I flew into San Diego intending to stay only for a few hours, but then it all hit me: the warmth, the sunshine, the cloudless sky. With most of the country reeling from snowstorm after snowstorm, I could live in a place like this.
So why not? I didn't have to be anywhere for a while, so why not stay and settle in?
My only problem was lack of money. As a recently laid-off airline worker, still semi-unemployed, I didn't feel comfortable spending more than $15 a day here. $15 doesn't buy you much in California—hardly even a single meal the way most people eat and certainly not any kind of commercial lodging.
I also didn't have any camping equipment with me. I had the clothes on my back, a change of socks and underwear, a small plastic tarp, two tiny airline blankets, but nothing more in the way of bedding or protection from the elements. If I failed to fly out of San Diego that evening, how was I going to survive?
Fortunately, I am adept in the skills of "Free Sleeping," or the ability to sleep safely and comfortably in a variety of urban environments without paying for it. Some might call it "homelessness" but I see it being more akin to wilderness survival or mountaineering translated into an urban environment.
I don't fit the usual profile of a homeless person. I am reasonably well-kept and look like any other air traveler. I arrived in San Diego with the standard middle-class electronic gadgets: a laptop computer, a cell phone and a high-end digital camera. I didn't look like someone who was going to steal sleeping accommodations from unsuspecting landlords, but my outward appearance was only a disguise. Underneath it, I was a rebel, a revolutionary, a subversive who aimed to undermine the very fabric of our capitalist society.
I intended to stay in San Diego for free.
It wasn't part of the plan initially, but as soon as the sunshine hit me, I instantly shifted gears. I was going to explore San Diego, establish at least a temporary outpost here and stay for as long as it suited me. After less than an hour on the internet with the airport WiFi (free!), I had all the information I needed to live off the land.
San Diego had all the elements I needed to make a "home." First and foremost at the end of January was the weather, which is arguably the best in the country. It is even better, I think, than a tropical paradise like Hawaii, because there isn't rain on a daily basis. There is no smog like in Los Angeles, and the temperature doesn't get too hot or too cold.
The second advantageous element was the terrain, which is very hilly and relatively green. There is lots of unbuildable land on hillsides where one could camp discreetly. The hills aren't forested, but I saw from the plane that there was enough undergrowth to hide in. My survey from the air said that I would have no trouble finding a patch of ground where I could sleep unnoticed.
A third advantage is an excellent public transportation system. San Diego has a new, efficient, graffiti-free trolley system supplemented by buses that could potentially take me to some of the green patches I saw from the air.
At the airport, I boarded my first bus and bought a $5 transit pass that would let me ride anywhere on the bus and trolley system for the rest of the day. That left me with $10 of mad money with which to establish myself in the city.
The metropolitan San Diego area has a population of well over a million and stretches for some 30 miles from the Mexican border in the south to Escondido in the north. I had very little experience with the city, so how was I going to make sense of it all? Where should I go to feel safe and to find one of those green patches?
It turned out the choice was pretty simple. The first rule of Free Sleeping is to get out of the city and head for the cushy suburbs. In the suburbs, the grass is always greener and the homeless life is so much more sanguine. Crime is minimal, buildings are more spread out with more vegetation between, and no one is expecting a vagabond to be hiding there.
Regardless of the neighborhood, I didn't want to get anywhere near the Mexican border, because the idea of crossing paths with desperate illegal immigrants or narcotraficantes terrified me. I wanted to be nestled in the gentle womb of a suburbia, isolated from all such ugliness. Ideally, I didn't want to run into anyone at all at night, and this suggested a light industrial area on the edge of one of the wealthier suburbs.
I also wanted to be close to public transit, preferable the trolley rather than the bus. My simple plan, then, was to ride the trolley system in daylight until a found a station that looked promising.
Sure enough, I found just the right station in the suburbs near the end of the trolley system. It was an area of new-looking offices and warehouses with no nearby residences or stores. Since it was Saturday and the offices were closed, there were no humans visible at all. The area was quite sterile to look at, but that was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted a place I could comfortably become unconscious without worrying about anyone stumbling upon me.
I got off the train and followed my nose, and within twenty minutes I had found exactly the place I was looking for. It was a big block of vacant land, hilly and overgrown, between an industrial park and a high-end housing development. Someone, no doubt, owned the land, but there were no obvious "No Trespassing" signs, so I could credibly claim ignorance in the event of my discovery.
The important thing to me, however, was that there would be no discovery. I fancy myself a bit of a tracker, and I saw no evidence on the ground of humans passing through this lot. For one thing, it was lacking the most obvious sign of human passage—trash—but there were also no significant trails in the grass, which is the first thing that develops whenever you have significant foot traffic.
I walked up a hillside a hundred yards from the road and found a flat and fairly protected hollow where I could not be seen when lying down. I wasn't completely invisible during the day, as people in the nearby industrial park might see me when I was standing up or when I was walking to or from the site, but this wasn't a problem, since I intended to come and go only under cover of darkness.
So here's the first rule of sustainable urban camping: Your campsite should be used only for sleeping and only at night, when no one can see you. During the daylight hours, there should be little or no evidence that you were ever there.
It was daytime when I visited the campsite the first time, but I did not plan to be back here during the day again. If anyone happened to pass through this lot—say, kids on tour or a local resident walking their dog—it would happen only in the daylight hours, not at night given the lack of trails. Therefore, I would always arrive before nightfall and break camp before dawn.
But right now, I had no camp to break. Although the temperature was about 75 during the day, it was expected to go down to the 40s at night, and my plastic tarp and airplane blankets were not going to be adequate. There were no mosquitoes here, no threat of rain and no significant wind, so I didn't need a tent, but I did need substantial bedding of some kind—on a budget of $10 or less.
But I had plenty of time. I had arrived at the San Diego airport at about 9am, and by noon, I had already selected my camping spot. I surveyed the area around my campsite, preparing for my later nighttime return; then I went back to the trolley station.
In the afternoon, I did some local sightseeing on my transit day pass. I took the trolley down to the Mexican border, but I didn't cross it. I had been to Tijuana several times before, but the ever-growing stories of violence and the known hassles of coming back into the U.S. dissuaded me from doing it again.
I also visited the waterfront near downtown San Diego, which was a much more idyllic venue. I noted with amusement that a large number of the boats in the small-craft harbor looked like that hadn't been to sea in years, yet they seemed to be actively occupied. Are this the realm of the floating homeless?
After dark, I stopped at a Salvation Army thrift store I had previously spotted along the trolley route. This would be my source for cheap bedding. For $6, I bought two big queen-size blankets that had seen better days. It wasn't their appearance that mattered to me but their thermal value.
Heading back to camp on the trolley, I also picked up some newspapers I found discarded on the train. These would make useful ground cover.
I got back to the campsite at about 8pm and set up camp. I laid down the tarp and newspaper as ground cover. There was grass growing here, so I had a little bit of padding under me. The big blankets gave me a lot of surface area to work with, so I figured I would wrap myself up like a mummy and be warm enough. I was wearing a woolen cap, sweater, sweatshirt and long pants, so I figured all this accumulated batting would get me through the cold desert night.
Alas, the reality didn't quite match the theory. There were too many gaps in the blankets letting cold air in. I slept for about four hours then gave up. At least I got that much sleep and proved that the campsite was viable, but I needed an actual sleeping bag to sleep the whole night—something that would zip up around me.
So sometime after midnight, I decided to break camp. I rolled up my bedding, stashed it in the bushes and was satisfied that my traces were hidden. What did I do then? The trolleys were no longer running, so I couldn't go far, and it was cold outside—not below freezing, but not too far above it.
I guess I cheated. I walked about a mile to my health club (which has many 24-hour gyms in the city) and soaked in the hot tub. Or at least I would have soaked in the hot tub if I had some short pants I could use as a bathing suit. I took a long hot shower instead and imagined myself soaking in the hot tub. (I've got to work on getting a bathing suit. It is required clothing for proper homelessness.) The rest of the night, I sat on a sofa in the health club and worked on my computer (on this essay).
My camp location is advantageous in more ways than one. Although it is in an industrial area, within walking distance is a big commercial center with most of the essential services an urban survivalist needs: fast food, department stores, health club, etc. It's not like getting the shivers on Everest where you're miles from anywhere. Here, if the wilderness disagrees with you, you can always retreat to the jacuzzi.
The next night (last night), I purchased a Chinese-made sleeping bag at the Evil Mega-Mart for $9, and in combination with the blankets, my sleeping experience improved greatly. Tonight, I am going to be adding more padding underneath me for an even better night's sleep.
I have been in San Diego now for only about 58 hours, but I've already established myself and gotten into a routine. With the sleep problem pretty much nailed down, I can turn to other aspects of living "in the wild." What native food sources are available here and how do I keep them balanced? How do I find internet services and a place to work? What is going to happen if my campsite gets found out, or—Heaven forbid!—rain should fall from the sky in San Diego?
These are topics for future postings.