Gary Arndt on Easter Island (Photo: Gary Arndt)
Screw the American Dream.
That’s what a certain subset of travel pros have done, trading a home for a life on the road. Their nomadism sounds pretty great: no mortgage, no house repairs, and an endless buffet of new adventures to have and people to meet.
The financial upsides of homelessness are obvious—and the only way many nomads can make it work — but it’s hardly a permanent vacation. “This is not a life for everyone,” says Gary Arndt, who sold his Internet startups, turned over his Twin Cities house keys in 2007, and now blogs at Everything Everywhere. “I meet many people who think they would love to do what I do, but I suspect that ninety percent of them would give up after a few months. Most people only see the glamorous aspects of traveling and don’t see the downside of traveling alone.”
Add in jet lag, loneliness and the never-ending logistics of life without an address, and it becomes clear that Arndt is right. Yet those who live it — whether they’re literally homeless or spend so much of them time on the road that they see themselves that way — couldn’t do anything else.
Shannon O’Donnell, overlooking the Great Wall of China (Photo: Shannon O’Donnell)
Shannon O’Donnell, who blogs at A Little Adrift, planned to take a one-year break from her Los Angeles acting career for a trip around the world. “When I discovered there was a community of travelers setting off on yearlong adventures, I wanted that for myself,” she explains. “I looked at the benefits waiting on the other side — perspective, global citizenship, compassion, knowledge — and I wanted those for myself.” That was in 2008, and although she travels more slowly now, staying in a region for months at a time, she’s still nomadic enough to have been named a National Geographic Traveler of the Year in 2013.
Sherry Ott, with her gear (Photo: Sherry Ott)
Also in 2008 (blame the recession?),Sherry Ott, who blogs at Ottsworld, was planning to quit her New York IT job and spend a year traveling around the world. “I quickly got addicted to this idea of experiencing new things every day,” she says. “I loved how freeing travel was.” And with blogging and photography, “I was getting in touch with my creative side again. All those things made me want to stay on the road.”
Cindy Novotny in Dubai (Photo: Cindy Novotny)
Cindy Novotny, who started the travel-industry consulting company Master Connection Associates 26 years ago and now has more than 7 million airline miles, is on the road 50 weeks a year. It isn’t something she set out to do: “As a child, I never wanted to spend the night at anyone’s house or go to camp. Now I get bored if I’m home for longer than a few days. Travel gives me new experiences every day: a new client, a new city, and a new outlook.”
Jodi Ettenberg, in Meknes, Morocco
Others see travel as means to self-improvement. Jodi Ettenberg, who left her job as a corporate lawyer in 2008 to start the blog Legal Nomads, hasn’t had a base since, renting apartments in Asia for a few months at a time in winter, and attending conferences and seeing friends and family in summer. She says, “I miss the routines of having a fixed place, and at times the uncertainty is daunting, but living this way has made me focus on intangible value in life. It’s tested my natural tendency to focus on the small stuffand let go of controlling every aspect of my life. Doing what I do has made me a person I like more.”
The freedom and adventure of nonstop travel require careful planning, and often a willingness to “live” with your parents at age 40 so you can use their address for mail and taxes. Online banking, shipping services like Luggage Free and virtual mailboxes like Traveling Mailbox, which emails PDFs of your mail, have made nomadism easier, but still. “The logistics of this are insane,” says Ott, who has a storage unit in New York and keeps what doesn’t fit with her parents and friends. “It’s one of my biggest stresses, when I have to figure out what I’m doing” to prepare for long trips to multiple climates and activities. “I carry a lot.”
Photographer and self-described serial globetrotter Michelle Attala (Photo: Michelle Attala)
Most professional nomads have pared down to photo albums, souvenirs and travel gear. Non-attachment is key. “I don’t have a fixed address, a credit card or bills, a house, a car or a cat,” explains Michelle Attala, the permanent relief manager for Asilia Africa’s safari camps in Tanzania, who spends two weeks at each of four camps, then two weeks traveling internationally. “I store stuff with friends all over the world. I’m not materialistic and believe in quality over quantity.”
Sherry Ott in Mongolia (Photo: Sherry Ott)
Social media, Skype, and industry conferences help with loneliness, but “that part kind of sucks,” admit Ott. “There’s the aspect of having friends all over. But it’s an isolating world I live in. I meet people every day, but it’s exhausting and on the surface. I can predict the same ten questions they’re going to ask.” And as for old friends, “when I started, people were fascinated. To them now it’s normal but not very relatable.”
“I miss having a home and community of friends with whom I have rituals like card nights or coffee dates,” concurs O’Donnell. “I’ve missed major events in my friends’ lives — weddings, births, funerals — and I’m keenly aware of the tradeoff. I love traveling, though, and it has brought new understanding of friendship from people who’ve invited me into their lives for days and weeks at a time.”
Shannon O’Donnell, visiting a health center in Kenya (Photo: Shannon O’Donnell)
Ettenberg, on the other hand, argues that her life is the opposite of lonely, because now she spends quality time with her friends, unlike when she was a lawyer with a BlackBerry constantly in-hand. Her new flexibility allows her to make it to important events, and the conference circuit lets her connect with like-minded people
It’s a conscious effort to stave off loneliness for Novotny, who wrote a book called Living with No Balance and Loving It. (It helps that she has a husband who often accompanies her.) “A home is wear your heart is, and my heart is everywhere I am with family and friends. When I check into a hotel, I make it my home — candles, a warm bath, and a Jack on the rocks and I am set.” And she never orders room service: “that seems like you’re in a hospital.”
And That Nasty Misperception
Jodi Ettenberg, wandering Saigon at dusk. (Photo: Jodi Ettenberg)
I often hear that people who live unconventionally are running from something,” complains Ettenberg. “Some indefinite travelers might be distancing themselves from normal life for specific reasons, but for many of us, a long-term, sustainable lifestyle that happens to be mobile becomes a big advantage. If there’s an event I want to cover, I can go. My choice to live flexibly has been a tremendous advantage in learning as much as I can every day.”
It’s running toward, not running away.
WATCH: Expats: Have Job Will Travel if It’s Their City of Choice