Living On a Cold Edge
"And anyway C. says if we’re not living on the edge we’re taking up too much space.
I like that."
Living On a Cold Edge is a short recollection of a chilly Colorado morning in a van and a great
reminder that no matter what obstacles life puts in our way, shit always works out and more often than not,
it's not as bad as it seems. Learning to take things as they come with a smile and a laugh and not getting worked up over
trivial difficulties are positive reinforcements, practicing patience and a sense of "All Really Is Well." I thoroughly
enjoyed this short story written by Jackie, not only because I can relate so well to her morning winter
routine in the van, but also for her optimism and beautiful outlook on her current situation.
Also, this a very accurate representation of winter van life, no bullshit here.
While you're at it, check out the nonprofit Jackie founded.
"I started The Emerald Jenny Foundation in 2016 in honor of my sister Jennifer who passed away
at twenty-eight from an overdose. It is an online, searchable database of substance abuse treatment facilities
in Ohio and is completely free to the public. Our goal is to help individuals battling substance use disorder
take their first step in finding a treatment facility that best suits their individual needs."
living on a cold edge
This morning we woke with odds on someone else's side. The cold roused me from a sequence of rapid, confusing dreams around 4:30 in the morning. I crawled down from the overhead bed and into the multi layered blanket-bed we made for the dogs. The next hours would only be riddled with more strange dreams and the old toss n' turn if I tried to fall back asleep. The mutts were warm, even their noses. I flipped on the furnace to shake the cold from corners of the van and laid between our two big dogs in an attempt to share some warmth and kisses. C. woke at sporadic intervals and gazed down on me and the dogs, asking through sleepy-slitted eyes if we were warm enough. I replied with a gleeful yes, thankful for both propane and the pups.
Once the sun came up I started the process of getting the van ready to find a warmer spot. Last night we parked behind a very tall, flat rock face because we wanted to make a fire and watch flames dance on the white and red geological layer cakes beside the van. Campfire fajitas cooked while plumes of burning sagebrush rose toward Venus, the moon and dippers, big and small. We had our shares of wine and weed, ate heartily and watched the lasts of brush burn down in the pit. But now it was a cold, hungover morning and we needed to find some southern sunlight to melt the ice from the inside of our windows.
We call it “shake-and-baking”or putting the night away, so-to-speak. The van was tighter than usual to navigate with dogs and blankets coating the living area. There wasn't much to hide away today; need to find a spot for the wine-stained mugs, the loose pots and pans, the revealing ashtray, the deck of cards. C. has since climbed down and rested on the couch between two half-warm pillows and his sleeping bag. Icy fingers on the wheel and we started to creep down the many dirt roads of Hartman Rocks. It took longer than expected to find a level spot with ample sunshine. The drive could have been ten minutes for forty-five for all I knew. Dirt roads seem to make time fade away. I smoked one spliff, C. and me got in one argument about my inability to comprehend his apathetic parking directions, and I bottomed out once.
We listened to NPR and watched the grace of light melt the night away from the upper windows. A close eye is kept on the windows each morning. When they start to melt one of us goes up top (usually me because of my small size. C. is 6”4. and I am 5”2) and starts to free the windows and walls from melting ice. So far condensation is the trickiest part of living in our van during a Colorado winter. I’ve enjoyed paying much closer attention to the rising sun despite the ice-caked windows. But today C. and I both got sick to our stomachs listening to NPR, just as we had yesterday and the day prior and the day prior. Out here in no man’s land and getting pissed at evil Alabama senators diddling around with teens and money-monger Monsanto controlling all of our food. Out here in solitude so sublime and in my mind swirls talk of broken peace treaties and threats of nuclear war. Like I said, we woke this morning with odds on someone else’s side.
C. learned yesterday a friend of his got shot going on a casual bike ride through Colorado Springs on a day like any other for a reason that simply doesn’t exist. It was a random act of depraved cruelty and remains unsolved. C.’s eyes were red throughout the morning and I couldn’t tell if it was tears or the weed. Either way the NPR, ice and tragic news kept us in a quiet, restless place. By and by we unenthusiastically put the dog bed back into place. The dog bed is actually our living area couch that folds down into a full-size bed. In spite of the carpet and multitudes of blanks it’s still much too cold for them to sleep on the floor of the van. The bed is bothersome and hogs what little moving around space we’re granted, albeit a perfect place for a mutt to sleep. This is simply another part of our new seasonal routine.
But then I remembered our most sacred routine. Coffee! The sweet, steamy bean! Brown nectar of the infinite spirit of forenoon! I pleaded this help our half-hearted, listless day get rolling. The bag had enough grounds left for only a half-pot but we’re into making lemonade when we’ve got some lemons so we tried to smile and pretend it wasn’t another crack-up part of the day. Needing to clean our faulty coffee maker I made my first exit from the van into the stark cold whereupon I broke our coffee maker, dumped yesterday’s slushy brown remnants on my pants and came two seconds from frost bitten fingertips. Back in the van C. got mad I wouldn’t stick my numb fingers between his legs for warmth. I’d rather one of us be cold than both and he’d rather him be cold than any member of our family. It was an argument rooted in love as most of ours are but bickering is nonetheless tortuous and superfluous. We managed to get the grounds in the damn percolator, attempting to see through the broken parts and hope for the best. The water began the boil and we could tell we’d be drinking cups full half of watery coffee and half with thick grounds. Little worries for us and still happy to have a warm cup of habitual inspiration.
In our last home on wheels we used a Coleman camping stove and we’re still getting the hang of using the built-in propane stove. We’re quickly learning that the stove cover in this van slams shut each time you shut a door of the van and this causes whatever is cooking to go flying off the stove. On this particularly grim morning what went flying was the last of our coffee. We lost the coffee along with our foolhardy pipe dream of today looking up. Most of it spilled in my shoes which would surely come to freeze. The remainder of liquid spilled on what has become our unequivocal reassurance for warmth - our carbon-monoxide tester. Not only this but also the coffee and coffee-maker wouldn’t have been so horrible if we had more than $100 in our faded pockets. C. has two jobs that start this weekend but we don’t know how long it’ll be till a paycheck and we’re stretching these last couple bucks from here to the moon and back. A carbon monoxide tester runs about $40, percolator $14 at the cheapest, and coffee $5. C. let out a defeated scream, chucked the tester at the floor and began rubbing at the coffee soaked carpet in an irate manner.
There are always two roads. I can join C. in his misery or give a counterfeit smile to the sky, hug C. and whisper to him, “No use crying over spilled coffee”. I tried to lighten the weight and went with option two. He’s more worried about my unhappiness than his own and I knew pretending to be optimistic and carefree about the morning mishaps would make him feel uplifted. After soaking up the coffee and carefully removing the grounds (vacuuming out the van would be an additional couple quarters we didn’t want to spare) I started making breakfast tacos with leftover fajitas from the night before. We remembered the green tea packets stored away, abundant with caffeine, and fired up another pot of water. These were the best breakfast tacos C. had ever had, at least that’s what he said anyway. I was in agreement. They were pretty damn good tacos. Food is often our temporary cure for the blues. A sound belly roused C. to seek out a remedy for the carbon monoxide detector. We knew the van came with one but figured it runs off the generator. Tucked away in our mud room behind dirty socks, hats and dog food C. was able to locate the manual. The detector runs off battery power. Time after time in the van we let things fall apart before seeking an oftentimes obvious, better solution. We never needed to buy the overpriced detector in the first place. We allowed time to scold ourselves for not reading the manuals we were equipped with and moved on. C., finally content, tested the detector with a lighter and we both howled with happiness as the alarm sounded. Under the wing of the detector we would be toasty another night and free to make a warm dinner. Propane has quickly become one of the most important manufactured items in my life. I am unreasonably terrified of running propane but also absolutely reliant upon it. The kind, oil-stained men at the RV repair place in Lafayette assured me I can safely run the furnace for hours but still this useless, uncomfortable fear haunts me while the furnace buzzes with warm pleasure.
There was more learning to come throughout the day, as there always is. I laid down and picked up my copy of Notes Of A Dirty Old Man with a plump belly and calm mind. Then I woke, drooling in our sunbaked van and needing to pee. I examined my coffee laden shoes. I have three pairs of feet protectors: Chacos for summer, Keen all-weather loafers (now all-coffee loafers) and a pair of Sorels for the snow. Each pair is essential and anymore would be extraneous. I slipped out the insoles and felt the fabric beneath. The insoles absorbed our cowboy coffee and left the shoes completely dry. I excitedly exited the van (C. was now snoring the afternoon burdens away) and laid the soles out on the sunny hood to dry. Are odds on our side yet? I felt I was teetering on something good and disaster. When you live in a van your whole life is on a brink of potential crumble. Our world stops at the motor, the transmission, the wires and batteries, roof and rust. Each day we wake and don’t know where we will sleep or if the van will continue to seamlessly hum down the highway. We don't know if the grocery store will have a water fill-up station or if we will bottom out while escaping up some dirt road or if we can stretch $100 between two people for a week. Living like this makes each day count in it’s own distinctive way. And anyway C. says if we’re not living on the edge we’re taking up too much space. I like that.
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