I’m snuggled in bed writing this column while my husband John packs for another trip. He’s got his Timbuktu messenger bag filled with ginger supplements (he gets vicious motion sickness), his Bose headphones, and a beautiful visa pasted inside of his well-traveled passport. He’s got a business suit, some running gear (the best way to see a new place), and one tiny baby sock — a token of our little girl.
We travel a lot, about half of every month, in fact. As freelancers who do a lot of public speaking and consulting with organizations based in a variety of cities, our work takes us to lots of beautiful places.
It’s sometimes as fabulous as it sounds. The moment when you crack open the door to your hotel room after a long journey and a big white bed with an embarrassment of plush pillows greets you, there is a sort of euphoria in having finally arrived. We get to meet fascinating people, reconnect with hilarious old friends, do work that challenges and feeds us. Sometimes we even manage to rustle up a gig near our families; a chance to travel home on someone else’s dime still thrills me — as if I’ve played a little trick on the universe by making my worlds align just so.
But more and more, I’m also reflecting on the undeniably un-fabulous aspects of this life. If we travel half the month, it dawns on me, we travel half of our lives.
We have a home that we love. We painstakingly filled it with art painted by friends and books that changed us. You can find my deep blue blanket thrown over the couch — the one my mom gave me when I went off to college. John’s favorite dishes are there; he fills them with his signature salads, always generous with olive oil and roasted pine nuts. We live for Sunday mornings reading The New York Times (the old school paper version) while our daughter takes her first nap, then heading to the farmers market for breakfast burritos and people watching. If you ask us where we live, we will say, “Oakland.” We will picture this place: the dinosaur kale in the garden; Matthew, the kid who lives next door, coasting his skateboard past our front door; the light coming through the kitchen window and illuminating the family photos hung there.
But it would be just as accurate to say that we live on the road. We live — and I shudder as I write this — on airplanes, in rental cars, in impersonal hotel rooms, every one mostly like the next with its single-serving coffee makers and its germ-covered remote controls.
So I guess that makes our lives interesting, but I wonder if it doesn’t also make them less satisfying. Is a less rooted life inherently less deep? Less healthy? Less ethical?
Traveling this much certainly makes ritual or its less glamorous cousin, routine, very difficult. Where does one meditate or pray when waking up in a new room each morning? When does one exercise if each day is about maximizing time with clients?
Traveling this much certainly has environmental consequences. So many of us who live these peripatetic lives are fighting for the very people most vulnerable to the affects of climate change; our carbon footprints may stomp louder than our words.
Traveling this much endangers our relationship with the local — local issues that we might take action on and local food that we might buy, cook, and eat around a big table with neighbors and friends. We live in a co-housing community and feel luckier than most frequent travelers. So often we roll our suitcases up the driveway and are greeted by the revelry of a group meal. We are rescued from the dispiriting emptiness of the fridge, but also the familiar loneliness of the professional nomad: the doomsday feeling that “your people” have given up trying to keep track of you, that you are at sea in your own unsustainable schedule. You imagine that they are gathered somewhere without you, laughing, wine glasses in hand, remnants of a great meal scattered about; they assume you are elsewhere, because, well, you usually are.
I used to have a fantasy that I would one day be a regular at a bar in my neighborhood. I wanted to walk in and hear them greet me by name, encourage me to pull up my usual seat, pour me my usual drink. Blame it on Cheers — the TV show I had to beg my parents to let me stay up to watch as a kid.
It’s a fantasy, more than anything else, of being known. And that, perhaps, is the biggest difference between the life of wandering and the life of rootedness. When you travel, you are constantly new to people. There’s a certain novelty in it — a surprise always around the corner, an ego boost in the seeming importance of it all. But it wears thin fast. There aren’t enough upgrades in the world to rival the feeling of living in a home that you love, among a community that cares for you.
Ultimately, life is made up of great conversations. Whom do you most want to have them with? Some strangers, to be sure, but mostly with old friends, neighbors, family.
Wendell Berry writes:
“And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.”
By the looks of our frequent flier miles, we’re still learning.