The final weeks of the calendar year offer an easy excuse for nostalgia, although I sometimes think I’m plagued by perpetual nostalgia, to a point where I sometimes refer to myself as a nostalgiac, or perhaps nostalgiaholic. Or maybe, barring a bunch of silly neologism and thinly disparaging labels, it’s just a lot of unrealized dreams and sometimes plain and simple regrets tinged with wistful longing.
But, all that aside, I find myself looking backward pensively, now particularly, or as much as I have at any point over the past year. It’s been a long, strange one, as the overwrought saying goes. I’ve said hello and goodbye to one too many different places this year, all somewhat deliberately, though much of it was mired in a steaming heap of confusion and angst. I’ve been living my own extreme enough-for-me version of the vagabond life, something I adore and despise in equal measure. I’ve only managed to embrace it a very small fraction of the time. In simpler terms, I’ve been couch surfing for the past year, though I didn’t actually sleep on any actual couches, as most of my dear, kind, generous friends – to whom I owe so many bottles of wine and handmade something-or-others – either offered me a guest room or a moment of house sitting, so it was certainly the far more comfortable iteration.
I looked back and counted 13 different places that stood in for “home” in 12 months – a personal, though perhaps not necessarily commendable, record of sorts – though none of them more than temporarily. I’ve been searching, though at times running in circles or “basically on a merry-go-round,” as my beloved, patient boyfriend recently remarked. At least early on, I was running from a feeling, seeking frantically, desperately, evidently prematurely, to uncovered something that was long-lost, or suppressed, or perhaps just neglected, but still very much alive.
The feeling that accompanies time spent on the open road – not on lifeless, homogeneously bland interstates mind you, but the scenic byways of our vast and beautiful nation, dotted with craggy rocks, stark and startling scrub lands, meandering green hills, glistening bodies of water, and wending through mysterious forests – embodies that rugged individualist freedom, that essence of a something that feels like my America. The expanses are so great and the vistas so lovely and huge and never ending, I often wish I could pick up the world like a huge goblet and gulp it all down to savor and covet for some other moment, as if it will free me infinitely from some imaginary prison. Perhaps that of urban life or stultifying suburbia.
Sure, it’s partly fable and largely fantasy. Often, a nagging voice in my head whines about all that fossil fuel I’m burning. You’re not a soaring golden eagle or some cowgirl on a horse, exploring the frontier, and you never will be for that matter, because there’s no frontier left to explore a cynical inner voice mumbles and rolls its eyes at my immature definition of “freedom.” I’m just a confused, belatedly rebellious, occasionally misanthropic 30-something East coast girl sloughing off responsibility, companionship, and the conventional expectations of respectable society in her beat up (RIP) Toyota. And I’m certainly nobody’s lost, fallen angel on the highway, even if that’s a romantic enough image for any movie still or novel archetype.
And surely, I’m not living off the fat of the land, chopping down trees to build a fire and a log cabin, though I played at something resembling that on a number of furtive occasions for a grand total of about fourteen seconds. On the other hand, I’m not saying that was my final attempt. I’ve been burning through a short reserve of meager assets: a cocktail of unemployment benefits, my hard earned savings, and deeper, denser, darker credit card debt. There’s my road to freedom, Sissy Hankshaw. But my road, or rather my reserves, are winding down to something quite meager indeed, and reality is settling in and asserting its presence with no apologies. I’m not flippant or foolish enough to max out my credit cards and then shred them with some anti-Capitalist dance of glee, but I won’t deny I’ve entertained the thought when the notion of real world responsibility settles in with a resounding thunk in my gut.
The West has always signified a certain kind of freedom of spirit to me. The rugged terrain of the Rockies, the unforgiving climate of the mountains and the plains, and the thinner atmosphere in which I somehow feel more awake, more frenetically alive, despite the lower concentration of oxygen; the strange, other-worldly beauty of the desert which feels so paradoxically lonely, and yet somehow feels like a warm, embracing, inviting home in a way nowhere else will or even can. This is the landscape where my soul first felt free, and where it truly came alive and began to reform some semblance of a self out of the powdery red clay. I chose this, and no one else told me to do it.
For the first time in my life, I began to fathom what choice was all about, and that the direction our lives take, the people we include in it, the relationships we form or reject: we get to choose that. It’s terrifying and exciting, because it all has consequences, and some of them – I didn’t even know! – are a deep dive into an abyss or at least a sizable rut, but the point is, this is your choice and your choices. You did it. You own it. And you have yourself alone, to thank and to blame.
It seems unfair to refer to the Southwest deserts as a massive blank canvas upon which one might paint their reality, and it surely is more than a lovely backdrop. I have often thought of the desert as a strange land, both alien and familiar. It repels as much as it draws. Falling asleep on the rocky ground in my sleeping bag, as the remnants of sun fade, giving way to countless shimmering stars, the striking deep indigo blue of the desert sky wraps the earth in a velvety, ephemeral embrace. As stark as its appearance may seem in the mid-day sun, the desert at night is gorgeous beyond compare, immensely, preposterously huge beyond human conception, and my soul aches as my mind bends around the pure vastness of the heavens as they meet the burnt horizon. It is the stuff of dreams, or perhaps more like that moment between sleeping and waking, where the sense of some otherworldly magic zings and whispers in the air, but skitters from your grasp when you reach out for it. It’s in the distant howl of the coyote, in the furtive darting of the horned toad, and the mysterious echos and yawps, emanating from the very ground itself: the sky clapping against the desert sand. That stupid, obnoxious bird with the inquisitive, cartoonish “Quoiiiiiiiiiiii?” that croaks insipidly from the juniper branches can go hang, though. He cracks the illusion and the mystical magic right in two. That guy is a sleep-disrupting asshole who gives early risers a bad name.
It is easy to rhapsodize and reminisce. And at this juncture, I am in between moving forward and moving backward, yanked and dragged, pulled and stretched between two rubber bands. There’s a sense of eager anticipation at the prospect of being back in the Rockies this winter, yet leaving Portland feels bittersweet and slightly defeated. This fall, I was teetering on the brink of confidence in the notion that I would spend something as significant as the next five years here. I had settled – gingerly, tentatively – on the thought, having held the idea of lusciously green Oregon so dearly in my heart for so long. It was like Gatsby’s green light at the end of the dock, though I suppose that had some ominous implications as well. Portland reminds me enough of New England and what seems like home in order to be familiar, yet it is the unfamiliarity that draws me too.
Tonight, I settle into a cozy bed while the Portland rain is falling gently, and it glistens on the windows, twinkling in the light of the streetlamps like starlight caught inside of a jar. The train chugs along the Willamette, howling its simultaneous arrival and departure as it barrels through the streets. “HOME!” it cries in lonely defiance, to no one in particular. “Hooooooooome!”