Thursday, January 24, 2008


The idea of home is a recurrent theme in my thinking, something I've written about before. Feeling at home isn't something confined to your house. I'm intrigued by what defines the boundaries of home, and I think about it in a couple of different ways.

The first time I drove from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the summer I toured the country in my Geo Metro--which I'd converted into a micro-mobile home by taking out all but the driver's seat and replacing them with a bed, cooler, and all my stuff--I had a startling experience when I got back to Columbus, Ohio. For two months, I'd been continually barraged with the new. Covering 11,000 miles through the Northeast up to the eastern tip of Maine, all the way across the country to the northwest tip of Washington, down the coast to San Francisco, back east across the desert and plains, I was, except for in a few previously visited spots, constantly experiencing sights I'd never seen before. I got used to not being used to anything. Constant newness became normal. So when I started heading up I-71 from downtown Columbus, a road I'd traveled hundreds of times, suddenly, unexpectedly I realized I wasn't exploring anymore. I recognized every exit sign, though I'd never been conscious of them before. For a few minutes familiarity was strange, since strangeness had become familiar. Home, I realized, is where you aren't exploring, where things aren't new.

Home is about familiarity, but familiarity doesn't have to be literally knowing a place, as in the above example. It's true that on that long unfamiliar drive I felt a little bit at home when I passed through places I'd been before, even if it had been only once, like Canon Beach , Oregon. But I also felt at home when I got to new places that only seemed relatively familiar. Without planning, I drove up into Quebec for one night, where the signs weren't just in a different language that needed to be translated at 120 km/h, but were different shapes and colors from the US and even the rest of Canada, where the roads were laid out differently, and everything seemed generally confusing. It wasn't entirely unexpected, but it was disorienting. When I drove across the provincial line into Ontario the next morning, things suddenly seemed normal again and I felt strangely at home, though I wasn't even in my own country. The same feeling hit me when I crossed the border from the roadless desert of Bolivia and suddenly found myself on a perfectly modern, paved, striped, signed, guard-railed highway in Chile. Even driving from the Rockies in Colorado, across Kansas and Missouri into Illinois, at some point near the Mississippi, as the trees get larger, the summer air gets more humid, I've been struck with a feeling that I'm in my own native environment. I remember as a kid driving into Ohio on family vacations, and my parents reminding me that we were not home yet. But Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio all look and feel pretty much the same, so when you've been far away for a long time, the feeling of home starts to creep into you hundreds of miles ahead of the destination, where things become familiar even as they remain unknown.

California, my more recent home, is not the Midwest. Driving back here a few weeks ago on I-8, I crossed the Colorado River into California at Yuma, Arizona. In the confusion of traffic I didn't even notice a sign or realize I was in California for several minutes. Even then I drove for another half an hour before I thought, "Oh, California, that's where I live. I'm home!" Driving the highway between towering sand dunes in warm winter air, I felt like I was still in the midst of adventure. Though I love the variety of landscapes, I don't imagine I will ever be able to think of all of California--deserts, mountains, beaches, fields and forests--as home. It's really only when I pass the wind turbines on the Altamont Pass, standing as sentries at the entrance to the Bay Area, that I start to feel like I'm getting close. It's the view from the Bay bridge, passing the Abercrombie and Coke billboards, zigging by Potrero hill, down the branching Cesar Chavez/Bayshore ramp, around the back of the hill and over Cortland that makes me know I'm finally home.

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