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last day in Anchorage, 2007

Travelers and Settlers

About eight years ago, I wrote an email to some friends about how the world is divided into travelers and settlers. Travelers are those who cannot sit still and leave their hometowns as soon as possible and Settlers are those, who remain and help keep the town running and alive with culture. This revelation came after finishing graduate school and landing my first job, which took me halfway across the United States to Milwaukee. In an effort to make friends, I went out for a beer with some new coworkers and their friends. Over the course of the evening, I off-handedly spoke of my time living various places like Anchorage, Seattle, and Costa Rica as if it were no big deal, because it wasn’t to me. It was my life. One person in the group said, “Every time you talk about your life, I feel less adequate about my life.” She had grown up in Milwaukee, had just bought a condo, and only left Milwaukee to move forty-five minutes away for college. Needless to say, our lives were quite different. However, during my two years living in Milwaukee, we became good friends and found we had far more in common than we had differences.

Today, I find myself having just finished my sixth year living in Evanston. It is the longest I’ve lived anywhere since leaving home for college at the age of 18. This traveler, who “ran away” to Anchorage and has traversed much of the Western Hemisphere, has become a settler with a wife, two daughters, and a garden. Yes, a garden! On top of this, I’ve helped coordinate a block party with neighbors, who have lived on our block for 20–35 years.

But it was a random email from an old college friend that reminded me of this arbitrary dichotomy. She and I share a birthday and after nearly a decade without communication, she called me out of the blue to reconnect. Based solely on her social media posts, I had placed her in the traveler column without a second thought because many of her photos were taken in other countries, on boats, hiking through mountains, and with such a diverse group of people as to make me constantly jealous. And as we rekindled our friendship and moved beyond the “what’s up with so-and-so,” I learned she has lived in the same place since graduation and has built deep roots within her community. It is her job that takes her places all over the country, and while she loves every moment, her heart remains in her home.

As so often is the case, I’ve realized that perhaps revising my stance on something is needed…

1. I still believe that Travelers and Settlers exist.

Every time I return home, a small pang of guilt exists for having moved away. My father has not lived outside of the county, and only moved outside of the city limits for a short stint when I was a newborn. Growing up, everyone knew him and my grandfather for their skill with woodworking and carpentry. While I’m the spitting image of my father and often was asked on the street if I was Chuck’s kid, I didn’t get those skills and perhaps in spite of those encounters, I felt a longing to flee and make my own identity in the world. Now as I work hard to build a family with my wife and children, I realize the importance of place and the sacredness of building a community for children in a way that I shirked as one. So…

2. I don’t believe Travelers and Settlers are mutually exclusive.

When I made the decision to move to Seattle for graduate school, I asked my dad and my cousin to help me with the four day road trip from Anchorage. Then, my dad and I made the ill-fated decision to take the train from Seattle back to my hometown in Indiana where a friend was getting married. This meant we had 7 days of living and traveling in VERY close proximity. In those long days, when conversation grew stale and then grew more creative, I learned a lot about my dad and his life. For we chose to plunge into the uncharted territory of family history, personal wants and hopes, and nostalgia. We also get a little slap happy and judgmental of other travels, but that is a whole different story.

In those moments where my dad and I chose to become vulnerable and stopped being a father and son, I learned he had traveled! I learned the real stories of how my grandfather pulled him out of school countless times to go on road trips across the United States. I heard how he and my mom sacrificed their wanderlust (and more) to make sure my sister and I were fed, clothed, and sheltered. And through it all, I came to a deeper appreciation for him and the error in my simplistic system.

Negril, Jamaica, 2011

3. It isn’t so much the physical movement as it is the mindset.

Right before my first daughter was born, a former student of mine came to town for work, and we were able to grab lunch. He had only known me as the graduate student/traveler/adventure seeker. He was shocked to learn that I had “settled down” and was starting a family and had a garden. And without much thought, I share that sometimes your adventures have to shift or take on new meaning. For me, taking the time to plant seeds and nurture them into tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers was just as fascinating as coordinating a month in Costa Rica or studying abroad in the United Kingdom.

And now, with two daughters of my own, I’m realizing that inviting them on an adventure is a much better way to say “do your chores.” And when you are stuck driving through a blizzard, belaying their fears with a snowy trip home takes the edge off of everyone.

So while I’m not willing to through out my system completely, I am willing to admit that we all have a traveler and a settler in us. And when a life situation calls upon us to explore and take on new challenges, it is important to turn to that inner traveler, grab a suitcase and go. Then, when roots are needed and food, shelter, and clothing are required for your kids to excel at life, you plop the suitcase down and unpack.

Perhaps in another eight years, or when my daughters head off on their own travels to college and beyond, I may reassess things, but for now, I’ll just keep a suitcase semi-packed and ready to go.

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