I

 

     Thinking back to my childhood, there are not many vacations that populate my memory. We went to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina when I was 5. I remember playing in the sand. There was a beautiful lifeguard, and I remember trying to get her attention, but maybe this is a part of a memory that I have of going to Dollywood Splash Country, floating down the lazy river. Yeah, that’s probably it.

 

     We had a timeshare we couldn’t afford in Pigeon Forge, TN. This was a constant source of arguments in our household. I have distinct memories of my dad opening letters from the timeshare, bills, and he getting angry, or throwing them away. He was never easy to travel with. He’s not someone who likes to relax, because when he does he starts thinking of bills, money owed, and how his time relaxing is time away from working, and working is what kept us from going bankrupt. My mom loves relaxing. When she is on vacation, nothing matters. She seems to leave every burdening thought at home, which would piss my dad off. He was perplexed as to how someone could just sit at the beach in the sun and do nothing. It’s beyond foreign to him.

 

     Our time in Pigeon Forge, a strip of nothing but tourist attractions before entering the Smoky Mountains, was spent riding go-carts, going to arcades, and playing at now questionable water parks. Oh, and Dollywood. Dollywood is the saving grace for children in East Tennessee, and parents too. Do you feel like you’re neglecting your child? Take them to Dollywood for a day and you win. Actually, everyone wins. Your kid gets to have an absolute blast eating the best kettle corn in the world, riding a wide array of roller coasters, and seeing live performances, while you only have to drive about 45 minutes away and spend $200 at the door to get in, unless you have season passes, which in that case you become God to your kids.


 

II

 

     I first felt it during a drive to Louisiana for my older brother’s baseball tournament. A 14 hour drive is no easy task in a sedan with 5 people. My father drove both ways, mother in the passenger seat, and me , my brother and his girlfriend in the back. I was about 10 years old at the time. My brother and his girlfriend were 14 or so. They made-out the entire time, both to and from Louisiana. I didn’t read books when I was a kid, and this was before TV monitors in cars existed, so aside from watching them kiss in a dramatically slow fashion, which I did a couple times out of sheer curiosity, and witnessing my parents not talk to each other, there was a window. Here is where I pause while writing this and try to convey the importance of this seemingly mundane object, the window. Now I’m trying to figure why I’m calling attention to myself in the present writing this. Maybe for effect? Maybe I’m actively trying to avoid using heavy-handed metaphors to illustrate just what windows mean to me?

 

     Windows are about the most plain, realistic example of escapism. One could assert cinema, literature, paintings and other media, or music as being more applicable, but I would disagree. All of those mediums are attempting to be windows, but are really just simulations of windows-- an essence of windows, one could say.

 

     A window is not just a piece of glass, or any transparent material, that separates you from whatever is on the other side, but it’s a framing device in the most literal sense of the phrase. It creates perspective, cuts off surrounding stimuli to allow the viewer to focus on a certain percentage of objects in his or her field of view. No matter which side you’re on, the window remains interesting, and no matter where you stand, there’s always a window somewhere.

 

     I, of course, did not possess this understanding of the importance of windows during the time of the Louisiana trip, but the experience of the window was working itself on me. It was not just an escape, I was able to see life on the other side, and it was moving quickly. The contents of the window were changing rapidly, evolving, deforming, reforming, all in a fluid motion. The only constants were the guard rail and the patterns on the road, like snakes following close. But these were friendly snakes, moving alongside me, grounding the reality of travel.

 

     There’s a large gap in the memory of my travels after Louisiana. I know there was a trip to Kentucky for a family reunion, where I had my first sip of alcohol, and a handful of trips to South Carolina where my Grandmother lived, but no significant journeys that escaped the south--  no ventures that transported me to a new landscape that required adjustment, that is, until I went to California, the first of three very important trips in my life.

 

III

 

     Before I get into the importance of my trip to California, I need to paint what my life had become before this, and I’m going to do so as quick and concisely as possible. After escaping high school at the age of 15, and getting my GED at the age of 18, I had in my journey across adolescence discovered a passion for art, but primarily cinema. This was the result of doing almost nothing after dropping out, and quickly discovering how empty life can be. What was I to do? I sucked at math and science and didn’t care about being a part of any profession that would involve the two, and still don’t. During the course of getting my GED, I found that I was naturally a good writer, which was surprising because I retained absolutely nothing from school, so writing was something I began to find solace in. Coupled with what became a passion for movies, which evolved from doing nothing but watching films everyday for 3 years, I found writing about movies to be productive, and it offered a sense of accomplishment that had not been obtained previously, other than landing new tricks on a skateboard.

 

     I fancied myself a film blogger for a short amount of time, which led me to wonder if I should study journalism and cinema, with the hopes to be a film critic. I enrolled in Pellissippi State community college with a journalism major, but shortly after enrollment I found that I had been lying to myself, and that I really wanted to be an actor, so then I was a theatre major. I stuck this out for a while before I realized, yet again, I was lying to myself. This time I realized I wanted to be a film-maker, a Director. I found I was more fascinated with the mechanics and poetry of film-making rather than the people who populated the films. I even got to where I preferred films with non professional actors because they maintained much of the realism that I desired as a viewer. This is where being lost became an art for me.

 

     During this process I lost my faith in God, or god, which is important, but is loaded with many other ideas that I will traverse another time. Anyway, it was a happy divorce, the kind that is necessary, but also kind that leaves a void where it once was, a vacuum. This created an urgency to life, and I lost my patience with anything that didn’t hold my interest. After studying film-making for a time, and running out of financial aid, I ceased my studies and graduated with the credit I had already acquired. I figured if I were to be a film-maker, it would be because I make films, not study them in school. Besides, to watch a film is to study it, and I did plenty of that. During this time I began to take short trips in my car, just driving. Sometimes I would drive to Chattanooga via highway 11, or to Asheville, North Carolina. The movement excited me, seeing new things, a consistent change of scenery. The travel excited me, and it was addictive. It was all I wanted to do.

 

     At this point I’m living with a girlfriend. I am in love, deeply-- an affection I’ve never felt for another human being, a bottomless pit of passion that was persistently overflowing. Her brother was getting married in San Diego, California, where she was from, and so we planned a week long vacation there. Before this I have no memory of ever flying in a plane, my dad says I did when I was very young, but I don’t remember.

 

     It was June of 2016, and we were at the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta, and I had never seen anything like it. There was a never ending well of interesting people, and more of them than I could keep up with. I loved being there, just sitting and watching. I was nervous to fly, however. I knew I wouldn’t be scared, but I was anxious about how it would feel, or if I would cry. I didn’t cry, but it was beautiful. I managed to get a window seat, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of the sky and the ground. It is terrifying, but in a way that sets one free. I didn’t have any control, and for once in my life this was okay, because I had my window.

 

     Southern California was strange and not what I hoped. It was dirty, and the sky was ugly. Concrete is the singular image I could ascribe to its essence-- hot concrete. We traveled up to LA for a day, which I was excited about, but it too was not what I was looking for. Beneath all this, the pedals of my flower that was film-making was wilting. If I didn’t like LA, then I could never sell-out and work on studio films to make a living, also knowing that Atlanta would never be an option..

     The few things I did enjoy were the beach towns, which felt artificial at times, and the little bits of natural landscape that I managed to see. It’s very different, with mellow hills, containing a variety of foreign flora. Another fascinating aspect were the houses-- not only their architecture, but where they were, sprinkled all over the hills. There were times I could see clear across the landscape, past the tops of mountains, and see nothing but homes. I didn’t care that California was not the answer. I just enjoyed being in a new place.

 

     Coming home is always the hard part. Trying to convince yourself that the travel is over, and that you need to go back to the job you hate is tortuous, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s reality, and it’s always here.

 

IV

 

     Chicago: a city I began to romanticize heavily. Seeing it portrayed in films would always make me want to go there. However, it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think it is how the community is displayed in the films of Joe Swanberg, which can be coupled with the film and arts community there. It seemed like another place I could see myself in.

 

     I planned a trip with my girlfriend and two of my best friends, Reid and Jody, who were also interested in Chicago. Everything was set, but my girlfriend decided she didn’t want to go. Not only that, but she didn’t want to live with me anymore, and in the most band-aid ripping fashion, it was over and I was living alone with barely any money. I found myself being pulled away in yet another vacuum. Things lost their value, even life itself. This will happen when a large part of your identity is welded to another person, and is then removed swiftly and unsparingly. I still haven’t completely gotten myself back, and it’s been over a year since. However, I didn’t let this get in the way of the trip to Chicago, which was all I had to look forward to.

 

     I drove to Chicago with my friends, and I loved every moment of the trip. On top of that, I loved every minute in Chicago itself, even though it was below freezing (we went in January), I got sick and tore both of my achilles tendons. Chicago was actually everything I dreamed of, which was odd in a beautiful way. The city is welcoming, the food is amazing, the residential areas are charming, and the Art Institute is a treasure. The problem with Chicago, however, is that I could never afford to live there, and I don’t think I would want to. A big city like that is fun to visit for its novel aspects, but to exist there would be difficult. I like to escape into rural areas, of which there are none in Chicago. While I loved my few days there, back to Tennessee and reality I had to go.

 

V

 

     Austin, Texas: an independent film-making hub. Reid, Jody, and I planned another trip to go there. This trip and Chicago were separated only by a few months, so not much had changed. I moved back in with my mom because I was broke, and film-making was still a goal. I worked on screenplays daily, but the flower of passion had died more with each small failure. I had, and still do, all of these ideas for films that I struggled to translate to writing because they are so distinctively visual for me. At this time I had started shooting 35mm film stills with a camera a friend had given to me. I really enjoyed it, but it was secondary to watching, writing, and conceptualizing movies.

     We drove to Hartsfield-Jackson airport, and I was, again, invigorated by the entire experience: the drive, the airport, the flight, and the people involved in all of it. Austin, however, was another lost hope. Austin is a normal city that just so happens to host extraordinary events, and if your not at one of those events, then Austin is just ordinary-- eclectic, but ordinary. The food, however, was incredible, and it was the saving grace of the trip. In fact, we spent our last day doing nothing but hopping from restaurant, to food truck, to restaurant to try as much food as we could, and these moments, on top of all my previous experiences, began to gain momentum with their importance.

 

     Staring out of the plane window I had a bunch of profound realizations about my place in this world. Instead of retreading them, I will paste an excerpt from a post I made on instagram about what had occurred to me.

 

     “As I looked down through the night, the world looked as though it were ablaze. The street lamps resembled the embers of a fire. And I thought about how meaningless much of life can seem, as one is apt to do when seeing the earth from such a far distance. But upon further examination, I could easily focus on each individual lamp. In fact, it was not very hard to notice each one if I was I paying enough attention. Someone down there is using that light to see the road ahead of them, I would think. They, together, make up the fire.”

     “I left Austin not convinced that it was somewhere that I wanted to move to. As much as I loved the food, and found the people to be welcoming, it was a city that felt almost too familiar, and I'm personally looking for somewhere that I can find new things to learn and look at. For most of my life, I've been someone that has felt out of place, and I don't think I'm alone there, but I've never felt 'home.' I look forward to a life where I can travel and try to find what "Home" means. I'm a difficult person in that I do not by any means know what I want. There are things I love to do, and are why I get out bed in the morning, and those are the things I'm persistently working for, but they're also things that don't make money. So, I don't know what I'm going to do, and that's not okay all the time. I like some security, but I seem to gravitate toward things that are the exact opposite. I am changing slowly, but I'm not sure what it is that I'm becoming. I think it's a good thing, but I don't really know.”

 

VI

 

     During the drive from the Airport, while Reid was sleeping (Jody flew to LA from Austin), I started thinking about it all: the drive, the food, the different places, the surprises the disappointments, the fear, and the melancholy. I discovered that feeling these things and seeing these places enabled me to respect each second of life more than ever. While there is a distinct beauty to a routine life, it’s not what I desire right now.

 

     After butchering a short film, I realized that I’m not a film-maker. I don’t have the patience to stick to one film for years, or to develop a crew and cast properly. I just wanted to make the films, and see them. Feeling lost and in denial about this realization,  I picked up that 35mm camera again. I developed some rolls I had shot months before, and I saw myself for the first time in a while. I saw my gaze perfectly documented in a single frame, unfiltered by difficulties with production, a poor cast, or bad editing. I immediately felt the need to follow up on this, so I began going out everyday and shooting. Shortly after,  I began noticing how my images connected, so I started organizing them into different series of photos, which all snowballs to now.

 

     It’s hard to imagine doing anything else, other than playing music or writing literature, but all these mediums can work together indirectly, and I can pick them up and put them down, but photography is constant. It’s not an addiction, it's a livelihood. I have to keep pursuing it. I now find myself traveling to areas of Knoxville and East Tennessee that people avoid, or simply pass over. I find people who work hard, or love a lot, whose houses are dying, whose economy is disappearing, and in all this I am finding my self because I feel so much for everything around me.

     But here’s the thing, I still don’t fit in anywhere, and that’s my place. I am to be fluid so I can tell these stories anywhere. Not just everyone else's’ stories, but mine too. Being the one who is physically in these spaces and reporting them to you in whatever form they present themselves, my experience is vital in that equation as well, which can manifest itself through a photo, a song, a poem, or a short story, but most importantly, through my experiences and emotions I am working to create a window.

 

     With all this, I know I must go farther. I want to take these things I’ve learned about East Tennessee and myself and see how they translate across our nation. What’s different about our homes, and why? What is home? I don’t know if my travels will reveal anything, but I have to find that out. I have to feel these places, the people, taste their food, smell their flowers and their garbage. The purpose of life is to try, and I’m going to try to travel across the country in two months, visiting everywhere that I can.

 

     I wrote this because I wanted to. If a book is to be published of my experience and photographs, then this will maybe exist as a foreword. If you are reading this in a book now, then my job is done.

 

     If you can donate to my campaign for this project/ journey, then I will be forever grateful. Any donation amount will earn you a credit in the published outcome of this.

 

Thank you for reading,

 

JHM