Exile On Main St.

It has now been two and a half years since I settled into my cottage in small-town southern Appalachia. The quiet of the countryside out my window as the sun rises on a new day here invite thought and reflection. It’s a good time, I think, now that life has calmed down a bit from my personal anno horribilis of 2018 and the worldwide anno horribilis of 2020, to share some ruminations on past, present, and future – my own, but also that of the world around us.

As I grew into adulthood, my world became ever-bigger. I went away to college, and learned who I was as I lived on my own terms. After that came the beginning of my long traveling days. When I was 25, I lived at the foot of Mt. Fuji for a year with a young lady of whom I was quite fond – both my first time living in a foreign land and my first living in the countryside anywhere. Later, after I came back and she and I had gone our separate ways, there was a decade or so of working for an airline. When I had time off, travel was free, if limited to “space available”, which rarely disappointed me.

I returned to Japan many times – once privileged to sit in the cockpit of a 777 and watch the pilots at work, once in First Class in the upper deck of a 747, once in Business Class next to an off-duty flight attendant headed home to see her family in the Philippines via Tokyo. On another occasion, the only flight to Japan with even a single seat open that day was headed to Nagoya. I took the offer, and ended up there, then on the Shinkansen to Tokyo, then on the Chuo-sen subway to Takao Station, then on a bus to the neighborhood of the friend with whom I was staying, then finally for a long walk up the hill on which he lived – by my reckoning, 24 hours in constant motion, and worth every moment even just for the experience of doing it. There were days of walking around the old shopping streets of Nakano or past the futuristic buildings of Odaiba or under the bright lights of Akihabara, or staring out at the waves of Lake Yamanaka during my trips back to my old home in Yamanashi.

And there were trips to other places as well. To Florence, where in the Mercato Centrale I had the greatest meal of my entire life; to Paris, where I ignored the touristy bustle of Montmarte and stood in awe of the great Sacre-Coeur cathedral; to Venice in the off-season, where I braved a winter storm at Harry’s Bar; to Dublin, where I had shepherd’s pie at a pub that hasn’t missed a day’s business (other than Christmas) in 300 years; to Geneva, where I learned that Switzerland is safe, clean, and boring; to London, where I sat and watched the trendies trying to look cool in the glow of neon signs reflected off of rainy cobblestones; to Istanbul, where at Haghia Sophia I stood in the footsteps of Justinian, and later explored alone the long-abandoned Byzantine Palace at Blachernae.

Those were the days before the great refugee invasion of the mid-10s, when Europe was still an open-air museum waiting for tourists to come spend money. There were not yet the “No-Go Zones”, nor the dirty, frightening streets that seemed transplanted directly from Lagos, Mosul, or Dar-es-Salaam. Those places wouldn’t be the same if I went back there now.

When I was about 35, suffering from professonal burnout and personal restlessness, I decided to quit the airline and go back to grad school. This was not, however, the end of my journeys, but the beginning of my era of grand road trips all around America. In the summer of 2013, for example, I took a month in my small Toyota to drive both ways across the country. Starting at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, I made my way to to Yosemite Park, where I spent two days exploring. When I left through the park’s east entrance, at a hair under 10,000 feet elevation, there was still snow on the ground in June, and I drove a long day down through Death Valley, where the elevation was 200 feet below sea lavel and the temperature was 125F, to Las Vegas for a couple of days. From there I went on to Salt Lake City to see the grand Mormon Temple, then up through Wyoming and South Dakota to Mount Rushmore and the nearby monumental statue of Crazy Horse. I stopped at the Mall of America in Minnesota, and walked Chicago’s Magnificent Mile when doing so still posed no particular danger. Skirting the Great Lakes, I made my way to Niagara Falls, then down the New York Thruway to the city back when the Giuliani effect had not yet worn off and it was still safe and clean. Finally, I drove the last stretch out to the Montauk Lighthouse, to dip my finger into the Atlantic Ocean. On the return trip, I stopped at Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame, then swung north through Canada (when crossing from the US was still a simple matter) to Toronto and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum to see one of the world’s two remaining flyable Lancasters. I reentered the States, stopping at the pleasant college towns of Ann Arbor and Madison, back through Minnesota to the Dakotas, where, driving down a dirt trail in the Badlands, my car was surrounded by a peaceful, loping herd of American Bison. Next it was Montana and a visit to the Little Bighorn battlefield, then down through Idaho and Wyoming for a stop to see Yellowstone Park. From there, it was on to Twin Falls, Idaho, were I had lunch at a cafe run by an immigrant from Bosnia who told me stories of fleeing the Old Country’s wars. Finally, I rejoined Route 80, spent a night in Reno, and a return to Santa Cruz to finish my journey by dipping my finger into the Pacific.

Every year I would take long road trips like these – sometimes two or three. I’d head north to Oregon and Washington, or down south to Texas and Florida, or through the deserts of the southwest, or through the cities of the northeast. Travel was easy back then. You stuffed some cash in your pocket, threw a bag in your car, and you went. It was a very different world, though not so very long ago.

I turned the key on my cottage in small-town Southern Appalachia for the first time in June of 2019. That December, I took a short road trip down to Florida to escape the cold weather and to one more time see the spot where I had scattered my mother’s ashes. I started feeling sick on the drive back – loss of my sense of smell and taste, and general flulike syptoms. I limped home and collapsed in bed for ten days. Later events would make me recall that on a stop at Disney Springs to meet an old friend for dinner, I had taken notice of the remarkable number of tourists there from mainland China. The Post-COVID Era had begun. Six months later, the George Floyd riots began, making me very grateful that my cottage was far away from them, or from any big city. Then came the election, and the mask mandates, and the crime spike, and the runaway inflation, and cities – even whole states – where no one could go anywhere or do anything without proof of vaccination. Seemingly overnight, travel became difficult, burdensome, expensive, and often dangerous (as it does, eventually, at some point in the decline of every crumbling empire).

And now I find that my world is becoming ever-smaller – partly due to my own limitations as I get older, and partly due to the new post-COVID, early-collapse paradigm of the American Empire. From the cottage’s front door, there’s a radius of about an hour and a half driving time that I consider to be my local area and that I find I rarely leave much anymore. Within it, there’s a resort town where I sometimes go for events (there’s even a tiny local anime convention that’s held there once a year), and an Indian casino with a big steakhouse where I occasionally treat myself to a nice dinner out. At its far extremity, over the mountain, there’s a smallish city with a pretty decent Asian grocery where I can buy some old favorite foods, and an arthouse movie theater where in the pre-masking days I once went to catch Kiki’s Delivery Service on the big screen. Maybe once or twice a year I’ll work up the fortitude to do the all-day drive to Nashville to stay with some friends over a weekend and get in my big-city fix. That’s about the extent of my travels these days. The blockbuster 16-hour drives in the Toyota that I used to do – from Norfolk to St. Louis one time, from Wendover to San Francisco another, from Washington, DC to Tampa yet another – sound far less appealing now, as so too does 24 hours on planes, trains, and buses to the suburbs of Tokyo. My back can only take just so much punishment, and even with the help of caffeine, I tire more easily than I used to. I haven’t been on an airliner in years, and I don’t think that I can breathe through a mask long enough to endure any trip long enough that getting on one again would be the best way to do it. Maybe someday the panic will fade, the mask mandates will be dropped, ticket prices will again be affordable, and I’ll be able to go. Or maybe not. I suppose we’ll all find out.

Of course, there are things I would have liked to do that remain undone. I would have liked to go and see the Russian Far East, to visit Havana and Dubai, to tour North Korea. I probably never will get to them now. I suppose there are always some things on your list that you never do get around to in life. And of course there’s the little village where I lived in the mountains of Japan, and even my California homeland, fading ever further into haze of memory – I wonder if I will ever see them again with my own eyes. I hope so.

This, of course, weighs on me: that this place where I have found myself – a beautiful place, with people who have been nothing but warm and welcoming to me – will still never be my native soil. I will forever be an exile here, and it can’t quite ever feel like home. And yet I know that here, safe and comfortable and at least partly shielded from the madness overtaking the outside world, is where I’m supposed to be.

My world shrinks, and ever-more I find that I’m becoming something of a recluse. Well, maybe it’s the right time for it. I’m creeping up on 50, which is the age at which anyone will want to start slowing down anyway. Everyone’s world gets smaller as they get older, but at least I got to see our big wide world while I had the chance. I feel a sadness at letting it go, but I’m also grateful that I got my chance to enjoy it while it lasted. I feel bad not for myself, but for young people just coming of age in the new paradigm and who will likely never be able to do as I did. I had my fun, and now I’m ready to settle into my exile.

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This piece took a long time to write because I didn’t want to write it, and because it will likely be the last of its kind here. The paradigm, as I said, has shifted, and long personal reflections and theory pieces seem less relevant. The times are different, the situation is different, and I’m different than I was when I started this. You’ll find future postings to be shorter, more direct, and more practical. That doesn’t mean that I’ll never talk ideas or culture again – in fact, I have a series of movie analyses planned for the coming year – just that it’s time to change my style to keep up with the times and with where I’m at in my own life.

This coming year will be the ten-year anniversary of my founding this space. Thank you, dear reader, for coming along on this journey with me. We’re not finished by a long shot, so keep checking back for more!