thank god! I have a horror of fussing with my huge, already torn paper map, so I download an offline one that can use the phone’s gps to tell me where I am, yay! Research a few likely YMCA’s for a shower and a swim, tomorrow. I’m guessing daytime parking anywhere on the island will be impossible, so I drive back to the Bronx for the night. Settle in, sleep like a baby.

Speaking of the scenic route… I’m back in Halifax, here to pick up my baby. I couldn’t live in BC without my van for a full year, and I also couldn’t leave it where it was. Shipping it out to BC would’ve cost about $2200, so I decided to pick it up myself and take the long way home: Halifax to New York, to Oklahoma, to New Mexico, to California, then home up the coast. This route takes me to see family on both my maternal and paternal sides, family I don’t see enough and some of whom I’ve never even met… I’m very excited.

People asked me if I was relieved to be sleeping inside when I was in BC. I tell them it was alright. But sleeping my first night back in the van, that was great. All snug and warm and dark, I slept like a baby til about 9:30. Spent yesterday and today getting everything ready: making sure registration and insurance were in order, getting a new tire, figuring out what to do with models and drawings and tools from school.

Today was also for dropping in on Occupy Halifax at the Grand Parade. So good! Not quite as many people as I would have hoped, but sweet and committed and hopeful. The Peoples’ Mic (a call-and-answer system of unplugged amplification developed in New York because the police wouldn’t allow the occupiers to use loudspeakers) has already been embraced far beyond its functional purpose. It unites the crowd, keeps everyone engaged, it’s fun, and it’s a symbol of how this movement is already so different from what’s happened before. What an amazing time in history. My route, half-coincidentally, takes me through New York, LA, San Francisco, and several other American cities where the occupy movement is strong, so I plan to visit as many of them as I can.

Honestly, I’d rather be working in an architectural office, but this trip is going to be a pretty fantastic consolation prize.