What Happens to a Drifter When the Wandering Ends?

In Depth

“Let’s go to Tajikistan,” my boyfriend declared at a Tajik teahouse in Berlin. We sat on pillows next to a low table while our drinks steeped. The room was a relic of the GDR, a gift to the East Germans from the former Soviet republic.

“Yes, absolutely,” I replied, spooning a heap of rum-soaked raisins into my mouth. I stretched my legs out on a Persian carpet and looked up at the ornate carvings that danced along the room’s sandalwood columns and ceiling. I imagined arriving at such a place after hiking down to a valley from a rugged treeless mountain, where locals played austere folk music on fretless lutes and sang in a language unknown to me. Tajikistan was everywhere I’d never been, an undiscovered clue capable of unlocking the great mystery I’d spent my life sleuthing. The liquor-infused fruit and promise of future travels made me giddy. Maybe we could save up and take a trip the following year.

I returned home to Boston, where reality’s vice grip clamped down: work, college loans, my car’s recurring flat tire. In my free time I googled Tajikistan. My boyfriend became my husband. We paid off my loans; kept fixing that flat. Had a kid. Tajikistan was still a possibility, but far off, like a star that I wished upon. My absolute yes became a maybe: maybe my parents could babysit while we traveled; maybe in a couple years we’d go, when I had more vacation time to burn; maybe when the conflicts in Central Asia simmered. While Tajikistan stayed put, it was also moving further and further out of reach as the roots of my responsibilities grew deeper, keeping me stationary—a state of being that I’d spent years actively resisting.

Growing up in a tiny mountain town in upstate New York, I dedicated a good portion of my teenage life to scheming how I was going to light out for the territory. In the pre-Google era, I thumbed through road maps and scanned the world atlas. With my index finger pressed lightly on my family’s globe, I would close my eyes and spin the sphere. When it stopped, the location under my fingertip wasn’t just Saint Helena, Shanghai, or Anchorage: it was a prospect, the future.

I worked double shifts as a waitress, saving my tips for a trip to New Zealand. I painted houses for cash to fund a summer in Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia; I studied abroad on the western coast of Ireland and hitchhiked in the central Mexican highlands to witness the monarch butterfly migration. In my twenties, I rambled through the western U.S., working for AmeriCorps, a bookstore, a plant nursery, and a farm along the way. I pawned my clothes for gas money. One year, I moved eight times.

It was that same year that I delivered a car to my brother in Boston. I stayed for a weekend that turned into a decade, exhausted from the constant motion of the preceding years. I worked the 4 a.m. oven shift at a bakery and spent afternoons shelving textbooks at a college bookstore before landing a job that afforded me health benefits, weekends off, a decent apartment, and retirement savings—things I hadn’t paid much mind before. I found a loving community that grew larger and stronger with each passing year. My friends surprised me with a bicycle they built from found parts, something that remains one of my most prized possessions. I met the man who became my husband. My urge to wander became more local; it was an itch that could be sated by nighttime bike rides with a dear friend to the North End, where we ate gelato-filled sugar cones and pretended we were in Italy, or to neighborhood bars, where we listened to local bands and danced until closing time. When we called ourselves townies, we did so with pride.

Still, after training for so many years to wander, I believed that a gale-force wind would drive me somewhere foreign again. My husband and I made a mental list of places overseas we’d like to live: dreamy locales with subsidized daycare and ample bike lanes. One day, a job change quickened the gust I’d been waiting for and blew my family to an unexpected place, somewhere that wasn’t on our list, somewhere that wasn’t abroad: New Haven, Connecticut.

The year following our arrival in New Haven was a blur of tying up work-related loose ends in Boston. I volleyed between the two cities on night trains, speeding past lobster shacks and shipyards in towns I’d never visited. With a small child at home, life was a rigor of daycare drop-offs and pick-ups, diapers, and bedtime stories. With so much motion during the week, going to the local playground was the height of our weekend ambitions.

When I had our second child in late December, the back-and-forth life came to a halt. My universe swiftly contracted to the walls of our apartment. One of the snowiest winters on record pummeled New England. Unshoveled sidewalks hemmed me in tighter than I’d ever been before. I made only the most necessary trips out, for groceries and doctor appointments. Months passed while I remained locked inside with our sweet baby, looking out of our living room windows, day after day, observing the same frozen scene. I tried and failed to imagine summer, not Tajikistan. I lusted not for long flights to foreign places, but to walk to the local bodega without needing crampons. I longed for the comfort of old friends: not just those in Boston, but everyone I’d adventured with. Where were they? What happened to them?

During my newborn’s round-the-clock feedings, I scrolled through my friend’s facebook updates. In the span of one week, two separate people posted pictures from their treks in Patagonia. Someone else was at Mont-Saint-Michel off the coast of Normandy. Others were in Iceland, Thailand, the San Juan Islands, Hawaii, India, and Beijing. If people weren’t traveling, they were busy being fabulous in other ways: crafting, homesteading, getting promoted and published, starting businesses, raising Cain or children or animals and making it look easy and fun. I lived vicariously through the pictures and comments they curated online, knowing they only told part of their story, the good parts, and that’s a happy thing to share with the World Wide Web.

But come on, let’s be honest: I was jonesing to be on the road again.

In my confined state, I was suddenly acutely and overwhelmingly aware that at some point, I’d stopped wandering; I was moored. What happened to the person who simply stuffed all of her worldly belongings into a couple of Hefty trash bags when the call to relocate sounded? I sifted through old letters and journals from when I was independent and fearless, becoming more unsettled by the realization that leaving to wander solo was no longer an option for me. When my baby cried out for more food, I felt the tug of an anchor that had finally dropped, one that was attached to a chain of choices I’d been making for years. Not all of my choices were perfect, but they were made freely and I’m glad that they delivered me to where I am now: with the loves of my life, my family.

With so much of my identity tied to drifting, I’d ignored my transition to a more domestic existence. I overlooked the change, because secretly, I love being home. I’ll never love housekeeping, but I love curling up on the couch with a cup of ginger tea and a book while the kids nap. I love the joyful squeal my daughter releases when she attempts running up the wrong way on the playground’s slide. I love the smell of bread rising in the kitchen and the crackle its crust makes when I pull it from the oven. I love that I’ll be around all summer to see our garden’s peas in June, cucumbers in July, tomatoes in August, and Brussels sprouts in September. I have faith that by sticking around long enough, I’ll find a new community in this strange place called New Haven.

And maybe someday, when the kids are older, my husband and I will finally make it to Tajikistan.

Image via Shutterstock.

Jenny Magee Stenger is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. Find her on Twitter at Stumpy the Tiger.

Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.

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