The idea of long-term wandering has always fascinated me. I had a perfectly nice childhood in a suburb of Philadelphia, but still I'd dream about the day I'd be old enough to set out and have adventures around the country or the world.
As a teenager, this desire manifested as an interest in books like Kerouac's On The Road. Kerouac himself was only on the road for a short time, but the grand and romantic way he fictionalized the experience made it feel like more. I recall looking at the cover of my paperback copy, which showed a drawing of a long, deserted stretch of highway leading towards distant mountains, and feeling an ache in my heart about what it would be like to be there.
Then there were 60s and 70s TV shows like Route 66 (two guys in a convertible, finding new adventures each week as they rode down the highway) and Then Came Bronson (exact same plot, but with one guy on a motorcycle). I ate up all those nomadic stories.
I even watched The Littlest Hobo. This time, the on-the-road hero was a dog. I felt that same ache when the theme song came on:
Traveling around from town to town.
Sometimes I think I'll settle down.
But I know I'd hunger to be free.
Rovin' is the only life for me.
Wanderlust played out in my own life between the ages of 18 (when I first left home for a brief stint at college) through my mid- to late-20s. I was part of Swami Muktananda's "3rd World Tour," a travelling meditation show in New York, Florida, and California. It was much like joining the circus. Then my most extreme travel experience, a couple years in India. Later, I tripped across the US, hitting spiritual hot spots. I've spent months in Arcata (Humboldt County, CA), and a year dealing blackjack and roulette in Vegas.
I don't know what to make of the travel/wander bug. It seems to cut both ways. In Buddhism and other Indian traditions, monks may frequently travel from place to place. The idea, I'd guess, is that this type of homeless, "floating cloud" life teaches non-attachment to the constantly changing names and forms of this world.
On the other hand, constant travel can be an escape mechanism. Alcoholics Anonymous speaks of "Pulling a Geographic"... the deluded belief that you can solve entrenched life problems by simply moving to a different location. A review of American Nomads (the book referenced above) calls it "a meditation on the urge to be elsewhere." This makes the nomadic life sound like the antithesis of Buddhism, which would teach us to attend to the Truth right in front of us, rather than cultivate fantasies of greener grass.
In my next post, I'll think some more about why I had this nomad urge when I was younger, and why it seems to have evaporated over the last couple decades, as I've stayed put in Berkeley.