My earliest, specific memory of coming home is the drive back from the airport after my family and I went on a summer trip to California when I was 9 years old. I hated California. Strange, I know. (I live there now. I don’t hate it.) We visited my sister in San Francisco, and San Francisco was nice enough but it confused me. Why was it called a city when it was almost entirely houses? And we went hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains. All the trails were perfectly groomed (I know from having been there since, they aren’t actually, but they often seemed so to 9-year-old me) and walking on them was boring. (If you’ve hiked on the Appalachian Trail, you know what a rough scramble it is in places — I loved that kind of thing as a kid, it was what made hiking hiking.) My mother still enjoys, more than she should, relating how during one hike she told me to look out at a vista point (which of course was spectacular) and I replied, grumpily, “I already looked.” And everything was so far apart, so we spent ages in the car, and all the license plates were blue lettering on flat white, what was up with that.
That vacation was probably the first time in my life I had any sustained tension with my parents. I complained a lot (who knows how much, exactly, but it’s the biggest thing any of us remember about it now). On one hike, resentful that no one would listen to my warnings that the swiftly growing and approaching bank of storm clouds was going to soak us and maybe we would be fried by lightning, and probably even more resentful that no one seemed to care that I had an altitude headache and my knee had hurt the whole way up, I left my parents on a ridgetop and headed back down the trail. Only, mistaking the main trail for a dogleg to yet another vista point we’d looked at, I turned and went down a side trail that headed another 5 miles into the back country instead of back down toward the trailhead we’d started from. I actually stopped after just a tenth of a mile or so, and figured out my mistake when my parents didn’t catch up to me (I could see them start coming down from the ridge, so I had some guess when to expect them to reach me), and caught up to them down the trail (I was a much faster descender, and to this day when I walk down hill I wish I still had such short legs and low center of gravity), but not until they’d caught up to another hiker who’d seen me go the wrong way, and all of us had separately gotten a thorough scare.
The next summer was the first time my parents didn’t take me on vacation. Probably at the end of that trip they never wanted to take me anywhere ever again, but they did bring me home when it was over. (Possibly because they’d already paid for the plane ticket. Neither of them likes to waste money.) And, almost as vividly as the simultaneous thrill of running at top speed straight downhill and anxiousness about catching up to my parents as fast as possible and trepidation about what they would say when I did, I remember that feeling when, back on the right side of the country, I realized I was home again. It was in the humid summer air outside the airport. It was in the reliably aggressive way New Yorkers piloted their cars in traffic. It was in the tuh-tunk, tuh-tunk of the tires over the roadway joints, and the whine of the tires over the steel grid bridge. It was in the navy lettering on dark orange license plates. It was in the familiar dips and curves of the parkway approaching the town where we lived, and the feeling of the car turning and accelerating onto our street and up and around the curve of the hill to the only house I had ever lived in.
All those mundane, familiar sensations had never made me happier. Maybe that’s one definition of home. A place that, the worse it was to be away from, the more you appreciate how good it is to be back.