Mistaken Identities: Vanabomber, DEA, CIA, or Just Chilling

Living on the road, you never know who you’re going to run into or how you appear to others. Our travels in 2011 drove this home.

After building out our first van, I needed to test it as an office space, so I spent several days parked in the parking lot of where Kirsti worked for the season. It was hot, so I opened up all the doors and turned on a fan.

The van is dark blue, an ex-Air Force transport vehicle. Windows are tinted so you can’t see inside – legal, but barely. And by this time, the 225-watt solar panel sat on top. I had my video camera out on a tripod in the van shooting local wildlife when the opportunity appeared.

Cars and people came and went, parking around me and heading into work, which was located in a 5-story building that hosted many companies.

On the second day, a man walked up to my opened rear door, poked his head inside where I was working on the laptop sitting on a table. He said, “I gotta ask you man, what are you doing here?”

So, I told him. He was responding to several people who had told him about the dark blue, CIA-looking van sitting in the parking lot with a guy in it and a camera and a bunch of stuff on top. Some ideas people had were, ‘Is he surveilling the hotel next door? Is he hacking into our network? Is he CIA?’

I had to tell him my wife was working on the 4th floor. He checked it out, and since then everyone in her office called us CIA.

But this gets better.

Before heading off on our 3-week book tour in August with author Bob Saar (www.bobsaar.com), who wrote In Memory of David’s Buick (www.youtube.com/DavidsBuick), and musician Patrick Hazell (www.patrickhazell.com), we spent the night at a Walmart in Washington, Iowa.

Washington is a small community near Iowa City, the university town. Recent downpours in Burlington, Iowa at Bob Saar’s house and discovery of leaks in the van left us with the existing van carpeting in pretty bad shape, so we spent the day at the Washington Walmart replacing the carpet. We were there for several hours, buying the supplies and installing the carpet.

For the evening, we looked for a nice park nearby, but found none that was open where we wanted to stay. The area does have some really great scenery and countryside, but we didn’t want to contend with mosquitoes. So, we returned to our favorite stopping place – Walmart.

We parked out of the way in the lot, under the lights, and though the store was open all night, the lot was nearly empty all night. Now, we’ve always noticed the signs in Walmart parking lots that say the area is under video surveillance. We found out that’s pretty much a fact.

At about midnight, a bright light comes through our covered windows. The cops. We ignore them. They go away. About 3 a.m. the same light appears. The same cop. Well, we figured we’d better go talk to him. So, I popped out of the van and introduced myself.

We told him what we were doing, to which he replied, ‘I figured.’ Apparently, the Walmart folks imagined we’d been there for a couple days. We clarified we hadn’t. The van was a mysterious dark blue (ah, that CIA blue again). And the two small flashing LEDS on the car alarm indicator in the windshield looked very suspicious. Were we vanabombers? We both chuckled, but appreciated the awareness of the local folks and employees. In fact, I mentioned to Kirsti earlier that day while we worked away on the van in the parking lot that no one has come to ask us what we’re doing there. Obviously, I was way wrong about their situational awareness. These people care about strangers in town.

The young officer checked my ID and went to notify the Walmart folks. Since then, before we spend the night, we check with the Walmart folks if other RVers are not already parked.

But this gets even better.

Our 2nd stop on the book tour was in Hannibal, Missouri (pronounced Mizz ur ah); Hannibal is Mark Twain’s boyhood town. We interviewed Mark Twain, who appears at the Planter’s Barn Theater, shot some footage of him, and did our gig at The Main Street Wine Stoppe. The guys spent the night in a nearby B&B, and we spent the night in the van on the street.

About 3 a.m. (is this the witching hour?) we wake up to a voice outside talking. To our van.

“Hey man, what are you doing? Who are you? Are you DEA? You have to tell me if you’re DEA, man. That light is freaking me out, man.” (Interestingly, the car parked in front of us had a flashing red alarm light on their dashboard, too.)

A twenty-something man was walking up and down the street outside talking to our van. I went outside and told him we’re just sleeping and to go away. He stuck around and another guy showed up.

So I tried a more personable approach and explained what we were doing there – watching over the classic Buick parked behind where they were standing. All they could wonder was if we were cops or DEA. About the time we were ready to leave, another guy pulled up and parked. The first two pointed out the van to this new fella, who said, ‘Leave ’em alone. They’re just chillin.’ And they all went into a nearby house.

Vanlife lessons learned?

  • Talk to the Walmart security before staying the night.
  • Stay off main and side streets.
  • Be ready for a fast get away.
  • Cover up the alarm indicator light.

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