For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country.
I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years.
Like Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, I have become a stranger to my own country. The last time I was on American soil was November 1995. I had won a free flight to Boston from one of the daily papers. At that point, I had been out of the country for a few years so thought to make the best of the trip by flying into Boston and then taking a Greyhound bus from Boston to Georgia I felt a thousand mile bus journey would help me get reacquainted with my country and its people. I had also planned to stop along the way to see some of my family. I have relations all along the east coast of America. Sad note: I didn’t know this at the time, but this would also be the last time I would see my mother alive.
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.
I searched my old blog and found these entries from my last visit to the States. It’s funny reading through them after all this time:
Once I traveled about in an old bakery wagon, doubled-doored rattler with a mattress on its floor. I stopped where people stopped or gathered. I listened and looked and felt, and in the process had a picture of my country the accuracy of which was impaired only by my own shortcomings.
I feel like I need to go home again. Where that is I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe I need to do my own version of Travels with Charley and go in search of America.
I wonder what I might find.
So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land. Otherwise, in writing, I could not tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth.
Time to make a plan, I think. Anyway, if you haven’t read Travels with Charley, it’s a fine read. In fact, it’s my favourite piece of John Steinbeck writing and it always makes me homesick for the open road and my homeland.