Hello Officer

Hospitality is a wonderful thing. I say that for two reasons. The first is obvious: it’s a tangible way of showing a person that you care about them, and it offers a near limitless breadth of ways in which to do so. Old friend? Grab a six-pack of beer and you’re set. Future in-laws? Steam clean the carpets, scrub the bathrooms, put out the nice silverware, finish the basement, get rid of that disgusting fish tank, etc. I’m only guessing about that one, I have no experience either with in-laws or house-cleaning. The second reason I love hospitality is directly related to living in a van: showers are the most profoundly excellent things that characterize humanity’s existence in the modern world.

I’m coming off of a week of unsurpassed hospitality, and for that I’m very grateful. I spent a day in Pittsburgh with an old high school friend, during which time I ate a sandwich that contained roughly a half pound each of French fries and cole slaw (a delicious challenge), and drank a beer that tasted exactly like a pineapple spritzer (if you pretend that you’re drinking juice instead of beer, it’s amazing). After that, I spent the weekend with my Aunt and her partner just outside of Philadelphia. The weather was cool and the welcome warm.

There’s something about spending time with family. I don’t know if it has to do with seeing your own traits reflected back at you (for better or for worse), or if it’s just the comfort that (hopefully) settles into the interactions, but it’s an affirming feeling, and one that should be sought out regularly.

Crossing the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Crossing the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

I left Philadelphia with a lifted spirit and well-stocked refrigerator. After making a few stops for miscellaneous camping gear, I was able to make it down to Roanoke, Virginia. I stopped at a gas station that was a little off the beaten path, filled up the tank, and started getting set up to cook some dinner. The gas station was out of the way, had a large gravel parking lot, and it didn’t appear that I was skeeving anybody out by setting up shop there. A few minutes into my onion-chopping, a gold minivan pulled up, and a professorial type rolled down the window. I was immediately on guard, but the first thing he said was, “Say, did you convert that van yourself?”

As some of you may know, there’s quite a community behind conversion vans. There are forums online dedicated to off-grid living, “van-dwelling,” van converting, and the like. My personal favorite is the Sprinter Source, a forum that’s specific to Sprinter vans (which is the model of my particular vehicle).

He got out, his wife went to go use the bathroom, and I giddily showed off the work I had done on the rig (I promise that I’ll put up a virtual tour of the van soon). He gave me a few pointers, and we rambled on about the relative merits of different tie-down systems for securing cargo. Once his wife returned, they suggested that I drive up the road about 5 miles, to a parking lot for the Appalachian Trail, where people commonly leave their cars overnight.

I thanked them, and made my way to the dirt lot. It was right off of the road, but felt a little more legitimate than the gas station, at least for overnighting. I finished up dinner, and got myself ready to turn in. I cracked the windows and crawled into my bed. Although it had cooled down outside, the van was hot and stagnant. I stripped down to my skivvies, but there was no way that I’d be able to get to sleep. I cracked the sliding door, hoping for a cool breeze, but without any cross-ventilation, I was out of luck.

Before leaving Minnesota, I had ordered some bug screens (originally designed for patio doors) for just this situation. They fit surprisingly well in the sliding door and rear doors, so I could theoretically sleep with the doors open. I was hesitant to set them up, since I was so close to the road. However, a few sweaty minutes later, I convinced myself that whatever I lost in security would be gained in creature comfort. I set up the screens, swung the doors wide, and welcomed the cool Virginia air.

I blinked awake in a wash of light. Headlights had been passing by all night, but this was a steady, jarring intrusion. Morning? I flopped myself over and stared into the source. A car? Someone had parked about 50 feet away from me, their lights were shining straight through the sliding door. I saw a powerful blue mag-light appear from the right-hand side and knew immediately who had come a-calling.

“This is Officer Casey, I’m approaching the vehicle now.” A young lady stepped up to my domicile and released the radio on her shoulder. “Sir, is this your van?”

I mumbled out an affirmative reply and mentioned that I hadn’t seen any signs forbidding overnight parking. In fact, there were about four other cars in the lot that night. Was there a law against sleeping in your vehicle in Virginia? I wracked my mind in my sleepy state, trying to review the state laws and county statutes that I had reviewed.

“Can I see a driver’s license, please?” I scrambled out of bed to comply, fumbling for my wallet. After she had recited the license number into her radio, she explained: “It’s not every day that you see an old ambulance parked somewhere without any tags. Figured I’d better take a look.”

Without any tags? Like, license plate tags? I definitely had tabs, but what – then it hit me. I had never put the front license plate on (I know, I know, totally my fault. I was waiting to find the right screws, and frankly had just sort of forgotten about it). I had backed the van into the parking spot, so there was no way to see the rear plate.

I relayed this information to the officer, and she immediately went around back to check out my story. “Oh, it’s a Wisconsin vehicle! That explains why there’s no front plate!” She cheerfully came back around and chattered into her radio.

Now, I’m no police officer, but I’m pretty sure that you’re supposed to have front plates on in Wisconsin. The only state I’m aware of that doesn’t issue front plates is New Mexico.

After her radio squawked back the all clear, she turned back to me and gave me my license. “So, what brings you out to Virginia?” she asked pleasantly. I immediately became aware of my appearance. My battle with the nighttime heat had rendered my attire far from decent, and the nature of the dream that she interrupted had doubled the embarrassment. Seemingly unfazed by the situation, she continued to make small talk as I explained that I’m on a road trip, I’m a rock climber, yes, I outfitted the van myself, yes, it’s decommissioned, no, the lights don’t work anymore – the standard line of questions. Eventually, she perkily apologized for disturbing my sleep and wished me good luck on my trip.

The next morning, I put the front plate on.

On Monday morning, I arrived at Grayson Highlands State Park. It’s an amazing place, although it’s really in the middle of nowhere. Cell service is nonexistent, and internet is spotty and hard to come by (which is also why this post is light on the imagery). I’ll be here until Friday, most likely, at which point I’ll head south. The climbing is tons of fun, and scenery is gorgeous. A thorough report is in the works.




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