I never meant to go down south.
Growing up in Maryland, I never really thought about the land. But when I did, I had to contend with a crisis of identity: we were nestled north of the Capital, but south of the Mason Dixon; waving a mile down the road from sites of the best free education money could buy were the Stars and Bars, billowing above stretches of farmland; on the green screens of network news, our state line was the threshold at which red turned blue during every election, amid grumbling about gerrymandering my wealthy homogeneous county into the district with Baltimore City.
I fancied myself a northerner, because the north was the bastion of liberals and sensible people who cared about the environment and read the New Yorker and hosted dinner parties where they cooked only with local produce, and if anybody listened to Rush Limbaugh, it was to be ironic. I dreamt of moving up north and begging New England to adopt me. I imagined myself as the kind of person who would get arrested at a protest. So I applied to nine colleges there.
Then I enrolled at Virginia. The morning my parents drove me down for move-in day, we stopped at a Chic-Fil-A where a woman asked for our order in a slow drawl. That day was the first time I ever saw a Sheetz gas station. By the end of our orientation, I was heartbroken that I’d left everyone I’d ever known, and exhausted from meeting new people — all of whom I assumed to be vapid and superficial, because that’s what I generally assume about well-dressed strangers. At Convocation, while the President was telling us about how special we were and how selective the admissions committee had been in choosing us, all I could focus on were feelings of inferiority stemming from not getting into Harvard. It was a failure in a series of failures that would come to define my experience.
Robert Penn Warren, in my all-time favorite book, All the King’s Men, wrote, “[W]hen you don’t like it where you are you always go west. We have always gone west.” His narrator, Jack Burden, reflects on this notion from a hotel room in Long Beach, California, to where he flees after suffering a great shock: he discovers that his childhood love is carrying on an affair with his boss, the hegemonic and morally ambiguous–if not morally bankrupt–governor of Louisiana.
To escape the emotional confines of disappointment and despair, Jack physically removes himself from the scene of the trauma. Jack’s avoidant behavior arises from a major character flaw: the dismissal of responsibility for his own actions. If he does not engage with other people in a meaningful way, then he runs no risk of heartbreak when they inevitably let him down. So he chooses to disengage. He runs away. And he relinquishes any accountability.
Jack has been on my mind a lot lately. I used to think of him as an abject coward without conviction, eclipsed by the greatness of the figures surrounding him. But now, several years and several re-readings later, I’m not so sure.
“When you don’t like it where you are you always go west.” The beauty of the statement is that it has a double-meaning: “where you are” may refer either to your proximal location or to your place in time. In my case, the location was not a choice. On the day of my graduation, I had eleven days left on my lease. I was forced out of Central Virginia, kicking and screaming. Kicking, screaming, and climbing mountains. It is tradition at the University that students hike a nearby trail that leads to Humpback Rocks. Two days after graduation, my best friend and I woke up at quarter to four in the morning, drove into the Blue Ridge, and hiked the trail before sunrise. Three-thousand feet above sea-level, tracing the sun’s ascent over the mountains in the distance to the soundtrack of animals waking for the day, perception takes on a different quality. It is one of surrealism, posed by the contradiction between feeling so inconsequential and transient compared to the million-year-old landscape and feeling powerful and deliberate for conquering the summit. (Said “conquering of the summit” was not done without a great deal of complaining, sweating, complaining about sweating, and expressing gratitude that we had ultimately decided not to make the trek with the boys, who would have judged our athletic stamina, or lack thereof.)
It was in the Blue Ridge hills that a landscape evoked a visceral reaction from me for the first time; it was in Virginia that I learned to love the land. In the spring of 2011, I was having a particularly rough morning, just festering in my own misery on a friend’s couch, as I am wont to do. Deaf to my protests, he poured me into his truck and drove me down I-64 toward Staunton. On the drive, during a conversation about our childhoods, it started to rain, even though the sun was still out. The roof of the truck was given an occasional reprieve from the drumming of the rain by an overpass. Rivers of water raced down the jagged rock of the mountainside that the highway had carved out, and over the hills stretched a double rainbow. “This is God’s country,” my friend announced, and though I couldn’t subscribe to the same theistic sentiment, I understood what he meant.
Somehow, after that, the asphalt rivers and shopping-center mountains of suburban Maryland didn’t cut it. After graduation, after everyone had left and the festivities had died down and I was left to my own devices–i.e., to lie on the couch for three days straight watching The Graduate on repeat while intermittently crying and eating peanut-free trail mix–the thought of going back there to begin the Rest of My Life made me sick to my stomach. As it is, I find the whole prospect of “getting a job” to be morally and philosophically problematic. The idea that making enough money to afford basic necessities so that you can continue to exist so that you can continue to make more money is depressing to me. Is this really all there is?
I don’t particularly care to find out. The reason I’ve been re-assessing my adjudication of Jack Burden is because if he is a coward, then I, too, am a coward, shirking accountability for my actions and “running away from my problems,” as it were.
But if Jack Burden is self-aware, and maybe even a little bit brave, that is another story. And maybe, for everyone’s sake, I ought to eschew comparing myself to characters in books.
As much as I am loathe to wax platitudinal, here is what I have learned in the past four years: relationships unravel. People disappoint. And when you don’t like it where you are you always go west. Last week I moved to Texas. It is exactly what you think, in a lot of ways: a caricature of America, the physical representation of all the stereotypes that Europe perpetuates about us. But there is also a sense of regional pride that can only be found in one other place–Virginia–that is inextricably linked with the land. I’ve had a few interesting experiences already, and I anticipate more. This blog will serve as my account of it.