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Can you go home again? Depends on what you mean by home. (Photograph by TSP Productions, Getty)

Following the Road Home

They say you can’t go home again, but after an East Coast trip I made recently, I’ve concluded that it’s not that simple. 

I was traveling to New York for business meetings, and flew out early so I could squeeze in a couple of days visiting my mother in Connecticut, where I lived until I was 22.

The visit astonished me. I had forgotten how glorious Connecticut is in the spring. Mom and I went for two long drives through a countryside bursting with dozens of hues of green. And though I had spent my first two decades here, it seemed like a new world to me.

Not that I haven’t been back. Though my wife and I settled in California three decades ago, we made a point to introduce our children to my hometown stomping grounds, and, since my dad passed away in 2007, I’ve returned every year for Thanksgiving. But as a result, I realized, the image of Connecticut I carried inside me–the top layer in the geology of memory, as it were–was of bleak, bare-boughed November.

I was thrilled to rediscover this verdant delight and to see how pristine the area remains. Driving two-lane backcountry roads, we passed miles and miles of forests and fields with only very occasional clearing with a wooden two-story house and lawn. And the houses we did see looked as if they had been in place for decades. “This hasn’t changed at all!” my mother kept exclaiming.

The other richness I experienced anew was the layering presence of history. In my childhood hometown of Middlebury, we passed a sign I remember reading with a kind of awe stating that in this spot the French General Rochambeau had camped with his troops during the Revolutionary War.

In nearby Woodbury we read plaques marking the Hurd House, built in 1680 and the oldest house in Litchfield County, and the Glebe House, built around 1750 and birthplace of the first Episcopal Church in the U.S.

At one point, we found ourselves on a street called Minortown Road, which prompted my mom to recall how her family, the Minors, had been among the original settlers in the area. That night I researched the region’s history and came upon this:

“In 1673 the original settlers of Woodbury drew up an agreement called the ‘Fundamental Articles,’ which proclaimed that as many settlers as could be accommodated would be welcomed to the new settlement…The settlement was named Woodbury, which means a ‘dwelling place in the woods’ and first recognized as a town in 1674. Deacon and captain John Minor was the first leader of the community during Woodbury’s early years.”

I felt my roots plunging even deeper into that Connecticut soil.

Of course, there was personal history of a more contemporary kind, too. My mom has lived for almost a decade in an assisted living facility in Southbury, but as we were driving to the house where I had grown up, in neighboring Middlebury, she wistfully recalled how, when she became pregnant with me, she and my dad used all their savings to build their dream home. They finished it just before I was born–and ended up living there for more than 50 years.

When we reached that beloved place, Mom said, “Oh, my!” The stone wall bordering the road was the same, the soccer field-sized yard was the same, the woods stretching behind were the same–but the new owners had removed the window shutters, built a small extension, and painted part of the house gray. It was home, but not.

And yet, being there opened the floodgates of the past. Mom recalled the time when I was four years old and wandered off into the woods with our dog, Pal. “I went into the woods calling your name, but then realized you would probably think this was a fun game of hide and seek. So finally I called ‘Pal,'” she said. “Next thing I knew Pal came trotting out of the woods and you came trotting merrily after her, smiling.”

Memories of celebrating my June birthday with backyard wiffle ball games, picking strawberries, and catching fireflies in big glass jars swam in my head–a cherished universe of dreams, adventures, and lessons unfolding all over again.

From Middlebury we drove to Watertown, where I had attended a private high school as a day student. When we reached the campus, the brick buildings elicited another memory-flood of trials and triumphs–the Latin teacher who terrified me, the senior class play where I played the headmaster, tennis matches won and lost.

And so our days together, brief but deep, became a spring-bursting conjunction of past and present.

I got to thinking about home and the notion of going home again. On the one hand, the physical home I lived in has been altered; in that sense, I literally can’t go home again. But on the other hand, it was home in the larger sense–home as an assemblage of defining experiences, home as history, personal and public–that burst into life again on this visit.

I realized that if “home” is something that lives inside us, and “going home” is really an act of imaginative reconstruction, the potential to go home is with us always, wherever we may be.

Here are four books that present, in differing ways, poignant celebrations of home: 

  • Frances Mayes’s new memoir, Under Magnolia, strays far from the Tuscany with which she is usually associated and back to her roots. Mayes vibrantly re-creates the scents, textures and tastes–and challenges, torments and dreams–of her childhood in Fitzgerald, Georgia and her youthful travels through the American South. With poetic precision and time-honed perspective, Mayes creates a profoundly moving personal portrait of the places that shaped her.
  • Journalist Gary Kamiya has lived in San Francisco since 1971. In Cool Gray City of Love, he divides the city into 49 sectors, and explores–often on foot–the hills and histories of each, from their geological origins to the present-day influx of high-tech hipsters. Using sources that range from obscure historical accounts to tales from his days as a taxi driver, Kamiya creates a 49-verse love poem, luminous with erudition and passion.
  • After moving to Paris in 1986, David Downie began writing about its off-the-beaten-path attractions for American newspapers and magazines. A flâneur, scholar, and lover of French food, literature, and history, Downie poured all his knowledge into Paris, Paris, which presents 31 short prose sketches of the city’s overlooked riches, from unvisited corners of Montmartre to Île SaintLouis. With wit and wonder, he illuminates the idiosyncratic essence of the City of Light.
  • In The Matter of Wales (1985), acclaimed travel writer and historian Jan Morris, herself half-English and half-Welsh, celebrates the landscape, legend, art, character, and culture of Wales. Though she has gained renown as a world-wandering travel writer, Morris has lived for most of her life in the Welsh village of Llanystumdwy, close to where her father grew up, and this book is a lyrical ode to the history and heart of the land and people she loves.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.