We found ourselves stranded in Biloxi, Mississippi with barely a week's worth of food left on board Vintage van Go[gh], eleven dollars between us, and three weeks to go until payday. In the movies, miracles happen right about now in scenes like this, and to our amazement, one did! Out of the blue, Stephen's parents called to see how the cross-country adventure was going. Of course, he lied. Thrilled over the opportunity their son had to travel and see America, they insisted on sending him some "mad money," from time to time, via Western Union. Any other time he would've insisted they not be so generous, but this time he accepted with gracious enthusiasm. It was like winning the lottery! To us, it was enormous, and couldn’t have come at a better time. The moment he got off the phone, we laughed hysterically, and carried on like two little kids on Christmas morning.
Our celebration was short lived once the soberness of our situation set back in. With a grand total of sixty-one dollars, we had a tough choice to make: 1) stay put in Biloxi, where we didn't feel safe, had nothing to do to pass the time broke as a joke, and where the beaches sucked compared to Florida, but where we’d have all of the cash to buy food, or 2) fill the gas tank to take us back to Florida, where we felt safe, had gorgeous beaches with crystal clear water to enjoy in poverty, but then only have twenty bucks left to eat between now and June 1st. Considering the trip already taught us how to be creative when it came to stretching a dollar, and since we were already in retreat mode, we opted for “creativity.” We searched and found a Western Union at a Shell Station, conveniently topped off the tank, and made a late afternoon beeline to Ft. Walton Beach, Florida. Crazy, we realized, but we were pleased with the decision. After all, it would bring us 150 miles closer to our retreat destination – Key West.
We first began the road trip in the Keys with great excitement and a wild sense of adventure over the trip’s boundless possibilities, in meeting and experiences new people, places, and things. Just 1,000 miles into the trip, and after a few simple calculations, it became painfully clear then that the trip was doomed. High gas prices, low VW bus MPG, unexpected mechanical issues, quickly consumed our means to proceed much further than where were then - Panama City Beach, Florida. The fantasy bubble had burst. Stubbornness and stupidity had driven us onward to Biloxi. There had been signs all along the way from day one we chose to ignore. We were in denial since first setting out, blinded by the romance of the road, and how cool it would be to travel America in a vintage VW hippie love bus.
The bus had been tricked out for sleeping in and living out of along the way. We fully intended to overnight in it most of the trip, on short stops, and break out the tent and camping supplies for the longer stays. I told Stephen before we left the Keys that we would be enjoying some of the most pristine beaches in America as we made our way up the western coast of Florida. I told him of the endless miles of beaches with public access where one could simply park and spend the night anywhere one so chose. When we were ready to pull in for the night on day one, we couldn’t find a spot. Endless miles of beach and no place to park for the night! Thirty years back, when I passed this way in my youth, I did it all the time.
Not so now. Now we were greeted everywhere by foreboding “Thou Shall Not” signs: No Overnight Parking…Beach Closed 11 PM until 8 AM…No Public Access…Enforced by Law...Violators Will Be Towed. The insult of signs repeated the whole 1,000 miles to Panama City, and then on to Biloxi, Mississippi. So with overnights along the beaches in a big, bright orange VW bus no longer a viable option, we were forced to seek less exposing shelter, like behind hotels, in the dark recesses of their parking lots.
Back in Ft. Walton, we soon discovered that the town, as well as all the hotel parking lots, were heavily, almost obsessively, patrolled by police. In fact, it was so extreme, it easily made one think that the President of the United States, himself, was in town! Though we felt safer being back here in a hotel lot, we also feared that at any moment we would get a knock on the window and told to move on. I dreaded that scenario, because in such a small town, once the word got out, there would be no place to hide, and we had no means to leave for another three, long weeks.
Stranded in Ft. Walton Beach, it became quite clear that the area was infested with indigents, with hoards of homeless, with street corners and sidewalks littered with panhandlers. But for the grace of Vintage van Go[gh], go we! But, why oh why, did we have to be driving a bright orange VW bus, and not some white Toyota sedan? How the hell can we ever truly be inconspicuous?
Needless to say, I didn't get very much sleep constantly vigil, as Stephen snored away, peeking out the bus curtains each time the headlights of a patrol car appeared in the parking lot. Though were knew full well we were not, the situation we found ourselves in began to make us feel as though we were criminals of some sort, forced into becoming unwanted trespassers, like some homeless vagrants.
Here we suddenly were, in a predicament where we unwittingly became something less than model first class citizens. Our days were filled with plotting and conspiring to come up with where we could go, and what we could do, to blend with the normal flow of tourism here, and avoid any appearance of indigence. The homeless, we soon discovered, were the reason behind the heavy police patrols. It was quite fitting, almost poetic, to find that the Florida panhandle was so infested with panhandlers. Just like you know a home has a cockroach infestation when you see the insects everywhere in the daylight, so it was in Ft. Walton Beach with the homeless.
Everywhere one looked one would see hoards of homeless milling about, seated on sidewalk benches, and street corners littered with panhandlers. They were pests, stopping traffic, begging handouts, and creating a general public nuisance. They created an eyesore for a town that depended on tourism as its main source of revenue. The summer tourism season was quickly approaching with the arrival of Memorial Day weekend. We saw new signs being installed by the day. The homeless were the cockroaches. The police were the Raid. But for the grace of Vintage van Go[gh], go Stephen and I!
Why oh why, did we have to be stuck here for the next three weeks in a bright orange VW bus, and not some white Toyota sedan? How the hell were we ever truly going to be invisible, or at least inconspicuous? Just like the homeless, we too, found ourselves out of line with the established materialistic system that ran off of consumerism. We were no longer capable of “purchasing,” of contributing, to the local merchants, the restaurants, the hotels. Like the homeless, we had to hide for the night. We had to “be somewhere” during the day. We had to survive the best we could, even if it meant sacrificing personal dignity. And, like the homeless, we were not criminals; we were just down on our luck, doing without, but still human beings! Our predicament was about to teach us a new lesson by thrusting us into a whole new lifestyle paradigm.
Who were Stephen and I, after all? I was a retired military officer. I held positions of responsibility at levels of high national security. I married and successfully raised five sons. I was active in the community and church. I worked as a consultant to clients in the defense and intelligence communities, and became a college professor. I’m now a writer living on a meager retirement pension, but once I had been a mover and shaker, a money maker – a “contributor” to the system. My traveling “boy Friday,” came from a stable, upper middle-class family with two graduate-level college educated parents. His dad is a thirty year veteran of prominent federal service in Washington, D.C. Stephen, himself, is a third-year college student, extremely academic, and a hard worker. But, right now we were homeless, and except for the big orange bus, no different than the other cockroaches look upon as a nuisance to the local community, and law. Our life took on new priorities: survival priorities.
The homeless wandered each night into the parks and surrounding wooded areas hoping to evade discovery, and possible arrest. We wandered each night behind one hotel after another, discreetly rolling in after 10 PM, battening down, and attempting to sleep, also praying we’d not be disturbed. At daybreak, the homeless would roll up their bedding and hide it somewhere, and hasten out of the areas they knew would be patrolled. Each morning without fail, I would be up and behind the wheel, pulling out of the hotel lot by 7 AM, before the hotel staff morning shift change. While Stephen slept in the back of the bus, I would drive to MacDonald’s to use the restroom, and just hang out for a spell. Outside were the rusted bicycles laden with personal effects. Inside were the homeless seated at tables, perhaps sipping a coffee, but always reading the free newspapers and simply hanging out.
Next on the daily agenda we would head to one of several town parks, because they were there, it was legal to be there, and like the homeless, we had to be somewhere! One park on the water’s edge was a great place to cook and have dinner. But, this great spot soon lost its charm. We just wanted to be left alone, to sup in peace, to commune, meditate, comfort one another in our miserable plight, and to make it through another day toward deliverance - payday. But no, they wouldn’t leave us alone. Each day, the problem grew worse. Daytime was not as bad, but come dusk the parks were like a scene from some zombie movie: tattered, worn souls toting satchels, back packs, pushing a shopping cart, massed in numbers. Food! They saw, and smelled our food!
We had so precious little, and rationed every meal to survive the three weeks. The homeless came to us begging meal, and we had to keep turning them away. It was awkward to say the least. We felt horrible, but we were no better off than them. Most were understanding, some were just downright indignant. The word got out amongst them. Before long, there was not a park we could visit where the sight of the bus didn’t bring them running, begging food, money, or a ride to “work” - their personal street corner. After three days of this, Stephen and I abandoned going to any parks. This was a good thing – a clean break.
We discovered an awesome public beach to hang out at across the bridge on Okaloosa Island – too far for the vagrants to walk, or want to bike in the heat and humidity. We were so relieved! However nice, the beach had its “Thou Shall Not” signs as well. Go figure. It opened at 6:30 AM and closed one hour after sunset. So, we would roll out of our nigh time hiding place early each morning hence, and hit the beach. We spent each day tanning and playing in the surf. We ate a lot of bread with peanut butter and drank Kool Aid, saving our one good meal for dinner. Late afternoon, we drove across Highway 98 to a little used beach on the bay side. There we washed up in the bathroom facilities and picnicked. The Coleman stove came out, and we would conjure up a hot meal, clean up, and be packed up and gone before the ranger came by to lock up.
The challenge became what to do from 8 to 10 PM. We solved this need with visits to WalMart, which, incidentally, was air conditioned and provided a cheap form of entertainment - people watching. Some nights we would just sit inside a MacDonald’s, share an ice cream cone, watch TV, and charge our phones and laptops. Of course we were not alone. The some of the brethren would naturally be there as well. We were beginning to be acknowledged with nods and waves. How odd, and strangely cool.
The beach began to get somewhat monotonous, so we looked for an alternative. The public library became our new hangout, in between the beach and MacDonald’s. It, too, was air conditioned, and offered a sense of personal dignity. Stephen and I walked in each day carrying our laptops, and I, my trusted notebook, like I was there for some lofty academic pursuit. But, again, we were not alone. Outside were the rusted, heavy laden bikes. Nearby on benches and laid out on the lawn in the shade…they were. Inside filling many chairs, hither and yon, hidden behind daily newspapers and magazines…they were... and, yes…we were also.
Well into our second week in Ft. Walton, we embraced that were had become fugitives, spending our thoughts and energies running and hiding; not simply from the law, but from hotel security staff, and most of all…the homeless. We were they, and they were us, and we were all together. See how they run like beggars in the sun…we’re crying. But, coo-coo-cajoo, we were never able to fully embrace them. We were in a temporary plight. Theirs was more permanent. To embrace them, we feared, would doom us to forever be them.
The word was eventually out on the orange bus. With roughly 10 days to deliverance, the local law stepped up their surveillance. Now when we pulled into MacDonald’s in the morning, within a minute, or so, a patrol car would enter the parking lot and come directly to the bus and stop… just sitting there…waiting…observing. We chose to ignore this, and went about our business. After awhile, the police would drive off. This became the daily routine. No, we were not becoming paranoid.
When at the beach, thereafter, the same thing happened, but only it was a sheriff’s patrol car there. A huge parking lot, and the Sheriff vehicle would come stop by us, linger a long while, then leave. I also began to notice we were being tailed by police while driving between our daily venues. At no time were we ever pulled over, or approached, but it was obvious that the cops wanted to make their presence known to us, and make send a clear message that, whatever we were about, we were being watched. We were not doing anything illegal, but nonetheless, this whole ordeal was adding to the level of stress in an already stressful situation. Sleeping peacefully at night was next to impossible.
The police presence stepped up as time marched on. I decided to use up the last few gallons of gas to travel 16 miles west to Navarra Beach. The bus was not known there. I felt that we could buy a few days of peace, and anonymity. It worked! The beaches were superb, and the public park just over the bridge allowed for overnight parking. We felt that we had found the perfect place, but, even though overnight parking was legal, each night we received preferential attention from the local law. Patrol cars came by all night long, and when they did, with a least a dozen vehicles scattered through the huge parking lot, they would choose to circle the bus, park by it, and wait. Our last night, I risked running out of gas, and drove back onto the mainland and parked behind a Comfort Inn. It was very secluded, and no patrols came by. I slept like a rock, and rightfully so: there would be a long day of driving ahead in the morning.
At daybreak, the morning of May 31st, and one day before my scheduled payday, deliverance was at hand! I fumbled around for my phone, and went online to check my bank account balance. For twenty six days it had been a pathetic $1.21. Today, I woke to find that Stephen and I had finally been saved; direct deposit had been made a day early!
As Stephen slept (I’m sure you’re realizing a trend here by now), I hurriedly dressed, drove to the nearest gas station and filled the tank. With a rejuvenated debit card in my pocket, I headed back to Ft. Walton Beach to the MacDonald’s for coffee AND a big breakfast. Like clockwork, a patrol car appeared and stopped. I didn’t care anymore, and did like always - ignored it. Screw the police. This was going to be our best day ever!
After catching a bite, we headed off to WalMart to stock up on food supplies for the journey home. I parked in the shade away from everyone. A security vehicle immediately appeared out of nowhere, and pulled up alongside. So the fuck what. When I returned with the groceries a half hour later, the security guard was still at the bus peeking in the windows. Stephen was still sprawled out in the back asleep. I startled the guard. It was an awkward moment. With my best sarcasm, I suggested that he go chase after shoplifters, or members of Al qaeda, rather than snooping around my bus. He left not saying a word. After Stephen dressed and used the store facilities, we headed out.
Approaching downtown Ft. Walton Beach, we passed the park along Highway 98 where we first hung out before realizing it was a homeless enclave. Driving by the library, we passed our former brethren seated on the benches. One made a peace sign, others waved as the orange bus rolled by. At the intersection before the bridge to Okaloosa Island, traffic was slowed. We waited three lights to get through due to those pesky panhandlers, blatantly ignoring the posted signs.
Once over the bridge, we passed the row of hotels we had once hidden behind. We drove by the Boardwalk where we had rudely been reminded at 3 PM in the afternoon that there was no overnight parking. We drove onward passed the beach where we spent days tanning, and one day found ourselves eating pizza from the trash can. There was the remote beach we enjoyed our peaceful dinners and outdoor showers at. Within minutes, it was all behind us. We were on the road. We had money. We opened all the windows to allow our dignity to come blowing back in again. No longer were we the fugitives, the unwanted, the undesirable dregs of society we had become over that miserable three weeks in the Florida panhandle. Once again, we were consumers. Again we were exemplary members of society. Unlike so many we had met along the way, we had a home, and were never more grateful to be on our way to it!