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Fall in Toronto

My first week working in an architectural office was stressful: immersion in AutoCAD made me want to tear my hair out, I had to give a presentation about myself to the firm, and on the Thursday I was supposed to meet one of the architects at an address on King Street, but I neglected to put “west” into Google maps, and followed my phone’s directions for half an hour in the wrong direction on transit… not a good impression! I did settle in and become more comfortable with the software and the tasks, and my coworkers were totally adorable, but I can’t say that it felt like I’d found my calling. It’d taken me 15-20 years of being an adult to really feel like I knew what I was doing in the world, but now I was moving into a field where I was starting pretty much from scratch. On many days I felt lost, and on some days I actually started to think I was developmentally disabled.

There were also great days: I wasn’t fast at producing drawings, but once I finished one I was generally pretty pleased with it. And I had lots of opportunities to visit and measure and draw old heritage properties. I also loved living in Toronto, wandering the little neighbourhood villages and ravines, trying out all the cafes and cheap restaurants I could. I even enjoyed the short little commute to work every morning, somehow romanticizing the forced intimacy of the packed subway. Once or twice a week I played chess with my dear old friend Danielle, and I connected with some other friends, past present and future, who happened to be living in Canada’s gravitational centre. BC will always be my home, but I could imagine making a second home in Toronto.

Living inside was pretty good. Having a closet was nice. And a fridge. And my room-mates were pretty nice too. But talking to people it seemed they all expected that I’d be overwhelmed with relief, and it certainly wasn’t like that either. I think it’s hard for people to believe, but van life truly isn’t a hardship, it’s a joy. It takes some work and some creativity and some going through rough patches to learn the routine that works for you, but once you’ve got it down, it truly is home.

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Staying Nomadic

Holy overdue blog post. Coming back from my road trip last year there was so much to write about, then all those van repairs busted up my flow, and since then I just haven’t had the heart to try to get caught up. But I’ve been concerned about the misimpression people were getting when they stumbled onto the site and saw the trouble I was in last winter and the lack of entries since then. And my concern became acute when I got asked about the blog during a job interview over Skype! I didn’t get to update it in time for my employers, but that put it on my to-do list for sure, and now here I am ready to fill you in with a quick point-form update…

  • The van got fixed, at great expense, thanks to a small but very timely little windfall and some help from relatives… thank you Kayla, and Dixie, and even Roscoe!
  • I spent the winter working overnights at a cold-weather shelter, back with my old employer. It was my first time working in 2 years; also my first time working as a vandweller. I have to say, it was pretty great. I was saving up money for my next round of school, and with the combined effects of not paying rent and my much better developed budgeting skills (compared to when I was working before, making twice as much money) I was astonished at how much I was able to put away.
  • I continued to work on various little architecture-related side projects, trying to become better prepared for the work term position I would have to find, come summertime. I learned autocad and brushed up on other design software, I volunteered on a shed project with a community garden, and I did some work with a company that installs and maintains living roofs.
  • I spent a lot of time at the beach!
  • I got a bike, and I have to say that was really wonderful. In two and a half years of living in a van, my only complaints were 1) that I missed cooking, and 2) I really missed having a bike. I suppose I could have strapped one onto the outside of the van somehow, but with risks of weather and theft and with general annoyance and ugliness of things strapped onto the roof, I never bothered. Instead I stored it in my friend’s shed, and for much of the summer I parked near her house and rode around Vancouver happy as a clam.
  • One day I got a note on my windshield from that very same friend’s neighbours asking me not to park in front of their house. That’s only the second time it’s ever happened to me, because I usually don’t park twice in the same spot, and I usually choose spots that aren’t associated with one house. No one has ever approached me in person to say that I shouldn’t be there. Granted, I don’t think people often stop to wonder if there’s someone in the van: no light gets out, and it’s only on rare occasions that anyone would see it rocking. But it’s not exactly inconspicuous either, the windows are still covered in maroon shag, after all.
  • I spent most of the month of August house-sitting for friends, and that was a real blessing. I can handle almost any temperature at night, but by then I was working more overnight shifts, and sleeping in a van in the daytime in summer is just not possible. Hot hot hot!!!
  • I applied to various positions at architectural offices, and late in August I got word that one of them (the very one that I desperately wanted) wanted me! It’s called ERA Architects in Toronto, they specialize in heritage conservation, and they do amazing work. I think it was the van that got me the job; during the interview that was most of what we talked about!
  • I decided I didn’t want to put my van through another cross-Canada trip just yet, so I packed some things, parked the van in my mom’s yard, covered it up to protect it from the pine needles and the bird poo, and I flew out to a new life in Toronto.

I’ve been staying with my dear friend Danielle, who lives about a block from my work, but on October 1 I move into my new place. The last time I paid rent was 34 months ago, can you believe it??? Feels weird. People ask me if it’s a relief, having a bed and a shower inside. The answer is “it’s alright.”

Van Kinbaku

Winners

Many, many thanks to all those who bought tickets and to those who came out to the Brickhouse… you raised $264, exactly the right amount to pay for the modifications to make my headlights BC-legal! The rest of the money I should be able to borrow from family, so hopefully I get my home back soon.

Tova Krentzman won the cash prize of $174, and Amy Thompson, Cory Fitzpatrick, and Meera Shah won invitations to a dinner party in the van, time and date TBA. Once it happens you’ll get the full report here!

I also want to thank all the people who’ve shared or offered to share their homes… it looks like I won’t have time to stay at all of those places, but it makes such a difference knowing that I’ll always have a place to go to. Thank you!!!

SAVE THE HAMSTER!!! Fundraiser and party

AAaauuuuughh!! I still have many more entries to write about the road trip, but first I have some terrible news (the short version): my Nova Scotia insurance ran out just as I returned to BC. My new BC insurance required a safety inspection, aaaand the van didn’t pass. That was due both to wear on the vehicle (weird elbow joints and ball joints) and to strange attributes of being a right hand drive import (custom modificated headlights now required). Total cost to fix: $2000-2400. My net worth: a few hundred. Income: $0. I’ve just been accepted back to my old work on call, so hopefully some shifts will be coming soon.

But in the meantime, I don’t have my van, which means that I’m… well I don’t want to say homeless, because I have lots of kind friends I can stay with… let’s just say I’m even more nomadic than usual. More nomadic than I want to be.

So we’re having a fundraiser here at Going Nomadic, and Stage 1 is a 60/40 draw… in other words you can donate money to the cause, and in return you get a chance (or many chances) to win 40% of the total proceeds! Here’s the price breakdown:

  • 1 ticket = $10
  • 2 tickets = $15
  • 3 tickets = $20
  • 5 tickets = $30

You can get the tickets from me in person if you’re in Vancouver (if you don’t have my contact info you can reach me by making a comment below), or you can get them online by donating at Paypal (see the link at the top right there?). I’ll put the tickets aside for you and email you their numbers. The draw will happen at 9pm on Sunday Nov 20 at the Brickhouse, 730 Main street, in Vancouver. I invite all of you to come on down for the draw, partly so that you can see that everything’s being done fair and square, and partly because I have to turn everything into a party :)

I know things are hard for everyone these days, so even if you can’t afford a ticket yourself, you could help me out by spreading the word far and wide. Thanks everyone!

~j

Hamster in LA

Hamster in New Mexico

Hamster in Oklahoma

Hamster in New York

San Diego

Phenomenal day. I’m here visiting a friend from school, and we go out to see the Salk Institute, another architectural icon, this one by Louis Khan. It’s closed, but we get to walk around it and bask in the glory. Behind the building is a trail that we follow down, down… through an ever-more incredible gulley eroded into the sandstone cliff, until we scuttle onto the most beautiful beach ever. Maybe this is ho-hum for the locals, but to discover this by surprise is so exhilarating we give each other a big hug and just start running down the beach. We see dolphins leaping out of the water, fer chrissakes!!! This is Paradise.

Interstate 8, Yuma to San Diego

My poor van, we’ve bonded so much on this trip.  Back in March my mechanic in Halifax tried 3 times to adjust the throttle properly and couldn’t manage it, so ever since then it’s been sluggish accelerating for the first push from 0-20km/h, with a big cloud of black smoke spewing out the back each time. All the way across the country it’s been struggling bravely… drastically slowed down by steep hills, strong headwinds, high altitude. I’m amazed it’s gotten me this far, and much as I’d love to drive something with a bit more oomph, I’m loving my loyal little hamster more than ever.

Fortunately I reach the In-Koh-Pa Mountains just as the day is cooling off: as the road starts to climb there’s a sign telling drivers to turn off the air-con to avoid overheating, and as the climb continues I see several dozen car-sized scorch marks on the shoulder, where cars have literally caught fire. The mountains don’t look solid at all, they look like mountain-sized piles of gravel. Near the top of the climb is the coolest little tourist attraction, an old rock tower built in the 20s that houses an odd assortment of relics from all over the world, as well as a rock garden carved by some old eccentric into tunnels and passageways and goofy animals. I love it!

Scottsdale

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.