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A Brief History of Wandering From an Anthropologist

As it so happens, I was born to vagabonds, a life that I suppose my soul has inherited from them. That quality has been in my soul from the start. My father grew up in eastern Montana on the High Line (also known as the American Siberia), while my mother was raised on Long Island in a then-rural area. Their paths converged in New York City where they were both pursuing careers in medicine at Columbia University. They served in the military under General Patton, traveling from North Africa to Sicily, through France and on to Berlin in a mobile hospital where their romance blossomed. They were married in Nancy, France, while still on the march north.


Years later, I came along, and I have found that it’s always reassuring for me to view my life as an ongoing adventure, much like my parents before me. From the North Cascades to NYC, Singapore, Oslo, London and now Los Angeles—I’ve learned from my experiences along the way. When I started my studies in cultural anthropology at Stanford, I learned that it’s good science to define the filter through which you view the world. We all see the world ultimately through the filter of our native culture. It is an escapable lens that colors our view to culture. My own filter is full of movement and travel, change and exploration. 


I was fortunate to have the opportunity to grow up on the coast north of Seattle in a small town surrounded by unsurpassed natural beauty. Everett is a misty and mysterious place of jagged mountains and driftwood beaches. It’s a land where civilization always felt like a far away thing and surprises and discoveries awaited the adventurous. For example, we used to play on a sand spit called The Jetty, a short row boat ride away where we explored abandoned barges and ships including the schooner Equator the long derelict ship that Robert Louis Stevenson featured in his story "The Wrecker." 


I grew up in a tradition of hiking and travel. Since I spent a lot of time as a child in tow with my older siblings (I’m the youngest of five), they took me everywhere, from walks in the woods to ferry rides and expeditions to the Pike Place Market. Without question the most vivid memory I have of these casual adventures is my very first hike to Goat Lake near Stevens Pass. It’s a small alpine lake where the trees in the old grown forest there seemed huge beyond belief. This sense of solitude and magnificence changed the way I see the world inescapably. Once immersed in the culture of the outdoors I ultimately went on to take on a couple summers in a wilderness/survival program. There I learned to live with just what can be carried on my back and was exposed to various skills from navigation based on tree trunk moss to catching trout with bare hands. These experiences engendered a life changing sense of freedom and possibility. 


Now, I imagine the meanderings above to be a fair description of my context, i.e. the “basics” of what steers my point of view. Yet even though all of these scenes I describe sound peaceful and quaint, I still grew up finding the world around me rather incomprehensible. From youth, I kept waiting for someone to come along and tell me something that would make sense of the incongruities of life. That never happened—nothing about my world ever felt natural to me at all. It was the chance arrival of items left behind by older siblings that set me on the path toward studies in cultural anthropology. It seemed like someone was always home from college or travels with a book or some vinyl, and that was my refuge. In this way I happened upon "Kwakiutl Ethnography" by Franz Boas. 


We lived near the Tulalip Reservation (the tribal lands across the sound from our house) and I could tell early on that something really interesting was going on there beneath the surface—a way of living that was different than what I was used to seeing. This book by Franz Boas started to give me some insights into this unexplained yet remarkable Northwest Coast carving tradition I was witnessing. It also helped me begin to unravel the intricacies of social conventions and see culture as a set of rules flowing from historical momentum as well as function. My love affair with cultural anthropology had begun. Franz Boas is often acknowledged as the father of modern anthropology, and his world, along with the world of Ruth Benedict, Mircea Eliade, and even Carlos Casteneda unfolded before me becoming a lifelong passion. Finally I had a tool to aid me in understanding the perplexing complexities of why we do things we do, because anthropology is a discipline that deals with the study of humans and human nature. Anthropologists focus on the growth, development and interaction of cultures, comparing various cultures in order to examine the relationships between them. 


So What is a Nomad Really? 

The classic definition of a nomad is a person with no settled home, who moves from place to place as a way of obtaining food, finding pasture for livestock, or otherwise making a living. The word “nomad” comes from a Greek root that means “one who wanders for pasture.” Nomadic foragers move in search of game, edible plants and water. Pastoral nomads make their living raising livestock, such as camels, cattle, goats, horses, sheep or yaks. Nomadic craft workers and merchants travel to find and serve customers. 


Most nomads travel in groups of families called “bands” or “tribes.” Their way of life has become increasingly rare. Many governments dislike nomads because it is difficult to control their movement and to obtain taxes from them. Many countries have converted pastures into cropland and forced these peoples into permanent settlements. If you consider that all the peoples of the world were at some point hunter-gatherers moving across the land foraging, and that the waves of migration that form our histories are an essential part of who we are, then you must conclude that we all belong in this category. Through the ages, some cultures have remained simple and stay close to this way of life, while other societies have become increasingly complex, obsessed with ownership of possessions, land and borders. One can argue that being a nomad is in many ways our natural condition. Purpose and meaning then rise to the forefront of consideration as permanence and convention are questioned by the fact of this lifestyle choice—the nomadic journey. In other words, the transitory nature of the nomad’s life suggests different priorities and virtues. 


So what am I suggesting? In other words: 

We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come. If we fix on the old, we get stuck. When we hang onto any form, we are in danger of putrefaction. Hell is life drying up. The Hoarder, the one in us that wants to keep, to hold on, must be killed. If we are hanging onto the form now, we’re not going to have the form next. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Destruction before creation. 

"A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living,” Joseph Campbell 

(courtesy of the Joseph Campbell Foundation) 


Digital nomads are an emerging group of people who earn their living by generating useful code and applications with no need for a fixed abode. They often base their lifestyle on mobility since ties to a location have ceased to be a priority for them. There is a parallel between the digital nomad’s existence and Campbell’s famous Hero’s Journey. "The Hero’s Journey" is Campbell’s summation of the observation of the patterns across cultures he noted in world folklore. Digital nomads follow this archetype in as much as they leave hearth and home (the known) in search of adventure and knowledge. They experience adventure through travels to various distant lands, for career, recreation and inspiration. I like to think that the nomad’s journey is a move away from life strategies centered on familiarity, acquisition and permanence—for example the "American dream"—in favor of a mindset based on questioning assumptions and collecting unexpected experiences. The current trend in creative/shared office space undoubtedly owes its appeal to an approach based on a lighter touch to property that the nomad understands well. 


The impulse to drive on a different road through the mountains, to scramble down a cliff to an inaccessible beach, to arrive on a different continent with nothing but a travel bag—all are moves toward discovery. And any unexplored territory is the lure that hooks us for adventure. This can be physical as well as mental terrain, because every revealed place presents new possibilities and challenges for learning. Every nook and cranny in an ancient city or distant mountain feeds the senses. We are currently witnessing the emergence of a global tribe of wanderers. It’s no longer just the stuff of Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition to summit Everest. It’s now common for mere mortals to take a trip to extreme destinations. Who knows, this new generation of nomads might be the next step in the evolution of our society toward a set of values more concerned with innovation over mere conformity. A society that values diversity as a generator for ideas and approaches previously unimagined. Consider the life journey of Steve Jobs, a well known pioneer in questioning assumptions of course. A difficult personality, sure, but a clear example of someone who made innovation his core value, one that trumped the urge to fit in. When we ask why we do things and seek fresh life experiences rather than merely following the lead of our elders, real change begins. This territory of possibilities is the land of the seeker and leads inevitably to a better understanding of the qualities that make for a life worth living. 


The old nomad needed a compass and the endless reach of Siberia. The new one lives in Manhattan, but he or she is the same. Humans are moving around the globe more than ever before, thanks to an ease of access to travel and career paths that are more expansive. We clearly have an impulse to explore. Putting our roots down seems less important than seeking fulfillment through the perhaps lofty goals of improving the world and pioneering new territories of endeavor. 


We live aware of these familiar phrases—“travel broadens,” “the journey is the destination,” “I took the road less traveled,” and so on. These are the laws of the nomad; the rule of the road. 


On Becoming a Nomad

Nature Lover, or Something 

I am not particular. I like whatever the sky happens to be doing at the time. - Richard Brautigan 


Recently I’ve been intrigued by the idea that the wilderness is everywhere around us at all times. It isn’t something far away that we have to seek out. The sky above, the weather around us ... We flatter ourselves that we can conquer nature or that a place is less wild once we inhabit it. But, every time a natural disaster strikes we are reminded how trivial our efforts really are. Pollution, and even the potential of climate change, seem all too permanent—and yet somehow the planet always pushes back. The new nature that ensues may be less habitable for us, but it can certainly be wild. Perhaps the new nomad is in the best position to see the way ahead for our relationship to wilderness and the earth since there is a broader perspective, even a humility, to be found in traveling through the land and the constructs of civilization. 


It’s just one foot in front of the other—call it wanderlust. Call it the search for true freedom. The nomad is on a journey through life that is certainly more connected to the cycles of the year as well as the stages of a lifetime. By exiting the routines of convention and the expectations of permanence a person becomes free to explore, to find delight in the simplest of things. We all know that what is common one place is exotic in the next, so movement increases the frequency of aha moments and memorable experiences. With the ease of social communication we’ve seen fueled by contemporary technologies, the ability to make this shift in context happen more often is obvious. While some fear change others celebrate it, and now we find ourselves in a period of cultural adjustment that informs the events we see in our neighborhoods as well as the world stage. 


To become, or embrace, the inner nomadic urge, we must allow ourselves to become an outsider—a perspective that is tangibly valuable. When we are the visitor, we gain the chance for new insights. The value of an outsider’s perspective is varied and significant. The visitor has an advantage over the habitué: the chance for a fresh perspective, a novel takes on even the most ordinary things. Showing up and observing is a creative act in and of itself. A creative person has the ability to focus on that overlooked detail or quality and then has the opportunity to go deep into that realm to develop something new. But, ultimately anyone can find this point of view, often leading to a questioning of assumptions. For example, why own a home when you can travel the world instead? Nomads don’t mind a move since it can be welcomed as a type of cleansing process presenting the potential for a fresh start each time. 


A change of scenery creates the space to think. The open road is a frame of reference popular among trail blazers. It is a path well known to creatives, whether it is Chaucer’s pilgrimage, Beethoven’s walks in the woods, or Fassbinder’s road trips. We all have our 

favorite artists that take us away from the ordinary. More than a journey through the landscape, we become familiar with a mental space in which revelations are more likely to happen. Every time we change our physical situation we open up the possibility for new mental insights. The road awaits the nomad with open arms, ready to challenge and reward. 


The Wilderness of the Land, The Wilderness of Society 

When I was a child I enjoyed hiking through the North Cascades. The elation I felt sitting on a rock in the Glacier Peak Wilderness looking out across the vastness of the lowlands was life changing. Years later I had the opportunity to travel the world a bit more and found that I could invoke similar feelings if I hiked through cities. Taking an urban hike from Camden Lock across London as far as my legs would take me brought its own sense of connection to place. The addition of weather, a walk on a good rainy day for example, only increases the connection to the elements and the land. The realization for me I suppose is that we don’t need to wait for nature—we are already in it everywhere we go, near or far. How does the silence of the high desert at Joshua Tree differ from the feeling of solitude on the streets of New York City while surrounded by multitudes of people? Certainly these are very different experiences and yet there is a commonality to them. Solitude, like nature, is always available if that is what one seeks. 


Perhaps movement itself is the essential quality that the nomad craves? Sensation itself is the trigger for leaps of imagination and a better understanding of the important things in life. Sure, there are as many ways to increase awareness as there are people on this earth, but finding wilderness wherever you go is a pretty good start. 


Ultimately we are all nomads, just people on a journey through this life, and nothing is forever. Our experiences define us, so let’s plan to leave behind a great story, the story of a life well lived. Though we may not be living in such a raw and wild state, in ways the nomads of old did, we all still have the explorer inside us yearning to be set free. We might find release in the expected wild of the West on the high desert but it might just as easily be found right outside the front door in deepest, darkest Manhattan. 


Phil Otto is a Stanford trained cultural anthropologist turned architectural designer. He founded Otto Design Group in 1990 to explore the intersection between art, design, and culture where he maintains a dialogue between these interconnected worlds. For over 25 years, he has brought an incredible sense of depth, confidence and perspective to his work with clients such as Urban Outfitters, Warby Parker, and REI. Having brought together a world-class team of architects, designers and artists, Phil and Otto Design Group continue to create innovative spaces for many of today’s leading brands worldwide. 


You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot— it's all there.

- Maya Angelou


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