Thursday, June 27, 2013

COUNTDOWN . . . . 4

Tourists, Migrants, and Nomads

[36 Days to Lift Off]

            One of the things I notice as I write this Countdown to The Trip is that my family and I have exerted a great deal of effort in deciding where we would go during our year of traveling. And that is as it should be.  We will expend a great deal more time and energy as we find a truck and trailer, and then select RV parks and buy museum passes and negotiate between spending money on a hockey game or a whale watching tour.  However, it took us almost no time at all to decide how we would travel.  As soon as I knew I could get away from work for a year, we knew we were going to spend that year on the road in America with our two young boys in a travel trailer.  At no time, did a series of thought bubbles float through the comic strip borders of our lives:  “Oh let’s take a cruise” or  “Hey, let’s rent the house and move to Montreal for a year,” or  “I hear Columbia is nice this time of year.  We could all learn Spanish.”  Nope, immediately Colleen and I looked at each other and knew.  A year on the road in a travel trailer—that’s the ticket.

"Migrants on the Road--Texas.  Dorothea Lange
           Why is that?  I will assume that much of the blog posting that follows—if I can maintain the discipline of regular writing for the year—will be my attempts to answer that question.  We can trace the desire back to blogs of homeschooling families that Colleen has followed.  Or to a speech I heard Douglas Brinkley give fifteen years ago about an American studies class he taught in a bus crossing America, and captured in his book The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey.  Or to our childhoods of summer vacations in the back seats of large American cars.  And memories of eating cheese sandwiches and hard boiled eggs on concrete picnic tables on the sides of newly constructed highways.
            But further down inside us, perhaps beyond memories, and contained somehow in our psychic DNA, I believe that basically Colleen and I are wonderers.  In hippie, psycho-babble, we are searchers.  Maybe this sounds hokey and narcissistic, so let’s just go ahead and admit that for the whole world to know.  There is a kind of rootlessness to us.  Certainly, for thirty-five years, I have been doing my job of taking care of the family and work.  But I have found ways to shake the apple cart.  I know that Colleen has found my steadfastness and risk aversion more than a bit frustrating at times.  Still she also knew that if she said, “Hey, I want to move into the country,” I would follow, and when she said ten years later, “Let’s move back into the city,” there I was packing the boxes. 

            A number of RVers claim the term “nomads,” and so will I.  I think it is a perfectly appropriate term for us wanders.  We might not be lifelong nomads, but for a set period of time, it does seem to be the best term, especially when one considers the alternatives:  tourists or migrants.  These seem to me the three choices we have on how to think about our year of travel.  The first is to think of ourselves as tourists.  I can put on my Bermuda shorts and black socks and dress shoes—or today’s version is sliders, shorts that hang below my knees and a xxl t-shirt with some vacation spot advertised on it.  I carry my little camera with me and take photos of the wife and kids and various spots around the nation, always looking at my watch to make sure that we can get back into the car and get to the next site to take a photograph there.  We can fill up the car with sodas and bags of chips and candies from the convenience/filling station and keep to the clock.  We can stick to the restaurants near the freeways—our McDonalds and KFCs and Pizza Huts.  There will be plenty of water parks, and Six Flags, putt putt courses and go cart tracks to keep everyone entertained. 

         The thing about the tourist is that the entire point is to not be home for a while and then to return back home.  It doesn’t matter where you go, just that you have gone somewhere and looked, however briefly, at something different.  But you also know you are going to return home, and deep down inside you can’t wait until it happens.  Even though you have left home, you really wish that you were still there.  That is why you stop at all the places that are more or less like the places you have at home but never have time to go to.  It is also why we have come up with the recent invention, “Staycation.”  It is just too tiring to get everything all organized to go away and do what you would do at home if you had stayed.  So you just stay.  Survival as tourists depends upon resources brought with them from home and upon a socio-economic system set up to accommodate them.  Tourists are collecting experiences to take home with them and to share on Flicker—see how much fun we had!  Whew, glad that is over!

            The second choice is to become a migrant.  Migrants tend to be peoples who travel to one or a few places and then return, eventually, to home.  Think of birds.  They fly north in the spring and summer, and then fly south for the fall and winter.    In the south, we have a large group of the retired who migrate south for the winter, live in a series of mobile home parks for weeks or months and then return home.  And in the north, there are an equal number of Southerners who hop into their motor homes in May and head north to escape the unbearable summers.  Two suggestions by my Facebook friends illustrate this kind of travel:  Padre Island (second home for snowbirds) and Estes Park (second home for summer Coloradans).  Unlike tourists, who have one home, migrants, for all intents, have two homes.  They might very well have two sets of friends and two sets of hobbies and interests.  Migrants begin to “make themselves” at home; that is, they cease being on the go.  They sit and relax; they take time off. They venture into the town where they are living and find a restaurant or shop that is owned and run by someone living in town.  At worst, they find “their” McDonalds or Wal-Mart.  At best they make friends with the owners of Donna’s Bakery and Bob’s Bait shop.  They are less interested in the all the opportunities for anonymous distraction and entertainment.  Survival in both locations depends upon developing social networks.  The migrant collects experiences for his overall interests.  He has already bifurcated his concept of self, but his understanding of himself in one that is larger than one or the other place.

            The third choice is to become a nomad.  Nomads are not on temporary vacations, nor have they established two homes between which they travel on a somewhat regular basis.  Instead, the nomad’s life is one of constant, continuous travel.  Over time, they may repeat locations and there may be some seasonal regularity—north in warmer months, south in cooler months—but the nomad never sets up home for long.  Tourists are more improvisational than migrants—a tourist is more likely to say, “Hey, we’ve never done that before” than a migrant who is setting up two homes and two behavior patterns that most likely mirror each other.  But nomads are much more improvisational that either migrants or tourists.  They know that one turn on one highway could become a week or a month’s adventure. 

            Nomads are also more resistant to the societal structures they encounter.  Nomads are more anarchistic; they move into a region and live off the region, to some extent, but they do not join in.  I think of the gypsies camped on the outside of town.  Migrants exert a certain amount of effort to join in, blend in, to their new territories, and are successful.   Tourists also attempt to join in, at least in the areas cordoned off for them by the resident society.  But nomads, no matter how long they stay in one place, wish to preserve their individual identity.  In one sense, they are thieves or vagrants; in another they are the last free people.   To invoke Freud, nomads are the id to a civilization’s super-ego. 

            Obviously, the life that Colleen and I are choosing for us and for our children for one year is that of nomads, with brief flirtations with aspects of the lives of tourists and migrants.  We will, most likely, stay in 25-35 different locations in the twelve months that we will be on the road.  Our average stay in one location will be about five days, I am guessing.   In general, we will stay outside of major urban centers, and if one can be said these days to live off the lay of the land, that is what we plan to do, albeit in the capitalist setting of small personally owned businesses.  Because we are friendly people and have no illegal activities to hide, I am certain that we will make many friends along the way.  But these will be friendships made quickly and if not ended, then paused quickly.  Still, five months (five, when I wrote this; one, when I post it) before we begin our adventure, I can imagine those nice folks we met in Somewhere, U.S.A, saying, “Gee, those are nice people.  They ought to settle down and stay in one place for awhile.”

Soundtrack:  The Grateful Dead:  Truckin'

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