Homeless / by Brian Beck

We've been living in the old Pontiac for five days and as such it's developing a patina of aromas to match the paint.  Camping and living out of the car is tough--I knew it would be--so I strategically positioned some upscale hotel amenities in our itinerary to make sure we have a chance to recharge our batteries, both literally and figuratively. 

Yesterday we cleared out of our teepee in Bryce Canyon and headed north through the Utah desert for another hot drive to a campground in Salt Lake City.  We pulled in to a place called Cherry Hill, an RV park and small water/amusement park that I visited on a similar epic roadtrip with my family 35 years ago (I'll be doing a post on that in due course).  We completed the registration and requested a quiet spot near the back, which was readily assigned, then climbed back into the car.  As we rumbled slowly through the grounds towards the rear, a young kid, maybe 15 years old, was walking with two little boys along the narrow roadway.  As we went by, he called out with an excitement for this antique that's unusual for kids his age, "Wow, hey man, nice car!"  The shiny chrome is a conversation starter almost everywhere, albeit usually with a demographic at least as old or older than me, so I wasn't surprised when he caught up with us a few minutes later and came over for a closer look.

He was a good-looking kid and he introduced himself as Tyler from Louisiana.  I didn't need the second part as the accent was as bayou as crawfish jambalaya.  The two little ones were scruffy, shirtless and tan, and looked like they could stand a bath.  He asked a lot of questions about the car that belied a knowledge of things automotive unusual for a kid who barely had hair on his face.  He wanted to know the size of the engine, type of transmission and the answers to some other, wonkier questions.  He said they had the campsite about a hundred yards away and alluded to it with a casual, non-directional wave of his hand.   Parker and the two little ones were about the same age, so they were already playing a game of swords or light sabers or something just out of ear shot.

Tyler said they had driven out here from Louisiana.  His Mom lost her job and the economy was bad there.  They heard that jobs were plentiful in Utah so they hit the road in their 1988 Cadillac.  He talked about how long the drive had been, some places they stayed along the way and how he changed the fuel pump on the aging Cadillac in a parking lot with a pair of vice grips.  Older cars, he said, were better because you can keep them running yourself.  This unusual interest in cars, I realized, was born not of desire, but of necessity.

I explained our epic road trip, and how we'd be here for a few days and then hit the road again.  I asked how long they were planning to stay and he looked over toward the tent and the picnic table and clothesline connecting two trees above a little smokey joe grill, and shrugged noncomittally, "I don't know.  Maybe another two weeks.  Depends on how long it takes us to get ourselves set up.  My mom got a job two days ago, so that's good."

The conversation meandered from there and a few minutes later we parted with the obligatory "good luck" and "probably see you tomorrow".  I hadn't noticed that the '88 Cadillac he had spoken of so fondly wasn't parked in front of their campsite, and it wasn't until a few minutes later as I was replaying the conversation in my head that I fully grasped that this family was homeless.  Not under-the-overpass homeless, but not more than a stroke or two of bad luck from it either.  They were staying here because the weekly rate was far cheaper than any motel, at least any motel you'd want to spend a night in.  Mom was going to her new job during the day while Tyler watched the little ones.  This campground was to be their home until they got on their feet.

Later in the evening I was talking to another guy who stopped by to inspect the tin and he more or less asked me the question I've been wrestling with as I watch the scenery rolling by: what is this trip all about?  It's about a lot of things, but a big part of it is gaining some perspective.  That box was checked this morning as Tyler's mom pulled away in her worn, black, loaded down 1988 Cadillac.