To many of us the life of a vagabond holds attractions both real and romantic. Footloose and fancy-free, divested of all those pesky possessions, wandering the world at one’s whim — isn’t it something we all dream of?
If you’re in your twenties, maybe you dream of doing it before you’re thirty, that arbitrary marker age that seems to translate into “real life starts now.” If, like me, you’re in the midst of house, spouse, kids, and job, you dream of leaving it all behind, walking out one day with a few bits of currency in your pocket and a favorite life-defining book, telling your family, “I’ll be back when I’ve found myself again in Fez.”
Well, despite my frequent comments recently that I plan on giving my son to the first band of gypsies that passes my door, I know it ain’t gonna happen. If I make it to Fez, it’ll either be with family in tow or after the kids have followed their own wanderlusts.
And maybe that’s a good thing. I’ve been reading The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov recently (edited by Lillian Hellman, a very satisfying collection first published in the 1950s and reprinted now by Barnes & Noble publications), and came across a missive to fellow Russian writer Maxim Gorky. In it, Chekhov answers a question or comment Gorky must have written about traveling:
“Now as to vagabondage. It is a life that interests and entices one, but with the years a kind of heaviness sets in and one gets glued to a place.”
In 1899 Chekhov knew instinctively what travelers to this day are still discovering for themselves year after year. With all its romanticism, at some point vagabonding is just another form of real life, where the daily tasks of finding something to eat and a place to sleep and deciding what to do next can overtake the initial excitement of discovery.
It reminded me of one of my first trips without my parents. On a spontaneous two-week trip to Turkey, I and some other student friends were caught up in the absolute coolness of what we were doing and what we were seeing. We arrived with no plan, deciding on our first destination (Canakkale) at the Istanbul airport at one in the morning.
We found, as so many American students have and so many are probably finding right at this moment, that everywhere we went in Turkey filled our hearts, minds, souls, imaginations.
We also found, as so many American students have, the intrepid Australians and New Zealanders who had been traveling for 6 months, a year, 18 months in some cases. Wow, we thought, what we wouldn’t give to have that opportunity. But privately, one other friend and I noted how tired many of these adventurous, fun-loving people seemed. They weren’t bored, exactly, but there was a lack of thrill in where they were going, and where they had been. As Chekhov might have said, a heaviness was setting in.
Vagabonding still pulls me with its whisper of freedom. As humans, I think that will always be with us — in a way, we’re all descended from pioneers. But we are also refreshed by gravitating back to a home base. A year of straight traveling would never give me quite the same satisfaction as I gain by spreading it out over years, or even decades, coming to each place with fresh eyes renewed by the humdrum of real life.