D*S Essay Contest: Katie Bennett

by Grace Bonney

Katie VW bus
[Editor’s note: All week we will be posting the finalists for our first D*S Essay contest. The theme was “HOME”. Voting will begin on Friday after all finalists have been notified and posted. Thank you so much to everyone who entered this year’s contest! -Grace]

As a little girl growing up in Oregon, I had two homes. Every two weeks my older sister and I would pack our suitcases (soft-sided, navy blue) and move from our mom’s to our dad’s then back again. Dad’s house had the best trees for climbing – a tall cherry, a gnarled pear, a trio of plums – all laden with fruit at different times across the summer months. His house was narrow and old, with the kitchen and bath tacked on the back some decades past and held up with stacks of cinderblocks. The floors of those rooms were sloped, and in the clawfoot bathtub I’d have to brace my legs against the end to keep from sliding down the drain along with my hot pink Mr. Bubble bathwater. Over the course of many years my dad and grandpa Wayne tore those rooms off and built others and his house and my childhood smelled of the sawdust of constant construction, and the buzz of long summer days were punctuated with the staccato beat of the hammer. And it felt like home.

Mom’s house was newer, built at the top of a hill and surrounded by woods. I’d hold elaborate funerals for the chipmunks and velvety-soft shrews I sometimes found dead beneath the trees. Her house smelled of coffee percolating and Fendi perfume, and sounded like her soft voice reading me Betsy-Tacy books, my head resting on a chest that was later made lumpy, but no less comfortable, with the scar tissue of breast cancer surgery. And it felt like home. At seventeen, after drifting through high school, I moved into my best friend’s robin’s egg-blue VW van. We named him Jimmy and headed south to California then east and north through Colorado and into Nebraska, where a nice guy showed us where to crawl underneath the van and hit it with a hammer to make it start so we could continue north to Quebec and south to Florida — a year-long looping figure 8 of the country. At night we’d pull onto dirt roads, into friendly driveways, into truck stops and grocery store parking lots. We’d close the colorful calico curtains her mom had sewn before we left and we’d look at our maps, and that felt like home.

[continued after the jump…]

As a nineteen year old I landed in the sticky mid-July heat of Rome. Amid that big city chaos and a language I had yet to learn, I worked to disentangle myself from an eating disorder cultivated during my first year in the dorms. My brain was full, but my conversations were restricted to a novice’s grasp of the language – the simple and the mundane. How do I get to … Where can I find the… Excuse me… How do you say … I learned to navigate the winding streets with my creased and faded map hidden in a pocket, ducking into doorways to memorize my route so I could walk with assurance, eyes forward amid the catcalls of “Vikinga, Vikinga!” – a tall blonde Viking desperate to blend in. I came to love the city, where spectres of history appear at every turn, and in my narrow bed in my narrow room, with the washing strung on the line that stretched across the balcony outside my door and the smell of potted basil, that too felt like home.

Katie on PCT
Years later, after four universities with one degree done and one to come, I set off for five months of walking from Mexico to Canada; 2,600 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. I carried my house (distilled to so few items – sleeping bag, pot for cooking, half of the tent) in my backpack and every day there were more miles, another stretch of trail. From desert floors to snowy mountain passes. Heading always north, my trajectory, for once, straight and purposeful. The smell of chaparral in the south and the vanilla scent of ponderosa pines, the wet snow of the Sierras, the familiar firs of Oregon, the changing of the seasons & coming fall in Washington, when we’d wake with ice on the inside of the tent and in our water bottles. Feet on the trail – dusty, muddy, rocky – and that felt like home.

After the trail I took care of other people’s houses and animals. Two winters on an island in Alaska with a treacherous icy path to the outhouse and a view of white-capped waves and out across the bay. At night, I’d listen to the creak of docks and the groan of boats straining against their lines when the storms blew through.  I spent an autumn on the Oregon Coast with Lily, who was my dog for six months and had a head flat as a shovel. I’d curl around her under the blanket as fog blanketed the house.  And those houses that weren’t my own, they too felt like home.

Katie Red House
And now my trajectory is shaped like a starburst. Out and back, out and back, returning always to my center – to my darling husband and my sweet red house. And it’s here that we have planted plum and pear trees and watched them grow tall; it’s here my Betsy-Tacy books sit on shelves that we have built; it’s here that potted basil grows in the kitchen window during summer; and here that we burrow deeper under the blankets in the winter and listen to the storms blow through leafless trees. And it smells of wild mint and a towering hedge of lilacs, of drywall dust and new paint, and it is home. –Katie Bennett

Suggested For You


  • My favorite! Love the life you’ve lived and the perspective you’ve given it. And I love your home.

  • What a beautiful essay! To me it really spoke to the thought that if you enjoy the different flavors, sounds and sights of each place you will always be at home.

  • Fantastic! I always find it hard to explain to people how the wilderness can feel like home, but you nailed it!

  • UGH- I’m LOVING all the essay’s! Will be hard to pick- but this one really is great!

  • Thank you! Home is such a movable feast that comes full circle, to mix metaphors. Superb essay!

  • Absolutely beautiful…agree…the imagery…the continuity…the sentiment…to the calculated end. Creatively rendered…haunting refrain.

  • Wow. I just took the best trips of my life with you. My favorite essay so far! Home is where the heart is…

  • I adore this essay! So often when people speak of home, they refer to one specific place or space. For those of us who’ve spent our lives in a variety of places, and known a number of homes, it’s more complex. This piece captures that feeling beautifully.

  • Katie, you have very skillfully expressed the variety in and of
    your homes – well-done!

    • This is beautiful- your fresh personal honesty illuminated with powerful imagery that brings the reader into each of your homes. I especially liked “The vanilla scent of Ponderosa pines,” which describes so well that sweet elusive scent. My favorite essay for sure!

      • Your evocative images and heartfelt images bring us home with you throughout your pilgrimage – because you are a seeker. I love how literally and in your heart your home now is created from the many homes that have embraced you and you, them.

  • Beautiful essay Katy! I so loved hearing about your past life, travels, and many homes!

  • Lovely. You are always at home if you are always present, and open, and curious. If you see your surroundings through a poet’s eye, well, that’s just a bonus. Thank you for sharing your beautifully-told story.

  • Beautifully written sister!!! You have a gift for imagination and visualization!!

  • *sigh* Beautifully written, my beautiful friend. It makes my heart full to read of all the places you’ve called home.

  • Beautifully rendered–heart and soul, candor and insight. Home is an embrace of what and whom we cherish. Katie captured this quality. Writing like this is a major reason that redhousewest is one of the few blogs I still read.

  • Beautifully written and a true delight to read. You bring to life the gift that is a sense of home. Kudos!

  • Katy, after reading this I will be watching for more from you. You are truly gifted.

  • Your love of life and language, your sense of curiosity, your perceptive awareness, your adventurous spirit, your rhetorical skill, and your admirable intelligence shine forth in this essay.
    As a teacher of writing for more than forty years at colleges and universities in Missouri, Utah, and Oregon I recognize fine writing when I see it, and this is beautiful writing.
    Thank you.

  • My favorite essay. Full of wonderment while grounded to self and the idea of home and heart, woven with the keen eye of both an observer and participant. When an essay makes me tear up, my heart’s engaged. Thank you, Katie.

  • I love this essay, because it illustrates clearly that home is not restricted to 4 walls, or a certain style, or be a certain size; home is how you feel about the place wherever you are, and whatever you do in life. Beautifully expressed.

  • I love this essay because it illustrates beautifully that home is not made up of 4 walls, or of a certain style, or a certain size; home is how you feel about the place wherever you are. You create it with your own personality and attitude. Beautifully expressed.

  • Your essay is fantastic. It takes a special person to be such adventurer and create an environment as sacred as home wherever you may be and then to put into words so sublimely.

  • This essay is beautiful Katie. Your “voice” is evident in each description and this clarity helped me imagine you in all the places you have called home. Most of all this story is of hope, the most valuable and precious emotion, thank you for sharing it with the world.