Home is a Fluid Place

Wet Zen in Valdez, AK.

An old jetty in Valdez, AK.

Photo: Drea Knufken

 

Seattle. October. Eight months since we left our home in Denver and moved into the Airstream. I’m walking down a steep slope, past a golf course and a soggy Twix wrapper, moss growing in sidewalk cracks. I am walking to a place of indulgence: a group class at the local YMCA, then an organic meal at the delicious Chaco Canyon Café. This workout, this meal, these are things I only get in cities. At home I cook.

Home, wherever that is. I’m a drifter, breathing exhaust from passing cars, passing an old man in a baseball cap saying “bless you” as he pushes his walker. I no more belong here than on a highway in the Yukon. We move, my husband and dog and I. The only walls we call our own are aluminum. We borrow land on borrowed time.

You can’t be a tourist forever. A tour implies you have a place to come home to. Carpets and food processors and big screens and your neighbor’s yappy dog. Maybe chaos, roommate quarrels or kid messes. But four walls nonetheless, your very own micro-world. A world that doesn’t move.

This sidewalk isn’t mine. This isn’t my city. Everywhere is my city. When I visit walls, they’re someone else’s. It makes me feel too light.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood refers to two kinds of freedom: free to and free from. Live on the road, and you’re free to explore almost anywhere. Live in a home, and you’re free from the worry about where to go next, and whether that new place is safe.

Like the weekend we took advantage of free camping on the mouth of the Knik River in Palmer, AK. We jokingly referred to it as the Redneck Riviera, because people like to party and drive their ATVs around on weekends. There are things you tolerate when the parking is free. Come Monday, it emptied out some, and I took the dog out for a walk. In one tall grove of trees, a guy was shooting his rifle. Pop. Pop. I think it was just target practice. Nobody else around but a cop parked on the other side of the highway. I walked in that direction. The river stopped me from getting too close to the cop. His head was dark, no face visible, unmoving. Looking for someone.

Weeks later someone asks me if I heard about the rape. That weekend, in that place. You never know not only what you’re getting into on the road, but what exactly you’re in.

Adapt. Quickly. That’s how you live this lifestyle. Scan, understand, adapt, live.

I used to think of nomad as a pretentious thing to call a first-world traveler. Nomads have tents and camels, no? But it is also a mindset. When you travel to a new place, you don’t take a mental template of home with you, because there is no home. You are fluid, observing your surroundings and adapting your behaviors as you go.

Travel frees you to live presently. A home frees you from the anxiety of not knowing. The biggest freedom of all is having the ability to choose which way to live.

A Review of 3 Online Writing Classes

You’d think being on the road would inspire creativity. It does, but other tasks (exploring surroundings you may never see again) eat into the discipline part of the writing equation.

When I signed up for my first online class in early spring, I doubted I would stick with it. The only other online class I’d taken, in college, was a statistics class. I dropped out and took one of those “Incomplete” grades.

Writing classes are different. I’ve found, to my surprise, that they work—as in, they force fingers to keyboard, they coerce output. In an ideal scenario, you learn more craft, meet people and finish things. I’m still working on the latter.

Here’s a breakdown of the classes I’ve taken.

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Intermediate/Advanced Fiction
Lighthouse Writers Workshop
Jessica Roeder

In a sentence: Challenged me to up the ante on comprehension of craft.

Summary: As a former Writerspace member, I have ties to the Lighthouse, Denver’s literary center, and appreciate their dedication to creating better writers (which they do, often). The small size of this class meant that students got to know each other as people and writers. With one reading assignment per week, one piece to workshop and one writing assignment, it can be immersive, but you can also opt to only workshop the one piece per week and pass on the rest. Two of your pieces get workshopped in this 8-week course. The teacher was incredibly responsive and posed challenging questions that helped me better understand the material. The reading assignments were well-curated and varied. I plan to take it again, because I like the personal attention and the small size that lets you get to know people. Note that you should sign up early to seal your spot.

Price: $310 w/annual $50 membership, otherwise $340
Duration: 8 weeks
Where to find out more: https://lighthousewriters.org

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Structure of a Short Story
One Story
Hannah Tinti

In a sentence: Helped me learn one thing well.

Summary: In one intense week (or two, for those that needed more time), One Story Co-Founder and Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti broke down the structure of a short story into easy and manageable steps, and gave brilliantly conceived assignments to help us understand it. One lesson and one assignment come out every day for a week. You can either keep up with assignments in real-time, or take another week to finish it all: the class is live for two weeks.

I loved the focus of this class, and the format was really effective—the way Hannah chose to teach and align her presentations with each lesson. The class was very affordable. The software platform they used made it hard to track ongoing conversations in this class of 300+ students, so I focused on individual study rather than forming relationships. I’d take this class or another from One Story again in a heartbeat.

 Price: $60 for members, $75 non-members
Duration: 1-2 weeks
Where to find out more: Sign up for One Story’s newsletter, or keep an eye on their events tab.

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Lit Star Training
Literary Kitchen
Ariel Gore

In a sentence: Supportive, fun forum that inspired surprising writing.

Summary: If you’ve read Gore’s writing, it’s always fresh and alive, and that’s how this workshop is, too. Literary Kitchen is an honest and inspiring forum for women in particular, a group of strangers that in short order feel like a tribe of sisters. It had a powerful effect on my creativity and motivation. One writing prompt per week (or just send out whatever you’re working on), and three people plus Gore give feedback. She also sends you one optional quick assignment every weekend to get your juices flowing. I liked Gore’s writing assignments so much that I ended up following the prompts every week, rather than having existing work reviewed, because the prompts got me thinking differently and really upped the energy in my writing. The class plucked me out of my motivational sludge in short order, and I relished it for that.

Price: $295
Duration: 8 weeks
Where to find out more: Go to the upcoming courses section of Literary Kitchen.

 

We Don’t Exist, Therefore We Write

Matanuska Glacier, which no longer exists in the form  it did when this picture was taken.

Matanuska Glacier, which no longer exists in the form it did when this picture was taken. Near Palmer, AK.

Lately I’ve been writing about a friend’s dad, let’s call him Mr. Roberts, who claimed that we don’t exist. Mr. Roberts had a PhD in chemistry, worked at a major consumer goods manufacturer and had the fortitude to sail solo around the entire U.K. He was, in two words, no dummy.

But I was 12 when I knew him, and couldn’t get a grasp on his reasoning behind why we don’t actually exist. I still don’t understand. The idea stuck.*

It is, in fact, haunting me as I sit here in Seattle, on a laptop, and scratch my head about Alaska. Did we really spend the summer there, in the rain, among brown bears and salmon? Was it all just a dream in fast-forward? I feel like a human boomerang. Catapult north, through Canada! Arc around the fingers of the Alaskan landmass, accelerate through stilted boreal forests and return, you polished little boomerang you, to your roost in the city!

The thing that was real yesterday, or a year or a minute ago, is nothing but a visual imprint now. I’m back staring into my laptop, a flat edifice of plastic and silicon which itself is only a doorstop unless it has electricity or internet. Being back in a familiar setting, in a city, feels like Groundhog Day.

Yet something, inexplicably, has changed. It might take years to understand what. The only way to know is to write about it.

“Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life,” Eudora Welty once said.

Life might be ineffable, but at least we can order events. In writing, memories stay alive. It reanimates a past that cannot be repeated. Eudora Welty’s Mississippi, Jack London’s Alaska, Jonathan Franzen’s Midwest, your New Orleans, my Alaska. These places may not exist, according to Mr. Roberts, but they live.

* I encourage all adults to throw out similar truisms in the presence of tweens. It’ll give the young tribe something to chew on. Phrases like “I am a solipsist” or “radical empiricism is truth” just wouldn’t have had the same effect.

Why I No Longer ‘Do’ Places

 

Polychrome Pass, Denali

Busload of tourists ‘does’ Polychrome Pass, Denali NP

(Image: Drea Knufken)

Have you heard of that Amtrak Residency for Writers? It’s pretty cool. You sit on a train and write for 2-5 days. The constant movement of the train lulls your mind into a writerly state. You’re free of that metaphysical silly string of daily life: sticky obligations, sticky family, sticky friends, sticky work. Nothing to tug you away from the keyboard but circadian rhythms and nature.

Travel grinds life down to its fundamentals. Food, water, a place to lay your head, the shapes of new things in fresh places. That sense of presence is an awakening.

Here’s the thing I recently learned. Travel only works as a creative catalyst when it contrasts with something you’re used to. If you were to live on an Amtrak train, I bet it would get boring. I bet a suburban house would feel like a thick-walled cave and inspire creativity—and then get boring again. And then the train would be exciting.

This need for contrast seems indulgent. It clashes with an impossible standard I hold for myself, a standard constructed out of some vague and ancient definition of virtue. “If you were enlightened enough,” the voice in my head tells me—it is wearing a cassock, by the way, like Neo from The Matrix—“you would be fascinated by small things and not have the need to run around the planet until your feet hurt.”

I heard somewhere that enlightened Buddhists will find fascination in buttoning their shirts in the morning. What is it that is so fundamentally satisfying, then, about seeing as many places as possible? Is it the outcome of a busy and greedy mind, one that measures progress in the form of number of experiences? Or is there really something transformative about it?

Both, I’d venture. The happy medium is somewhere in between. All the great prophets have spent time traveling; so have the most annoying braggarts.

I think I’ll adjust my enlightenment standard to read something like: “Don’t visit a city just to ‘do’ that city. Let the city or place do something to you.”

Priorities, and How They Eat Dreams

5:30 a.m.

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It’s so cold outside, and the bed is so warm. I think I hear rain on the roof. I could go deeper into the covers and forget about everything. Let me expose my hand and see how the air feels. Dang, that’s cold. The heater is four steps away. I’d be covered in goose bumps if I walked out right now. I’ll just wait for it to get warmer. I need the sleep. Remember all those times I didn’t sleep? This is healthy.

7:30 a.m.

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That felt amazing. I am entirely replenished. Born anew. It’s warm enough to walk around. Let me just heat up this water—yes, that stovetop feels good. Now all I need to do is sit down and … uh-oh. The dog. I have two deadlines today. Need to make breakfast. And an 8 a.m. call, almost forgot about that. Do I even have cell reception? Quick, I’ll have to get dressed and walk over to that pay phone.

7:00 p.m.

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I can’t believe we made it to Smalltown today. Can’t believe I actually squeezed in that deadline. I still have that other one, though. My brain hurts. Need to figure out dinner. I’ll cook dinner and then do the deadline. No, can’t, I’ll get all excited and not sleep. Did we chain up the bikes, lock the back of the truck? I’ll wake up early tomorrow and finish the deadline.

Weekend

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Why in Job’s name should I sit and stare at my computer more this weekend? We’re near the Ocean of the Beluga Whale (or the Desert of the 20-Foot Cactus, or the Bright Blue Glacial Lake near that Must-Eat Local Restaurant)! I’ll do better next week. I’ll set my alarm for 5:30. I will write.

New places, same rationalizations. It never gets done without discomfort. Travel might inspire stories, but those stories won’t write themselves.

 

 

What is a Technomad?

Technomad-NOLA

Picture: Seth K. Hughes

Technomad (n): A person who foresakes full-time habitation in favor of frequent movement to new places, possibly but not necessarily in an RV. Like a retiree (n), but with a job (n). Characteristically accompanied by devices like the MiFi, signal boosters, ranging devices and other nefarious-sounding implements that are essential to job (n).

If you’ve ever had a panic attack because you can’t get a cellular signal, or you will live in a dry lakebed in the middle of the desert for a week because of good cell service, you might be a technomad.

If you work online and rely on good internet service to make money, you’re all tech, without the nomad part.

You could wander if you really wanted to.

It’s a good lifestyle if you love to travel, or if you staying in one place makes you fidgety. Best case scenario is both.

It used to be hard to work online and live on the road. People have been doing it for at least a decade nonetheless, pioneering twenty- and thirty-something online workers who thought—why do we have to wait until we retire? People like Aluminarium and Technomadia.

They set a precedent for people like us. Nowadays, it’s a growing trend.

Living on the road forces you to simplify your life. You can’t hide from your surroundings. If you’re off the grid, you feel every gallon of water and bagful of waste. It’s liberating or alarming, depending on where you are and how much water you have left.

It forces you to be friendly. You rarely know who your neighbors are. Seeing what they throw back at you after “hello” can say a lot.

It also increases your burden of time spent making things work. Plugged into city water and electricity? That’s two worries gone. Got a washer/dryer, food processor, grocery store nearby? Ditto three.

In a way, it’s akin to living in a developing country, where resources are limited and you can’t just space out on life.

But that’s the core of travel, isn’t it? To avert habit, to stay fresh.

Hi, I’m Nowhere Woman

Drea Knufken Airstream Life and Writing

 Photo: Seth K. Hughes

There are two ways to look at the world when you’re a permanent traveler. (Yes, I know that in a sense we are all permanent travelers, through time and life, but I’m not going there until I hit an existentialist moment. Which should be any day now.)

  1. The road is my home. From Clorox-wiped gas station tilework to sweeping vistas of Colorado’s Royal Gorge, I am one with my surroundings. Motion feeds my soul. Every new sensation becomes a glimmering piece of the creative mosaic.
  1. F%&# the road. I can’t stop anywhere long enough to really absorb it. All that this constant travel does is isolate us from our friends. I’m either watching trees blur by or frantically typing on my laptop before my internet connection disappears again.

Studiola, I have to admit: You got me at a funny time. My husband, dog and I decided to live full-time in an Airstream this past February. If I’d been blogging here during those virgin months, you would have gotten something like a yogic bliss travel broadcast. Today finds me hanging out in a house, a real house, for the first time since May. We spent the summer in Alaska, by way of thousands of miles of driving. We just made it back to the Lower 48 yesterday.

“It was phenomenal” is what I’ll say once this travel hangover boils over. You know those stereotypes about people on the road being a little haggard, tweaked out on coffee, grouchy and soft around the middle? Yeah.

I’m also very honored to be here. I love that I can share these little stories with you.

By way of background, most pictures will come from my husband Seth K. Hughes, who also writes and photographs on our blog.