Monday, March 1, 2010

Airport Camping: Ontario, California

I am writing this from a sleeping bag in the middle of a field adjacent to the Ontario International Airport (on the eastern outskirts of the Los Angeles area). The time is 7:18 pm (Feb. 28, 2010). Less than two hours ago, I had no idea I would be sleeping here, but now I’m comfy as can be, planning to get a full night’s sleep in the open air.

An hour and a half ago, I was driving a rental car down I-15 from Las Vegas, planning to catch a flight from Ontario to a major airport where I spend the night 2 or 3 times a month. As I came down the Cajon Pass, however, I hit heavy traffic and I realized I wasn’t going to make my flight. It was my own fault; I had all day to make the 3 hour drive, but I dawdled along the way, and cut the travel time too close. Since I fly for free (as a furloughed airline employee) I can afford to be cavalier about missing flights, but this 7pm departure was the last one of the day. Missing it meant I would be trapped in Ontario overnight.

By 6pm, I realized there was no chance I would have time to both turn in my rental car and check in for the flight by 6:30 (given the 30-minute check-in cut-off). The car was also due at 6:30, but I knew I had a 29-minute grace period, so I could turn it in as late as 6:59 and still avoid additional charges (but miss my flight). It was beyond my budget to stay at any local hotel or rent another car to sleep in; each of those options would easily set me back $80 or more. I had to come up an alternate lodging plan and implement it quickly, before the rental car was due.

I had been to the Ontario airport only once before, when I flew in three days earlier. (I was heading to Vegas but chose Ontario for a cheaper rental car.) Ontario is a small airport where the secure area probably closes at night. If the baggage claim area remained open and I was allowed to stay there, I would be sleeping on relatively hard seats with fixed armrests, giving me no opportunity to lie down. Even if the floor was carpeted (which I can't recall), I knew from experience that it would be too hard to sleep on. I could “survive” in the baggage claim area if I had to, but I wouldn’t get a good night's sleep there.

As I drove down the Cajon Pass (from the dry high desert to the lower and more humid coastal desert), I took a mental inventory of the supplies in my possession. I had a single light sleeping bag, my standard $10 model from Acme™ that I had purchased three days before so I could sleep in the car. My plan was to jettison it with the rental car, but now I could use it to camp with. However, I knew it wouldn't be enough. This 3-pound bag was adequate for the enclosed car (where heat is retained), but it wouldn’t be sufficient to keep me warm outdoors.

I checked my blackberry for the weather report. No rain was in the forecast, which was good, but there is usually heavy dew in the L.A. area, equivalent to a little light rain every night. The nighttime low was forecast at 45 degrees F. That’s a little below my own comfort rating for this bag when out in the open, especially given the dew. I felt I would need a second bag both for warmth and for padding underneath me. Experience told me that two sleeping bags laid down on grass or soft dirt, would provide adequate padding.

I also checked Google Maps on my Blackberry for aerial images of the area. I had no real worry that I would find a place to camp. I knew that the airport was in a relatively sterile industrial area, away from any housing and probably without any homeless population. The aerial photos showed lots of open land and landscaping where I could easily hide. I could resolve exactly where after I dropped the car.

At the base of Cajon Pass, I stopped briefly at the Acme™ Store on Foothill Blvd. All I needed was another sleeping bag. My usual $10 model was out of stock, so I upgraded to a posh $15 model (4 pounds). This $15 would be my only additional expense for the overnight stay (and my mistake in missing the flight). I would simply discard both sleeping bags in the morning. (This always pains me, but it beats paying $80 for a hotel.)

I then raced to the airport, getting there after dark at about 6:45. As soon as I got close to the rental car center, I noticed a big empty field across the street. Voila! That would be my home for the night! I drove into a driveway of a communication shack (shown on the upper left on the image above), and under cover of darkness I offloaded my sleeping bags. Then I turned in the car in the nick of time and walked back to the field.

This field is the sort of place that is totally exposed during the day and yet completely secure at night. You can thank the magic of darkness for that! Unlike other parts of the airport, this field isn't well-lit. I can see adequately now that my eyes have adjusted, but no one in a car can see into the field. Since I’m going to sleep early, I’ll be awake well before dawn and will break camp before anyone knows I am here.

To the south of me is a main access road for the airport and to the north are active railroad tracks. I chose the middle of the field to be as far away as possible from both, as well as from any path a pedestrian might take (highly unlikely anyway). I feel completely secure here. It will be a little noisy from the trains, but there is no way anyone is going to detect me or stumble upon me accidentally before morning. There is no trash in the field, so humans rarely come here. The only threat might be gophers, who have riddled the field with holes and who might try to steal my food. I'll engage them in hand-to-hand combat if necessary.

I’m comfortable using the better-quality $15 sleeping bag to sleep in and the $10 one as a mattress. No complaints! I expect to sleep as well as in any hotel and certainly better than I did at the Denver flophouse. I control my environment and have no humans to contend with. What could be better?

MORNING UPDATE: I slept well and woke up at about 3:00 am (8pm-3am = 7 hours). The rail line must be a major one because many trains passed by during the night. Surprisingly, they didn't seem very loud to me; I was vaguely aware of them but they didn't significantly impact my sleep. I awoke to find a layer of water covering everything. If you are camping anywhere apart from an inland desert, dew is something you have to factor in. Fortunately, I anticipated it and sealed up all my bags. My sleeping bag was soaked on the outside, but the moisture didn't penetrate into the interior. No gophers attacked me. In all, a successful sleeping operation.

By 5am, I had broken camp. I folded the sleeping bags on the pavement near the communication shack, where some passer-by would surely see them and take them home. I walked to the rental car center, worked on my computer there for a few hours, then took the shuttle bus to the main terminal. As the bus left the rental center, I caught this daytime glimpse of the field I had been sleeping in...

You would never guess that someone could camp there and not be seen, but that's what darkness can do. It gives you a safe campsite almost anywhere!

(Also see my similar entry: airport camping in Reno.)