On visiting the United States, the Tibetan dignitary T T Karma Chophel met with a group of supporters in Utah. He was there to discuss democracy, but his gaze kept travelling out across the high desert to the snowy mountains on the horizon. He thought of yaks and yak-herders, making their endless migrations across a similar landscape in Tibet, and he assumed there must be some US equivalent. ‘Who are your nomads?’ he asked.
The answer to that question depends on how you define a nomad. Some scholars, such as the Russian authority A M Khazanov, maintain that nomads have never existed in North America, with the possible exception of the Navajo, who became semi-nomadic herders after commandeering horses and sheep from Spanish settlers in New Mexico. For these scholars, who specialise in Central Asia and Africa, the word ‘nomad’ can be applied only to pastoral herding tribes who subsist on their livestock. Webster’s dictionary counters with: ‘Any of a people who have no permanent home, but moving about constantly, as in search of pasture.’
Webster’s looser approach calls up a long parade of American wanderers, beginning with the bison-hunting tribes on the Great Plains, and the footloose frontiersmen who opened up the continent to what they were escaping: settlement and civilisation. In the same restless male tradition came the cowboys of the open range, transient loggers and prospectors, railroad hobos, bikers, drifters, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and a multitude of unclassifiable nobodies who shared the same aversion to settling down, who started to itch when they stared at the same set of walls for too long.
Travelling preachers appeared as a response to the fast-moving frontier. Rather than build a church, they’d throw up a tent or preach in a store. Their spiritual descendants are still with us, migrating in motorhomes and pitching ecstatic tent revivals. Americans never stopped hopping freight trains either, and a new generation of tramps, gutter punks, anarchists, troubadours, circus-performers, felons and Bush-Cheney war veterans are now riding the rails, and remolding the hobo life.
Rodeo cowboys travel constantly, often driving 200,000 miles a year to compete in a year-round circuit of events. A proud minority of truck drivers live permanently in their big rigs, and even raise families on the road, homeschooling the children via the internet. Rubber tramps hitchhike aimlessly back and forth across the country, and an estimated 250,000 Americans, most of them retired, are out there roaming full-time in their recreation vehicles (RVs).
‘Moving about constantly, as in search of pasture…’ The description captures something of the American spirit. Wanderlust runs through the country’s history like a virus, mutating across time, reshaping families and communities, opening up territories and opportunities. American literature, music and film all know the call of the road.
‘I got to keep moving… there’s a hellhound on my trail,’ sang the itinerant bluesman Robert Johnson. He sounds like a mournful, disturbed prisoner of his own wanderlust, whereas for Walt Whitman, in his poem ‘Song of the Open Road’ (1856), the journey is freedom and invigoration for the soul. The road is a staple of country and rock songs, both proud anthems and bittersweet ballads. ‘I love you baby, but you gotta understand/When the Lord made me, he made a ramblin’ man,’ sang Hank Williams, who died of an overdose in the back of a baby‑blue Cadillac convertible, on the way to the next show.
The US invented the automobile and the road movie, the motel and the mobile home, the drive-thru restaurant, the trailer park and the freight train as a vehicle for nomadic living. There’s a feeling of comfort and stability that comes from being in motion, especially in the big, wide-open spaces of the West, and a feeling of instability when velocity comes to a standstill, akin to a sailor finding his land legs after a voyage at sea. Trying to define the essence of the US, Gertrude Stein said: ‘conceive a space that is filled with moving.’
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/wanderlust-runs-in-american-veins-from-comanche-to-retiree