It is often the dream of many boat owners to travel the world safely on…
It was a Dark and Stormy Night
Actually, it was a dark and foggy night. You could see across the dirt road to the abandoned mine but you couldn’t see up to the top of the road and across to the fire station. After dinner myself, my brother and three other friends grabbed our BB and pellet guns and went out into the fog, across the road, skirting the mine shaft and clambering up a steep pile of 100-year old mine tailings to the road. It was May. Memorial Day weekend at over 10,000 feet.
When I was growing up, our family owned a very small, very run down “cabin” in a ghost town in the mountains of southern Colorado. My father had purchased the cabin in 1964 for $600. It wasn’t really a cabin. It was an old miner’s house built in the 1890s that had sat abandoned for nearly 40 years. He had made it habitable but he was more interested in it as a shelter than at home. A shelter our family could escape to on weekends and use as a base for hiking, fishing and hunting. The town is named Victor. Its located near Cripple Creek – which many of you know is now a Mecca for gambling addicts – and once upon a time boasted a population of 35,000 people, making it one of the largest towns in Colorado before World War I. Mark Twain had come there on lecture tours. Several Presidents had also made speeches at the opera house. But by the time we were there, less than 300 people lived in that town. As you can imagine, this space that had once held tens of thousands of people….a sprawling ghost town….with more or less no one it in….it was the perfect haunt for my brother and I and our friends. I’m not going to even go in to the kind of things we did…things I certainly would not allow my kids to do today.
It sometimes amazes me that I made it to adulthood.
On that night in May, the five of us climbed up a rock wall behind the fire station and made our way up through long abandoned neighborhoods on Battle Mountain. We were walking through the fog and I remember shouting at our dog, Toby so that he would know where we were. He loved Victor…I think because there was an endless amount of fresh donkey crap laying around everywhere for him to roll in.
Then we saw it.
There was a house all lit up. There were cars parked in the driveway, music coming from the windows, people talking and laughing, kids playing. We couldn’t SEE any people but we could HEAR a bunch of people. It was a big party. The house was yellow with green trim. I’ll never forget that. Yellow with green trim. We were all rather stunned because, we’d roamed every inch of that place for several years and didn’t remember any inhabited house up there. So we were kind of surprised. But we were exited because we heard kids at that party and there weren’t very many kids in Victor. And the ones that were there….well, they were just plain weird. We watched the party house for awhile and then went home. Happy that in the morning we knew that we could go and meet some new kids.
By morning the fog had lifted and right after breakfast we raced out, crossed the roads, climbed the wall and clambered up Battle Mountain to the house. Which was there. It was right there. Yellow with green trim. But it was empty and the inside had been burned out. And the yellow and green paints were very faded and chipped and weathered and it was clear that no one had been in that house for decades.
Now. This isn’t just my memory. I have four witnesses who remember, more or less, the exact same thing. We still talk about it sometimes.
There was an old lady in that town who ran an antique store that I don’t think ever sold anything. Her name was Mary and the store was called Mary’s Mistake. We loved hanging around there and she loved telling us her stories. We went immediately to her and asked her about the house. She knew exactly the one we were talking about and told us that in the 1920s there had been a fire there during a party and the house burned. Several people died. Mostly children. It had been abandoned since. She didn’t believe our ghost story.
My two kids love it when I tell this story. They ask me to repeat it again and again. My 8-year old son especially likes the part about Mary and specifically the part about what she looked like because Mary had the most enormous breasts I’ve ever seen in my life. “Tell that part again about her boobs!” he shouts – more often than not among people who turn a vile eye towards me as if I’m some sort of horrible father.
He also likes the story my brother tells about how we used to collect dog poop in paper bags, go to the next neighborhood over in our hometown of Pueblo, Colorado, put the bags on people’s front porches, light them on fire with a little zippo my dad had gotten while serving in the Navy, ring the doorbell and run. My boy loves that story.
These are stories of at home. My home. My childhood. Of a childhood spent growing up in the same house from the day I was born to the day I left for college. A house only a few blocks from where my mother grew up and only a few blocks more from the house where my grandmother grew up and lived until the day she died. My family has been in Colorado since the 1860s and in Pueblo since around 1901. We are a deeply rooted people in many ways. My mother texts me often to tell me she is going to lunch today with people she has known since THEY were in elementary school.
I don’t think there was a lot of interest in travel in my family. At least there wasn’t an obsession with it in them like there is in me. They were interested in other places and other people but not actually in going there. A book might have been just as good as going. These were all outdoors people so its not like they were afraid of going anywhere its just that hiking, camping and fishing in the mountains of Colorado was far more satisfying to them than strolling through Picadilly Circus, riding a camel around the pyramids or taking a train from the Victoria terminus in Mumbai. My younger brother, an extreme sports dude likes the idea of international travel but I’m not too sure he actually likes going on any international trips. My grandpa said I had a fiddle foot and once compared me to a mysterious uncle named Lanny (I think) who travelled the world doing I have no idea what. Lanny of course ended up getting shot in the back and left to bleed to death on the street after cheating in a card game in Madrid. Oh wait. That was actually in Idaho Springs, Colorado as my grandma told it. The real story was never quite clear. Family histories never are.
Where do you come from? It is a question I ask people all the time. Where do you come from? It is a simple question right? Yes. But the answers are never so simple. I say Pueblo, Colorado but is that true given that by this age I’ve spent more time outside of Pueblo than in Pueblo? I’ve been legally a resident of New Mexico going on 25 years and I’ve lived a total of 7 years of my life in Europe. I’ve vistited over 40 countries.
This is by no means unique to me. For most of us I think, “home” is part of how we define ourselves. That is why we put so much effort into the outside appearance of our homes. Because it says something about us to the world. The inside says something about us to ourselves. In our society, home is iconic but so is standing out as an individual. You want to show that you once lived somewhere more interesting than Pueblo, Portales, Taos, Albuquerque. I used to own a home in Arroyo Hondo just north of Taos. And when we moved in I took out all the maps that I collected on my travels and put them on the floor and then poured a lacquer over them. The clear stuff that looks like glass when it hardens. The result was that, my floor…the base of the house…became literally a memorial to my travels. Constant reminders of movement in the most stable of places. It’s ironic that I don’t own the house anymore and yet my maps remain on the floor, now under a carpet probably.
Americans see home as sentimental and nostalgic but as still separate form our heart. Our inner selves. When I think about the places I’ve lived I don’t think of them as home. They exist for me as moments. Experiences. Buildings blocks of my self. Some like train stations where I was just waiting. And I don’t think that experience is that different from most of yours. Other cultures however….and in the past even our own culture….saw home as essential to our being. Home is who you are. The soil is who you are. The neighborhood. The view you had as a child. Your bedroom. Your family. And so even though it seems antithetical to us now….we still ask each other. Where are you from?
It troubles me….a lot….to be on a constant search for home. To feel somehow rootless. And I meet a lot of people these days who are in just the same position. People struggling to figure out where they belong and what they want home to look like and how they will define home…..and these are people who are always just on the verge of moving on. I think it is different for each one of us but for me, having an internal notion of HOME from having grown up in a single location makes assigning the condition of home impossible. I am never free of that context. I am never at home.
What am I doing here?
In all these years of travel I keep running up against what I call the “WHAT AM I DOING HERE?” moments. WHAT AM I DOING HERE?!?
I remember sitting on top of a rusted out, fortified World War II gun turrent in Leningrad…and yes it was still Leningrad the first time I went there…which I realize is beginning to date me…and I was looking out over the Baltic Sea on a chilly August night. I was utterly depressed….I don’t even remember why…. and I wondered WHAT AM I DOING HERE? I remember coming from a party one night in Bern, Switzerland in the middle of winter and getting lost out in the snow and wondering WHAT AM I DOING HERE? Or sitting on a park bench in Panama City wondering the same. Or waking up one morning in a frigid flooded tent on an Arctic beach in Norway with everything I owned completely soaked because I forgot to fix the roof on the tent correctly. WHAT IN GOD’S NAME AM I DOING HERE?
I have to admit. Some of these moments involved alcohol. So I offer them to you with the caveat of a slightly addled brain. But not all of these moments. And the emotion behind them was honest. Behind all these moments was the thought that I should be home. You can be home being a foreigner. Sometimes that may feel right but it hasn’t yet for me. I wanted a home with my people. Whoever they were. Where my roots are. Whatever that means. That I should be planting a garden instead of drinking vodka on top of a Soviet cannon. Perhaps it is true. More importantly than where you’re born is where you become yourself. And that is home perhaps. But becoming myself is ever evolving. I’m more of a process than a thing. I can’t figure out if I am being formed or being deformed. “Home” is a work in progress for many. It still is for me.
The Floating Tribe
One question I really struggle with and that actually makes me a little angry at times…is….well, its more of a comment really…but is: are you Irish? O’Donnell, you know? Irish? Part of my family literally arrived to this continent on the Mayflower. The rest came in the decade or so immediately following. The most recent immigrant ancestor of mine came over in the 1870s. From France. I can point to Ireland on the map but I’ve never been there and I have zero relationship to it. So many people nowadays answer that question….where do you come from…with things like….well, my mom is half-Japanese and my dad is German but I grew up in Seattle until I married my Ecuadorian husband and now we live in…Denver.
My own children….bilingual from birth….a quarter Norwegian, a quarter Finnish and half-American. One of them born in Finland, one born in New Mexico, both with citizenships in the USA AND TWENTY-EIGHT other countries in the European Union. And they live in Taos, New Mexico where they go to school with a half-native american, half-French girl, a half-japanese, half-Irish girl and a little boy whose parents are from Peru and Columbia. That is just little Taos. 60,000 Americans live in Paris. A million Chinese live in Africa. 20,000 Americans live in Tokyo. 20,000 Brazilians live in Japan. This list could go on and on.
The writer Pico Iyer tells us that nearly 250 million people are now living outside of their home country. That doesn’t count the tourist mess. Its true that many of these are refugees who would rather be home but most of them are not. For most of them living abroad is a choice. Pico Iyer calls them the “floating tribe”. It is estimated that within just 10-15 years this floating tribe will grow to more than 300 million people. Larger than the population of the United States. This is liberating he tells us. And perhaps he is correct. My children are a mix of so many places and people that it gives them the possibility for insights on the world that I could never have. They will be able to create and solve problems in ways that I cannot. And Iyer tells us… “where you come from is now much less important that where you’re going.” We are more rooted in the future, he says, than the past. And that this gives us…us being humanity…. opportunities that we’ve never had before. And it certainly gives us an opportunity for a more peaceful world the likes of which humanity has yet to know.
I like this idea. I like being part of this floating tribe. My peeps live in more than a dozen different countries. I like the opportunities. Especially for world peace. The things I have seen and experienced in 30 years of travel have made me see old things with new eyes. It has changed the entire way I conceive of the world and humanity. Often when you are unsettled and confused you have the ability to sense the new. I can only think that that is a benefit to all of us. And yet I’ve always questioned it. WHAT AM I DOING HERE?!?! I’ve always questioned my reasoning and my obsession for travel and I’ve even at some points attempted to not travel. And of course that always fails.
“Home is where the heart is?” I think not. Home is where home is.
There is a potential downfall to the floating tribe and believe it or not, it relates…somewhat…. to burning bags of dog shit on the porches of the upper middle class. Or at least those stories. Because it is about investing in place and building stories of place. And having a place to be at home.
Perhaps I’m just a worrier when I ought not to be. But I look around and I see us destroying our environment. Poisoning our rivers, poisoning our air, ripping up our wild lands looking for rocks to burn, filling our food supply with chemicals. I don’t need to go into a long litany of all the environmental problems we face. We all know they exist. And if you don’t, you’re lying to yourself. And I think we all know on one level or another that it is pretty bad and we frankly feel a little helpless. Sure. Greed is to blame.The economic system is to blame. But also to blame is a lack of being at home. The rootlessness that impacts all these hundreds of millions of people floating around out there and the hundreds of millions more who are just waiting to move on.
Land still matters. The soil still matters. Food still matters. The water still matters. Family still matters. Community still matters. I know it is a controversial concept because it is steeped in colonialism but I can’t yet find a better term. That is the idea of becoming indigenous. Indigenousness is about rootedness. It is about being from a place. It is about having a depth of history in a place. It is about relationships. It is about the environment. It is about building community. It is about being present. And it is about stories. For those of you who consider yourselves writers, I ask you….do you consider your literary terrain? If not, I encourage you to do so.
How do you get your bearings when you’re always on the move? How do you come to notice the patterns of wind across the land if you’re not there year upon year, season upon season? How do you come to know how the water moves across the land if you haven’t been there to watch it in times of drought or during the monsoon or anytime in between? How does your child’s school improve if you’re just waiting to move on and so you don’t invest your time in making it better? How does a community build sidewalks if its residents float through like tumbleweeds? How do you tell stories of place if you’re not in that place day in and day out? You can’t.
I ask these questions more out of concern than from an ideological place. I’m not preaching but I’m putting on the table vital questions I think need to be asked. Not necessarily answered. But asked. My concern with the fading concept of home and the advent of the floating tribe is that perhaps we are losing our ability to root to a place in the world and invest in the soil that grows healthy people, heathy relationships, healthy communities and healthy ecosystems. For me, travel has more meaning when I have a home to return to. I always need to come home and re-root.
Going Home and Going On
If you’re looking for a nice, tidy wrap up to all of this rambling….a wrap up where I give you some profound nugget of knowledge to chew on, you’re going to be disappointed. I’m going to leave you with nothing but questions. I am after all, a work in progress. Pico Iyer points out…and I think quite accurately….that travel also requires stillness. When we stop… we can see where to go.
I’d been living in France for nearly two years and was intending to stay when one afternoon I struck out on foot across Lyon from an apartment I shared with a Moroccan, an Algerian, a French Jew and two Palestinians….and no…in case you are wondering, I am not making that up……and just in case you’re wondering….yes, the political discussions in that little place could get rather heated at times…..in any case, I set out towards a forested cemetery in the Villeurbanne section of the city. Lyon is a great walking city. Every day I walked to an archaeological lab where I worked part time. I was making very little money and my shoes were falling apart but every day when I passed this certain homeless man I gave him some francs and struck up a short conversation.
On this particular day as I headed towards the cemetery one of my shoes blew out. I didn’t want to spend money on new shoes so I dropped into a store, bought duct tape and wrapped my shoe back together. Then walked on. When I passed this homeless guy I said good morning and started talking to him. He kept looking at my shoe. Eventually he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of francs and held them up to me and said: “would you please go buy yourself some shoes?”
Anyway, I moved on to the cemetery and spent the afternoon walking row upon row of headstones looking for a name I was sure had to be there. Eventually I did find it. Brigid Coudayre. Brigid was an Irish girl who met and married a soldier from Napoleon the Third’s Grand Armee, moved to Lyon and managed a silk fabric factory. I have no idea how they met (and I’m honestly not sure if I’ve got this story totally correct) but without a doubt that is a damn good story too. She lived the rest of her life in Lyon. But their children emigrated and ended up in Colorado. If I understand the story correctly…and there is always the possibility that I have not…Brigid’s daughter was my great-great-grandmother.
I sat down and felt the stillness. I rested. Then I took a few pictures and looked around the cemetary a bit more….revisted the grave and then decided to head out. Across the path from Bridgid’s grave was the grave of someone named Thiebeaut. I have no idea what the first name was because it was the last name that got me. Thiebeaut was the last name of several of the kids in my elementary school. My childhood friends.
And for some reason that set something in motion inside of me. And suddenly I knew I had to go home. Back to that soil. I had to re-root. For the moment anyway. And two weeks later there I was, at home, sitting on my mom’s couch in Colorado. And two weeks after that I was walking through a dusty, windy, remote plain of creosote and sagebrush and rattlesnakes in eastern New Mexico looking for artifacts with Dr. David Kilby at Indian Flats near little town called Carlsbad.
And….I was wondering…..where should I go next?
This post: AT HOME , was origionally a reading giving at Eastern New Mexico University as part of the honor of being chosen as the Jack Williamson Endowed Chair for Literature, 2015