How “Nomadland” Wandering Can Make You Happy and Young Again
The nomadic instinct is a human instinct — Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
After a couple of years of deep contemplation, I decided I was tired of living a life of not quite… quiet desperation…but lingering melancholy.
I felt my life shrinking when it should be expanding. Routine had sidled up, tapped me on the shoulder, and suddenly uttered Boo!
I remembered “The Songlines,” a terrific book I had been given just prior to a nine month, solo trip I’d taken to New Zealand and Australia five years ago. A best seller in 1987, the author Bruce Chatwin is credited with transforming travel writing. His book is part travel adventure and personal philosophy as he explores the meaning and origins of ancient Aboriginal “Dream Tracks,” invisible roadways left by the totem ancestors as they “sang the natural world into existence.”
What stuck with me was that Chatwin postulated we humans have a nomadic instinct. Staying in one place, sedentary desk jobs, and our excessive accumulation of stuff are unnatural and don’t make us happy.
He was right.
The pandemic has reinforced this. After a year of zoomed out working tethered to laptops, a lot of young people are having a YOLO (you only live once) epiphany severing the ties to secure jobs and pursuing entrepreneurial dreams and travel.
Like a lot of older people, this year has forced me to look at my own mortality and fortified what I learned traveling alone five years ago: The older we get, we tend to like things predictable and safe, and our lives tend to shrink. The older we get, we’re less likely to take risks, and we limit ourselves because great risks are rewarded with great opportunities and adventure. The older we get, time seems to accelerate, and we’re left wondering where the hell did the years go?
Conversely, being fluid and mobile slows time down. Visiting new places and engaging with the beauty of nature keeps us curious, sparks creativity, and expands our lives.
That’s why the movie “Nomadland,” which swept the Oscars for best picture, director, and actress this year totally grabbed me. Based on the nonfiction book, “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century,” author Jessica Bruder followed an ever increasing number of nomads,often called rubber tramps, for three years. A lot of them are older people who have given up traditional housing and travel by car, van, or RV across America searching for work and staying at communal campgrounds.
Though some choose this lifestyle — I remember the grey nomads of Australia — for most, this evolves out of necessity. The fictional character, Fern in the movie version is a widow who leaves her home and economically devastated town and heads out on the road in her van. This isn’t an easy way to live, and in no way does the movie romanticize it. Yet, there’s a certain hard won beauty about living life on your own terms. Fern and the real nomads she meets are inspiring because of the kindness and compassion they show each other and the self sufficiency and fierce independence they model.
Let’s face it, life is tough, and the one thing you can count on is change in all its guts and glory. But this subculture seems to be able to toss convention to the wind and tackle, head on, all the unexpected interceptions life tends to throw.
Not quite rubber tramp, but happy wanderer
In my own way, I’ve been bitten by this itinerant bug too.
After two years back home in Maine living alone and time running a marathon, I once again felt the urge to bust out.
I rented my house for a second time and moved to NYC in November of 2019, a life-long dream. Yeah, I know. Then disaster struck. Talk about change. But I’ve learned that pain motivates progress, and The Big Apple is still the greatest city in the world, even in a pandemic.
There are, of course, drawbacks to my semi-nomadic wanderings. I’m not living out of my car, but it has become a bit of a mini storage unit since the bulk of my scant belongings are stored hither and thither, and I’m constantly loosing stuff or leaving things behind. Since my means are limited, I am subleasing a couple of furnished rooms. After forty years, I have a roommate again. I often get lost.
I’ve never been happier and feel like a younger, but better, wiser version of myself. Like Fern, I have a strong support system that includes close siblings and the compassionate friendship of strong, capable women who look out for each other. I’ve discovered the freedom of becoming a minimalist, and an unexpected surprise is I enjoy having the company of a roommate.
The plan was to move back to my house in June of this year, but the nomadic instinct has taken root in my boomer-age-tenants as well. So we’ve decided that I’ll move back to my house with all their furnishings from June to October, and after enjoying a summer on the coast, they’ll rent my house again until mid May of 2022.
That could change.
Because, as you know, a lot can happen in a year.
In the meantime, I’ll try to keep my old car serviced, and I’ll renew my AAA membership.
Best of all, there are fewer and fewer bouts of melancholy and more and more moments of pure joy.