“We are going to die.” The sentence matter-of-factly resonated in my brain. “At least I got married first,” a comforting afterthought. Mind you, no one else was white-knuckle clutching the arm rests, but I’m sure that “turbulence” was some drunken pilot’s near attempt at taking all of our lives. I don’t really like flying that much. Sometimes I think I’d rather Oregon Trail it to my destination. Caulk the wagon, ford the river, shoot some bison, shake off a little cholera—anything but turbulence. I find landing the most conflicting aspect of it all. With a terrified smile plastered on my face, I generally grip the seat and stare out the nearest porthole praying that we meet the earth at the perfect rate between swift and crashing. As I am alive to write this account, you can infer that we did successfully land, and in the Motherland at that: The Carolinas.
This was in August, our first visit to our roots since getting married eight months prior. Driving the hour and a half route from the airport to our home was an overwhelming blur of green. The “Golden Hills” you’ve heard so much about in the land of California actually consist of a bunch of dead, “golden” grass. Someone once told me that the grass native to California is endangered and has been replaced with a different kind, one that, unfortunately, is not suited to the dry, cloudless summers and dies each year. I don’t know how true this theory is, but it certainly makes for an explanation. Even months after arriving to the West Coast, I still found myself gloomily taking in my surroundings: the squatty trees, the way people interrupt your sentences if you speak too slowly, the endless rain, then endless sun, that dead, yellow grass.
And then there’s this drive home from the airport: the mountainous, green trees towering mightily on your left and your right as if to create with its canopy open arms ushering you back. My chest took in rich, full breaths of air—the heavy humidity is something every Southerner complains about, but if one was to visit a dry state, he might find that his breath never quite felt complete in such places. And then there were the accents. I spent months learning to identify a Southern accent in a crowd of Californians for the purpose of excitedly seeking out and interrogating fellow Southerners. Surrounded by these accents upon arriving home, though, I found this impulse overloading my thoughts. “Southerner!” I would frequently and uselessly bark in my mind.
What surprised me most of moving to the West Coast was certainly the change in beaches. California is known for great surfing and wonderful coastal towns, so you can imagine my surprise when all locals warned me to bring a sweater if I planned on visiting the coast. Back East I adored the beach with its salty smell, the sun-kissed naps in the sand, and the childlike revelry that ensued with each wave that lifted you off the ocean floor—divine. Meeting the Pacific Ocean was much like meeting someone else’s mother: a lovely encounter with a kind someone who in no way can nurture or love the way your own mother did. The Pacific was gorgeous—cliffs plunging into a rocky and glorious ocean; but there was no salt smell, the sun hid behind a robe of fog, and the water, moving in currents from the North, was bitterly cold. Needless to say I was ready for our trip to visit Mama Atlantic.
At each of our parents’ homes, we were escorted to our former bedrooms, still complete with evidence of our younger selves’ ventures: his mounted snakeskin from a successful hunt, my stuffed bear (complete with a top hat), his MVP plaque, mine for most improved. Everything seemed so different compared to life out West—to marriage and real jobs and change change change—the reflections of boyhood accomplishments and girlish dreams seemed so small next to what we actually had.
Being with family, on the other hand, was like getting to speak my native language after far too long: the joys of understanding and being understood. But despite such pleasure, I found something so strange in it all: the simple fact that after talking and talking about South Carolina to all my new friends, I found that I was good for little more during our visit than reporting everything about California, using the phrase “back home” interchangeably for both places depending on which one I was not in.
Our flight back west was funny in this way. When we flew over the Rockies I gathered my nerves to brave lifting the shade of the window and peering out. I saw the endless sky beaming around those fearfully tall mountains and remembered the golden hills that awaited us. I then realized that this was the first time I thought of them as golden hills and not mounds of dead grass.
It’s difficult—even now—to know if “home” is the place you visit on holidays or if it’s where you’re headed on the return flight.