A Vagabond Finds a Home

Speaker's Corner: Rolf Potts finally has a place to call his own -- a double-wide overlooking the Kansas prairie. It's infused with the lessons he learned from 13 years living out of a backpack.

11.18.07 | 11:41 AM ET

Rolf Potts' home in KansasThis fall I’ll be spending several weekends in work clothes, putting the finishing touches on a house I’ve been remodeling in rural north-central Kansas. When my work is finished, I’ll officially move into the first house I’ve ever owned.

Home ownership isn’t all that extraordinary for a 36-year-old American, but my situation has a twist: For the past 13 years, I’ve been traveling the world, wandering my way across six continents while living out of a backpack. “Home,” for me, has been a slippery concept—loosely tied to, say, the rooms I rented during a two-year sojourn in South Korea, or the family that hosted me while I did volunteer work in India, or even the lingering affection I always held for the America I’d left behind. 

My travel addiction can be traced back to early adulthood, when I used money from a post-college landscaping job to fund an eight-month journey across the United States. As I explored the American back-roads that year, I came to realize just how easy and rewarding long-term travel could be. Given a little awareness and discipline (and the willingness to forgo a few comforts), I found that life on the road could be just as safe, no more expensive, and twice as exciting as life at home. 

Over the next several years my wanderlust took me around the globe: to Korea, where a teaching stint earned me more travel funds (and taught me how to live within another culture); to Eastern Europe, where I witnessed the post-Communist renaissance of countries like Poland and Hungary; to the Middle East, where I experienced an exuberant friendliness that defied the region’s media stereotype. These ongoing travels continually reminded me of a simple truth: Time is our truest form of wealth, and how we spend that time is what truly counts in life. 

As I neared my mid-thirties I was working full-time as a travel writer, but I found myself longing for a respite from my ongoing cycle of travel. Fortunately, my years of wandering had offered me vital clues about how to approach a settled life. Around the world—in cities and in the countryside, in rich societies and poor—people seemed happiest when they were close to family. In Ecuador, I’d seen four generations of relatives living as next-door neighbors along a single block; in Thailand, I’d known extended families that’d pooled their collective resources to start businesses. Thus, when my sister alerted me about the 30 acres of grazing land for sale near her farm in Saline County, Kansas, I didn’t hesitate: I talked my parents into buying it with me. 

My mother and father, who’d recently retired from their jobs in Wichita, soon moved into the main house, which sat on a slight hill at the back of the property. The smaller house—my house—a 1970s-era double-wide that hugged the western edge of the property, needed major renovation work before it could become livable.

Years of travel had taught me numerous skills—how to shop for food when you only know 10 words of the local language, for example, or how to perform certain bathroom functions in countries that don’t sell toilet paper. Unfortunately, I’d learned very little about carpentry, so my first few weeks of house renovation were as bewildering and exhilarating as a visit to a strange country. 

Noting my unfamiliarity with the language of home improvement, my mother helped me shop for paint that would cover the water stains on my ceiling; my sister assisted me as I tore out the moldy old carpeting. My brother-in-law covered the flimsy old wall panels with sheetrock; my father installed a layer of plywood to brace the sagging floors. I tagged along behind them like a novice tourist—brushing paint, hammering nails, steadying ladders; tenuously familiarizing myself with this exotic new way of life. 

This fall, my family and I will cap this process by tearing the cracked vinyl siding from the outside of my house, and nailing up weather-treated pine boards. I will, for the first time, have a home of my own. 

And, while I will never stop traveling to faraway lands, I look forward to this sublime new destination on my itinerary—an attraction laced with the subtle pleasures of standing still and getting to know a single location. 

The prairie scenery beyond my front deck may never be listed in travel guidebooks, but I’ve come to find it as thrilling as the view from Machu Picchu, or the distant valleys of the Sinai.

Photo by Rolf Potts.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


14 Comments for A Vagabond Finds a Home

Craig of Travelvice.com 11.18.07 | 8:15 PM ET

One of the most noticeable benefits Rolf will value is that of the ability to control the noise of his environment. With over 40 countries traveled in myself, over a span just a few days shy of two years, I was amazed with the SILENCE that a home in the United States can afford.

Noise pollution picks away at a traveler’s sanity, and out there on the prairie, I’m sure Rolf will find a reprieve from all that mechanical/megaphone garbage that washes over all of use abroad.

Craig, currently in lima, peru
http://www.travelvice.com

Tim Patterson 11.18.07 | 11:57 PM ET

36!  I’m 25 and already feeling the urge to settle down…but nothing a trip to Patagonia won’t cure ;) 

Thanks for this little story Rolf, terrific as always.

-Tim

Thad 11.19.07 | 2:39 PM ET

Good story! I was an exchange student to Brazil during my student years (twice) and I lived in Poland for about six years in the 90’s. I perhaps never got around as much as Rolf, but I can relate to his experience. Being a “country boy” from Nebraska myself, there is no place like home. Time seems to come to a halt in the remote midwest, and you can always be assured that things will be pretty much the same like when you first left them. It is an ideal place to “recharge” and to give you mind, body and soul the peace and quiet that so many of us in today’s society lack. Sad to say, I am in all the hustle and bussle of the Washington D.C. area. I think more people should travel the world, but not lose themselves to it. There is no place like home…with family.

Mark 11.27.07 | 12:52 AM ET

I’ve read and re-read this article and have to say that I find nothing particularly redeeming in this article about a 36-year-old man moving into a trailer on his parents’ land in Kansas.

Traveling is a good thing, and I am a convert, but the Peter Pan-ism of this particular writer is a strike against roaming the world. Because back home should be a place you’ve made for yourself. Not familial welfare.

chris tharp 11.27.07 | 8:57 AM ET

Cool piece.  I can very much identify with it, since I’ve been living in South Korea myself (Busan - I know some of your old friends) for the past three years.  I too have become addicted to travelling and writing about it, though I wonder to myself how or when I’ll make my way back home.

As for the poster named “Mark,” since when is sharing a huge plot of land with your parents “familial welfare?”  I hate this American idea that we have to be totally independent, that it is somehow weak to live with family.  Such and ideas is alien to much of the world.  Sure - being in your thirties and not working and living in mom’s basement may be a mark of loserdom, but that is hardly the case here.

Michelle McAlister 11.27.07 | 7:25 PM ET

Looks beautiful. A perfect homebase from which to depart for your next travels and a perfect home to come home to. And I agree about the family part. Having lived in Italy for over a year, I saw just how close families remained by being neighbors, sharing a common sidewalk linking their houses and lives together. Congratulations!

TambourineMan 11.27.07 | 10:55 PM ET

Thanks for the story, Rolf. And I can relate to your carpentry cluelessness. To pay the bills, I once worked as a cabinet installer. Shooting yourself in the wrist with a nail gun—not fun.

Sheila at Family Travel 11.28.07 | 3:22 PM ET

Yeah, Rolf, I’m with you on the mysteries of home ownership; we’re also living in the first house we’ve ever owned, and a trip to Lowe’s or Home Depot is a trip to Mystery Land for me.

I, too, am living about an hour from my parents, which I never expected to do after years of wandering, but as an only kid it’s the right thing to do—to be closer to them and enjoy their company while I can.

Also liked your observations about the happiness of extended families around the world.  Maybe “Mark” should re-read that part….

Diane Covington 12.06.07 | 2:38 PM ET

I loved this piece.  I too, just moved back home to my 8 acre farm after being away and traveling for almost 4 years.  I had been living in a tiny studio to be near family and help my mom at the end of her life.

But now I’m home. Each morning and evening, I relish the feeling of space and the quiet, the stars at night, the changes in the seasons.  My farm house has a 1950’s kitchen with green linoleum on the counters, but I love it.

Being away has made me appreciate what it is to have a home.

I loved the words:  “Time is our truest form of wealth, and how we spend that time is what truly counts in life.”

Such wisdom.  So glad I found your site.
Diane

Lloyd 12.08.07 | 2:47 AM ET

As a full time nomadic explorer in an RV, I have my home with me where ever I go. For me after six years, it is the only way to live. It is difficult for me to stay in any one place for more than a month. After I have explored, it is time to move on. Of course, I am limited to travel in North America until a bridge is built to span the world oceans.

I had the permanent home (i.e. sticks and bricks). My recollection is the maintenance, the lawn mowing, the taxes, the utilities, etc. I can’t do that again.

To all the travel writers… Keep on traveling and writing about the experience. It is a vicarious treat to travel and experience a world I will never see.

can't pay the mortgage 04.08.08 | 7:33 AM ET

Nice Story! Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

fellowtraveler 04.10.08 | 9:15 PM ET

What gets me is that after traveling the world, you decide that the place to live is just outside Salina, Kansas.  I mean, I get the family connection and all, but still…that just blows me away like a proverbial tumbleweed.

bathroom design 05.28.08 | 12:47 AM ET

you bought your first house and already remodeling before moving in? thats really great to see. hope it make you a nice home.

Vicki 06.26.08 | 1:25 PM ET

Mark, if you had really read and re-read this article, you would have understood that Rolf did not “move into a trailer on his ´parents´ land”. He bought the land with them, they share it. Where is the “welfare”?
This was not through any childlike neediness (surely his 13 years travelling the world, self-sufficiently demonstrate his independence?) but due, as he explains beautifully, to an understanding of the true importance of families. Having lived in Spain and Portugal for the last five years, I have often felt envy for the emphasis placed on families, their geographical and emotional closeness, their loyalty. I think that to be able to stand up and say “I want to live near my mum!” is a pretty mature stance, and the evidence of lessons learned as Rolf travelled the world.

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