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.

170 thoughts on “The Undiscovered Territory

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 🙂

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

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

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. Your photography is gorgeous! So interesting to hear of the culture shock of such a familiar old place after being gone so long. God always has a way of bringing us back to the places we need most!

  16. Pingback: Writing that Hooks: Inaugural Gems – Walk the Goats

  17. This post strikes me as being less nomadic and more monastic. I’m acutely familiar with the uncomfortable journey of return. When you say, “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.”
    I understand this in my bones. Still, I like your effort to seek out the uncomfortable.

  18. My, my you are brave, Julie! I’m not sure anyone in America is assimilated right now, so in a sense you probably fit in more than ever. The dichotomy between the steady stream of emotive media content that drifts by, meant to snare us, and in which we are drowning, and the actual conversations I have with real people is fascinating. Most of my conversations with real people make me wonder how the images could be so different. America feels like a billboard right now. An advertisement in a magazine or something. But when you actually go and visit, you wonder who took all those crazy photos! But what I’m most excited about is your sense of something new coming. I think it will be tremendous and I look forward to hearing more…


    • Hi Michael,

      That was the most intimidating thing. I was concerned about whether stuff would be forced on me, but so far, it hasn’t. The media, ALL of it, is vile, and, in my opinion, responsible for the state we’re in. As you said, it’s meant to snare us, keep us addicted to outrage and division. Make us hate each other. People need to turn that garbage off and just talk to each other. Just turn away from it all.

      That thing looming up ahead, whatever it is, is exciting and terrifying. When I walk in these wild woods where I live, I feel its presence growing. Nature is such a powerful teacher. I think you probably understand this.

      Thanks, as always, for sharing your thoughts.

  19. There exists a secret Michigan that only you know, the other made of TV gossips and pop culture. The second photograph is mesmerizing powerful, as if the shapes were meant to drag me to them… a nomad spirit is an unquiet spirit akin to the wind : )

  20. You’ve captured the experience of reverse culture shock so well! I can relate, especially to the sentence “I can no longer hide behind the language barrier.” I still find it easier to live away from my “home country” although I have discovered a new appreciation, even love, for the place that I came from.

  21. The conflict is so beautifully portrayed. I’m still lingering around the words “A lifestyle is only freedom until you become unable to let it go”. That’s invaluable wisdom in a single line..

  22. Dear Julie,
    You write so well… I guess it is hard to find out where ones belongs (even in your own country).
    I felt I was reading an Existentialist article… in the shape of a diary.
    I liek when you say: “Those who return often end up fleeing again. Forever exiled into a realm of ambiguity”… That ambiguous feeling is one of the most intriguing one could feel: I am with you… It seems it opens us up to the unknown, the equivocal sense… which, when experienced as a sudden state of mind can be quite revealing. The sentence: “A lifestyle is only freedom until you become unable to let it go” really resonated with me. So much wisdom in this post!.
    Sending love & best wishes! 🙂

    • Hi Amalia- thanks so much. 🙂 That feeling of ambiguity is intriguing to those who aren’t afraid of mystery. Not surprised you find it that way. Sending love back at you.

  23. Every now and then I manage a media/pop culture blackout and it’s not ignorance, its a decluttering of noise, distraction and negative energies. Or strategic apathy as you so neatly say. Great insights into the struggles and tensions of going or staying, of being. The most memorable journeys can be travel, but they can also be internal, connecting with family, digging up memories, retreading familiar paths, watching seasons, re-interpretating a city. Remember de Maistre’s journey round his room!

    That deer looks like it’s about to throw serious shade at you (as my teenage daughters call it).

    • Hi Alex – So right about the negative energies we’re bombarded with in the media. So toxic. And, yes, you don’t need to go far (or anywhere) to send the mind on a journey. As a seasoned psychogeographer, you are the master of that. I’ll have to check out de Maistre’s journey. Now you’ve got me intrigued.

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