At some point, my past was bound to cach up with me. In the past seven years I have been incredibly privileged in my opportunities to see and experience the world. I’ve studied abroad for brief periods in two countries—Italy and Argentina (two times)—I volunteered with an NGO in Nicaragua and briefly visited Uruguay, and I lived for a year in England where I did my Masters degree. Moreover, while in England, I not only traveled around the country, but I also visited (deep breath) Cornwall, Wales, the Netherlands, France, and Ireland and in 2013 honeymooned in Scotland. Before all this international travel, I had the wonderful experience of traveling much of the South and Midwest in a band. I don’t bring all this up to gloat (well, it’s not the only reason). Rather, I mention this background to illustrate how strange sitting in one place can be. In less than a decade, I have traveled more than most people will their entire life, yet now I find myself in Saulsbury, TN (population 81).
In a short five months, this place that I thought I knew intimately from playing in the gullies with my Grandma in my childhood has revealed quirks and nuances that have really grown on me. It is beyond small, and beyond forgotten. While well manicured monoculture farms are prevalent, there is an air of abandon to parts of it —privet, blackberry, and smilax take over fence lines along the road; coyotes seldom fear people; the Sheriff’s Office only makes the 30 minute trek, begrudgingly, when called—that would not normally be found in a southern farm town. I love its quiet. I love the way new acquaintances know where I live and what I’m up to well before I meet them. Above all, I love the quiet. It is people-quiet, but animal-loud.
I dwell on how peaceful I feel in this place to emphasize how caught off guard when the yearning for travel started up. Whether it is my parents flying to England for my younger sister’s graduation, a friend doing some hiking in the Ozarks or along the AT, or a buddy headed up to Boston for a family visit, I cannot help but feel that familiar itch. I love getting lost in a culture that is not my own: tasting the dishes of a place, learning the idioms and cultural nuances, and spending time with people I might not otherwise ever meet. These days I travel between Ashland MS, Saulsbury, TN, Corinth, MS and Memphis (about a 100 mile radius from Memphis). It has gotten to the point that when I hear someone is going to a wedding in Portland or to visit family in New York, or went to Puerto Rico for Spring Break (whatever that is) I teeter on the edge of an existential crisis:
Why am I doing this? I could live anywhere else in the world I want. I could move back to England. I could make cheese or beer or even wait tables at some locavore restaurant in Ashville. I’ve always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail! I’ll never find someone to milk my goats while I’m gone. I speak Spanish for christsakes. I could translate at a tourist resort in Mexico, or Argentina, or even Spain!
These are very clearly and admittedly first world problems, but when it gets hot, and your feet get tired, and your arms and legs are sore, and it is only Wednesday, the allure of travel can be a lot on the mind. However, having had ample time to reflect (especially on the tractor. You can’t do much other than reflect on the tractor) I think I’ve made sense of this phenomenon in my mind. I love to travel. There are places in this world that are incredibly unique and wonderful and beautiful. The catch is, these places became unique and wonderful and beautiful because of, what Wendell Berry calls, “the work of local culture.” There are ordinary people who care deeply and passionately for not only preserving, but elevating that which the local culture produces: the stories, the food, the traditions. In Argentina it’s tango, grass fed beef, wine, and mate; in England its groups like CAMRA preserving real ale and the pub; in Scotland it’s a few chefs and fisherman who decide to cook up the catch of the day instead of exporting it; in France or Italy it’s farmers, sometimes only a handful of them, producing a cheese that has only been produced one way in one place for hundreds of years. They preserve the land, tradition, and a way of life. One of the reasons I moved back to the South from England, I recognized on the tractor this week, is that, as wonderful as a lot of these cultures are, they are not mine. I want for my little corner of the South what other places have: pride in who we are and the work that we do. As much as I think I’d like to sometimes, I don’t want to travel. I want to be part of creating a place worth traveling to.