Life with the Boondockers, and spiders as big as your hand
The silence of the past year has been deafening.
“If it wasn’t COVID, we’d be out almost every night listening to music,” says Amy Collins. Or perhaps she and her husband, Tim Clark, would be playing music themselves.
True, there are still a few venues where stages remain lit, heeding to state-mandated coronavirus pandemic guidelines with varying degrees of compliance.
But rather than fight the pandemic -- and, Collins and Clark freely admit, to escape the soul-crushing politics of the onrushing election -- two months ago, the Rochester singer-songwriters packed their computers and guitars and motorcycles and two dogs and hit the road in their lumbering recreational vehicle.
They plan to be on that road for six months or so, on an adventure they call “Collins and Clark Across America.” They're regularly filing Facebook photos and posts about what they’ve encountered, along with updates on Clark’s failing attempts to keep alive the propane-fueled refrigerator.
COVID-19 has changed the landscape for musicians. And the landscape Collins and Clark see from behind the windshield of their RV has changed as well. They motored their way south, through North Carolina and Louisiana, then headed west through Texas. Now they’ve paused in the desert outside of Yuma, Arizona, where they’re sharing a phone. Clark is describing the miracle of the Bureau of Land Management when Collins interrupts.
“I’m gonna let Tim finish his story in a moment.”
“Bah, don’t count on it,” he grumps.
She goes on about the unexpected cultures they have encountered. Microcosms of alternative society. “There are dozens of communities and populations of people, and they’ve been out here for generations,” Collins says. Out west, where “there’s people who live on U.S. government-owned land for free.”
Land run by the Bureau of Land Management. “If you Google it,” Collins says, “you will find hundreds of thousands of acres across the country. Hundreds of thousands of acres, mostly west of the Mississippi -- but not all, there’s some in Vermont -- where United States citizens can in essence squat.” Living free, legally, for up to seven months. “Go ahead, grab some land. It’s yours.”
In general, these people drifting about the country are known as “Boondockers.” Collins and Clark, who’d started their journey staying at “top-end RV parks,” first became aware of the Boondockers as they moved through Texas.
There, they stayed one night in a city park filled with pecan trees and met a young Boondocker couple. She had just graduated from an Ivy League college, and now they were taking some time before plunging into the real world, living cheap, “just following their headlights,” Clark says.
“Who wouldn't want to do that at 22?” Collins asks.
They drove past the oil fields of West Texas, where wildcatters -- hired contractors moving from one site to the next -- parked their RVs in sites set up by drilling companies, or maybe a section of a park that the companies had subcontracted.
Collins and Clark aren’t wildcatters. They settled for spending nights in parking lots.
“And we’d wake up and there would be five or six or sometimes seven or eight other RVs, at 7 a.m.,” Collins says. “And they’d all just pulled in to a Walmart and parked for the night.”
As Collins and Clark continued westward, it became more evident to them that the Boondockers are a large part of the Western landscape. And Collins admits she had to shed her preconceptions of who might be in the trailer next door.
“I always had a bit of a hair across my nose about people who, who didn’t live the way I did, you know?” she says. “Who didn’t have the suburban upstate New York or New England sort of ...”
“Accoutrements,” Clark suggests.
Sure, many Boondockers are off the grid. They’re using the rental shower at a truck stop. But they’re old-school, Clark says. They know the value of lending a hand. When he hit a rock and dumped his Harley, which weighs 700 pounds, “Three trucks stopped,” he says. “ ‘Are you OK? Can we help you?’ ”
It’s the social accoutrements that Boondockers carry with them that catch Collins’ attention.
“There are some incredibly intelligent, liberal, well-written, well-read, fascinating people out here who don’t own a home,” she says.
The technology is a mix of propane tanks and high-powered cell-tower grabbers, so they can get five bars on their computers even while out in the desert. “The writers from my world,” says Collins, who works in the publishing industry. “The musicians from Tim’s world. I don’t know, I’m loving it.”
Their vagabond neighbors are living free and easy. Classy people, some with jobs for half the year, and a home. Some retired and now into the lifestyle full time, without the “sticks and bricks” that come with an address. All are people who she says she’d love to sit across from at a table at The Little Café, listening to a band, just talking.
“We’re talking about middle and upper-middle class people who have decided they don’t want to stay put anymore,” Collins says. “And they want the freedom to drive around.
“It’s not just a few renegades. It’s a big society.”
“It’s always bad policy for me,” Clark says, “to make assumptions on what’s going to be on the other side of an unknown.” But they’ve seen enough to know that the Boondockers are making a choice between security and freedom.
“I have a friend, he just out and out said he doesn’t care,” Clark says. “He lives in Pittsford, he had a camper, they’d go out camping three or four times a year.”
“They go 90 minutes from Rochester to a New York state park,” Collins says. “Then turn around and come home on Monday.”
“But he doesn’t care,” Clark says. “He doesn’t want to see Europe, he doesn’t want to see anything. He’s fine to just stay where he is.”
Collins understands what he’s thinking. “ ‘OK, I’ve got my wife. I’ve got my kids. I know the school they’re going to. I know what house I live in. My dog came from a particular breeder.’ They are comfortable with locking things down. And they are panicked with -- and I’m actually related to some people -- who get panicky and uncomfortable, if things are not certain.”
The Arizona desert is an uncertain space. Vehicles are parked not in designated places, but wherever a Boondocker hits the brake and shuts off the engine. Vans with tarps propped up over the door and $100,000 RVs are parked “cheek to jowl,” Clark says.
There is a social network. If you want it. “I walked by a street yesterday where there was like 20 people who had set up tents and chairs in the road,” Clark says. “And they were all just kibitzing together, a big community of friends.”
“And then there’s people out here who are the most comfortable when they’ve got freedom,” Collins says. “They get panicky if they’re locked down. And I’m kind of one of those people.”
People who hear the siren call of the Saguaro National Park.
“Unfortunately for a lot of these people,” Collins says, “it’s not about community, it’s about getting away from folks for a bit.”
And the coronavirus pandemic adds to that need to get away from folks.
Ahead, they hope, is Montana, Idaho, Alaska. There’s no hurry to get to snow country. Collins and Clark will stay in New Mexico for maybe another month, and wait for their turn for the COVID-19 vaccine. Collins has acquired a sunburn. They’ll ride their motorcycles out to the Imperial Dam at the Arizona/California border, motor along the Colorado River, maybe down to the Mexico border.
“And yes there are scorpions, and yes, there are spiders as big as my hand,” Collins says. “And yes, the vegetation is trying to kill you at any given moment because the spikes are huge."
More than 13 varieties of rattlesnakes, she adds.
“But it is alien out here, it’s like a different planet out here. And that gives me energy. I get so stoked.”
“Change,” Clark says. “Thriving in change, thriving in chaos.”
“The energy that comes with something being new,” Collins says. “Every new city. Every new road. Setting up in a new place gives me energy. It feeds me. I love it.”
But they’re still new at all this. New songs have yet to emerge for the songwriters. Right now, it takes too much effort just to manage their alien surroundings. On a journey that feels almost open-ended. When might they return to Rochester?
“I’ve got to tell you,” Collins confesses, “ohhh, once a week, I think I want to come home now.
“And once a week, I never want to come home. So it just depends on what I’ve broken recently.”
“I’d have at least a half an album done,” Clark says, “if I didn’t have to screw around with this damn refrigerator.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.