Photo: Natalia Bostan/Shutterstock

What Is Lost (and Gained) When the Traveler Settles Down

Boulder Narrative
by Nikki Hodgson Aug 16, 2013

Tripping over boxes, unsettled by this process of settling down, I swallow my desire to be on a rickety bus lurching down a rutted road with my head knocking against a grimy window and all of my belongings at my feet. The lush green of Colorado in the early spring reminds me vaguely of Uganda and I spend an hour paging through old trip journals, recalling the smell of chapati and wood-burning fires, motley chickens fanning out their tail feathers against a backdrop of banana trees and mountains.

In the last three months, I have acquired an apartment, furniture, a new job. I have hauled twelve boxes of books out of storage, spent hours unwrapping crumpled newspaper to reveal framed photos, a painting of Jerusalem, curling postcards with faded landscapes, a handful of crumpled Jordanian dinar tucked into an old journal.

In the evenings I circle absentmindedly around my new apartment. There is a kitchen and a balcony, a washing machine and a fireplace. The vaulted ceilings and skylights make the place feel bigger than it is, but even without this addition, it feels like a palace. After three months, I still wake up and gape at all of this space that is just for me.

But even while I am marveling at this change of circumstance, I miss the cot, the chipped floor tiles, and the decrepit hot plate of my sweltering rooftop room in Bethlehem. I miss the smell of Arabic coffee, the call to prayer, the coolness of the heavy stone walls. I miss sitting on the roof, staring out over the rolling hills, feeling out my life within the tenuous balance of never knowing what comes next.

I am terrified that I will settle comfortably into this place and my nomadic years will no longer be the core of my identity.

When I get tired of searching through duffel bags and boxes, I step outside, stretch out onto the grass, and stare at the Flat Irons, thinking that if I left Colorado tomorrow, I would be nostalgic for these mountains and the smell of the fields baking in the sun. It is not Bethlehem or Kampala that I miss or Colorado that makes me restless.

When I am honest with myself, I am terrified that I will settle comfortably into this place and my nomadic years will no longer be the core of my identity, but just a blip in my lifetime. Like high school or summer camp, something I endured or loved, but something that was only temporary. This fear catches me off-guard, mostly in the mornings when I am cycling to work and the sunlight catches the long grass bending in the fields, the air is fresh and cool, and I want only to be on the road. And then I wonder what my life becomes when it is anchored to one spot.

My nomadic life was full of uncertainty, underpinned by anxiety. I loved it, but it was not easy. Constantly trying to maintain relationships, sort out visas, wrangling out an existence in a language I could barely comprehend, struggling to live in the moment while always thinking two steps ahead. When depression settled like a stone on my chest, my mom implored me to return home. I couldn’t. And I couldn’t explain why. Now, exploring the peaks of my new home, looking out over Roosevelt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park, I know why.

As bitter as life abroad can be when you are struggling, it was the life I had carved out, and it was the life I chose. Afraid of living a life dictated by my fear of failure, I wanted to push myself out of my shell, experience everything, speak multiple languages, open my eyes to the geographic and cultural wonders of the world. I was in search of something I was certain I could never find at home. When I left, I had no intention of coming back.

But after five years, after I had put a stranglehold on a crippling depression, after I had bounced between numerous countries, spun myself in so many directions that not even my best friends could keep track of where I was, I woke up one morning and realized it was time to go home.

I can’t regret that decision, but every day that passes separates me from the places I used to belong to, the places I learned to belong to. As I dig my roots deeper into the rocky Colorado soil, I must relinquish my grasp of the banks of the Neckar where I first studied abroad, the mountains of Grenoble that stood guard over me as I fell apart, the dusty hills of Bethlehem where I put myself back together.

And I know that I will never belong to these places the way I once did.

I am slowly coming to terms with this, turning my gaze from the painting of Jerusalem to the view from my window. I am no longer living out of a suitcase. My life does not hinge on the word “maybe.” When I have a rough day, I can’t throw everything into my backpack and escape. Instead I take a deep breath, pushing back against the restlessness that says the solution to everything is the next train out of town.

I wanted to learn how to be strong, but I realize I learned only how to be vulnerable.

But when the light sinks back below the mountains, illuminating them from behind, I question my decision to put down roots, wondering at the Fates and imagining the threads of my own life fluttering loosely from their fingers.

Traveling is a lesson in being uncomfortable, a perpetual exercise in humility. Every moment is a battle to improve and push back against the fear of failure, full of small victories, countless mortifying opportunities to laugh at yourself. Will I forget that part of myself? Will it slip from my fingertips the way French is already slipping from my memory?

When I unwrap the bric-a-brac of my adventures, I pull back the layers of tissue paper to reveal the lessons that fell into my outstretched hands, the truths that sated my hungry heart. How Germany tried to teach me not to be afraid of making mistakes, stammering over words, each sentence a perfect train wreck. How France taught me to look up, to find solace in the small comforts of life, to seek refuge in its craggy Alps. How Uganda showed me unfathomable grace, proving that it’s possible to have nothing and still give everything. How Bethlehem taught me to reach out, to ask for help, to gather the broken pieces and hug them tightly.

I wanted to learn how to be strong, but in looking over my shoulder, I realize I learned only how to be vulnerable.

When the afternoon thunderstorms roll over the mountains, descending into Boulder, I sit quietly, feeling the thunder reverberating against the hills, gasping in awe at the lightning splintering across the sky. I don’t have answers to any of my questions, haven’t figured out how to balance a need for stability with a nomad’s love of uncertainty or how to stop being afraid.

Instead I spend my days listening for the yip of the coyote while tottering slowly along a mountain ridge, forced to take lumbering steps and deep breaths. I pause often, throwing my head back, squinting as the clouds gather. And as I do, I find that Colorado is teaching me how to sit still, to watch the storms unfold, to come to terms with my restlessness under this wide expanse of wild sky.

And somehow, it’s enough.

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