A couple weeks ago, I went west.
“Go west” was a euphemism for death during World War I, and literary analysts say it’s the reason WWI vet JRR Tolkien sent the elves and Bilbo west at the end of The Lord of the Rings.
I came from the west, being born in California and raised in Oregon before heading east and south as a teenager. The American South has been my home for almost three decades, and my accent, colloquialisms, outlook, and family history reflect that.
Still, in memory, there was a golden glow cast over the places where I used to live and visit during childhood. “You can never go home again,” goes the old saying, and sometimes it’s best not to try. Yet, in order to look forward, one must look back.
A glance, not a stare, because living backward, always looking over one’s shoulder or being mired in the past, is neither healthy nor constructive.
Sometimes what was beautiful has changed. Sometimes beauty remains despite time’s devouring or emotion’s charring flame.
So I went west, ostensibly as a travel companion for another family member, but really on my farewell tour. My travel buddy’s, too, because — family matters put to rest — we don’t foresee a reason to ever return to that coast. Maybe for a particular funeral, but likely not.
A few days ago on Facebook, I posted this:
(S)ometimes memory lane is a long journey best left alone…(Events) happened decades ago, when this part of the world was home, but some of the places that caused fear and anxiety are disappearing — either eaten by time, neglect, and the elements, or scraped clean by machines and progress. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.”
We drove through towns I almost didn’t recognize, so overgrown were they with businesses or shrubbery. Houses had disappeared. Buildings were repainted and had new signs announcing different businesses within. People who once occupied these towns had moved away or died. Vague disappointment occasionally prodded at the back of my mind, but sometimes I felt relief — and, most often, nothing.
Just a blank curiosity.
“Oh. So that’s where it happened,” or “Hm. The driveway and the sawmill are just where I remember them.”
Two people (a third died decades ago) who tried to harm my brother and I when we were children are now so frail they cannot care for themselves. One is in a wheelchair, and the other uses a walker. I didn’t have any interest in seeing them, but they were the reason for my travel buddy’s trip. A chance to heal, to say goodbye.
Though one person saw me and immediately said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” — an admission of guilt and responsibility decades late — and reached out to me, I had to force myself to allow and even return the embrace. I said nothing but drew away. Smiled. Took photos. Listened to conversation. Behaved like a dutiful grandchild.
The next day, travel buddy and I repeated the process with the other relative. Though that visit was much lighter, and I participated more, I never sat down, ready to leave as soon as we arrived. Weird fidgety blankness again.
We stayed in a motel, named an “inn” on the sign, that housed professional fisherman during the season, and the smell of fish permeated the corridors. The room had no air conditioning, but didn’t need it. Not only was the temperature in the sixties when we arrived in mid-afternoon, but a strong, cool wind off the ocean swept through the open window and dampened the odor.
The weather reflected my thoughts: foggy, grey, cold.
As in any good story and in any journey, there were turning points, twists in the tale. We visited places we thought we missed, where we once wanted to live, where we were disillusioned and wounded, and realized we didn’t need to come back. Been there, dreamed that, let it go.
Sure, I’ll return to the Oregon coast at some point — not to revisit the past, but to travel from Washington to California, all down 101 Highway along the Pacific.
“Go West, young man,” Horace Greeley famously stated, concerning Manifest Destiny and the settling of wide-open territory. “He went west,” said soldiers of a fallen comrade in World War I. We went west, and said goodbye to people, places, and memories.
North, south, east, or west, time to look to the horizon and what lies ahead.