I woke to the sound of a car door slamming. It was pitch black in the van. I felt around for my phone and checked the time. 1:45 AM.
We were camping in Door County, Wisconsin, out on the Door Peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan. In six months of van travel, we’ve had many glorious nights of legal dispersed camping on public land, usually in National Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management areas. Unfortunately, there’s not a ton of public land east of the Rockies, but we had found a site listed online as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property. It had three or four positive reviews – a nice place to spend a night in a small RV or camper.
I laid still and listened to the crunch of footsteps in the gravel as they worked a full circle around our vehicle.
A beam of light burst into the van, pausing on our duffel bags and cooking gear for a moment before it reached the two of us in our resting place for the evening.
I shook Daniel awake. “We’ve got company,” I would have announced if our lives were an action movie. “We’re getting woken up by the police” were my actual words.
There was a knock at the window. “Police department!”
My suspicions were confirmed. Ah, fuck.
My conversation with Officer Whatshisname was an exercise in privilege.
Once it was established that we had been sleeping and intended on spending the night, he informed me that we were actually on city property, and that overnight parking or camping was prohibited by ordinance.
“Are you guys living out of your vehicle?” he asked, as if that were pertinent to the situation. Did he intend to be a hard-ass if we were down on our luck?
I explained that we were road-tripping to Michigan for a friend’s wedding, camping along the way, and that we had found the place recommended online. I apologized for our error and told him we planned to be out by sunrise. The before sunrise part was a lie, but I figured it was the best story.
He took my driver’s license and had me wait at the van. “Shit,” I wondered, “where are we going to sleep tonight?”
The cop returned a couple minutes later.
“I don’t mind if you guys are out here tonight,” he informed me, handing back my license and confirming that we planned to leave in the morning. “I’ll radio to the other officers and let them know not to bother you.”
“Thanks, Officer. Sorry for the trouble.”
It was after 2 AM by the time I got back in the van, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep anytime soon.
As I laid there, I wondered about how the interaction might have gone in different circumstances. If I were a person of color. If we were experiencing homelessness. If I didn’t speak English. If I weren’t wearing an expensive down jacket.
Would the officer have been so merciful in all those cases? Or did we just get off easy because we’re rich white American men?
It didn’t even occur to me until later that night that we could have gotten a ticket.