Oh, The Places You’ll Go: Nomadism and the Summer

Posted on May 16, 2011

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It’s about a fifty-mile stretch from Spokane to Chewelah along Washington Highway 395.  Not a long trip now that I’ve made it at least a couple hundred times, but it felt like it the first time I made the drive with my mother. And it still feels like it should be a longer distance given the terrain you pass through on the way north—starting out in the pop-up developments of Mead, driving along a sheer cliff face to break onto the stretch of wheat farms and scattered pines running the distance to Deer Park, one of those towns that lies entirely to one side of the road, and the nearby village of Clayton (home of the “Clayton Burger” and the most depressing stretch of trailer homes west of Idaho), winding through hills and forests until the little speed trap that is Loon Lake, then cresting a hill and making the mad dash past Valley on the left, and finally into the home stretch: a collection of 3,000 men and women sitting at the foot of a series of hills unfolding north to Addy, Arden, Coleville, Kettle Falls, Marcus, Boyds, Orient, and then Canada.

I wouldn’t say that I fell in love with 395, or with “the road” (that little American obsession I’ve never quite understood), but I think that during one of those drives I did fall in love with transience. Not travel or vagrancy, though—nomadism. I fell in love with the thought of being nomadic.

Actually I hate travel. Airports stress me out and in a car I need something to fidget with or else my nervous energy will overwhelm me. What I like is pulling over to the shoulder of the road, tromping off into the tree line or the nearest field, and looking for a house or a town. Then I like to think about how settled the people in those places are, and how I am not, how I must keep moving because there’s not much point in staying still, how it’s easier to build forward than to tend what’s behind you. I like to think about the toothless men I met in Addy and how I know they are mangled giants, fantastic beasts from deep in the woods of the Washington-Idaho border who could kill me with the sweep of an arm—and it gives me a strange pleasure to know that they will always be in Addy, and they will always be a mystery to me because I will never stay long enough to know all that there is to know about them.

This is not to say I want to live my life as a nomad solely, or that settling down scares me. I can get rather attached to a home—moving out of my last apartment was hell; I imparted such life and personality to the walls that I actually had a tearful parting word or two with them.

Take it this way: one of my favorite movies is “Princess Mononoke.” When Prince Ashitaka is exiled from his village (nerd alert), he just leaves—everything that is dear to him, his family and his culture, his life and history, and he leaves with only that which he can carry on his back. He eats his meals from a little red bowl, unique to his tribe—just the one bowl from which he also drinks his water, measures his rice, etc. etc. I bought a similar bowl when I went to college, and a set of forkchops (one end chopsticks, the other a knife and fork). Like Ashitaka’s bowl, it was meant to be a device of utility, but also a totem of the time and place I took the bowl with me from. I’ve since liquidated the bowl.

The point being: I wander, and I like to be able to move quickly and lightly. Why this is, I do not know. I am at an age when many of my peers wander as well, living as we do in a highly mobile nation and being highly mobile college students. Not all of us come to love it though, and not all of us love it in the same way. Perhaps my particular love of motion was the child of 395, the genetic product of an inborn wanderlust, some emotional defect, fear, or something else. I don’t know and I don’t intend to use this blog to find out.

This is a blog of ramblings from a rambler, not an attempt to figure out why I ramble (in either sense). As I set off this summer for Kenya, Uganda, and Pakistan (for a number of different projects), and when I return to my migratory collegiate lifestyle, I intend to record the little stories, thoughts, and commentaries that occur to me. No real theme—just the things I think about. And that’s a broad range of topics. I have nothing more profound to say at the moment than that, and that’s not very profound at all.

But I do need to end this post. So here is a list of some interesting places I’ve slept in my life and how long I slept there. It’s far from complete, but I have fond (if mixed) memories of each place:

–       Couch in the living room of an apartment in Manhattan Valley, Manhattan, New York: 3 months

–       Cardboard box in Magnuson Park, Seattle, Washington with several others: 2 days

–       Under the wet bar in the freezing basement of my childhood home, Spokane, Washington: 5.5 years

–       Under a tree in the woods just west of Spokane, Washington: 1 night

–       In the lobby of an office building in Washington, D.C.: 5 nights

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