I did not choose travel.
Travel happened to me frequently when I was young, most often without my permission. Three cities. Ten houses. Two middle schools. Three high schools. A thousand different phone numbers.
In the final days of ninth grade I came home and found my mom in tears. Crying because we were being evicted and we had to be out the next morning.
I couldn’t understand her tears. Even then, at 14, I was too practical.
There was work to be done, moving everything into storage in one night. And after, I had exams to study for. I went to my room and packed my things, then moved methodically through the rest of the house.
The next day, when I went to school, I didn’t know where I would go when the final bell rang. I didn’t talk to my friends or look my teachers in the eyes. I knew that, after I took exams, I would not be seeing them again.
At the time, I viewed travel as a disability. I thought it was breaking me in a way that would leave me perpetually homeless and friendless. Rendering it impossible for me to form meaningful, long-lasting connections. And because I was learning to feel less each time it happened, it was effectively making me less human.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Fast forward three years. When I finally went to college, I vowed that I would continue to get good grades so that I could get a good job, so that I could have a home I would never have to leave. I would never move again and my phone number would always stay the same.
I was lonely at first. Two friends from high school went with me to the University of Michigan but I had not known them for long, because I had only attended school with them for two years.
I did not think we would last as friends, so I set out to meet new people. It was hard to do as an introvert, but by this point in life, I’d had lots of practice being the new girl.
I met many people who would become good friends. Well, for a semester. Or a year or two. Some even for the full four years. I knew from experience that many of the relationships I was building would last only for as long as we had class together, or were in the same club, or on the same intramural team.
Then one day, I met this other freshman girl at the bus stop. She was from Ivory Coast. We struck up an immediate friendship.
I thought she was like me—lonely and poor. I might have been right that she was lonely, but she was far from poor. I was very surprised to learn that, financially, she wanted for almost nothing. Growing up, she had even had servants. I learned so much from her travels.
After college, I split for Phoenix, Arizona. I don’t remember putting much thought into it. I loved Ann Arbor, but I couldn’t picture myself staying there permanently. My family had moved again from Grand Rapids to Lansing, and I didn’t want to go there.
My junior year in high school, I had started writing a psychological bildungsroman about a girl who fled her chaotic life in Michigan to start fresh in Arizona. I’d only made it 70% of the way through the manuscript, realizing that there was only so much about Arizona I could manufacture in my head. Maybe that had something to do with my choosing to move there five years later.
My style of travel is more of a mini-immigration. James Clifford (author of Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century) describes experiences like mine as “experience[s] of dwelling.” I am a traveler who likes to “stay and dig in.”
I stayed in Phoenix and dug in for five and a half years. I fell in love with the beautiful friends I made there and the astonishing landscapes. I finished the manuscript. And then I left.
Now, I write from Florida.
Catherine Watson’s poignant story about a Minnesotan woman, a mini-immigrant like me, who temporarily found home on Easter Island realized her calling was, not to stay, but to “go away, have experiences, find stuff out and then come back to tell it to the folks at home.”
I consider writing my home. When I go away, I will come back to this blog and tell you about it, whether I go to a new city, a new country, or a new world.
The travel I am most interested in is the kind that changes people and places. I still go back to Michigan once a year, when possible. Each time, I find that I have been changed by the places I’ve been to. I find that the people I’ve left in Michigan have changed too, for usually they have been on journeys of their own. Physical journeys. Intellectual journeys. Spiritual journeys.
Steve Clark (editor of Travel Writing and Empire: Postcolonial Theory in Transit) writes that travelers are “susceptible to perpetual redefinition through encounter.” I am constantly redefining myself based on the people, and landscapes, and cultures I encounter. Each time I find a new place to call home, and each time I leave it, I carry it with me.
I did not choose to travel in the beginning. It happened to me, and I grew into it. It did not break me or sever me from humanity. It built me up and gave me connections that transcend time and distance and location.
My two friends from high school lasted through college and beyond. I’ve even reconnected with a few more friends from my several high schools. I have a best friend in Ivory Coast. Another in Arizona. A few in Michigan. I keep the same phone number so that we can always reach other.
I visit them where they live, and these places too are my homes.