Chris Urquhart was just 22 years old when she left Canada and started travelling the U.S. with nomads and runaways.
Raised in Toronto to a middle-class family, Urquhart set off from Montréal shortly after she graduated from McGill University and spent three years on-and-off the road documenting the realities of transient life in America alongside her photographer friend, Kitra Cahana. The pair moved across the country with different nomadic groups, including crust punks, hippies, Deadheads, Burners, and most significantly, The Rainbow Family of Living Light, a counterculture movement. More commonly known as Rainbows, the group has been controversial in recent years.
In Urquhart’s new book, Dirty Kids: Chasing Freedom with America’s Nomads, (Greystone Books, $22) the 30-year-old shares incredible stories and heartbreaking interviews with Rainbows and other travellers about their lifestyle. From stories of fleeing abuse to craving a sense of community belonging, Dirty Kids paints a portrait of what it means to survive as a wanderer.
FLARE talked to Urquhart about her time travelling, what she learned about nomadic living and her book, which she describes as a “realistic, personal representation of U.S. transience, homelessness, and travelling culture.”
How did you and Kitra Cahana first end up at a Rainbow Family Gathering in Santa Fe, New Mexico?
I was asked to go for my first assignment for Colors Magazine. I was supposed to write a 500-word article or something, but as soon as we got there, we knew it was a book-length project. We knew we couldn’t cover everything in a short time and realized, OK, we’re gonna keep doing this.
You then visited Rainbow Gatherings in Pennsylvania, Washington and Florida. Can you describe what you experienced during your travels?
There’s tons of different nomadic communities in the U.S. Between the Burners and Rainbows and Deadheads and crust punks and runaways, there’s tons of different subcultures that get sucked into this travelling circuit. My book is largely based around Rainbow Family Gatherings, and a lot of these subcultures will go to Rainbow Gatherings. It was a good place to interview people from all these different subcultures that are travelling all the time. A lot of them know each other.
The Rainbow Family can be described as an anarchistic nomadic community that grew out of the hippie movement of the ’60s, built on ideals of freedom and love. What does that look like in practise?
As a whole concept, the Rainbow Family is a functioning “zen anarchy,” a non-violent anarchist society. There really are no leaders and there are no people that speak for the whole Rainbow Family. Everyone is invited. There’ll be hundreds of different camps [at gatherings]—some of which you can drink at and that’s a bit of a rougher, more drug-related crowd. In the main part of Rainbow, there’s no drinking. There’s different camps—there’s raw food camps, crust punk camps… it’s all over the map, but everyone is connected and gets along pretty well, which is amazing.
Many of the people you met struggled with substance abuse, mental health issues or family trauma. Are these common reasons why some people decide to live as travellers?
Absolutely. There’s one kid I talked to in Michigan, who said, “I had a choice in life. I could either stay home and be a methamphetamine addict, or I could do this.” So a lot of people are actually escaping drug use at home and joining the Rainbow Family and dealing with those issues in a more supportive situation. A lot of people are escaping abuse at home—especially a lot of the younger travellers—or they’re just not accepted for being queer so they leave. Just like in most communities, a lot of us struggle with addiction and mental health, but people are more open at these sort of gatherings because there is help—counselling and support—being offered, and a lot of these kids haven’t had that before. They’re getting out of a negative situation, which is counter to the narrative that these [people] are all a bunch of drug addicts.
You’re open about your mental heath struggles in the book. Did travelling help or hurt your wellbeing?
I think it probably did both. On one hand, it’s not always healthy to be constantly travelling at a fast pace, at least for me, and not knowing where you’re going to sleep. But I think on a larger scale, it helped me reevaluate the idea of diagnosis. Someone I interviewed said, “I’ve got tons of diag-nonsense.” It makes you see that there are alternatives, and not everyone is accepting their position as “crazy outsider;” they’re embracing it and questioning the whole mental illness paradigm.
Many people in your book travel because they reject living a 9-5 life. Why do you think it’s so hard for some to conform to this structure?
A lot of the people I met live very principled lives. They don’t like living in a capitalistic, 9-5 society because they don’t see that as something that’s natural. I don’t see that as something natural, but as a construct that’s been imposed upon me and that I have to conform to in order to be part of the society. A lot of people are flat-out rejecting it because it doesn’t align with their heart, but it seems to be the only option on the table.
Did you find it hard coming back to a “constructed society” once you were done with your travels?
I found it extremely hard. I found it extremely hard travelling and I found it extremely hard going back, so I don’t know if I’m a good example. I may just find things hard, but as a writer, I always feel like an outsider. Even being included in this [Rainbow] community, by virtue of being a writer, you are an outsider and that’s the position you always have whether you’re moving around or staying still. Once I re-stabilized and was able to stay in Toronto for a little bit, it was hard. Once you stay still, you have to deal with things you’ve perhaps been running from. There’s different challenges from both sides.
You note the privilege you have as someone with a university education who comes from a middle-class family. Is that something you battled with while spending time with people who didn’t have the same upbringing?
Yeah, that’s discussed throughout the book a lot, in terms of me coming into this as a white, privileged person with a university degree, who has a family that, even if we don’t get along, I could stay [with]. When you look at the concept of a “trustafarian,” these things definitely create divisions and status within the community. [My status] was definitely at play and something I tried to look at throughout the book, how my own privilege [affected] how people saw and related to me.
People might view travellers as people who experience homelessness by way of nomadic “choice,” while others are forced into such circumstances. What’s your experience with this distinction?
There’s a real difference between travellers and homeless people. For example, in Michigan, they would call [homeless] people on the street “home bums,” not as a derogatory term, but to distinguish them from other people who are poor but they have a truck and they perform and they get around and move constantly. There are different levels of mobility within the scene because a lot of folks who are “home bums” are staying in one place because of their mental health, so they can’t travel. It really made me dig into what it means to be without home and to be choosing to be without home. There are a lot of different experiences, and that’s why I tried to focus the work on other people’s voices. Everyone’s story is complicated and there’s many layers to it. It brings you back to [what someone] said to me: “I had a choice. I could stay at home and be in this drugged-out meth town with my family, or I could join the Rainbow Family.” It makes you reevaluate concepts of poverty and privilege a lot.
How have your experiences changed you and the way you see the world?
They took away a lot of fear. There was always this fear surrounding being a 9-5er, or saying “I have to do this or else I’ll be on the street,” this thinking that you have to have money to survive and thrive. I witnessed a huge population that don’t have money and they take care of one another and they really are thriving. It allowed me to think, Maybe I can let go of these neurotic fears of what I should be doing and how I should be living, and just let myself do what I want to do and not worry about having enough money. I always tell myself, it’s still there! I could always go back! It’s a very comforting thought, to be honest.
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