Real Life Runaways

Real Life Runaway: Packing Up My Little Red Wagon

The Real Life Runaway stories are a monthly true story about someone who once ran away from home. Whether they packed up a little red wagon, like in this story, studied abroad, or moved across the world, these stories are all about our common desires for exploration, fresh starts, and clean slates.  


I ran away for the first time when I was six. There was something going on at my parents’ house that I did not want to be a part of, so I snuck around and gathered up the essentials: some boxes of cereal, some stuffed animals, and my favorite book. All these went into the Radio Flyer little red wagon we kept in the back shed, which I then pulled out to the sidewalk.

As I remember, it was early evening in late spring. It was warm out, but not terribly hot or humid, and my plan was to head for the woods. The suburb of Dallas that I lived in back then was on the edge of civilization, or so it seemed. We were close enough to the city center that we could get to the Galleria in about 35 minutes without traffic, but far enough from the city that the area wasn’t really built up yet. Across the street from my neighborhood there was an untouched plot of land that was filled with sunflowers and bordered by a wooded area. You could see it from an upstairs window of our house, and it was there that I decided to head.

sunflowers ben smithI think I got to the end of the block. I remember a kid coming up to me and talking to me, but I can’t remember if this kid was paired with any of the adults at my parents’ shindig, or if this was a neighbor child. I don’t remember what they said to me either, but by the end of the conversation it became clear that I needed to turn my little red wagon around and head home. Not because running away was a bad idea, but because I had forgotten one very important thing: Milk.

How could I possibly eat cereal in the woods without milk?

As is probably true for all six-year-olds, my plans for what I would do once I had successfully runaway were vague. I was going to be queen of the woods, obviously, and definitely make some woodland creature friends, but I’m fairly sure there was a part of me that thought my life would remain largely the same. I would still go to school, because I loved first grade, and to gymnastics, but I’d live in the woods and there would be no more adults telling me what to do.

Instead, my father happened to come out to the garage to grab something just as I was walking into it with my wagon, sure I could sneak in and grab milk then turn back down our steep gravel driveway and head back towards the woods. I guess he thought I was playing, because he didn’t seem all that concerned when he saw me.

“Come inside, we’re about to have dinner,” he said, and went in without checking to make sure I was following.

But I’d been caught! He knew my plans now! He’d seen the little red wagon! I had to go inside.

The rest of the evening passed fairly uneventfully. Someone pinched my cheeks, probably, which would have made me furious, and before bed I went back to the wagon to pull out my stuffed animals and my book.

We kept that little red wagon for years, long past it’s prime and it’s mediocrity. The handle squealed and stuck if anyone tried to move it, a wheel disappeared one summer, and the bottom had rusted out holes in it. At some point after the holes appeared, I tried to plant a garden in the wagon but it failed.

the red wagon roland tanglao

I think sometimes that this first attempt at running away, this tiny trip with the little red wagon–there and back again, as it were–set the stage for what would become several more attempts to both leave home and also keep everything the same. I did this when I went to college, when I studied abroad in China, when I went to France for three months; I tried to change both everything and nothing, uprooting my life but trying to keep my day-to-day static in a way that just doesn’t work. The change, the new habits and person you have to become, are the fun part of running away and moving abroad, the part that should be embraced.

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