Books·How I Wrote It

Why Chris Urquhart followed teenage runaways, train hoppers and other nomads for three years

Dirty Kids is Chris Urqhuart's nonfiction book about people in their early 20s who choose to travel from place to place.
Dirty Kids is Chris Urquhart's first book of nonfiction. ( Books)

At 22, Chris Urquhart attended her first Rainbow — a semi-annual gathering of nomads, anti-capitalists and all-around free spirits in the New Mexico wilderness. The experience led her on a three-year odyssey, spent on and off the road in the U.S. and Canada, interviewing people in their early 20s who choose to spend their life travelling from place to place.

Dirty Kids collects Urquhart's stories from this journey, a personal and ethnographic account of the nomadic community in North America. Below, she describes what it was like to gather these experiences.

Life on the road

"One highlight that stands out is my first experience in Rainbowland in New Mexico. I just observed this cultural phenomenon of thousands of people coming together, living in a free society and being around this unabashed self-expression. I hadn't had much experience with that. Being welcomed in and observing communal prayer in particular was extremely moving for me.

"Though I'd say the highs were probably stronger, there were definitely more lows [on the road]. It was difficult being in the punk houses in Ann Arbor. I wasn't used to sleeping next to an alligator tank around busted Halloween decorations and thumb tacks in somebody's hallway where they didn't want us to be. It was just a lot of kids in a little space." 

Learning to listen

"Rainbow set a nice scene for interviewing because you're already feeling open and loved and safe. People were able to talk about some of the darker aspects of their lives. It was super heavy and I didn't have the best coping strategies at 22, so it was really overwhelming emotionally for me. You have to sit there with the person and feel what they're feeling to get a good interview.

"A lot of the people that I interviewed were women and queer folks. Many of them opened up completely to me and that's not something I take lightly. I wanted to get it right and I wanted to honour the fact that their experiences were oftentimes very difficult and complicated. They required time to listen and re-listen and contemplate upon."

Elevating unheard voices

"This book is meant to elevate the voices of women and queer people. I want to put those voices forefront because they're not heard and they are wise. Most women I did interview have gone through horrendous abuse. I've learned that it's much more prevalent than people think or know. Despite that, there are these amazingly inspirational, strong nomadic, community-oriented warrior women and queer people that have gone through it and still are hopeful and want to change the world to be a better, more peaceful place."

Chris Urquhart's comments have been edited and condensed.


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