I wake up in a cheap motel off of the interstate, in a small anonymous town somewhere between Fort Laramie and Boise. It’s August 2015, the middle of summer, and I’m freezing. Motels always seem to overshoot the mark in comfort, temperature wise, but I’m grateful for the real mattress and the clean sheets. Most nights I sleep in the back of my van or on my friends’ couches. I’ve spent the last of my savings, minus a few dollars, on this room because let’s face it, I needed the shower. Later I’ll grab a muffin from the coffee shop next door and wash my clothes and sheets at a Laundromat, and then I really will be broke, not knowing where or when I’ll get my next decent meal. Don’t think I’m asking for sympathy. I’m not unemployed or homeless, at least not in the way you’re thinking of. I gave up my job and my apartment intentionally to travel full-time.
I’ve been travelling for two years now, and while I won’t say that I love every minute of it (all the driving gets a bit tedious), I will say that I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. A lot of people assume this is a temporary situation, that one day I’ll grow out of it and settle down. “I did that for a few years in my twenties,” they’ll say with condescending smiles, or “I should have done that after college instead of getting this job” if they’re younger, like there’s something stopping them from doing it now. Even my family does it sometimes. If there’s one thing I’m trying to do in this essay, it’s to express that this isn’t an extended vacation: it’s a viable and sustainable lifestyle. It’s not a phase; I’m not going to grow out of it, and I don’t have to. Just last month I met a woman in her sixties who’s been travelling her whole life, starting with her parents when she was a child. “I tried to be sedentary for a while,” she told me. “I lived just outside Miami for a few years in the 1980s with a guy I met. But it wasn’t the life for me. It’s not that I was unsuccessful. I just got homesick, for lack of a better word.” I knew exactly what she meant. That’s what’s beautiful about travelling. Everywhere is home.
From the ages of twenty-two to twenty-five, home was a small city apartment not much bigger than the van I live in now. Twenty-five in particular was a rough year for me. I was living in Los Angeles in 3076, trying to make it in the entertainment industry. Then my boyfriend and writing partner left me for an actress, and the show I was writing for was cancelled suddenly. After another slew of rejection letters, I finally accepted that the novel I’d been working on for three years would never find a publisher. I swallowed my pride and began making ends meet by working as a waitress. I remember one of my coworkers, a woman in her mid-thirties, who knew exactly what I was going through. She’d been doing what I’d been doing since she was my age. She laughed it off with phrases like “That’s show business!” I know she was trying to reassure me, but instead it drove me to panic. What if this was what “making it” looked like? What if I was doomed to waitress forever to support the work that I actually wanted to be doing?
I had a good cry over food truck tacos with my friend Ashley, who was in town for a medical conference. She’s one of those rare women my age who actually has her life together. She was finishing her residency, and was conducting exciting, groundbreaking research. She was always immaculately dressed, and had just gotten engaged to her wonderful boyfriend of five years, all before she was thirty. It was hard not to feel like a total failure compared to her. “I don’t even like LA!” I blubbered into my carnitas. “The only reason I’m here is because I thought this was what I had to do to be a writer, and I’m not ever going to be good enough!” She laughed gently and shook her head at me. She took a deep drag of her cigarette, leaned back on the bench, and let the antiseptic LA sun shine in her face. “You need to change your perspective, Rory. Maybe LA’s not good enough for you.”
It sounded like an empty sympathy gesture at the time, but I couldn’t forget it. A month later, a small electrical fire in my apartment destroyed my mattress and most of my clothes. It wasn’t totally catastrophic, but it was enough. Ashley was right. I deserved better than this. I was done with the rat race. But what was my alternative? The answer came to me almost immediately.
Like a lot of precocious teenagers, I’d read Life and Love on the Timeway when I was a teenager. Misnokov’s iconic journey has inspired a lot of road trips and travel tours across America, following in his footsteps. That, to me, never seemed to be in the spirit of the book, which is about finding your own way as much as it is about exploring history. Finding my own way was exactly what I needed. And where better to do that than on the timeway? Contrary to what some people think, you don’t need to be rich to live the lifestyle. Once you stop spending half your paycheck on rent, and stop caring about wearing the latest fashions, you don’t need to make a lot of money to cover the cost of food, fuel and wormhole tolls. I had enough saved up that I could travel for a year without earning anything. I decided that the best thing for me to do was go on a crazy, wild adventure that tested my boundaries and forced me to face my fears. So I sold what I had left, bought a sturdy van, and went for it. I won’t lie; it was scary at first. But once the year was up, I didn’t want to stop. So I haven’t.
I don’t have a traditional job like I used to, but I still make a decent living. I make my money doing odd jobs, for the most part. I sell articles every once in a while, retrieve old newspapers and artifacts for archivists, interview amazing and unique people, and sometimes harvest crops for a few weeks. I even moved moonshine once during Prohibition. But making money no longer takes up the majority of my waking life, and I never have to do a job I hate just to get by. I stick to small towns, mostly, places you’ve never heard of and eras that you would probably call boring. I meet people who’ve travelled the world, and people who’ve never gone further than twenty miles. I go to the big cities too, of course. I’ve been to San Francisco in the 1960s, New York in the 1920s, and Winnipeg in the 2030s. But nothing compares to those long expanses of pavement and plasma, with your window rolled down, letting it all wash over you.
I want to tell you about my friend Jay.
Jay is best described as the quintessential jill-of-all-trades. She can change a tire in under a minute, create phonograph discs with era appropriate tools, bridle a horse, and thread a film projection reel. She makes her living by selling clothes that she sews by hand using vintage textiles. She’s the most talented person I’ve ever met, and I dare anyone to say she’s wasting her potential.
I met her in an ice cream parlor in Atlanta in 1953. Bill Haley was playing on the radio, the teenagers there were all wearing poodle skirts, and I swear you’ll never find a better milkshake. I was chatting up the cute redheaded soda boy when Jay walked in. Her long blonde hair was perfectly coiffed in the modern style; her clothes were trendy and fit her perfectly. Every head in the parlor turned when she walked through the door, though mine for a different reason.
We don’t look any different to most people. We’re clean and well groomed and have decent social skills. But travellers have a way of picking each other out. People who live in the past have what Misnokov calls “a sort of pectin quality, gelatinous and sticky like jam. It adheres them to the walls of their own era and resists outside influence.” Jay cut through that jam like a knife, and we both felt an instant connection. It turns out we both grew up in neighboring suburbs just a decade apart. We’d read all the same books, seen all the same movies, and loved all the same music. We still meet up every few months or so. We don’t travel together, but we keep in constant contact. My favorite picture of us is one taken with her antique intertemporal tintype camera. We stood side by side on the top of the Empire State Building; her in 1999, and me in 1932. People assume my life must be lonely, but it’s the opposite. I meet new, amazing, unique people every day. I’m not tied down to certain social groups or relationships because I’m stuck in one particular city or linear time period.
So why stop? Why do we think that growing up means sacrificing our dreams and ambitions, our freedom? I’ve been there, and I can tell you that there’s whole centuries you’re missing out on. No, this life isn’t for everyone. But neither is the life we’ve all been sold. Maybe instead of worrying about buying a bigger house, or getting that promotion, or even publishing that book, we should all be worrying about whether it’s worth it to do things we hate now just for the chance to do something we love later. Take a chance on doing what you love now, while you still have time.
And next time you’re in Atlanta in 1953, stop by that ice cream parlor. You’ll never have a better milkshake in your life.
Aurora Durham is a writer and photographer. Her first novel, Girl Inelegant, is available from her website. She is currently working on a memoir about her experiences as a full-time time-traveller.
- I don’t know what’s worse; that somebody wrote this self-indulgent tripe, or that somebody published it.
- I wonder if the people who live this way realize how much their lifestyle depends on those of us who maintain the boring, sedentary lives that they look down on so much. You wouldn’t be able to live the life you do if there weren’t permanent towns or stable eras, if you didn’t have friends who choose to have a home you can sleep in. Maybe the reason people think it’s temporary is because they want to think the best of you, that you’ll grow out of this phase of taking without ever giving back.
- Thank you, Aurora, for this lovely piece. I’ve never travelled the way you do, but I love reading about other people’s unique experiences. I don’t judge you – to each her own! To everyone here just sitting and criticizing, don’t you have anything better to do? She’s not hurting anyone living this way. If you really loved your lives the way you say you do, her lifestyle wouldn’t bother you so much.
- So nobody’s going to talk about the Atlanta in 1953 thing? Anyone?