Van Dwellers – Don’t get Banned!

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By Joe Fasbinder

There is an unspoken convention among van dwellers, be it aboard an obsequious motor buffalo, a four-wheeling (and EXPENSIVE) adventure van, or an old shorty school bus conversion (skoolie). Somewhere in each nomad’s photo archives, among the scenic vistas and smile-happy travel pictures will be one or many pics of naked van-dwelling feet — positioned as you lie on your back in your traveling contraption looking out the open back door of the van.

First and foremost, a van is an expression of personal freedom. It’s your place to stay, to take your shoes off. But this lovely area ain’t always the best place to linger — at least if you’re parking illegally on the street or down a back road, or in front of somebody’s house.

Most places disallow sleeping in a vehicle. Davis Creek in Nevada, despite being a campground, won’t let you doze at any time of day in day use areas. Your author, himself, has been thus rousted. The areas closer to Lake Tahoe have rules, too.

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“In Tahoe, you can sleep in your car in a campground. However, most campgrounds will be closed for the (off) season,” notes tripadvisor.com. And during the high season, good luck finding a slot without reservations made far in advance.

But night is falling. You’ve had your fill of what Tahoe has to offer and it’s time to bed down. To relax, to dream. Without reservations.

And, as your gratitude for this place grows with the setting local sun, you should honor the memory of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart. An RV enthusiast and capitalist whiz kid, Sam envisioned Walmarts as places where recreational vehicles could overnight in the nether regions of his parking lots. Many of the true Walmarts are open all night, and what a pleasant way to shop, cruising the aisles among others of the traveling ilk, pajama-clad retired folk hobnobbing among the artichokes and Ben Gay, motorhippies, weary ne’er-do-wells, us.

Probably the nearest Walmart is in Reno. Like an increasing number of the stores these days, the Walmart on Damonte Parkway doesn’t welcome the overnight crowd, probably because of a few bad actors — I’m talking to you, pucketa-pucketa-all-night-gasoline-powered generator. You too, couple-maybe-too-late-for-counseling. And perhaps this is not the best place for a thinking person to rebuild a venerable motorhome.

Casinos are also a common choice for van lifers on a roll. Many are open about letting people spend the whole weekend on the premises. Some will charge a few bucks. They are gleefully alcohol friendly.

However nomads, as far as they can be defined at all, aren’t the high-spending guests they would profitably like to host.

Head to the nearest all-night restaurant. Something like a Denny’s will often have a couple of semi-stealth campers in the parking lot. Be subtle.

“Cracker Barrel,” suggests veteran road denizen Chloe, from the back of “She Shell,” a ’90s-vintage three-quarter-ton Chevy van, which she has outfitted with colorful decorations and a toilet. And a big, comfortable bed. The better to lie in as you look out at a new and sunny day.

And after a day among the crowds on Truckee’s main drags? On the rightly celebrated slopes hereabouts? Tahoe nightlife? Chloe has been here. “Tahoe is expensive,” she opines. “No place to park. You’ll get rousted.”

No. Really? Gasoline in the California end of town would give a shudder to even the ghost of Sam Walton, for the cost of it. But you don’t get breathless vistas in Bentonville, Arkansas. “If your house has wheels,” said Moana, “just get the f*&# out of town.” Words you might expect from a long-haired military veteran who resides in The Beast, a retired schoolbus. He ain’t really named Moana. He ain’t a Disney character at all. You might guess as such, from a man who deigns talking about stealth camping with a nosy fella he doesn’t know (me).

In short, drive defensively. Be courteous and steadfast and true. Be kind. Stay in your goddam lane. Observe all traffic laws and conventions. Smile. Brush often. Do not ever, ever, ever drive impaired. Avail yourself of free overnight parking in the rare places it can be found (not here). Take lots of pictures. Show me your feet.

~ Joe Fasbinder spent 25 years at United Press International, more at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily Journal, LA Business Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post, and as a freelancer at every local newspaper in every town he has ever lived in. He lives in his van in various places around Lake Tahoe.

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