Monday, May 03, 2010

When homesickness sets in

It was the most beautiful day of the year. I realize the same could be said about many days of similar light, warmth and clarity, but this day was the most beautiful because, like a painting strategically placed in the middle of a gallery, this day had an in-your-face boldness to its perfection. It was bright and blue and free to move whichever direction it pleased. It was a strange day to wake up in the midst of a full-on identity crisis.

"Wait a minute, what am I doing here? Why did I leave Juneau? Why did I quit my job? I liked Juneau. I liked my job. I can't even focus here. I sit down to write or edit and my mind goes blank and all I want to do is ride my bike. Maybe I should just ride my bike for a living. Travel hobo-style around the continent. I could probably get by on 10 bucks a day."

I opened the window to a rush of sweet, cool air and exhaled the sour onset of something at once familiar and unsettling - homesickness. I know this malady well. I fully expected it to hit at some point. I accepted it and braced for it. Like the fast-food junkie who devours onion rings even though they give him heartburn, I crave change despite its undesirable physical effects.

As I usually did on the most beautiful mornings in Juneau, I decided to hike into the mountains. This Chugach place isn't like Juneau's slice of the Coast range. It's much bigger, with many more readily accessible starting points. The ridges aren't quite as rolling and friendly. They're jagged and pointy, with rough scree fields flowing down the slope like a suspended avalanche. I decided to go check out the ridge I had scoped out from Peak 2 last month. I haven't yet had a chance to buy the adventure bible known as the Chugach State Park map, so I don't know the actual name of the ridge. I'll call it the O'Malley Ridge, since it rises up from O'Malley Road and the peaks have O'Malley in their names. The snow across the valley was rotten and punchy. I stamped knee-deep craters even with snowshoes, stumbling and stabbing with my poles in what promised to be a wet slog of a hike. But the day was still beautiful and my mind was still wandering elsewhere, in places where dull anxiety festers as ice shards sting shins.

"It will be better if I make a plan. I gotta start training for Trans Rockies, there's that, and it would be fun to do the 24 Hours of Light and Fireweed 200 to work up to it. Maybe just the 24 Hours of Light. I'll train every day in the morning, and then I'll spend two hours working on my job search and other such administrative stuff, and then I'll really sit down and write. Eventually I'm going to sit down and write. Why can't I just do it? Why is it so impossible? Why does it have to be so distractingly beautiful here?"

I saw a ramp to the ridge that looked friendly enough and started up; like most distractions, it was steeper and longer than it seemed. I tracked my way through thin strips of snow just to stay out of the leg-sucking scree, then took off my snowshoes to scramble up the last 500 feet. I picked my way along the jagged ridgeline, tip-toeing beside soft cornices and skirting rocks still ringed in ice. For the first time all day, I was wholly focused on the physical effort, the here and now. Having briefly forgotten my anxieties, I looked back at the city skyline, and behind that, the looming mass of Denali, sharp and shimmering in the perfectly clear air. I smiled and sighed. As long as I can remember, my identity has been deeply routed in a sense of place. One of my earliest memories is as a 3-year-old, proudly reciting to people I met that "My name is Jill Homer and I live in Allen, Texas." Then, a few years later, in Sandy, Utah, I wandered the sagebrush hills surrounding my house and buried time capsules full of mementos to forever cement my presence there. It still makes me sad to think of all the new houses now smothering those spots. I fall in love with places the way some fall in love with people. I can leave them, but I carry them in memories that sometimes feel too close to bear, and I miss them in a way that feels a lot like loneliness.

A cold wind tore along the ridge and whipped up a storm of powder snow, still dry and untouched by spring. Change is slow on top of mountains. That's something I like about them. I can pretend that time doesn't always have to move incessantly forward - that sometimes it can move up, to a different dimension, where even the future lays somewhere behind.

"So what if I've been a little slow on the upstart? That doesn't mean I made the wrong choice. I can't force these things to happen. That doesn't mean they won't. And I can miss Juneau. That doesn't mean I shouldn't be here now. There's always space to return. I should head south this week. I think it's time to go visit Homer."


  1. I read once that people make changes when the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of making the change.

    It's also true that we humans tend to remember the good things and block the bad things; that's called nostalgia.

    Hang in there, Jill!


  2. Careful of avalanches - they can occur even in spring time, as I can attest to, having been almost been taken out by one in mid June.

  3. More great writing!

    Being homesick in those mountains doesn't seem too bad.



  4. Beautiful area!

  5. Bob pretty much sums it up!

  6. Jill,
    Since I first read your blog six weeks ago, I have been addicted to reading about your adventures in life. You are a truly inspiring person to me and I want you to know that I am cheering for you from the Eastern United States.
    This blog today hits home to me, because I am also in the midst of a change in my life and have not yet totally figured out where to go from here. I also love your stories of your travels and hikes in the magical area you seem to live in. Growing up in a flat and under sea level part of The Netherlands, I have enjoyed so many beautiful sunsets and sun rises, and have seen the magic of the land there. Moved to another country has made me realize even more how nature and places speak for themselves...
    I do not write so wonderfully articulate as you, and so I am enjoying your beautiful musings. I do have one other friend who's blogs are also written with a superb writing style. You might like her work. You can check it out at:

    I'm cheering you on while you are settling yourself into your new life...

  7. Are you ever not in the middle of some sort of gut-wrenching angst? Seems like this has been going on for some time now, even pre-boyfriend break-up.

  8. A sense of place...I need that jolting feeling to. thats why I'm also packing up and moving to AK in 3 weeks. I need to restart.

  9. If you are looking for an interesting bike trip, there was a good article on about cyclists in Denali taking advantage of the bus-free park road. Makes me miss Alaska from Austin, TX. Enjoy every minute

  10. I too have tried going back to see the places I loved in earlier times. It's sad when those places no longer exist, but it's good that the pleasant memories remain for my enjoyment.
    Rock on,

  11. I second the avalanche comment. Not sure if that's you in the pics but that is not the best travel route on a snow covered slope. Take an avalanche class to learn safer travel techniques.

  12. Angst happens, man. And sometimes it hangs around a long time.

  13. That isn't me in the photo; it's a random guy I saw on the ridge. I didn't follow his line up that minor peak, either. I stuck closer to the upper ridge, because I was more comfortable with the exposure level there even though it was steeper.

    Kind of hard to tell avalanche danger from a photo, isn't it? You can't even really tell the angle of the slope, which appears a lot lower than it really is. That was a steep slope, 60 degrees or more, and the snow slab (there are only slabs left on the mountain, not entire fields of snow) is only about a foot deep and hard packed into a single solid layer. I guess the whole thing could go. I still bristle a bit at these frequent lectures on avalanche danger when the only evidence the lecturer has to go by is a photo of a mountain with snow on it.

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  15. I only just found your blog and haven't read the whole of it yet. Your posts are really inspirational. I enjoy being on the move just like you and as a Psychology student I wonder what makes us this way.
    This is definitely one of my favourite blogs ever.

  16. Remember that it's one of life's great blessings to only be reminded of the good times while managing to forget all the moments that drove you to where you are at today. And anonymous can go ahead and be swallowed by an avalanche, yeah? Keep on going sister!


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