Literary Excerpts

As a Child, Living Life on the Run

by Tyler Wetherall
The author, left, with her sister and father on a ski vacation in Europe. Photo by Tyler Wetherall.

When we hear about people being "bit by the travel bug," we think of them as having an appreciation of new places — not necessarily a compulsion to get up and go. The two go hand in hand for Tyler Wetherall, a travel writer who, as a child, moved 13 times across five countries and used a name that was different than the one on her passport. When she was nine years old, she learned why: Her father was a fugitive and the family was running from the FBI. She spoke with Pavia and Jeralyn on the A Way to Go Podcast about her journey and the memoir that came of it.

Here's an excerpt from Weatherall's book, No Way Home, a Memoir of Life on the Run

After Megève, they moved to a house in the South of France with tall, eggshell-blue shutters, an orchard, and a swimming pool. Fugitive life didn’t seem so bad. 

We rode on the back of Dad’s blue Harley-Davidson, the weight of the too-big helmet on my shoulders and the hot air blasting around my body. It was all thrilling until we took a tumble, bodies flying in different directions. I hit the ground first, the bike landed on top of me, and then Dad came down with a thud. I escaped with no more than scrapes and bruises, but I refused to get on the Harley again. 

There were other fugitives in France too, and each one had their own story. One family had two sons who were aspiring tennis players, and they sent them back to America with fake identities so that they could attend Bollettieri Tennis Camp in Florida. Why let a little thing like being on the run hold your kids back from fulfilling their clay court dreams? The network of fugitives stretched across the whole of Europe; fellow fugitives exchanged information with each other and tips on how to get by. I was beginning to see that Dad’s lifestyle had always been this way, for as long as I’d been a remembering person; I just hadn’t thought to question why. With each story he shared, we would probe around his own, but we never asked directly, and he never told. 

We hung out with the other fugitive kids. A young family who ran a fashion boutique in Paris had two daughters close to our ages. We didn’t know kids like us back home, on-the-run children who grew up collecting postal addresses and surnames the way other kids collect china dolls or baseball cards. We had first met them back in California when we were babies, and their dad got in trouble alongside ours, not that we talked about it. Fugitive kids don’t talk about being fugitives. Unlike fugitive parents, we don’t know what we can and cannot share, so we don’t say anything at all. We all grew up with one rule: don’t tell! 

We were there when another set of fugitive siblings were first told about their parents’ secret lives: that their name was not their own and they were in hiding from the FBI. I think their parents were worried they might hear it from us, which would never have happened. We hadn’t told a soul. Dad asked Cait and me to help them work through the shock afterward, which seemed unfair—no one had been there to help us, least of all Dad. These two kids were maybe seven and nine, and they didn’t have the emotional tools to understand what this meant. We watched them go through the same thought process we had: the realization your father is not the person you thought he was, which means neither are you. But the more they talked about it, the less comfortable Cait and I became. “It’s best not to talk about it,” Cait said eventually. 

And we didn’t talk about it with those two kids again until years later, when we found ourselves gathered around a table at a bar back in France, adults now, and for the first time we let ourselves share the stories that few people have heard. We spoke about when our names had changed and the excuses we were given or later gave: taxes or marriage or other such lies. We talked about our unquestioning acceptance of what we were told by our parents, glaring in hindsight. We bandied about these tales like private jokes, laughing at the absurdity of it all, but we still looked over our shoulders as we spoke. One thing fugitive kids share is a sense of caution in telling. Long after it can’t hurt anyone, it still feels like a transgression. 

Later still, Dad and Lana moved to Annecy. They took a villa by the lake. Dad was training for his paragliding license, and we watched as he ran off the edge of one of the mountains surrounding the lake, swooping terrifyingly low for a moment, before catching a thermal and rushing upward, where he would turn in circles in the sunshine like Icarus. I was too young to fly, but Caitlin did, landing with her eyes wide and rushing from the thrill. She was always brave. 

We took a catamaran out on the lake, and Dad taught us to do back dives off the side, judging each jump with marks out of ten, his voice calling out through the water in my ears. 

Life was easy here. Our feet were always bare and no one expected anything of us except to be happy and play. The days were sticky sweet and long; they ended with us gathered together on the patio of a restaurant, eyes heavy in the golden candlelight with the faint smell of cigarettes in the air and the taste of mussels and garlic in my mouth. I’d fall asleep, my head resting on Dad’s lap, listening to the sound of adults talking around me. 

Still, I knew that Dad had a choice to make: to turn himself in and return to America or to keep running. He didn’t talk about it, always maintaining the same carefree demeanor as if we were all on one long holiday, like we had chosen for life to be this way. He acted like everything was going to be okay. This felt like precious time, and we didn’t want to ask him all of our questions we had, because we didn’t want to spoil it. We saw that he was invested in maintaining this illusion, this lovely French daydream. 

But I worried, all the same, and I could feel that worry growing between my fingers — the eczema, which had plagued the creases of my body when I was little, returning after many years. Eventually it spread like a stain until my fingers and wrists were blistered and red raw. Mom took me to the doctor and tried every remedy from steroid cream to cod liver oil, which made my hands smell fishy and the girls at school teased me. In the end it was the homoeopathist who helped most, because he sat me down and asked how I was feeling. 

Caitlin and I used to run off on the beach and then sneak up on Dad, leaping on his shoulders and taunting him for having lost sight of us. Barely flinching or opening his eyes from where he basked in the sunshine, Dad would say nonchalantly, “I knew exactly where you were; I always know where you are.” But that was just it — he didn’t. And looking at my fingers, I knew he was wrong about France too. Everything was not going to be okay. 

For Your Bedside Table

No Way Home: A Memoir of Life on the Runby Tyler Wetherall

This excerpt was reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.