Staring at the “M” through the generous North-facing windows of Bozeman’s public library on a cumulus-speckled, blue-sky day, a question washes through me:
“What am I doing here?”
Three times I left this town with no plans at returning. And with each completed trip, something brings me back. Somehow the best-laid escape plans never work out, and time and again, the Universe finds a way to convince my stubborn mind that my hometown may actually be the best place on the planet.
While none of my escape attempts have worked out, it wasn’t for lack of trying. And it wasn’t for lack destinations. It was an archetypal quarter-life bid at individuation that sent me wandering, searching for the mysterious something that can’t be found in the familiar. I’ve been fortunate enough to call New Zealand, Vietnam, Bali, South Korea, even a remote Greek island, “home” for multi-month and year-long stints. I’ve surfed and skied in the same day, eaten bugs in jungle villages, wandered beaches at sunset, meditated with monks in pagodas…and it’s all been great. Wonderful. Life-changing and heart-opening.
It’s been a traveler’s life, full and empty simultaneously. Full of new friends, experiences, opportunities, understandings–all the things I hoped to find when finally, with adrenaline ice in my veins, I bought the plane ticket I hoped and secretly knew would change everything. And empty…empty in the biggest sense of the word. Empty of anything lasting; an embodiment of life’s greatest truth. All flows. The people and places, the smiles and songs, the freedom to be with nothing to do, it’s all excruciatingly fleeting. And when it’s over, when the money’s gone and the place–the place I thought I needed to land–hasn’t appeared, I remember. I remember that my hometown, surrounded by looming, pine-covered mountains, filled with smiling, active people, tucked away and somehow hidden from the hoards, is better than any of the exotic places I just spent years exploring.
On the plane ride back, I sit with my face pressed up against the window watching the earth mutate at 600 mph. Vast swaths of Canadian tundra give way to suburbs. A frozen lake. Suburbs, anonymous skyscrapers filled with unseen thousands, more suburbs, into fields–endless squares, human parcels imposed upon the flat and stretching expanse of middle America. I pull my eyes from the scene to take some peanuts from the flight attendant, and then I return to the ground moving below. More suburbs, more fields. I fall asleep. Eventually I wake up with a kinked neck and turn back to the window. Finally, mercifully, we’re above the mountains. Great mounded monsters rising up in rank as if commanded by an unseen general, fill the window. My shoulders drop. I breathe a bit deeper, feeling into the nervous, joyful rush that comes with descending from 30,000 feet into the home I’ve always known as a person I’ve only just discovered.
Returning is the scariest part. It forces me to face the parts of myself that changed, and recognize that the person my friends and family expect at the airport died somewhere in Vietnam. Scarier still, coming home requires that I face the parts of myself that didn’t change. The same stubborn shadow, the bad habits, the illogical phobias and personal resentments, they all wait with sadistic patience for the return, and flare up before I’ve even lifted the tray table. They remind me of just how human I am, and that no paradisiacal adventure, no matter how amazing, can change that. But this edge opens my eyes. It’s a barometer, a reminder to try to bring the wonder of travel into the familiar world of home. And what a home Montana is.
We drop below the clouds and I see Yellowstone Park from a plane’s-eye view, and strangely, I’m brought back to earth. Memories start flowing. A symphony of Old Faithful’s eruptions; the numinous woooosh of water exploding from the bowels of the earth which always silences the crowd. Strolling along the edge of Grand Prismatic Spring, wondering at rainbow snakes stretching across the valley floor. Direct eye contact with a grizzly bear at sunset. Swirling vertigo at the top of Lower Yellowstone Falls, following the jagged scar of a water-carved canyon into the distance. A captain’s announcement interrupts the revery and I’m back in my seat. It’s incredible from this altitude too, the contours and folds and hulking hills that fill the world’s largest volcanic caldera. And we keep moving, heading North.
I’m always amazed that it’s possible to fly from Hanoi, Vietnam to Bozeman, Montana in a 24 hour rotation of the planet. Two worlds that couldn’t be further apart, separated by three flights and a layover. As the plane begins a final spiral into Bozeman’s shiny new airport, I remember the teeming streets of my Vietnamese neighborhood. Spitfire chicken roasting over coals, men perched around small plastic tables drinking beer at all hours, children–children everywhere. Women playing badminton, mounds of trash, the twangy drone of motorcycle horns, toothless elders watching it all; everything-at-once on the narrow, pulsing streets of the capital city. It’s a beautiful cacophony. Unregulated life. The Vietnamese live with a bemused scurry, an understanding of the hilarity and tragedy that surround them in the chaotic push for economic development. They are a beautiful and dignified people with a deep sense of community, and there were moments I considered staying, integrating myself into the flowing mayhem to participate in the sheer force of humanity.
And then I look down at Spring mountains still capped with winter residue, sprawling green fields intersected by twisting rivers, grain silos and railroad tracks, sidewalks uncluttered by motorcycles, and I remember. I remember the quiet joy of waking up to a blanket of fresh snow outside the window at sunrise, and the louder joy of the first sunny day with enough heat to melt it, ushering in the changing season. Thoughts of campfires and barbecues rise from the gut while a yearning for a gulp of fresh mountain air soothes my travel-weary mind. The first trip will be a solo hike. Into silence. Into the understated stillness that lives in the valleys, the subtle invitation to finally rest.
I want to unclutter. And as the plane meets the runway, I realize that’s what it was all about from the beginning. Uncluttering. Simplifying. Relaxing. The engines whine as they spin in reverse, slowing us down. The past 18 months compress into that moment and I remember all the movement. The flights, the taxi rides, the lice-infested motorcycle helmets, the restless pilgrimage from one hostel to the next. Drunken conversations on the state of the world, the great humbling of colliding with the economic poverty of the developing world. The food sickness, the homesickness, and the constant gnawing question, “what am I looking for?” On the outside, travel is nothing but clutter. A constant mess of sweat and confusion and ecstasy. But internally, the place the journey really happens, it’s freedom. Freedom to follow the impulses of the heart, to move when and how you want, or not move at all. The broken-down busses, the scams, the bedbugs, they all lend to the joy that grows through embracing the unknown. They point to the truth that peace is possible in any moment, regardless of external circumstances. And so, eventually, with enough travel, the realization dawns that the happiness of the road has nothing to do with the road.
It’s the kind of happiness I remember as a kid. Getting out of the car with my parents and my brother at the base of a meadow in the Bridger range, staring at a thin dirt trail winding up the side of a mountain and disappearing over the other side. For a child, that trail could lead anywhere. The other side of that mountain may as well be infinity. The butterflies flitting from flower to flower mirror the gurgle in my belly.
“We’re going all the way up there?!” My brother asks, gawking.
My dad smiles.
“Yep. Can you believe that? We’re going all the way up there. And you’ll get to see farther than you’ve ever seen before.”
And it’s true. The vastness of Montana is unrivaled. Still, after all that travel, nothing compares. And it’s when all these pieces click, when all the questions about career and calling converge into a simple clarity, that I remember. It’s all here. Everything I could ever want is in the very place I always was.