Melrose, Florida: A desolate swamp town in North Central Florida crawling with alligators and convicts, deep backwoods Christians, and somehow, me. Growing up there, I bounced around in split custody between an herb farmer father and a single mother who never quite found herself.
In 18 years, I lived in at least 10 different houses. From the attic of someone’s garage to trailers off a highway, and even to what we called The Big House, aptly named for the square footage which we filled by building a half-pipe for skateboarding in the living room. Because it represented a life I didn’t have, I fantasized about living in a planned suburban community with cul-de-sacs, neighbors, air-conditioning, and beige carpets. As a teenager, I regularly drove hours away to see friends or escape from things back home, sometimes even sneaking onto a flight out of state. Driving alone on those country roads was my first taste of autonomy and exploration. I’d find myself somewhere new, experimenting for the first time with different renderings of Molly, often sleeping in my car on the roadside before trying to make it back to school on time from hours away.
Everyone in my town knew I wouldn’t stick around longer than I had to.
In America, we’re known to seek out international destinations when we travel. We overlook the vast richness we have here and set our intentions on getting away. Traveling throughout my own country has been a gift in exposing the myriad of lives unfolding all around me at every moment. Changing my environments blurs the lines of who I think myself to be. I imagine each new place as if it were my home, and dream about restarting my life as someone else. Sometimes I like to splurge and role-play like I’m wealthy and complacent, living in linen without stains or wrinkles, pushing from my mind any threat of struggle. I dress the part, act like I belong, pretend to be entitled. This pandering in privilege really puts into perspective the economic disparity people are often seeking to look past, especially while vacationing. These reminders are paramount for me.
Having grown up in a family with low-income, finding opportunities to explore my potential and purpose involved a lot of playing pretend like this. Finding ways to slip into different realities and imagine them as mine not only allowed me to explore my values and limits but transcend the fixed understanding of myself.
Speaking more personally, the sense of identity that takes form within me is only possible with help from my environment. The social and political ecology are nutrients that help me grow. Where I grew up was so rural and isolated that the chances for encounter were slim. I rarely collided with fresh faces, unique ideas, or doorways to something new. In that absence, I found I’m drawn to opportunities where I can be immersed in other rhythms. Plugging into communities along the way helped me to avoid getting trapped in a bubble. It’s opened up more possibility for collaboration and brushing up against the world as it turns. I want to be exposed to something visceral. I want to collide with the lives of others.
The formation of my own identity has come from discovering my potential through the diverse access I have. Friends along the way have helped me recognize how privileged I am to be accepted so universally. I don’t take this for granted. Despite the limited resources I grew up with, my education and grammar embolden my acceptance into intellectual and professional spaces as needed. Separately, my resilience and adaptability, allow me in alternative spaces and experiments in communal living.
Identity, to me, is not the fixed notion we often assign to it. Its edges are fluid and thus we are porous. Thinking on the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, I’ve strived to understand myself and others as having the capacity to affect and be affected as a means of progressing. I seek to approach everything through the lens of potential. Through travel we are granted the gift of dissimilarity, and can thus harness the permeability of identity, expanding our understanding of ourselves and the world.
Over time, I’ve come into my strength as a bridge between worlds, and this may too be my purpose. It’s not possible for everyone to glide in-between spaces so seamlessly. People have barriers that prevent their admittance. Sadly these discriminatory barriers are often rooted in a general lack of understanding or exposure to the Other.
As a white, cishet, American woman situated in the middle class, I can’t overlook the passage I’m granted. It’s not safe or available to everyone. My mobility has allowed me to witness and experience diversity domestically and beyond lines of culture, class, race, and religion. Each new environment positions me differently for understanding myself in ways impossible to access in a routine and stationary life. This broadening allows me to also see the depth in others, too, with their own unique capacities and identities.
Most of my itinerant years haven’t been laced with glamor, but instead digging deeper into what’s akin to the way I grew up. Frugality taught me a lot about need and desire, about my tendency to oscillate between epicurean and gritty, about wanting so much more. My sense of identity has always been pliant like this. It’s in a dynamic life that we stretch and refresh our orientation within the world. I want to know myself as malleable, adaptable.
Sometimes what I want is to fully escape my identity and start anew. Sometimes I imagine down to the details of what my life would be like living in x place, or with x job, or x family. It’s usually existing in a world of the have’s instead of the have-nots. I picture myself with fertile land and a house with space to spread out. There’s usually a boat on the water and a family in the image, and we all have food on the table. In this fantasy, I don’t have to work for wages and am instead learning to make things and focusing on being there for everyone I love. Other times I think about communal luxury and imagining that my friends and I take over all the castles and hotels and open them for everyone to experience abundance.
When I started riding freight trains, it was out of desperation for a disruption to my routine that I could execute in the short term. I needed my calendar all smashed up, to cut ties with my material mooring. It dawned on me that I’d spent years trying to manifest control to make up for what felt like a loss of agency in my childhood. Everything about riding freight imperils control and security. In a force opposing travel itineraries, you’re pushed to submit to delay, failure, patience, chance, sometimes waiting in a ditch full of trash for days in order to catch out. Through this, I’m challenged to question my comfort and am humbled by the lesson. It’s the opposite of comfort. There’s nothing promising you won’t be soaked from the rain in the humid South or baked by the sun crossing the desert, battered by the wind along the gorge, or blanketed in snow. I can liken it most closely to my experience with meditation and psychedelics.
On most trips, I stay on the train for upwards of 30 hours, but they’re spent differently than a day outside of this space. The changing landscapes and lighting demand a loosened grip on linear time. Like the delirious state from which one wakes from a nap, I lose my sense of the hours and days. There’s nowhere that I need to be, and nowhere else that I could be. To move by freight is to be exposed to what we’re often overlooking. Rail lines cut through landscapes and slice through cities, revealing much of what goes unseen. Trains will take you deep into landscapes no car or sidewalk could. They run along the backside of cinderblock walls gating off communities, revealing a view of the literal other side of the tracks. My personal purpose feels like it stems from this seeing.
The people I’ve met through traveling this way are all kin in some way, afflicted by an insatiable thirst. I’ve spent years wondering what would quench my own. A bridge between worlds can never be fully situated in either. However, it can amass more witnesses and host an ecology of its own. I sometimes forget that roots grow differently depending on the species of tree. Some dig deep while others stretch far and wide, right beneath the surface. In this reaching, there is room for both the local and global. Like roots, I pivot slightly with each new encounter toward unending self-realization. From the squat to the yacht, I’ll be forever growing.