Of Dirt-Bagging and Peanut Butter

***Note on the text: I, the author, begrudgingly and apologetically switch from 1st to 2nd person point-of-view narration quite often. It was necessary to carry out my message. Despite, enjoy.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, he titles a chapter, “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”. Within, Tolkien details a rare “in-between-the-action” moment, when Frodo, Sam, and Smeagol prepare a meal of herbs and stewed rabbit (and po-ta-toes). As for me, I attempt to do something similar, describing a “blissful” day in the life of myself, when I’m homeless in an inspiring place.

Back in September of ’16, I purchased a 2005 Ford Ranger Extended Cab (with a camper shell), as a result of my deep appreciation for the immediate access it could provide to the country’s most beautiful trails. I was just beginning to become obsessed with the sport of Mountain-Ultra-Trail Running (which is a story in itself) and was longing for epic solo “adventure” runs in bucket-list locations. Inspired by many “van-lifers” and other vehicle dwellers who came before me, I set out to transform my set of wheels into a livable entity.

WARNING: In general, this lifestyle isn’t for everyone, no matter what you see on Instagram. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, because discomfort (and disorganization) is guaranteed, despite your level of regimentation.

Chapter 1: Arising from Dreamland: Waking up in the bed of my truck is pretty cool. However, there is a troubling sense of doing something vaguely illegal? Frowned-upon? Depraved? There is a low-level discomfort with the possibility of being caught. Because I’m…doing what, though? Sleeping? When in town, I aim for stealth, usually pinpointing hotel parking lots, apartment complexes, or behind old businesses (Olympic Auto Shop in Lake Placid, NY, for example). Unfortunately, the sun rises at 5am in July on the east coast, and slowly starts to cook you inside the canopy…no matter what the outside temperature is…and you better hope it hadn’t rained during the night, because if it did, you would have gotten zero hours of sleep. The noise of raindrops is audibly accentuated as they smack your tin camper shell roof. Oh, yeah, another thing…if you decided to park in a business lot, you must make sure to wake up before the store manager arrives to open up shop in the pre-dawn hours…he or she will most likely report your vehicle that is mysteriously parked in their parking lot overnight.

So, after squirming around in the bed of your truck, desperately trying not to bang your head on the roof (muscles still excruciatingly stiff from the previous day’s effort in the mountains) while trying to open your Velcro curtains, it’s time to make your bed while on your knees, refraining from getting a leg cramp, as 360-degree turns-to-grab-something are virtually impossible. You crawl out of your tailgate like a Zombie, quickly scanning the surrounding area for any sign of human activity, and finally enjoy an early morning stretch, without being noticed by passerbys or townsfolk.

Typically, a half hour passes by from when my alarm sounds off and actually closing my tailgate with both feet on the outside ground, in shoes, ready to depart.

Chapter 2: Let it Flow: Bathroom needs can be an issue while living in the truck…which is why I saved an empty jug of orange juice as a solution for #1. It’s nice having my toilet within arms’ reach throughout the night, not having to scramble out of my coop. Ah, perks of being a guy. For #2, well, that’ll just have to wait.

Chapter 3: Breakfast: First, you must drive away from civilization to be able to use your camper stove on your tailgate. Who knows if it’ll even work. Hmm, where to drive…where to park…you grab your phone and study the Maps app and Safari to pinpoint a location.

Once relocated, you tinker with your camper stove that may or may not have a fuel leak from the pump. Great. How will you eat? Well, there is a few slices of bread leftover in the cooler and a jar of peanut butter. You look for a spoon. You don’t have one. A knife will do. The bread you eat cold, washed down with a gallon jug of water from a gas station. Yum.

Chapter 4: Run: After brushing off bread crumbs from your driver’s seat, you grab your handy Adirondack map and meticulously route a manageable ten mountain miles over some sure-to-be sketchy terrain. You locate an index card to scribble some turn-by-turn directions for the trails. You drive the 30 minutes to the trailhead (at this point, 2+ hours have passed in your day).

After changing into running clothes and stuffing a few gels into your pocket, you snatch a water bottle and head for the sloppy, muddy, beautifully rugged trail that awaits you.

The skies are threatening. Maneuvering over wet alpine rock makes for a sketchy outing, so you cross your fingers that it doesn’t downpour.

Two hours and a bagged mountain peak later, you arrive at the truck, soaked with sweat and rainwater, smelly and dirty. Time to shower.

Chapter 5: Hygiene: As you pull into the parking lot of a local gym, you prepare to drop $60 to become a member for the monthly stint that you are there for…to use their bathroom, sink, and shower.

You scramble through your bags for clean clothes and hygienic materials to bring inside (this usually takes longer than you think). You sheepishly walk inside, straight to the bathrooms without being too self-conscious of your obvious visible filth, and of your awkward walking gait due to major chafing on the inside of your thighs.

You try not to make a mess in the shower rooms, as the mud crusted to your legs begs to fall off and cover the floors. Every single “bro” stares you down, as they mix their protein shakes in front of their lockers. After a long shower (with sandals on), you squirm and tip-toe around the shower stall, trying desperately to get your clean clothes on without getting them wet or dirty.

Once showered, you head back out to your truck, open your camper shell, and put your wet, smelly, sweaty, muddy running clothes in your hanging laundry bag, which is no more than a Nike tote bag that hangs three feet from your sleeping headspace. Extremely filthy clothes smell great when you are trying to sleep in an enclosed, hardly-ventilated dungeon.

Chapter 6: Food: After burning 3,000 calories on your mountain run, you’re starving and willing to eat almost anything. In Lake Placid, everything is super expensive because it’s a summer resort town in the mountains, with rich Olympic history and a charming mystique that electrifies it. So, instead of dropping 11 dollars on a burrito, I opt for a banana that’s two days rotten, a warm apple, and some more peanut butter from the jar via my knife. I realize I need more calories so I desperately open a can of black beans I’ve had stored in my truck, and dump about half the can into my mouth. And since I haven’t had coffee for three days (due to my malfunctioned camper stove), I wash my lunch down with more water from the jug.

Chapter 7: The Time in Between: I have yet to speak to anybody all day, which is a lot harder than you may think. I’m pretty comfortable in my own headspace but even then, there are times that I yearn for someone to share my thoughts or a view with.

In town, Lake Placid is sure-to-be bustling, so I depart the gym parking lot and find a parking spot downtown, making sure not to get potentially towed. I get out and gingerly walk past all the shops, still feeling the day’s effort and acting like I have a real agenda.

After making a couple rounds to kill time, I head for the truck. It’s now 4:30 in the evening and I start thinking about dinner. I opt for something other than bread and peanut butter and grab a quick sub on the way back to my wheels.

Chapter 8: A Day’s End: Where will I sleep tonight? What mountain will I run tomorrow? What time should I wake up? These thoughts are constant. As the sun sets, I drive around seemingly aimless, searching for a secret spot to stealthily tuck my vehicle into. I opt for Olympic Auto, again, at the south end of downtown, nestled at the bottom of a quiet street, away from busy roads.

I switch my headlights off and pull behind the shop, shutting my truck off and making sure my presence went unnoticed. I grab the essentials for the night, knowing I won’t be getting out of my perch once I’m in the cocoon: phone, keys, knife, chapstick, water jug…check.

I open the tailgate, climb in. I crack my windows, turn on my battery-powered fan, and Velcro down my curtains (homemade via bed sheets). In fact, almost everything about my truck camper is homemade or self-invented. As I fidget with my sleeping bag and pillow arrangement, I climb up on my loft, sinking into my two-decades-old futon mattress, knowing I have a scarce eight inches from my head to the shell roof.

Ah, sleep. Thinking about my day and the days to come, I reflect: I talked to one human today, the 40-year old woman working at the sub shop. I may have brushed my teeth today? Don’t remember. It doesn’t matter because I accomplished one thing today, the one fulfillment of a damn good day in my world, a mountain run to a summit and back down.

As I doze off to Dreamland, I take a few delicious moments to appreciate and soak up the good fortune of being young and in the mountains, running free.


Published by Nick Arndt

Runner of dirt, rocks, and pavement. Live/work/train in the Adirondack Mountains.

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