I’ve been drifting slowly through California for the past three weeks at about 100 miles/week, and several times I’ve been asked an apparently simple question that has become nearly impossible for me to answer: “What are you here for?”
Unlike regular travelers, I am not here for anything. I am just here, like area residents. The only difference is that I’ll drift on out of the Bay Area in a week. The true answer is “I am nomadic for the time being. I just move through places, the way you stay put in places. I am doing things that constant movement enables, just like you do things that staying put enables.” That is of course too bizarre an answer to use in everyday conversation.
My temporary nomadic state is just one aspect of a broader fog of illegibility that is starting to descend on my social identity. And I am not alone. I seem to run into more illegible people every year. And we are not just illegible to the IRS and to regular people whose social identities can be accurately summarized on business cards. We are also illegible to each other. Unlike nomads from previous ages, who wandered in groups within which individuals at least enjoyed mutual legibility, we seem to wander through life as largely solitary creatures. Our scripts and situations are mostly incomprehensible to others.
Since my particular variety of nomadism has me couchsurfing through readers’ homes, they sometimes have to explain my visit to others. Most people are simply puzzled; I’ve had second-hand reports of conversations that appear to have gone as follows: “Wait, what? You read some blog and you’ve never met the blogger, but he is randomly coming to live on our couch for few days?” When readers introduce me to others, they struggle. Some simply give up with, “I have no idea how to introduce you.” If I make up some ritual response to move on, such as “I am a blogger, I write mostly about business” they protest, “wait, that’s not really it… your blog isn’t really about business, and you do more than blogging.”
Curiously, while long-time readers at least subconsciously realize that “blogger” doesn’t quite cover it, people who nominally know me far better, but don’t read my blog (such as old high school friends) often don’t even get that there is something to get, since their substantial memories of me from long ago distract them from the current reality that “blogger” (at least at my level) is too insubstantial a label to account for an average human life. It is a non-job, like the other non-job title I sometimes claim, “independent consultant.” Both are usually taken as euphemisms for “unemployed.” For the legible, the choice is between gainful employment and lossy unemployment. For the illegible, the choice is between gainful unemployment and lossy employment.
Nomadism is the sine qua non of this general phenomenon of individual illegibility. The homeless, the destitute and seasonal migrant workers bum around. Billionaires with yachts and private jets bum around in a rather more luxurious way through each others’ mansions. Regular middle-class people generally stay put; nomadism hasn’t been an option until recently. This little piggy stayed at home.
Nomad is a concept that rooted-living people think they understand but don’t. I know this because I myself thought I understood it, but realized I didn’t once I’d actually tried it for a few weeks.
I used to think of nomadism as a functional and pragmatically necessary behavior, related to things like having to follow the migratory paths of herd animals in the case of pastoral nomads. Or having to work at client sites, in the case of road-warrior consultant types. Or even having to travel the world in order to satisfy an eat-pray-love urge.
Now I’ve come to realize that’s not really it. When voluntarily chosen, nomadism is not a profession, lifestyle, or restless spiritual quest. It is a stable and restful state of mind where constant movement is simply a default chosen behavior that frames everything else. True nomads decide they like stable movement better than rootedness, and then decide to fill their lives with activities that go well with movement. How you are moving matters a lot more than where you are, were, or will be. Why you are moving is an ill-posed question.
This is not really as strangely backwards as it might seem. Rooted people often decide to relocate somewhere based on a general sense of opportunities and lifestyle possibilities, and then figure out how they’ll live their lives there. Smart rooted people usually target regions first, jobs, activities and relationships second. Nomads pick a pattern of movement first, and then figure out the possibilities of that pattern later. While I haven’t found a sustainable pattern yet, I’ve experienced several unsustainable ones.
Moving in a slow and solitary way through cheap hotels helps me write better and reflect more deeply.
Moving slightly faster through people’s couches slows down my writing (as my recent posts show), but helps me experience relationships in brief, poignant ways.
Moving through a corporate social geography (in the past week, I’ve sampled three Bay Area company buffets) helps me understand the world of work.
Shuttling around on a lot of long-distance flights helps me get through piles of reading.
House-sitting helps me understand others’ lives in a role-playing sense.
So I’ve changed my perspective. I am not on the road to promote the book. I am promoting the book because I am on the road. The activity fits the pattern of movement. The pattern itself is too fertile to be merely a means to a single end. Nomadism is not an instrumental behavior. It is a foundational behavior like rootedness, the uncaused cause of other things. Book promotion is simply one of the many activities that benefits from constant movement, just like growing a garden is one that benefits from staying in the same place.
All this is very complex to convey, so I don’t use the nomad answer. But on the other hand, I also don’t like getting dragged into long-winded explanations. So if people insist on a substantial answer, I just say “Well, I am promoting my new book, meeting blog readers and consulting clients.” That instrumental description satisfies people. But it annoys me that I have to basically mislead because the language of rootedness lacks the right words to explain behaviors that arise from nomadism.
The follow-up question is also predictable, where are you from? When I was a much more rooted person, this question was always a politically correct way of asking about my ethnicity and nationality; people wanting to plot me on the globe with as much accuracy as their knowledge of world geography allows. But as a nomad, the question is always about my current base of operations. Movement makes you unplottable, which apparently provokes more social anxiety among the rooted than unclear ethnicity or nationality. People want to tag you with current, physical x, y coordinates before probing other dimensions of your social identity. This conversation also tends to be bizarre:
Where are you from?
Vegas? (look of puzzlement) Why Vegas?
Vegas confuses people. Most regions are understood in terms of their attractions for rooted people. California is for techies and entertainment types who like good weather. New York is for finance types who like gritty, tough urban living. Chicago is for easygoing types who work in areas like logistics and commodities. Vegas doesn’t have a clear raison d’etre on the rooted-living map (except perhaps as a retirement location). You travel there for a bit of hedonism; you don’t live there. For nomads on the other hand, Vegas does have a very clear raison d’etre. It is a great city to pass through (not so great to grow roots in).
I’ve taken to making a weak joke: “Vegas is like the miscellaneous file; you meet a lot of random people there. I was initially having fun watching them, but then I realized I am one of them.”
At this point, if I am in the mood, I explain that we are subletting and house-sitting my in-laws’ house for cheap while they summer in Michigan, and that our stuff is in storage. That we originally meant to make Vegas a temporary, low-cost and geographically strategic base while we figured out where to go next, but that my wife has now found a job there, so we’ll be staying on indefinitely after the summer. The variables that made us pick Vegas are classic nomad variables: cost, seasonal considerations, and strategic positioning for further movement.
I have been nomadic since May 1, almost three months now. I’ve spent six of those weeks living out of a car, and another five living out of a temporary, borrowed home out of a couple of suitcases and boxes (this has been like playing house; my first experience living in a single family home with all the accouterments of American suburban life).
In the past three months, my understanding of the nomadic state has been slowly but radically altered. The best way I can explain what I’ve learned is to offer this comparison: nomadism has almost nothing to do with the rooted-living behavior it nominally resembles, travel.
The modern world is organized around rooted living, with travel as its subservient companion concept. Travel is unstable movement away from home with a purpose, even if the purpose is something ambiguous like exploration or self-discovery. It is always a loop from home to home, or a move from old home to new home. For the rooted living person, travel is a story. A disturbed equilibrium that requires explanation and eventual correction, resulting in a return to equilibrium. A small handful of stories explain most cases: business trip, visiting family, tourism, backpacking, finding myself. Even hippie-drifting, karma-trekking, eat-pray-loving and backpacking are purposeful patterns of movement in a world that is a landscape shaped by rootedness.
For the rooted person, previous and next equilibrium points, with associated departure and arrival dates, and a focal climatic point in the journey between, suffice to model any movement. Once upon a time, a couple lived in New York. They traveled to California to go camping in Yosemite. Then they returned to New York. The End. A dead giveaway that you are looking at travel rather than nomadism is that the paths to and from the focal points are generally very efficient; often shortest/cheapest paths. A good story doesn’t dawdle.
For the nomad, that data is annoying to supply because even when it is nominally available, it conveys almost no information. Better questions concern the quality and shape of the movement itself:
How quickly are your moving? (a 100-mile/week drift rate is a very different stable movement rate than a 1000-mile/week drift rate).
What route are you taking? (to the nomad, whether you take a northerly or southerly route between DC and Vegas isn’t a minor detail, it is the main question; it is the end points that are minor details).
Are you living out of hotels, camping or couchsurfing?
Are you living out of a car or a backpack?
Where are you headed for Fall?
Are you moving up the coast or through the forests?
How do you pack? Do you prefer a sleeping bag or a Hennessy hammock?
For the nomad, the question of why you are temporarily somewhere is simply ill-posed. It’s like asking a settled person, “why aren’t you moving?” For the nomad, a period of rootedness is unstable, like travel for the rooted. It is a disturbed equilibrium that requires explanation. An explanation of non-movement, and eventual resumption of movement, are required. The associated stories can range from a car breakdown, to insufficient funds to fuel the next phase of movement, to unexpected weather conditions. Once upon a time, a guy who lived out of a car was heading south for the winter. His car broke down in Kansas City, and he was stuck there for a week. Fortunately he was able to find a place to couchsurf, get it repaired and move on.
In a way, nomadism is a more basic instinct for humans. Rootedness is natural for trees. Legs demand movement. The movement is the cause, not the effect. Just as the mantra for rootedness is location, location, location, it is movement, movement, movement for nomadism. When humans grow roots, strange new adaptations appear to accommodate restless brains.
If I have romanticized nomadism it is because nomadism is a fundamentally romantic state of being. If you can sustain it, it is somehow fulfilling without any further need for achievement or accomplishment. The pursuit of success is, for the rooted, the price they must pay for immobilizing themselves geographically. The reward is something equivalent to the state of stable movement that is, for the nomad, a natural state of affairs.
Success itself in a way is very much a notion for the rooted; it is the establishment of some sort of stable self-propelled movement pattern through some sort of achievement space: up a career ladder; down a rabbit hole of skilled specialization; sideways through a series of stimulating project experiences. When there is no true north, no physical landmarks growing smaller behind you, and no fresh sights constantly appearing over the horizon, you need abstract markers of movement: degrees, money, a sequence of more expensive cars, a series of increasingly successful books, a growing readership for a blog, increasingly prestigious speaking gigs.
When you bind naturally restless feet, the minds that have evolved to animate them seek movement elsewhere.
I misunderstood the psychology of travel badly when I was younger. About 12 years ago, when I was 24, I went backpacking for three weeks in Europe. After that, somehow I lost my wanderlust. I explained my reluctance to travel to myself, and to others, with the lofty line, “I’ve kinda tired myself of exploring the geographic dimensions of experience; I am now exploring more conceptual directions.”
Bullshit. Geography is just too fundamental to our psychology. If we aren’t moving, it is because there is too much friction and cost. Wanderlust never goes away. It merely becomes too costly to sustain as you age. Recently, when I traded my Indian passport for an American one (which allows me to travel far more freely, without the annoyances of the Great Wall of Visas that is designed to keep the developed world from getting too footloose), the old itch to travel instantly reappeared. So much for my pretentious “other dimensions of experience.” It was mere paperwork friction that was holding me back. But sadly, while one source of friction has disappeared, others have grown. In my late 30s now, the fact of my wife’s non-portable job and the complexities of moving our two cats across national borders, are what keep us from simply embarking on some extended nomadism around the world. But at least we don’t have a mortgage and school-going kids.
Scott’s notion of illegibility was originally inspired by the nomadic state and its incomprehensibility to the governance apparatus of settled cultures. To the stationary eye of the state, a moving person is a blur rather than a sharply-defined identity; it is harder to tax, conscript, charge with crimes or even reward nomads. To the stationary eye of the corporation, the nomad appears harder to hire, manage or pay.
The blurriness extends to other aspects of rooted life. Ownership and community life change from being stock concepts (defined by things you accumulate) to flow concepts (defined by things you pass through and that pass through you). Identity starts to anchor to what you are doing rather than who you are. Social life acquires, due to its permanently transient nature, a certain poignancy that it lacks in rooted contexts. Even routine errands like grocery shopping and doing the laundry become minor adventures that require your full attention and engagement.
Everyday rituals acquire a monastic depth. The difference between nomadism and travel even shows up in how you pack. Packing a suitcase for extended travel is very different from packing for a period of nomadism. In the first case, you pack for compactness and unpack at your destination. It is an exercise in efficiency. In the second case, you pack for daily in-out access in a changing context. You have to think harder about what you are doing. You need constant mindful repacking, rather than efficient one-time packing.
Even the most basic, unexamined rituals change. For instance, I stay so often with people who don’t drink coffee that I’ve taken to carrying a small bottle of instant coffee with me. But it’s a different kitchen every few days.
Nomadism is, in a way, the most accessible pattern of mindful living.
The romanticism aside, true permanent nomadism is not really an option today. This particular romantic episode will end around October, and I will be rooted once more. All the neuroses of the rooted will come flooding back. I will once more start to worry about my next book and my next hit blog post.
The direct costs of living aren’t actually very different for nomads and settled people. It is the indirect costs that kill you. If it weren’t for the burden of an address-and-nationality anchored paperwork identity and the tyranny of 12-month leases and 30-year mortgages, nomadic living would be no more difficult than static living at the same income level. Newton’s law applies approximately: a human in a state of rest or steady motion continues in that state unless an external force acts to change it. A nomad is a human in a state of steady motion. Not in a Newtonian sense, but in a cognitive sense. Once you’ve settled into a particular pattern of living out of a car, you are in a steady state that has inertia.
Movement is not expensive if the environment is set up to support it. I am not an extremist or minimalist. I don’t want to be living off a few packs on a bicycle for the rest of my life. I like warm beds, hot showers and large, well-equipped kitchens as much as anybody else. I like having access to lots of useful things like washing machines and gyms. It is not inconceivable that the world could be arranged to provide all these in a way that supports both rootedness and nomadism. Thanks to online friendships, and emerging infrastructure around couchsurfing and companies like Airbnb, it is becoming easier every year. I’d like to see trains getting cheaper, tent-living becoming available for the non-destitute classes, health insurance becoming more portable, public toilets acquiring shower stalls, and government identity documents becoming anchored to something other than physical addresses. I’d like to see the time-share concept expand beyond vacations to regular living. I’d like to see executive suites and coworking spaces sprout up all over, and acquire cheap bedrooms that you can live out of. I’d like to be able to rent nap-pods at Starbucks. I’d rather own or rent a twelfth of a home in twelve cities than one home in one city.
There is no necessary either-or between nomadism and rooted living. Technology has evolved to the point where the apparatus of the state should be able to accommodate illegible people without pinning them down.