Heading into the city from the airport, the taxi driver points out a clutch of long-haired vagrants walking past the piers. Bedrolls and packs are lashed onto their backs. A young-faced man, haloed by wild yellow curls, skirts around them to the front of the pack. He turns to face his companions and begins to walk backward. He is playing a wooden flute. The piping penetrates the closed cab. Three men, dressed like scarecrows, their packs and blankets bobbing above their heads, join hands to form a circle and twirl, slowly, then faster and faster. Shaking his head, the taxi driver says to me, “They all jus’ lookin’ for their yesterdays.”
So that was it! I hadn't known. Then a taxi driver told me. I’d been gone two weeks, from California, where I’d lived two years. 1 didn't understand where I’d been. I didn't know why I went. I wish I’d talked to that taxi driver before I left. 1 wish I'd known.
We ignore the subject of return. Nobody writes about how to go back over old ground. Ours is a mobile society. Going back is transgression. Return is taboo. As if a cat backtracked to its mess. Prevailing wisdom emphasizes the present. “Make a fresh start. Forget the past.” But there’s always something or someone “back there,” niggling. There has to be. Anyone who moves on had a reason to leave, even if that reason is nothing — no work, no friends, no housing. You leave for a reason. Even if something inside you sent you off, what it was still gnaws at you the way a long-toothed rat gnaws cheese parings. You can’t go home again. But you want to, and given the chance, you do.
You may still detest the local politics. You may hate the people, or a person, or the climate. You may hate snow. You will have forgotten a lot. But you don’t get over the ground.
Each returnee pleads a special case. My father, when he heard I was returning, wrote, “I would not have considered going back after your mother divorced me.” But he had gone back. At the time he had told us, “I wanted to see, once more, the house where I was born.” Now I said, ‘‘I’m looking for summer.”
Before I pulled up in front of the two-story house I’d lived in and — twice — painted brown, I’d already driven past the doctor’s office where I learned I had a lump in my breast, past the clinic where the lump was removed and looking at it, I had said, “It looks like a piece of chicken fat,” past the gray shack where I’d seen a porcupine throw quills into a yowling Irish setter, past the streetlights where I’d watched a dozen seasons’ snowfalls sift down through the yellow light, where I’d watched ash from Mt. St. Helens drift down, looking like snow but smelling like sulphur. Sighting the doctor’s sign, the Heavenly Blue morning glories vining up the walls of the gray shack, returned the past. Each memory came in an unbroken chunk. I was in my memory, but the I of my memory was no longer the me driving past.
Nobody tells you how to go back. When it first struck me that I wanted to, I didn’t even know what it was. Out of the blue California sky, it hit: the sudden, apparently spontaneous inclination, which felt like falling in love, but wasn’t. I told myself it would pass. I said I was tired. I needed a vacation. I told myself I was only looking for, hankering after, real summer of the old-fashioned Midwestern heat wave variety. But it was more than highs in the high nineties, more than days as slow as a low river, that drew me back. I was hungry for more than watermelon so ripe the first stab cracks it. I was about to become another of those vagrants, wild hair, dragging a bedroll, looking for yesterday.
It seems, in retrospect, to have happened fast. “Celebrate me home,” Kenny Loggins sang one morning on the radio. “Play me a song I’ll always remember.” I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I bought the cassette. I played, studied, then replayed that one song. Then I bought the ticket, shaded my eyes from the brass-band glare of the California sky, and scuttled gratefully into a DC-8. I had Loggins playing into my ears and I felt happy.
What was I leaving as I flew back north? Well, it won’t seem like much to you. Two years before I’d rented a room with two windows to the west and one to the south. I bought a cheap radio and turned it on. I tried all the stations. For the first time in my life I was by myself. I liked it. After the first year I bought bamboo shades. But it still wasn’t much. Someone opened my door, looked in, said, “This is a Bedouin’s existence.” It is. Hotplate. Cup-of-Soup. Change of clothes. But it had the virtue of being a life I could walk across without every square block evoking memories, a life whose store windows didn’t show me back a three-act play starring myself.
Three hours after leaving California the Washington coast came up in the window: Seattle and the San Juans; Bainbridge and Vashon Islands. It was late afternoon. The rain had pulled back up into the sky, and off to the east, out of Elliott Bay, by God, a double rainbow arched up. Loggins was pleading, “Please celebrate me home, so I can make believe I’ve never gone.” At the airport meeters and greeters, wrapped in still-damp steaming rain slickers, grinned and waved and kissed.
Soon I was driving past Seattle, heading 105 miles into central Washington. Interstate 5 loops through the Cascades, a range of picture-postcard mountains. The traffic was light. I rewound, replayed Loggins across Snoqualmie Pass. There, at 3500 feet, I-5 begins to drop down the eastern Cascade foothills into Kittitas County. At the county line, an aw-shucks Western movie vista, you’d swear you’ve driven into Montana 600 miles too soon.