Out of Place

In my dreams, a primary recurring theme is packing a bag - what goes in this time? What are the most important things to include in a limited space? How fast can you make those choices?

In my waking life, I prefer to be the person who always has a bag packed, and in truth I am never at ease without an upcoming plane ticket. I try to have at least one out-of-state adventure a month, just to stretch my legs. Sometimes by car, often alone.

Crossing a man-made border has a strange sense of perspective-shifting. When travelling by car, I study the borderlands and try to discern what is distinct on the other side of the invisible line. Are people dressed differently? Do they eat different foods? Are their houses of a different architectural style? Many American states have a fierce pride that builds up around the edges - this is the Missouri side of the river, bud, and don’t you forget it. Sometimes, the change is obvious: When crossing from Georgia into South Carolina, you may notice that you can ride a motorcycle without a helmet and buy fireworks under parking lot-sized tents at the gas stations that huddle along the interstate. When crossing from westernmost Kansas into easternmost Colorado, the change is topographic: almost immediately after the large sign welcoming you to COLORFUL COLORADO, your engine will start to work harder as you begin the long ascent to the Rocky Mountains. The same between northern Tennessee and southern Kentucky - the grass really seems bluer just over the line, as if the North American continent was pieced together from the bright plastic magnets on your grandmother’s refrigerator; Illinois is bright green, Indiana is yellow, and Kentucky, obviously, is blue. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find house-sized raised block letters spelling out OKLAHOMA in the middle of a field somewhere west of Tulsa.

Bonus travel tip: go to the grocery store. Saves money and gives you the best insight into the community. What is stocked that you don’t have at home? What are you there for that you ran out of on the road? Who is shopping? What are they buying? I once stopped in a rural Kansas Food Lion and saw no one in the produce section whatsoever. There was, however, a “tornado shelter” sign on the women’s bathroom door.

Out of place is my happy place. I’m comfortable trying to get comfortable in a new town, state, country because that has been my near-constant state of existence so far in my life. As the daughter of a military family, “where are you from” has been a loaded question. I could tell you where I was born, where I graduated from high school, where I lived the longest, and where my parents are now, and none of these answers would be the same. But my story is gradually changing as it becomes more my own. I’m 30 next month. My parents are retired from the Army. I’ve lived in the same house for almost two years - which, after having at least one ZIP code a year since I graduated college, is a personal record. Now my song is settling into a groove and my life is forming habits that trend towards stability, which makes my plane tickets and road trips are ever more important. As I grow, I find the joy of the journey magnified by the knowledge that there is a nest to come home to, perhaps someone to hear my travel stories, someone to ask me where I’m off to next. But it started out a little different.

Once upon a time but not as long ago as it feels, I had a vision of myself at 45-ish, arms full of tattoos, salt-and-pepper hair carved into a manageably-short pixie cut, silhouetted as I fling up the door on a storage unit filled with the furniture, books and objects I’d spent my life accumulating. My (as yet unidentified) partner walks up beside me, looks into the darkness with me and asks, “You ready to do this?” My response, “Yes, now it’s time.” At that time I believed that I would spend the majority of my adult life in a semi-nomadic state. I could see myself as happy there, where “there” is anywhere I happened to be. The person I was then was pure chaos and constant adventure, the vision was one of a young person emerging from undergraduate with no clear direction and wild oats that needed to be sown. It felt like that season would continue forever - or at least until my mid-40s. (At 22 that’s basically forever.)

Then, for various reasons both romantic and financial, I entered a part of my life that was much more focused on creating stability, the opposite of the vision. My "out of place" experiences turned to more domestic adventures. I bought dishes that match, I no longer keep a storage unit and have reclaimed all of my holiday decorations from my parent’s house. Now I have a beautifully curated home (rented still, thank goodness), a career that has a trajectory I can map, and, usually, money enough to buy a plane ticket. In this moment, that is enough. If someone came into my life and said, “hey, let’s pack it all up and go see what we find” I would have to sit and think for a moment. I would have a lot of questions that I might not have asked before, like will we have kids? Will we raise them in transit? How will we pay for our adventures? Will there be a job to come back to when the money runs out? Where will we base out of? Will we keep a base at all? What do we speak of when we speak of home?

But there’s still a part of me that deeply longs for that transitory lifestyle. To be on the road, to live out of a suitcase, to have a cigar box altar that I set up at each stop - lined with photos of family, prayers for safe crossings, mementos of home, the key to a storage unit.

For now, my pragmatism wins out. I go home, feed the cat, sit on my porch and plan the next trip through the borderlands. I’m grateful to have the freedom and ability to go where I need to go when I need to go there. I’m hopeful that someone will be able to join me along the way. And I’m glad to know that there is a consistent place to call home. For now.



Callahan is a curator and adventurer who is here for your old stuff: books, boulders, bourbon and things buried in dust and dirt.