on searching for home amidst a life of adventure
Throughout my twenties, I craved a home.
Somewhere I belonged. Somewhere I felt rooted. Somewhere a community awaited me.
So I criss-crossed the western United States, searching hard for this mythical land. I pilgrimaged to Portland and Ashland and Boulder. I flirted with Bend and San Diego and San Francisco and Santa Cruz. I let Lake Tahoe sink her hooks into me.
If I simply drove enough, explored enough, and rented enough Craigslist rooms, I imagined I’d eventually find a place to call home.
But no matter where I went, I always wanted to leave.
I lasted four months in Portland. Six months in Ashland. Six in Boulder.
Lake Tahoe and I found ourselves in a passionate, tumultuous love affair. I’d leave, we’d miss each other, I’d return, I’d get frustrated, repeat. Despite having beautiful mountains and a solid nucleus of friends, I never seriously considered sticking around for a full year.
My mental checklist was impossibly long. I wanted a place with the culture of a city but also direct access to nature. Posh coffeeshops but little pretension. Somewhere affordable, but also a popular destination that would inspire my out-of-town friends to visit.
The North Carolina city of Asheville, where I moved to be with a long-term girlfriend, seemed to check all the boxes. Yet after half a year, I found myself anxious and restless. I told myself it was the humidity. Really, it was just me.
Call it impatience, impulsiveness, or chronic wanderlust; whenever I tried to settle into a new home, I inevitably felt the malaise described by the writer Alain de Botton:
[Home] finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind.
Unlike de Botton, I didn’t need a full decade to feel habituated and blind to a place. It only took me six months.
What the hell was wrong with me? When would I grow up? When would I become a real adult?
While visiting a friend in Guatemala in 2016, I sat down with a pen, paper, and very large cup of coffee to answer the question: What, exactly, makes a home?
Was it easy access to family and friends? Mine were spread across the United States and the globe. To reside in a single place would mean seeing far fewer of them face-to-face each year.
A base for work? My face-to-face work took place in ever-changing international destinations, far-flung camps, and alternative schools around the country. Any 12-month lease would sit empty for one-third or one-half the year. For my writing and digital projects, home was where the laptop was.
A place to store your stuff? All my possessions fit into a small storage unit, and I could usually ask friends or family to watch my car while I traveled.
A place to get your mail? I took mail at a friend’s house for a while, but I felt bad about burdening her with postmaster duties, and I missed an important letter from the tax authorities one time. So I signed up for an inexpensive virtual mailbox service, which allows me read, scan, shred, and forward my mail from anywhere in the world.
A sense of place? Yes, but there were so very many places I wanted to sense! Much like my scattered friendships, sticking to one place would mean rejecting many others.
A feeling of comfort and peace? In this department, I was admittedly low-maintenance. I could find (or create) peace and comfort pretty much anywhere I went.
A feeling of safety and refuge? I don’t think I ever really believed in this one. How quickly might one’s “home” feel alien after a break-up, job loss, or estrangement?
A place to enable a long-term romantic relationship? Well… yes. I couldn’t come up with a good solution for this one. Whenever I’d wanted to make a long-term relationship happen, I’d ended up moving somewhere to be close to my partner.
Rootedness, I began to admit, was a double-edged sword. It could enable relationships, security, and sense of place, or it could undermine them.
Practically speaking, paying for year-round housing was something I wanted to avoid. Houses seemed responsible for chaining so many people to jobs they disliked. Work hard to pay for the home that helps you recover from your hard work. They also struck me as thinly veiled excuses for recreational consumerism. Get a home so you can fill it with stuff. I didn’t want either one of these dynamics in my life.
After seeing how people lived in less affluent corners of the world, I began marveling at the sheer size of most American houses, which were really little castles. Part of me admired our prosperity, while a larger part railed at how frequently our kingdoms sat empty. I wasn’t just thinking of the second homes I biked past in Lake Tahoe. I was thinking of the everyday spare bedrooms, grassy backyards, and big, carpeted living rooms. With so much loneliness in the world, why were these vacant spaces not regularly offered to friends, family, travelers? Why wasn’t the entire world Couchsurfing, all the time? The first thing I did after scoring one of my rare 3- to 6-month leases was invite friends and strangers to come stay with me. Because community and connection are what make life rich, right?
A second cup of coffee helped me remember how weird I was in this regard. I’d happily survived seven seasons of summer camp life (with its utter lack of privacy) as well as four years in the giant Berkeley student cooperative houses with their cheap rent, filthy hallways, creative student-cooked meals, atrocious parties, and endless house meetings. In the “co-ops,” everything was shared, and everything was social. In terms of square footage of private space, I was never more lacking. In terms of community and belonging, I was never richer.
Now in my early thirties, I no longer wanted to share my bedroom or spend more than a single consecutive night in a hostel dorm. So what did I require?
Physically, all I needed was a room to call my own, reliable internet, and access to a toilet, shower, and kitchen.1
Socially, I craved a life filled with high-quality connections and a vibrant, rotating cast of characters.
Morally, I wanted to avoid waste, overconsumption, and occupying more space than was absolutely necessary.
Sitting in that Guatemalan café, after searching in vain for my mythical “home” for so many years, the puzzle pieces finally started to come together.
Could I find rooms to rent wherever I went in the world? Yes.
Could I occasionally occupy other people’s homes, trading companionship for a place to lay my head? Yes.
Could I rent my own little castle every now and then, whenever I desired solitude or the ability to host others? Yes.
Could my work survive, and even thrive, in a nomadic lifestyle? Yes.
Could I stay better connected to the people and places I loved through semi-constant migration? Yes.
Yes? Then I would stop seeking Shangri-La.
I would find my home in perpetual motion.
Tiny homes and vanlife never seemed like serious housing options in this regard, because they lacked real utilities.