How Nomads are Reclaiming the American Dream

Colorado Roads

Three years ago, fresh out of college, I made the decision to spend a couple years traveling and living abroad.  This period would be a meaningful, but temporary, indulgence of my worldly curiosities.  Eventually I’d come home to pursue a more traditional path- graduate school, career, family, house, etc.  When I told people about my travel plans, the response was overwhelmingly positive.  “Do it while you’re young,” they’d say.

Today, at 26, my desire to see the world is stronger than ever, and I plan to spend an indefinite amount of time doing just that.  I find that my core ambitions have changed much less than I expected.  What has changed since I was 22, however, are people’s opinions of my choice to spend the majority of my time abroad.  Many are still overwhelmingly supportive and positive, but I have also noticed certain undercurrents of judgement.

Any lifestyle that bears little resemblance to the typical mode of existence is bound to be met with a certain air of subtle (or not so subtle) criticism.  The “American Dream” ethos lays out a fairly clear picture of what the path to a successful life should look like.  It’s a recipe, a step-by-step process, which, if followed with relentless care and dedication, will supposedly yield ideal results.  Ideal results, as defined by modern America, include (but are not limited to) a nice home, one luxury car per adult, an investment portfolio, private school for the kids, cruise vacations, a second home in a place with lots of sun, and a third home in a place with lots of snow.  The modern “American Dream” is an umbrella for many ideals- democracy, political and personal freedom, upward mobility, prosperity through hard work, the pursuit of happiness, etc.- but above all else, it is about the acquisition of material wealth.  From this vantage point it is easy to see how a person who fits the majority of their possessions in a single suitcase might come to be viewed as somewhat un-American.

Expats, nomads, and vagabonds are often united by a paradigm that is indifferent to the usual forms of prosperity.  They see wealth as being more a factor of life experience than money or material goods.  It is perhaps unsurprising that folks who choose this atypical stance often find it difficult to find their fit in America.

I truly see nothing wrong with pursuing material wealth, so long as doing so brings happiness to the pursuer, but I would argue against anyone claiming that this is the more “American” approach to life.

When we think about what it means to be an American, I believe we are too quick to lose sight of our history.  Today the so-called “American Dream” conjures an image of settling in- home ownership, career ambition, family life, stability- but it wasn’t always so.  In fact, the American Dream is a mentality with origins rooted in an embrace of uncertainty, a willingness to dance with chaos.

Early Americans were adventurers in the purest sense.  They crossed oceans in pursuit of political freedom and modest prosperity.  They loaded their entire lives onto horse drawn wagons, embarking on two thousand mile journeys they knew to be riddled with potential for death and ruin.  They were explorers by necessity, but explorers nonetheless.  Always and forever in search of greener pastures, they stopped at nothing to improve their lot.

Unfortunately, these creative and daring souls bare little resemblance to many of the overcautious, status quo embracing Americans we see today.  These are the people for whom it is unfathomable to take even the briefest pause from the rat race, for fear of falling a step behind.  Globally speaking, the United States remains at the forefront of ingenuity, but the typical American suffers from a crippling inability to embrace risk or employ creative solutions to transcend their struggle.  So many people are miserable, and yet so few find a way to do something about it.  But hey, the American dream will pan out eventually, won’t it?

What the United States needs now is a rekindling of the pioneer spirit.  It needs people who are willing to reassess the definition of prosperity and embrace alternative lifestyles as viable paths to success.  Indeed, I am talking about cosmopolitans with ambitions for travel and an expanded world-view, but I’m also talking about artists, farmers, writers, teachers, doctors, parents, and businesspeople.  To be a pioneer is to think outside the box, to break free from the confines of complacency, to see things for what they are.  It is about free thought, and while free thought demands courage, there is nothing elitist about it.  Anyone can be a pioneer, and everyone should strive to be one in their own small way.

In the interest of progress, we need to encourage people who choose to do things differently.  We rely too heavily on straight lines and are too quick to suppress or dismiss those who attempt to view the world from an atypical vantage point.  History tells us that the world needs the weirdos, wanderers, iconoclasts, dissenters, and revolutionaries every bit as much as it needs the unquestioning soldiers of capitalism.

The great leaps of humanity have always hinged upon the willingness of people to step out into the darkness and uncertainty of the unknown.  Greatness is reserved for those who dare.

28 Comments

  1. Ron | Active Planet Travels on February 17, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Beautiful article! Nomads have shaped the “American Dream” & they can surely reface it!

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      Definitely, I agree!

  2. Ron | Active Planet Travels on February 17, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Beautiful article! Nomads have shaped the “American Dream” & they can surely reface it!

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:42 pm

      Definitely, I agree!

  3. Natalie Morawietz on February 17, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Great read!

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm

      Thanks Natalie!

  4. Natalie Morawietz on February 17, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Great read!

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm

      Thanks Natalie!

  5. Suitcase Stories on February 17, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    I really enjoyed this post and could really relate to it. Our nomadic life has only just started (12 months on the road so far) but it is a dream come true. I think more and more people out there are discovering a new purpose for their life – Long term travel.

    

When we started our new nomadic life we were not completely honest with our friends and family. We told them it was an extended RTW trip and they presumed we would be gone for 6 to 12 months – We didn’t correct them. Why? Because we knew what their reactions would be; They would say things like “You cant just travel endlessly” or “You
    can’t afford to travel that way” and “No one just packs up their life to travel”… We knew all these statements were wrong but to be honest, I just wanted to get on with it, I didn’t want to sit there and argue with these people. 

So we left and they presumed (and some still do) that we would be home with our tails between our legs after 12 months. Well, this hasn’t happened and the more we are on the road, and the more we speak to other ‘nomads’, the more we learn about how to sustain the lifestyle that we have fallen in love with.

    We didn’t want the ‘white picket fence’ dream that most Australians want and even though the odds were against us, we decided to live OUR “Australian Dream” life.

    I learned the hard way that money doesn’t bring happiness… Living your life, I mean REALLY living your life, now THAT’S happiness!

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm

      Absolutely, right on! Seems like you guys are doing exactly what you should be. Good luck with your adventure!

  6. Suitcase Stories on February 17, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    I really enjoyed this post and could really relate to it. Our nomadic life has only just started (12 months on the road so far) but it is a dream come true. I think more and more people out there are discovering a new purpose for their life – Long term travel.

    

When we started our new nomadic life we were not completely honest with our friends and family. We told them it was an extended RTW trip and they presumed we would be gone for 6 to 12 months – We didn’t correct them. Why? Because we knew what their reactions would be; They would say things like “You cant just travel endlessly” or “You
    can’t afford to travel that way” and “No one just packs up their life to travel”… We knew all these statements were wrong but to be honest, I just wanted to get on with it, I didn’t want to sit there and argue with these people. 

So we left and they presumed (and some still do) that we would be home with our tails between our legs after 12 months. Well, this hasn’t happened and the more we are on the road, and the more we speak to other ‘nomads’, the more we learn about how to sustain the lifestyle that we have fallen in love with.

    We didn’t want the ‘white picket fence’ dream that most Australians want and even though the odds were against us, we decided to live OUR “Australian Dream” life.

    I learned the hard way that money doesn’t bring happiness… Living your life, I mean REALLY living your life, now THAT’S happiness!

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm

      Absolutely, right on! Seems like you guys are doing exactly what you should be. Good luck with your adventure!

  7. jenjenk on February 17, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Bravo! While living a nomadic lifestyle isn’t for me, I do travel frequently and am willing to drive a car older than most humans in order to afford the trips.

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      Definitely Jen. Appropriate length of travel is different for everyone, but the important thing is that we get out and explore!

  8. jenjenk on February 17, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Bravo! While living a nomadic lifestyle isn’t for me, I do travel frequently and am willing to drive a car older than most humans in order to afford the trips.

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      Definitely Jen. Appropriate length of travel is different for everyone, but the important thing is that we get out and explore!

  9. Sofie on February 18, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Great post and I love the way you linked it to the American Dream, but I think you’re making a statement that can be applied all over the world. Europeans might travel a bit more (I don’t know, I’m guessing, since our countries are smaller:-)), but that doesn’t mean that the idea of house – kids- dog – career isn’t the norm for many.

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:39 pm

      Thanks for reading Sofie, and I definitely agree. It’s more of a “developed world” dream I suppose.

  10. Sofie on February 18, 2013 at 9:25 am

    Great post and I love the way you linked it to the American Dream, but I think you’re making a statement that can be applied all over the world. Europeans might travel a bit more (I don’t know, I’m guessing, since our countries are smaller:-)), but that doesn’t mean that the idea of house – kids- dog – career isn’t the norm for many.

    • Andy Baxley on February 20, 2013 at 8:39 pm

      Thanks for reading Sofie, and I definitely agree. It’s more of a “developed world” dream I suppose.

  11. Traveling 9 to 5 on February 24, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    Great Article!

    Living unconventionally definitely leaves your lifestyle up for judgement from the majority – The American Dream should chase happiness not expectations from your peers.

  12. Traveling 9 to 5 on February 24, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    Great Article!

    Living unconventionally definitely leaves your lifestyle up for judgement from the majority – The American Dream should chase happiness not expectations from your peers.

  13. This Open Road on February 26, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Super article – I love traveling but I adore hiking the Appalachian Trail. What you wrote applies to me in that sense… once should be enough, right? Not for me, doing it once made me just want to be out there again. I cried at the end of my first thru-hike not because I made it, but because I didn’t want it to end. There is just a drive in nomads that makes us want to be out in the world.
    Also, love what Suitcase Stories wrote – sometimes it’s just not worth explaining your plans in detail to many people. Bless the ones who get it, but so many will not.

  14. This Open Road on February 26, 2013 at 5:46 pm

    Super article – I love traveling but I adore hiking the Appalachian Trail. What you wrote applies to me in that sense… once should be enough, right? Not for me, doing it once made me just want to be out there again. I cried at the end of my first thru-hike not because I made it, but because I didn’t want it to end. There is just a drive in nomads that makes us want to be out in the world.
    Also, love what Suitcase Stories wrote – sometimes it’s just not worth explaining your plans in detail to many people. Bless the ones who get it, but so many will not.

  15. Alissa Johnson on March 27, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    I love the line “a willingness to dance with chaos.” Too add to what you’ve said, I think that many people are too focused on the end result. There’s a fear about trying new things because it’s unpredictable–they want to know the end result and the exact steps for getting there. And yet I’ve learned that when I let go of the need to know the end result, and just do the results are greater than I could ever predict.

    Your motivation to see the world regardless of your age is inspiring. Culturally, we like to see that as something you get out of your system, but it can be a way of life. I didn’t figure that out until 30. At an age when most of my friends were having kid #2, I quit my lucrative job and drove west with only a carful of belongings to live in the Colorado mountains. Convention would suggest that living in a small mountain town would mean sacrificing my career and lifestyle. And yet here I have all that I want–I write, I have a home, I have love, and I have adventure. Last summer, my boyfriend and I camped for two months on national forest lands (while still working and growing our careers) because we had a couple of months between apartments and because we could.

    We definitely got attitude. One person wanted to know why it would be considered homeless if we lived in Denver and in the mountains it was okay. And yet to me, it was as American as anything else–we were exploring national forest set aside because of the forethought of people who came before us. We were getting to know our country in a new way.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Michael on March 28, 2013 at 10:58 am

      Beautiful story! Thank you for sharing it with us. We went to Denver last year and loved the city and the surrounding area with all the mountains.

  16. Alissa Johnson on March 27, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    I love the line “a willingness to dance with chaos.” Too add to what you’ve said, I think that many people are too focused on the end result. There’s a fear about trying new things because it’s unpredictable–they want to know the end result and the exact steps for getting there. And yet I’ve learned that when I let go of the need to know the end result, and just do the results are greater than I could ever predict.

    Your motivation to see the world regardless of your age is inspiring. Culturally, we like to see that as something you get out of your system, but it can be a way of life. I didn’t figure that out until 30. At an age when most of my friends were having kid #2, I quit my lucrative job and drove west with only a carful of belongings to live in the Colorado mountains. Convention would suggest that living in a small mountain town would mean sacrificing my career and lifestyle. And yet here I have all that I want–I write, I have a home, I have love, and I have adventure. Last summer, my boyfriend and I camped for two months on national forest lands (while still working and growing our careers) because we had a couple of months between apartments and because we could.

    We definitely got attitude. One person wanted to know why it would be considered homeless if we lived in Denver and in the mountains it was okay. And yet to me, it was as American as anything else–we were exploring national forest set aside because of the forethought of people who came before us. We were getting to know our country in a new way.

    Thanks for this post.

    • Michael on March 28, 2013 at 10:58 am

      Beautiful story! Thank you for sharing it with us. We went to Denver last year and loved the city and the surrounding area with all the mountains.

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