When I was in Florida in Decem-ber, we met a girl in a restaurant parking lot next to the beach. She looked to be about 19, certainly no older than early 20s. She lived in her van with a miniature horse. It was just a basic van, not an extra-large one or a specially adapted one, just a van. It was more or less divided in half on the inside – half for her stuff (cot, clothes, books) and half for the horse (hay and harness).
When we met her, she was sitting on the ramp, smoking a cigarette with the tiny horse standing beside her, hooked to a cart. Where she fit the cart into the van I have no idea but she was evidently a consummate packer.
She was a very pretty girl – obviously of mixed race heritage – I’d guess black and white and Asian all mixed together to form an appealing combination. She wore her long black hair in dreadlocks and spoke with a slight lilting accent, perhaps Jamaican or Bahamian. She told us she supported herself by giving rides to children coming out of the restaurants. She said parents didn’t always want to stop but usually they couldn’t resist when their kids said, “Oh, look at the little horse. Can I have a ride? Please!”
I would have liked to talk to her longer but she wasn’t especially forthcoming. For all I know, she had a fine house on one of the Keys that she retired to when her day job ended. But I don’t think so. I think she lived in her van with her horse.
And that got me to wondering what that would be like. I tried to put myself in that position but I simply couldn’t imagine it. I have been called adventuresome at times because I was always willing to take a flyer to some new state to see what was there while most of my friends stayed pretty much where they’d always been. But at the end of every highway was a house or apartment, a job, a school system, more or less the same lifestyle I’d had in Indiana only with bayous instead of creeks and live oaks instead of maples and azaleas instead of lilacs.
At heart, I am a conformist, so living in a van with a tiny horse simply doesn’t compute. For all that we talk about America “the land of the free,” most of us, given a choice between security and freedom, will take security without a second thought. We will spend the majority of our days working at jobs we despise for the security of a paycheck. We will stay married to people we don’t even like anymore because the thought of trying to make it alone is so frightening.
I considered the girl and her horse. The Florida Keys offers plenty of public parking so that wouldn’t be a problem. And lots of state parks where, I assume, you could take the horse for walks to let it graze on grass. And several of those parks have bathroom facilities. You could fish every day of the week and there are other natural foods, too, like coconuts and berries of various kinds. It is almost always warm.
So was my girl happy with her unconventional lifestyle? Did it feel care-free to her to live on her town terms? Or was she forced into it by circumstances? Did she lie in her cot at night and long for a plasma TV?
I will never know. America has always romanticized its outlaws and the colorful characters who have the courage (or foolishness) to take on the conventional. The fact is though that most of us don’t want to be those people.
Vicki Williams is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached through the newspaper at firstname.lastname@example.org.