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- What is Home to a Traveler? May 15, 2018
We are on a west coast road trip, visiting old friends and old haunts. We should be home within the week, but I am poised here in mid-trip and seeing our life with the fresh eyes travel brings.
In April we gradually realized that it would make sense if we took a brief hiatus from our work on Eurybia and dealt with a few things left behind last summer when we sailed away. My son is back living on the west coast and wanted to introduce me to his German fiancee; we had promised a few items in our storage area to the folks that bought Phoenix – a pilot berth cushion that we had stored and some spare parts; the storage area in Bellingham could use some reorganizing and clearing and maybe there were some items that would be useful on Eurybia; the cabin in Canada had some items we need to tend to… the list grew and grew and we finally yielded to the pressure. Road Trip!
The first real stop was Portland, Oregon – it will also be the last on the way back home. Here we wanted to meet the woman that had captured my son’s heart. I had emailed and skyped with her, but finally she was going to be on the west coast for weeks and I had to take the opportunity to meet her. And my son had a new apartment in Portland I wanted to see, and of course a mom always wants to hug her son again. He had decided to settle in Portland partly because we had lived there for a few years while he was in high school nearly twenty years before. So visiting Portland was also visiting our old haunts and seeing how the city had changed, maybe getting to visit some old friends if time allowed. While visiting the city we would stay in my sister-in-law’s houseboat on the Multnomah channel – they live most of the year down near Santa Cruz but keep the houseboat for visiting one of their favorite cities.
The next stop was Bellingham, a small gem of a city a couple hours north of Seattle and an hour south of Vancouver, British Columbia. We had lived there a dozen years before taking sail last summer and were eager to visit old friends (and resigned to some organizing of our storage area). I had set up a whole series of routine medical appointments that could easily be done with my old doctors and would take more work to set up in California or Mexico. I also wanted to see friends from the university where I had worked for ten years as well as friends in town. A mix of business and pleasure.
And finally, as long as we were going that far, we might as well bop over the border and check on our primitive island cabin. The Honda generator that we had planned to use on Phoenix had come from there. Now that we were on Eurybia, which had a generator already installed, we decided to return the nearly new generator to the off-grid place in Canada where it would be most useful. It would be lovely time of year to visit and see our favorite neighbors up there.
Then we would turn around, drop by Bellingham briefly to pick up the items we were taking back to California, stop in Portland to see my son again, then return to our home on Eurybia in California. All in time to see my mother on her return from Croatia before she departed for her regular summer in Wyoming. That was the plan and now, poised at the northern extent of that trip, looking back on the first half, it seems to have gone well so far. It’s been lovely to see old friends and old places. But I am beginning to be eager to return.
This trip has raised some questions for me. Mostly, what is home? All these places we are visiting this trip are home in some way, but we are eager to return to our most recent home, a sailboat, despite it being the smallest and least familiar of the homes we have lived in. What makes it home?
Many long years ago, in the dawn of pre-history when I was a young college student, I spent a particularly fun holiday at my home, my family home, in Maryland. Christmas probably, but maybe spring break. As my mom and I were in the family car to return me to campus I made some remark about what a fun time it had been but I was also eager to get home. And suddenly I felt disloyal. Why should my dumpy little dorm room be ‘home’ when I had just spent a lovely week in my ‘real’ home with my family? I was a little discomfited, a little embarrassed, and I mumbled something about “home is where your stuff is”.
In English, the word ‘home’ comes from Old English ‘ham’ which supposedly referred to a physical dwelling place, the word not yet laden with all the emotional overtones of the word ‘home’. In this older sense I guess home really IS where your stuff is, it’s the physical place you reside. But when cruisers talk about selling everything and moving aboard, they still speak of ‘leaving home’ meaning I suppose their friends and habits and familiar places from (part of) a lifetime. Certainly some people that go cruising do miss their houses, but more are, I think, talking about the larger sense of home.
This confusion about what is home foreshadowed my somewhat nomadic adulthood, where I moved from Annapolis to Virginia to Alabama to Maryland to DC to Virginia, to suburban Virginia, to Eugene, Oregon, to Portland, Oregon (four places in five years) and finally to Bellingham, Washington. In Bellingham we lived in one house for almost a dozen years while we both finished our careers. Then a succession of six more places in and near Bellingham (with a brief four-month hiatus in the Bahamas to renovate my father’s house) while we worked on the boat and then finally moved aboard Phoenix last July. And then five months later we changed boats. How did we in all this moving about keep finding a new home? Why didn’t we miss the old homes more? We missed our friends, but we always looked forward to the next place with shining eyes, as if this place would really be ‘home’.
Is there something wrong with us?
I have talked to some cruisers that leave home despite it really being home. They are sad but know they will return and look forward to the adventure. For us and some other cruisers it’s a little different I think. I don’t know where home really is, except on the boat which will take us to the next place. When we finish cruising I have no idea where we’ll wash up. I loved the places we have lived, but I have no particular desire to finish out my days in any of them. Right now I want the horizon but I don’t know why.
Will I feel differently when I am tired of cruising? I’m sure that day will come when moving on, dealing with immigration, dealing with threats of storms, and the work of crossing oceans, and unfamiliar languages will become more work than fun. A day will come when health or age or another passion will make cruising too hard and we will sell the boat. What than? Will we find that we do have a sense of where home is? We will discover we know just where we left home behind and go there? Or perhaps some of this uncertainty is what fuels the story of the Flying Dutchman, condemned to sail the world and never find port.
Despite not being able to point to a place on earth besides my boat that is ‘home’, I don’t think of myself as a traveler. I’m not a traveler like those fearless war correspondants that take danger in stride. Not like salesman that establish a pattern of comfort while staying in a different hotel each night. Not even like my world-traveling friends that take two to three months each year to explore a bit of Asia or South America. Nor like my adventurous friend that takes six or more vacations a year biking or hiking or exploring – a week in Slovenia this spring and two weeks in Greece in the summer, a week in Australia this winter, different trips each year to new places and new adventures. I’m different – I hate hotels. I hate airplanes. I really hate travel food. Despite being nomadic about changing homes I am a homebody in each home. I love the comfort of being in a familiar place with my famiiar things. I hate hotels and traveling, which is probably why traveling by sailboat is the only extensive traveling I have seriously considered. I like having my home with me. I care that I can drink out of a familiar tea cup. I like having the ‘right’ pillow. But I don’t mind shopping in a new grocery store, I don’t mind not understanding the language that’s spoken around me. But I do like being able to go home each evening. I’m really very stodgy.
So what is home? Is home just where our stuff is? Is it where we, perhaps temporarily, connect to neighbors or fellow travelers? Is it really about roots and defining who we are, or is it just a level of comfort, a base from which to explore ourselves or the world?
I can’t answer that, but I know I want to get home to my boat and, soon, get traveling.