Mid-April, I was living and working on a ranch in Arizona. Ranching season was ending, and I was confronted with a paradox of choice. I had whatever I wanted ahead of me, and no idea what any of those choices would actually look like.
On a whim, I messaged a man on Craigslist about a trailer he was selling. Although it was smaller than a sprinter van, it seemed like a better option than traveling in a car. I had always wanted to do vanlife and I’d also wanted a tiny house, so this seemed like an unexpected marriage of both.
I christened it with the name Cosmo. And packed my dog and belongings and a whole lot of humble pie into it, and headed for Yosemite.
When I got there and saw hundreds of nomadic people, happily living their simple lives and experiencing deep, intimate relationships nurtured by traveling together in pods and living outside, it was a weight off my psyche.
And in Camp 4, that’s when I first heard of Mammoth Lakes. I was told tales of incredible climbing, abundant work, and easy camping. One of the women I met in Yosemite was heading there for a summer brewery job. Realizing I was going to run out of money sooner rather than later, my dog and I set our sights on Mammoth.
I first saw Mammoth Mountain a few days after I turned 26 in late May. I took a video and sent it to my mom in North Carolina, raptured by the unreal beauty of the drive into town. While I was unfamiliar with the town and still very fresh at dispersed camping, my Yosemite friends let me know I could camp behind the Shady Rest campground in the Inyo National Forest.
The sign leading into the forest read, “No camping for two miles.” I started driving my trailer over huge dips in the road and deep sand. The roads were relatively unmarked and I mean roads very loosely. While trying to get two miles back into the woods, I was surprised to discover that I was suddenly on a very narrow bike path in a two-wheel-drive vehicle and a trailer that was rocking violently. I was stuck. My tires spun out in the sand. I was on an incline, so I threw it in reverse and let gravity help me out. I was able to turn around and wasn’t sure how far back I was into the forest. It was almost dark and needed to park soon, so I decided however far back I was would have to be good enough.
That first weekend, I attended/volunteered at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival, enjoyed the ability to bring my dog to coffee shops, and started to explore the mountains. One evening after watching a film at the film festival, a Forest Service employee showed up to my camp spot. I was nervous. Although he looked unthreatening, he had the cop stance. He essentially gave me 18 hours to move my trailer past the two-mile mark. I tried explaining that I got my car stuck and panicked and couldn’t figure out which roads were the main roads. He said, “And that gives you permission to break the law?”
The next day, I found people camped in the forest at the two-mile mark and parked my trailer near them. I learned that not only were they camped there, they were also full-time local residents. All of them had jobs. They inspired me to commit to Mammoth for the foreseeable future and work here while also living in the woods.
Now, I work 80 hours a week at two jobs. I haven’t given myself a day off in over a month, but it is nice to have an income that allows me to catch up on bills.
What I didn’t plan for is that work wouldn’t be the hardest part of work.
Logistically, it’s difficult to show up looking and smelling fresh after a night of camping. Showers around town are open at obscure hours and range from $5 to $25. Having no home to leave my dog is also a challenge. She is polite and happy to be included, but not all work activities are dog friendly. Waking up on time is also a challenge without electricity. If my phone dies in the night, I lose my alarm clock. On more than one occasion, I’ve forced myself to wake with the sun, because I had no way to know what the time was and didn’t want to be late for work.
After being gainfully employed and making friends, I explored what it would look like to live here long-term. I was shocked to learn that living here long-term for most people looks like living in cars, sleeping in parking lots, and paying A LOT for housing.
Russ Monroe, a long-term Lone Pine resident, likes to employ a different definition/vocabulary when it comes to dispersed campers. “From a larger perspective, I suggest replacing the term dispersed campers with what most of civilization right now calls homeless. Working homeless people that are fully contributing members of society. Even at the rates they’re being paid for extremely highly skilled jobs, they can’t afford to get an apartment or buy a house. I think that’s a fundamental issue we put upon ourselves and for some reason, we’re turning a blind eye to it, because it’s so rooted in capitalism.”
I understand why living in a camper or car or van is a viable option. It’s cheaper than rent, your house can travel with you, and you’re able to travel in and out of amazing communities as frequently or infrequently as you want.
One night, while in a van at camp. two miles into Shady Rest I was hanging out with new and newer friends when my dog started to growl and give high-pitched alert barks. She lunged into the darkness and I pulled her back. There was a bear trying to break into my camper less than 40 feet away. The men at camped jumped up immediately and ran toward it screaming and throwing rocks. It had clearly seen humans charge at it before and was unimpressed. The bear stopped to scratch its belly before very slowly turning toward the hill out of camp. It lingered for another 20 minutes before leaving. We named the bear Spooky.
A few days after the bear visit, we received another visitor. The Forest Service had been by while we were at work to put warnings on our campers/vehicles. The rules for the 14-day camping limit were circled and placed in plain sight.
The USFS has rules regarding how long you can camp in an area. For dispersed camping, the legal limit is 14-days in a single spot, and only 21-days in the particular federal forest you are on within a 6 months period. This leaves little room for getting settled.
I wondered if I would have to quit my jobs.
Less than two days after the warning came, we received bright orange notices to leave. I moved, aware I was still within my legal dispersed camping limit, but the reality of what would happen when that time was up was uncertain. I’m not the only one on edge in the forests of Mammoth. Long-term residents of the forests who have stable jobs in town are afraid they may have to quit and leave if the Forest Service continues to chase them away from safe and close camping. Almost every business in town employs van-dwellers and nomads. The gear shops, almost all restaurants, the bars in town, and even the hospital are places where you may be cared for by someone that isn’t certain if today will be the day Mammoth Lakes tells them to move on for good. It’s scary to build a life in a town that is comfortable turning a blind eye to the contributions employees of town make by serving the tourists of Mammoth.
Russ Monroe shared further insight. “The people that you’re talking about are having to do what they have to do because of these greater housing issues. If you have a $60,000 a year employee that has to live in their RV and they’re not putting [included] into the tax structure, because they’re not even able to afford an apartment to rent, there are more fundamental issues than whether or not the category of the dispersed camper is a visitor or resident. The majority of people that fall into the class you’re talking about here, the high-paid working poor are in unique circumstances.
… Here in Inyo County, one nurse at the hospital [SIHD} buys a house in Keeler and rents it out at cost just so the traveling nurses will have a place to live. There are a number of problems we have around town and in society at the moment that are really just symptoms of this particular issue.”
I’ve now had to “move” three times, essentially running from the Forest Service when they come knocking. Even when begging them to have consideration for the forest locals, they are self-righteous in their upholding of the law. So far, they have shown little compassion for the local cadre of Mammoth employees.
On Wednesday evening, the Forest Service and volunteers cleaned up an industrial truck full of trash. Although many opinions were openly shared opinions while I was being shown the trash, none of the Forest Service employees wanted to publicly comment.
I imagine they equate us [trash] to the real trash on the ground – and wish all “trash” would disappear.
The pile of trash included a Mammoth Mountain employee suit from last winter, a tent that had been set on fire, lots of plastic food wrappers, many tires, and various pieces of wood. The rhetoric surrounding the clean-up included the idea that length of stay in the Inyo NF is correlated with how trashy one is.
As Monroe said, “This is one of the fundamentals obviously when dealing with bureaucracy and politics. This is the pissing match I was talking about. The reality is that you can’t set up a dispersed camping area and then turn around and ignore the effect on society those decisions have.”
I’ve met nearly one hundred Mammoth employees/locals that live in a mobile house in many forms, everything from a small compact car to a good-sized trailer. They all declined to comment. Spooky the bear was not available for an interview.