I got my first taste of overseas travel much later than most people I know.
The year was 2009. I was 22 years old and freshly graduated from university. My best friend and I flew to the southern hemisphere to travel the east coast of Australia for three whole weeks. She’d already toured Europe once before, but for me, this was monumental. Life-changing.
It was an experience I’ll never forget, and to this very day, I credit that trip with igniting my passion for travel. The heat had been building in my heart for many years. All it needed was a spark.
In the year that followed, I daydreamed of the next time I would travel. My wall became crowded with travel posters and ever so slowly, the realization sank in that the career path I was on wasn’t the right one. Just the idea of becoming a Registered Dietitian was enough to inspire fear in my heart–fear of leading the life that was expected of me instead of the life I wanted.
Once my requisite yearlong internship was over, I cut the cord on what had once been my dream. A new dream–a far less practical one–had taken over. The day I decided once and for all not to pursue a career in nutrition was the day I set myself free.
I was suddenly rudderless, but ready to let my heart lead. From that point onward, travel was my one and only goal.
Ready for Takeoff
By the fall of 2011, I was bound for Thailand with a one-way ticket, poised to become an English language teacher. I had no real intention of making Thailand my forever home, but I was open to the idea all the same.
My first experience living abroad was enough to solidify in my mind that this was the life I was meant for. My career would figure itself out along the way–I was sure of it.
A year and a half later, I left Thailand in search of new frontiers. New languages. New food. A new life. This would eventually become a pattern for me–searching for the unknown, the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable.
In the fall of 2013, I began an open-ended backpacking trip through South America, once again with intentions of settling down in a major city. I figured I would teach English, stay for a year, and then move on. But this time, something about the idea of staying put just didn’t feel right.
I’m quite certain I could have come to love a city like Buenos Aires (or Lima or Quito) and consider it home, given enough time. But the last thing I wanted was to get comfortable. The last thing I wanted was to feel at home.
Staying anywhere for too long would mean growing attached to that place, to the people, to the way of life. Attachment would mean pain upon saying goodbye, and I wasn’t ready to build something beautiful only to leave it behind.
Living a nomadic lifestyle seemed to suit me at that point in my life. Avoid attachment, avoid pain. In my mind, it was a fool-proof plan; all that remained was the small detail of money. My savings were dwindling rapidly. If I didn’t settle down somewhere and teach English, how on Earth would I support myself?
With a few months’ worth of money remaining, a solution arrived in an unexpected package.
Thanks to a serendipitous encounter in a taxi in Peru, I came to learn of digital nomads. Sure, I’d heard the term before. While living in Thailand, I knew many people making their living online, although I never truly understood the implications that came along with it. I never knew that this was the very lifestyle I’d been after all this time.
It was only once I met someone so similar to myself–a petite 20-something girl with a wandering heart and a fiery resolve–that this lifestyle finally felt accessible. If she was making it work, well hell, I could, too.
It was an “Aha!” moment if ever there was one. I didn’t have to settle down anywhere at all. I really could keep moving, and I could make a living while doing it. I didn’t yet know how I would accomplish this–all that mattered was that it was possible.
I’ll spare you the gory details of the several months that followed. It involved starting a blog that was in no way equipped to make money and my bank account finally drying up. It involved schlepping my enormous backpack–now 20 pounds heavier than when I’d started–back to Washington to replenish my savings account and learn how to “digital nomad.”
Everything in my life was uncertain at that point, except for one thing: it would never be the same.
Washington state has always been the place I call “home” for all the obvious reasons. It’s where I was born and raised. It’s where my family lives. I identify as a Washingtonian, I can rattle off ten apple varieties with little fanfare, I believe Sasquatch is real, and my driver’s license sports a photo of Mount Rainier.
But home, at the age of 26, was the last place on Earth I wanted to be.
Every time I went away, I grew exponentially. I felt as though I were realizing my potential through travel. With each new challenge, I learned what I was truly capable of, and I wanted this rapid evolution to continue.
So, armed with a fledgling travel blog, some money in the bank, and my first part-time digital nomad job as a virtual assistant, I set out into the world. Starting in Central America this time, I made my way south with an old college buddy who was on his first long-term backpacking trip.
It took us roughly six weeks to travel from Managua, Nicaragua to Medellin, Colombia, where we parted ways. Medellin was my final destination, at least for the time being. Aside from the fact that it was my favorite Latin American city, I’d heard from more than a few friends that it was an up-and-coming destination for digital nomads.
It meant I could live a good life even if I wasn’t yet pulling in decent money working online.
By this time, the idea of being settled didn’t seem so scary. In fact, I wanted to make friends in Medellin. I wanted to form a community. I wanted to have a few favorite haunts around the city and be able to give directions like a local.
I began working for a local site, writing weekly articles. I got to know the city well this way. This was my second freelance job, and it empowered me to keep pushing. More work began to trickle in, mostly as a result of networking and word-of-mouth.
After just a few months, there was no doubt remaining about whether I’d be able to pull this off.
When I think back on that time, I do feel like I gave Medellin a fair chance. In the end, though, it wasn’t the city for me. When an opportunity arose to head to Europe for a travel blogging conference, my wanderlust kicked into overdrive. Europe–dreamy, poetic, timeless Europe–had eluded me all this time. How could I possibly say no?
I’d struggled to feel at home in Medellin, so I thought it best to cut my losses and heed the call to travel. Still leading with my restless heart, I packed up and hit the road.
In 2015, I spent my 27th birthday on a camping trip on the coast of Spain. My passion for travel, which had dwindled to little more than a feeble flame in Medellin, exploded into a raging inferno.
A small part of me wanted to revisit an old dream of living the Spanish life, but a much larger part of me wanted to see everything Europe had to offer. It was summer, and pure excitement flowed through my veins.
Over the next few months, I would travel to Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Hungary, Poland, and Sweden, never spending more than a month in any one place.
Back down to just one part-time remote job, however, much of my time was spent working on my blog or trying to win new clients. The travel was still exciting, but it was no longer fancy-free. I had obligations if I wanted to keep up this lifestyle, and I wanted it more than anything.
It was a romantic way to live, really. Meeting people day in and day out that I knew I’d never see again. Fleeing to a new place whenever my thoughts began to grow too loud. Working in solitude overlooking a gorgeous lake. Afternoons spent gazing at the glistening Adriatic Sea.
The struggle to stay afloat financially was simply helping me build character, I reasoned. My efforts would pay off eventually and I could look back on these challenging times fondly, a misty tear in my eye.
What I hadn’t yet ascertained was that this journey would contain equal parts soaring highs and crushing lows. It wasn’t a simple ascent toward success–I would have my spirit broken many times over and have to fight my way back into the ring after every defeat.
Thankfully, that summer I did manage to reach a point of relative financial stability. I had a sizeable client roster and began earning more than enough to continue traveling. Unfortunately, the sheen of rapid travel was beginning to wear off, and I felt a creeping desire for stability in other parts of my life as well.
You see, the life of a vagabond is only satisfying for so long. The romance fades. The loneliness crushes your spirit. The hellos and goodbyes become monotonous, and your sense of wonder starts to wane. Even a traveler needs to feel like they belong, and with ties to nowhere, that feeling evades you.
I now wanted friends and a community. A place to lay my head at night. The chance to pursue a relationship that, for once, didn’t involve thousands of miles of distance. And yet, I found myself trapped in the cycle of seeking the unfamiliar that had begun a few years back.
Slowly, reluctantly, I realized I longed for the comforts of the place I’d been avoiding all along. Only now, I had no idea where home even was.
The Dream Begins to Fade
Travel is not black or white. It’s not an all or nothing affair. You can be a traveler and have roots.
Like many travelers before me, I resisted this idea. The thought of settling down and finding a place to call home felt akin to being stripped of my identity. What I’ve since come to understand is that my identity is not limited to traveler; I can be a traveler, a Washingtonian, a photographer, a blogger, and a homemaker. I can be many things at once.
My identity is only augmented by the fact that I’ve spent many years traveling–it adds to my character but it does not define me.
Still on the road in the fall of 2015, however, I’d not yet reconciled with this fact. On the one hand, the parts of the nomadic lifestyle that had previously seemed romantic were now utterly exhausting–all at once physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. On the other hand, the idea of giving up what I’d pursued so passionately for so many years–a life of continual travel and unattachment–gave rise to a very visceral aversion.
Now back in Thailand for a chance to revisit the piece of my heart I’d left in Chiang Mai, I pondered these confused feelings.
If I just slowed my pace, I thought, I might be able to arrive at the perfect compromise. Perhaps living in just a few places throughout the year, spending a few months in each, will give me the comforts I so desperately need while keeping my inner nomad satiated.
And so the next year of my life proceeded: three months here, three months there. Two months here, one month there. I still found myself in far more places than I’d anticipated. From Washington to Sweden to France to Spain to Mexico (and a few more in between), I was still living an exceptionally unsettled life.
The compromise I’d dreamed up was a challenge in and of itself; the traveler in me won out more often than not, and I still had no roots to speak of. No community, and with friends scattered about the globe.
My own choices were wearing me down. It was clear I was no longer truly following my heart, but acting out of habit. In an ironic twist, seeking the uncomfortable had become what was most comfortable. I was traveling for the sake of traveling; my original purpose, my why, had been forgotten.
But my constant movement had resulted in fair bit of momentum; slowing that momentum would take a more concerted effort and a generous dose of self-love.
To be without something is the best way to tell whether you’ve been taking it for granted. If you could never go home again, what would you miss? What would you regret not doing more of? With whom would you regret not spending more time?
In the fall of 2016, I landed in Washington. Upon this particular homecoming, I felt grateful for the first time in years. The mountains looked particularly gorgeous and the sky appeared especially blue. My family and long-time friends were excited I was home and wasted no time in asking when they could see me.
Now rapidly approaching my 30th birthday, time felt more precious than ever. Spending it with people I cared about was the most important thing I could think of, and Washington was the place where I could do it most easily.
After all, these were the people who’d loved me no matter how long I was away. The people who’d kept a warm seat at the table for my return. These were the people who made me feel welcome and who made my heart feel full.
People often ask me why I chose Washington, of all places. “Is it really the best place you’ve been?”
When I give my most honest answer to that question, I say “No, it’s not the best place I’ve ever been. I’ve fallen passionately in love with many a city around the world, and my small town in Washington just doesn’t compare.”
“But,” I continue, since I’m being honest, “It’s less about the place itself and more about the people. Washington is where my people are, and for that reason, it will always feel like home.”
You can’t force a place to feel like home, nor can you shake the feeling once it’s there. It’s a lot like love in that way. When you know, you just know.
But my journey home didn’t quite end there. Old habits die hard, you see, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I had already booked yet another one-way ticket. At least this time, I was only going as far as Mexico.
It’s now January 2017, and I’m sitting at a sunny table in a studio apartment in Oaxaca City, Southwestern Mexico. By this point in my digital nomad evolution, I’m freelance writing and earning a decent income from my blog.
Oaxaca had been on my radar since my first foray into Mexico the year before, and winter seemed as good a time as any to escape frigid Washington.
I’d intended to stay for two months to do a bit of sightseeing and eat all the things before heading back north. This time, however, the call to come home was strong; knowing that my time in Oaxaca was fleeting and the bed I slept in wasn’t mine was enough to cause me to question everything.
After just six weeks had passed, I fled back to Washington. This time, I was home to stay.
Settling Down, But Never Settling
Present day: I’m sitting in my apartment in Washington at a second-hand desk I intend to paint. My boyfriend just got home from work, and we plan to spend the afternoon picking up miscellaneous items we need in order to finish decorating.
We’ve been here for just under a week, so we’re not quite settled, but close. It’s the first time in six years that I’ve owned anything that wouldn’t fit in a suitcase.
The valley we live in is, coincidentally, the valley where we both grew up. Many of our family members live very nearby, with a few outliers in Oregon or Idaho. We have friends here, many of them mutual. We have plans to travel the region in our spare time this summer, and we’d like to eventually experience life on the road while keeping this apartment as our base.
All those things I missed while living nomadically I now have in spades. For me, a sense of community was the most important; a feeling of belonging was a close second. Friends and family are what make these possible. Falling in love was an unexpected bonus.
As recently as 7 months ago, the idea of being settled terrified me. Now I realize that settling down doesn’t mean that I’ve settled–not by any stretch of the imagination.
By settling down, I’ve created a life that fulfills me. I’ve relinquished the need to identify as a traveler and embraced my multifaceted, ever-evolving humanness. I’ve created a life of location independence–a life that allows me to travel when I want, but in which travel is not the primary goal.
Being settled allows me the time I need to build my online business and take proper vacations so I can enjoy travel again. In fact, traveling so much less has given me a renewed appreciation for it; any travel experiences I have now will be shiny and new, not dull and tiresome.
My life of travel is far from over; it will just look a little different moving forward. I may travel with friends or I may travel with family. I may travel for just a week or two instead of several months. Each time, without fail, I’ll find my way back home.
By settling down, I’ve developed a routine that allows for productivity and self-care. I no longer feel perpetually frazzled, no longer feel rundown or as if I need to “catch up” on sleep. I have the option of having a pet. House plants. A garden.
As a renter and not a homeowner, I know that even this is just temporary if I want it to be.
Nomadic living certainly did leave its mark on me in some ways positive ways. Attachment to places and things, for example, is something I rarely feel anymore; this apartment and everything in it would be fairly easy to say goodbye to if I felt a sudden urge to move.
For now, though, it feels right. It feels like home. And that is a feeling I never plan to take for granted again.