Cheri Lucas Rowlands is a writer and photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area who explores the notions of time, place, memory, home and writing through the window of her self-titled blog, Cheri Lucas Rowlands. Cheri works as a story wrangler for Automattic and she and her husband are currently building a tiny house on wheels to call home. I asked her five questions and got five meditations on what it means to be an explorer, not just of place but of existence, too.
Your work isn’t necessarily about travel but considers exploration in its many forms. If you had to pin it down, what would you say is your exploration philosophy?
One of my favorite quotes is from Gertrude Stein: “When you get there, there isn’t any there there.” She was referring to the city of Oakland, but I think this line means different things to different people, and you could say it reflects my own exploration philosophy. I love exploring new places, and revisiting the ones I’ve loved. But over time, I’ve found that exploring is just as much, or even more so, about time as it is about place. When revisiting places I’d once fallen for, like Montreal and Granada, I realize that these cities aren’t the cities I once experienced, and what I’ve remembered or longed for, really, were past versions of myself or particular moments in time.
For instance, I think Las Vegas is a fascinating place: I’ve been there so many times since my first visit when I was a kid, and it’s become a blank canvas. The city feels new on each visit — it lets me shape it each time. And last fall, in lovely Valletta, Malta, I found myself sitting with a notebook and a pint of beer in an outdoor cafe. Everything about that was so familiar, so comforting — the setting around me, the ambient sounds, my solitude — but I’d never been to Valletta, and I have no idea where I was on a street map. I think what I mean to say is while I love to travel and wander new geographic locations, and see new sights and try different things, I’m very much a creature of habit and use the stimulation from a place as a way to unlock time — and a tiny window into myself. I think this is where my most inspired writing comes from.
I’m not saying that places are illusory backdrops or that it’s just about the journey and not the destination, but I think ultimately I’m not satisfied, never done, when I get there — wherever there is. In that sense, I don’t understand this idea of a bucket list. Why do we cross places off? What does it mean when there’s nothing left on this list? I guess I don’t view traveling in this way: a world to be seen and conquered, cities and cultures to adopt and appropriate. I think the more places I go, the more I sense that this world around me is really just one thing. So there is no there. There is the same as here.
I love to travel, and I do write about the places I go, but I’m not very interested in writing about travel or place in the traditional sense, and more interested in the exploration of space and time. I think a reader on my blog once referred to some of my writing as “mind travel,” and I can see why. Ultimately, I’ve not thought about this enough, but your question has got me thinking, so thank you.
What word or emotion best describes the feeling of wandering?
Automatic, as in automatic writing: those frictionless sessions when I sit and write without thinking. This freeing sensation, the opening of floodgates when I write automatically — that’s also how I feel when I wander, whether I’m on the streets of a foreign city or in my own neighborhood. I tend to wander off on my own when I’m outside in general; it’s challenging for me to explore in a group, or contain myself to a certain area. I often lag behind to stop, stare, and take pictures, or turn right while others turn left. A leash would probably help! But people who know and spend time with me know that if I leave, I will return. I think this explains a bit why I’m obsessed with squirrels, as I love to see them observe from afar, scurry and disappear, and eventually come back.
Describe a stand-out moment from one of your travels, whether near or far.
I’d have to say the Full Moon Party on Ko Phangan island in Thailand in 2004. I’d been living and working in Chonburi as an English teacher, and I met my brother and sister-in-law on the island while they were on their honeymoon in Southeast Asia. I was 24; my brother was 32. I often visualize the events of my life as a wave, and this night is definitely a crest. I think it’s a combination of many things, all of which came together at an incredible setting on a crescent-shaped beach, under the full moon.
I’d been slowly extricating myself from a period of time in my life full of excess. Lots of partying, lots of drugs. Many fun, carefree, but destructive formative years. Moving to Thailand gave me more distance, but when I met my brother and sister-in-law on Ko Phangan to go to one of the most fabled parties in the world — and listen to music and experience the dance scene that I so loved in a new place — I felt like I’d come full circle, but in a way that allowed me to feel positive, even appreciative, about my past. Time also crept up on me that night: for so long, I had a “big brother,” but I realized our eight-year age gap had shrunk, and that was the first night we found ourselves on truly the same plane.
What does home mean to you?
This question drives much of what I write right now.
After settling into my first real home in San Francisco and making it my own, my definition of home didn’t become any clearer. I thought that what was missing — the person I loved, who at the time lived on the other side of the world — was what truly constituted home. Home was a constant, home was an anchor. But even when we shared this same physical space, it didn’t quite feel like home. Was it the space itself? Was it the city? Was it the fact that our dearest friends were scattered around the world?
I continue to wonder what home looks like, and if I can shape it into exactly what I want. My husband and I will explore this in a tiny house on wheels, which we’ll move into next month. For the past year-and-a-half, we’ve focused on designing the 131-square-foot space, and have talked constantly about what we both need in a physical home. And with a space this small, other things have become important to us, from the parcels of land that we choose to park on to the wider landscapes that surround us. Perhaps home is a series of layers, with our tiny living space as simply the innermost core.
Humans are constantly evolving creatures; I love reading how other people interact in places they love, or think about places they long for, or navigate places they no longer identify with. I think of writers like Leah Reich, who writes lovely short essays in her Book of Home — especially those that read like love letters to California — and Miranda Ward, who writes beautifully about place, but also the sense of home within one’s own body.
As I redefine home, especially through the lens of our moveable tiny house, I realize more than ever that home is more than a structure with a roof and walls. Life is made up of many variables, and so what comforts me the most is the mental space: solitude for thought, creativity, and growth. I love being out in the world, I love putting myself in new and unfamiliar settings, I love getting lost in crowds, I love interacting with people. But I’m also quiet, and very much an observer. I suppose home is the ever-shifting plane around me that provides the inner space that I need.
Drive, fly, sail, walk or run — which one and why?
I think my response would be different if you asked me at another time, but at this moment, I’ll say “drive.” My husband and I want to explore the US’s National Parks in a teardrop trailer. Aside from big cities, I haven’t really experienced the wild of North America, and in my limited road trip experience, I’ve only trekked California and up the west coast into the Pacific Northwest.
This fall, I’m driving from Park City, Utah, to Flagstaff, Arizona, stopping in places like Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, and Sedona. I love feeling dwarfed by the outdoors — the moments when I stare out at a landscape and feel so tiny, when nature keeps me in check. I think road trips can be meditative in this way: climbing mountains and zooming across deserts for hours, tracing the topography of the land, experiencing how vast it is.