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How to survive the lean times

Essay by Jane Goetze

Economy – January 2009 – Colorado Central Magazine

In 1976, circumstances beyond my control forced me into temporary homelessness. For six months, I alternated between relying on the couches of friends and camping out in my car.

With the proper gear, it’s surprising how well you can fend for yourself. Of course, it helps to live in a region of the country with a tourist economy; in fact, if it weren’t for the wealthy tourists who head for Aspen, Colorado, Park City, Utah, and Sun Valley, Idaho, we might all be homeless.

If you’re worried about losing your home now — not to mention your job — we in the West have more alternatives than the hemmed-in folks in the Midwest and on the East Coast. In the Rocky Mountains, not only is there an abundance of resort parking lots to choose from — plus restaurants with hot water in the bathroom — but when things get really bad, we can always head for the backcountry and a nice stand of trees. We don’t even have to walk there, although if you can no longer afford health care insurance, walking might not be a bad idea.

Today, thanks to the free-market spirit of the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, there are hundreds of miles of new roads we can cruise in search of a temporary homestead. True, the roads are potholed, dusty and built primarily for the gas, oil, and mining industries. But as taxpayers, we paid for these roads so we’re partial owners.

If you cruise these bumper-rattling roads at night, you can avoid the thumper trucks and oil rigs and pitch your tent in a sheltered spot in the trees, overlooking a creek that might even run clear. If anyone threatens to call the feds to throw you off their heavily subsidized claim, you can say, “The federal government wiped out my nest egg. So where is my bailout?” You can point out that thousands of others may soon be joining you in the wake of the stock market and home-mortgage fiasco. Before long, tent cities may crop up all over the interior West in a touching tribute to the Hoovervilles established by unemployed World War I vets during the Great Depression.

With millions of acres of public land on the development block, the intermountain West can absorb many more dispossessed people than Central Park or Seattle. You just have to be quick about it: Grab your claim before the rest of the multinationals do.

Some of us were responsible with our money and lived within our means. Unlike our government, we didn’t go deeply into debt to build an overseas empire. Some of us didn’t even buy SUVs. And now, through no fault of our own, the trickle-down theorists who have been duping us for the past 40 years have managed to enrich themselves and their cronies at our expense. But the ones who orchestrated this mess probably won’t lose their livelihoods — they have parachutes to soften a landing.

Whatever happens, we Westerners are well equipped for hard times. Lots of us own camping gear and we’re in pretty good physical shape because we love to hike, hunt, bike, and ride horses in the outdoors. Even the threat of federal agents showing up in the middle of the night with searchlights and shotguns doesn’t intimidate us — or at least that’s what some of us tell ourselves.

Here’s the plan: When winter sets in, and the temperatures become too much for a minus-20-degree-rated down bag to bear, we can head for the parking lot of the nearest four-star hotel. There, security is less likely to spot the sleeping bag and backpacking stove in the back of the car.

If you’re a single woman like me, I recommend a hotel with a well-lit parking lot. The lights may interfere with sound sleep, but they will provide a greater sense of security. In the morning, you can trot down the halls and dine on some of the leftovers from room service deliveries. Don’t be greedy. Wait until the guests have finished their breakfasts and left their carts outside their doors for the underpaid maids from Mexico and Honduras to pick up. You will be rewarded for your patience. The food is usually delicious, if no longer warm, and if you avoid the sausage, you can keep your cholesterol in check.

Jane Goetze is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is currently housed near Logan, Utah.