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.

Hiking the Pebble

Before I moved to New Caledonia in 1999, I was a connoisseur of roads and paths. Interstates and back roads. Forest trails and city sidewalks. Michigan, California, Arizona. The states in between. America has an infinite supply of lines on maps. You can spend a lifetime exploring new routes and never see them all. But my road-tripping days came to an end.

Most of Grande Terre, New Caledonia’s main island, is uninhabited and inaccessible by vehicles. I exhausted the supply of road within months. I turned to the trails. So many landscapes to traverse. Beaches, of course. The arid ranch land north of Nouméa. Along the flowing waters of the Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue. I could gaze at the two round peaks of the Monts Koghi from my home. I learned those trails by heart. Few images exist of these wanderings. I carry them in my body.

The famous trails are marked, others are discovered by word of mouth. You must find your own way there and back. Hidden water holes. The strangest flora, much of it endemic. Primeval silence. I was not the first person to tread there, but it sure felt like it. But beware. Wandering down the wrong path can cost you your life. The boundaries of tribal land are invisible. In 2002, a Japanese tourist was the victim of a ritual murder on the Isle of Pines. Nothing was done about it. Nothing ever is.

I don’t understand why people like hiking. I’ve heard this remark on more than one occasion. Voices tinged with disapproval. Walking for hours and hours. No people around. How boring.

How to convey this communion with nature? Every step a sweet kiss on the Earth’s exquisite face. The atavistic gratification of traversing a land on my own two feet. And I guess I just don’t find my own company boring.

This pleasure came at a price. That picturesque red earth is made up of metals. Toxic metals. Nickel, chromium, cobalt. New Caledonia is the third largest source of nickel in the world. Dust kicked up by my boots, dust emitted into the atmosphere from the nickel smelters. The local produce is grown in this soil. Nickel is a known carcinogen. I am allergic to nickel jewelry, but somehow I didn’t make, or didn’t want to admit, the connection between this and the debilitating aftermath of any sort of physical exertion. No one else that I knew had this problem. For them, Le Caillou, The Pebble, was paradise. The longer I was there, the more severe the consequences of these jaunts became. I lost count of the nights I spent on the bathroom floor, throat shredded from vomiting, transcendent pain in my head. It took at least one more day to fully recover. Yet I persevered.

No way I was going to pass up an ascent of the Plateau de Dogny with my sister, who had come in search of Amborella, the oldest known flowering plant still in existence. Found only in New Caledonia, Amborella was the subject of her master’s thesis in genetics. Such a delightful morning that was. A German shepherd from the hotel at the trailhead trotted by our side, a gentle guardian. It is the only time in my life that I have been unable to complete a hike. Blurred vision, churning stomach, an ominous tremor in my cells. Just before the summit, I collapsed on the side of the trail and waited for my sister to return.

The Mt. Mou trail

A few months before my departure from New Caledonia in 2006, I did the infamous Mt. Mou ascent. My friend Lo and I were prepared for the inevitable bruises and scrapes. These are considered badges of honor. You haven’t truly hiked Le Caillou until you’ve climbed Mt. Mou. Dust underfoot morphs into moss-carpeted cloud forest. Tree roots transform into a staircase that disappears into the mist. Every step must be contemplated. Sometimes the only way forward is flat on your stomach through the decaying carcasses that have fallen across the path. Just beyond the peak, the wreckage of a WWII-era American military plane lies on the slopes. The exhilaration and relief that I felt at this place. No sign of any discomfort. Maybe this time would be different. But it crept up on me during the descent.

Photo taken by Lo Cherbeix

After I left New Caledonia, it didn’t take long for the symptoms to dissipate. I learned that they are indeed signs of nickel poisoning. Strength and endurance returned. It remains to be seen if permanent damage lurks in my cells. Even so, I don’t regret any of those explorations. These days, every hike is done with gratitude. Without pain, it’s impossible to experience the bliss of its absence.

Breaking Away

Iceland – January 2018

So blue. “It means that they are newly capsized,” the guide explains before he turns everyone loose to explore. Blue is the color of breaking away.

Just when I thought I might never again be struck speechless by a landscape. Just when I thought I had given up travels to new lands, this unexpected chance arose. A stopover in Iceland on the way to the great unknown. A reward for listening to my intuition, despite the shrieks of my ego. Moving around all the time doesn’t necessarily keep ruts from forming beneath you. The time has come for massive change. It’s time to break away.

The creak and groan of ice in transition. The distant bellowing of seals. Muted human voices. Awe has a way of doing that. The five-hour ride down here started in darkness. A half moon dangled like a jewel in a black velvet sky. The shadow side’s gritty surface softly visible. Just beneath her, Mars and Jupiter peered out. Watchful, serene. The dingy morning light revealed towering waterfalls cloaked in mist. The sun rose to its zenith low on the horizon. The otherworldly landscape blurred by the window. Snow-capped volcanos mirrored in roadside puddles and immense moss-covered lava fields. The great glacier filled the windshield. No time to stop for photos. Light is precious this time of year. I arrived yesterday evening, on the tail of a severe gale. Another one is due tomorrow. This day is a sliver of light shining through the murk of the Icelandic winter.

A T Rex rises from the rear of the mass. From another angle, it’s an albatross readying itself for flight. I smile. The images that arise in the mind. What do they wish to say? I no longer believe that they are random.

Imperceptible drift. The lagoon is a womb-shaped lake at the base of the glacier. A narrow canal slices through the black volcanic earth. Just beyond, the ocean awaits. Perhaps total disintegration is just another form of rebirth.

The things that seem so beautiful and awesome and eternal. A pure, fearless light reveals the fractures. Uncomfortable truths. The futility of rescue. If something is meant to shatter, it will. No matter how hard you cling. The only thing left to do is let go and trust.

The mist thickens. The sun dilates and descends. Grainy tangerine radiance. Shadowy forms mill about the black sand beach. The waves have battered the ice into shards, sculpted them into lovely forms, and carried them back to shore. All that awaits is the slow seep back into the Earth. Nothing truly disappears. It is simply dispersed and assimilated. And the new incarnation begins.