The Search For Home
Part 2: The Call to Roam, The Call to Stay
Excerpt from the upcoming book Home by Jesse Wolf Hardin (www.animacenter.org)
“Men feel, in growing numbers, the drawing of a net of dependency against which something wild in their natures still struggles as desperately as trapped fish in a seine.”
I have a few friends who spent their first eighteen years in one neighborhood, in a single house before moving out on their own. But as I write this, the average American is switching their primary residence once every three to four years. Stretching the median myself, by the time I “ran away” for the last time at age sixteen, I had lived in, and tried to attach myself to eighteen or more different places. Our family moved from one to the other for any number of reasons, such as to get closer to a new job or further from our past. Because we found a better deal or warmer or cooler climate. Because the landlord decided he wanted the house for his daughter and ran a hose into the bedroom to run us out. Because another rental was sold out from under us to make way for an apartment complex, once its aging owner couldn’t cover the ballooning taxes. There were always lots of reasons for us to move, but most played on the word “too,” pronounced emphatically in recurrent moments of dissatisfaction: because the rooms were “too small,” the neighbors “too noisy,” the crime rate “too high.” Each house or town was in turn pronounced too big or small, too rainy or dry, crowded or inconvenient, built-up or isolated, rich or impoverished, degraded or pretentious. It seemed that the grass was “always greener on the other side of the fence” (or at least, that a yard of colored gravel would be an improvement). Not that the complaints weren’t qualitatively justified, but one tended to act less out of reason than the unflappable belief that every move provides improvement, on the way to the discovery of an ideal place.
Mom was amazed, of course, at how long I’ve spent now in a single area, in the same canyon, on the same land, in the same cabin– the place where every single one of these photos were taken. She was especially surprised having never stayed anywhere longer than a couple years at a stretch in her entire life, remaining some places less than a month, and averaging over two moves per year. It amazes me as well, when I reflect on my first few years on my own, a period during which I considered myself a “gypsy.”
There’s admittedly a degree of humor in this scene: a red-bearded, motorcycle-riding American beach-boy identifying with the dark-tressed outcasts of old Europe. I’d nonetheless been taken in by the movie images of skulking fortune tellers and twirling fire-lit damsels, silk headbands and gilded daggers, and wild-eyed horses pulling their homes-on-wheels from the shadows of one town or forest to the next. I felt a particular attraction to the round-topped wooden wagons with the colorfully painted wheels, filled with everything a family could possibly need, ready at a moment’s notice to be battened down and pulled towards the next promising vista. I later tried for the same look and feel, with a cedar shake camper perched on a Jeep pickup truck, and later in a school bus art gallery.
In the Gypsies I felt I’d found a people in love with the raw sensations of life, feeding on a headwind the way wolves snap and grin at the falling snow. A people who valued liberty over comfort and ease, adventure over accumulation, peasants who found more gold in the progressive sunsets than in any prince’s purse. A culture where kids were assigned the responsibilities of adults, and adults were encouraged to never stop being kids. I knew that their constant traveling could well be the result of being chased from one homeland to the next, yet it never occurred to me that the force that drove them forward might be a deep-seated yearning for the Balkans where they lived for centuries, or for the Indian subcontinent they inhabited before that. To my youthful mind the Gypsies were the archetypal nomads, freely choosing to never settle down, to never see an end to their whirling-mandolin wanderings…
My Celtic and Nordic ancestors ranged far and wide, but staked out in their time homelands they dutifully lived and died for. The numerically and militarily superior Roman forces faced an imposing Celtic host who often wore nothing but loose cloaks of fur, armed with nothing but the most primitive weapons and an overwhelming sense of allegiance to place. For my teenage years, a Harley-Davidson served as my dragon-ship as I sailed off into uncharted waters, but unlike my elders, I embarked with no consideration of a way back.
The expression “home is where the heart is” appealed to me at this age, probably because my heart found itself warmed by so many different wonderful places. But what I preferred to say was “home is where you hang your hat.” Or “home is where you lay your head”— on strange couches, on pillows of barn hay or boughs of pine. I even wrote it on my clothes, the way other kids squiggled skulls and hearts full of initials on their jean legs, “ruining” the Levi jacket my mother sent me. Philosophical graffiti. Points of reference for the intentionally homeless.
In my travels I fell in with love the giant moss-laden fir trees of Oregon and Washington, the archaic geology of the Tennessee hills, and the laconic pace of the Rio Grande at Big Bend where it winds between the United States and Mexico. I slept in Midwestern rainstorms beneath a tarp stretched over my motorcycle, made the most of Utah’s caves during the hottest part of a summer, and accepted refuge from the worst blizzard on record inside a windowless Arizona dynamite shack (thankfully emptied of its most explosive contents by a miner sympathetic to our plight). In the process I found myself becoming attached to particular regions, those with a characteristic feel and energy that resonated with my own.
While every place is glorious in its own way, offering its own unique expression of landform and lifeform, there were still certain locations that stood out for me, affecting me deeper, and evoking a deeper response: that cloister of crystal clear rivers known as the “Klamath Knott,” those parts of Colorado’s San Juan mountains still unimpacted by trails, and the ponderosa covered lava heaves of the Mogollon Rim. I’d learned to listen carefully and appreciatively to the varied voices of the land, the deep baritone monologue of Louisiana bayous and the shrill communication of wind-whipped Wyoming mountain tops. It was clear, nonetheless, that there were particular places which not only spoke to me but made demands– places that solicited commitment and provoked loyalty. Promises of a potential relationship. Entreaties. Voices of the land that clearly said to me, “Stay. Please, stay.”
This is without a doubt the power that inspires the traveler to slow down and notice more, the weary migrant to finally settle down in one place, the seed to send its root in the direction of the core. It is perhaps this more than rational choice or casual circumstance that puts the brakes on spinning wheels, soothes the beat of restless rambling hearts, and that seduces folks on their way to somewhere else to stop and run their hands into its warm, giving earth. For all the stimulation our traveling provides, we may eventually find we’re unable to give wholly of ourselves to so many different suitors for our time and hearts.
A part of me still feels like a “gypsy,” an animal driven by a maddening wanderlust, and a product of a society of discontent. But I have grown to mistrust such predilection, to resent dissatisfaction, to commit wholly to those I love most and the place I cannot live without.
It seems our kind are forever under the influence of two opposing instincts: the urge to keep on moving, and the call to remain. In the first case, we’d be wise to connect deeply to the spirit of every diverse place we come into contact with, finding home in each. In the latter, we agree to a special relationship with but a single home, demonstrating our affection through our artful care of it. Through our attentions, rituals and celebrations. And by staying.
When we’re truly healthy again, home again, we’ll do both. Then and only then, will our search be at an end.
(to be continued)