Exiled to America
Travel Stories: Adam Karlin tries to reconcile his love for the road and his love for home
02.11.09 | 9:49 AM ET
The train cut into the heart of the paddy country west of Hanoi like a slender knife into mud. It made a clak-clak over the velvet silence of the Vietnamese countryside at night, clack-clack clack-clack, like pin drops reflected from the still, silent cross-hatches of waterlogged rice fields that shimmered under the ghost moon.
I was laying on my belly, staring at the villages and huts, huddled and dark indigo but for the sharp, staccato lick of the occasional paraffin cooking flame. The smell of the girl next to me in the narrow bunk, sweat but sweet, fogged my brain.
“I never want to stop,” I said, unable to take my eyes off the window.
“What?” she asked.
The moon flashed like flip-book animation behind copses of palm trees, floating above another village.
Clack-clack clack-clack, and she turned towards me so I could see the sweat beaded into her dark curls, and her face moved towards mine, and we kept moving.
My mother smiled sadly at me as I stumbled into the kitchen.
“Oh, my wandering son,” she said, and offered me dinner.
She said “wandering” in a way unique to her role, with the gentle but worried inflection that motherhood reserves for itself. When that tone attaches to a word, it casts the term under the light of tender suspicion; to me it said, “I know you feel like you have to travel, my boy, but why not enjoy a bit of home time?”
I didn’t have much of a choice. I was home, for the conceivable time being, having left a girlfriend and a chunk of my heart elsewhere, consigned to the relationship rubbish bin by my mistakes and the thumbscrew tensions of distance. Past the personal, there was a professional reason for me to come home: I had a guidebook to work on, describing the contours of my American backyard.
I wasn’t looking forward to the research. My insistence on moving home to the Washington, D.C., area and my need for a grounded base between assignments to places like Cameroon, Malaysia and the Andaman Islands, had driven an unbridgeable wedge between my ex and me. Now I was at the store counter, gift-wrapping what I had asked for: exile to America
That weekend I drove from Washington, D.C., to Wilmington, wondering how in the hell I could make Delaware exciting, how I could love a place that had caused me to love a person imperfectly, how travel writing and all the associated lure, romance and exoticism I had felt on a night train in Vietnam had landed me in heavy traffic northbound on Rt. 13, bumper to bumper under Dover Downs Racetrack.
An exit onto Rt. 71 loomed ahead of me. I swung my station wagon onto the road. Fifteen minutes later I was walking through the campus of St. Andrew’s School, which you may know as the boarding school from “Dead Poet’s Society.”
It was deep summer, and visiting students and alumni were strolling through the manicured lawns. An old man with an English accent laughed with friends fresh out of the J. Crew catalog. Nearby, some college-age men played Frisbee. Their wealth was evident in their effort to hide it; the cut-off T-shirts, plumeria board shorts, puka-shell necklaces, shaggy white-fros and Frisbee screamed their class more than an accent could, but these were the only distinctive signs of status quo in an institution whose cinematic identity enshrines the concept.
Otherwise, the halls were pinned with syllabi that emphasized critical thinking. Students splashed each other in the cold heart of Noxtontown pond under the brilliant sunlight. I realized this was a co-educational boarding school and not Hogwarts, open to all the raging susceptibility of adolescent hormones. The cliché of the totalitarian academy portrayed in “Dead Poets” was neatly turned on its head.
For some reason, learning that bit of something about somewhere reignited my appreciation of place. The rest of the drive through Delaware—yes, Delaware—took on a new sheen. I listened to Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” pump over a wedding in the heart of a restored colonial village. I drove up Rt. 9, through fields of marsh grass eructed over a long, low horizon of blue tides and skinny ponds. It’s a land-and-waterscape that gets me stone-heavy with homesick when I’m cut off from it for too long. The tinkle of slow water and the stab of salt wind on acres of sedge grass has captivated me ever since I sank bare feet into the mud of a rural Maryland childhood. The Chesapeake Bay was reminding me: this was what you missed. And past those whispers I realized home was full of the same edges I seek out whenever I travel. Home, in other words, could move.