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.