“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's goodbye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” -Jack Kerouac
If you asked me where I grew up, I couldn't tell you. By the time I was 11, I'd been to eight different schools and lived in 10 different houses in six different countries. I grew up in airports and in hotels and on planes. Mostly, I grew up in transit. To this day, my brother and I recoil from the feel of cardboard packing boxes in much the same way that other people shudder when they hear fingernails on a blackboard. And yet now, having been in San Diego less than six months, I'm moving on again.
This nomadic restlessness, like most things, can be blamed on my parents. One weekend in 1975 my newly-married father, with suitcase and guitar in hand, left London for a job in Detroit after telling his old boss he wouldn't be in on Monday morning because he had a dentist appointment. Three years later, he returned with four suitcases, two guitars and a penchant for the lifestyle that would continue over the next 25 years, as my parents set up house, over and over again, in Europe, in Southeast Asia, in America, in the Middle East. It's a pattern I've slowly become used to: arriving, figuring out which freeways go where and then leaving again on one of them.
Perhaps, by some process of osmosis, I've fallen prey to the romantic lures of the American Dream, which is, of course, founded on the desire to keep moving, to sally forth into the unknown, to grab the hand of the person next to you and run (or drive or fly) into the sunset without looking back.
Huckleberry Finn did it. Sal Paradise did it. Simon and Garfunkel sang about doing it. Lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest, as Mark Twain wrote, is possibly the most American idea there is. What was Dorothy doing on the yellow brick road if not moving forward into unfamiliar terrain? The protagonists of all good American stories, whether fictional or existent, possess an indefatigable yearning to flee the humdrum uniformity of life and embark on a cross-country jaunt that begins with a momentous screeching of tires or clattering of hooves. If I were really doing it right, of course, I'd be traveling toward the promised land of California in all its shiny newness, instead of moving away from it. But I've come to the edge of America and there's no more land, so where else to go but back across it?
So the maps have been bought, the truck has been rented and the cardboard packing boxes have been pilfered from grocery stores (but not touched by me). Evenings have been spent in Borders, poring over different routes and working out how to avoid driving past the world's largest cured ham (Smithfield, Virginia) or the world's largest boll weevil (Enterprise, Alabama). “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” asks a character in Kerouac's On The Road. And though my shiny car will in actual fact be a 15-foot, lurid yellow Penske moving truck with a cumbersome trailer attached, there is still something inexorably romantic about following one great blue line across the country and knowing that you will be anonymous and unreachable for most of the time that you're on it.
Only one dilemma remains. Although I'm lighting out for the territory, I have never been completely clear on where I'm lighting out from. As a nation, Americans seem to have a natural tendency to ask where you call home, and it's a question that has stumped me before and will no doubt stump me again. My accent says England, my ID says Connecticut and now my license plates say California. There are pieces of Singapore and Holland in me, scars from Paris and Hong Kong, tales from Abu Dhabi and London. I am moving to Charleston, South Carolina, where I hear it rains every day at 4 p.m., and I guess now I can add that too to my collection of roots.
Philip Larkin wrote that “they fuck you up your mum and dad / they may not mean to but they do.” If this is true, then mine have fucked me up in the nicest possible way. With all the awful things parents can do to their kids, I seem to have gotten off rather lightly; a constant restlessness and a fear of cardboard boxes is a fairly flimsy albatross to carry around my neck through adulthood. And besides, I've become excellent at packing suitcases.
So now I'm saying my farewells to San Diego. In some ways, the timing couldn't be worse: I've finally figured out which days the museums in Balboa Park are open for free and I have at long last discovered how to make it home from work without ending up in Tijuana. For most of my 22 years, I've been railing against having to suddenly pick up and move, and now I find myself volunteering to do exactly that. But I suppose it's what I'm used to. I suppose it keeps things normal.