It’s 2:36 P.M. I’m dehydrated. I lean weakly against a metal railing outside a Nevada gas station while I eat the rest of a breakfast burrito. I gaze wearily at my car, the silver paint flickering in the desert sun. Slowly, I mutter out loud to no one: “I miss my friends.”
Three days before, I left a community. People that I lived, worked, danced, sweat, and cried with all summer. They serenaded me with flutes and drums and a saxophone as I drove down the gravel driveway. I drove to the city: Columbia, Missouri. I visited a good friend I’d known and worked with for years. I said goodbye to him and headed west.
At this point I was no stranger to travel. The year before, I set off on The Radical Mapping Project tour. We visited more than fifteen different cities. We met and interviewed more people than I can count. Before that, I ping-ponged around the country, not living anywhere longer than six months. I lived on a couch, in my car, with my parents, alone in a house with a slanted floor.
But this time around I felt like a plant with my roots ripped out of the ground: naked, vulnerable, drifting, displaced. Somewhere in the desert, heat beating down on my sweaty fingers as they held the steering wheel in place, I realized, I am tired of this.
I was tired of the continuous “new-ness” of everything. The way that I formed sudden but often shallow connections with the places I went and the people I met. I was tired of never having the chance to let those connections deepen. I missed being able to know people over a period of years, to the the point where they were predictable, tried and true. I missed watching the seasons shift in one place. I longed to understand a town, a community, by seeing it weather time and change. I yearned to grow a garden of my own, rather than just dropping in and helping others with theirs.
My life lacked depth. I’d had a variety of experiences, seen lots of places, and learned lots of things — but every experience felt limited by my mobility and lack of time. As soon as I got comfortable somewhere, and got closer to deeper learning with myself and others, my time was up. It was time to keep moving. I left all the people I’d come to know and depend on, and I left a hole in each community I departed.
The mobility that characterizes modern times impedes community building. When people are coming and going all the time, it can be challenging to form bonds with the amount of strength needed to effect positive change in a place. Interdependency can’t happen if all our relationships are shallow. Instead, loneliness and individualism prevail.
As a culture, we have some special narratives about drifting in this way. We go off to travel and “strike out on our own.” We go to look for things: fulfillment, connection, learning, perspective. Our stories idealize the experience of travel, of constant movement. On the Road is a classic example. More recent stories like Eat, Pray, Love, and Wild highlight that this ideal still rules the American mind. We idolize the opportunity to escape, to “find ourselves” somewhere else. And we admire the ruggedness of those that do — they become cultural heroes.
“What if deep friendships are the real life-changing experiences we’re looking for?”
Each of the protagonists from these books left home for their own reasons — to experience new things, to find fulfillment, to heal. They left to learn things about themselves and the world. But what if the real test of someone’s character, the real radical learning, comes from putting down roots? Putting effort into building relationships, communities, and solid social skills is challenging. This takes commitment and perseverance. Community both demands and facilitates personal growth, as it asks you to adapt to the needs and quirks of others. Strong relationships with others can also be fulfilling and help hold space for the healing we need to do. What if deep friendships are the real life-changing experiences we’re looking for?
I realized this was the case for me. I committed to putting down roots and cultivating stronger relationships with the town I live in, the land I live on, and the people I live near. I chose to do this in my hometown, on occupied Awaswas territory known as Santa Cruz, California.
Staying in place can be challenging, especially in this time of housing crises and real estate grabs across the U.S. Santa Cruz is the least affordable housing market in the U.S. Many long-time locals are getting pushed out as tech workers from the Silicon Valley move into the area and drive up prices. The topography of my community is changing quickly. Longstanding businesses are closing, and new shops catering to the wealthy pop up like weeds in the downtown strip. I left Santa Cruz fleeing this change — but I’ve seen it in most other American cities I’ve visited. I began to think about a quote on a poster which hung in the lounge of my academic department at UC Santa Cruz. It featured an image of a car loaded up with people and possessions, and read:
“Will it be any better the next place you go? Organize for fair wages and affordable housing NOW!”
It hasn’t been much better in other places. So I made a choice to come back, stay put for a while, and work to mitigate the housing crisis. I want to make my town somewhere that I, and other people who grew up here, can live again.
So here I am, staying still in a town that so many people are leaving and getting driven from. I go to community events, I work on projects with my friends, I do co-counseling classes, I greet people on the streets. I still discover new things all the time. I am working to build those deep relationships, to create for myself not just a physical home, but a home among people. Doing this takes a lot of work, time, self-investigation, and communication. But I feel like I’m getting more out of it than I ever got from a transient life.