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Where is home? I don’t mean where is your house, where do you sleep most nights, what is your address. But rather, where do you belong? 

For many of us, home is illusive. For most of my adult life, I have not lived in the same house for more than seven years at a time. I have lived in four corners of the nation, splitting my time from the Northeast, where I grew up; to the Southeast, where I went to school, got married and divorced; to the Northwest, where I went to recuperate; back to the South, where I got married again; to the Southwest, where I worked for 25 years; and now, back to the Southeast in retirement. But I cannot say, despite repeatedly returning, that I feel the South is home. 

It is where I feel comfortable, where I recognize the landscape on my skin, where I have found family. But there remains something alien about it. Something I can never be fully a part of. 

Certainly, part of this is political: The red state conditions are sometimes depressing. There is nativism, clannishness, religion, suspicion of outsiders, lingering racial division. There is a satisfaction of being Southern that can seem provincial. 

Yet, there is also a friendliness and helpfulness that I never found in any other corner of the U.S. When my wife, before we were married, was snowed in in the mountains of Ashe County, N.C., a neighbor she barely knew, walked a mile and a half through the knee-high accumulation to knock on her door and check on her, to make sure she had enough firewood to last out the imposed isolation, and to bring her a basket of food. Not in New Jersey. Not in Seattle. Not in Phoenix — although snow in Phoenix would be pretty much out of the question anyway. 

North Cascades

When I moved to Seattle, in 1978, before all the Starbucks and California immigration, I was agog over the Olympic Mountains I could see over Puget Sound to the West, and the towering Cascades to the east. When I went out hiking, it was through rain forests of Douglas fir and western red cedar. The ground was spongy underfoot and emerald green moss grew on decaying logs and stumps. Floating on the waters of the sound were goldeneye and cormorant. The air was soft with cool humidity. 

I certainly had planned to make Seattle my home, and I mean that —  not just a place to sleep at night, but I never felt like more than a traveler spending time in an exotic locale to soak up the ambience along with the rain.

And, compared with the East coast I grew up in, the nature was almost monotonous. When I lived in North Carolina, on the land around my house in Greensboro, I counted a hundred different species of tree and plant. I came to love them all. But there on Phinney Ridge in Seattle, there were two species of tree. Two. They were everywhere and they were prodigious and impressive. But two. I longed to return to the East. And so I did. 

Meat Camp, NC

But even then, I moved from Summerfield north of Greensboro, to Obids in the mountains, to Meat Camp just north of Boone — all in the space of two years. And then, to Virginia Beach, Va., to take up a job teaching. After six years there, when my wife was offered a teaching position in Arizona, we packed everything up into a Ryder truck and drove across the continent, without even having a house lined up where to unload the truck. We thought it would be fun to stay in the desert for a couple of years. It turned into a quarter of a century. 

I came to love the desert, but truth be told, I did not live in the desert, I lived in Phoenix, which is Cleveland in the desert, a characterless city of endless suburbs and strip malls in the valley of the Salt River — a river with no water in it. 

(The famous joke about Arizonans is they go to visit New York City and when they came back they were asked about it. “It was wonderful, huge skyscrapers, millions of people, and traffic like you wouldn’t believe.” “What about the Empire State Building?” “Yep, we went up to the top and you could see for miles around from river to river.” “The Hudson?” “Yep.” “What was the Hudson River like?” “Couldn’t tell, it was covered in water.”)

I loved my job, writing for the newspaper, and I loved my colleagues: I came to respect and value the really hard and dedicated work that journalists do. Over those 25 years, we moved four times. None of the houses was home. They were our quarters, but there were no roots. 

North Carolina called back after retirement, and I now live in Asheville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a blue city in a red state. And I have gotten old here, but it is not home. It is a residence. 

I don’t know if it is my New Jersey birth that has given me this sense of rootlessness. I spent the first 17 years of my life there, but I couldn’t wait to escape. Going off to college was liberation. New Jersey was banal, suburban, bourgeoise, dull, conventional, oppressive. I never felt I belonged. 

River Street, Madison, NC, in Rockingham County

I know from my wife and her family, that there is usually a deep sense of belonging that Southerners feel. A genuine love of the patch of ground where they grew up, a love like you feel for a parent. It is a love of where you were born that may not extend beyond the town or county and maybe the state. But for my wife, Rockingham County was where her father and grandfather were buried. That fact alone meant there was an unseverable umbilical connection to that omphalos, that tiny patch of piedmont, those trees, those creeks and rivers, those very weeds that crept over the edges of the crumbling pavement on the back roads. It is the feel of the red clay between your fingers, the blackbirds roosting by the hundreds in the oak tree. Home. 

I don’t know how widespread is this feeling I have, how many people share it, whether it is a symptom of the late 20th century, or whether it is confined to just me and my personal makeup. I believe I am not alone. 

I suspect many from my generation, growing up with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation and living through an adolescence and young adulthood of assassination, riots and revolutions, felt chucked out of Eden quite unceremoniously. 

If you come from Armenia or Poland or Vietnam or Tibet, you have a clear sense of identity, and an unbreakable bond with the land that gave you suckle. Certainly, most Southerners I have come to know have that feeling about their soil of origin. But there are many others, certainly from my generation, who share my sense of rootlessness, the sense that I can never be so comfortable in a place that I would long to be buried there. 

Perhaps it is because I have moved so often that I cannot share that sense of home. I have a residence on the earth, but not a home. 

I express all of this not so you should feel sorry for me. In fact, this homelessness has its advantages. I have had, in recompense, an ease and comfort anywhere in the world I find myself. I have been to three continents, and 14 countries, three oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, and never have I felt anything but at ease wherever I have gone. Being in a country where English is not spoken is as comfortable as being in a place where people eat mopane worms off the grill. 

Travel has felt such a part of my self-identity, that while others might feel distressed having to move to another state or country, torn roots and all from the soil they call home, I, in contrast, feel most myself when seeing some new terrain, hearing new accents or languages, eating new food, driving on different pavements and finding out about the sun-orbiting globe that, more than any single spot, feels like home to me. 

snow on peaks 2

Some people say the best thing about traveling is coming home.

I say, you never do come home.

That is, if you have gotten from your travels what they best offer, you can never return to the life you had been living. You are changed.

Of course, the return to normal life, after weeks of living out of suitcases and eating out of McDonald’s bags, is a relief. Vacationing is hard work. You use all the hours of the day like each day is the last.

But an engine is not meant to run full throttle 24 hours a day.

At home, you can finally take your shoes off, sit back and watch Seinfeld reruns, knowing that you are going back to the office in the morning. It is like the rerailing of a derailed locomotive; you are back on track, you know where you are going and when. The schedule is published and you can consult your timetable.

And there is also something comfortable about being surrounded by all your things. They are familiar. Your books, your TV, your sofa — and most of all, your bed.

Home is where your family and friends are, too — or so it used to be before America decided to move every few years.

It’s like putting on an old pair of sneakers after wearing rented shoes for a week.

Yet back home, there is something you miss from the traveling. A kind of rush from not knowing what comes next, from having to pay attention. Travel can be exhausting, but it is also enlivening.

For the workaday life is a life that is not fully awake. Routine dulls the luster of the stones under your feet, turns the music of the blackbirds in your back yard to an irritating squabble.

Feijoada

Feijoada

Travel provides many other benefits. It makes you less provincial, for one thing. You can no longer believe that your local way of doing things is the only way. You may have been brought up on meatloaf and mashed potatoes, but only the most stubborn of us is not seduced by Brazil’s feijoada or London’s aloo matar. We learn that other nations may be more civilized than our own. Certainly there are many that are safer.

Travel also entertains. The scenery shifts, the menus shift, the languages shift. There is always something new to tickle our attention.

And travel can separate us from our problems, like a two-week bender. We forget office politics, forget project deadlines, forget our debts and trespasses. It is like halftime in the game of life.

But none of these things is as important as the power travel has to reawaken us to our own lives.

Drakensbergs

Drakensbergs

What travel gives us that our regular lives cannot is newness. Everything seems brand new; you can’t get enough of it. We may have mountains at home, but we don’t really see mountains until we drive through the Rockies or the Drakensbergs in South Africa. We have desert at home, or a river, but we don’t see them until we cross Death Valley in July, or see the moon glowing on the fast midnight current of the Rhine near Dusseldorf.

Our work lives are formed of clay and mud. Our travel lives burn with flame.

But if we have done our travel properly, we bring that flame home with us. And we are reawakened to our own lives; we can see it again for the first time.

It can be even more true if the travel has lasted too long. Twenty-five years too long.  A lifetime of travel, and a later return to what was once familiar. The Ithaka you left is never the Ithaka you return to.

As I write this, snow has just left the lower heights of the Blue Ridge and hangs over the tops of the bowl-rim of peaks that form the zig-zag horizon just outside Asheville in North Carolina. Up on the ridges, the white remaining on the ground provides a visual relief allowing us to see the leafless trees as distant hashmarks inked onto the hills like pen-strokes, in a way we can never see it in summer, when the foliage softens the view and makes ever mountain furry instead of hairy. snow on forest floor 2

Seeing that again this year is refreshed in a way it never was when winter was the ordinary slush of melting snow, greyed with soot and piled by snowplows into tiny cordilleras parallel to the curbs of the wet, slick streets. Coming back to the East after a quarter-century in the Arizona desert has allowed me to see the snow all over again as something miraculous, a world-state of the intensely beautiful.

And the ordinary light of day is rendered what it always is, extraordinary.