Chris Urquhart, a 22-year-old recent graduate of McGill University, had her life changed when she went to a Rainbow Gathering in New Mexico in 2009. She was working on an article about homeless teenagers with her photographer friend, Kitra Cahana. What she found started her on a three-year career of dropping in and out of the “traveler” or “nomad” youth subculture. This book, the result, is part embedded journalism and part memoir, a hybrid that will likely leave the reader disappointed on both counts.
The most interesting aspect of “Dirty Kids” is that it gives a ground-level, worm’s-eye view of various cultural events and subcultures that promote a kind of anti-consumerist, socially accepting alternative to mainstream society, in which it is possible to live on very little money, share whatever you have and challenge your hang-ups about gender, possessions, hygiene, nudity, personal space and security. The “nomads” of the title, the majority gay or transsexual, many of them kicked out of their childhood homes, move around the country from event to event, hitching rides or begging gas from gas station customers, attracted by free food and an atmosphere of tolerance at many of the locations, and by the expectation of reuniting with other friends in the subculture.
Urquhart’s first couple of chapters, about her experience at the Rainbow Gathering, set the stage for her quest for authentic community and ecstatic experience. The quest is sometimes satisfied, but often disappointed in the rest of the book, as she attends a couple of Burning Man events, regional Rainbow Gatherings, a punk festival in Detroit and a protest encampment of mostly trans women outside the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. She crashes at various communal houses and squats between events.
In the process, she starts to come apart. Suffering from unexplained mental illness (indicated by references to meds she’s supposed to take and to at least one previous stay in an institution), she becomes increasingly anxious, an anxiety that seems understandably fed by not knowing when she’ll eat, where she’ll sleep or whether she can trust the people she’s traveling with. She very quickly loses journalistic distance.
Urquhart was initially attracted to the traveler subculture partly because it seemed a place where she could act crazy and still be accepted. She wonders early on if she could just stop taking her meds without anyone noticing. Very soon, though, she starts worrying that she’s not ever going to be accepted by the people around her because she’s a reporter and someone who has a parental home to go back to. It doesn’t help that Cahana, her frequent companion, seems to move in and out of the subculture effortlessly, while keeping her boundaries intact.
Perhaps it’s this loss of distance, or perhaps it’s the strict chronological order of chapters (rather than, say, arranging the material by topic), that starts to make the narrative seem increasingly repetitive, an ongoing round of rough living and random connection punctuated by Urquhart’s increasing mental instability, which itself is intensified by a couple of bad drug trips. After a while, the reader may start to long for more context, whether it’s statistical (how many people are living this lifestyle?); structural (what do the organizers of Burning Man or the Rainbow Gatherings have to say about these young people?); or historical (what are the families and places like that they came from?). Urquhart, who is Canadian, presents this as an American phenomenon. Isn’t there a subculture like this in Canada too? In addition, while there’s not much discussion of race, the subculture appears to be mainly White. Why is this?
The real movement of Urquhart’s narrative is her gradual breakdown. The book doesn’t work well as a memoir because we only catch glimpses of who she is outside of the events she’s reporting on — mostly as side comments about her economic privilege relative to most of her subjects. Given her growing discomfort and anxiety, it also becomes difficult to understand her continuing attraction to traveler life.
The muted reaction of her traveler friends to her difficulties, including one life-threatening drug overdose, makes the acceptance she finds there seem very close to indifference, and the freedom she seeks not that different from the freedom we have in the rest of consumer society — in which it’s every person for themselves.
In an epilogue, Urquhart, who decided the traveling life wasn’t for her, writes about why it continues to attract her: “With the world crumbling around us, it’s liberating to move fast, to get lost, to feel the ground underfoot. When you’re slow, and still enough, you can feel your skin burning, your eyes turning; you can see all the memories you’d rather forget. ...You learn how to be fully present — profoundly present — in the good times, and you move forward when things go south.” Eloquent as this passage is, its substance isn’t supported by Urquhart’s narrative; if it had been, it would have been a more compelling book.
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