Where the Heart Is

“Never knew a stranger,” Chip told me on my last day in Canaan.

He gripped my shoulder tightly, looking at me through the weathered lenses of an old pair of sunglasses. It was sunny out with clear blue skies above. The fresh powder from the previous days’ storms sparkled in the mid-afternoon sun. It was warmer than it’d been the week prior, one of those days that didn’t just beckon to you to step out of doors — it downright demanded it.

“Never knew a stranger, because home is right here,” he finished, releasing his grip on my shoulder and pounding his fist into his heart. “Home is where the heart is.”

Though I’ve heard the phrase throughout my life, seen it craftily painted on decor you’d find at Home Goods, probably even said it myself, those six simple words have taken on a new meaning in my life now that I’m quickly approaching the year anniversary since I hit the road.

Home is where the heart is.

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The sentence immediately makes me think of my friend Eric who, the very first time I met him, told me his spirit animal was a turtle.

“I carry my home with me everywhere I go,” he had said, pulling up his pant leg to show me a faded tattoo of a turtle on his ankle.

Eric, a fellow free spirit, has done his fair share of romping around. I’d always taken a liking to his choice of spirit animal, never having cleverly come up with one myself (although I am a sucker for horses). In many ways, a turtle would be a particularly fitting spirit animal for me — as if the SylvanSport Go didn’t look enough like the sea creature (albeit a fluorescent green one), I quite literally lug around my shelter, my home, my belongings with me, everywhere I go, just like a turtle.

And quite honestly, I can’t imagine a better way to spend my youth. I can show up at any mountain town fully loaded, ready to boat, bike, climb, ski, whatever’s in season. I have everything I could possibly need to be comfortable in almost any outdoor sport right in the backseat of my car. It’s the epitome of freedom.

But there’s a part of me that yearns for something I never envisioned wanting, something I didn’t realize was important to me until I stripped myself of it and hit the road — that thing is community. Though in a larger sense, I am part of the outdoor community and am almost daily reminded of just-how-small this world really is, it’s not quite the same as being part of a tight-knit community.

The near-month I spent in Canaan Valley was the longest I’d stayed put anywhere since giving up my apartment in Charlottesville, Va., last April. Routine entered my life again. I got up early, put my time behind the screen, then skied the night away. There was yoga on Wednesday nights followed by Hellbender dinners, burger night at Tip Top came on Friday, and jammin’ music at the Purple Fiddle on Saturdays. Faces became more familiar, more friendly. I got phone numbers, started organizing group skis. Suddenly I wasn’t just “the girl” from Blue Ridge Outdoors (or maybe I still was). People knew my name, and I (by some stroke of magic) remembered theirs.

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Things started to feel cozy. I wanted to keep exploring that rugged country. Even three weeks was barely enough time to do and see all the things I wanted to. I was making friends, carving out a life for myself in those hills.

But the road was calling and I knew I could not ignore it, that voice of places yet-discovered. It’s the same voice that met me in my dreams all those months ago while I laid asleep in my one-room apartment. It told me that I was playing it too safe, that there were bigger and better things around the bend if I would just get in the car.

So I got in the car.

As I drove east on Corridor H in the early morning darkness, I thought about all I had learned from the people and the mountains in Canaan Valley. I thought about the laughs I’d shared, the love I’d felt, the inspirational people I’d met, and the plans for future adventures I’d schemed over beers. I thought about the good-byes I’d said, the hugs I’d given and received, and Chipper’s last words as I walked away from the valley.

Home is where the heart is.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I felt that last day. There was an overwhelmingly restless urge for the next thing coupled with the inevitable interrogation, the “what ifs” and “should haves,” the questions that can’t be answered.

But as I made my way down the road, I recalled part of a Jack Kerouac quote from On The Road, the entirety of which goes, “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

I knew it wasn’t good-bye in the finite sense — I’ll be back to the valley in the spring — but I knew that the only way to keep from slamming on the brakes and turning the rig around was to push forward unabashedly, hungry for the novel and the simple act of living.

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