“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” – Anais Nin
I get asked this a lot. People find my lifestyle strange. Others are more blunt and call it irresponsible, escapist, unrealistic. Lately, I’ve even been called un-American and a traitor for preferring to live abroad rather than live out every single, long and drawn out day within the boundaries of US soil, which is coincidentally, not consequentially, where I happened to fall out of the void into this Earth.
I’ll take a moment to defend myself and other vagabonds.
First and foremost, as much as one may find my lifestyle absurd, I’d like to say with resounding clarity that I find their lifestyles absurd. When someone squints their eyebrows at me from their corner, a corner of monotonous, statist, stagnant boredom, I’m surprised at how someone can speak of their life as though it is the way to live. The best way to live.
Gail Albert Halaban, Out My Window, Astoria, Night Bridges, 2008. © Gail Albert Halaban, Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York
You must understand that I see my life as having started at a random point and when I start with this idea, my destination is suddenly more variable. I do not see myself as American. I see myself as having been born in a land called America (For now. Countries tend to change every few hundred years.) I don’t find this consequential or defining. It’s random.
I’m a citizen of Earth. Or, even further, I’m a collection of stardust buzzing around on a much larger collection of stardust. So, don’t tell me I need a 9-5 and a mortgage and I’ll try to refrain from telling you that you need an imagination and a set of jumper cables wired up to your main arteries to thump you back to life.
Staying put seems like a crime to me.
To stay exactly where you started out. And for what reason? To stay somewhere because that is where you have always been is not a reason. It’s an excuse.
I’d like to turn, though, to those who find the greatest rewards in life to be those of security, stability, and predictability. I do understand that everyone has their preferences. But I cannot help observing that life is inherently volatile, insecure, and unpredictable. In a word: to seek this is to delude oneself.
My sister died when I was 15 and she was 10. This snapped my arteries into high gear. I AM ALIVE was in the thump of every heartbeat after that moment. Then it followed as such…
Time is limited here…
We know so little about ourselves…
We know so little about why we are here…
And we die before we ever know what we were supposed to do here…
Because we never ask…
Because we are so damn afraid…
And then it’s over. Then we die. The chance to learn, understand, and grow passes by. It ends.
We leave behind a Scandinavian wilderness never explored, a French beach never walked upon, a Roman cathedral never entered, a spirit never challenged.
When someone asks me why I travel so much, it’s so hard to answer. In short, I’d like to always say: because we are dying, and this is all we have.
Restlessness. Flight. Taking flight. Movement. Move to there. Move to where that new language is, the one I haven’t heard yet. Get on the train that goes past a field of sunflowers by the million. Sit with your face nearly pressed into the glass, like a 5-year-old child, wondering how many sunflowers are out there, wondering how fast the train is travelling, how many miles we’ve gone, and how it’s possible that someone could plant that many sunflowers. Who waters them and how? Does it take all day?
And why, really, why have I never heard of this before? How did I really go my entire life without ever SEEING such a sight before. Rows and rows in miles along the train, these tall, green stems with their bright yellow circular heads. (Do they go on forever?)
Who knows what this looks like? You cannot imagine it until you see it. Until you realize that you’re not behind an office desk, at a mall, preparing for things we truly may not live to witness. You’re flying past a gazillion sunflowers on a train towards where.
Photo taken by reneefink.blogspot.com
The ocean was grand. I grew up on the California coast. That ocean could make me cry. Then I found out about miles of sunflowers standing an inch apart, canyons so deep that one could fall (forever?) into darkness, dirt trails through hills of green that dance in the wind, cobblestone pathways, bowing oak trees with stories to tell. I found out that somewhere, out there, are relics of my ancestors. There are monuments speaking of who was here before. There are expanses of this world ever so different from the ones here.
So. Go. Go there.
Uncovering the mystery of this giant playground, as though she is my intimate lover, I seek out every color, each smell, hot and dry climates, depths and corners whether untouched or imprinted upon with billions of footprints across the years.
This life is a wildcard. This body is a temporary vehicle. This world is a big, huge, unread book—it’s something fleeting, as are our lives. Here today. Gone tomorrow.
Believe me. I know this much. I’ve watched someone I love die. It happens fast. Real fast.
You’re making plans.
And it’s over.
To merely stop and smell the roses is to sell yourself short. Run through them. Yank them from the Earth, at least one or two. Weave the stems into your hair. Endure those thorns when they prick you.
Before they whither away.
Photo is Claude Monet’s ”Rose field near Argenteuil Sun.”
I’m standing there, about to get off the train. She looks at me and asks how long I’ll be living in this city. “Not long,” I tell her, hoping she’ll understand the hint.
The hint is that I don’t want to carry this string with me forever. At all. Don’t ask me to be your friend. No, we shouldn’t hang out later. Sometimes, goodbye is okay. I’m a vagabond, and I don’t collect people. I meet too many people. Too many. With these meetings, we exchange experiences, sometimes great ones. Sometimes life-changing ones. And then we walk away without looking back.
It’s not cold. It’s just a different way of living your life.
In order to be constantly moving, one must be pretty lightly loaded. Strings tie down a winged creature.
I’m not saying that a vagabond has absolutely no ties or attachments. Often, they do have ties, sometimes ties stronger than non-vagabonds. But these ties are almost definitely few and carefully chosen. In terms of human ties, we can usually count them on just one hand, and of those ties, probably only 1 or 2 of them are nurtured by us. When it comes to “things” then the number drops even more. There might be ONE thing that a vagabond bothers taking with him or her on all adventures. For me, it was a lock of my sister’s hair. She died when I was 15. I carried a lock of her hair with me for over 13 years, to 4 different continents. Even when I gave away everything I owned and rode a bike up to Canada from California, I had her hair with me. (tragically, I lost this item to the sociopath I was recently involved in).
This is my sister, Christen Dawn Smith. She died on October 8th, 1999. She was 10.
But back on topic.
Vagabonds can say GOODBYE better than any other person. I fondly recall some of the most amazing memories with people that I have never seen nor spoken to ever again.
I remember going dancing in Bremen, Germany with a girl from Latvia that I met in the city square earlier that day. I remember she had long black hair and was tottering along in designer high heels that hurt her feet so badly that by the end of the night, she took them off and we walked through the streets back to her apartment in just our bare feet at 4am. I don’t remember her name and I never saw her again. But she is the first woman who ever spontaneously kissed me. She changed my life, because she planted the first seed of doubt in my mind about my own sexuality.
It scared the crap out of me at first, but changed my life.
I remember a guy I met in Istanbul, Turkey, who told me to meet him in front of Starbucks at midnight. We’d just run into each other at Starbucks earlier that day. You’d have to be extremely naive to actually meet a random Turkish man at midnight in Istanbul, and I was exactly that naive. He drove me all over the city, took me to get Turkish ice cream, and told me all about the book he was writing with an ugly but smart female protagonist. I never saw him again and I don’t even remember his name, but I remember him telling me that he’s always wanted to know what it would feel like to kill someone. Shocked, sitting in the passenger seat of this stranger’s car, I realized that I was not completely naive. I was running on pure intuition. Every shred of logic in my head could have told me to never do a single bit of this, but my gut told me I was safe. And I was. He said, “There are much deeper things than philosophy.”
Then there’s the guy I ran into in a shopping mall in California who told me all about his family problems. He was so skinny.
There was also a man once who let me stay in his home, in his bed, and he slept on the couch. He cooked me breakfast every morning and drove me around Seattle to help me figure out the immigration issue I was having with the stupid Canadian border police. We read poetry together and he showed me his model airplane creations.
There was the homeless man that I bought food for and then took home to let him wash his clothes and take a shower at my house.
I spent a couple of days with some rich German guys who were taking a road trip all over America. I just sat in the back seat of their car, listening to them ramble in German. We went to the mall and they ran all over the place yelling, “CONSTIPATION,” into stores. They’d walk up to someone, tap them on the shoulder, and then whisper, “Constipation…” I should never have told them the meaning of that word when they asked me.
No, “I’ll Facebook you.” No, “Give me your number/email address/myspace.” Just goodbye.
Why am I even talking about this?
Because the beauty of these experiences lies in the heart and spirit of the vagabond. It is due to his or her readiness to completely let go that he or she is able to live 100% and fully in the moment, savoring every second. Listening with the heart. Speaking with a full mind. Seeing with eyes so open that they can barely filter a single stimulus until it’s all just washing in, pouring in, piling in. And then: Goodbye.
I’m so religious about this that I don’t even take photos.
This post is a shout out to people I’ll never see again. It was nice to meet you! Thank you for the some of the most amazing experiences of my life!
I’ll never be the same because of you.
This is a beautiful poem written by fellow vagabond Robin Baker. She currently lives in Nepal and has her own website called nomadtracks.org. I encourage you to check out her website, as she’s a fantastic writer with enchanting prose and intriguing tales from the road.
Here is just one of her lovely entries.
Happy birthday, Mother
Happy birthday, mother.
This year, in your honor, I
wander the desert gathering
our memories like clues,
hoping that somewhere
I’ll find you.
It reminds me of the drive we took
almost twelve years ago, an early celebration
of my birthday.
Just us three; you, Papa and me.
You were sober then for the first time in
who knows how long. We
left behind nights when
you would slouch over and rest your head on
my shoulder, weeping,
“I’m such a horrible mother”.
We left behind charges of neglect and
screaming fights and lies and
empty stomachs and went
West. Thank you
for that birthday gift, mother.
There is a photo of you
days after our return, leaning
on your bed, legs thin and bare,
shirt raised, displaying ribs
blue, purple, blackening.
Now I know you didn’t do it on purpose.
Did you? Because the night before
my eleventh birthday you moved
your things and yourself into my room,
raged fitfully in my bed all night while
my friend and I lay scared on the floor.
writhed beneath the moonlight.
You moaned and shouted.
And when I asked you why
you said you hadn’t said anything.
Your stick-arm shot
up from the bed and,
grasped the windowsill as you yelled,
“please I have to get up!”
I stood, clasped your right hand
helped raise you from the bed. Then
too weak to stand.
In the morning Papa wrapped you in a blanket and
carried your body, draped over his arms like
an empty sheet, down the stairs
to the car.
To the hospital. I was told to
send my friend home and search
for anything you may have taken.
I reported my findings over the phone:
the Tylenol PM you’d been taking nightly
for weeks, your prescription, Antabuse,
which was supposed to save you
from the stuff in the small bottle I found
in a box high on the shelf of my closet.
Later Papa returned and
brought me to the hospital where
I wasn’t allowed to see you.
“Too much”, they said. I stayed
all day in the hospital waiting room with
strangers, nurses, doctors saying
“happy birthday, Robin. Happy birthday”.
You were moved to a bigger hospital where
we waited for
something to happen, for
the stomach-ache to subside.
I’m still waiting.
Your parents arrived. Finally
allowed to see you. We walked
down a hall and turned the corner to the
last room on the left, through
glass doors and curtains to find light
leaking through the drawn blinds. An outline
of the Rockies painted the backdrop of
your body swollen in the hospital bed, of
your yellow skin and the pinks of your eyes
bulging out between your eyelids.
Steady beeps and the gasp of your
breathing machine beat out
a jumbled melody.
I held your hand beneath
the sheet while
they extracted your
blood and cleaned it and
put it back inside. I saw it spinning
around in tubes next to your bed.
They shuffled you over to
the chair where you sat with glassy eyes
and gurgled and smiled while I tried to
talk to you. “Mom, I love you.”
You couldn’t say the words but
your lips moved.
And then away my brother and I went
with your parents to Michigan
to wait to hear your voice after
a surgery they said you’d die without (if
it didn’t kill you).
They wanted to stitch up
your insides which I saw leaking
blood into a box at your bedside.
The phone rang while I painted your get-well-sign.
It wasn’t you.
I watched from inside as Grandpa folded Grandma
into his arms and she cried,
“my poor baby, my poor baby”.
That night we flew back over the mountains,
landed in the airport with the white roof where
we were told the machines would be
unplugged. It was time to say goodbye.
It was crowded.
I held your hand and whispered, “goodbye”.
I’m sorry I didn’t say more then.
Mother, I’m sorry we didn’t have
a better goodbye.
In the morning the phone rang.
“Hello? ” I asked.
“Mom is with God now”.
Alone, barefoot, I stepped outside
greeted the early morning sky, where
part of me still lives today.
I didn’t see you up there.
You used to say that we were
connected. “Stuck together like glue.”
So when you died
a part of me died too.
Now I know you didn’t do it on purpose.
Okay, maybe I don’t. Because
when you died
a part of me died too.
I want it back.
I look for it here in the desert, among the empty
streets, in my car, in my lonely
tent and I look
in the sand and under the rocks and in the sky
and I want even more for you to be
there too. Because it would be nice to say
happy birthday, Mom.
Dear Wandering Soul,
I know that you once held dearly to comforts that kept you warm at night. I know that some of those comforts may have hindered your growth, blinded you from beauty, and stifled your essence.
It may have been beliefs about how you ought to live your life that you held on to. It may have been material possessions. It may have been a routine that you could rely on.
Then, one day, you let go. You started the journey of your life.
Here is a lovely poem about letting go. The author is unknown.
LETTING GO TAKES LOVE
To let go does not mean to stop caring;
it means I can’t do it for someone else.
To let go is not to cut myself off;
it’s the realization I can’t control another.
To let go is not to enable,
but to allow learning from natural consequences.
To let go is to admit powerlessness, which means
the outcome is not in my hands.
To let go is not to try to change or blame another;
it’s to make the most of myself.
To let go is not to care for,
but to care about.
To let go is not to fix,
but to be supportive.
To let go is not to judge,
but to allow another to be a human being.
To let go is not to be in the middle arranging all the outcomes,
but to allow others to affect their destinies.
To let go is not to be protective;
it’s to permit another to face reality.
To let go is not to deny,
but to accept.
To let go is not to nag, scold or argue,
but instead to search out my own shortcomings and correct them.
To let go is not to adjust everything to my desires,
but to take each day as it comes and cherish myself in it.
To let go is not to criticize or regulate anybody,
but to try to become what I dream I can be.
To let go is not to regret the past,
but to grow and live for the future.
To let go is to fear less and love more
Remember: The time to love is short
Note: That breath-taking photo above was taken by a woman named Anna at: http://anna.ogcreation.fr/blog/ I encourage you to visit her blog to see more stunning photography.
Man is born to live, not to prepare for life.
― Boris Pasternak
This may sound like such a mushy, sentimental post. But I’m serious here. Something about being out on the open road liberates my spirit to such heights that altruism and kindness flow more readily from my being. I’m more inclined to smile, relaxed enough to let someone “go first,” and enjoy doing nice things for others that make their lives a part of my adventure and my adventure a part of their lives.
When wandering freely on a vagabond trail, all the random flickers of possibility sparkle along the road. Everywhere, there is a glitter of “maybe” and “if the wind blows in that direction, then…” In this state of being, we’re elevated, in some ways. The constraints of a job, a long-term plan, and a routine are clipped from our essence. What’s left?
For me, I find that joy is what’s left. A pure state of self is left. Are we meant to have a job, a long-term plan, and a routine? Some might say this is the “responsible” way to live your life, but I might argue that it’s not what we were born to be. It’s not even living, in my opinion. It’s a kind of death, in fact.
“Lara walked along the tracks following a path worn by pilgrims and then turned into the fields. Here she stopped and, closing her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scented air of the broad expanse around her. It was dearer to her than her kin, better than a lover, wiser than a book. For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name, or, if this were not within her power, to give birth out of love for life to successors who would do it in her place.”
― Boris Pasternak
In this state of ultimate spiritual freedom, I’m the most altruistic. It makes me think that my fellow human is often chained to the belief that he or she must conform, and from this uncomfortable place, they express anger and selfishness. I want to ask: Have you not heard your own voice? Have you not been silent enough to hear the sound of your own breath? Did you feel it enter and exit your body? And then did you know what it really was? That was your life, that needle sharp awareness is everything that you are. Don’t belittle it and call it wrong for not being something more like the scenery all around you.
When you hit the road, when you let go, you’ll see how rapidly scenery can change. But that little breath within you is all you are. Offer this to yourself, to your neighbor, to the world, and learn to love with every breath.
At our center, we are love, aren’t we? And how can we ever reach our center if we are bogging it down with lies all the time? Lies telling us that we must hoard loads of crap in our closets. Lies telling us that we must live in a space with central heating and have 2.1 children and keep up with the latest of techno-gadget electro-toys. Shush. Silence. Listen to your breath.
There is nothing but a road.
There is nothing but a road and which way you will go today.
Doesn’t that make you want to smile? And if a little old man cuts you off in line, aren’t you more inclined to think something more like, “I wonder what his journey was like?” rather than, “Old jerk has forgotten his manners! I was standing here first!”
I really do think that the open road brings us closer to our true selves, which in turn makes us more loving, altruistic, kind beings.
What say you? Agree with me or not?
(Ajax, please let me know what Kierkegaard said about this. You were saying some great things about that today and I’d love to hear more.)
Pseudo-Citizens: My Nation is Humanity
I have no religion.
My religion is love.
I have no nation.
My nation is humanity.
– Yunus Emre
Pseudo-Citizens, by their very name, are international. They are short to long-term inhabitants of lands other than their birth country. These types often settle in a foreign country and learn the language, pick up the local customs, and integrate into the society. They may even pick up a university degree in the host country and will almost always add work experience to their resumes. They are not adverse to most norms of a dominant culture, are highly adaptable, and usually self-funded. This means they work as they go (English teachers, writers, travel guides, camp counselors, fruit pickers, etc).
They may stay in the foreign country for only a few months or they may eventually become citizens. Usually, they don’t stay anywhere long enough to gain a new citizenship—after all, they are Vagabonds! They need to move!
Whereas a Transient is motivated by a desire to live life in a pure form within a community, a Thoreau is motivated by a desire to live life in solitude, and a Nomad is motivated by a desire to move constantly, the Pseudo-Citizen is motivated by a desire to discover something new while expanding horizons. This is why they move to a country only for a time. They want to learn the language and get familiar with the local culture. Once they have accomplished this, they are often well into their planning for the next country. Sometimes, however, they do fall in love: either with the culture or a person living there. If this happens, they usually will settle for the life of a Frequent-Flyer or Back-Packer Vagabond (coming later). They may get lucky and marry a fellow Vagabond.
My good friend Left Eye Looking is a Pseudo-Citizen (as am I). She has lived in so many countries that I lost count, and she speaks so many languages that I’ve never been able to remember them all without asking her to remind me again.
The first time you break free, all that pent up anticipation, not knowing what “free as a bird” will really feel like, your toes tingling…your heart racing. You head to the train station, the airport, the bus stop, the designated car, or your feet. You’ve already said “farewell” to all those you knew for so long who will watch you leave, because they are all so darn content with staying right where they are.
But you can’t.
You need to go, move, break free, explore, see the world.
You versus the conditions–versus circumstance and change and a possible major accident and discovery and getting lost. You versus potential failure and ending up with some weird disease or hungry and stranded. You versus your own ignorance.
Goodbye, you say to them all. And you go.
That first moment when it’s all behind you, the last string is snapped, and nothing more binds you.
What is that feeling?
It sounds a little like this:
Nomad: Born for the Open Road
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
They’re in the crowd; they’re back on he road; they’re here today; they’re gone tomorrow. Now you see them. Now you don’t.
Nomad Vagabonds are a hybrid of the Transient and Thoreau Vagabonds in some ways, but with some added traits of their own. This type of Vagabond moves A LOT. They possess an ever-changing, ever-moving spirit that seeks to absorb more of the world and its inhabitants and more of the open road. They have very few possessions and are often found living their entire existence out of a backpack or less. They rarely feel attachment to any location or person, and they are comfortable both in groups and alone. They may travel alone for a time and then travel with a community for a time. It changes depending on where they are that day. They may take up a temporary job in a town they’re crossing through just to make enough money for more stashed food and a bus ticket to the next town.
They are unlike transients because they are often alone and don’t feel a need to be part of a social community. But they are unlike the Thoreau Vagabond because they are still often quite social, though in a detached sort of way. “Live for the moment!” one might exclaim if you are starting to get attached, make plans, or get them to settle down.
The Nomad Vagabond is in love with the open road itself. They thrive on change, new experiences, a sense of total freedom from limitations and expectations, and personal growth through their experiences. One might say these people are running away from or trying to escape something, but they will argue that blindly following social norms like cattle is a worse form of escapism. For a Nomad Vagabond, the open road and all the variables it implies is the ultimate test of their very fibers as a living creature, a way to transcend the limits that they feel a standard, by-the-book lifestyle would degrade them to. These are the Vagabonds that have wandered for a time with Transients, managed to stumble upon a Thoreau Vagabond in the woods, and have worked a few part-time jobs along the way.
Christopher Mccandless of Into the Wild is a Nomad Vagabond.