"Rim of the Earth"
by Stephen Jabaut
For my birthday this year, I rented a Subaru and trekked up to Big Bear, California for a free day of skiing and two nights camping in the back of my car. Leaving Los Angeles around 9:00 AM, all of the East-traveling traffic had dissipated and I had an easy shot to the mountains and arrived there in about two hours. The road coming up 330 to 18 is one of my favorites in all of California. They call it the Rim of the World Highway because you run along the edges of ascendant mountains and through wild canyons that have expansive views of the Inland Empire and the Los Angeles Basin below. As you climb ever higher, the air crisps and the trees turn evergreen. Eventually you’ll see snow, and you’ll wonder how at 55 degrees in February such a thing could even be possible, but it is.
Once I got to the little alpine village, I got my skis waxed and sharpened for the next day’s events, and then went thrifting for ski poles and to see what I could find in the mountain consignments around Big Bear Lake. I found a Cashmere fitted cap, and a hand-made shearling sheepskin jacket, as well as some nifty UGGish boots that are now in my arsenal of warm wear for the home. I went to a favorite restaurant, the Teddy Bear, to grab some biscuits and gravy. With a belly full and the sun now set, I immediately began to feel sleepy.
Now, anyone who has #vanlife will tell you the most stressful part about the lifestyle is not the small space, or the lack of a bathroom, but where to park your home in the evening. Most municipal codes do not look favorably at sleeping in your car, and in some places, you can be arrested on the spot for vagrancy. In most cases you can make the claim that you were driving to a destination and got tired. The logic here is that it is safer for you to stop and sleep for some time rather than continue on the road driving tired at night. In the past, I have parked in large hospital lots, and local airports. These can be nice because they are generally secure, you can pay under five dollars for the evening and you have the assurance that you will not be burgled or stopped by law enforcement. Though this can vary airport to airport so it’s important to look it up first. Some people will park in the lots of Walmarts and 24-hour grocery stores, however, parking lots don’t necessarily scream “adventure” and sleeping under the parking lights of a Von’s is not the reason I came up to the wilderness.
To solve this problem, I went on AirBnb.com and looked up all the rentals in the proximate area of the ski mountain. I needed to find a driveway where I could park for the night. I found an available small cabin at the end of a cul-de-sac that was private (meaning the landlord was not on the property). Because it was available I knew the driveway would be open, and because this resort town is full of vacation rentals, there are always random cars in driveways and there would be no cause for a suspicious neighbor to turn me in. I simply parked my car in the drive, and because it was a cul-de-sac there was no through traffic through the night, and I slept like a sweet baby. The spot had a rustic aesthetic and the neighboring houses were A-frames made from pine, log cabins, and Tudor chalets. I was surrounded by large conifers and could see a waxing gibbous peaking through the needled branches above me: much better than a parking lot.
To make a bed in your car, you’ll need a hatchback type vehicle where the seats can fold flat. In my Subaru Crosstrek, the layout has a little bump in it, but if you layer beneath you won't even notice it. My layers: a Gortex bivy, an inflatable mattress, a high-quality sleeping bag rated for 19 degrees, a silk liner, an additional down blanket, and a small inflatable pillow. I wore Minus33 knee-length merino wool socks and cashmere sweatpants, as well as a merino t-shirt and a cashmere sweater. If you need more space, you can always move the driver’s seat forward and stuff extra gear in the space behind it to create a longer platform to sleep on. As a six-foot human, I fit just fine with this adjustment. I was sure to crack the windows so the air stayed clean in the car through the night and although the temperature descended below freezing in the moonlight, I was as cozy as a button in my performance gear and fabrics. The way I see it, I can spend the money I would have spent on a room (150 a night? for two nights) on high-quality clothing and gear instead.
With all the Instagram glory that is depicted online, it is important to understand that this form of adventure is very spartan and unglamorous. There is no bathroom, you’ll have to wait until you get to a coffee shop in the morning. I was very careful to keep the lights low so as not to disturb the neighbors, I read and journaled underneath the privacy of my down blanket, lit with some soft solar powered e-candles. This trip for me was always about solitude, connection with nature, and the internal adventure that comes along with it.
I woke with the sun and found myself at a little coffee shop in the morning for some scrambled eggs and oatmeal. A visit to the bathroom would reveal I did, in fact, look a bit like a crazy mountain man in sweats and sheepskin. But no matter, I got up to the mountain promptly and was there for the first lift ride of the day.
I skied bell to bell for seven hours straight. I have this new tradition that the last run of the day I take off my entire top layer and ski down with my bare skin against the wind. Which I highly recommend. After an amazing day of skiing on a virtually empty mountain in 60 degrees of pure sunshine, I was once again tired. I did not want to go all the way back to Los Angeles in heavy traffic so I set out to find another place to sleep for the night.
While driving to Lake Arrowhead, I found a turnout with a beautiful view of the greater Los Angeles sprawl miles below. There was a dude in a van playing John Butler Trio’s Ocean with a Caribbean mutt named Larry, and he offered me a Dragon’s Milk White Stout beer to sit and share the sunset. The beer was creamy and cold, and the sun was warm, the color of egg yolk as it descended into a reddish mist as it slowly obscured below the horizon of the Pacific Ocean 100 miles away. It was a kismet sort of Apres Ski moment. One that filled my belly and my heart.
I mentioned to my Van friend the dilemma of trying to find parking again for the night, and he offered the turnout we were in. “If you go under that little rise over there, you won’t even be seen from the road, and there are only three guys that patrol this road at night. If you keep a low profile you’ll be fine”.
And so I set up out of sight from the road, and my bedroom for the evening had a million-dollar view with the glittering lights of the urban sprawl beneath the mountain.
In the morning I made some coffee with my little fuel canister and the last of my water. I took a picture and made my way down the mountain through the empire and back to the comfort of Santa Monica.