Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts. – Oliver Wendell Holmes
The first time I came home, I came on a Greyhound bus.
My aunt had moved from North Carolina to Colorado and somehow managed to wheedle my Mama into allowing my sister and me to come along, for the company and the free labor. I had traveled before. My Daddy was born and raised in St. Louis. We had trundled numerous times from our home in the Blue Ridge Mountains to visit the family and friends that remained there. Daddy’s Mama, Grandma Sue, took all of her grandbabies on a road trip when they turned five to visit as much of our far-flung family as possible. She traversed the bulk of the Midwest with a succession of grandbabies in varying states of excitement. I don’t remember much of that trip with Grandma. The one really solid memory I have is of sneaking into one of my Aunt’s bedroom and painting fire engine red nail polish onto my nails. Then I hid behind the house. Somehow, I managed to convince my five-year-old self that a prolonged absence would make the bright red tips of my fingers less noticeable.
They noticed, and I was covered in shame, which I felt keenly. There were other trips, as well. We traveled to N.C.’s Outer Banks and Florida. Most frequently, we traveled to my Mama’s parent’s house. They lived an hour away at the foot of the mountains, and we visited every Sunday.
So it wasn’t that I hadn’t traveled, just that this Colorado trip had a different flavor. Yes, I was with family, but there were no parents involved, and my sister and I were coming home all by ourselves on a Greyhound.
As we were climbing on to the bus, my Aunt handed my sister and me a journal to write in on the ride home. It was going to be a long one, and she wanted to know how we occupied ourselves. When I began writing this piece, I dug around under my bed and found my journal from the ride home. The first line I had written was, “The Hellhound departs” (before you give me side eye, I was sixteen). I read through the journal until I found the section I was looking for. I had written that the section when I realized I was almost home. I wrote,
“I just saw them. My old friends the Blue Ridge Mountains. They are shimmering just a little behind the next hill. I’m so happy to see them.”
I have always loved mountains. More specifically, I have always loved my mountains, the Blue Ridge. They are part of the Appalachian chain and they are perfect. They are old. Time has weighed on them and refined them until they have no more sharp edges; all of my mountains are rounded. They swim in seas of cloud; their smoke blue ridges protruding like islands from swirling white depths. My brother, sister, and I ran barefoot over them all summer long. Chased, caught, and released thousands of lightning bugs in their shadows. Swam in cold water fringed by sun-dappled ferns in places no-one knew about. Played hide-and-seek by moonlight, with the Blue Ridge a quiet sentinel over us.
I had not realized how much I missed them until they slid into view. How I had longed for their familiar shapes. It was not until our bus was rolling along on their gentle curves, that I realized I had not fully felt like myself in Colorado. The further into my mountains the bus drove, the more I felt a sense of rightness returning to me.
At that moment, from my bus seat, my understanding of home shifted. Home was not merely a house or a town. I began to grasp home was something that completed you; a place where you were most fully yourself. I love the German word, heimat. Translated literally, it means home or homestead, but it has a larger connotation. Heimat means the longing for home and the sense of rightness and belonging when you find it. Heimat is what I felt as the Greyhound returned me to my mountains, and it was transformative.
I cannot say that I was completely aware of how my perspective of home shifted at that moment. But that feeling resonated in me with a force I have never forgotten. That moment birthed in me a continued quest for home. For heimat. I don’t believe I’m alone this search. I believe most of us long for home and for connection. If you think about the advertisements for the latest phones and apps, at the root, all the various bells and whistles are promising is that they can help you connect to the world around you. Humans long for connection.
For me, home is connection, in its purest form. My sixteen-year-old self would be astonished at the places in which I find it. I still find it in the Blue Ridge Mountains; my mountains, but I find it other places as well. I find it in books when an author manages somehow to give voice to my own unspoken thoughts. I find it in quiet moments in the morning, alone with my coffee. I find it when my neighbors’ cat insists that my apartment and I are communal property, barges in, and lays claim to my lap. But I mainly find it in other people – in shared community and experience. As I build my life, I find the choices I make about how I live are deliberately calculated to cultivate heimat – the connection I crave; choices defined by a moment on a bus seventeen years ago.