"Let's go home," the kids said. We had spent a long day rambling among the gentle hills of eastern Indiana. We visited Wilbur Wright's birthplace and measured the first flight at Kitty Hawk. We toured the home of Levi Coffin, a Quaker man who ran the "Grand Central Station" of the underground railroad from his red-brick home in the village of New Fountain. We were full of new knowledge, and we were tired.
The kids wanted to go home -- a simple request. Something everyone says without thinking: "Let's go home." But now it struck a lonely little nerve that I had been trying to ignore. Where is my home, anyway?
"Home" is a rich, evocative word, like "mother" or "God." It is a place of refuge, a sanctuary, as Coffin's house must have been to runaway slaves. It is a place that slowly absorbs one's scent and molds itself to one's quirks and history. I have heard heaven described as a "place that feels like home."
But we are living in a trailer for a time, and I fumble with the notion that this is my home. Places that I have called home had basements and gardens, definitely a clothesline. They had bedrooms with doors that closed and bathtubs big enough to recline in. Our trailer has none of these.
Oh, it is cozy enough. On rainy days we sit around the table doing math and science with the kids, or we scatter to the far corners of our 240 square feet and read. (After the first rainy day, however, the picture gets uglier.) I've been surprised at how little we need to be comfortable (my husband's seven pairs of shoes and eight hats notwithstanding). We are living in one-tenth of our former space with one-twentieth of our former possessions, and we lack nothing.
But a trailer does not feel like a home to me. For one thing, it, and we, are always moving. A real home doesn't do that. Being in motion means that we are perpetually heading out into the unknown, which can be dangerous as well as exhilarating. We are never sure what we will find at the end of a traveling day, or what we will go through to get there.
We might inch along in driving snow past the abandoned hulks of semis as we did on our way to Amarillo, Texas. Or we might find ourselves with smoking brakes negotiating the rim of a mountain pass toward a hairpin curve that overlooks empty space as we did at La Rumerosa on our way to San Felipe in Baja California, Mexico. Looking back (the special prerogative of the passenger), I saw half a dozen or so twisted hulks of cars dribbled like crushed ants down the mountainside behind us.
We have learned to respect the vagaries of the road because it is long and changeable, and we are small and frail. Each time we hitch up to move on, kids and dog in back, adults in front, we pile our four hands together and pray for safe passage. We never forget this prayer because it is close to our hearts. We are at the mercy of the road and the goodwill of others; we are in the hands of fate and grace. We are transient in all the unsavory as well as adventurous meanings of the word. We have become like Gypsies for a time, and they are not among the world's most cherished people.
Helen greeted us cheerily enough, however. She is the store clerk at the Hats Off millinery in Knightstown, Ind. This is a quiet town whose turreted red-brick buildings along Main Street enticed us to stop and look around. Helen is one of those sweet gray-haired ladies you would want to be your grandmother. "Oh, I like Knightstown very much," she said. "I've lived here all my life. It's quiet."
Her friend Zola walked in. Zola looked more puckery, as though she laced her tea with vinegar. "Give them a receipt, Helen, so they'll know how much you cheated them," she said. Knightstown seems to be a place where ladies grow old with dignity and humor.
As we left, I noticed that the four of us had tracked mud from our last campground throughout every corner of her store. That is the way of transients. We carry dust and detritus from one place to another: oak leaves to the desert, cactus spines to the sea. We pull into town with rumpled clothes and uncoifed hair. We are headachy from hours of driving. We don't buy lunch or souvenirs. We do not fit the profile of the valued customer. We need directions, a drink of water, a place for the dog to pee. Like transients everywhere, we give people the opportunity to practice tolerance and overlook superficialities.
As time goes on, I am becoming more adept at this transient way of life. For one thing, I have stopped expecting disaster around every corner. I am learning to greet the unknown as much with anticipation as with apprehension. By now we have driven hundreds of miles and our truck still starts, the sun still rises and we are still alive. I am even learning to like the sound of a diesel engine -- its low rumbling means that all is well, that the heart of our rig is beating steadily and is ready to move us from one place to another.
Even when the travel is hard, when the road is rutted and full of switchbacks. Even when we lose our way, as we did when we missed Tombstone, Ariz., and hurtled into the darkening sky between columns of purple mountains without a clue in the world what lay ahead. Even then (well, maybe not just then, but soon after), I remind myself that things have worked out before, and they will again. So far, they always have.
At the end of the day, if our camp is good, we open our awning and put the vase of dried flowers on the table, the teapot by the sink, the rose quartz stone by the door for luck. We set our chairs around the campfire, and my husband cracks open a beer.
"Ah, this is great," he always says. And it is.
We may be camped in Indiana or beside the Sea of Cortez. For a short time, that place will be something like a home. We can fall asleep to the rusty squawks of herons, a symphony of coyotes or the rhythm of the tides. Then I lie in bed and try to remember where I am, and it can be anywhere. And I remember the lullaby: Oh God make small the old star-eaten blanket of the sky/That I may wrap it round me and in comfort lie.