Walks Around Town

GOING OUT FOR WALKS has become a part of my routine, though the time is never fixed. There was never a need to schedule a walk back in Seoul. Aside from the metro, which leaves swaths of the city uncovered, feet were how I got around. And that suited me. After so many hours kept in front of the computer, once turned loose I was liable to amble on for miles.

Since returning from our travels, J and I have been staying with her parents in a small Wisconsin town bordering Illinois. Like many true US towns (not suburbs or subdivisions or sub-what-have-yous), it is dying. Business has drained from its downtown and walking is not really a part of people’s lives anymore — though there is plenty of waddling at the Walmart.

J grew up here. She’s shown me the trails and the parks, and sometimes we just stroll around her neighborhood. On each walk we see signs of fall yielding to winter; one tree stood bare with all of its leaves lying in a neat circle around it, like a woman who had suddenly dropped her dress. During one outing I actually saw kids playing in the street (I thought they’d all been lost to Xbox and forgot about their yards). But they, too, have since retreated.

This morning the sky was sunny and crisp. The season’s first cold snap had blown in the night before, and the leaves still left hanging were tinged an especially brilliant red. On the lawn, frost huddled in patches of shade.

I put on my hat and scarf and set out alone this time. I walked across the road, past the empty baseball fields and down to the creek. The park was absolutely empty, though I hesitate to say not a soul was there, for it lies next to the cemetery and you never know what hovers above those graves.

It was probably the most isolated I had been in months, and that gave me both calm and unexpected fright. I walked on the grass and was happy for its springiness, its give. I heard the rhythm of my breathing. Like entering a hot bath, a walk takes easing into. Once you’ve adjusted you feel like you could float away.

I had brought my headphones just in case I wanted to listen to the news while I walked. I didn’t, really. The sound of chittering squirrels and the flapping of a robin’s takeoff was a good soundtrack. I almost started talking to myself (the thinking habits of an only child) but then held my tongue.

I went back across the road, into the neighborhood. Eventually I popped in my earbuds: rounds fired from North Korea, analysis of the Brazilian election. A whole world going on out there. And me, just walking down the street.

Coming Home Early

THERE IS A POINT on every trans-Pacific flight when the dynamic of the coach cabin changes. It usually comes around the nine or ten-hour mark, but this can vary depending on the total duration. Around this moment people grow weary of the movie selection; a woman takes up her knitting needles intent on finishing that scarf, while another crumples her face into the cup of her fist, no longer able to hide her aggravation at the squealing child across the aisle. Men mill about in the back of the plane, stretching, glassy-eyed but happy to make small talk.

It’s at about this time that I can usually be found hunched over my tray table, praying for sleep to finally come and numb me to the final painful hours of the interminable journey. But on this particular trip — Seoul to Chicago, the second leg following a redeye from Siem Reap — I was surprisingly energetic. I felt almost buoyant, and this buoyancy was reassuring: it let me know that I had made the right choice in coming home.

Lying in bed for a third day in Cambodia, my stomach wrenched from vomiting, I took comfort in reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I had bought the book in Beijing, thinking that it would somehow reconnect me with America (never mind that it was first published in 1962) while also fueling my wanderlust. But amid my sickness and the heat, that latter bit wasn’t panning out; the only place it made me feel like going was back to Wisconsin.

“I don’t know how it is in other seasons, the summers may reek and rock with heat, the winters may groan with dismal cold, but when I saw it for the first and only time in early October, the air was rich with butter-colored sunlight, not fuzzy but crisp and clear so that every frost-gay tree was set off, the rising hills were not compounded, but alone and separate. There was a penetration of the light into solid substance so that I seemed to see into things, deep in, and I’ve seen that kind of light elsewhere only in Greece. I remembered now that I had been told Wisconsin is a lovely state, but the telling had not prepared me.”

These passages made me ache. And then there was my illness, which was not really an illness but side effects of the anti-malarial medicine we were taking — symptoms that were not certain to wane. The idea of simply coping with the nausea over the course of another month, or potentially growing dangerously dehydrated in someplace like Battambang, smothered my enthusiasm for the rest of our journey.

When J and I finally decided to buy tickets back to the States, I felt two things: relief, and defeat. After more than two years in South Korea, a hectic summer preparing to leave, and a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants trip through China, we were exhausted. And in a way I felt like I’d taken in all I could. Steinbeck, in the final pages of Travels, writes: “Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns?” That was what I wanted to avoid — pushing through Cambodia and Vietnam for persistence’s sake, the memories blurring into a blank like overexposed film.

But giving into homesickness and exhaustion also cut deep into my own self-image as an untethered wanderer, which I had carefully constructed since adolescence and nursed with Kerouac and Iyer and Theroux. Maybe it was bunk all along (most probably so), but I hadn’t had to face that until now. And that was injuring.

By the time we stepped out of the international arrivals gate at Chicago O’Hare, all of that had melted away. The sky was cloudless and the air was cool, and the bus to Wisconsin was waiting at the curb. I felt a bubbling happiness that I could barely contain. We threw our bags below, and made that final trip back to the place we had missed so much.

Tuk Tuks and Tourists

THERE WAS THUNDER OVER the Bayon and it made the place seem eerie and haunted. The temple’s corridors grew even darker. The air shuddered with each crackling “BOOM!” Carved faces with broad smiles looked down from every ruined surface; in each a look of compassion, otherworldly knowingness. It started to rain down hard and thick drops trickled off their stone noses.

This was day two in Angkor park, but day four in Siem Reap. I’d been painfully sick for most of it — a side effect of the anti-malarial pills that I could only imagine was worse than the disease. It made me nauseous, which made me not want to eat, which in turn made the nausea more violent. I’d spent an hour or so the day before trying to appreciate the famed and holy Angkor Wat in this state, doing all I could to not desecrate it by ralphing.

But I felt better today. We called for a tuk tuk once the afternoon heat had passed and then zipped and bounced our way from town into the ancient city of Angkor Thom, once a grand metropolis of nearly a million people. Now it was populated mostly by trees and silent stones, tourists and tuk tuk drivers. A more modern temple on the roadside played a recording of distinctly jungle-sounding music out toward the narrow road. I couldn’t imagine what for (party at the temple?), but somehow it added to the atmosphere.

As much as this all felt adventurous, once we arrived at the Bayon the idea melted away. Clumps of tourists from China, Japan, Russia, some plodding around in high heels and wedges, gathered to take photos — probably of places they’d seen in photographs before. There was one spot, a kind of carved window, where everyone seemed compelled to sit and have their picture taken. Butts and backsides wore away at the bas relief.

As they waited for their turn, the clusters of umbrellas made a bouquet of colors that were set off by the dark gray stone behind them. It was lovely; I snapped a photo.

The rain let up as we rode back toward Siem Reap, and in the patches of clear sky I could see the gathering of dusk. It was the start of what photographers call the “magic hour.” J and I looked out the back of the tuk tuk as we passed Angkor Wat, and for the first time I sensed its power, its magic. I thought to call out to our driver to stop, but he wouldn’t have heard me.