Money and life obligations aren’t the only obstacles to travel. Sometimes, it has everything to do with your roots.
When we were 16, my friend Caity and I told our mothers that we were going to the mall. It was a lie of omission. We were at a mall, but not the one across town like we had implied. Bored with the limited shopping and dining options close by, we decided to be bold and drive over the mountain to a more bustling suburb. Though the destination itself was only 25 miles east and we got lost in a few unfamiliar areas along the way, we felt independent, even self-congratulatory, for exploring another city by ourselves.
One of the reasons that Caity and I were so afraid to tell our parents where we actually were is because we are from a town that people don’t generally leave. Even temporarily. We grow up here because our parents did; we go to the same schools and have the same teachers that they did. We all know the Smiths, the Watsons, and we can name all the siblings in birth order. We can feel safe knowing that the mechanic down the road won’t swindle us because our family has been going to him for years.
Growing up in a small town is like living out Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. You assume from an early age that the folks in your town resemble Folks Everywhere, and that your community’s way of life is standard. Places like Chicago and New York and Phoenix are just dots on a map where the same kinds of people do the same kinds of things. And if everyone is the same, why bother to visit? It’s only when you buck convention and do so that the conception is shattered, and you either embrace the new knowledge or run screaming back into the cave.
Online feature sites often market travel as the ultimate measure of personal fulfillment. What you’re really buying is a ticket away from responsibility and toward a freer, more self-actualized you. And thankfully, we’ve started talking about the financial privilege inherent in these ideas. The greater the distance, the greater the cost: You need gas, a vehicle, maybe several days’ parking and a plane ticket, maybe a passport and a visa. Consider large year-round expenses like children, college courses, and unforeseen costs, and anything more than a weekend trip to the nearest beach is a pipe dream for many. But money and life obligations aren’t the only obstacles to travel. Sometimes, it has everything to do with your roots.
When I visit my hometown and lace up my running shoes, I can tour all the places my mother has ever lived in a mile loop. There’s the one-story brick house where she grew up, the apartment complex she moved into with my father during the early years of their marriage, and then her current home—the one she brought me from the hospital to—a few streets away. This is not uncommon for people in our town. But as I grew up, I discovered that the flip side of that closeness was fear.
My more adventuresome friends spent their weekends hopping on trains to D.C. or Baltimore for a taste of city life. Every time they asked me to come with them, I was paralyzed with anxiety. My mother’s voice pounded in my ear: She’s a reckless driver; always getting pulled over. And the Metro is confusing. What if you get lost? What if you end up in a bad area? I eventually ran out of excuses and my friends stopped asking, taking my refusals personally. I wrapped myself in a strange kind of relief, in the insulation of my hometown, which was enough for me until it wasn’t.
I was 24 the first time I set foot in an airport, and boarded a puddle-jumper that delivered me to a friend spending her summer in Florida. I had been to Florida before but always by train or bus, always sleepily waiting for the palm trees to pop into view after several rounds of license plate games and cassette tape changes. When my plane touched down, I couldn’t grasp the immediacy of being in a place nearly a thousand miles away. I could walk on the beach, ride a horse, watch the little orange geckos scatter at the first clap of an afternoon storm, and be back home in a mere two hours. The whole world seemed to open up.
Little by little, I traveled more out of my comfort and my time zones. I flew to Minneapolis, where I visited old friends and made new ones, toured the state university and danced to Bauhaus in a goth club. I spent a Christmas in Cincinnati with my best friend who had recently moved for a new job, borrowed his car for a day to explore neighboring Kentucky. In Denver I marveled at how the Rockies could dwarf my Appalachians, 90 degrees could feel like 70, and my cousin and I could find a Pittsburgh Penguins bar on the other side of the country.
I became transfixed by the idiosyncrasies of each new place: the “Minnesota Nice” penchant for understatement, the tendency of Los Angeles residents to insert “the” before a highway number. What had once been dots on a map blossomed with scenery and culture and with people, whether transient or settled, who defined “normal” for themselves. But I was also drawn to all the previously unexplored ways in which we are similar. I sat at sports bars with strangers and heard the stories of Kings fans, Bengals fans, whose connection to their teams and the family history it was intertwined with mirrored my own. I pressed bills into the palm of a homeless teen in Denver who was thrown out of her home for being gay, understanding that discrimination lives in even the friendliest of cities. I’ve gotten an education that I didn’t know existed until I pushed myself out of complacency.
Most people born and raised in my hometown stay because everything they’ve ever needed or wanted is there. Some leave, live elsewhere for a while, and return home because it’s where they feel they belong. I left at 27 to make a life and am infinitely grateful for not only the opportunity to have done so, but for the courage and confidence I found to look beyond my own backyard. The unknown is a scary thing, but embracing it has taught me as much about my American neighbors as it’s taught me about myself: the kinds of people I get along with, the environments I thrive in, and the places I’d gladly call home.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.