Years ago, maybe 15 or so, a girlfriend and I went to a party out in the “middle of nowhere” (I have to use quotes for that one these days considering my current physical location in life). We were having a blast, way out in the hills of California only 45 minutes from our hometown yet still in a place we both had never been when suddenly…the parental units arrived.
Apparently our friend wasn’t supposed to be having a party.
I’d say likely us, we likely were the Who who knew.
The party dispersed in a flash as teenagers fled from all possible exits.
In all the rush, we had simply driven away, without getting our bearings and within no time we came to the realization that we were L-O-S-T lost. We were struck with panic. Technology wasn’t quite what it was today and let’s just say our pagers weren’t helping us any, though I swear we stared at them looking for answers. And so, without a map and with two poor senses of directions equaling one mediocre sense of direction, we just kept driving.
Retrace our steps?
Why, what a brilliant idea!
We opted not to and by opted not to I mean we didn’t even think of it, but if we had we would have been chasing ghosts. Retracing our steps in fields upon fields of high grasses cut through by miles and miles of look-alike dirt roads? Naw, no thanks.
And so, lest we confuse ourselves further we figured onward, onward ho!
In the stress of it all, we decided it was best to play Norah Jones (don’t judge me, she’s awesome and at the time she was the obvious and only choice in crises like these) to calm our nerves as we hazily sought our way back to home like naked mole-rats through an underground maze.
And it worked.
Through the confusion we were calmed by the tunes and comforted by the presence of one another. I remember thinking that even if we were lost forever, at least we had each other. And it turns out that we had just enough faith and fancy footwork to navigate our (probably obvious) route. We had made it safely home, even if it did take us cycling twice through the album.
As I sat down to write about our journey this December to our Home in the woods, this memory with my girlfriend suddenly came flooding over me and with it came the song on the album which struck me most that day: “The Long Way Home”. The song is a Tom Waits cover which Norah Jones performed on the album we twice listened to that day. The memory of that day and that song and our parallel journey this year compared to last all came tumbling down on me and as I put on the song while I wrote I was suddenly choked up.
That day with my girlfriend felt like the longest Long Way Home and so the song’s presence struck me, reverberated in my ears and made me laugh at our predicament. I read little more into it then than the title (I didn’t know any of the other words) and saw it as a sort of mocking, literal and perfunctory representation of our day. We were taking a dang Long Way Home but I’d always known we would make it some hour or another. We were still in the same County for goodness sake, but still I had been shaken.The presence of the music accompanied by the presence of my girlfriend, however, shook that shake right back and restored my faith that we would make it back, eventually.
Finally, that day, landmarks I’d seen all my life started appearing, landmarks I’d known as a passenger growing up in the cars of parents and family. Yet suddenly we were the drivers, brand spankin’ new at that, and it was up to us to decipher their code. And we did. Every few miles, a specific corner or noticeable rock outcropping or old barn would signal us to turn or stay from somewhere deep in our memories and those memories guided us. We were two newbies, finding our way into the beginning of adulthood.
And all along, home was nearby.
And for most of my life, it always has been.
Until last year. The year of Leap First And Look Later And Fingers Crossed It All Turns Out.
Last year I decided to move to Alaska after a Summer visit gone vibrant and well past its 17 day intended expiration date.
Life had other plans.
And so, last year, I left the land I knew. The place where after years of practice and memories like the one with my girlfriend that I could now navigate on my own while blindfolded and still find the quickest route through back alleys and hidden throughways.
Suddenly, all that familiarity was in my rearview mirror when last year we left my town and started our route to The Great Big North.
It was a truer than true, longer than long, Long Way Home.
The song’s literal meaning prodded at me again.
I actually had no idea how long it would be but it exceeded even my most exorbitant of expectations. Last year, coming into the woods at the beginning of December, I was walking into the unknown and though I held steady, I was shaken at the core. I had driven the route into the woods only twice before: on my first trip in where I was 1.) a passenger and 2.) had the attention span of a hummingbird and another time solo where I was more focused on getting the turns right than remembering landmarks. The land was unfamiliar, the stops along the way new and intimidating. The sheer vastness of the state tumbled down upon me all at once and though I was excited, I have also never been so terrified.
What if we came to find we just didn’t like one another? How would I leave?
What was it like to live in the snow? Would I get frostbite?
And seriously, what in the hell was I doing?
The year of The Leap was certainly the year of questions like that: what in the hell was I doing?
It turns out what the hell I was doing was heading in exactly the right direction which although I felt in my heart, I had to explain to my head occasionally.
We leapt into the unknown and took the longest ride home I’ve ever experienced in my life. 10 hours plus (and that’s only once we’d actually arrived in Alaska, the journey had started five days before) in what seemed like a snowglobe come to life filled with treacherous roads and sheets of ice fog and all without even so much as a radio to make a peep over the booming winds rattling the truck and the screaming worries bouncing around my rational mind. I didn’t know the route, I didn’t know the mountains, I couldn’t tell you how far we were or how long we had to go. I had no landmarks. I had little history. I was merely a passenger.
Yet with or without landmarks and with the smidgen of history I had eked out the Summer before, I knew I was heading home.
And I was right.
But I was still, just a passenger, still alone even in our togetherness because of all that was unfamiliar to me. We both were still doing it alone despite being in it together. Little did I know, the song had taken on new meaning.
The Song, to me as I’ve listened to it over the past 15 years, is about a man in the world clinging to his independence. Despite his love waiting for him, he always takes The Long Way Home and the journey to find their way is all up to him. He is alone, despite her presence. Yet in the end he asks her to come with him. His need to be alone is melted by his need for her. They both leave what they know and alone in the unknown they take The Long Way Home together.
Last year, The Chief and I were at the beginning of this song, we were both the individuals navigating our way through our own fears and doubts and The Chief had to find our literal Long Way Home for us as I was completely and utterly lost in the now snowy landscape I had barely remembered when it was completely bare the Summer before. I can see the leap we both took into the unknown now from the outside in all of its shimmering shining “are you freaking crazy?” glory. I can see how wild the leap must have seemed and I’m so glad we decided to do it anyway.
This year, the leap was a little smaller as we moved through the rest of the song. Yes, it was a new Winter, new ever lower temperatures awaited us and our neighborhood was deserted where last year it was “bustling”. But it wasn’t so completely and overwhelmingly unknown anymore. I knew how to avoid frostbite and live in the snow and I knew that we did like each other and that we did want to be together and we had made it through the crazy leaps and into one another’s arms. Sure, there were unknowns and uncertainties up ahead but something had shifted, we had made it through our first winter and now we were undeniably in it together; we were navigating our road home together.
As we glided this year over frozen highways I found my points of reference garnered from trips throughout the past year. I was still a newbie, like I had been while driving with my girlfriend those 15 years ago, but just like then, I was learning. I knew which place to stop for food and when (before it was too late and we were engulfed in mountains for the rest of the 7 hours), which mountains meant we were closer and which glaciers were my favorite, which were the best rest spots and which post office to mail our Christmas Cards from and together we navigated our way with equal input despite still differing knowledge (and priorities: I’m pretty much on Make Sure We Eat Before Hangry Sets In patrol).
No longer were we two people in a big ol’ truck in the middle of nowhere hoping individually for the best. Now we were a team. No longer were we navigating on our own, alone. We were on the same page. No longer was I following The Chief, both of us with our fingers crossed. Instead, this year we finished the song as we navigated The Long Way Home together, hand in hand, with our pup nestled between us.
And we made it.
“Well you know I love you baby
More than the whole wide world
You are my woman
I know you are my pearl
Let’s go out past the party lights
Where we can finally be alone
Come with me, together, we can take the long way home”
-The Wonderful Mr. Waits
Oh, but it wasn’t all whistling Tom Waits in the wind and high-fiving each time I recognized a glacier and skipping and snow angels and mountains of pancakes.
No siree bob.
But you knew that already, didn’t you?
No, this is Alaska, where nothing comes easy except change and not always the change you want and where you have to work the whole way just to make your way home. And all the love in the world doesn’t mean the journey will be easy but it does make it so much easier.
And so, with that, I tell you our Nitty Gritty, Non-Norah and Tom version of our journey to The Great North, our Long Way Home…
With love, from Alaska.