Chris Urquhart: “All travellers are freaks, really”

Few have captured the experience of life on the road as Chris Urquhart has — not the family vacation kind, but the dumpster-diving, punk house-squatting kind. At age 22, Urquhart, the author of Dirty Kids: Chasing Freedom with America’s Nomads, set out to follow young, often homeless, teen and twenty-something travellers across the United States.

A student at McGill University at the time, Urquhart and Kitra Cahana, a photographer friend, were on assignment for the Italian magazine COLORS, profiling the young nomads who congregate at Rainbow Gatherings across North America — setting up camp en masse in U.S. National Forests for a festival of hippies, punks, runaways, and vagabonds. Over the course of a week or more, as many as 30,000 people attend Gatherings, complete with camp kitchens, jam sessions, and sanitation systems — set-up and torn down to leave no trace behind.

“What I was really interested in with Rainbow was that a community could get together […] They had this whole society, right? And it was all free,” says Urquhart.

“I was completely overwhelmed when I first entered Rainbowland […] Everyone was screaming how much they loved each other; there were naked people everywhere; there was a topless woman riding a horse with a baby in a sling… there’s just all this crazy stuff happening, and I was like, Wow, this is great.”

“I hadn’t encountered people living so rebelliously, so openly, so chaotically and sustainably. It was really such an inspiration.” – Chris Urquhart

Enthralled with the community they’d found amongst the runaways at Rainbowland — “we kind of met on a friendship level and and just went from there,” says Urquhart — the Toronto-based author continued following their stories, through Burning Man festivals, Ann Arbor’s Punk Week, New York City’s nightlife, and post-Katrina New Orleans. Along the way, Urquhart slept in treehouses and on forest floors, packed like a sardine in punk houses and flea-bitten on public beaches — all the while, gathering stories from the penniless young travellers who lived this life sometimes by choice, but often by circumstance.

“A lot of the people that I ended up living and traveling with, and interviewing, were queer and LGBTQ-identified, as I am. And a lot of them were quote-unquote ‘hitting the road,’ not because [they wanted to], but basically because they had been kicked out of their family,” says Urquhart.

“People will yell at you; people will spit on you. People will also take you out for dinner and buy you things. It’s luck of the draw, really. But a lot of people take their anger out on transients, or people they see as homeless, just because it so threatens them — they’re so unhappy, and they see these people pursuing whatever they’re pursuing.”

In Dirty Kids, Urquhart delves into the lives of these transients, sharing their stories and reflecting on how the road has changed her own life:

“I hadn’t encountered people living so rebelliously, so openly, so chaotically and sustainably. It was really such an inspiration […] They’re joyous, and they’ve made another life for themselves out of crap.”

Photo of Chris Urquhart by Alexandra Berceanu. Chris Urquhart’s first book, Dirty Kids, is available through Greystone Books. Also featured on this episode of Story Untold: Hong Kong Confidential Podcast.