When I first saw the battered old camper with a tarp rigged as an awning between it and the nearby trees, I thought it was probably owned by a hunter. It was that time of year.
A couple of days later, when a scrounged and rusty wood stove appeared as part of the temporary “household,” I began to wonder. And when camper, stove, tarp, and big black dog were still in the woods in the snows of December, I knew. I’d acquired a new neighbor, a squatter.
I didn’t exactly give him a warm welcome. You see, the woods around here all belong to me. Never mind that they’re actually owned by dozens of timber companies, large and small. I roam them every day, taking possession in the heart. As a woman who likes to wander alone, I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of having some loose-cannon neighbor, about whom I assumed the worst.
I considered going non-linear when he eventually parked his rig, with its four-year-expired registration tags and little heaps of accompanying trash, just beyond the edge of the tiny patch of woods that I actually do own.
I started itching for an excuse to get the cops or the absentee land owner to run him out of there. But as he lived quietly almost within sight of my cabin, keeping to himself, it belatedly dawned on me, “Geez, Claire, he’s not doing anything except exactly what you advocate—living free, living as an Outlaw.” So I lightened up and quit plotting against him.
Later yet, after he moved onto another of my favorite walking roads, I surrendered to the inevitable and got to know him.
Turns out he’s just a guy. Davie. He’s 30-something. A musician. A perfectly nice fellow. As soon as Davie had a face and a name and ceased to be The Looming Stranger, I even began to worry about his welfare, rather than how he might affect mine. But he’s doing just fine, thanks. Comfortable winter and summer, so he tells me. Takes an occasional shower at a house or business in town. Shaves while looking into the rear-view mirror of his truck cab. Heats the camper with propane. Moves from shade to sun as the days and seasons dictate. His big black dog, Bruno, stays in the camper or under it, depending on the weather. If Georgia-Pacific hassles him, he moves onto Rayonier land. And if Rayonier hassles him, he moves over to a John Hancock holding company parcel. And right now he’s found himself a little privately held patch of timberland whose absentee owner has no regular forest patrols or logging operations and might not bother for years to discover that he’s there.
Davie even has a job. That makes him one of the working homeless that the media like to tut-tut about. The media and their big-government allies never consider for a minute that the big-spending programs they advocate, and regulations that drive up the cost of housing, are exactly what’s created the working homeless in the first place. Young, disabled, or otherwise struggling people are increasingly taxed and priced out of a survivable living.
Davie falls into another category the media don’t like to mention. He’s a single, able-bodied, non-addicted, working man. Therefore he’s not eligible for (or too independent to accept) any of the thousands of varieties of handouts with which the government attempts to buy back what they’ve stolen—to “give” us, as “benefits,” the housing, food, and care we could once provide for ourselves.
Davie’s in another category, too: the cruelly misnamed deadbeat dads. He’s out there because he owes, and wants to pay, back child support. When he was forced to choose between supporting his child or paying the rent on his apartment—out to the woods he drove with Bruno and his camper.
Once upon a time, a man like Davie could have homesteaded—claimed some government-held land for his own by living on it and developing it. Tens of millions of acres still sit unoccupied and federally mismanaged. But since 1976 when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, homesteading has been a memory. The feds have, on the contrary, begun gobbling up private lands to “return them to nature.”
This is one more straw on the backs of honest folks who are struggling to live and take care of themselves. Options grow narrower every day. (And beware of the folks who still advertise that you can “claim” government land for “just $20!” A mining claim is not a homestead.)
What’s a “squatter”?
In the strictest definition, Davie isn’t really a squatter. A squatter takes possession of land with the intention of permanently claiming it as his own. Davie has no desire to take over anybody else’s property.
But if squatter isn’t the perfect word, there is no better one. And if Davie has been driven out there by very contemporary American problems, his adaptation continues a great American tradition. He’s living as he wishes to live, despite everybody else’s rules and restrictions.
This isn’t the life for everybody. But it beats the heck out of a lot of urban homeless options. No prowling addicts beat Davie up or roll him for a pint of Mad Dog 20/20. Davie doesn’t have to cope with schizo cases, street fights, or the understandably hostile merchants described by sometime Berkeley street person (and semi-famous cartoonist) Ace Backwords in his book Surviving on the Streets: How to Go DOWN Without Going OUT (Loompanics Unlimited, 2001) . The worst that happens to Davie is being run from one timber acreage to another. Even the risk of having his camper broken into while he’s at work is reduced—considerably—by the surly presence of Bruno, who’s usually home when his master is away. And who wouldn’t envy the extreme quiet and rent-free bliss of Davie’s life in the woods?
Davie joins some uncounted number—maybe hundreds of thousands—of hidden others in a life that lies mid-way between that of carefree mobile “snowbirds” and the desperate homeless.
Reading the letters column, it’s clear that about half this magazine’s readers are already country dwellers, dug in for keeps, and half are somewhere between dreaming about a country home and actually moving to one. Maybe Davie’s life—or a more rights-respecting variation on it—is one that some urban dwellers might want to consider as they plan a rural future.
You could “squat” in an area where you know you want to live while you look for the right piece of land—or earn the money to afford it.
You could squat (call it freelance camping) in one area after another as you decide whether your eventual backwoods home should be in Kentucky or Oregon, New Hampshire, or Alaska.
You could squat just because you’re broke and it’s better than living on the streets.
You could squat while you look for a job in your chosen rural haven. Sure, there are challenges to looking for a job when you don’t have a permanent address or an easy way to clean up and look pretty for an interview. But a cell phone or an answering service you can access via pay phone gives you a contact number for those hiring agents. Mail Boxes Etc. gives you an address. (A friend or a small-town business that ships and receives UPS might also receive postal mail for you—although it gives the bureaucrats at the USPS fits.) A solar shower will do in a pinch to tidy you up to meet a prospective employer. Or you can do as I did when I lived for a while without hot running water—heat up bowls of wash water on your cook stove. In the meantime, while you’re looking for work, you’re conserving what money you have left, and you’re not panicking because your jobless state might put you on the streets. You already are on the streets—or the country roads—of your choice.
Caretaking vs squatting
I got to wondering whether a squatter’s life could be combined with that other dream life of impoverished rural wannabes, caretaking. Would timberland owners—who are plagued by illegal dumping, theft of wood, and other unauthorized and sometimes dangerous activities—be willing to trade space on their lands in exchange for “watchdog” services on the part of someone like Davie?
I called two big, nationally known logging companies and two private land owners—the sort of small-time rich folks who may own a few thousand acres widely scattered over a state—and asked them.
MegaGlobalTimberCorp #1 said they didn’t think so. Or rather, a series of secretaries, PR flacks, local forest managers, and other assorted “not my job” people said they didn’t think so—but they really didn’t know whom you’d ask about such a thing.
MegaGlobalTimberCorp #2 said no and hell no. (They said that they had full-time roving forest patrols and didn’t need caretakers—even though the horrendous heaps of construction rubble and old appliances dumped on their lands say they sure need somebody watching out for them.)
LittleLandOwner #1said no, citing unnamed “liability issues.” But it was clear she simply didn’t like the idea of some homeless stranger living on her property and was looking for any excuse (not that she needed one; it is her land).
LittleLandOwner # 2—Bingo!—said he’d been pondering an arrangement just like that and wondering where he’d find a reliable “squatter.” Just as long as somebody supplied his own camper or trailer, disposed of his own waste, didn’t smoke (fire hazard), and could provide some evidence of good character, he’d make a deal.
An article in the Juneau Empire tells of Jason Layton, “The Squatter King.” He parked on mining company land and simply ignored repeated (but polite and non-threatening) requests to leave. Then one day he was called into the mining company’s office—and instead of the ultimate eviction he expected, he got a key to a caretaker’s shack. Company managers had simply decided Jason was an asset, not a detriment. Mining companies, even more than timber companies, have a real need for caretakers on their land—to keep kids from falling into mine shafts, prevent pilfering or sabotaging of equipment, and to discourage folks who might be tempted to cart off a pickup load of coal, rock, or whatever it is they’re digging.
My neighbor Davie—who scatters garbage and worse waste around his camper—is never going to earn anybody’s trust as a caretaker. But if I owned acreage I couldn’t watch, I’d be thrilled to find some reliable person who supplied his own “caretaker’s shack” in the form of a camper or trailer, and who could discourage poachers, garbage dumpers, and other vandals.
(By the way, “The Squatter King” ultimately became caretaker to a campground for the homeless operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Such campgrounds started to become popular in the mid-1990s, after years of homeless activism; but in many places they’ve fallen victim to the NIMBY syndrome and lack of funds. When I was young, I lived in campgrounds for a while, too respectful of privacy—or too chicken—to squat. And that’s something many people still do. You have to keep moving, as most campgrounds allow only limited stays. It costs more than Davie’s lifestyle, but if you have pets or kids, it’s cheaper and easier than finding a home or apartment to rent. And—big plus—there’s usually a bathroom nearby.)
If squatting-as-caretaking interests you and you’re not willing to take Squatter King-type chances, one easy (albeit shot-in-the-darkish) way to look for a legal “squat” is to place an ad promoting your caretaking services. Try a regional newspaper that would be read even by absentee landowners. Or Backwoods Home. Or go to local stores, churches, post offices, and other gathering places and tack up ads on their public bulletin boards. Or for 29 bucks a year you can subscribe to The Caretaker Gazette (P.O. Box 540-M, River Falls, WI 54022-0540, www.caretaker.org/), which matches caretakers and landowners worldwide. While most landowners don’t even think about offering caretaking positions if they don’t have some sort of building for you to live in, “Have camper, will caretake,” might change some minds.
If an ad doesn’t bring hordes of landowners begging you to live free on their lands (and don’t count on it), you can choose lands that look good to you and start a more personal sales job on their owners.
If you’re already in, or can easily get to, your target area, start by scoping out the parcels of land that look as if they “need” you, then go to the county assessor’s office to find out who owns them and how to contact those individuals or companies. This is all public record.
Call or write the landowner(s) of your choice. If they’re not interested but seem approachable, ask them if they know anyone else who might want a caretaker. Stress the ways you can benefit them, rather than how they can help you. (“I could keep illegal dumpers away and even haul some of the stuff that’s already there to the landfill for you.” Not, “I’m so desperate I’m going to kill myself” or “I’m lookin’ for a place I can party and get wasted, man.”) Stress your ability to live without owner-provided utility services and your commitment to live without damaging or trashing up their property.
Get an agreement in writing, if you can, so you’ll have proof of your rights in event of a dispute with the landowner or something to show a sheriff’s deputy, should one happen along. (Around here, the Sheriff’s Department never, but never, patrols the unpopulated woods, not even on the fairly large network of county roads that serve as feeders to the private logging roads. Although if you’re in an area where helicopters patrol for marijuana farms, you could be vulnerable to easy discovery, and should be prepared to move quickly or prove your right to be on the land.)
This isn’t an easy process, it goes without saying. And you might never find an interested owner. But present yourself as an asset and not as a desperate, marginal person looking for a handout, and you may discover you’re the answer to a beleaguered landowner’s prayer.
We’ve gotten through this whole article without talking about the morality of squatting on somebody else’s private land without getting their prior consent. It’s not only a crime, trespassing, but some people would consider it theft, since a squatter is using property that belongs to another. The solution to those problems is really simple. If you fear the potential for legal penalties, don’t squat. If you believe it’s immoral, don’t do it. If you want to do it legally and morally, jump through the hoops of turning your squat into a caretaker’s gig. And don’t cry if nobody wants your services.
Throughout the world, squatting is usually an urban phenomenon. Drug addicts take over abandoned warehouses. Impoverished rural dwellers flock to tent cities and tin-roof cities on the edges of metropolises in hopes of bettering their lot.
If your idea of bettering your lot is to go in the opposite direction—turning away from the big-city grind for the backwoods home of your dreams, squatting is one easy, if risky, way station on the road.