(n.) an ache for distance places;
The craving for travel
A few weeks ago, I was living in Jackson, Mississippi; I was a college student traipsing toward graduation, living in my own apartment with two cats and a snake and a wonderful roommate who made me coffee every morning.
Now I’m sitting in bed in Virginia, my window open to let in the sounds of the bubbling brook that runs through the forest outside. A sweet, familiar scent rolls in with it—pine trees mixed with the heady smell of honeysuckles. Summer. This is what the season smells like in my memories: fresh mountain air and growing things, dappled sunlight and sour crab apples, honey dripping from the ends of pistils yellow with pollen, gentle mornings and cool breezes, an evening sky laden with lights, fireflies in the dim twilight like stars fallen to earth.
I’m trying my best not to be sad.
Jackson, Mississippi had its problems, just as all places do. Systematic racism despite over eighty percent of the populace being non-white, incompetent states and towns who couldn’t take care of their people, public schools with high gray walls (to keep others out or students in?), dorm rooms smaller than the legal size of a prison cell, roads more pothole than cement, overpriced gas and ridiculous living costs, sirens at all hours of the day, and, fifteen miles away, a town that refused to let any business build there unless they agreed to shape their building to look castle-like. It wasn’t the best place to live; it also wasn’t, necessarily, the worst.
After living there for four years, it was home to me, with all its problems and humidity and unpredictable weather. Freedom culminated for me there my freshman year of college. My senior year, I was living in an apartment that had been mine—mine—for two years. Then, a day after graduating, I cleaned that apartment out and locked it one final time, empty and bare, as I drove back to my childhood home.
It was harder to leave than I expected.
Draper, Virginia is a black hole. I would submit, perhaps, that all of Virginia is. It’s beautiful here, with nice roads and more green than skyscrapers. The air is fresh and clear, devoid of the hazy humidity that makes the Mississippi horizon hard to see. In Virginia, I go on walks at any time of the day and feel safe. Crime is non-existent in this area, and all of these things culminate to make Draper stagnant. People are born here, live here, and die here. They don’t move on, don’t go anywhere else save for on vacation. Draper has a tendency to swallow people up, to consume them whole until they think “what’s the point in moving?”
There’s nothing wrong with settling, of course, but I don’t want to settle. Not now. Maybe not for a long time. So even though I love the mountains and the forests and the fresh air, I feel weighed down with every moment I am here.
It would be so easy to stay.
Since graduation, I have fallen into this odd trap. I keep thinking I’ll be here, in this old house on the side of a quiet mountain, for a long time. I don’t even really have to think about it; the decision to stay is just the most natural. Virginia is so simple, so quiet and easy, that it coaxes you into this state where you let down your guard and believe there’s nothing else except this. Nothing except two jobs and driving to work forty-five minutes away; nothing except a small church full of people who never change; nothing but simplicity and stability. The problem is that kind of life is all I want, but it’s also nowhere close to what I want. I am so human in that, a bundle of contradictions that make sense despite their mutual exclusion.
My future is a paradox—I want too many things at once. On the one hand, married life with kids and a nice house and a stable income sounds like a life worth living. On the other, I know I would never be truly happy like that; not now, at least. Maybe twenty years in the future. Maybe in another life.
I will never be happy in one place.
I spoke those words aloud to myself two years ago as evening fell on the glowing city of Hong Kong. The sky was an odd burnt orange—the lights from the city reflecting on clouds of smog. I stood on a rise of stone steps overlooking the highway, sweating from the heat and humidity, exhausted and alone and alive. So alive. A rising in my chest, one that started the moment I drove from Mississippi to California with my best friend a few weeks previous in preparation to leave America, overpowered me in that moment, when those words formed in my mind and rang with a truth so powerful I knew they had come from God.
You are not meant to stay in one place.
This rising in my chest, which I call the Itch, is why my most fulfilled memories are all of travel—cruises to the Caribbean when I was younger; road trips through Virginia to explore dilapidated old mansions; leaving for college in a state twelve hours away; flying back and forth to Virginia, Florida, California, Minnesota; teaching English to a class of middle school Chinese students in Hong Kong; spending a week in the rich beauty of Cambodia, where first-world and third-world met in an odd clash of cultures amidst the country’s rise into change; and even the fictional travels I had as a child, into books and stories of other worlds and other lives.
All my life I have known that settling down is not my prerogative. Most likely, it won’t be until old age prevents me from answering the Calling I have been instilled with, the Itch to travel, the need in my soul to exist elsewhere.
For now, I suppose, I am thinking of Virginia as a stepping stone. But the longer I stay, the more often I have to remind myself that this is not forever.
I won’t let it be.