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When I was 8 years old my mother went bankrupt paying for her cancer treatments. Six months later, my father took the family car, all of our savings and left. I imagine taking care of a dying wife and three children was a bit much to handle for a boy in his early twenties. As the dust cleared, my mother found a balance between single motherhood and cancer treatments through church meal programs and food stamps.
Growing up we traveled for survival. If mom got a job, a new husband or an opportunity she packed us up and moved to where her dreams lead her.
We were in Riverside for a medical training program, Spokane for a nursing home job and Rome to be closer to the new husband’s family. I ended up at 11 schools across four states and 3 time zones by the time I turned 21.
Travel and poverty were parts of my life before I had the words to describe them.
One winter when I was in elementary school, I went grocery shopping with my mother. I was standing in line and saw my face in black and white smiling on the front page of the Cheney Washington Free Press. I begged my mother for copies so we could show our friends and family. I felt proud and excited. I remember looking at my 24-year-old mother’s hesitation and peppering her with reasons I needed that paper.
That was the moment that I transitioned from innocent naivety to knowing I was different.
That’s when I learned I was poor.
My mother got down on one knee, looked me in the eye, and told me that being poor wasn’t something to be proud of. I had been photographed attending opening day at the local soup kitchen, and that wasn’t something Grandma wanted to see.
Travel wasn’t a luxury for my family. It was a necessity. My mother’s medical condition required her to undergo several treatments. When mom got sick, we went to stay with relatives. Unfortunately, they all lived several states away. Every year, we drove thousands of miles to visit family, escape bad situations and sometimes because our car was our home.
Being poor doesn’t prevent travel, it changes the kind of travel you do and the expectations you have while traveling. I learned at a very young age that being resourceful was the key to getting where you need to go.
I would sit at the kitchen table and watch my mother plan our route. She taught me that having all of the answers wasn’t the important part to planning. The important part was asking the right questions and knowing where to find the answers.
My mom would spread the map out on the kitchen table and whisper “Where do we want to go this year?” Mom wanted to make sure the time we had with her was filled with memories of adventure and excitement — not our family sitting around waiting for her to die.
At the Cheney Public Library, Mom taught us to find answers to all of our questions. Where is the best place to stop in Wyoming? How long does it take to get from Las Vegas to Riverside? Is there a free campground somewhere near Pocatello? She taught me about the world, one reference encyclopedia at a time.
We learned about American history by visiting the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn on our way to stay with Grandma. We debated religious freedom at Brigham Young’s house when our car broke down outside of Salt Lake. We discussed morality when my brother spotted a lady’s glossy “business card” in a Las Vegas gas station. When my mom was too sick to do these things with us we were shipped off to other family members who took turns shuttling us around the United States.
I remember sitting squeezed between my two siblings, my mother and my aunt on the bench seat of a 1989 soft grey Toyota pickup, playing 20 Questions and singing classic rock ballads with my family. Some of my happiest memories took place in that truck.
At 10 years old, I learned how to navigate sitting on my aunt’s knee studying an old creased US atlas.
“Aunt T, what’s our next stop?” I’d ask.
“We’re in Butte Montana, we need to drive another 400 miles today, where is a good place to stop?” she’d answer.
I would trace the beat up map with my tiny pink index finger.
“Well, we could stop in Idaho Falls or we could continue on and spend the night in Provo.”
My family allowed me to make independent choices and decisions because they knew I wouldn’t have a mother to help me answer my hard questions. They knew every time I made small choices, like the one between Provo and Idaho Falls, I was slowly building up my resilience and independence. Turns out both of those skills are excellent abilities for wandering souls.
Growing up on government cheese and welfare checks is the best budgeting education I’ve found. My mother put coupon clippers on TLC to shame. She learned to buy just what we needed and nothing more. We had to balance her medical bills with the necessities of our family. It taught me to identify what was important and what was extra. I learned to make sacrifices and to enjoy delayed gratification. We’d sit together on the floor of the living room clipping coupons from Sunday morning’s newspaper.
“Peanut butter is a dollar off at Safe Way!” my brother would call out.
Mom would nod her head and he’d begin to cut. By the time, I was 8 years old, I knew how to balance a checkbook, clip coupons and scan the sale racks. Later in life, I would use the same skills to fund trips all over the world.
I rarely talk about growing up, a consequence of stigma wrapped in shame. Most of my friends don’t know the details of my childhood and even my siblings have wildly different perspectives on how we grew up. The youngest doesn’t remember the days of sleeping cuddled together for warmth on the living room floor, and the oldest prefers a boot-straps-American-dream narrative to a story of loss and shame.
Regardless of our perspectives, we are all very well traveled adults. The youngest recently backpacked Europe and the oldest joined the military as a means to seeing the world. We used the skills my mother instilled in us and made travel a priority.
Recently, I posted photos from my trip to Thailand on Facebook and received several comments and messages from friends exclaiming they wished they could travel, but it’s far outside of their financial reality. I just smile and nod and remember my mother’s baldhead and gaunt face as she sorted coupons on our living room floor.