Congratulations to Kristi Hemingway for Winning the May 2024 Barefoot Writing Challenge! (Your $100 prize is on its way!)

The challenge was to write an essay that answered this prompt:

Describe a facet of your identity, background, or story that is essential to who you are.

Kristi told a relatable story about yearning for more — and going after it. Enjoy her winning submission:

Finding More
by Kristi Hemingway

Kristi Hemingway
Kristi Hemingway

When I was 8 years old, I started keeping a packed suitcase under my bed.

I would lie above it each night, planning my getaway. Although, it was less about getting away, and more about going toward — something.

A well-loved and admittedly privileged kid in the suburbs, I was inexplicably haunted by chronic discontent — a nagging soul-voice relentlessly whispering “not enough.”

So although I wasn’t Huck Finn — living a neglected existence in a derelict shack terrorized by a drunk, abusive parent, from whom I needed to flee after faking my own demise — I wanted to be Huck Finn. Minus the suffering. Obviously.

At 9 years old (and at every age since), I just needed more.

I saved my allowance for months. I packed clothing for all seasons, throwing in random bottles from the medicine chest so I’d be prepared for snakebites and cholera, and other exotic diseases and injuries.

My plan was to travel to the mountains of Colorado and join a band of Romani. Are there bands of Romani in Estes Park? Surely.

I had a twirling skirt. It was my mom’s old cheerleading skirt (full length — think 1950s). I practiced dancing on the coffee table and singing, “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end…” I was ready.

Luckily, this was the summer my parents decided that we no longer needed a babysitter, so while my sister was theoretically in charge, she was criminally inattentive. I waited until my brother had gone to his friend’s house and my sister was engrossed in Days of Our Lives to bump my monster suitcase down the steps and wheel it to the Stop-n-Go convenience store a block away. There, I used a pay phone to call a taxicab to take me to the bus station in the center of the city.

I’d like to say that I’m writing this remembrance from the inside of a vardo, while the laughter of barefoot children and the music of a concertina drift through my open window.

I didn’t make it.

After paying the cabdriver, I discovered, to my utter humiliation and defeat, that I was $2.35 short for the bus ticket. I abandoned my quest and called my mom, asking her to come pick me up.

She grounded me for two weeks, and forced me to unpack the suitcase.

That’s when I turned to writing. It became the release valve for chronic discontent, as well as my litany of complaints, my distracted wonderings, and all the what-ifs. I committed to the page instead of the road, and found, to my delight, that the page often leads me to the road.

In each stage of life since the age of 9, I have found my band of Romani — other writers who love words, and seek the ideas and adventures worth telling about. The suitcase now sits beside my bed rather than under it, ready for assignment.