My old mentor, Willard Rollings, used to begin his history classes by asking students to introduce themselves. He always wanted to know what we called home. He would add that he didn’t mean where we lived. He wanted to know where our home was, and those were often two very different things. I don’t recall anyone who failed to get his point. The question always bothered me a little, probably because home has always been a bit of a problem for me.
I’m something of a military brat. My father retired from the army when I was very young, but he seemed to keep the habit of finding a new job every 4 years or so for quite awhile. I have just a few memories of Dad while he was in the service, but I remember quite distinctly the pattern of moving (along with every military base near each of our homes).
I spent my first four years in San Antonio, Texas. Naturally, my memories of Texas in those days happens to a bit thin. At four years old, my Texas had been the block we lived on. I remember that and maybe a steak-house whose name escapes me along with a small vacation house on LBJ Lake.) I remember fishing at the lake, and I remember all manner of snakes. I remember lots of little bits and pieces from San Antonio, but not much in detail. I also remember learning to string beads from Mom while we still lived in Texas.
I was stringing beads one day when Mom and Dad said it was time to go. I thought we were just going out for dinner or something, but we just kept right on going. I sat in my Dad’s old Volkswagon thinking about my string of half-finished beads sitting in a dish on the dining room table, wondering when I would get back to them. I was still thinking about them as great big white fluffy snow-flakes began diving into our windshield on our way into Beulah, Colorado. I never did get back to those beads. The next day my older brother and sister and I made a snowman in our new back yard. Scott kicked it over karate-style and Colorado became my new home.
We left Colorado in the middle of my third grade, but part of me stayed behind. Four years in Apple Valley California and 3ish years in Rawlins, Wyoming hadn’t changed anything. We finally settled in Boulder City, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas when I was 14 or 15. (The math here doesn’t quite compute, so some part of my memory must be off a click.) I rather liked Boulder City, but was I ready to call it home? Or was home still in Colorado?
I think I was the only member of my family that connected with Beulah, Colorado. Mom and Dad had nothing but bitter memories of the place. For me, though, it’d been 30 acres of ranch-land. We probably didn’t make very good use of it, and by ‘we’ I mean the family as a whole. We just weren’t ranchers. Me? I had no problem figuring out what to do with the place. It was a battlefield. Several battlefields, actually. Some World War II era, some Vietnam, and some from the old west. It was also a race-track. It was swimming pool and a basement with a pool table. It was a lovely fireplace. It was two streams I would fill with fleets of sticks counting as battleships. (You’ll have to excuse me. As a child I was quite the war-monger.) It was a place to ride horses. It was a place you could shoot a gun (or a bow and arrow) out in the back yard. I loved that ranch, so I loved Colorado. All those years, I had never stopped thinking of it as home. My family had long since shaken the dust from their feet. I hadn’t.
So there I sat in Rollings’ class with a ready answer to his question, except for one thing. I’d been living in Boulder City, NV, for over a decade at that point, and I couldn’t really say that I hated the place. It might just be, I thought as I contemplated my answer, that Boulder City (and the whole Vegas area) was actually home.
I learned just how much Vegas had become my home as I spent 3 years studying in Chicago. Whenever people asked me where I was from, I had no trouble answering them with ‘Las Vegas’. Of course I would never have said I was from Las Vegas to anyone who lived in Las Vegas. I was actually from Boulder City. But in Chicago that is a distinction without a difference. So, I would tell people I was from Vegas. Most importantly, I found myself feeling a bit of satisfaction saying that, the kind of satisfaction you get telling people about your home. Sitting there in Chicago, I think I finally let go of Colorado and came to claim the Vegas area as my own. It wasn’t just where I’d been living all those years. It really was home.
I spent three years in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. Oddly enough, I lived in a graveyard, a fact I hadn’t noticed when I first moved in. My neighbor let me know about it one day as he told ghost stories and pointed at the stones around the neighborhood, stones which were actually gravestones that had been tipped over. Some of these graves dated back to the era when Fort Defiance really was a Fort and relations between Navajo and whites were a lot more tenuous. I never had the nightmares over those graves that my neighbor did, but I always thought it an odd thing to live in a neighborhood built on a graveyard. It’s a little more odd given Navajo attitudes about the dead. In any event, this was an interesting time and place, but it was also a difficult time. I can’t say that I ever thought of this place as home. I miss it sometimes, but not like I miss my homes.
Three years on, I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, I still worked on the Navajo Nation, commuting to Chinle, Arizona to teach classes for Diné College. That was a hell of a commute! I think I totaled 500-600 miles a week, usually travelling out at the beginning of the work-week and coming back at the end. My brother always wondered why I didn’t travel around the area more; why I didn’t want to go to Phoenix this weekend or Sedona on that one. The truth was, I was tired of traveling by the time I got back to Flagstaff. I loved my weekends, and those few full weeks when I could afford to just stay home. Mostly, I loved my new home.
It didn’t take me long to embrace Flagstaff. Flagstaff was full of bike trails, and I took to them like a fish to, …well actually I was never very good at mountain biking. That didn’t stop me from getting out there and collecting a few scars. I rode almost religiously every other day. Flagstaff was where my cats would mug me whenever I came home and try to get me to play when I was packing up to go. Flagstaff was also a few nice restaurants, a game store (two at one point), an occasional trip to Charlie’s Tavern, and a few other things. Flagstaff was home for a little over ten years. In fact, Flagstaff was the first time I ever thought of the place I actually lived as my home. I still had a foot in Vegas (family) and another on the Navajo Nation. I think it was while I was living in Flagstaff that I developed the habit of leaving my clothes in a suitcase, but with all the local travel, I felt pretty well grounded. I had a home, and it was rarely more than a half days drive away from me at any given time.
So, why did I leave Flagstaff? Well, in a word, ‘money’. When gas hit $4.00 a gallon, I realized I’d have been better off giving up my vehicle and working at McDonald’s than continuing the big commutes. I didn’t want to move out of Flagstaff either, and I didn’t particularly want to move back out onto the reservation So, I quit my job and tried a few different things, none of which worked out. Life in Flagstaff soured. The place was still great, but my experience of it was growing more than a little bitter.
Eventually, I ended up in Houston, Texas, teaching at a private school. I liked Houston. Could have made a go of it, but I didn’t stay long enough to make it home.
I still remember getting a message from Ilisagvik College in Barrow, AK. It had been at least 6 months since I’d applied to work there and now they wanted to interview me. I know why now, but at the time, it was just inconvenient. I think I actually started writing out a ‘thanks-but-no-thanks response. Then I thought “what the Hell!” and wrote something else. Long story short? Barrow is now home. And yes, it’s home in the sense that Rollings used the term. It’s where I belong. It’s where I’m comfortable. It’s where my moral compass points whenever I am somewhere else. I could rattle on about it a bit, but honestly, Barrow is all over this blog. Suffice to say that I now call Barrow home.
…only there is an odd twist to it. I still think of the American Southwest as my home. It’s where I want to go whenever I get a chance to get out. Barrow is pretty isolated. Much as I love the place, I love it a bit more when I come back to it. I think most folks who live there would agree, you have to get out from time to time. Whenever I do, I find myself looking to get back to my old haunts. I’m not too particular about it, really. The whole southwestern region has become a comfort to me. Nevada? Arizona? New Mexico? Get me out there where I can smell sage or see red cliffs and I am happy. Feed me a not-particularly authentic taco and I am even happier. The Southwest feels like home, and that home feels just a bit better knowing that it isn’t entirely an escape from the place I actually live. This isn’t like those years of wishing my family were still back in Colorado while they were so happy to be out of it. When I go back home to Barrow now, I’ll be happier to be there. It makes it just a little easier to enjoy visiting my old turf.
So, what has me traveling down this very self-indulgent road? Nostalgia to be sure, but honestly, I’m not sure that this post is entirely about me. It may seem ironic given the me-ness of what I’ve written so far, but I think what triggered it was my girlfriend, Monica. I have spent the last month with her, here in Los Angeles. (She would say, San Dimas, but to me this is L.A.) Moni has lived in this area pretty much since she was a teenager when her family first came up from Mexico City. It’s definitely her home.
When I go back in August, Moni plans to go with me. In the meantime, she has been visiting old friends and taking me to some of her favorite places. In part, Moni is introducing me to all the people in her life and in part she is telling her friends and family ‘goodbye’. We didn’t get to everyone (dammit!), but I’ve met enough of Moni’s people, and spent enough time with them that for the first time I have a sense of what this move means to her. In the last month I have eaten dinner with Moni’s family, partied with some of her high school friends, traveled a bit with others, eaten at their favorite restaurants, and listened to a good deal of their favorite music. I’m starting to get a sense of the world Moni will be leaving to go up to that icebox I call home. I now have a sense of what she will be missing, and the thought of taking her away from it, away from all these people, is a bit daunting. She wants to go, so she is excited, but she is also leaving a lot of people behind, and so she is also sad. A few paragraphs back, I looked up to find Moni crying. So now I feel bad too. I’m excited to have her coming with me, but I’m also nervous. This is her home, and I am taking her from it. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not something to be taken lightly.
People can live almost anywhere, but some places become home.
I wonder if Barrow will be home for Moni? I expect she is wondering about pretty much the same thing. Hope doesn’t come easily to me. Thankfully, it comes easier to Moni. She is braver than I am. I wonder how she will cope with my cats? How she will like some of the native foods? How she will cope with the cold?
…whether she will find in Barrow something she can call home?