Then we’re home
Home in the land of the homeless
-Paul Simon, “Hurricane Eye”
I have always had a restless spirit. When I am grounded, I dream of taking flight. When I am flying, I look for solid ground.
It’s not that I am dissatisfied with where I am at. Not at all. It’s just that there is some ineffable force pushing me constantly onward, almost as if I am a fish and if I stop moving I will no longer be able to breathe. The specter of stagnation forever gnashing at my heels, spurring me to seek new surrounds.
Like I said: restless spirit.
All of this restlessness leaves me also with a perpetual sense of homelessness. I live in a dichotomous limbo between craving a sense of home and being compelled to continually refresh my surroundings. In short, I never feel truly rooted anywhere when I am always preparing to leave. And indeed it seems I am always either coming or going, returning or departing. I often come back to a place which harbors fond memories, strong memories (like Maine or Oregon), and my experience is an unsettling mixture of nostalgia and renewal. Like meeting up with an old friend who is now a stranger.
My summer travels brought this fact into sharp relief: none of us can ever go home. Not really.
After my hike in the Trinity Alps in July, I spent the next month in the Pacific Northwest. I was born and raised in Oregon, so I guess you could call this my homeland. Or birthplace. Take your pick. Some of my time blended seamlessly into my lifelong Oregon consciousness, but other moments distinguished themselves with that sharp pang of nostalgia, that elusive sense of home.
The Pacific coast
A long, wide, sandy beach shrouded in heavy fog. The sun, so commandeering in New Mexico, is here reduced to a lonely, pallid orb behind a misty veil. Steam rises from the wet sands, rushing up from the tideline in long, feathery wisps. Like the ghosts of those long lost at sea, they march across the shore in a silent procession. The thundering Pacific surf is muffled by the blanket of fog, but mournful cries of gulls pierce sharply through the musty, salty air. The loudest sound is my breath and Ben’s–and the space between us–as we jog down the long open beach. My dog darts in and out of view, sometimes just a splotch in the indefinably grey middle distance.
The wild Cascades
A thunderstorm assaults us at 6,000 feet. In New Mexico we enjoy thunderstorms almost every day during monsoon season, and the thunder rolls lazily out across the open desert unobstructed. Here in the high Cascades, our backcountry campsite is nestled in a basin amid the jagged ridges of Goat Rocks Wilderness. Torrential rain blows in diagonally, drowning out the normal sounds of the sub-alpine forest as the droplets strike my tent. Bolts of lightning pepper the peaks around us, and the resulting thunderclaps easily overpower the sound of the rain. The cracks and booms roll across the basin, bouncing off of the steep talus slopes and rocky cliffs. With nowhere to go, the sound is deafening. It shakes the earth, rattles the stones beneath us. My little dog, who has never been fearful of the storms in New Mexico, is terrified. I stuff him into my sleeping bag for comfort, and drift off to the cacophonous lullaby of the waning storm.
The next day, after a difficult and slightly dangerous hike in wet conditions, we set up camp right at the tree line, where the basin trail connects with the Pacific Crest. Most of the day we have been hiking above the clouds, their fluffy white tops stretching out like an ocean in all directions, penetrated occasionally by a stately peak or ridgeline. By afternoon, however, clouds are washing up the mountainside. We decide to set up camp and prepare for rain instead of attempting to cross the glacier and exposed ridgeline that await us. Soon we are engulfed in fog. We sit on a rock in the middle of an open field of wildflowers—lupine, Indian paintbrush, columbine, and myriad other alpine blooms—and talk quietly about life, about nature, about nothing. The flowers all around us are intensely colorful against a grey backdrop, and the quietude of the high country comforts us.
Now we are hiking out, finishing our 25-mile loop. Marmots sound their screeching alarms as we pass by their rocky burrows, and falcons soar silently through the early morning skies. We cross Packwood Glacier, carving footholds slowly across the steep snow slope. Coyote Ridge greets us on the other side, offering several miles of exposed trail well above the tree line. As we make our way along the ridge, gaping wild river basins stretch out to the east, bathed in morning sunlight. To the west, a thick bank of clouds obstructs any vista we might have of Packwood Lake or Mt. Rainier. In front of us, the two weather patterns collide. A sun-warmed wind rushes up the ridge from the east, creating huge swirling waves of mist curling off of the craggy ridge top as the clouds are pushed back on top of themselves. We are miles from our everyday reality, but it feels like light years. Up here, amid the clouds and with not another human soul in sight, we might become the clouds themselves, roiling and churning and collecting into imminent precipitation. Way up here, we might be celestial bodies. We might be gods. We linger in the mists, but not too long. The mountains make their own weather, and it can turn dangerous without warning. After a couple hours, we descend into the fog of impending civilization.
It’s interesting that the times I feel most nostalgic in the Northwest are the times I am most surrounded by nature and by quietude. During my time in Portland (my hometown), I felt largely like a tourist (despite the fact I did not go to Voodoo Doughnuts like every good tourist is wont to do). I found that I do not miss the traffic, the crowds, the density. I do miss the food, and my family, and eating warm blackberries from the vine when I walk the dog. But that’s not enough to make me feel like I am “home” the same way I do when I am in the wild places.
So my visit to the Northwest this summer left me feeling both homesick and homeless. It made me wonder if home is more a state of mind than an actual place. Or perhaps a state of being. A state of being at rest.
Now I am back in New Mexico, and the rains have come. The desert is green and damp, and a blanket of tiny yellow flowers covers the undulating desertscape near our house. Almost overnight, thousands of tiny yellow butterflies have appeared, and they flutter from flower patch to flower patch, making it appear as though the blooms themselves are taking flight. The desert is so beautiful.
I feel content here, grateful to be in one place after a summer of perpetual motion. And yet, at the same time, we are again preparing to leave. We are gearing up for another long trip. More on that soon.
Home but not home. Here but not for long.
Where is home for you, and how do you define that? Do you share my restless spirit?