Is it possible to “put down roots” while on the road?

Guest post by Vanessa
By: David~OCC BY 2.0

In the past six years my husband and I (and our two pets) have lived in five countries (and I don’t mean ones particularly close together). Having never found that mythical place called “home,” a few months ago we put our most recent dwelling on the market, and two weeks ago we moved into our motorhome.

In making these choices, particularly the RV, I’ve been thinking a lot about embracing life on the road. Embracing being the global wanderer that I am (we are), and calling that “home” (as opposed to looking for our next destination to be the home we’ve been seeking).

Yesterday, my father-in-law mentioned he looks forward to us “putting down roots.” And so, as I easily do, I’m questioning…

  • What is the benefit I’m missing out on (that I’ve really never known) of being part of one specific community?
  • Is it even something I want?
  • Does it exist as an RVer, as an ongoing traveller?
  • Is settling down inevitable?
  • Or can I be a tree whose roots are spread far and wide?

I’m interested in your own experiences, philosophies, definitions of identity, and everything else even loosely connected (because tangents are the best).

And, just so you know, I’d love to hear from the wonderful community of Offbeat Homies who live in every shape of mobile home, AND those who move town a lot, AND those who never have done any of it — but have always been attracted to it.

Comments on Is it possible to “put down roots” while on the road?

  1. While I envy what you are doing and living in different countries (I did live in the UK, but that was because of my father’s job, so I had no choice in the matter as I was under 18, but I loved the experience). But I do worry about what it is like when working. I do not know what you do for a living, but unless you are working from “home” while on road with whatever company you working for. I would be leary (if I was a supervisor) on how long you would want to stick around at my company if you are taking time off while traveling.
    I have a friend who lived on his boat for two years while starting in Maryland and going down to South America and back. He was lucky that he managed to work a deal with his company to work from “home” for two years and conferenced call when he needed to be in a meeting.

  2. Not a traveler, so I can really only attempt to answer your first question. But I think it’s an interesting one, because I have always been attracted to “home.”

    There have been many times in my life I have been tempted to move away for various reasons, and I’ve never gone, because “home” has such a powerful draw to me. The most important thing is family and friends. I like being close in times of crisis. I can’t imagine being away from my parents if they were old and/or sick. I love that I live right down the street from my new little nephew so he really knows me. I was so appreciative of having people around that I could depend on when my husband had cancer. I love that my kids have connections to people that they see on a regular basis. I know that through the magic of modern technology all of these things could be maintained if we were farther away, but to me it’s the difference between jumping with a parachute from a great height and being constantly cocooned. Either way you land safe, but one way seems more gentle.

    But there are other things that I love about home too. I love being able to get from one place to another without a map. I love the kind of cultural shorthand that people have (understanding and being able to make fun of the local slang, for example). I love the expectation of the changing of the seasons, knowing that March should be the beginning of spring but that it doesn’t really come until April but if you blink it will be June and incredibly hot. I love knowing that I live somewhere where most people align with me politically, and people don’t think that I am going to hell because of my religion. I love being able to welcome new people to our community and reassure them that the schools are good and let them know about the hidden gems of our town (the beautiful and underused state park, the place where they can get awesome ice cream for $1).

    Of course, all of this comes with many trades. When my husband lost his job, it meant we weren’t willing to pick up and move someplace less expensive. It means that my kids won’t speak multiple languages, which I would have loved. It means that we could really only afford a super ugly house that, although functional, I don’t love. It means that family is around even when we would like a little break.

    So is it something that you should want? I can’t answer that question. But those are the things that I like about “having roots.” I still have a little waterlust; I’m already planning our 6-week cross country road trip that we won’t take for at least 3 more years, but I already know how much I’ll look forward to coming home from that trip.

    • I’m writing again, because I feel there is so much wonderful content to reply to, and I needed some time to process my thoughts and (hopefully) do your post justice.

      I admire (and maybe am sometimes jealous of) your situation: of being so from a place that you have the network that would support you through your husband’s cancer, the ability see your nephew grow up, of having your closest friends just down the road, of being understood and accepted by people like you.

      My situation is very different, and I feel I need to give some more background for everything else to make sense:

      My mother was born in Australia to Polish immigrants. She left at 18, eventually settling in Canada. As she was an only child, my closest family is 2nd cousin at best. I didn’t meet most of them until I was 14, and I’ve never been deeply involved in their lives. Her parents were gone before I was in school.

      My dad’s side is simpler, as he was a straight-forward Canadian, but his parents and his siblings lived in various locations not especially near where I grew up, and we didn’t have the annual gatherings other families enjoy. I’ve essentially only come to know my dad’s family in the past couple years as a direct result of moving to a central point in Canada.

      Throughout my entire education, I’ve changed schools frequently (between 1 and 3 years at any given place), essentially due to the pursuit of the best education my mother could find. My only sibling is significantly older than me, and left to another city (then country) when I was still young. My parents passed away in mid-childhood, and my only constant until age 14 was the house I lived in. At 14 I was moved to Australia, and the changes have only grown from there.

      The idea of home is attractive to me, but as per the article, it’s not something I’ve (yet??) been able to achieve. I think what you have is quite awesome, I really do. I think it’s equally true that the freedom I know to live anywhere is quite awesome. But, unlike you, I can never be in the same place as all the people I care for, and that’s the case no matter where I might choose to settle (assuming I choose to settle).

      I also want to mention that some of the things you love about your home are things I have known: of being able to navigate easily around town, of making fun of the local slang, of understanding the annual weather patterns, of being able to share with visitors the hidden gems. I think (for some places) it can take as little as one year to achieve most of those abilities. (Yes, that is a tiny nudge-nudge for if you might want to try living somewhere else for 24 months). To me, the notable difference of being Always From somewhere versus Claiming A Town as your home, is that the newcomer has their previous town/s to compare to — and that’s just not a conversation you are able to share with the locals.

      Thank you again for sharing your story, and the reasons why having roots is a most wonderful thing for you. I wish you the very best for your trip, and hope you can make it sooner than three years away! (Like another commenter, I cannot even imagine planning that far in advance!!!)

  3. Your father-in-law’s comment is really something I can relate to personally. My family has been spread all over the world for the past 15 years, and I am so happy that most of us are finally back in one geographic area for the time being. I never realized how much I was missing out on by only being able to see my parents or siblings once a year, and it is almost unheard of for the whole family to be in one place at one time. I’m finally able to develop a casual everyday relationship with them that I haven’t had since I was a child.

    • For the times in my adult life where I’ve had that experience, of being able to have a casual, day-to-day relationship with family I connect with, it is truly an awesome thing.

  4. Vanessa,
    My husband and I are halfway between roots and traveling in an RV. We are in a two piece touring band that spends half the year traveling around the US in our minivan and the other half in our little house at the top of Maine with our two dogs. When we are home we enjoy being part of a tiny community, but are always striving to tour more each year. I guess what I’ve realized is having roots aren’t necessary to being ‘home’. We have each other and have made a large portion of the US feel like a home town and with close friends scattered all over. Keep traveling if that’s what makes you happy, have the world be your home and don’t let other peoples ideas on life stifle yours.

    • “Keep traveling if that’s what makes you happy, have the world be your home and don’t let other peoples ideas on life stifle yours.”

      Hannah, I think I will have to stick this up on my wall for times when I’m in doubt. Thank you so much!

  5. Hi, Vanessa!

    My grandparents pretty much lived in their RV for ten years after my grandma retired, and were RVing as a hobby for many years before that. They were small-town American folks and maintained the beautiful house they built in their hometown by coming back to celebrate major holidays with the family there. Two weeks for Thanksgiving/housework, then back on the road again! During that entire decade, my grandpa was undergoing extensive cancer treatment at M.D. Anderson, several states away from their hometown. Living in the RV enabled them to meet all of his treatments and appointments in Texas, while exploring the rest of North and South America. Grammie and Grandpa visited the southernmost & northernmost drivable points in the Western Hemisphere, and lots of places in between. They lived a full, adventurous life together!

    I would never, ever say that they lacked a community or roots. They attended all major family events, even for family members who had moved away from their hometown (attendance made easier by the RV!). They gathered friends and family for HUGE potluck holiday dinners in their old house. They had a warm, connected community of other RVing friends. In fact, if you asked my Grammie what the best thing about life on the road was, she would say “the people”. (My Grandpa would say “driving into a different sky every day”.) By the second or third year, it seemed from their stories that they met friends at each stop, other couples travelling the US in their own RVs and trailers. It was clearly a very retiree-oriented community, but also diverse in its own way. Now, we grandkids have spread ourselves across the country and the globe. We credit our sense of adventure, in part, to our grandparents.

    • (Laptop ran out of juice! Comment cont’d….)

      My grandparents also stayed connected to a couple of volunteer organisations, holding office and working on committees while they were on the road. Grandpa got involved in one of those, the National Association of Atomic Veterans, because of people they met while travelling, who shared the same experiences and were trying to advocate for change in the US. They never would have met that community or made an impact there if they hadn’t been living in the RV. Maybe there is an organisation or national club you can find that suits your passions and needs some help from someone who can donate a little time on the internet/phone?

      My grandparents last trip together was in 2010, and when my grandpa passed away, the funeral had to be moved to a ‘megachurch’ in the next town over, because more than 1,000 people came from across the country to bid him farewell. That doesn’t happen unless roots are indeed “spread far and wide”.

      Best of luck on your great adventure. We’re all cheering for you!

  6. Home is whatever you want it to be. The most common definition is a specific place, but it can just as easily be a geographical area, country, person, pet, or vehicle as far as I’m concerned. I figure it’s a sense of belonging, love, and acceptance. You can find that almost anywhere and having an RV might help since your location can change but your vehicle is a constant.
    As for your family and friends, perhaps some sort of routine might help, for instance you might decide to commit to making the effort of spending a particular holiday in their area so that they have some sort of idea where you will be and when year after year. That way you guys can spend time together and they can know to expect a little one on one face time. Also as most travelers can agree, routine can be important, and having a location to return to and see your family can be a comfort to everyone.
    Settling down doesn’t have to be inevitable. Think of all the fellow travelers you’ve met! Heck consider people who travel for a living, or cultures who’s lives depend on moving from place to place to survive! It’s possible, and in today’s digital world also easier to stay in touch.
    You will never feel truly at home if you cannot be yourself 100%. So if that means open roads and keeping change of address cards on hand, embrace it!

  7. Regarding my philosophy, without addressing anything practical:

    I can’t seem to find the quote, but I remember that during an interview, astronaut Chris Hadfield was asked something like “What is the most important message you would want people to take away from your experience on the ISS?”

    His answer was about how, circling the Earth every 90 minutes, it became to clear to him that we are all in this together. This indescribably beautiful planet where we all live together is so small.

    Our borders, in my mind, mean less compared to the fact that we are all children of this place. To me, no matter where I live or travel, my roots are deep in the earth itself, and the hearts of my loved ones. And thanks to technology, I can remain close to my people no matter how far I wander.

    So, I do believe you can be a tree whose roots are spread far and wide 🙂

  8. During my adult life, I have moved every one or two years, with three distinct regions of the United States in there (and one other country). At this very moment, I am in between locations and staying with family. Even though I only lived in my previous location for two years, I miss having an apartment that is mine, and I feel dislocated when I think back to the city I lived in and realize “oh wait, I don’t live there any more.” But getting to know new cities and regions is definitely my favorite part of moving frequently.

    To me, “roots” don’t seem necessary, but a comfy place that is all my own to relax in at the end of the day definitely is. It seems like that would definitely be possible with an RV. I’ve often thought of having some sort of mobile living space while preparing for my most recent move.

    Also, I lived in the same town for most of my childhood, as well as summers in high school and college. Neither of my parents live there any more, but I still feel intimately attached to that community and its history. I don’t exactly have roots there, but I don’t feel like I need them to appreciate the town and its importance in my earlier life.

    • “…I feel dislocated when I think back to the city I lived in and realize “oh wait, I don’t live there any more.”…”

      I totally know what you mean! I dubbed it ‘continentally confused’ when I was younger, after my dreams were merging where I’d lived in Canada & Australia. This has of course only got worse in adulthood (with the collection of more countries) and I *really* hate those times you feel like eating at X restaurant, only to realize you aren’t in the same city/country/hemisphere as that place.

  9. I think the magic word in your question is “community.” You can really get to know people and communities as they grow and change in a different way then when you know them one snapshot at a time. Personally I love having roots in my geographically-based community. But I moved around a lot as a kid so perhaps in some small way staying in one place is my rebellion. I think being part of a community is really important to most people’s emotional well-being. That said, your community doesn’t have to be geographically-based. Maybe it’s interest-based. Maybe you know other traveling folk. My advice is to find or form a community of individuals who will support you and whom you want to support. If you want to do that while traveling, that seems totally doable to me. Geography is not everything.

    • Thank you for pulling this in another direction.
      You’re quite right, community is really important. And while I perhaps don’t have one (certainly not a traditional one), I do have a collection of very dear individuals scattered across time zones who are there for me (digitally) in times of need.
      The deeper and fuller version of that, of a full community who you have a long term, ongoing, give-and-take experience, who you feel you belong to, and who you share more than “a snapshot” (love that analogy) with, I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced. I’ve often been attracted to it though; maybe I can try and find it on my travels 🙂

  10. A bit of my background first: I grew up in the military, have moved many times, lived in several countries, worked for a decade in a career that required constant travel (I even gave up on an apartment living for two years, put all my things in storage, and just stayed with family/friends when not on work travel), and for the last several years my husband travels the country in an RV because of his work. Because of his job, the RV makes sense for us. It’s much cheaper than hotels and actually feels like our own space where we can keep basic necessities. For me, the RV is immensely more comfortable but I am also used to backpacking so the tiny shower and limited hot water are not too big of a deal usually.

    Work: Husband’s job requires the travel. Unfortunately, we never saw each other but for about 5 weeks each year when I was still working. I quit and went back to school online. Trying to find an online public school program in my field has been very difficult. I get very little networking and no socializing out of school but I do get to work on research projects in a hammock near a lake or in a park when the weather is good.

    Community participation: I used to play in a few different leagues but cannot commit to a team knowing I will rarely be there. Because we sometimes only have a week’s notice on relocating, even signing up for races can be difficult. As a military brat, many of my friends are scattered across the country so I have decent luck knowing at least one person within a few hours of us; we keep up with each through social media. I may only see them once or twice a decade but they are a great resource for food/drink/entertainment recommendations. It can be hard finding a good garage, bike repair, favorite cupcake shop, etc. when we are always in a new location. I’ve had my next tattoo planned for three years but haven’t found an artist I could get to know enough or had time to work with yet – it isn’t small. Buying plane tickets can be a real pain because I can’t plan more than a few weeks in advance and rarely fly in and out of the same airport. But we do have a bit of a community on the road; there is a general one among RV’ers that is usually helpful and friendly. We also have the boilermaker community because of the husband’s work which is where almost always find our next campground through. We rarely stay in a KOA because the rates are high for full-timing, the spaces are cramped, and they rarely enforce quiet hours. Local bike shops, running stores, and music stores are great sources for finding things to do; or any special interest shop in the area. I also bring my camera with me just about everywhere because it makes it easier for me to talk to strangers as I’m an introvert.

    Things we miss out on: Being able to plan long term for things that require advanced notice like some concerts and festivals (work decides when and where we will be). Having the same doctor over a long period of time; I have a minor health issue that creeps up occasionally and half the doctors I see think I am lying to them or shopping for drugs. We don’t participate most things retail that require long term patronage in return for reduced prices like having a local auto garage, food co-ops, hobby shops, or cupcake store. I usually steer clear of large chain stores but miss out on the long term benefits of local ones. Having friends to go do things with; husband and I are both very solitary individuals but I do miss coffee dates with my closest friends and participating in family events and watching my cousins’ families grow. I think that settling down is inevitable for us because we’ve done the travel gig for most of our lives but even settling down will include lots of shorter trips every few months. I don’t think we could give it up completely.
    I hope that doesn’t sound negative, I was going for realistic and ended up with longwinded. I do love seeing so many new places. I’m an outdoorsy person so I try to find spots near state or national parks, geologically significant areas, or interesting towns. I get excited when we pull into a campground and recognize vehicles because I know there will be a bbq on everyone’s next day off. And this is one of my favorite parts: Don’t like your neighbors? Moving is super easy!

    • Hi Asenath,
      I don’t think it sounds negative; I think you’re sharing your lifestyle, with some pluses and minuses, and specifically how it suits you and your husband as individuals. The insight I’m getting, thanks to your comment, is about having the details of the lifestyle needing to suit to individuals involved. Whether that’s going to friends in certain parts of the country, or finding a scheduling fit with a sportsteam.
      I relate to a lot of your trials (planning for flights) and delights (don’t like your neighbours – move!). I think my experiences (to date) are a little more long term in each place, but much greater distances across places (my sister is in Australia, my in laws in England, an aunt in Canada, etc), so it’s a different flavour of experience, but the same sort of thing at the end of the day. Thank you for sharing.

  11. What a great perspective! My boyfriend and I are currently wanderers, travelers, vagabonds. We run a travel blog and do freelance work online, so we’re able to go anywhere. Currently, we’re roadtripping through Australia in our campervan, and it’s been a blast so far. I always wonder about these same things…Though my boyfriend and I are currently still pretty young (27 & 31), I ask him a lot what he thinks of where we will “live” someday and if we will “settle”. We’re from the US, by the way. It’s also difficult because there is pressure from my side of the family (my mom) to live somewhere in the US and preferably be close to her. So I myself have a lot of guilt about wanting to simply be nomadic for the time being. We have so much on our list that we want to do and see (SE Asia, exploring South America, living on a beach in Mexico, roadtripping the US, more trips to Europe, hiking the Appalachian trail, etc. etc.), so who knows where it will take us? I’m trying to mindfully live in the moment for now. 🙂

    PS: Love your bio, because Australia and Scotland are both important to me ( Australia because we’re travelling here for a year, and I met my boyfriend in Scotland while travelling and then returned for a year to do my Master’s there. A beautiful place!)

    Love the article and going to read all the responses now!

    • How wonderful to digitally meet you!!! Hubby and I are 26 & 30, so we’re remarkably similar to you two. 🙂 🙂 If you’re both US citizens (only), I’m guessing your travels will be more truncated (and you can reassure your mom you’ll be not Too Far someday). But if your more like us (we have 3 passports between us, which automatically unlocks a rather vast number of countries (but, sadly, not the US)), well, you’ll have to find your own inner peace about what you most want and tell your mom to just be happy that you’re happy. 🙂

      So – what is your current version of the answer? Will you settle someday? Or can you “settle” on the road?

  12. I feel like I need to reply into this, but not with anything that can answer your questions. All I can say is I know your feelings.

    Two years ago I set out in March 2012 to do a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. That long walk changed nearly every aspect of my life. After the hike, I went home and got my affairs in order, packed up my pets, and never looked back. My partner and I (who I met on the trail) are looking into RV life or tiny house life. I love the fact that at the office people know me as “the woman who goes everywhere” or the fact that I am this person who has experienced so many things in only 2 years before turning 30.

    The hardest thing for me is the roots issue. It took me a really long time to gain friends back in my old town. I finally felt like my life was coming together when I felt the pull to get out and do the AT. When I came back it felt like my life was driving 100 miles per hour and then I just hit a wall. Everyone and everything was exactly the same with or without me and it was the deciding factor to pack up and experience the life I wanted. The biggest down side to me is that I have co-workers, not friends. I joined a book club, but no friendships. Since leaving my long hike, I haven’t really connected with anyone else, leaving me in this weird limbo of only socializing with my partner and talking to friends back home online or via skype/phone calls. My grandmother gets more and more insistent every time I talk to her that I need to “come back down” and stay there.

    I find myself between “keep exploring” and “setting down roots” so I guess the whole point of my comment is to say I know what you’re going through. In the end, both lifestyles appeal to me. It blows my mind that the world is so big and so many people go through life barely seeing maybe 10% of it. I miss “home” and I miss having friends, but I’m lucky to live in an age where the internet keeps my presence with so many people even if I can’t be there.

    • This is wonderful, thank you so much.

      On a tangent… I hear in your story a repeated issue of connecting with people – but not forming friendships. You are not the only one who hasn’t “been like” the people of your hometown (or whatever that elusive factor is between getting along with people versus actually feeling connected to true friends). To me, not finding that important connection of friendships in any given place, despite a wonderful partner & digi-friends, causes the death-knell to ring on that location, and my pull to move/explore gets very strong. To me, good friends are so important. I’ve only been realising this over the past X-many months, as I realised my issue was that the local people in my newest location weren’t “like me”. I’ve now found a few exceptions (2 years on), but can’t say most of them intend to stay here, either.

      Back on topic… I think all the amazingly deep and revealing sharing from all the posts are contributing to “answer” the question – because the answer is different for every one (or, in my case, different for every mood!!!), and seeing a whole range of details of individual experiences does shed light. It’s also so reassuring (to me) to hear that
      *I’m not the only one, and not just that fact, but here is what’s so similar & different to others facing these unique challenges
      *This isn’t just something “my generation” does (or a phase to outgrow), that some people’s grandparents were doing the same thing

      I’m reminded of the Offbeat article on Movers vs Stayers
      which I would say is worth reading if you haven’t come across it.

      In short – thank you so much for sharing, and hey – it seems there is a little community here of people “like us”. 🙂

  13. I’ve been thinking a lot about home and roots the last few days.

    I’m not a huge wanderer — I’ve traveled a lot over my life, but I’ve only lived in four cities over my entire life. We moved to from Seattle to Jakarta a little over five years ago. A decade before that, I moved from my hometown in California to Seattle.

    For me, home is somewhere between my California hometown, Seattle, my husband’s Washington hometown, and Jakarta. None of those places are entirely home anymore because a piece of me is in each of the other places.

    It’s a weird and slightly discombobulating feeling, and a feeling that’s amplified by the fact that no matter how long I live in Indonesia, I will always be an ‘other’. This will never be fully my home, no matter how bad I try.

    When we became expats, there was this part of us that forgot that life would still be going on at all of those other places we call ‘home’; that life would be happening without us.

    In some weird way, we felt like when we left we were just hitting the pause button on our life in the States. That we could come back whenever and it would all be there waiting for us.

    But life doesn’t wait for you. People die. People are born. You miss out on first steps and weddings and birthdays and gatherings and you aren’t there to share support in times of crisis and say goodbye in times of loss.

    Eventually, you realize that nothing was paused and that life is going on without you and you’re missing it, even though you’re living it.

    Nothing in any of those places that we call ‘home’ is the same. People have moved homes. We have lost important people. New people have entered our families through marriage and birth. The places and people that we consider ‘home’ are completely different than the ‘home’ we left years ago.

    That’s not bad, necessarily, but choosing to not have roots is a choice, and with that choice comes pros and cons.

    For all of the amazing parts about life as an expat or a wanderer, there is a huge sacrifice, too. I don’t regret our decision to lead this life that we have chosen, not in the slightest, but there are pangs of sadness. Times when I wish I could be there. Moments I wish I didn’t miss. Time I wish I could get back.

    In the 5+ years that we’ve lived here in Jakarta, we’ve been back to the States twice, for a total of about three weeks. Perhaps the feeling of being divided between different worlds is magnified because of the actual physical distance between our homes.

    Regardless, I would choose this life all over again — but it’s definitely not for everyone.

    • I don’t have enough time just now to respond to this fully, but
      “None of those places are entirely home anymore because a piece of me is in each of the other places.”
      really rings true for me. Actually, I identify with a lot of this!

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