The Long Goodbye
It's every adventurer's dilemma: Nothing's more exciting than the next trip—but nothing's harder than leaving home
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I'M GOING AWAY AGAIN, the fourth foreign trip in as many months. My passport has another new tattoo, my arm another needle hole, my vaccination record another stamp. I bought a new journal, the empty pages beckoning like a sculptor's block of clay.
I've read handwritten reports and obscure books and corresponded with one of the few people on earth who's been to the region of China's western Sichuan province where I'm going, 71-year-old Japanese explorer Tomatsu Nakamura. I've printed out the Landsat photos and managed to obtain the uncannily accurate Soviet topos that have guided me on so many trips before.
Before he died in 1995, along with his brother and two friends, when a bowhead whale capsized their boat in Baffin Bay on their way home from an expedition to the Barnes Ice Cap, my best friend, redheaded Mike Moe, told me that “half the joy of a journey is planning it; the other half is coming home and bragging about it.” I remember so many nights when Mike and I spread maps across his living-room floor and dreamed big about some distant place; three months afterwards we'd be giving a slide show about our adventure in that same living room, roasting each other to the hooting of close friends. Later, when everyone was gone, we'd stretch out on the rug and plan our next trip.
I have been going away and coming back since I was 16. I blew off my last semester of high school so Mike and I could escape to Europe and Africa and Russia. We traveled till our money ran out, then kept going, scrounging meals in university cafeterias from Seville to Stockholm. Eight months later we made it back to Wyoming to start college.
During my junior year, when I met Sue, the woman who would become my wife, the first thing she and I did was take off to the Grand Canyon for ten days. Two months later I left for three months to bicycle across the U.S. When I returned, we moved in together—Sue was the first woman I'd met who was secure enough to accept my wanderlust and not see it as a threat to our relationship. Several months later I left for a month to ski across Yellowstone, and Sue left to bicycle Europe for six weeks.
Here, gone. Back, gone again. I chose this recursive path, and it has been my life and livelihood for more than two decades. I can't get enough of the world: the stench of sweat on a Tanzanian bus, the sword of wind on an Andean pass, a little girl in the Sahel carrying her baby sister on her back and a bucket of brown river water on her stiff-necked head.
My gusto for journeying and writing about it has remained inextinguishable—and yet something else, something corded to travel like ligament to bone, has changed over the years: my connection to home.
In my twenties I hardly gave a thought to home. I was wild and self-centered and left without a look back. I remember standing around a campfire in the Tetons, snowflakes hooking together in midair and parachuting to the ground. One of our clan had just learned that his girlfriend was pregnant.
“I'm not going to let it change me or my life,” he declared. “I'm still going climbing and kayaking and skiing!”
“Here, here!” We all toasted his commitment to the heroic, self-absorbed dirtbag life.
In 1991, when Sue was pregnant with our first daughter, Addi, I was kayaking down the Niger River, running a gantlet of hippos and crocs. I'd left in the middle of the second trimester. When I'd expressed my misgivings, Sue had dismissed the issue. “Pregnancy isn't an injury, Mark,” she said. “I'll be just fine.”
And she was. She was focused on her passions—teaching Spanish at the university, volunteering in the community, working on our old house. I was back for the birth, but a part of me still wanted to believe that home was wherever I happened to lay my head.
I was forever stripped of the sophistry of this notion when Addi was 20 months old. I was leaving for Tibet with three friends to attempt an unclimbed 19,296-foot peak called Hkakabo Razi. It was a dangerous undertaking with an uncertain outcome. I didn't have to go—I wanted to.
Innocent of my imminent departure, Addi, a weeble-wobble toddler, helped me pack. She drummed the black camp pot with ice screws, waddled up and down the hall dragging my climbing slings and carabiners, flung her chubby, diapered body into my minus-40-degree down sleeping bag, pealing with delight. For her, it was just another game. But I was scraped raw by my duplicity. I didn't have the heart to tell her what was really happening: I was leaving.
At the airport, watching planes take off, Addi suddenly figured it out. “Daddy . . .” she hesitated, and her lip began to quiver.
The look of shock and hurt and betrayal in her huge brown eyes crushed me more than any avalanche ever could.
BY THE TIME I got home from Tibet two months later, Addi was potty-trained and speaking in full sentences. The mountain that I failed to climb is still there—ice-coated and indifferent. It would always be there, but the moment when Addi put her first sentence together was gone, and I'd missed it. Like any anguished father, I brought back a stuffed panda bear that was bigger than she was, and she's been sleeping with it ever since.
When Sue and I decided to have children, we already knew that the adventurous life wasn't enough for either of us; on the other hand, we weren't about to give it up. When feasible, we figured, we'd bring our kids along. Addi was six months old when Sue and I bicycled across Europe with her. We took her, at 13 months, to Costa Rica. When she was three and her new little sister, Teal, was six months, we went deep into the hinterlands of Mexico, staying in two-dollar-a-night village huts and eating the fiery cantina food. To this day, the girls love Latin culture.
We traveled as a family to Nepal, Russia, Australia, Spain, and Thailand—whenever schedules and finances jibed. It was our way of taking home with us. Eric Jackson, the 2005 world freestyle kayaking champion, and his wife, Kristine, who manages the family kayak business, did something even more extreme.
In 1997 the couple and their two kids, seven-year-old Emily and four-year-old Dane, were living in suburban D.C. Eric, now 41, was running a kayak school on the Potomac but training in Colorado and traveling to compete all over the country. “I just couldn't take it anymore,” Eric—E. J.—tells me by phone. “I wasn't seeing my kids or my wife, but my kayaking never suffered. I'm extremely selfish about my kayaking.
“Kristine suggested we move into an RV,” he says. “It saved our marriage.”
She placed a classified ad in The Washington Post, and in one weekend they sold everything they owned. “People came into our house and walked out with our TV, silverware, clothes, the sheets on our bed,” E. J. recalls. When it was all gone, the Jackson family drove off in an RV with their kayaks and $7,000 in cash, traveling across North America from one put-in to the next and kayaking at least 30 new rivers a year.
“One of the things that fascinates me most about American culture is the readiness to move,” observes Jonathan Raban, 63, winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award for his 1996 Bad Land: An American Romance and a British expat who has lived in the States since 1990. “Americans have this inborn readiness to turn themselves into exiles. They have become accustomed to living the temporary life.”
For the Jacksons, the strategy worked. “It was a real breakthrough,” says E. J. “Every morning the kids were right there, Kristine was right there, we were all together, 24/7.”
Kristine home-schooled the kids, and E. J. competed and taught kayaking clinics to make ends meet. (“I went to the pawnshop plenty of times,” he says.) They lived in an RV for five years before settling along the Caney Fork River in central Tennessee and starting Jackson Kayaks, now the fourth-largest manufacturer of whitewater kayaks in the country.
“This place has everything we need,” E. J. says. “A high-volume river with year-round whitewater, warm weather, and a rural environment.”
Even with its gorgeous mountains and huge skies and our extended family nearby, Wyoming doesn't have everything we need. That's why Sue and I and the girls head off on a trip or two a year. The rest of the time, when I leave, I leave alone.
But I'm not gone for months anymore. I'm no longer bicycling across entire continents or climbing 8,000-meter peaks. I've already learned what these expeditions can teach; besides, they take too much time. I've become a master at moving fast. Mount Cook in one day rather than four, McKinley or Aconcagua in nine days rather than 24. I immerse myself in the sticky liquid of another culture, then hightail it back home.
I was there when both Addi and Teal learned to walk. I taught them both how to ride bikes, how to build a snow cave and use a map and compass, poop in the woods and wipe with snow, climb rocks and canoe rivers. Small skills. They taught me how to see the colors and ants, how to swing with my head thrown back, how to listen and believe.
The truth is, if your kids don't change your life, you—and they—are completely missing out. If you choose to bring them into the world, children are the biggest adventure there is. You only hope you can find the strength and courage and grit and love to live up to the opportunity.
AS I PREPARE TO LEAVE, I'm culpably conscious of what I will miss: Halloween, 11-year-old Teal's final soccer game of the year, 13-year-old Addi's first dance, Sue's mountain race. All the ordinary, miraculous breakfasts and dinners.
I've been off on assignment on Sue's birthday or our anniversary countless times; usually I remember to have flowers delivered in my absence, an act that I realize is corny and pathetic and somehow still meaningful. I've missed piano recitals and school plays, swim meets and weddings and funerals. Writing about crawling into a wet sleeping bag in Uganda meant I was not home to tuck my kids in and tell a story and then slip into bed with my wife. Perhaps I now bring home something better than a panda—an understanding that the world is full of choices, and it will someday be up to them to find their own way. They're already becoming writers and athletes themselves.
My daughters, like their mother, miss me, but they don't pine away while I'm gone. Sue says that they bond even tighter, knowing they must take care of one another. That's what I want to be doing.
This is my conundrum, the incurable disease of mountain guides, foreign correspondents, and all kinds of adventurers: We yearn to go, but we don't want to leave.
“I'm not sure I deal with it particularly well,” admits Barry Bearak, 56, a New York Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his coverage of life in war-torn Afghanistan. “I signed up to be the coach of my older boy's Little League team and missed every game. I felt awful.”
Bearak's wife, Celia Dugger, 47, is also a writer, reporting on global poverty issues for the Times. They live in Pelham, New York, with their two sons, Max, 15, and Sam, 10, but have been known to travel three or four months over the course of a year.
“Sometimes it is just really, really hard,” says Bearak. “I phone home every day. On Thanksgiving in 2001, I was in Afghanistan in the middle of a battle, bullets flying all around, and I called home.”
Did he wish he were with his family at that moment?
“No. I felt like I was in the right place for the story. I love my work. The work is important. It's why we all got into journalism: to try to make a difference.”
Dugger picks up the phone. “I feel extraordinarily privileged to do what I do,” she says. “To travel all over the world and write about something meaningful. But there is a sense of grieving when I leave, and after three to four weeks, I miss the boys so much I just have to come home.”
And how is it for Sam and Max?
“I think they've gained from this kind of life,” says Dugger. “They have an enormous curiosity about the wider world. But, yes, it's tough. In some sense it's irresolvable. You're always trying to not let it get to the point where you're paying too high a price for this drive you feel to be out in the world.”
ONE OF THE MOST iconic images of the Katrina disaster was an old, graceful New Orleans house being washed from its foundation, dragged into the tempest of brown water, and gradually torn apart—the roof collapsing, walls shearing off, the structure warping and then sinking like a ship.
To be rendered homeless—whether by hurricane, poverty, or choice—is to be deprived of not simply physical shelter but emotional refuge. Home is where we return to, where we stop and rest and think, where we piece together the new pictures in our minds and try to make sense of our planet. Without home, we are unmoored.
And it's a literary lie that you can never go home again. Somehow, like a boomerang, most of us do. It may take a lot of trying and time before we get there. It may be a different home, it may be a home we build or rebuild, but it is home nonetheless: a physical place, a family or friends or both, a community.
Which is not to say that the homecoming will be smooth. Reentry is inevitably bumpy. If you come in at the wrong angle, you can burn up. Contrary to the Hollywood happy ending, homecomings are usually jagged affairs. There's a period of cultural limbo before you regain your sense of place. Meanwhile, your family is struggling to reintegrate you into their lives. Whenever I come home, jet-lagged and weary, Sue and I cautiously circle each other for a couple of days before harmony returns.
Then the whole process starts all over again.
For better or worse, the warmth of the womb of home will eventually start to smother me. I will grow restless and irritable. I will crave, physically and emotionally, another big hit of travel. Sue's used to it. “Time for another trip,” she'll say. No sooner said than done.
“I have this terrible sense of regret every time I leave Wyoming,” says old friend and fellow Wyomingite Gretel Ehrlich. “It's like some sort of betrayal, as if I'm saying, ‘Things aren't good enough here,' although it's not about that at all. I have this great hunger to see and experience how people and animals and plants survive, even thrive, in other difficult places.”
Gretel, author of the 1985 classic The Solace of Open Space and, recently, The Future of Ice, lives half the year in a cabin in northwestern Wyoming.
“I believe home requires developing an intimacy with a place,” she says. “Intimacy takes time. Every morning I go for an old-fashioned Thoreauvian walk. I like to note how the antelope divide themselves into bands, the ravens doing tricks in the sky, the weeds, the rocks.”
Gretel pauses. “Home isn't my toaster and my toilet; it's the whole community of animals and birds and people and dogs. Home is like a great big tree. It provides shelter, but there are no walls. It doesn't separate you or isolate you from the world. Rather, it's a platform from which to launch.”
I'M LEAVING IN THREE DAYS, and the momentum is building now. That feverish thrill of the prospect of exploring new territory. That curiosity to see what's on the other side of the mountain, the continent, the ocean. The guilt of leaving Sue, Addi, and Teal for the hundredth time, and the fear of what would happen if I didn't come back.
I'm trying to be with them as much as I can. Friday night, a family movie and a bowl of homemade caramel corn. Saturday at Addi's state volleyball tournament, Sunday at Teal's soccer game. Last night Teal read to me from an adventure mystery I read at her age, The Haunted Treasure of the Espectros. Addi read me her latest story, “The Perfect Girl,” written from a boy's perspective.
When they get home from school, I just want to lie on the couch and listen to them practice piano, but I can't. I'm on deadline. Sometimes even when I'm home, I'm not.
The day before I leave, Teal knocks on my study door and wants me to come out and play. Pained, I tell her no.
“That's OK,” she says.
She comes close and peers over my shoulder at the computer screen.
“You know, when you're gone, before bed I come in here and sit in your chair just to be close to you,” she says.
Without my home, a place to leave from and return to, travel would be impossible for me. In the balancing scale of life, home is the antipodal counterweight to travel. It is the hand that holds the kite string—and, should the string snap, the kite will twist and fold and drop from the sky like a buckshot bird.