The Undiscovered Territory

Nineteen years gone. Sixty-six countries visited on six continents. Nine countries, on three continents, have been home for a while. Two passports, but I feel like a citizen of nowhere, not even of the world. The nomadic life is often romanticized, but the truth is that it’s not for the faint of heart, especially if you avoid the expat cocoon. The isolation takes its toll, even on the most introverted. Nineteen years gone. But here I am again, next to this beloved river. Michigan has always been a steady hand to catch me when I fall.

January. The Upper Peninsula beckons. A short road trip brings me to the shores of Lake Superior. Even the mighty fall silent sometimes. Frozen into submission. I may have grown up downstate, but in my heart northern Michigan is my homeland.

Return is only possible because I’m in this wilderness. So much noise, elsewhere. Communication with so many people at once is unnerving. I can no longer hide behind the language barrier. Not only was I physically away from this culture for so long, but there was also a deliberate media/pop culture blackout. I have only vague ideas of what I’m supposed to be enraged about and no idea who I’m expected to emulate. A young man who struck up a conversation with me before my flight from Paris found it hilarious that I didn’t know that there are new late night talk show hosts. I smiled. It is not ignorance, but strategic apathy. Ignorance is being unaware. I’m conscious of the poison that I refuse to consume.

The immensity of the reconstruction unfurls. The person I left behind no longer exists. What did my name used to be? It sounds so strange in my voice. Credit must be re-established. Bad credit is better than none, it seems. My driver’s license has been expired for so long that I must retake the written and road tests. It’s intimidating, being at the helm of a vehicle again after more than a decade.

How will I survive in a land where a person’s value is based on job title, income, possessions, busyness, offspring? Personal experience is worthless. No one is interested in stories of faraway lands. Or different observations of this one. When the despair wells up, I head into the woods. Conjure up the vast internal wealth that I brought back with me. Wrap my arms around myself and take deep breaths. I’m doing the right thing. I’m doing the right thing. Sometimes I wish I could just take the easy way.

There were other options. I could have easily continued to move from place to place. Siberia. Peru. Italy. Opportunities beckoned. But it’s time to let go of the persona that I have so meticulously constructed. The perpetual nomad. A lifestyle is only freedom until you become unable to let it go. So many need to conquer the aversion to solitude. I know how to be alone. It’s time to learn how to be with others.

But there is another reason that I’m supposed to be here. It looms on the horizon, an obscure and benevolent orb. Slowly taking shape. I patiently await its revelation.

February. The falling snow and silence of the woods around my family’s property. We have both changed. Dead wood has fallen and decomposed. The way is clear through regions that once seemed so impenetrable and sinister. The bends in the river are deeper. Its voice is still so recognizable. Welcome back, dear one. You have been missed.

I walk alongside the intense flow, my boots sinking deep into the soft powder. Scenes resurface. Chasing my cowgirl aunt through deep drifts. My little legs got stuck and I fell, knocking the wind out of me. I looked up at her for help. She stood there and snickered. The look on her face said, “C’mon, get up and dust yourself off. Falling down is part of the fun.” This tough love philosophy has followed me through life. Never ask for help. Ever. Asking for help is for weak people. But pride can be another, more devious form of weakness.

Books and articles have been written about reverse culture shock. The identity crisis. The alienation and inability to fit back in. Those who return often end up fleeing again. Forever exiled into a realm of ambiguity. I find this state of consciousness intriguing rather than distressing. The thrill of disorientation and shattered perceptions. Besides, I never fit in to begin with.

March is usually the worst. The suffocating gloom and inertia. But the veil of winter lifts, revealing the slumbering forest. Creatures reawaken. The snow recedes. So very slowly. It’s been unusually cold this winter. Color and smell returns. Naked forest under blue sky. The comforting aroma of cedar.

In recent years, my family has converged on this stretch of river. As if we’ve been summoned. Property becomes available at just the right time. My little brother Billy now owns the cottage that Grandpa built. Once again, we wander this wilderness, picking up where we left off so many years ago. How is it that I’m so much younger now than I was way back when? Billy shows me a beaver den. I point out tracks that may be from the lone wolf that was spotted in these parts. The river’s voice swells, drunk on snow melt and sunshine. I don’t mention the sparkle that I now carry within. Shining the way through an undiscovered territory. Home.

124 thoughts on “The Undiscovered Territory

  1. Beautiful words and pictures, Julie. Some of us greatly value your personal experience, stories of faraway lands, and different observations of the current land :-). I hope you keep that outsiders perspective, don’t be assimilated! Knowing you through your writings and social media posts, I can’t imagine that you would, so I’m not worried. Enjoy your family and the land you are rooted to, I look forward to reading more about your home.

    • Thank you so much, Cam. I don’t think it’s possible for me to be assimilated. I just need to learn how to fade into the background so I don’t get run out by an angry mob with pitchforks. 😁

  2. Happy April Fool’s Day, Julie. You have brightened my day with your thoughts and words. My own memories of Michigan in the winter aren’t especially pleasant. Because of the Great Lakes, you’ve got cloudy skies from October until March. But, now it’s April. Celebrate!!!! I know you will, with your spirit and your unique vision. I’m sure Tahquamenon Falls are beckoning you. They are beautiful at this time of year. When I lived in Ontonagon (back in the famous winter of 1978), when Lake Superior froze and the natives worried about the wolves coming over from Presque Isle, my boss was confident that “our wolves are tougher than their wolves”. We all return home. And then, we’re gone again. Isn’t life strange and remarkable?

    • Hi Chuck. I thought no place could ever outgloom Michigan in the winter…until I lived through winter in Eastern Europe. It’s been unusually sunny this March, but that also means cold. I actually visited Tahquamenon Falls when I drove up to see Superior in January. Just magnificent. We all return home and then we’re gone again. Thank you for sharing your spirit, my friend.

  3. I can only imagine these emotions you’re experiencing as you enter this next phase of your journey, the return home. I guess home isn’t the same as it was, but neither are you. I think you’ll do fine here – your life’s experiences will stand you in good stead.

    Lovely photos, by the way.

  4. There are people in this land who don’t believe a person’s value is based on external factors or that personal experience is worthless. You can find people who will beg to hear stories of faraway lands or want to exchange different observations of this one. Some of us right here in the middle of it have even chosen strategic apathy of our own! You have to find your footing and your tribe again. I think for me it would be exponentially harder to re-enter this strange former land in my hometown, but I admire your courage to try. And I hope the orb grows brighter and clearer every day.

    • Yes there are those who see through the superficial. Begging to hear stories, however. Not so sure about that, but it’s not so important. No one better expect me to be fascinated by ruminations on their trip to the doctor or the bundt cake pans they got on sale at Target. That’s all I’m saying. I realized, long ago, that some of us don’t have a tribe. And that’s okay. My idiosyncratic family fulfills the need for belonging.

      I couldn’t return to my actual hometown. No way. My family has moved/is moving up to the place where we spent our vacations. The happiest times. We all live on the same little road. It’s really such a special area.

  5. Hi Julie,
    Greetings from Uzbekistan.
    Well, you really don’t shy away from a challenge! I thought Anjou was going to be home for a while, but here are now the great lakes. I don’t think I’d be able to return to my hometown, even though never say never, every time I visit I’m swept by a torrent of nostalgia for a time I never expected I could be nostalgic for!
    I’m sure you’ll be able to find your spot there, even without knowing that a chubby, annoying Englishman has now become the host of the Late (or Late Late? Or Late3?) Night Show. In fact I think that it’d be a major advantage point. That, and all you know.
    All the best

    • My blog is read in so many exotic locations thanks to you, Fabrizio. Hope you’re having a fabulous trip.

      When I was contemplating my next move in life, I asked myself where’s the most bizarre place to live. America, not North Korea, was the first place to pop into my mind. There ya go. Anjou was so wonderful, but being self-employed in France is a bureaucratic and financial nightmare. I’m not actually in my hometown now. No bloody way I’d move back there. I’m in the place where we spent all vacations. Thanks to technology, one can now live in isolated places such as this. The nostalgia here is overwhelming at times. I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with the area.

      I imagine there are many different Late Shows these days with forgettable hosts. Thank god I don’t have a television.

  6. A remarkable journey, I wish you all the best in this new phase of your life. It is good that you have somewhere to go back to, your ‘back pages’ – “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”.

  7. A perfect piece on becoming a stranger within your own life ~ fascinating descriptions, and a certain feeling of camaraderie I share when you mention the ‘steady hand’ your home has always held out regardless of how many decades you were elsewhere. Now, you share an adventure of your return and give glimpses it may be the greatest adventure yet.

    There is something addictive about the nomadic life and it is often romanticized. Finding yourself sinking deeper and deeper into the unknown becomes a bit like a drug, the thrill of discovery never gets old. The occasional return home allows me to return to my normal breathing before setting off again to find new stories. But home is…home. The call of home strengthens over time, and I love seeing this in your writing.

    I’m sure I’d suffer an identity crisis like no other 🙂 Beautiful writing, and look forward to reading more. Cheers, and welcome to a new adventure.

    • Yes, the nomadic life is very addictive, and, like all addictions, there’s a search for evermore intense highs. I never ever thought I’d feel like this, but it did get a little old. Discovering home is thrilling. Becoming reacquainted with this place without the distortion of culture is mesmerizing. It’s like I’ve been reincarnated as myself. Anyway. The identity crisis is said to be very distressing, but I think you’d handle it just fine. If that is your wish. It really is the greatest adventure of all. Warmest wishes.

      • It is a bit strange, as this year is the first time I am thinking… “hmmm, wouldn’t it be nice to explore home and everything around it I know nothing about.” I can see it happen, which is a first and a bit exciting as well. Will likely be out here for another year, but will be pushing for more sojourns back home 🙂 Wishing you greater discoveries and greater happiness.

        • That’s how it starts, with a thought out of the blue. Like, “where the hell did that come from?” Maybe you are being called back. Faraway lands are intriguing, often overshadowing the treasures in our own back yard. I can only imagine the wonders that await your return. Hope it works out. I know how it is and can’t help but feel excited for you.

          • I do believe this. 25 years ago I was talking with a friend (a Daoist philosopher) about where I should be, Beijing or back home. He then asked me a question: “When I am in China, do I miss the USA?” I said “Yes.” Then he asked, “When I am in the USA, do I miss China.” I said, “Yes.” Then he said, “When the answer to one of those questions changes, you know where you should be…” 🙂

  8. Hello Julie,
    What a wonderful post with beautiful images. I think most of us who have experienced extended periods away from “home” can relate with your experiences. But you expressed in such a wonderful way. I hope Nature continues to encourage you on your new journey, and that you settle in — at your own pace.

    All best wishes from Japan,
    Takami 🙂

    • Thank you so much, Takami. The phenomenon of reverse culture shock is becoming widespread as more people take advantage of the freedom of working online and living as digital nomads. Maybe a whole new culture will arise out of it.

  9. I like your ‘strategic apathy’ of the routine world. The mediocre mind accumulates material wealth and leads a run-of-the-mill life, whereas the wiser mind acquires experiences that can be carried forward to the next level of awareness.

  10. I have been ‘home’ for 18 years now; it’s still a mysterious place but not an uncomfortable one. I wish you well.Coming home may be the biggest boldest adventure of all. 🙂

  11. Finely wrought as ever, Julie. You make me wonder though why some of us seem always to be outsiders in some sense. Those woods look like a nurturing resource though. So all very best wishes and fair weather for the ongoing journey to a place called home.

    • Thank you, Tish. These woods are pure magic. I used to wonder about those of us who just can’t seem to fit in, too. We’re made to feel as if there’s something wrong with us. I think it comes down to personality type. I don’t usually like categorizing personalities, but I recently took an Enneagram test and it seems I’m a 4, what they call The Individualist. These people are the outsiders.

      • Ah, now that’s rather fascinating. Must look that test up. It’s interesting, though, how you hear many non-fitters-in saying they were convinced they were mixed up at birth at the hospital, and given to the wrong family. Makes one wonder.

  12. I suppose there are folks who define their value and identity or those of others based a job, their stuff, their kids. But if you look beyond the material aspects those just represent experiences too, they’re just different than the ones you have. And a lot of folks are uncomfortable with different, especially if it comes from a place they’d likely be afraid to explore. Perhaps it’s not that people don’t value your experience, they’re just intimidated by it.

    But once you spend some time with them, they’ll figure out you’re just a regular person just like everyone else, not so scary, and you can share experiences. Not unlike what you do with 14,497 other amazing people.

    Kind of like the discovery of travel. Something you’re good at.

    • An interesting perspective, and one I agree with. I was more referring to what our culture has defined as valuable and not what individuals consider as valuable. When I was younger, I used to think that everyone needed to travel. But now I realize that people are not all the same. And I understand why people are intimidated. They have no frame of reference. That’s why I try to stay quiet about my life Out There. As you said, I can share my experiences with my readers😊

  13. A bold move, seeking out how to live with others. I usually just run away after brief interludes of trying it. I still feel I learn from nature much more than I do from daily “news”. Your woodsy retreat looks like a fairy tale. I have not visited Michigan, but your part seems to have that mystical quality ideally suited for daydreams. Or perhaps you portray them so well in that way. Welcome home.

    • Thank you💗 I don’t know how successful I’ll be about the people thing, but it’s something I feel I have to do. It’s connected to the orb that I sense just up ahead. I don’t think I’ll ever love being around people, but I can learn how to not let it drain me so much.

      Nature is the only teacher for me, anymore. Northern Michigan is a mystical place. So remote and wild. The imagination just soars.

  14. “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
    There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
    There is society, where none intrudes,
    By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
    I love not man the less, but Nature more”
    George Gordon Byron

    Homecoming is meeting ourselves at a different time. The task of integrating two timeframes is indeed extraordinary. Another wonderful post and most excellent discussion.

  15. Last year I returned after 31 years of absence, not to home, but to my country, curiously I have reflected, that, there is no such a thing as coming back home, too many things have changed, us, them, and sometimes even the landscape…
    Home it’s just a distant memory in our heart.
    Here a poem:

    Life is a river that
    Has no shore,
    Man has no harbor,
    The river slips by,
    And we pass.

    Great post as usual Julie! 🙂

    • Thank you. 😊The place we called home is a memory. But I have come to feel that our real home is within us, and I think that’s why I’m not experiencing the identity crisis that is supposed to come with reverse culture shock. Somehow home shifted from external to internal.

      Even though your homeland has changed, I hope you had a delightful visit.

  16. It’s been many years since I returned to the womb of Leicestershire in England’s Midlands. The last time was in 1995 for the funeral of my father. Though centre of the village hadn’t changed so much, the outskirts and beyond were an alien land. My mother touched my father’s waxen face as he lay in the coffin, withdrawing it swiftly. “It’s so cold”. For some reason she’d expected it to be as warm as it was while he lived. I was only there for her, my father having died years before in my mind. I wasn’t going to resurrect him, it would’ve been too painful. I won’t go back, none of the family live there anymore.

    • Hi Bryan – Thanks for sharing that powerful memory. Hometowns can be terribly painful places. After a while, there’s no reason to return. My hometown is actually downstate, but in my heart it was never “home”. I consider the area where I am now as my homeland. It was a place of joyful refuge when I was a child. My heart always sunk as we drove back downstate after holidays. I still feel a little sick every time I have to drive downstate. It’s funny how, even after forgiveness and moving on, the body still reacts.

  17. Wow, what a blessing it is to visit so many beautiful places! Your pics are breath taking, I dream of traveling to sites across the country as well as around the world. You inspire me, thanks!

  18. Dearest Julie. Read your text on my phone earlier this week. Let it sit and simmer until I managed to squeeze in time to read it again. And… comment? Babble? Whatever.
    So your wheel has made one final (?) circle. 19 years? A lifetime. Does that mean Angers is gone? I doubted you would settle down for a long time. Les vagabonds marchent toujours.
    And then who are we? 19 years? I thought of my own personal wandering starting in Pakistan 60+ yeas ago. Do we ever belong anywhere? For a while I thought I was a white African. 🙂 No ma’am. Then a British-American, exported South of the mason-Dixon line. Then a Frenchman in Paris for 10 years, later a Latino in Mexico. Probably none and all of the above. And after almost 30 years here, my feet are itchy. But then can we ever really come… “home”? Are you still an “American”? Not really, right? I don’t think I will ever “go back” to France, more than on a few weeks/months basis. But it is a balance.
    I may have asked you once what you were looking for in your globe-trotting. You probably don’t know. I just hope you find it. 🙂 And wish you peace mon amie.
    A bientôt.

    • Thank you, Brian. You certainly know the nomadic life. You started so young. Who knows, maybe you’ll find yourself back in Pakistan one day. 🙂

  19. A lifestyle is only freedom until you become unable to let it go.

    –Attachment is bondage, but if the whole wold becomes Lord Buddha what will become of this world?

    • I seriously doubt there’s a risk of everyone becoming Lord Buddha. Especially me. 🤣🤣🤣
      Even if that happened, I’m sure the world would find a way to deal with it.

  20. That’s awesome..
    Yeah.. In fact.. I haven’t traveled to much..
    But I know that one can discover themselves being at home…
    Home sweet home.. 🙌

    • Thank you. 💗That’s right, it’s not necessary for everyone to travel to distant lands to discover themselves. We just need to follow our hearts.

  21. Powerful imagery and fascinating read for someone like me who is always anxious to come home and finds it easier to disappear into the known. I hope you continue to write about what unfolds in the coming months.

  22. Yes! “No one is interested in stories of faraway lands. Or different observations of this one.” This is perfect. We felt similar when we returned from France to New Zealand. Now and then we have found a fellow traveller who “gets it”. Beautiful writing, I enjoyed it very much.

    • Thank you. 🙂 Former expats have a way of spotting each other. It’s like we’ve got more in common with foreign expats in our own country than our fellow citizens.

  23. When people ask me why I live where I do, instead New York City or Los Angeles or Miami I have offered a long-winded explanation. I am considering making this post part of that explanation. Nice to meet you. – Jim Hess

    • Yeah, it’s pretty intense. But I expected it. I think of it as just another foreign country, but my family and friends just happen to live here. 😀

  24. I fell for the honesty in your post. “A lifestyle is only freedom until you become unable to let it go. ” That is so profound and deep. Welcome to the world of grounded freedom. It is not that bad if the journey within has started. May you discover that inner self which can help you find freedom no matter where you are. Following your journey right away.. 🙂

    • Thank you so very much, Deepa. The inner journey started long ago and it has mirrored the outer in extraordinary ways. It has just decided to switch methods. 🙂

  25. Life is a circle….one ends up at the starting point and in between how one assimilates, reasons is the learning process. It requires courage to step out of the comfort zone and you are one brave person.

    • Thank you so much, Indra. This is indeed the most courageous thing I’ve ever done. It’s often overwhelming, but there’s no question that it’s necessary for my continued growth. We are here to learn and it won’t happen if we stay in our comfort zone.

  26. after Reading your story i was so amazed about your experiences. Knowing that people of today dont value enough the way of living in a far away land. I’m hoping to read more stories from you that could really inspire me.Not only me but also to those people who loves reading. i was really amazed by your thoughts and words.😊

    • Thank you. I’m actually in the very northern lower, just under the Bridge. Like a real Troll. 😉But I will be up in the UP as much as possible, as soon as the weather gets better. It’s such a wild, remote place. So many wonders to discover again.

  27. I really enjoyed reading this Julie. Beautifully written. I’ve felt some of the emotions you describe… and I was away from home for a much shorter time. Good luck finding ‘yours place’ again.

  28. Your journey is inspiring in every possible way, Riso. So much to learn from you 🙂 . I wonder, from where do you find these beautiful words that so profoundly expresses, ones conflict and strength.

  29. Add-on to our discussion, this is a remarkable post ~ a perfect one ~ for the world to “Discover.” Congratulations. Although to be fair, every post you write falls under this banner 🙂

  30. Beautifully written. Keep doing you and don’t let societies expectations mould you to be someone you aren’t content with.

  31. “It is not ignorance, but strategic apathy. Ignorance is being unaware. I’m conscious of the poison that I refuse to consume.” Love it!!

  32. What a beautifully written piece. Illustrated with gorgeous photos. I loved so many of your phrases and descriptions and observations about the life you’ve been living and the one you’re stepping into now; familiar and not. The part where you talked about “strategic apathy” and not knowing what you’re “supposed to be enraged about” were particularly poignant and powerful ideas.

    I can envision the Michigan landscape, the strength of it catching you when you fall. The view of summer cabins by the creeks, embraced by the wooded landscape. A freedom not found elsewhere during the rest of the year.

    You tempt us with lines that suggest important changes in your life, without revealing them.

    Glad I found you; you have a real talent in your writing. May it help you stay centered as you walk forward in this new “old” place.

  33. Lovely writing and perspective. Whenever I travel back home to visit family I feel some of the same. I share my stories of adventures and travels but the tales I tell are so far removed from the life, and people, I once knew that I just end up feeling out of place. It’s a strange feeling.

    • Thank you, Shannon. Yes, it’s a strange feeling and one we have no choice but to get used to. Blogging is a great way to fulfill the need to share stories.

  34. I just recently discovered your blog; and although I have not experienced anything close to what you have, other than the feeling of never really belonging or fitting in, I feel a connection when I read your words. maybe its because I too land on the more sensitive side of life. I have started my own blog just a couple short months ago and I’m still learning how to write and I’m still searching for my voice but your posts are extremely encouraging and the inspiration that flows from them is a wonderful feeling. thank you from one weirdo to another for pouring you heart and soul into you writing. I hope you never fully assimilate, but instead I hope you stay on the outside in the unknown because that is were we find the most real and amazing things this life has to offer us.

    • Hi Kyle – thanks for this. Life on the perimeter can be lonely, but it is also so incredibly rich and magical. I hope you keep writing. It may take some time, but you will find your voice.

  35. This practically had me crying. You so beautifully capture the moment I both dread and long for. A journey of rediscovery indeed. I could cite so many lines from this post that resonated with me.

    My forays from home have gotten longer and longer with the most recent being just over 5 years. I remember when I returned home from my last extended absence. When I left, I felt like a little sparrow finally freed from her cage. I returned to that same cage as an eagle. Suffocating confinement does not begin to describe it. But your words also offer comfort. Life on the road is most definitely challenging and returning to ‘the same old’ as ‘the new you’ definitely offers a whole new opportunity for adventure.

    Lovely photographs as always. I miss living in that region.

    • Lisa. 💗 God, I know that feeling of suffocation. That’s how it would be if I had to live in my hometown. Honestly, I think I’d rather die. My last visit was also 5 years ago. I thought I’d never come back after that one. But my special place, my real home, my wilderness, is hours away from there. A world away. I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to start over up here. If you ever come back to this neighborhood, you are always welcome to visit me. Truly.

  36. I love those photos and the article you wrote! Makes me see another beautiful side of the world ❤

  37. JD, I’d love to include an excerpt (a paragraph) of this piece in my blog, with a link back to your post and information about your blog. I want to remember certain fiercely powerful phrases I read on blogs. Let me know if that’s ok with you. Or if you want more information. Thanks.

  38. Beautifully written. Your writing blew me away, I felt I was right there with you. The pictures also helped to transport me to Michigan. A simply wonderful post. Thank you.

  39. I read this a few days ago and have thought of it since and wanted to come back to say that I’m thinking of you during this profound journey- back home.
    I was talking with a friend about blogging and the why (I’ve been paralyzed by that ‘why!’) and described the cyber connections created here. You are one of my favorite. Sending you cyber hugs and always glad to hear your voice.

  40. Within a mile of home, shapes, moments, experience. It’s never faraway, even at the furthermost points on this big little blue, with its tinges of greens, yellows, reds and all the rest. Heart and soul, always…

      • A little tired, working through finalising a generation of family life lived and loved. It’s been a long year+, and about another to go (maybe). Hope all goes well in the north for you, sounds like a gear and road change with the heart and soul that’s all Julie.

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