When she was 15, Katherine Alyst told her mom that she dreamed of spending her life traveling the country and living out of a van. Her mother, afraid of what could happen to her daughter out on the road, made her promise that she wouldn’t.
So Katherine tried living a conventional life. She moved out of her parents’ house in Barstow, Calif., at 17, went to cosmetology school and got a job cutting hair in Los Angeles. She lived in an apartment, paid bills, went to music festivals, met people who called themselves travelers and grew restless.
At 21, her wanderlust overcame her. She sold all of her belongings and began hitchhiking around the country.
“I felt like too much of a free spirit to want to wake up and get a job and stay at an apartment over and over,” she says.
Now 24, she does not use her full name while traveling. Hardly anyone on the road does.
Instead, she goes by Kat and never stays in one place long, driving around the country in her old van with one or two people, her two cats and a dog in tow, attending festivals and shows.
Sitting near the entrance to the Downtown Berkeley BART station in April, Kat donned a brown fuzzy hat with ears and a brown fuzzy tail at the back of her hand-sewn patchwork skirt. Her cat, Emeline, perched languidly on her shoulders. She asks for money on the streets to supplement the food stamps she receives and to pay for pet food.
Unlike her pets, most of her traveling companions come and go.
“People out here are so present,” Kat says. “You can meet someone and fall in love very quickly and actually genuinely be in love but then, like, spend 24 hours a day together for a week or two and drive each other completely insane.”
There are many factors that play into the decision to become transient like Kat, some of which are unavoidable, according to professor Randall Amster, who teaches peace studies at Prescott College and researches homelessness and transience.
Often, the voluntaristic homeless come from situations where physical, emotional or substance abuse are everyday realities. Other times, the decision is a way of fleeing from poverty and other systemic societal difficulties.
“One thing that is not talked about as much is that some people have chosen to be homeless over less palatable options,” Amster says.
Still, while many kids out on the road come from broken homes, Kat counts herself lucky.
She returns home once or twice a year to her family, whom she says are supportive and understanding of her choice. She also calls her mother every so often just to check in, using a cellphone her mom funds.
When Kat left Berkeley in April, it was to head to a regional Rainbow Gathering — a utopian, anarchic community set up temporarily in the outdoors. Other than that, her future is a blank page, and she prefers it that way.
“I think that eventually, I will want to settle down, but I’d rather find a self-sustainable community, a commune or somewhere where people are growing food and doing workshops rather than getting a job in a city,” she says. “But I think that I’m young, and I don’t know. I love my van. Anytime I need to go somewhere, I have that option.”