In 2006, Becky Blanton decided to make a radical life change. She wanted adventure, and she set out to be a full-time camper, moving into her van and parking mostly on forest roads. But then she lost her job, and she had no choice but to continue living in her van. She parked on public lands throughout Colorado, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia for a year before she found a stable housing situation.
If she had to be homeless, Blanton said she actually felt safer in the woods than in the city. “The streets are dangerous,” she told me. “In the woods you might have bears, but there are enough places to find shelter that you won’t have to worry.”
Each year, hundreds of people like Blanton spend time living on America’s vast federal lands. Some wilderness dwellers consider themselves nomads and choose to live without a fixed address. Some are anti-government separatists of the Oregon militia’s ilk. Others fit the more traditional definition of homelessness: They are without a place to live due to personal or economic hardship, and the woods provide them shelter. And while the wide-open land provides space for these people to settle, the presence of long-term campers presents challenges to public land management agencies: Their purpose is land conservation, not housing, and they’re not equipped to keep up with the demands of human inhabitancy.