We are making a big move at the end of the summer, so travel has been on my mind. This move is different than my past travels. I have a real home here, for the first time since I was a kid, and I am going to move with my tiny family and establish a new home elsewhere. I’m not desperately seeking anything, I’m not trying to escape anything, and my accomplishments do not depend upon being on the road.
The sort of travel I’ve experienced involved getting rid of nearly everything I owned which didn’t fit in a van or backpack, having a fairly open-ended timeline and very little money, and maybe having a working car. That is how I traversed most of the U.S. between 2001-2009, via freight train,* van, and the occasional bus, certainly without a hotel on the itinerary. (When well-meaning people try to advise me on how to pack a bag or how to “simplify” my life, I can only smile and nod patiently).
Silkscreen self-portrait sticker on an empty whiskey bottle.
Travel by freight offers at least as many charms as dangers. Unlike road travel in the US, freight avoids the endless homogeneous strip malls, billboards, and truck stops, for starters. To this day I have gaps in my pop-culture knowledge regarding the periods of time I got around by train. The background noise of the general media is something you pick up without even trying, simply by being in cities, to a much, much greater degree than we realize.
My first cross-country trip at age nineteen was essential to my formation. I had gotten rid of most of my belongings, cellphones weren’t yet common, and I was completely unsure of where I would end up when it was all through. I wasn’t very aware of a “train kid” subculture at that point, so it was up to me and the little books and politics I’d gathered to develop a pride in poverty and austere living during those moments when I was eating garbage or sleeping on the side of a cemetery road by a soybean field outside of Chicago while bugs landed on my face all night, for example.
The living-room of the very hospitable and friendly Disgraceland house,
The photos in this post are from later, more intentional and well-scheduled outings. For those, I had tour-dates and obligations across the country, and a clear mission plan. But my initial trip as a teenager was not like that at all. It was a more aimless, desperate affair, even if I did learn about myself in the process. To be away from regular day-to-day life attracted me very much, but contrary to the (weirdly persistent depression-era) idea of the “happy hobo”, it was plenty of work. It is hard work to be safe, warm, fed, stay moving, and keep your spirits up without the stabilizing forces of responsibilities and consistent work projects. Which is probably why, on that first trip, I immediately established little routines in the midst of chaos, such as strict eating times and regular daily reading and writing. I mended my clothes, cleaned my fingernails, packed and re-packed my bags to keep them tidy and occasionally cleaned up in the punk flophouses that dotted my stops in the cities.
Beautiful clutter at Disgraceland, Minneapolis, 2009
I don’t want to tell travel tales here though, but focus on the why rather than the how. The positive, influential parts of that trip were found in the individual episodes, and in the inner strength I mustered. But parallel to all that were my darker overall motivations. A brave and grand adventure is one thing. Utter abandon is more complicated. A practice of abandon, of deliberate poverty, must paradoxically have direction and intention, or it isn’t a practice at all, but merely desperation. Maybe a Carmelite nun knows this, but as a crust punk kid, I did not.
There’s a common notion that there are two types of homeless people: the ones who are genuinely in dire straits, and those who are intentionally sleeping rough- who “want to” be homeless. I’ve seen people sagely nod and exclaim, “but you see, some of them want to be out there! They like it!” This is surely comforting to the housed, and brings to mind the tradition of identifying with the perpetrator (in this case, a fragmented community and dysfunctional economic and social system). I believe these sentiments are part of a narrative of blaming the homeless for their situation, though in this case, the very soft and “progressive” version of doing so. When defending such “choices” and “agency,” one risks discounting possible coercive forces involved. It’s the liberal version of dismissing people as simply not being able to get their act together and wanting (ie deserving) anything bad that happens to them.
Based on direct experience, I obviously disagree with this black and white assessment. It may be true that some people do want to be out there. There were times on tour when it was certainly true for me, and necessary for the project. And obviously poverty can be a deeply meaningful, even holy choice. But in the case of a person feeling an overwhelming anxiety to the point of dis-assocation and self-destructive behavior at the possibility of having an apartment, bills, and a schedule, that person is very probably unwell. Their “choosing” to find a perverse and tragic kind of safety in danger is probably the result of a broader and messier problem which does not belong to them alone. And obviously there is a greater urgency in assisting the homeless person in immediate crisis, the children, abused women, those who need immediate medical help and mental health resources, and so on, before the person claiming to be happy with their situation. There are still other varieties and degrees of homelessness, encampment or squat living which take an enormous amount of organization and community building and aren’t necessarily bad either. But I simply question what a “willingness” to forgo shelter can even mean in situations when a person feels a desperate alienation and confusion at the prospect of participating in society and thinks that blindly fleeing from it is their only alternative. A very real, inescapable, unbearable and frankly often justified anxiety can reduce a person to totally abandoning everything they know and own, even while young, able-bodied, and apparently sane, because they look at their options and do not understand how to find a place in the world, and just cannot find a way to function.
When when living in a shrub, I was committed totally to a strange ideal of transience that I interwove with radical politics, and there was a goodness in there, a resistance, and an attempt at a vision. I didn’t see it as youthful adventure or a way to gain punk rock cool points, I saw it as the first step in a process that would surely lead me…somewhere, to discover something. And I found the idea of having a job and apartment to be totally inconceivable at the time, simply impossible, not in an abstract idealistic way but to the point of having a nervous breakdown over the prospect. Compounding this was an abusive boyfriend and poor support system. Was I making a deliberate choice? Partially Yes, partially No, and mostly The Best I Could, I suppose.
My quasi-mystical, politically motivated ideal was that I wanted nothing, beyond nothing, to travel and keep moving beyond and beyond nothing. Not to have a story to take back home or to tell you now, but to simply get lost and lost and lost, to go behind some little curtain in this world by moving along and refusing to become attached to anything. It’s something I am still trying to unravel and write about. It is complicated and difficult. It was a search for something true, some kind of integrity, an attempt to lift a veil. I still think it was the wrong way to go about finding that something, and that I needed a different kind of support and guidance and encouragement than the sort I was getting, but I know I was trying to build some kind of ideal that had integrity and true intentions. This story here was the why, and the how, but it would take me a little longer to find the what.
*Don’t do this. It’s illegal and you can lose a limb or die.
Self-portrait with boots gleaned from a free box in Minneapolis, repaired and decorated by myself with leather sewing assistance from a house-mate.
“Desert Mothers.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Oct. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_Mothers.
Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1992.
Talking Heads. This Must Be the Place: Naive Melody. 1983.
Citing this page:
Solomon, Alana. “This Must Be the Place.” Ortolana Studio & Press. Ortolana Studio & Press, 08 June 2017.