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."