I miss strolling around Bardstown and Douglass Loop Farmer’s Markets in Louisville, KY, my adopted hometown for over 13 years. Even if I didn’t run into anyone I knew well, the familiarity and routine of being in a place where people share at least some values is something that’s tough to capture with a transient lifestyle. I miss waving to neighbors in Clifton, chatting on front porches of shotgun houses, maybe enjoying a bourbon on the rocks as the freight trains rumbled by on the elevated tracks. Or enjoying collegial relationships at work, when simply socializing for five minutes or productively troubleshooting about how to improve curriculum during a meeting provided a balm for other stressors.
I think about other routines. For Rebecca and myself, we enjoyed Saturday morning hikes on the Red and Orange trails at the Horine Reservation area of Jefferson Memorial Forest. Afterwords, we’d be relatively near the Vietnam Kitchen and other delightful ethnic eateries, justifying our gluttony after a moderate workout on the well-worn trails. Last winter and spring, we spent our Tuesday evenings volunteering for Kentucky Refugee Ministries, helping American newcomers study for the citizenship test. Mitra, an elderly gentleman from Nepal, had an infectious grin and steady work ethic. Despite this elementary English skills, he always showed up to class–walking rain or shine–and interacting with him and others under the sometimes-flickering fluorescent church basement lights inspired us on a regular basis.
There are, however, fleeting moments of immersion into community and satisfying short-lived routines found while on the road.
There’s sharing a meal–and countless toasts–during a supra, a large traditional feast in rural Georgia. There’s joining a gym in Tbilisi, even if just for a month, using the 10 minute walk through bustling streets and past traditional shota bread ovens and other vendors as a warm up. There’s conversing with longtime expats in an Irish pub in Dubai, a place providing comfort for countless folks living thousands of miles from home. It’s especially festive during the second Saturday of every month, when a traditional string band plays standards and originals, drowning out the raucous clinking of pints and boisterous chatter. Now in Tanzania, we’ve found ourselves welcomed into Zoe and Roy’s home along with their two kids, four dogs, and two cats. When we make the 20 minute walk to the village for fresh avocados, mangoes, and pineapples, we wave and say jambo to familiar proprietors.
Sometimes, I think I could embrace fleeting routine and bursts of community for a much longer stretch than our current journey; at other times, I’m not so sure. But I am convinced that very few people are cut out to be permanent vagabonders. This is despite messages inherent in the glamourous accounts of some travel bloggers out there, who are trying to convince all of us–and perhaps themselves–that being on the road is a dream lifestyle worth emulating and easily attainable.
I’ve also been thinking about Sebastian Junger’s outstanding book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. In this short but powerful text, he asks why so many American servicemen long for combat upon returning from overseas. They miss the brotherhood. It’s all about the shared sacrifice, being part of something larger than oneselves. Thousands of combat veterans experience living in the modern American world of me me me and the pursuit of comfort convenience comfort convenience and more comfort as vacuous and profoundly depressing, according to Junger.
Junger writes, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.” While it might seem glamorous, I’d feel empty simply gallivanting around the world, staying in fancy hotels and airbnbs without having to pay our way or work remotely. (Please note: we can’t afford to do this, but you get the idea). In Vagabonding, Rolf Potts writes scornfully about people who travel without having made any personal sacrifice–“trustafarians”–and this resonates mildly with Junger’s musings about hardship and living with purpose.
While testing the currents of long term travel, we have come to cherish the novelty of arriving in new places and attempting to soak up sensory bombardments, gaining insights into people and place as we can. The opportunity for personal growth and escape from the daily modern grind. We are blessed to be accumulating a lifetime worth of adventures, insights, and tastes. You can’t put a price on the memories and stories we are stockpiling as the stamps graffiti our passport pages.
But again, the pull of community and routine…which is sometimes a tease but at other times is a persistent itch, especially when your family and best friends are only accessible via a pixelated screen. Ruth Whippman writes in the New York Times, “Study after study shows that good social relationships are the strongest, most consistent predictor there is of a happy life, even going so far as to call them a “necessary condition for happiness,” meaning that humans can’t actually be happy without them. This is a finding that cuts across race, age, gender, income and social class so overwhelmingly that it dwarfs any other factor.” We’re maintaining social relationships with those closest to us, and we’re forming new bonds with people in each of the four countries we’ve traveled. Fortunately, Rebecca and I are best friends and must put up with inordinate amounts of time together–our social relationship is crucial!
I still follow tweets from my former employer, Fern Creek High School in Louisville, KY. And follow the local news. Thirteen years in a given place means–at least for most people–some sense of community. Relationships. Familiarity. And we all seek a belonging. So after more than five months on the road–and nearly eight months since we left our home and began inhabiting friend’s basements and family guest rooms–the pull of community and routine keeps tapping us on the shoulder, beckoning us to turn around and consider putting down roots again, despite the inevitable revelations ahead and the precious opportunity to keep on truckin’ if we so desire.