My first attempt at running away from home was in my mid-teens. I had just acquired my first backpack, camp stove, and sleeping bag, second-hand for sixty dollars from a man in Columbus, Nebraska where my family then lived.
The very first time I put it on I remember the sensation of autonomy, of having everything I needed to live resting on my back. It was as freeing and invigorating as taking my first road trip to Prescott and Flagstaff a number of years later, once we had moved to Phoenix.
I do not recall if I was upset with my parents (or if they were upset with me), but I do recall putting everything I needed for a few days into my Coleman external frame pack. I believe I wore camouflage sweatpants, a large red hoodie, and hi-top shoes.
My intent was just to walk north, out of town and into the country side, returning in a few days … or never. I walked from downtown Columbus a few blocks past the high school, zig-zagging north and west through residential neighborhoods, north and west until I hit the road which passed the man-made lake whose bottom was thick with brown algae ooze that squeezed between swimmer’s toes. The Columbus High track team called the loop bounded by this road on the west and one that ran along the hill top to the north the “Big Beer Can”, some half dozen or eight miles in all, if I recall correctly.
I walked along the road into the afternoon. Cars passed in both directions, passenger faces pressed to the windows wondering who I was and where I was going. Nebraska was simply not the place where a teenage boy was likely to be seen walking with a backpack, bound for farmers’ fields. It was likely to cause a stir. I recall the weight of the stares, part of me wanting to turn back for fear I would be recognized and my parents called by a concerned neighbor. But inside, a confidence grew which set me in motion a lifetime of exploration of the world, more often than not, alone.
I didn’t even stay overnight, let alone vanish for a few days, my upbringing invoking too much guilt for sleeping on private land, the fear not of being caught but of bringing shame on the same family which I had left just hours earlier. I walked back home that same day. It didn’t matter that I didn’t leave for good for I had not failed. Instead I gained confidence that I would be ok no matter where I went, no matter how I traveled. A backpack was all I needed and everything would be ok. I began to dream of traveling to places I had never been.
The second time I ran away from home was in 2004. I had worked for two years straight, never a day in which I did not check email or log on to the Internet. I had nearly died inside, the joy of entrepreneurship gone. I had no option but to leave or I was likely to lose all of me. I asked my office manager and friend Amanda if I could just be gone for a while. She encouraged me. I drove to Mexico where I spent two weeks with a friend and then flew to Cuba without cell phone, laptop, or credit card. I lived with a host family who provided food, friendship, and a sharp machete which I used to cut trails to the caves and cliffs. It was one of the most memorable times in my life, to just be a climber, each day shared with other climbers who owned next to nothing but made time to smile, sing, and dance. I made life-long friends whom I missed so dearly that I returned a month later for another two weeks. That was an incredible, rejuvenating journey which will some day invoke a full telling … but again, I came home.
A little more than two weeks ago I ran away from home again. This time for good. My house is on the market, thirteen years of love, labor, and vision for how a one hundred year old house could be made energy efficient now a gift to the next owner.
In seventeen years the longest I remained in Colorado was, I believe, no more than ninety days. Now that I am free I think of nothing but finding a place to settle down, a safe space to just stop for a while and be. Despite my car packed to the roof with books, clothing, camera, climbing, biking and camping gear, the backpack is nearly empty, the intangibles all but let go. It was the breath of ghosts which blew me away, north and west again, this time across state and country lines.
One thousand five hundred miles later I arrived in Squamish at 10:30 am on a Sunday morning. Beneath the campground sign was another written in marker on cardboard, “FREE 6 MAN TENT. WET BUT IN GOOD CONDITION!” I set it up and moved in, my nylon condominium in the forest of British Columbia. As with the first time I drove through Canada en route to Denali National Park for a ten day solo back packing trip in the early nineties, I have been met by sincerely warm, genuine smiles and desire to know how I am doing.
This town of just fifteen thousand offers the diversity of a city with ten or twenty times its population. Sixty percent of its residents are under the age of forty, a completely new Squamish than two decades ago when the saw and pulp mills provided the majority of the jobs. I see the same people two, sometimes three times a day: yoga class in the morning, the cafe in the afternoon, and the brewery at night.
I have yet to go a day without hearing three or four languages spoken or met people from any one of a dozen countries. I have climbed with visitors from Norway, Mexico, Czech Republic, Alaska (which truly should be a country of its own), and enjoyed breakfast and dinner at the camp ground with people from all over Canada. This morning I spoke with a man in his late seventies who could trace his family heritage 350 years to some of the first Dutch settlers in South Africa, his sense of pride conveyed in his proud stand and hazel eyes–not of the travesty of conflict his people inflicted, but of the steadfast heritage in one place that he does represent.
I met the Vice Commodore of the marina and gained from the experience of the Squamish Yacht Club, my interest expressed in purchasing a boat on which to live, to sail the world. A little more than fifteen thousand people and yet there are three yoga studios, a weekly farmers’ market and community organic farm; a music school, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants in addition to the usual McDonalds and Wendys. The Home Depot, Walmart, five-plex movie theater, several sporting goods stores, and three large groceries cater to the home of the 2010 Winter Olympics Whistler just up the hill.
An ocean harbor, estuary hikes, world class mountain biking, bouldering, massive multi-pitch granite routes, and water sports within a walk of downtown. Snow capped peaks are visible from the community rec center hot tub, the indoor pool offering a diving board, ladder swing, climbing contraption suspended from the ceiling, and an arsenal of foam boats for kids to wrestle with and overtake. What more could you ask for? It feels like it could be home, some day.
For now, I am both running away from and at the same time seeking home.
But this time the place I seek is a space inside of me.