Building A Home: How A Year Of Travel Has Challenged And Changed My Concept Of Home
Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home. -Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
You go away for a long time and return a different person—you never come all the way back. -Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari
It’s only by stepping out of your life and the world that you can see what you most deeply care about and find a home … movement ultimately only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to and home in the end is of course, not just where you sleep, it’s the place where you stand. -Pico Iyer
It was on a phone call with family earlier this year that I was finally able to put words to what I had been feeling. It had felt a lot like trying to fly a kite.
The hardest part about flying a kite is getting the kite off the ground and keeping it there. You run up and down the street, trying to get enough momentum to launch the kite up into the heavens but the first few attempts are inevitably false starts. You run and run and for a moment it looks as if you’re doing it…the kite is rising into the sky and you’re making it happen! But when you stop running and turn around you watch helplessly as the kite sputters and dips, rises again halfheartedly and then nosedives into the ground.
You collect the kite, rewind the string around the spool and try again. Eventually something magical happens: the kite catches a fortunate gust of wind and it begins to fly—seemingly on it’s own. You stop running and frantically let out a little bit of line, less you prevent the kite in it’s now-eager climb upward. The kite is lifted up above the tree tops on invisible currents of air that simple, ground-dwelling creatures like you and I neither see nor feel. It’s effortless now. All you have to do is slowly let out more line and give the kite an occasional tug to keep it in position to catch the wind ever higher.
Before long you’ve unwound your whole spool of string. The kite is just a spec in the sky now, almost rubbing shoulders with those celestial guardians of higher realms, the clouds themselves. Then it happens: you feel a strong tug on the line. SNAP. The line goes slack. The string—the kite’s only anchor to earth—falls limply back down to the ground. And in that split second you realize you haven’t lost the kite…you are the kite.
It’s a feeling of becoming untethered—at the mercy of an invisible force taking you to parts hitherto unknown.
“I’m not sure I can go back home anymore.”
That’s what I had realized on that phone call in January. It wasn’t that I might choose not to go back home—that had always been a possibility of longterm travel. It was that I might not be able to go back home. Because I didn’t know where home was anymore. It scared the hell out of me.
It hadn’t occurred to me at the beginning of my travels (or even 6 months in) that I might unwittingly cross this Rubicon—that the tectonic plates of my soul might mysteriously shift. But now the frightening realization was erupting to the surface of consciousness.
Am I still traveling? Am I just living? Is there a difference?
When we say we are traveling, it implies we’ve left home—typically to return home at some point.
When people ask me what I do I tell them I’m traveling. Occasionally they’ll say yes, but what do you do back home? Sometimes I tell them what I used to do: I was a business manager. Sometimes I tell them what I currently do: nothing. And that’s how I leave it. As a traveler, where I’ve been isn’t half as important as where I’m going.
A few weeks ago I was talking about the idea of home with a friend and fellow traveler in Bundi, India. For her it had been simple: she was just living in different places for a time. Wherever she was, that was home for her. I loved that way of looking at it. It conjures up images of the traveling turtle who carries home with her wherever she goes. I had badly wanted to feel that way too, but I couldn’t shake a deep feeling that I was only passing through. That home was somewhere else.
Our opposing perspectives were understandable. She had grown up on a small island off the coast of Africa. At the age of 12 her parents had split and she moved back to France with her mom; visiting the island to see her father once or twice a year until she was 17. Later she had moved to Paris on her own before eventually leaving to travel.
I had lived in San Jose, California under my parents roof until I was 18. We were a small, close family of four. We moved once across town when I was young. At 18 I had moved 400 miles south to San Diego for college, which was far, but still in the same state. In San Diego I lived with a close group of friends from high school who also had left their homes in San Jose. Over the next 9 years I returned home 2-3 times a year. Over that time my childhood room barely changed—prom pictures and trophies give the impression to this day that a moody high school kid still inhabits it.
Although I called San Diego home from time to time, in my mind it was always shorthand for home away from home. Home was where it had always been: 1245 Runnymede Drive.
I remember the first time I left home on my own. Around the age of seven, I had boarded a plane en route to Vancouver, Washington to stay a week with my grandparents. The flight couldn’t have been more than a couple hours and my grandparents were waiting for me at the arrival gate but it had been an intense experience. The moment after I waved goodbye to my parents at the departure gate I was overwhelmed with the dull, all-consuming ache of homesickness.
Despite the stewardesses’ best efforts I had cried most of the way there; clutching my two stuffed travel companions (Soggy Doggy and White Doggy) all the way. The expedition to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s proved worthwhile: there was an unlimited supply of cream soda and ice cream (Mom would never allow that!), I went to a fair, and I discovered the magical bliss that is a Dairy Queen Blizzard ice cream shake. My life would never be the same.
A few years later I embarked on another solo escapade. Mad at my parents and inspired by an older neighborhood friend of mine who had ran away from home and made it all the way to the airport or the train station or some equally distant place I decided I’d teach my parents a thing or two as well. I made it about 10 houses down the street—not even the next block—before hiding in some bushes next to a neighbor’s driveway. After my supplies ran out (in retrospect the journey had been ill-planned) and I had gotten bored, I decided to have mercy on my parents who were no doubt, at that very moment, worried to death over my disappearance.
I returned home to find Dad mowing the lawn. No one had realized I had left.
For the next few days in Bundi I couldn’t get the conversation I’d had with my friend out of my mind. When I revisited it with her she asked me to close my eyes and tell her what I saw when I thought of home. Two places immediately came to mind: Grandma’s living room overlooking the English countryside and my parent’s garden in San Jose. As I described these places to my friend she caught me confusing their physical locations. Sometimes I spoke as if they were right here with me in Bundi, other times I spoke about them as being somewhere else.
Like the turtle, I carry these places with me—they are a part of me. I hope to revisit their physical locations often, but I don’t plan to live there. They are emotional homes for me.
I’ve discovered other senses of home too. When people ask what country I’m from I tell them California. For many on the opposite side of the world there is probably no distinction between California and the USA, but for me the difference is vast. I lived in the USA but I’m from California. Like a California redwood, my roots are firmly planted in its fertile soil. I worked at startups. I almost exclusively wear sandals, blue jeans and t-shirts. I never check the weather forecast. I skate, snowboard and surf. I say “hella.”
Before I left San Diego to travel I sold or gave away most of everything I owned. What things I still possessed I packed into my Mazda3 hatchback and drove up to San Jose. What I recall most about that emotional journey was the last three residential streets before arriving at my parents house. I had walked, scootered, skated and biked these streets as a child. I had returned home by these streets five days a week, first in Mom’s minivan and then in Dad’s beat up ’92 Subaru when I started driving to high school. I came by these streets when I flew into San Jose airport or drove up from San Diego. How many times had I returned home via these same three streets?
But this time was not like the others. This time I wasn’t coming home from an afternoon playing with friends. I wasn’t coming back from another day of high school. And I wouldn’t be going back to San Diego. I drove down those three streets I’d grown up on as if for the first time…one last journey home.
I left San Jose 4 months later with a one way ticket, an ambition to see the world and no plan for how I might go about doing so. 7 months into my travels I boarded a plane in Georgia (the country) and caught a flight back to San Jose. I spent a month catching up with friends and family, including a short trip down to San Diego to celebrate the marriage of two close friends.
The trip to San Diego had been bitter sweet. For most the week I slept on an air mattress in my former roommate’s now half-empty room in what had been our old apartment. That week I helped him move into his new apartment I hadn’t yet seen with his girlfriend I hadn’t yet met. Later in the week I stayed on my ex-girlfriend’s couch in her new apartment I’d never seen with her new roommate I also had never met.
My friends’ lives had continued on without me. I had the sense I was watching it all happen from the bleachers.
When I left San Diego it didn’t feel like home away from home anymore. It had changed. I had changed. Maybe someday I’ll go back, but if I do it’ll feel more like starting over than coming home.
One time, while I was still living in San Diego, I took a trip out to Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert. My friend and I had rented a bungalow there for the weekend. I had been walking up the dusty, unpaved road that led toward our small house outside of town (a single paved street consisting of a few thrift and antique shops, some restaurants and a gas station). Each weather-beaten house I passed had looked like a lonely island in a vast sea of sand, rocks and Joshua trees—strange, prickly creatures that would fit perfectly in a Dr. Seuss book (Dr. Seuss had also spent time in Joshua Tree). The jackrabbits and foxes easily outnumbered the neighborhood’s human population.
It was on that quiet, empty walk that I had suddenly understood what it meant to be far out. It meant venturing beyond the fortified walls of civilization into unmapped territory where what’s known meets the unknown unknown. Far out carries with it the real sense that you might fall off the edge, never to return. Those houses—those silos of human life—I passed that day on that barren road in the desert were far out.
What strange worlds might one discover out here, disconnected from the umbilical cord of society? I had the sense I’d ventured deep into the dark, labyrinthian depths of the human mind; my Mazda3 hatch and the Interstate 15 my lifeline back to the familiar light of day. I couldn’t help but wonder…what if I lost the line? What if I cut it?
In November of last year, after a month being back in California, I had boarded another plane—this one destined for Nepal. When I left to resume my travels I was aware of a growing feeling: more and more I was beginning to feel at odds with parts of my home country’s culture. There were things I hadn’t noticed before. Distance and time away had revealed to me that although California is a paradise, it’s not a perfect paradise.
Donald Trump’s subsequent election to the White House also caused me to think about where home was. As I watched in horror as the new administration’s awful immigration ban went into effect a new question formed in my mind for the first time: was there a point, if reached, where I’d return to the USA to fight for what I believe makes it one of the greatest places in the world?
I am proud and grateful to be a citizen of the USA, but so far it feels too big, too impersonal and too divided for me to call home. Sort of like a drafty mansion with rooms imagined by and designed for other people that I never actually sit in. It’s a question I still grapple with, but so far the answer is I haven’t returned.
As I travel I’m constantly searching for new places to call home. Could it be this country? That climate? Those people? This town?
It’s a liberating and terrifying realization to realize that anywhere can be home. If anywhere can be home, then home is nowhere in particular. Sometimes I find a place that makes me feel at home, but the curse of the perpetual traveler is that places are constantly in flux. People leave. The weather changes. You get kicked out of your room. For one reason or another the place leaves you.
As the walls of what I used to call home come down I’ve discovered the foundations beneath are still strong: there’s the values that led me to leave home and travel in the first place and the values I’ve discovered while living as a guest in other people’s homes; there’s the old friendships that survive and even thrive and the new ones that surprise me; there’s a growing faith in myself and in the universe—that whatever comes is exactly what’s needed to grow. And isn’t that what a home really is? A center from which to grow?
I’m building my new home brick by brick, room by room. There’s a writing desk next to a window in one room. In the hallway there’s bright hardwood floors, hanging plants and plenty of natural light. I have dedicated rooms each for the mountains, ocean and the desert. There’s a meditation hall with incense and candles that are always lit. Grandma’s living room is here and my parent’s garden is in the backyard. There’s a large library full of books that speak of exotic places (many of which I’ve visited), bold adventures (many of them mine) and the wonders and mysteries of life. There’s a beautiful guest house with a light always on for friends and family.
The wonderful thing about building my own home is that I know the foundations are strong and it’s custom tailored for me. It’s exactly what I need and nothing more. It’s a place where I can be…me.
I’m still building my new home but I’ve already moved in and I enjoy inviting friends over to see the progress I’m making.
Alasdair explores the inner world through travel. You can find more of his writing and pictures at www.alasdairplambeck.com.