When my husband got a job with the circus, I packed up my life and joined him on the road

When my husband got a job with the circus, I packed up my life and joined him on the road

Emily Fleck, pictured above with her son, Kai, and husband, Ben, lives in Houston, Texas.

In August 2011, my husband, Ben, got a job offer to play trumpet for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey travelling circus. He couldn’t refuse—musicians don’t often come by full-time employment. But the timing wasn’t great: I was working as an analyst for a company that made software for car-sharing, and I was pregnant with our first child.

That month, Ben left Toronto to join the circus on tour. At first, I wasn’t sure what to do, but my gut told me to go with him, at least for the duration of my maternity leave. I wanted to keep our family together.

And so, three weeks after our son, Kai, was born, I joined Ben in Tampa, where we lived in a 2003 Ford pickup and an old fifth wheel trailer that we’d bought for $17,000 from a family of Russian tightrope walkers. I’d lived in some tiny city apartments, so the trailer didn’t feel that small. It was about 27 feet long with a galley kitchen and a mini-fridge. We stored everything—hats, clothes, toys, even fruit—in bags we hung from the ceiling. The walls were a hideous textured beige, so we strung up tiny white fairy lights everywhere—when Kai learned to speak, he called them stars.

The author and her husband used magnetic canisters and hanging fruit bags to maximize space in the kitchen of their trailer

Every week, we travelled to a new place, where we’d park outside the arena with all the other RVs and power the trailer by plugging into the electrical boxes inside the circus venues. On nights when we were parked in empty fields and lots, we’d use a diesel generator.

For the first few months, I struggled with postpartum depression and loneliness. Most of the performers and crew knew each other well. I felt like I didn’t belong. Back in Toronto, I was a professional. I had a well-defined sense of myself. At the circus, I didn’t know who I was or how I fit in.

I was so depressed that I didn’t even go to the shows. Then, in February, when we were in Salisbury, Maryland, I decided to check out a performance. I took my camera, and afterward posted about a dozen photos on Facebook. All the circus folk loved them, and I started taking photos at every performance. Soon, I wasn’t an intruder anymore; I was the unofficial circus archivist.

I began to appreciate moments on the road that you don’t get in a big city. Like looking up at the sky in east Texas where large, heavy clouds and a wide grey expanse trick you into thinking you’re on the brink of a tornado—but the storm never fully forms. Or eating a greasy spoon breakfast of bacon and grits in the South while Kai coloured on the paper placemats with crayons. Or finding great antiques at a thrift shop in the Pacific Northwest. Every Sunday night, I’d get a rush as I packed up the trailer and got ready to head somewhere new.

The 2003 Ford pickup and trailer the author and her husband bought from a Russian tightrope-walking family

About 150 people travelled with the circus. There were also camels and elephants, and dogs who could walk on their front legs. We befriended a death-defying family who rode motorcycles in a giant steel globe. On our off nights, we had makeshift tailgate parties we called “lot hangs.” Sometimes, we projected movies or pro wrestling tournaments onto a screen. All the trailer folk would bring out folding chairs and watch together. Ben and I would host craft beer tastings with six-packs we bought at breweries on the road. We had crawfish boils and barbecues and punch parties, where everyone would bring homemade punch. It was like having a huge extended family just next door.

In August 2012, I ended my maternity leave. We needed my salary, so I came back to Toronto to work. Ben stayed with the circus, and we decided that Kai would remain on the road with him. It made sense for us: I would be working 60 hours a week, and the circus offered free child care.

Back in Toronto, I moved into an apartment at Yonge and Eglinton. I was happy to be back at work. I loved my job, I loved making my own money, and I loved being in charge of my own life again. But I missed my family terribly. I saw them as often as possible: we settled into a routine where I’d stay in Toronto for six weeks, then spend two weeks with Ben and Kai, working remotely.

In 2015, after four years on the road, the adventure ended. Ben’s show closed, and we moved to Houston, where I now work as the executive director of the CarSharing Association. Ben got a job teaching trumpet in high schools around the city. We put the RV in storage nearby, still fully furnished, and I visited it every few days for weeks. Kai, who was four, would play with his toys, and I’d stare wistfully at the art that a circus elephant named Asia had painted on the wall using her trunk.

Even now, a year later, a part of me still longs for life on the road. When I’m stationary, I’m a cog in the machine of society. When we travelled, I was a tiny, fluttering piece of the universe. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

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