Under the South Dakota Sky - 6/15/2019
Photo from the rest area...
This morning I woke up with the sunrise in the rest area just west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and I knew from my check of Google maps the night before that I'd already passed the nearest good coffee shop by about 50 miles, with the next one on I-90 coming up in about 350 miles. But I come prepared with my own espresso maker and I thought, man that sounds great, so I put on my face and rolled my suitcase "kitchen" out to a picnic table near an electrical outlet to make a cup.
Now, it took me several trips from the van to finally get everything I needed. I walked back for a jug of water. Then I walked back for the peanut butter jar full of ground coffee. Then I walked back for my coffee mug. And in my ultimately prepared boy scout way I'd even brought out a 50 ft extension cord and a 6-plug power strip to run from the outlet behind the Pepsi machine over to my table. On my next to last trip over I saw a worker gathering trash from the trash cans in the distance and I hesitated. Hmm. Plugging in an extension cord behind the Pepsi machine might be crossing the line. Should I get out my camp stove and boil water instead? Should I plug my espresso maker into the outlet by the sink in the bathroom?
As I walked back towards the picnic table with my mug and spoon, the worker was walking toward me, pulling a cart full of collected trash bags, taking up most of the sidewalk. I cut across into the grass toward the table to stay out of the way, kept my eyes down. All the doors on my van were open, my bunk where I'd slept clearly visible. The worker was taller than me, had long dark hair, I could tell they were stronger than me by a good margin. Tanned. I didn't want to disrespect them or get in their way in any way as they did their job, but I admit I didn't make eye contact or say hello. My bowed head a tacit acknowledgement of their position and authority. When they first spoke I was looking at their shoes and lower legs.
"I don't know if you saw the sign, but you're not supposed to camp overnight here." they said.
I glanced up to see their eyes, hesitated, and could only say "Okay." in response. I walked to the table, picked everything up, put it all back in the van, closed all the doors, sat in the driver's seat and started the engine. As I pulled away I realized I'd meant to check the oil and look under the car to see if an oil spot had formed, I'd seen a few drops on the pavement at earlier stops and wanted to check how much might've leaked overnight but I was already driving, I couldn't pull over now or back up to the space. I drove 50 miles to the next rest area and checked the dipstick there, still full, it seems to be a very small leak. Old vans leak, I carry a couple quarts with me in the van just in case. Van life.
At the next rest area I was much more prepared. I filled the espresso maker with water and coffee right there in the van. Carried it into the building and plugged it into an outlet in the lobby. There was one of those cool Elkay water fountains with purified water so I filled my water bottles. When the coffee was done brewing I took everything back out to the van, packed it away again, and then walked to a distant table with my mug, out near the grassy pet exercise area to enjoy the coffee in the morning sunshine. I'd been going over imaginary conversations in my head. What is camping? I pulled over to sleep, sure, but didn't a lot of people? Best to rest rather than crash. Because I'd built a bunk in the back rather than sleeping in my seat like so many others do in their cars, I'm a camper? What about the 30-foot 5th wheel RVs parked in-between the semi-trucks? And all these picnic tables. Aren't I just someone who is well prepared to have a picnic? But I didn't have these conversations with anyone but me and I was glad for that. I ate a bowl of cereal in the same coffee mug after I'd finished the coffee and I was already feeling better. I wished I'd thanked the worker for doing their job. I wondered if she liked her job, or if like so many of us she maybe didn't really like it but didn't really mind it. I could tell she was a good worker. I wondered about what she'd seen through the years. Working under the eastern South Dakota sky. The stories she could tell. I think she saw herself in me. Her voice was plaintive but not harsh. Advice more than reprimand. A heads up. In the conversation in my head I thanked her for her concern. I needed it.