Despite a crappy internet connection, I managed to get Nathan on Skype for a short interview about his experience with digital nomadism and his future plans.
“I learned many of the same things other digital nomads learn in their travels, about lifestyle design, the virtues of slow travel, a broadened perspective, deeper appreciation and understanding of other cultures, people are people everywhere, wherever you go there you are, and so forth. Others before me have gone into much detail, so I won’t rehash all of that here,” said Nathan, who has spent almost three years of his life overseas.
I asked him to elaborate on “slow travel.”
“While it’s possible to travel and work, it’s hard to do both at once,” he said, “so you end up slowing down to the point of settling for a bit, which is almost like being an expat. More than a decade before this trip, while living in Japan, I had decided being an expat wasn’t my style.
“Don’t get me wrong, doing the expat thing is a great experience which gives you a deeper appreciation of the international world we live in, as well as your own home country. But I didn’t really want to be a permanent outsider in a world of transients and expats, though I find expat communities to be among the most open-minded and friendly communities in the world.
“One ironic thing about constantly traveling is that excitement gets old and boring after a while.”
After eight months of the nomadic life in Thailand and Cambodia, Nathan had decided that life on the road had its virtues, but rare was the nomad who lived on the road forever…
“Before I embarked on this trip, I read a forum thread discussing which cities of the world were suitable for digital nomads to settle down in to do their work.
“One thing that struck me was the perspective of an outsider who had wandered into the conversation, saying that the problem was a ‘luxury problem,’ and solved easily. ‘I just want to live where my family and friends are,’ said the person,” said Nathan. “The person didn’t seem to get the nomadic motivation, as it were, and disappeared from the thread soon after.”
Nathan added something else, but our Skype connection made it too fuzzy to hear, since he was in some limbo zone of Route 66.
“…think so either,” his voice scraped through the digital distortion. “But both sides of that particular conversation resonated with me, and always have. In, ‘Travel as Engagement or Escape?’ I pointed out that trying to argue for or against one point of view is like trying to argue over the best ice cream flavor. Everybody has their own taste. You can’t say one is ‘better’ than another.”
I asked what his flavor was.
“As with everyone, it falls somewhere on a spectrum between transience and permanence. That’s one thing about nomadism that’s so attractive. You can try a lot of flavors, learn from the experience, and change it up as often as you like. You can make it as permanent or temporary as you like. You can be a full-time gypsy, a part-time wanderer, or a weekend warrior.
“After a failed attempt to settle down briefly in Kampot, I returned to one of my regular spots in Phnom Penh, and decided that eight months on the road was enough for me, for now. I love travel and always will, and it’s a big world. If I ever get off Route 66 I have my sights set on Europe.”
A burst of static interrupted us, then I asked, “And then what happened when you came back?”
“Well,” Nathan sighed into the mic, “after I got back in the States, I hopped on I-40 where it begins near Bakersfield, California, and took it east. I found frequent exits to the historic Route 66. Why not check it out? I thought. So I took a little detour, and found myself in some of the most beautiful desert scenery I had ever seen, but when I got to the point that was supposed to intersect with I-40 again, I couldn’t find the exit.
“And I started to notice that everything looked suspiciously like it should from a century prior. The hotels and gas pumps that should be shut down were operating, and everyone dressed exactly as they had from almost a century before.
“When I turned around to get back on where I’d gotten off, the exit was gone. The first hotel I’d stayed at, near the Arizona border, was still there, but I-40 was gone. And the hotel looked completely different. The whole town is different, actually. It looks just like it did when Route 66 had just been put up, almost a century ago.”
“So you’re stuck on Route 66?” I asked.
“Yep,” Nathan said, his voice warping through more distortion. “For now, I guess I am. My laptop battery remains at 56% health, my car is stuck on a three-quarters tank, and everyone always forgets who I am and treats me like I just arrived today, even though I got here last week. A weak wi-fi signal floats into this room sometimes, and I keep hoping I’ll wake up on the other side again. But it’s been a week, and for now, I’ll keep looking for a doorway back to my time…”
Nathan’s voice disappeared beneath a wave of static.
Skype told me that the call was dropped and he was offline.
I guessed the interview was over.
Unless he found a way back to this world, it looked like Nathan may be the only digital nomad who would truly live on the road forever.