Jessica Lehrman

[Originally published in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times, Aug 30th 2014]

RUSTED ROOT’s song “Send Me on My Way” is blaring as my sister, Cassidy, winds our little Nissan Sentra through the serpentine roads of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. The fresh basil my dad bought as a “car freshener” is wilting on the dash, adding to the smells from our dirt-covered clothes, rich with the odors of helping out at a friend’s farm.

This is our last big stretch in a six-week summer vacation. I crossed 3,365 miles with my sister and my parents, now asleep in the back, resting their heads on the stack of clothes and food that has created a thick median between them.

My life has always been a trip. I’m actually the only one in my family who currently has a home, a Brooklyn loft I share with three roommates. When this family road trip began, my sister had just returned from a nine-month trip to Europe where she tried out rural life in Ireland. Before she left, she shed her home in Los Angeles, where she is an actress. My parents had been on the road for almost a year, traveling and looking for the next place to land, for a bit at least.

Our lives have been this way, in constant motion and flux, since I was 9.

It began when we were living in Tucson, having moved there to be closer to my dad’s family. My mother wanted a bigger, safer car in which to drive us to school. One day on the way home, I spotted the most perfect vehicle that a 9-year-old Grateful-Dead-T-shirt-wearing child could ever imagine: a 21-foot Toyota Dolphin motor home with a “For Sale” sign. My mother and sister were just as excited as I was, and so we rushed home to get my dad. The four of us drove back to look at the Dolphin and as we got out of our small car and my dad took in what was before him, he gasped, “Betsy, you can’t take the kids to school in that thing! It’s a house! If we bought that thing we’d have to change our whole lifestyle.”

Then, as if I had just done a Vulcan mind-meld, his gaze turned to awe and he muttered, “I’d like to change our lifestyle.”

This wasn’t completely out of the blue. My parents were part of the Woodstock generation and both had backgrounds in experimental living and education. Dad was once the director of such new-age educational centers as Interface Foundation in Boston and the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and both my folks lived in the Findhorn ecovillage in Scotland, but at different times. (The fact that my parents were born next door to each other but didn’t connect until their early 30s is a whole other story.) As alternative as our lifestyle already was in Tucson, Dad was yearning to turn our family years into a life of adventure. Within two months, my parents pulled my sister and me out of school, out of our cohousing community filled with hippies and artists, and into both the Toyota motor home and the great unknown of the open road before us.

My dad, a psychotherapist who was winding down his in-person clients and becoming a pioneer in doing that sort of work on the phone, fitted our motor home with every tool, book, art supply and seed of adventure imaginable, including sushi-making utensils and the entire Beatles and Grateful Dead discography. Cassidy and I earned our Junior Ranger badges at just about every national park in the country. All of us became renaissance clowns when we traveled with a caravan of politically oriented storytelling circus performers from festival to festival.

We learned American history, how to read maps, and geography by seeing our country. We also learned practical skills, like how to sew, work leather, lead others and remove rattlesnakes from harm’s way. There was no TV to watch, but we did lots of art, lots of bad art mostly. During these years, we would hike canyons, raft rivers, build fairy houses and attend Rainbow Gatherings with thousands of really nice hippies in the woods. My parents believed in self-directed education and my sister and I were “unschooled,” a movement of education started in the ’70s by John Holt. Traveling at such a young age taught us to quickly adapt to the world around us and to coexist in communities and cultures incredibly different from ours.

The endless summer ended when I was 12 years old. I started wanting to see the same friends every day and settle down. I loved being on the road but I found myself wanting more stability, more space from my family and more of a stationary social life. As much as my folks loved how we had been living, they respected that their daughters had outgrown our small motor home and needed a more stable base. We settled in Paonia, Colo., the town where everyone in my family found what they wanted and the town that I will forever consider my hometown.

But we learned that “settle” isn’t exactly an accurate term for us. Within a few years my family was dispersed and living in different states. At 12, my sister was discovered while acting in a local play and moved with my dad to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Within three months she landed a part on the hit HBO show “Entourage,” which kept her busy for the next seven years, while my mother stayed with me until I graduated. Eventually, I found myself on the other side of the camera, ending up in Central America, India, Zuccotti Park, rap concerts, limousines, fracking sites and the like, drawn into the center of movements documenting revolutions as they unfolded around me.

This past summer was the longest time we had all been together on the road since our life in that Toyota Dolphin. Cassidy and I, 22 and 25, joined our parents in that small Sentra, ending up after six weeks in that special “hometown” of ours — Paonia, Colo.

Heading west from New York City with two destinations in mind — the Oregon Country Fair and the North Fork Valley hippie reunion, held near Paonia — it felt as if we were in an Apollo-era space capsule, crammed with all we needed to survive the long trip. Inside the car the emotional oxygen would sometimes get a little thin, and lots of mini battles were fought.

During this trip our biggest fight was about my photography. I wanted full access to my family, and assuming this would be easier than getting full access to 50 Cent, I was surprised when Cassidy would get mad at me when I photographed her pre-makeup, waking up, in bad moods, on the phone.

Arriving in Eugene, Ore., was like docking on the mother ship of the hippie utopia that is the West Coast. My parents had been able to get us all on as nonpaid staff members at the Oregon Country Fair, which takes places in nearby Veneta. My dad offered counseling in the Altared Advice corner of Altared Space, a spiritual hub of the fair, which is more of a village of conscious and loving people than what you might think of as a “fair.” My mother, Cassidy and I tended to the sacred fire and guided people in making prayer sticks. We camped with the Altared Space crew in a fairy-tale rain forest of tinkerbell villages and laser light shows that was sparsely inhabited by the various crews who made up what’s been estimated as a staff of 20,000.

At the fair we ran into old friends who, 13 years ago, created the Faerieworlds festival, an annual music and arts festival with a realm of the faerie theme. Though we had intended to head to the Oregon coast after the Fair, they gave us passes to Faerieworlds, so we went there, hanging out backstage with incredible bands and eating wonderful food.

The trip was nothing short of transformative, and it’s hard to determine if the peak was the fair, Faerieworlds, a day of Hakomi therapy, trimming marijuana plants in Eugene, visiting friends in Portland, Corvallis, Ashland or Boulder, spending time back in Paonia, or simply being together, committing to true family intimacy.

After the trip, to commemorate our newly found adult sister closeness, Cassidy and I decided to get matching tattoos. I’m nearly a blank canvas, except for the small writing I have on my wrist that simply says “gypsy.”

For my family, of course.

Full story on The New York Times

Using Format