I never wanted to run away as a kid, I guess this is how you know that you had a wonderful childhood, wonderful parents, wonderful family, wonderful friends in a wonderful little town quietly tucked away from the rest of the not so wonderful world. I was fed, I was clothed (not without a fight on my end) and I had a roof over my head. In the words of my mother, “We fed her, we churched her and we played good music”. Happily, I ran around but never from my little world.
The first time I ran away, I was seventeen. It was the summer after my graduation from high school and I decided to drive with my then nineteen-year-old cousin twenty-one hours south to Satellite Beach, Florida. I didn’t ask; I just went. It was the first time I had ever driven on a highway and although I thought I was so grown up, I look back now at two clueless little girls desperately chasing freedom. At the time this trip didn’t feel all that life-altering, but I now trace back my willingness to up and leave whenever an opportunity arises to a very young Kaitlyn caravaning across six states with no real adult and no real life-threatening situations. Florida was so much different from anything I had ever experienced, there were manatees, sea turtles, lizards, palm trees and beetles the size of my thumb. It intrigued me, and although I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with the state like so many do, I was determined to see what else this beautiful country had been hiding.
At eighteen I left home, called not necessarily to the big city but rather to a life I couldn’t lead in my little farm town. Out of my element, initially, I reverted inward, cutting myself off from any new people or experiences. Abruptly, at the age of nineteen, through a serious of somewhat unfortunate events I was forced out of this bubble with a shattered reality and the need to become a better version of myself. New friendships were made and old ones rekindled; I became Kaitlyn Jo Smith a human that existed outside of Sycamore, Ohio, and separately from her family unit. I knew people that my parents did not know and did things that my parents did not do. You aren’t really your own human until you leave and as liberating as this can be, it is also the most intensely terrifying feeling in the world. There is no longer anyone to blame if you don’t like how you turn out.
I was meeting the right people, people who didn’t think I was crazy because admittedly they were too. The connections I was (am) making lead to opportunities beyond my wildest dreams and after locking myself away from the world for over a year, I was determined to say yes to all of them. It was around this time that consistent themes began to develop in my work. All I wanted to do was run away, but everything I made was about home. I was (still am) displaced and, like many others in their late teens/early twenties, struggling desperately to make sense of the world. This is essentially what all my work has become about, clinging to a place in time that once I left I could never revisit. We have memories, pictures and stories, but that’s it. This is why I compulsively photograph and write: I am terrified of forgetting anything. I can never go back home (not to the place that existed before I left) and so I relive it through my art and words. It is all an attempt to figure out where I fit in. Where I was made so much since, but where I am and where I am going are a confused, passion-driven, blur.
As I sit contemplating what’s next I look fondly on Florida, on Colorado and Maine, on every weekend excursion and weeklong trek. To be perfectly honest with you, running away terrifies me, but staying put is just as frightening. When I daydream about my future it is never visions of settling down, no white picket fences, cul-de-sacs or PTO meetings. Quite frankly I have no clue where I would even plant my roots; it feels unfair to choose only one place. Sycamore is and will always be home, but home isn’t necessarily where you live. I fear complacency and am uncomfortable with the comfort of a traditional lifestyle. Staying put feels more like being stuck and being stuck is suffocating to me. I am most myself behind the wheel, with my hiking boots carrying my body over unknown terrain. I am happiest with the uncertainty of spontaneity and the freedom of an unplanned adventure. People seek comfort, but what happens when your comfort is different than that of most other members of society? It has been a struggle to make others understand my lack of a ten-year plan, but if the last year has taught me anything it is that the best things happen when you leave room for chance.
I know that I can’t go home, at least not yet, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. Finding my own way has been difficult, but I am not satisfied with simply picking up the hand I have been dealt and calling it a day. As a child, I never once dreamed of running away, there was no reason to. As an adult, running away is all that seems to be on my mind. Now, twenty-two years old, just on the cusp of a career, everything is on the line. The decisions I make right now matter, whether I conform to societal norms or forge my own path. Truth is, this is a choice we all make whether we are aware of it or not. Right now directly affects the rest of my life and right now I want to run far and fast into the great unknown.
Photographs made behind the wheel, the place I am longing to be: