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A Place of Our Own

A photo posted by Chelsea Batten (@thechelseagrin) on Nov 13, 2016 at 4:14pm PST

Our friend Chris does this thing at parties where he reads people's archetypes for them. From him, I have learned that the nomad is an offshoot of the seeker tradition. Whether they be tribal groups searching for safe seasonal pasture, or solitary vagabonds questing for knowledge, the seeker is driven by a desire that is no less compelling for being temporary. In fact, they expect that whatever they find in each place will only renew their need to keep searching.

My first few years on the road were like that. Every place felt like a piece of a puzzle that I was putting together. But somewhere along the way, I found myself just moving, without learning--plotting routes, working in coffee shops, talking with strangers, wandering neon-lit streets, and falling into a loaned bed with nothing to say to myself.

I would never have guessed that even on the road, you can fall into a routine.

the connoisseurs, michigan, travel, nomadic life, nomads
the connoisseurs, michigan, travel, nomadic life, nomads

At a recent party, Chris read my archetype and, as he often does, elaborated on it out of his own intuition. He offered caution about too much motion fostering an inability to settle on something when the right something arose.

The word didn't sound the way it used to. To my ears, it sounded like a loanword from a more comprehensive language, like an Inuit term for snow or a German term for sadness. For the first time, I didn't hear "settle" and think of concession, resignation, or inertial sinking into the earth.

Instead, I thought of the Keweenaw.

A photo posted by jack_colton (@jack_colton) on Jul 29, 2016 at 7:21am PDT

After our first summer in the Upper Peninsula, we came back with northern lights in our eyes and campfire smoke in our clothes, high on the rarefied air north of the Mackinac Bridge and the moxie of the plan we'd hatched there--to buy a piece of property in Keweenaw Land, the peninsula's errant pinky finger sticking out into Lake Superior, and build a place of our own.

All year we've been talking about this plan the way Facebookers talk about the half-marathons they are training for. Our younger friends' eyes lit up with wistful inspiration when we talked about it, while older folks smiled with interest that was indulgent at best, and cautioned us that it snows a lot up there. (It was only respect for these people's age that kept Bryan from popping off when they did this.)

Throughout this process, though, I never thought we were making a plan to "settle." How can such a passive word describe the lustful commitment the land inspires in us, the years of effort and ingenuity that certainly await us, and the confident optimism with which we regard our fitness for the job?

"Settle" seems too poor a word for all we plan to do. I'm more inclined to call it living.

A photo posted by Chelsea Batten (@thechelseagrin) on Nov 19, 2016 at 6:12am PST

On the day before we left, we visited the Crow's Nest for one last bacon-and-egg hurrah. While there, we ran into Mike, whose mom's house we'll be renting in the Keweenaw. He'd just come back from there and his eyes widened as he told us how great it was. You can see the waves of Lake Superior right out the front window, he said. There's even a big garden, he says--it's overgrown and needs some work, but it's full of self-seeding parsley and wild thyme.

"You won't believe how much thyme there is up there," he enthused.

I knew what he meant but my brain willfully misunderstood him, and my insides began to tremble. I looked outside at Vine Street piled with bronze leaves, valedictory autumn winds rattling through them as the cars squeezed a bicyclist or two to the edge of the curb. A pair of young people smartly dressed in thrift store scores glared as our passing interrupted their conversation. A man approached Bryan in the parking lot to ask for bus fare. An empty Coke bottle lay at the base of a denuded tree, rolling from side to side like a fitful sleeper. The wind whipped and tugged as if trying to convince us that we had somewhere to be.

I thought again of what Mike said, and imagined the little house at the top of the world, snow piling against its windows as the waves of Lake Superior froze in curling towers, the world crystallizing around us as we learn what to do with so much time.

A photo posted by Chelsea Batten (@thechelseagrin) on Nov 30, 2016 at 11:28am PST

I have to confess that while I still love writing about people, I don't want to be around them as much as I used to. When I would come over a rise and see a highway stretching out before me, I felt one of two things: love for the people I knew there, or lust to know those I hadn't yet met.

Now when we're on our way somewhere, the main thing on my mind is how long it will take me to get away from everybody and find my own spot to get some work done.

It's nothing personal. It's just that I'm full with four years' worth of experiences, acquaintances and stories. And with people around, there's never enough time.

A photo posted by Chelsea Batten (@thechelseagrin) on Sep 16, 2016 at 9:52am PDT

Then the election happened, and it did get personal. By Wednesday morning, it was a great (if guilty) relief to know that we'd already planned to move, if not to Canada, as far as you can get before you're actually there.

I'd never voted before this election, a choice I'd excused as an inevitability. I moved too often to belong anywhere, and that afforded me the luxury of being politically neutral. And that (I told myself) allowed me to make friends with more people, to share more points of view. But now, for the first time, I find that there are some points of view that I don't want to share.

I used to love the road because it took me to everyone. Now I want to get off it so I can get away from everyone.

A photo posted by Chelsea Batten (@thechelseagrin) on Nov 22, 2016 at 1:12pm PST

Mike was right--you can see the waves right from the front window. Walking a mile and a half down the road takes you to a stairway that leads onto the beach. The sun is warm, the wind is bracing, and nobody's here. Nature is a lot louder without people to drown it out. Here, time feels like a friend, generous and present.

The infamous gales of November had stirred the lake into high whitecaps. I found a heart-shaped rock embedded in the sand where I could stand and watch; the shore underneath was steep enough that the waves broke before they could overwhelm the rock. Once I thought I'd figured out the pattern, I was emboldened to move right to the edge and stand where the waves broke.

Wouldn't you know it, the very next wave vaulted over the rock and poured over the tops of my boots and filled them ankle-high with pure, icy, unsalted Lake Superior.

It was an appropriation initiation--something between a baptism's solemnity and the welcome-home kiss from a rowdy puppy. As I slogged the mile and a half back to the house, my bones tingled in a way I didn't realize I'd forgotten.

A photo posted by jack_colton (@jack_colton) on Nov 13, 2016 at 9:17am PST

It's strange to withdraw from the road at a moment when numbers of my friends and acquaintances are buying vans and RVs, announcing their plans to take to the road. I read their feverishly inspired posts and feel a little ashamed that my interest is indulgent at best.

I didn't choose life on the road in order to create an identity, but I confess that I hoped that an identity would be the by-product. But other people before and since are doing the #nomad thing much better than I am, at least from a branding perspective.

I have plenty to show for my four years: a built resume, a Jeep that still runs at 300,000 miles, a decent number of stories on this blog and a whole heap of stories still to write. Hell, I even got a husband out of it, who reminds me that this doesn't mean the end of traveling. He's already talking about souping up a Westie, building a camper, spending months housesitting a French castle or fishing from a Mexican beachside hut.

It relieves me to hear him say this. At least someone will be keeping me on brand.

The weirdest part of right now isn't getting off the road, but not feeling any regret about it.

A photo posted by jack_colton (@jack_colton) on Nov 15, 2016 at 8:11am PST

I took to the road thinking it was the place where I belonged. I covered 180,000 miles expecting that nomadic life would be what finally defined me. Instead, it led me to places and to people that made me define myself.

It's not the road's fault that I still haven't fit all those definitions into the right order. Maybe they just need time to settle.

If so, this place at the top of the world seems like the perfect place. Maybe that's why the road led me here.