When you let go, life will guide you.

How living in a snowed-in van helped me find my way.

I’ve always had a need to control a situation, call it a yearning for independence or some sort of quest to prove that I am capable. When time ran out on my first attempt at Hollywood, I had to give that up.

A year of interning for free turned into minimum wage, two years of office slave work, and three years as a Production Assistant left me nowhere. I was just buying time with each job, waiting for my big break.

That break never came.

One night, camping beneath the stars, my girlfriend and I decided we were done with Los Angeles. The endless grind beneath the smog, the haunt of the helicopter, and the vast loneliness that only traffic can bring finally broke both of us.

We needed to find what it was we were missing in our lives, so we spent our savings on a campervan and the rest on a lap around the country. We returned to our hometown of Reno, Nevada completely broke and jobless.

Initially, our friends and family members were happy to see us and hear about the jaunt around the country. But after a while, they became too welcoming.

The hometown trap was sprung and it took us by surprise, no picket fence or baby would settle our guts. We hadn’t even gotten started, life was only beginning for us and that proved a terrible anomaly for those around us. We were in need of space.

The winter was bearing down on us and the van wasn’t winterized. The colder it got the more we lost hope, with no money to run and no place to go we had to compromise. My girlfriend found a job selling tickets at a ski area and luckily enough they needed a night watchman, this gave us a parking spot that came with a bathroom and a place to plug the van in.

On Halloween, we put the van up on blocks and the first snow came November second. Winter came suddenly, freezing off those afternoons of warm sun. All that lay ahead of us were dark, cold nights. We were snowed in.

Our propane was broken so we had to rely on a space heater. Stashing a car in Reno at the beginning of our road trip gave us wheels while stuck in the mountains. We wheeled into Reno, spending a week’s pay on preserving the van. We poured antifreeze in the pipes of the water system and hooked up a thermometer so we wouldn’t freeze ourselves.

Our bed was a cozy burrito of warmth, sleeping in our sleeping bags inside of a double sleeping bag, for the cold nights we had an electric blanket stuffed inside.

I was forming a crippling addiction to screenwriting, which was fed through the night and slept off during the days. Life as a nightwatchman required a few passes through the lodge at night which doubled as a bathroom break. The toilets were cold and the halls were haunted making each lap a nerve-racking journey.

It was assumed that our gesture of speeding off in a van together was romantic but we soon realized that those around us considered it a failure, people were forming good lives and here we were off inhabiting a domicile on four wheels out back of a ski lodge.

To them, we were refugees from a failed dream in California and our resistance to the status quo was shameful.

While helping my father in law with yard work he recommended I be an air traffic controller. “Its great for someone without a career!” He told me with a smile on his face. That was the last of the fair suggestions, it only got worse as the winter set in. Suddenly we had a lack of ambition and our status in the community fell. Every interaction with a friend or family member ended on a job-related theme. The prospects that were out there, what we could be doing rather than wasting away in the mountains.

When I claimed writing as a career I was met with scoffs and chuckles.

The more snow that fell, the more our situation became permanent and the doubt crept in with stinging reality. Busy days at the hill people would lean on the van and smoke or try to see inside. I would be sleeping or writing and hear them, doing everything I could to not make a sound or shake the van. It made me anxious about any social interaction, I avoided all of those around me as much as I could. The distance to the toilet became too far and I resorted to a bottle which filled me with shame. I knew I’d hit rock bottom when someone saw me pouring my piss jug out in the snow.

Being snowed in and fearful of those around you is akin to imprisonment. The only thing that I had was the world I was creating on the page and those sweet memories of California. The eighteen hour days, the hours wasted in traffic, and all the heartbreak in between was painted over in gold and I dreamed of the world beyond the snowy mountains.

With no funds to leave and no reason to stay, I found myself begging for some divine proof that we were on the right track.

It was late January and I found myself saying good morning to the sunset once again, doing my duty of salting the ice out front of the lodge. I heard the clanging of snow chains and looked up to see a Prius rolling toward me. The California plates made me homesick, I was surprised to see a loafer extend out of the door. I was soon shaking the hand of a producer, the fading twilight making it feel extremely surreal.

Fresh from Los Angeles and delayed by snow he informed me that he was producing a four day B-unit shoot to wrap up a feature film and the script called for a ski area. He also happened to need a local Second Camera Assistant, my three years as a Production Assistant had paid off. It felt like a miracle to have four days of work on a feature film.

Several months had passed since I was last on a film set and the fear was enormous. My outgoing energetic self had left me since the snow came, the social anxiety was winning and I had never worked in the camera department before. But when a wild chance comes along, you’ve got to grin and bear it.

The first day was the hardest day, we were fighting with a never-ending snow storm which proved quite difficult in protecting the camera. Lost in a flurry of new stresses and worries I quickly forgot about my life at the ski hill and remembered how great working in a collaborative atmosphere was. We got through the blizzard day and my superiors seemed happy with me. I drove home with my passion for filmmaking reignited in my gut.

The other three days flew by and I returned to my life as nightwatchman but this time I had a renewed sense of self-worth. The shoot reminded me of every reason I lived in Los Angeles, having a great time with the crew only solidified in my mind the potential of moving back and with four days of a Camera Assistant’s pay I had the means to do so.

A Prius with chains clattering on the snowy peaks of Nevada was my sign to return to Hollywood.

During a twelve degree night, my girlfriend and I plotted our escape and our opportunity came in late March. The snow melted enough to change our flat tire and the ice thawed enough to gain access to our dead battery. We convinced the mountain manager to pull us out with a snowcat and in a handful of days, we were southbound.

Once again leaving our hometown in the rearview, headed for the land of milk and honey.

Just before crossing the San Gabriel Mountains, in the shade of a Joshua Tree I proposed to my girlfriend. Our relationship survived a long summer of travel and an even longer winter snowed in, with the transition to the city ahead of us it only felt right to commit to each other.

You know its time to return to Los Angeles when you find a way to miss the traffic. Put me on the 405 at sunset and let the days pass by, goodbye to the hoot of the owl and hello to the roar of the police chopper.

When I first moved to California I found every reason to hate it, but it took us moving home to realize that we weren’t done with the city. It was hitting the restart button that allowed us to open ourselves to change, Los Angeles didn’t change much while we were gone but we certainly did. Returning with fresh hearts and eyes opened us to better opportunities than before.

It’s true that you don’t know what you’ve got until its gone and you never get what you need on the first take.

Cameras by trade, writer by plight. A story obsessed thunderstorm junkie armed with a journal and fueled by music. | Denver, CO ⛈🏜🏔✨ scottjcarnahan.com

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