from topanga canyon
My recent nomadic tendencies are motivated by a search for a place that feels like home that I problematically don’t believe exists. When people ask me that fundamental question about where I’m from, hoping for a quick and relatable answer, I sigh and shake my head and try to gauge how long they might be willing to listen to me ramble about a childhood of school changes at the hands of corporate America which gave way to a drifting adulthood, empowered by the tech boom’s always-on connectivity and AirBnb. Sometimes I’ll say “all over” and be done with it.
More often, a conversation begins that ends with me sputtering excuses about not knowing where to settle down, and I’ll feel frustrated and annoyed with myself for talking so much in response to a question that deserves a short answer. Detroit. Bay Area. A shipping container in a vacant lot behind Family Dollar. That’s what people want to hear, after all, not some angsty diatribe about the Rat Park experiment, rising rents in our urban centers, or the feeling of disconnection that comes with the territory of our globalized society. People seem to want something with defined edges and all I can give them is a wispy cloud of a story.
But this time I’m intentionally traveling to artsy weirdo hotspots like Sedona and Julian to see if artsy weirdos are my people. Short answer – yes. Longer answer – yes with several conditions. I’m paying attention, this time around, to how place informs culture, especially with regards to geography and how it models lifestyles, naturally molding inhabitants into reflections of itself. Case in point – a dusty climber loping roadside with a bulky crash pad strapped to his back blends in like a mule deer in the Rockies, but drop him in the middle of Chicago, and he’s as alien as a luchador at high tea.
I was, for many years, a willing participant in this kind of geographical assimilation. Living in Boulder turned me into a kale-craving vegetarian who cycled to hot yoga and lived in service to preserving the sanctity of ‘the bubble’. When I moved to places like Cleveland and Milwaukee, the habits that served as camouflage in a front range hippie outpost rendered me a notable weirdo, so I adapted and adjusted and found a permutation of my unshakeable values like health, wealth, and outdoorsiness that aligned with whatever place I was in at the time. In Cleveland I got good at golf and jumped on the Cavaliers bandwagon. In Milwaukee I found the artisans who made furniture from barn doors, and connected with local farmers.
A lifetime of moving around developed – or at least revealed – an infinite adaptability that lead me to believe I could feasibly move anywhere (within reason) and be fine. But as an adult with agency and an affinity for kombucha and grass-fed ribeye, I travel in search of a place with values and resources that will nurture the best possible version of myself, which is healthy, hard at work, attuned to nature, and connected to community.
Life as a cultural chameleon is fun and the stories abound, but a quiet nag at the back of brain reminds me that one day, when someone asks me where I’m from, I want to be able to say “I’m from here.”
I could go to any number of places, but most places just don’t feel quite right, and I’m starting to understand why I feel alienated even in the places that cater to people like me. Within every cultural community that I try to drop into, there exists a spectrum of both tolerance (insiders’ acceptance of outsiders) and tolerability (outsiders’ ability to deal with insider quirks).
On each far end of every subculture live the try-hards and true-believers, while somewhere in the middle, you should be able to find the normal heart-centered few who live but don’t die by the lifestyle. (Shout out to my fellow normal weirdos!) But given too much isolation and not enough stress-testing, a community can reach a level of oblivious sanctimony that is fascinating in small doses and infuriating over time.
I drove down a steep winding road through a lush coastal jungle to the town of Topanga to get a taste of the local scene. I found a little cafe that in addition to coffee and pastries, showcased local artisan products like patchouli skin serums and gemstone jewelry. But the real focal point were the patrons: a milieu of locals unknowingly participating in a parade of long dead and dying subcultures.
I paid for my coffee and some vintage postcards and sat down to pen some notes to my niece and nephew. In the small, damp courtyard I watched like a wildlife biologist as an all-you-can-judge buffet of expired coolness held court across the bubbling koi pond. The white fibers of an elder hippie’s Gandalf beard had begun to interweave with his baja hoodie. A geriatric rocker in double denim pontificated on spacetime for a young viking and a lithe fur-clad ingenue.
In five minutes, their conversation leapt like jazz notes from space travel to American exodus, Norse mythology, and the perks of life in the jungle. Under the surface of each of these disparate topics, a stealth but very present grasping for validation. Please, see that I am not only smart but also edgy, implored each enthusiastic endorsement of the gray-haired rockstar’s pronouncements. Even when they were just talking about movies.
Loki would obviously win in a fight, because Thor’s moral principles would be his downfall.
The real myths are way darker than the Marvel interpretations, and thus much more realistic. Modern audiences couldn’t handle them.
The hippie, the groupie, the young viking and the rock-and-roller all agreed it was worth getting out of the country by 2020. An unspoken understanding underpinned their conversation. This country in which they sipped cheap coffee in a rustic luxe courtyard, pontificating freely on politics and history, was going to hell.
Each of them weighed in on their exit strategy. This handful of free spirits, aggressively unencumbered by any societal push toward conformity, all in perfect agreement. And not just on politics, but on the inevitability of space travel.
If given the chance they’d obviously do nothing but traverse the galaxy looking for new planets. They spoke with a colonizer’s confidence, treating survival as some grand adventure as if they were not the type of people rendered sweaty and flustered by the slightest inconvenience. As if they had not been spoon fed ideas and identity by a plush first-world life. Their experience was so good that they believed it had been hard-won, and that they could win it again. But their soft-hands betrayed them.
They spoke of actual existential threats like hurtling through the vacuum of space with the casual demeanor of someone who had done it not once but routinely, with the confidence of someone who knew in some distant world, a sweetly compliant alien princess had waited millennia for a coddled and hairless earthling to blow the gel sac where she kept her mind with half-remembered Jim Morrison lyrics.
Of course, this is all a complete projection of my own fear of fragility, doubts about my own authenticity and self-sufficiency. Through the lens of my own sweet sheltered life, I perceive posturing from the weak-willed as a confrontation, as if they’re mocking me. I like to believe I have what it takes, perhaps not to hurtle through space but certainly to decide wisely not to. But I’ve lived as lucky and coddled a life as anyone. The safety that I’ve experienced has been given to me; I’m fooling myself if I think I’ve earned it.
So I finished my postcards and applied desert flower forever stamps before dropping them into a mailbox. My little ones will receive them and maybe they’ll believe their auntie is adventurous, or maybe they’ll just want me to come home. They could care less if I’m living authentically, if I’m cool or brave or interesting. They just want me to come over and build forts with them. Perhaps by traveling and searching for my home, like that aging hippie arguing with the grizzled rocker about whether or not Jim Morrison truly embraced his dark side or was just posing for the fandom, I too am missing the point entirely.