Nature On Wheels

reprinted from Orion, July/August 2005
By Gary Wockner

I have a friend, Dan. He lives in his car. Half of the time his eight-year-old son, Aaron, lives with him. Aaron's mom (Dan's ex-wife) tells Dan, "That's not right, raising a boy in a car. I'll see you in court!" OK, now. Everyone's got an opinion, and the judge will have his. But hear me out.

Aaron is a bright, wide-eyed, happy boy. Both of his parents love him dearly. He's always clean and well-dressed, even when he lives in Dan's car. He goes to a good school with good teachers and many good kids. Aaron has good friends. He plays with many children, including mine. Aaron loves Cub Scouts.

Aaron gets to see things my kids rarely see. Like, the sunrise and sunset. Steam rising off a park pond at daybreak. He knows which pond the swans live in and which pond has a beaver family. When clouds form over the mountains to the west and slowly move towards town, Aaron can tell if and when the rain will hit the pond. Foxes, coyotes, and deer run through our town. Aaron knows where and when, and sometimes why.

Dan teaches Aaron about nature while they live together in the car. Dan reads to Aaron, takes long walks, discusses all the details of Aaron's life. Sometimes Dan reads from Thoreau and Abbey. Dan loves to read out loud to Aaron, especially poetry. Whitman is his favorite. Aaron listens intently, and then they go for a walk around the park or by the river while they discuss the poem and wait for the sun to go down. They watch spring turn to summer, then to fall. They see it, touch it, smell it, and talk about it. Aaron knows more about nature than me, more than most people. He can tell you. I see it in his eyes.

Dan's a good guy. He's caring, quite intelligent and articulate, and he's strong. He goes to church. He holds two jobs. His first job is in a nursing home as a caregiver. Dan's eyes light up when he talks about the old people and their problems. It's not a job everyone can do. Sometimes Dan sits and holds their hand while they die. Sometimes he's the only one there. Dan's other job is as a personal trainer. He works for the Leukemia Society as a trainer for people who run long distances to raise money for research.

Now, you're asking, "Why does Dan live in his car?" A fair question. I don't prod him on the subject. I know money is an issue. There's a previous failed marriage, also with two children. One kid is in college. Tuition, child support, other issues. Dan alludes to things, but I don't push him.

I think the car gives him something else: simplicity. His life isn't simple. He has dying old people, runners for leukemia, two failed marriages, and three kids with child support. You can't blame him looking for simplicity. Reading Whitman. Taking long walks in nature with his son. Teaching. I don't.

Who among us hasn't taken one of those epic car-camping trips where, near the end, you start to feel a libidinal connection to living outside on the land? And who among us hasn't done this with a kid or two in the backseat? And who among us, now several years later and part-way through a thirty-year mortgage, doesn't look back on those trips with a sense of delight and self-envy? Nature on wheels.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no fool. I have children. Aaron's mom asks where her son sleeps? On what roads? In the park? In alleys? Aaron's mom asks good, important questions. You know it's against the law in the city limits!, she says. And how does he stay clean and fed? How does he do his homework? Is he safe? She worries about her son. She's nervous. She gets upset, and says, "I'll see you in court. Again!"

The hard part is that Aaron's mom also loves nature. It's why they came here, her and Dan. Here, nature is serene, beautiful, and bountiful. A storm passes through for two days, and then the sun comes out for another month or two. The land is open, wild, and public. And Aaron's mom sees it in her son, the things he knows and feels. It's because of Dan, in part, and living in the car.

But, divorce is often bitter and hard. Words take new meaning. Everything amplifies. Spring turns to summer, and then fall, and we don't even notice.

An eight-year-old boy living in a car with his dad. Enjoying nature. Is it wrong?