When I first became a nomad, I roamed the west coast in search of a home.
I wasn’t looking for a physical home, but rather a feeling of belonging and a sense of place. I searched passionately for somewhere that made me want to set down “roots,” somewhere I could see myself for the “long haul.”
I migrated to Portland and Ashland. I pilgrimaged to Bend and San Diego and Lake Tahoe. I flirted with San Francisco and Seattle. With enough driving, exploring, and Craigslist room rentals, I felt confident I’d find my place.
But no matter where I went, I found myself wanting to leave again.
I lasted four months in Portland and six in Ashland. San Diego and Bend were mere flashes in the pan. San Francisco and Seattle never even had a chance to sink their hooks in me.
Lake Tahoe and I found ourselves in a passionate, tumultuous affair of loving, leaving, and longing. I returned there more than anywhere else, but even she never inspired me to stick around for 12 straight months.
My mental checklist, I realized, was impossibly long. I wanted a place with the culture of a city, but also direct access to nature. A place with posh coffee shops, but also a lack of pretension. A highly affordable place, but also a popular destination that would inspire my friends to visit.
Even when I found a place that satisfied my checklist—Asheville, North Carolina, for example, where I moved to be with a long-term girlfriend—I found myself anxious and restless when I stayed for more than half a year. Part of me craved the cool, dry California weather (North Carolina’s summers crushed me with their humidity). But mostly I felt constrained by simple fact that I was limiting my world of experience to a single geographic location.
Chalk it up to impatience, impulsiveness, or irrational wanderlust, but whenever I tried to settle down, I soon found myself in a state of malaise best described by the writer Alain de Botton:
[Home] finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.
My own habituation period was far briefer than de Botton’s, who felt underwhelmed after a full decade of living in one place; in half a year I already felt that I was becoming blind to my new home. However unreasonable these feelings were, I could not deny that their truth and consistency.
After years of searching in vain for my mythological place, I gave up. I still craved a home, but I realized I’d probably never find it in a single location.
Traditionally, “home” is what we associate with:
- Family: the original force that binds us to a place.
- Friends: those whom we know, trust, and want to live near.
- Tribes: larger communities of people who share our core values. Many young people move to Portland to join a perceived tribe of hipsters, and many entrepreneurs move to Silicon Valley to join a perceived tribe of other entrepreneurs. We surround ourselves by tribe members in the hope that some will become our friends and lovers.
- Work: our means of subsistence and, in many cases, our primary tribe.
- Love: that which drags us across cities, states, and borders—sometimes gently, often violently.
- Comfort: a state of peace, security, and mental equanimity; that feeling of plopping onto a comfy bed or sofa after a long day.
- Sense of place: connection to a physical landscape
These are the reasons why we move and why we stay. When we find a place that offers enough of these factors, we tend to stick around and start calling it “home.”
But why do we link home inextricably to a physical location? As most adults know, a place that feels like home one moment can suddenly feel alien after the loss of a job, estrangement from a tribe, or a big break-up.
A single place is a poor substitution for what we’re actually seeking when we think of home, which is not really a place, but a patchwork of feelings. Home includes feelings of:
- sustained connection to friends and family members
- tribal community
- connection to a significant other (or at least the possibility of that connection)
- a relaxed, peaceful, and emotionally stable state of mind
When we seek to maximize and sustain these feelings, the tyranny of geography ends—and nomads can enjoy a sense of home wherever they find themselves.
Easier said than done, of course. Choosing the nomadic lifestyle means choosing to face some very hard problems head-on: How do I sustain deep friendships and long-term relationships? How do I become a likeable person who can find (or build) community wherever I go? How do I build a livelihood that makes me feel financially secure without having to stay in one place all the time? How can I enter a peaceful state of mind no matter my external circumstances?
Nomads face the same challenges that other people face: the challenges of building and maintaining community, relationships, career, and mental health. The big difference is that we don’t assume these challenges are always solved by staying in one place. We realize that rootedness has the same potential to help and hurt our relationships, careers, communities, and mental health.
Finally, what about “sense of place”? By not living in one place all the time, do nomads automatically relinquish their bond to culture, land, and geography?
On the contrary, my nomadic life has provided me with more than just a sense of place. I feel that I have multiple senses of place—with New Zealand, Argentina, and the Western United States. Each of these places feels like an old friend, like someone I want to stay in touch with, revisit, and deepen our connection whenever possible. Were I unable to visit any one of them ever again, I’d grieve. While admittedly I don’t have as strong a connection to any of these place as I would if I lived in only one of them all the time, the sum total of the connections is quite hefty.
As with friendships, I believe there’s a benefit to having brief-but-intense experiences with places: the relationships are more memorable, and we suffer less chance of becoming, in Alain de Botton’s words, habituated and blind to them.