the (often) meandering travels of a student anthropologist
Field Notes: October 30th, 2017 - Denver, CO
I reach the midway point on my journey west where I plan to stay for a couple of weeks, spend some time with Rick. I'm a hot mess by the time I get here and am terrified to drive the motorhome anywhere because of the worsening issue with the engine trying to cut out when it warms up. It amazes me my report seems so "calm" when I remember feeling like a deer caught in the headlights. I know Denver, though, and that familiarity and Rick being around, gave me a rope to hang my sanity on. I meet my first "female solo nomad" at the campground and talk about the experience.
Finally, on the Road
Each week of the past month has been “this week is so stressful, next week I’ll have time to sit down and journal”.
First, there was the last week of preparing to get on the road, packing, managing all the details of being gone for an extended period.
Then, it took a week and a half to get to Denver from Asheville - the emotional toll of homesickness, strangeness every day as I stayed in WalMarts and truck stops and city campgrounds, the stress of an intermittent mechanical issue, and then winds - each day was strange and tense.
Now, I am here in Denver - and even though in a campground now, I have found there has been a constant time drain of restocking supplies, finding resources to refill propane and to look at the mechanical issues, get cash (pay showers at this park), and then reset each day for different weather (70 yesterday, 31 and snowing now). Additionally, I am trying to process the emotional fallout of the trip to this point.
Finally, everything takes longer. My method for washing dishes, for example. In order to not fill up the gray water tank (both in terms of freezing concerns and packing everything up to drive down dump) includes spray bottles. One with soapy water, the other with clean. It works, but is tedious and time consuming.
Again, I don’t feel free. And, I am so curious what this means to women in this lifestyle.
I met my first solo female nomad. We only talked once - she left the morning after I met her, and didn’t seem interested in my suggestions to converse further.
More about her, later, but this correlates with a concern I’ve had on methods. Counts & Counts used surveys -but found they were very off putting to the RVers they interviewed. They also argued the validity of the answers (as people are apt to lie on surveys if a question created discomfort). I had planned to use these but I think the group I’m interested especially, who will consider themselves - potentially - as non conformist, will really balk at these.
But there is one way they can be useful, not as an aggregate of answers, but as a last ditch effort to get some input from someone like the woman I met. Perhaps many women will be introverted and they will feel more comfortable responding to a survey.
My methods so far:
Participation/Observation - in forums (up until now it’s not been gender focused or even nomad focused), in the lifestyle (purchasing, fixing up, traveling, campgrounds and boondocking), at the RTR (which this year has an additional two days just for women), and hopefully finding a group to travel with after/or stay in Quartzsite.
Interviews - overheard, casual conversations, formal recorded (audio or video), photographic, formal but virtual (over forums, private message, online chat, etc.) Supported by:
Media - Photographs, Video or Audio
Follow up interviews with key informants
Field Notes - including tapping into more
creative methods such as poetry and sketches
mapping- very interested in how space is navigated
Survey/Questionnaire (which can be taken online) - which won’t be so much about aggregating data, as it is trying to pull in supportive data when an formal interview is refused
Research, from relevant academics, and sources from popular culture (ie news articles, videos, blogs, pictures)
Karly’s [I've changed her name to respect her privacy] rig is older than mine, an 83, but it’s in a neglected state. It looks rough around its brown and tan edges–where seal and repair work has been achieved in the absence of finesse. Bits and bobs rustle, waiting to fall off on the road; to follow the fate of the missing door which gives gap-toothed grin onto the dark green cavity of the onboard Onan generator.
She’s a younger woman - in her twenties, overweight, and behind her fashionable glasses cat eye liner is carefully penciled on. She has a nice voice and an optimistic attitude.
I strike up a conversation while she’s giving her two large dogs a bathroom break. This is probably not welcome - it’s cold and she’s in mismatched thermal pajamas and slippers. She doesn’t exactly seem to mind talking, especially in a sisterly/comrade way about the difficulties of boondocking in Denver, but she does not ask questions of me in return. She’s not really interested in who I am or that I am a fellow female nomad. I hold my tongue instead of suggesting a dog walk, or offering an invitation for a cup of tea. Instead I suggest before leaving in the morning we exchange numbers or emails. She doesn’t do this, even though I made sure to be out and working outside the coach in the hour before checkout time. At noon she starts up her coach and leaves.
From our conversation, I learn that Karly is from Missouri - loves it here in Denver and came here hoping to find a place that would allow her Rottweiler. She quotes a friend that would rather be homeless than give up his dog. I empathize. She parks on the street mostly - she tells me the more parking friendly areas, but you have to keep moving and she says at first it was intimidating with cars and trucks driving by right next to where she’s sleeping but that’s she’s used to it now.
She’s leaving tomorrow she says, no more money for a campsite. She makes money by doing odds and ends, graphics mostly, $20 here, sometimes more. She wants to go south where it’s going to be warmer, but not more than 400 miles. I tell her about the RTR and Enigmatic Nomadic’s van build on the 1st in northern Arizona. She says maybe one day but for now she loves this area and wants to stay closer, because she loves it here.
I suspect financial is also a big reason - in addition to the neglected state of her coach she knows very little about it. She’s been adding fuel injector cleaner but she has a carburetor, like mine. I tell her to use automatic transmission fluid instead - later that night my forum says the injector cleaner may actually even cause damage but since she doesn’t come over the next day so I don’t pass along/reinforce the recommendation to change her fuel additive. She tells me how her door doesn’t work from the outside (locking mechanism - now that I think about it she may not realize her door has three settings - open, locked, and locked from inside which prevents someone from outside coming in even with a key). She also has damaged her ladder so she can’t use it by backing into a tree (the branches that were higher up than the trunk she was focusing on). She says her rig only gets 6 miles to the gallon, and that her electric heater has failed, and she’s out of propane again. I tell her I found an electric heater at the Big Lots several blocks away.
She also confides she’s just saved up enough money to get her rig registered in Colorado and how every time she starts her engine it shakes so much she has to rev it so it won’t stall. Sounds like a spark plug not firing my forum says. I thought maybe a loose bolt. I just think, that in opposition to my months of physical preparation and knowledge she seems naive and foolish. But yet, here we are in the same place - physically, and also with limitations on how and where we can and can’t stay, and I feel I’m more anxious about my rig and the weather turning colder. It says a lot to how personality contributes to this lifestyle, and age - I wonder if my anxiety has more to do with my age. Would I have been different at 24?
I regret when Karly leaves without trading information. I would have liked to know more about her. After she leaves I walk Freyja over in her empty spot and it soon becomes obvious that she doesn’t pick up after her dogs. I think of the oft-read and heated argument on forums about nomads/boondockers not respecting the areas they camp in...
These field notes, while essentially raw, are an edited version. While I have tried to leave them intact in order to offer my project visitors an authentic peek into the process of creating an ethnography, as well as my own emotions concurrent with the experience, at times I have needed to remove or modify information to protect my relationships, or my informant's privacy. Grammar and spelling is only modified when necessary for readability, I've designated omissions with [...], and sometimes will add hover notes for clarification. Please see methodology for more information.