Each morning I wake up to the continuous hum of the traffic on I-5, crawl out of my bed, and take one step into the bathroom. After I shower — the shower being only half a step from the toilet — I put on my robe, grab a key, and walk outside to my closet, unlock it, and choose my outfit. If no one is around, I change into my work clothes on the patio, grab my shoes out of a tote box, and toss my purse and lunch into the car before running back inside our house to say goodbye to my husband Ralph.
“Have a good day,” I whisper since he is half-asleep. “Enjoy the beach, but don’t forget to start the house.”
He waves me on and I drive out of the trailer park to the Nautical Bean Coffee Co. at Oceanside Harbor or the Carlsbad Dove Library to work at one of my four writing gigs.
I never thought I would live in a trailer park, but I am doing just that. And it’s not in a double-wide mobile home, which average around 1500 square feet, but in 30-foot Class C recreational vehicle (the kind you drive) with around 150 square feet of living space. It’s parked in an Oceanside neighborhood block situated between a 100-foot-tall neon Mobil gas sign and a 672-square-foot billboard advertising all-you-can-eat lobster feasts at Pala Casino.
We weren’t born to this gypsy life. I began life in San Diego and grew up in a middle-class household. It was the same story for Ralph. My stepfather built my mother and me a three-story home on lower Mount Helix when I attended Grossmont High School, and I lived there until I met Ralph. The two of us found adorable and affordable houses and apartments to rent in Hillcrest, Scripps Ranch, and one in Del Mar that cost us $400 a month. That was in 1980. Then he got the bright idea to follow the American Dream and buy a house, which doubled our house payments. I wasn’t onboard, but I was young, and all our friends owned homes.
The first house was a fixer-upper in La Mesa, but we never quite had the cash to fix ’er up. We later bought a nicer home in the rolling hills of Vista for $175,000, but at the time the $1500 a month house payments ate at me. We held on for 25 years, eventually paying $2400 after refinancing with an unscrupulous mortgage broker. We left that place when our two children flew the nest. During the beginning of the housing crash last decade, we were one of the first to feel the pinch since I was in the newspaper business and Ralph was winding up his career in the health-food industry. We decided at the age of 50 and 60, respectively, we would throw my newspaper résumé out into the wind and follow it — leaving family, house, and San Diego behind.
We landed in an affordable rental — $950 — on the shores of Lake Chelan, Washington, a charming town between Seattle and Spokane surrounding the third deepest lake (1486 feet) in the country. Only Crater Lake in Oregon (1943 feet) and Lake Tahoe (1645 feet) are deeper. The town boasted wineries and stores, apple and cherry orchards, a movie theater and an art scene, but also snow and few residents in the winter, excepting the apple farmers. After two years, we moved on to Orcas Island in Puget Sound to housesit my mother’s home. After six months we decided that caretaking homes was a great way to live, so we stored all of our stuff and took a housesitting job in a beautiful home in Bellevue, Washington. From there it was a four-bedroom house in Huntington Beach where we stayed a year, and then an estate in El Cajon, an apartment near Santa Barbara, and a B&B in Utah a mile outside of Zion National Park. That’s when we started to wonder if we should have our own place again — with a twist.
“What do you think about traveling around in an RV?” Ralph asked me one day as we were finishing the not-so-perfect B&B gig. “We could maybe take a test run in the van and see if we can live together without killing each other.”
I agreed, and we took off for Northern California in April 2015 in our 1995 Vandura Van, a veteran of more than 200,000 miles equipped with a queen-size bed. We stopped at Elks Clubs to camp — cheap booze and cheap camping. We relaxed in Keough’s Hot Springs near Bishop, were snowed in for three days in a campground in Mammoth Lakes, and broke down near Lake Almanor in northeastern California. We did not kill each other.
After a two-week stay in my sister’s driveway in Monterey and a campground outside Carmel, Ralph mentioned to my brother-in-law Louis that we might be looking for a used, inexpensive RV.
On the afternoon that we left Monterey County and were headed home via Highway 1 through Big Sur, my phone rang. It was Lou. He had found us a 1984 Jamee by Skyline RV with a Chevy engine for $5500. It had 57,000 miles on it. He knew the guy selling it. Lou knows everyone in Monterey. He has a cleaning business and details fancy cars for the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. I put my husband on the phone.
“Tell the guy we’ll take it,” Ralph told him as we pulled into the Nepenthe restaurant parking lot overlooking the Pacific Ocean for lunch. “I’ll wire you the money when we get back to San Diego.”
We celebrated with wine at lunch and joked about becoming RV people like Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty in Lost in America.
A few days later, we wired the money to Monterey and a month later, we drove up to sell Lou our van and pick-up our RV, which we named “Walter.” Our kids later laughed at us and gave us the Breaking Bad TV series and suggested we might want to rethink the name. We did not.
The original plan was to tour the country, but we decided to test our relationship by driving to Ruth Lake, California, about 120 miles west of Redding in Northern California, to stay three months with my aunt and uncle so that Ralph could give my uncle Rik a hand around the ranch. We headed home to San Diego, staying in Eureka, Mendocino, Petaluma, Monterey, and Paso Robles, and ended up in our nephew’s driveway in El Cajon behind Grossmont High School for the holidays. We were planning to leave again in mid-February, but we needed six new tires to the tune of $1500, and we had to plan our trip carefully since our old engine only gets seven miles to the gallon. One of my longtime freelance gigs had ended, shorting us about $1200 a month, so things were looking a little tight.
Our next adventure included driving to Palm Springs, Arizona, and New Mexico. At this point we were bringing in less than $3000 a month and then, unexpectedly, I was offered a real job with an actual weekly paycheck and health insurance — a boon for a freelance writer.
I took the job in North County and we drove the RV to the Elks Club in Oceanside to look for apartments we could afford near the beach. After 25 years of freelancing, I wasn’t going to take a full-time job just so I could live in a tiny apartment 20 miles from the beach.
To say I was disappointed in the selection of affordable housing near the coast would be an understatement. I found a rundown one-bedroom apartment right on the Coast Highway in a sketchy area in Oceanside behind a coffee shop for $1600. I looked at a 900-square-foot house in Carlsbad’s barrio area on Roosevelt Street, but it was $2500 and it had bars on the windows. I had high hopes when we found a funky one-bedroom granny flat on Oak Street in Carlsbad above a garage for $1500. But we were one of 30 applicants and were beat out. It brought me to tears, and my blood pressure climbed so high I had to go to the emergency room. Sure, we could have lived in Escondido or San Marcos, but we didn’t want to be forced inland after having had our freedom and living in Monterey, Carmel, Huntington Beach, and Orcas Island. Neither did we want to be house-poor. That’s what our future looked like if we were to remain in San Diego’s housing market.
According to Zillow, the bottom third of apartments, which they called “low-end,” in San Diego have a monthly rent of anything under $1950; middle, $1951 to $2389; and high-end, $2390 and up. Rent prices as a whole went up about 6 percent from June 2015 to June 2016, but the low-end zoomed up 21.7 percent.
San Diego County’s lowest-income renters spend 69 percent of income on rent, said the latest report from the California Housing Partnership Corp. It said the median rent had increased 32 percent since 2000 while median renter household income, adjusted for inflation, had declined 2 percent. San Diego’s low-end rent increases were the fourth highest compared to 14 other cities.
That was depressing.
After almost two months of looking and staying at the Oceanside Elks Club off Mission Avenue a block from the Ocean’s 11 Casino for $27 a night, (we only had one more month before we had to leave because summer is their busy season), I was freaking out. I continued to drive to apartments my friend Julie had found for me on Craigslist or through word-of-mouth in Carlsbad and Oceanside. I looked at the two RV parks on the Coast Highway in Oceanside — one next to the cemetery and the other next to the train tracks, but both were in the $2200 a month range — to park the RV.
Ralph and I had joked about living in a trailer park over the past few years, but we didn’t take it seriously. We didn’t think we fit the trailer-park stereotype. Trailer parks scared me with visions of mean pit bulls, meth labs, and residents sitting on tattered sofas outside their trailers. But as I drove past the Sandy Shores RV Park in Oceanside off the Harbor Drive exit, I saw a “For Rent” sign and I stopped. I looked tentatively at the single-wide in front and then slowly drove through the park. I passed a Porsche and a sleek Audi. I saw fifth-wheel trailers parked next to single-wides with cute white fencing and little windmills. Older converted trailers like I used to camp in on the beach in Baja sported seashells, wind-chimes, and colorful signs pointing the way to the beach.
At that moment, I felt more excited about finding the trailer park than when my husband first showed me the house in La Mesa he wanted us to buy 35 years earlier.
A few hours later, I directed Ralph to the trailer park, past the new In-N-Out, the Oceanside Welcome Center and the Main Attraction Gentleman’s Club, and over a bridge where a few homeless people gathered. We turned on Monterey Street and took a right where a Holiday Inn towered over the street.
“This is it,” I said, pointing to the handwritten sign and the small block where mobile homes sat. He looked a little skeptical, but I jumped out and knocked on the manager’s door.
“Hi, I’m here about the trailer space,” I said to the woman who looked like a retired surfer girl. “Is it still for rent?”
She smiled, stepped out, and answered my rapid questions. I wanted to live here even though I could hear the freeway, the train track was only a block away, and we were surrounded by hotels — nice and not-so-nice — a Del Taco, and the giant neon sign. I had no idea what type of people lived in the trailer park. On the other hand, we are within walking distance to Oceanside Harbor and the beach. We would live in a city that is turning from gritty to an area filled with brew pubs, surf shops, and hipster hangouts.
She gave me the paperwork and within two weeks, we packed up our stuff and drove all four miles from the Elks Club to our new home at Sandy Shores.
1429 N. Coast Highway, Oceanside
According to their website, “Sandy Shores Trailer Park opened in 1951 during an era when RVs and travel trailers were growing in popularity and beginning to include modern conveniences such as complete kitchens, refrigerators, bathrooms, and real plumbing systems. Sandy Shores Trailer Park was originally built as a 55-space trailer park across the street from what at the time was the existing 100-space Harbor View Trailer Coach Villa.”
The trailer park used to have a sweeping view of the Oceanside harbor, but now it has a view of the four-story Holiday Inn.
After a few weeks, we found out that most of our neighbors only visit the park on weekends, and, like our new neighbors, Kelly and Jeff, they are almost all from Hemet but grew up playing in the park near the beach at their grandparents’ trailers. The others are either retired, stationed at Camp Pendleton (half mile away), or they attend college. Everyone is quiet for the most part, although the weekends are filled with happy campers escaping the Hemet heat or long workweeks. Best of all, the rent — with electricity — comes in at around $700 a month.
I haven’t seen any mean dogs, only cute fluffy ones. And if anyone were cooking drugs, the manager said she would “tear down their trailer and kick them out.”
There are plenty of rules about quiet hours, putting old furniture in your space, and making the place look tacky. Ralph put down artificial grass rugs in our space and bamboo fencing for privacy. We set up an outdoor table with barstools, planted some tomatoes and rosemary, hung a few cute signs, and called it home.
We cook mostly outdoors since our house heats up pretty fast. During cold weather, our small oil heater keeps the place toasty. At my request, Ralph begrudgingly painted the interior of our almost-vintage house, and I hot-glued brightly colored fabric over the dated window coverings and cushions. We have a 42-inch TV that takes up much of our dining table, and Ralph wears headphones after 10 p.m. so I can sleep. We have Wi-Fi, Apple TV, and we bought an antenna that fits in the back window over my pillow in what I like to call my boudoir.
After buying the RV, we found that my six-foot husband and I could not both fit in the “bedroom,” and so he elected to sleep in the bed over the cab of the RV with the ceiling only a couple of feet from his face. We make it work.
The bathroom is small, but I found I didn’t need all the lotions and potions I had in my other spaces. The accordion-style bathroom door leaves little to the imagination. Whoever is not in the bathroom turns up the radio or steps outside. As I said, we make it work.
When I mention I would like to replace the old brown carpet with flooring, Ralph looks at me and balks, “What for? We’re going to eventually sell this place and get a bigger house.”
A girl can dream.
My kitchen, which is also in my living room/dining room/office, is more convenient than any of my other past kitchens. I can sit and write while baking brownies. To check if they are done, I only have to lean over a bit and pull down the oven door. My refrigerator is covered with lists and photos of my two children — who tell us that we’re cool for living like this. The fridge has room for cheese, vegetables, condiments, leftovers, wine and beer, and the freezer has three ice trays and frozen shrimp and steaks, and sometimes lobster on the weekends.
Other than a little more closet space and a better spot for the toaster, we’re all set. (I’m on my second one. The first toaster died when three pens fell into it and I, not knowing this, made toast. The one I have now had a large hoop earring fall into it, which apparently didn’t harm it.)
During summer 2016, our place seemed to be the place for our friends and family to visit — either to see for themselves what the hell we’ve done or to laugh at us. I don’t care. One friend, when hearing that we live in our RV, took me aside and tried to council me.
“You know, you can apply for food stamps if you need them,” she whispered as we enjoyed a cocktail one night in Carlsbad. When I informed her that we now make over $60,000, her eyes widened as if to say, “Then why do you live in an RV?” She quickly dropped the subject.
Ralph is enjoying his retirement by riding his bike at the harbor, reading books on the beach, and doing a little yard maintenance. Once a week he starts our house.
He shuts all of the windows, grabs the keys from the hook in the kitchen, and goes out our front door. He passes through the patio, walks around to the far side, unlocks the door, climbs into the driver’s seat, pumps the gas pedal a few times, puts the key in the ignition, and starts the engine of our motorhome.
“Listen to that engine,” he always says, smiling his wide smile.
As one of the signs we have hanging in our patio decrees, “Home is Where You Park It.”