I spent the first 21 years of my life within a 70-mile radius. Born and raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, I only got as far as Charlottesville when it came time to go off to college. As a kid, I took the landscape for granted; as a teenager, I predictably wanted nothing more than to put as many miles as I could between myself and my hometown. It wasn’t until college that I actually came to appreciate this place.
That was when I began to notice things that had escaped my attention before. The dusky, metallic smell that comes with the first drops of a summer rain. The deep-space silence of a snowy winter day; the soaring parkway views over grassy valleys and distant, peeling farmhouses nestled in the shadow of the Blue Ridge. The way the Virginia land begins at the sea as a swampy plain and then races west to crumple into mountains. Those mountains themselves, ageless, immovable, and so ingrained in my understanding of the outdoors that anywhere flat, regardless of population or architecture, seems to me desolate and unnerving.
But still I wanted to see the world, leave that 70-mile corridor for something utterly foreign. My newfound appreciation of my own surroundings crashed up against my teenage wanderlust, and I knew that I had to see what else was out there, even if it sent me right back to Virginia at the end of it all.
So a month before I turned 22, I boarded a plane that took me 7,000 miles away from the only home I’d ever known. When I finally arrived in Busan, South Korea, the sun had set and the city was bathed in the twilight of a neon haze. Glowing red crosses dotted the rooftops above rows of concrete buildings that clustered in the craters among the surrounding mountains like colonies on a distant planet. For the first time, I knew what it was to be away, truly away, from home.
As I got to know the place, I never lost the dual sense of the known and the deeply new that can only come with being far from home. The mountains were so familiar, and on some summer days, when the cicadas would shriek and the moist heat would cling to my skin and the clouds would billow over the ridges in thick blankets, I could almost be back in Virginia. But the rocky coast and the Chinese juniper and the itinerant monks who roamed the streets at night, twirling ratchets and calling for alms, always broke that illusion.
I spent three years in Korea. I made friends: foreigners and locals. I learned the food and as much as I could of the language. I learned how to teach. I fell in love. I sat up at night and watched the wind rip the leaves from the trees as the light from squid boats shone phosphorescent off in the sea. Oppressive summer; windswept fall; raw, chapped winter; spring with its drizzle driving green shoots from black, rain-slick branches; summer again.
I finally returned to Virginia with the Canadian girl I’d fallen in love with. We came back to the last gasps of a Virginia summer. Straight away, I found things I didn’t even realize I’d missed. Trees were one of the most surprising pleasures. Without even realizing it, I had spent nearly three years in a country where I didn’t see a single tree over two or three stories tall. The trees in Virginia were leafy and impossibly massive: great, ancient behemoths bursting with fractal branches and broad, variegated leaves. The sky was another surprise. Vast and filled with enormous, kingly cumuli and scraggly tussocks of cirrus, the sky bled crimson and orange and purple as day gave way to night. I hadn’t even noticed in all that time that in neon Busan, the sun just fizzled and died each night.
None of this is to say that Korea didn’t have its natural beauty—far from it, the country is filled with mountains tumbling dramatically into the sea. But it wasn’t the beauty I had grown up with.
Two days after getting off the plane from Korea for the last time, I went walking along the trails around the Potomac with my parents and that Canadian girl, the one I’d soon marry. I let them go on ahead while I slowed my pace through a meadow that ran right up to the river. A small sea of waist-high grass roiled in the wind. Bullrushes quivered at water’s edge, and a florid smell hung heavy in the air. For the first time in three years, I felt a sense of permanence. A rabbit stirred in the grass and then froze. I was home.