Homeward Bound

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I’m sitting at the departure gate in JFK having a quick flick through the hundreds of photos I’ve taken over the last two months. This was not the wisest decision. I’m struggling to hold back the tears. There are so many memories bound up in these photos, so many new friends and wonderful experiences. While a huge part of me cannot wait to skip the Atlantic and throw my arms around the people I love in Northern Ireland,  another part of me simply cannot believe the adventure is over. I’m a little bit sad. Sad and thankful. I’ve been reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley over the last two days. It’s a fantastic wee book and a perfect companion for some of the mixed emotions I’m feeling right now. Steinbeck spent a similar amount of time adventuring around the backroads and freeways of America with no one but his dog for company. (Though I don’t like dogs and keep thinking that it must have grown awfully smelly in Steinbeck’s car after a few weeks, this dog actually sounds like one of the more decent examples of the breed). He met a lot of very interesting people away, gained some fantastic insights into the American temperament and like myself, learnt an awful lot about himself in the process.

The book begins with this statement

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.”

I have always been a Steinbeck. Given the choice between sitting still and wandering, I have always chosen to adventure. I’m an itchy sort of person and cannot understand people who chose to stay local and have no desire to explore anything beyond their own backyard. This trip, if nothing else, has been a grand indulgence; an opportunity to push the limits of my own ability to travel. After seven weeks on the road, fourteen states, (maybe fifteen as I’m not too sure which state New York is actually in), countless planes, trains and subway systems all navigated faultlessly, every conceivable social situation under the sun, and infinite occasions when I’ve had to fall back on wit and guess work, I have to say I’m pretty proud of myself. All you naysayers who said I’d have down days and run out of energy and enthusiasm, can stand corrected. I never really hit the travel wall and when I felt it approaching, that one time, on the East coast, I booked myself into a hotel and slept it off. I’m not quite Steinbeck, and i’m definitely not Keouac, but I’m reasonably confident in my own ability to survive on the road now. I shall be doing this again.

Steinbeck goes on to say,

“In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counter word in English. It is the verb vacilar, present particle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere but doesn’t greatly care whether or not he gets there, though he has direction.”

I love this. I feel like I’ve been vacilando since I first sat down in early 2014 and began to dream up this trip. I needed something of a quest to give me an excuse to roam and explore and adventure without being aimless. Of course the readings from Malcolm Orange Disappears have all been amazing experiences and it’s been such an unexpected treat to get to share my book with so many new readers over the last few weeks. And, I can’t even begin to explain just how over-excited and genuinely thrilled I’ve been to make so many Bob Dylan connections and to have the opportunity to research and experience things I honestly never dreamed I’d be able to; getting into Dylan’s childhood home was easily the best moment of my year so far, (after the book launch). However, looking back now, I have to admit that research and book promotion was never really my primary reason for embarking on this adventure. I needed a framework to hook my wanderings around, a topic I could use to start conversations with strangers, an excuse to draw a line under my Belfast existence for a few months and scare myself back into thinking bigger thoughts and taking more risks. It definitely worked.  Vacilando, indeed, I have arrived at a place I wasn’t really aiming at and it’s just perfect.

Finally, Steinbeck writes,

“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

It’s going to take me months to process through everything I’ve learnt and experienced and lost on this trip. I’m not the same person I was two months ago. I don’t think I’m the same writer and it will be interesting to see how this realisation works itself out it in my stories. I feel like I am less fearful than I was when I left Belfast and yet, having seen some very difficult things along the way, I am also more afraid in regards to just how fragile and  hope-hungry we human beings are. People are indeed the greatest things and I have heard stories in the last few months which almost completely restored my appetite for other people. Most every subtle and astounding revelation I’ve had along the way has been instigated in conversation with others; some strangers, some old friends, some precious, brand new friends. The kindness I have been shown along the road has convicted me about my own ideas of hospitality and generosity and so to everyone who gave me a bed, drove me around, bought me food or a beer, let me hug your little ones when I was missing Izzy and Caleb, listened to me read, said encouraging things over me, played songs for me, prayed for me, sat up arguing late into the night with me, drove me round Bob Dylan’s neighbourhood like a slightly demented private detective, watched movies with me, ate with me, walked with me, hosted a reading or shared even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant slice of your life with me, a huge heartfelt thanks. I’m taking a little bit of you home with me, (this is probably why my suitcase is so heavy).

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