The screen in front of me says that our plane is flying straight over open ocean between Kenya and Reunion island. Before I fell asleep we were passing over Cairo, and as we ate dinner, I watched the plane fly the length of Italy straight to the heel. Looking down out my window, I watched the eastern edge of tItaly pass by, the coastline outlined by city lights.
This is the farthest away from Minneapolis I’ve ever been since leaving Seoul, South Korea three months after being born. I keep thinking of Samwise Gamgee when he stops in the middle of a cornfield and says, “If I take one more step, Mr. Frodo, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” The gravity of leaving The Shire, his home, meant uprooting his sense of place.
My junior year I was fortunate enough to be able to visit eastern Kentucky to learn more about their attachment to a land being destroyed by mountain top removal. Aside from the environmental impacts of dynamiting mountains thousands of years old, we were able to learn about the effect it had on the communities within close proximity of the explosions. Many are not leaving the area despite the associated health risks from contaminated drinking water and air and noise pollution. Spending a couple of hours in Appalachian country will make you understand. Even the most stalwart of city-lovers would feel an attachment to its ecologically-rich mountains.
My sense of place is constantly changing with every experience away from home. For me it began small. First there was freshman year at the University of Minnesota, a mere 30 miles from the spot on Lake Minnetonka where I grew up. Then there was the move to Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, a 4-hour drive northwest to the border where the Red River separates Minnesota and North Dakota. The following summer there was a short three-week stint in Ashland, WI at Northland College. There, I learned how to build a matchless fire and sanitize water while living outside for ten days. The summer of 2012 I got to live in a small cabin in Montana, working on a ranch with my good friend, John. After that I had my first taste of Europe during a semester in Tours, France and holidays in Germany. Most recently I took a month-long road trip on my motorcycle from Minneapolis to Seattle and back.
Overtime your ability to be comfortable away from home gets honed. You learn simple things first, like how to grocery shop for yourself and navigate the city’s buses. That evolves into learning how to pack for a big trip, how to budget your money while traveling, and navigating in places where English isn’t the first language. Specific things I learned in France are to use a bathroom whenever there is a free one available, how to find a hostel, to be unafraid to ask for directions. You also learn what you need to do to keep yourself grounded while everything around you is foreign. Running and the ability to remove myself from situations through writing help to keep my feet planted, and as I’ve said a many times, coffee does wonders for my spirits.
Overtime, I feel as if I have gotten better at traveling and figuring out what gives me the strongest sense of place. You mentally sort through what it is for yourself, paring it down until so it’s travel-sized. Despite all of what I have just said, about feeling better about all of this, looking at the monitor in front of me telling me where I am has reverted me back 4 years to when I was moving out for the first time.
Looking out my window, I sit transfixed with excitement, fear, and a strong sense of wonder. I watch the stars slowly being pushed out and up by the rising sun like a play about to start. An ominous layering of shades of orange, purple and blue move up while a field of clouds below comes into focus.
I can’t help but question whether or not I’ll like living here, if I’ll make a mistake and catch malaria, what my students will be like, what Minneapolis will be like when I come back. That may be one of the most loaded aspects of travel, accepting that things will be different when you get back – your street, your home, your friends and family, yourself.