On nomadism

The other day, I spent an hour and a half talking to my friend Henry, who’s doing a direct-enroll study abroad program in Mendoza, Argentina. Unlike me, he’ll be staying in the same city for five or six months. He’s gotten to know other Argentinian university students, made friends, and feels at home where he is.
As we were discussing our respective programs, we started talking about travel. Henry told me that his desire to travel is mostly gone—he’s happy to stay in place, interacting with the same people, getting to know them well. He’s getting more out of meaningful relationships built over time than he would have being a tourist all over the world.
I’ve often said that I love travel, but I realized this summer in Greece that that’s not really true. I love seeing new places, but I hate feeling like an American, stupid for not knowing the language, guilty because so many economies around the world depend on being able to put up with obnoxious Westerners. Really, I want to know places well, meet people, have interesting conversations. Yet every time I’m given the opportunity to travel, I go for it.
I was thinking about this after we got off the phone. I’ve been all over the world—Ghana, Greece, England, France, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, and now Ecuador. I’ve driven all over the United States. And yet I still have such a hard time deciding where my heart is. There’s a powerfully nomadic streak inside of me, half restlessness and half the simple fact that I just haven’t found anywhere in the world where I’d want to settle down.
When I was younger, I often thought that Seattle was it. It’s my favorite city, to be sure, but even living there, I don’t feel whole. When I’m surrounded by mountains shrouded in clouds, I long for the desert west, for sagebrush and cactus, for mile after mile of flat, dusty ground. Camping out in the canyonlands of Utah, half of me feels deeply at peace, and the other half cries out for evergreens, for spruce and hemlock. In my city, I miss Walla Walla, miss the knowledge that I can walk or bike anywhere I might need to go, miss knowing that if I need a release, I can sprint across the highway in the dark, run to the wheat fields and stand alone with nothing between me and the stars, staring the universe in the face. In Walla Walla, I long for pan-Asian food, for better grocery stores, for like-minded radicals. Coming home from Ghana, I miss the vibrancy of the street, the smell of dried fish mixed with diesel and warm rain that permeates the air in the morning. While I’m there, I want good yogurt, more than one kind of cheese, water that’s reliable and faster Internet.
Imagining my future, I picture myself simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. I envision myself as an expatriate living in Latin America, finally speaking Spanish with the authority I’ve always wanted, befriending revolutionaries and activists and laughing with them about the arrogance of American politics. I see myself in Utah, disappearing for weeks at a time on sojourns through slickrock and sandstone, writing to my heart’s content. In Seattle, I work for grocery co-ops, have my urban farm and actually finish my book that I’ve been talking about writing for years. And I move to the middle of nowhere, practically wilderness, and have a homestead with a wood-burning oven and a kitchen littered with fermentation projects. Or perhaps I end up drawn permanently to the border, in that space that is at once American, Mexican and nationless, documenting what I see, writing because I feel compelled, fighting for change, talking with communities and learning how to make real posole, pork leg included.
All of these are my future, and I’m so far from being able to choose. Almost every time I move, I envision a new life for myself. I construct a story, a career, a family for my future self. I am happy nowhere and everywhere. I long for the open road if I find myself settled in place for too long, and after so much traveling over the past year and a half, I almost feel as if I’ve forgotten how to settle down. Yet give me a house and a stable life, and after a week, I’m daydreaming of overflowing backpacks and cursing Ted Bundy for ruining hitchhiking for everyone else. Maybe it’s the serial monogamist in me. Maybe I just haven’t found The One, that place where the restlessness inside me can finally settle down. But I suspect it’s really my natural inclination towards polyamory coming out. I want a little bit of everything. I’m completely in love with desert and forest, with canyons and mountains, with cities and towns, with the US and Latin America and Ghana. Maybe one day I’ll settle down. Or maybe I’ll keep changing places, slow enough that I won’t have to call it “traveling”. Five years here, a decade there. There are, I suppose, worse ways to live.

3 thoughts on “On nomadism”

  1. Just a thought -I think there's a difference between nomadism and vagabonding. Vagabonding is a wandering without roots, for the sake of travel or the lack of a physical home. To me, nomadism is a seasonal, cyclical, migrational, or patterned re-locating from one Home-place to another Home-place. Traditional nomadic peoples don't just drift and set camp the first compelling place they find each month; they move between one traditional place that has sustained their physical, cultural, spiritual needs for generations, and move along a customary path to the next known place when the seasonal lack of resources or cultural practice compels them to re-locate. "Home" is a set of places, a route, a broader scope. Being home is living in the places that sustain you, (i.e., your desert, Seattle, canyon country, South America, Ghana,etc.), and moving depending on your needs, knowing you'll come back to that place when your seasons change.

  2. Thanks Madelyn. That's a really interesting distinction that I hadn't thought about before. I'm not sure if I can find a cohesive route in Seattle-Walla Walla-Utah-the border-Ghana-South America, but it's an awesome way to think about starting to define home.

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