In Defense of Wanderlust



Elisabeth Eaves.

When you’re young—a child, a teenager, a twenty-something—it seems, as Elisabeth Eaves says, “like it will never end. You can do anything because time is limitless, it’s infinite.” You can move to a different state or a different country. You can buy a one-way plane ticket. You can go to graduate school. You can move in with your boyfriend and get engaged and buy a house; and then you can move out. You can sublet indefinitely.

In her new book, Wanderlust, Eaves—a journalist and author who has worked for Forbes and previously published Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping, about her time as an exotic dancer—does all of these things. Instead of making choices that follow neatly, one from the next—the job that brings you to a city where you meet the person you marry—the Eaves of Wanderlust makes decisions that consciously, thrillingly refuse to build on one another.

She travels to Cairo as a twenty-year-old college student. At twenty-three, she hikes the notoriously difficult Kokoda trail in Papua New Guinea. Fleeing the rekindling of her relationship with her ex-fiancé, Stu, she joins a husband and wife sailing from Whangarei to Tonga and nearly dies when their vessel is caught in a vicious storm on the open ocean. In person, Eaves may be slender and fair-haired, but she carries herself with a graceful, noticeable composure that makes it easy to imagine her haggling, at dusk, with a Jeep driver in Pakistan, trying to get him to lower the price of a ride she and her boyfriend desperately need. She maintains eye contact. She exudes competence.

And Wanderlust, though on the surface concerned with Eaves’s love of travel—a celebration of years spent indulging that love, moving from one town, one country to the next with little notice, living abroad for months and years at a time, cut off, in the days before e-mail, from family and friends—is also about the process by which she became the adult she is now. She doesn’t have regrets, though she would tell her twenty-year-old self to “spend more time trying to figure out what you want to do on your own. It’s easy to fall back on what somebody else wants to do.”

Becoming an adult, it seems, is largely about making choices. You have to choose one country over another, one man over another, one life over another. That means, of course, figuring out what you want—and not just for tomorrow; for next month, next year. “I don’t know when you start thinking about time,” she says. “For me it was in my late twenties or early thirties.”

Part of the process was going through a bad breakup with a man identified only as “The Englishman.” In the book, she asks him to move to America with her, and when he accepts, the “sweet, painful, overwhelming desire” she feels for him disappears. “Nothing, with me, can last,” she concludes. And she begins to understand why people get married, buy houses, and have children—these are “scaffolds” that can’t be easily discarded, even after the first flush of passion has faded. “They build their worlds to get through all the rest,” she says of the people who choose the comfort of domestic stability over the thrill of adventure. “Maybe I should do that too.” But it’s only after the Englishman leaves her that she begins the painful process of building an emotional infrastructure that will tie her to one job, one city. It’s a narrowing of options that I, in my early twenties, wish I could long for but can’t quite yet. That is, Eaves would say, as it should be.

Eaves has lived in New York for four years now, following a stint in the late nineties as a graduate student at Columbia, and she’s now living with her fiancé. She has a steady job, as the opinions editor at The Daily. “I wouldn’t move abroad by myself right now,” she says. “I don’t want to uproot and move somewhere new. I still think that would be a lot of fun when you’re younger, but I don’t think that’s the right thing for me and my life right now. And I’m happy about it.”

And that’s a relief for some of us to hear. Not everyone shares in Eaves’ wanderlust. Some of us have never felt that trapped in a country or a relationship; we see freedom in a life filled with stability, security, permanence. But that may also be part of the appeal of a book like Wanderlust and a person like Eaves. She did this so we don’t have to; and she ended up in the same place. And the girl who thought it was “exciting” and “pleasurable” to create “situations that were hard to get out of then break out of them,” the girl who felt an “overwhelming sense of escape,” has become a woman who still wants to travel—to Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa—but who knows she needs “a home base.”

Miranda Popkey is a contributing writer for The Daily. She is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.