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Living with Two Feet on the Shore

If our love for travel is so deeply interwoven with colonialism, how do we "settle" on land in a way that feels like resistance?

By: Amanda E. Machado + Save to a List

"After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over the people who came to our shores. They look to the toll on the land and say, 'The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.’" - Robin Kimmerer, "Braiding Sweetgrass"


By the time I turned thirty, I had spent more than a third of my twenties living and traveling outside of the United States. I had traveled to over thirty countries, and rarely spent more than three months in the same place. I lived fifteen months out of a backpack, six months out of just one carry-on, years out of just one suitcase. Sometimes I crashed on couches. Sometimes I slept in hostels. Sometimes I subletted apartments. Sometimes I slept in tents pitched on the side of the road. 

Even amidst a global pandemic -- perhaps the first time in my adult life that travel has become almost impossible -- I still find myself by car constantly on the move: one month in Sea Ranch. Two weeks in Joshua Tree. Three weeks in Washington. 

I have told myself moving is a necessity of managing life as a first generation U.S. citizen -- someone that has always felt “ni de aqui ni de alla,” and always had to search far from “home” to find who I am. I have told myself traveling is my experiment in world-building, and realizing what beyond my assumed reality exists. I have told myself it is my best means of self-care and self-empowerment. 

While all may be true, I also now realize it is a decision rooted in the colonialist framework Kimmerer called out: I, as a U.S. settler, have never had both feet on any shore. One is always still on the boat. Even when I have come closer to “settling” anywhere, I have never really known if I was staying or not. 

Writer Bani Amor has written extensively about just how deeply U.S. travel culture is interwoven with colonialism: "White supremacy has created a crisis of identity for settlers who have little connection to the lands they are on or the communities they are a part of. And for this reason, they are always trying to escape, move on to the next place, consume, and repeat." 

Scott Russell Sanders' has also written about how this wanderlust has become a core aspect of American ethos: “My nation’s history does not encourage me, or anyone, to belong somewhere with a full heart. A vagabond wind has been blowing here for a long while. … I feel the force of it.”

In her book Belonging: A Culture of Place, Bell Hooks also writes about the intentional separation between the black community and land, and the erasure of the black community's agrarian roots: "If we think of urban life as a location where black folks learned to accept a mind/body split that made it possible to abuse the body, we can better understand the growth of nihilism and despair in the black psyche. And we can know that when we talk about healing that psyche we must also speak about restoring our connection to the natural world.”

A recent essay by Jehan Roberson argued that for Black Americans after slavery, settling on a piece of land was a revolutionary act:  "To be in community and to make yourself known was revolutionary, a radically subversive act towards slavery, to stake a claim on home, to not make yourself a migrant, or a "foreigner." 

For a third of my twenties, I never staked a claim on home. As a daughter of immigrants, I dealt with this country’s perception of me as a “migrant and foreigner” by traveling constantly, continuing to make myself unknown, always chasing another vagabond wind, and moving on to another place. Just for a few months, I tell myself, just as an adventure, just as an experiment. But then I think of Kimmerer's lines, and I know that this is also a form of internalized colonialism.

After a recent trip through Washington, as a friend and I hopped from one tiny house on a plot of land to another, I couldn’t stop reading and wondering about alternatives: instead of replicating colonialist dynamics in outdoor travel, how can Black, Indigenous, and people of color gain their autonomy through new relationships to land? How can I settle on land in a way that feels like resistance to white supremacy and colonialism? How can I stake a claim on home in a way that feels, as Roberson wrote, like a revolutionary act? 

Some examples I found:

  • Corrina Gould and Johnella LaRose, founders of the Sogorea Tè Land Trust, which since 2012 has channeled funding from Bay Area residents to return Ohlone land. In partnership with Planting Justice, they recently purchased land in East Oakland intended to be an “indigenous cultural site with a traditional arbor, a place for ceremony, and a place to remain true to the original teachings and pass them onto the next generations.”

  • Nineteen families in Georgia combined savings to buy nearly 97 acres of land in Georgia to house the Freedom Georgia Initiative: “an innovative model for self-sufficiency, environmental sustainability, and cooperative economics among BIPOC communities across the African Diaspora globally.” Their vision of the land was born “out of an extreme sense of urgency to create a thriving safe haven for black families in the midst of racial trauma, a global pandemic, and economic instabilities across the United States of America brought on by COVID-19.

  • The Esselen Tribe regained regained 1200 acres in their ancestral lands of Big Sur after working with Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC), an environmental group that acquires land with the purpose of finding a long-term steward that will conserve the natural habitat. 

  • An online “reparations map” created by the organization Soul Fire Farm helps folks directly financially support the specific financial needs of farmers of color across the United States. The map description states: “The food system was built on the stolen land and stolen labor of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and people of color. We are claiming our sovereignty and calling for reparations of land and resources so that we can grow nourishing food and distribute it in our communities. 

Of course, just weeks after the election in a country where over 70 million people voted for an administration that has directly harmed black, indigenous and people of color, a part of me still feels skeptical of reclaiming any semblance of “home” within the United States.  This weekend, as I looked at the electoral maps of California, it affirmed what I had always suspected and felt: the areas I have wanted to live in most for their natural landscape are the areas most red: Mariposa County, Tuolumne County, Calabasas County. The whole area near Stanislaus Forest and Yosemite National Park. 

As I’ve written about before, I am often stalled by this paradox: the areas where I’d consider “settling down” are often also the country’s most hostile to people like me. 

But as Bell Hooks reminds us: "No one is seeking timeless paradise… what people are seeking is not so much the home they left behind as a place they feel they can change, a place in which their lives and strivings will make a difference.”

This is what I find myself craving. If it is time to belong somewhere with a full heart, I want to do it way that I can genuinely reflect the world I want to believe in. I hope to spend these next months of this residency writing and exploring how to do it.

Cover Photo: Tiago Aguiar

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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