Landscapes of memory and imagination

The old family home, long ago.

The old family home, long ago, back when the locust tree was a little stick (and the horizon was tilted).

I once edited a story by a man who’d spent many childhood summers at his grandparents’ house in a small Nebraska town. It was a distinctive old house with a cupola. Years later, he wrote, he revisited the town and saw the house, but didn’t knock on the door or even get very close. He feared that too much contact with the present reality of new owners, new furniture, and other evidence of the passage of decades would damage the house that existed in his memory.

I’ve experienced the same thing visiting my old neighborhood. I was driving back to the old family house (where my brother still lives) and took a detour to drive past the house where my aunt and uncle used to live and to take the old way home through the side streets.

Conditions were perfect: it was a foggy night that obscured the pesky details and left only the impression that everything was where it should be.

In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck wrote of what he assumed was a similarly fragile landscape, but, in this case, one of pure imagination. In his mind, the name “Fargo” evoked an exotically remote prairie outpost. But when he actually passed through during his cross-country road trip, what he found was ordinary and generic. Fargo could have been any place.

He stopped afterward “to lick my mythological wounds. And I found with joy that the fact of Fargo had in no way disturbed my mind’s picture of it. I could still think of Fargo as I always had — blizzard-riven, heat-blasted, dust-raddled. I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.”

I’m not sure exactly what the point of this post is, maybe only to observe that there are two kinds of travel — one that involves seeing real places as they are, and another that involves seeing otherwise real place as they were, or as they might have been.


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