For eight months, “home” has had little to do with a physical location, and has been best-defined as “the place where Rett and I are together”. But upon returning to a physical location that had correlated with “home” for decades for both of us, the unavoidable feeling of “coming home” proved that there are layers to that concept of home (Rett had lived for 20 years in the broader Chicago area, and I had lived the first 40 years of my life nearby, including my most-formative decade in the very house where we would be staying with my parents). Of course even for non-nomads, a place where they had spent so many identity-shaping years, and a place where wider family and friends still remain, can often feel more like “home” than the apartment they’ve been living in for years in a “new” city. So it’s hardly surprising that us nomads also still have places that enable an extra level of relaxation that comes with comfort and familiarity of our surroundings.
We had two main reasons for returning to the United States (which is perhaps our most geographically-expansive layer of “home”): seeking more-comfortable weather, and bringing Rett to one of her closest layers of “home”, to see her Dad in the Finger Lakes area of New York, where, after regular yearly visits, she had not been for three years (and she had already broken her promise to see him before leaving the country, whoops!)
Except for those reasons, staying in Mexico seemed like the more-exciting, more-exotic, more-adventurous, and thus, more-obvious choice. But even a month ago, when contemplating this future, I discovered that I felt an almost-surprising draw to the familiarity of a conventional, traditional, American summer. The Baja deserts and mountains and seas surprised the hell out of us with their unfamiliar beauty, and when first encountering them three months ago, felt clearly superior to most places we could find in the United States.
But now, after three months in the desert, wouldn’t a towering, shady forest of leafy trees, vast fields of green life, and drenching thunderstorms actually be the unfamiliar, exotic thing? Perhaps not, perhaps we would need to be away from them for much longer; it’s more likely that it was still familiarity, a mild version of “homesickness” that was drawing me, but overlaid with the new perspective that people whose personal “home” was in other environments could find my familiar to be exotic and amazing.
There were cultural draws to that iconic American summer too: the smoky aroma of outdoor grilling in a park, the sounds of summer baseball, sitting lazily in the house with some meaningless golf tournament on TV in the background, ice cream cones after a pizza dinner in the late-setting sun. Not to mention the more-intimate cultural draw of our close friends and family, who we can communicate with on a level that we could not reproduce with even the most English-fluent and friendly people we met in Mexico.
We set aside ten days in Chicago (which soon grew to two weeks) to regroup, plan, and enjoy the company of our loved ones. And to my surprise and delight, I got a nearly-complete dose of this nostalgic Americanism before we even started riding again.
My mom plied us with an endless stream of fresh-baked treats: sweet rolls with morning breakfast, cherry squares, oatmeal-raisin and polka-dot cookies, Rett’s beloved pecan tarts, and even the traditional chocolate layer birthday cake, made even more special by the fact that it was no one’s birthday. While Dad cooked hot dogs and steaks for us on the backyard grill.
We rode our bicycles out to the uniquely-American sprawling residential northwest suburbs to see our friends Kelly and Chad at their son Silas’s Little League game, where the occasional ping of the ball meeting a bat, quickly followed by the excited exclamations of all the kids and most of the parents, filled my cup of American-summer to overflowing in a single early-evening hour. And on the way back, we got to meet Rett’s oldest best friend Josh for giant doctored burgers and an especially-excellent heavy metal playlist at Kuma’s Corner.
Earlier on the way out we passed the house I’d owned for 16 years, and while it was interesting and exciting to see the continuing growth of “my” parkway elm tree (and note that the new owners had taken down one of the giant, rickety backyard maples), it was also interesting to note that I felt barely any emotional connection to that nominal “home”, and certainly much less than I felt when I later visited the block of the Edison Park “home” Rett and I had lived in together for only two years. In the latter place, it also helped that I ran into several former neighbors surprised and excited to see me, with me somewhat surprised that they remembered me. But of course that community was one thing that made that house more of a home than my anti-social Hoffman Estates street. Sadly our next-door neighbor Slava was mourning the recent loss of her husband Joe, which now surely makes their house, which they tended together lovingly for 40 years, feel less like home to her.
We took another ride, to REI, where we had a lengthier, more-excited, and more-inspirational conversation with some fellow bike tourers than was normal for us in Baja. And on the way back, despite my American-summer cup still topped up to the brim, America decided to throw in a group of young girls running a front-yard lemonade stand! At 25 cents a cup (and the same for cupcake bites), it was nice to see that the inflation I’d been reading about a lot in the news has not yet hit lemonade stands.
Throughout all these bike rides, I was pleasantly surprised by the respect we got from drivers. After just one day in Mexico, the respect drivers give to cyclists there made us dread returning to the pitched on-road battles we face in the U.S., but somehow the treatment we were getting felt much more gentle than I’d feared.
We were both able to visit with some friends and family, sometimes together, and sometimes separately, and learn from them how “home” is a constantly-evolving thing, even if you aren’t on the move like us.
In addition to the homemade classic foods, we also were able to partake in Chicago area exclusives like Lou Malnati’s pizza, Buona Italian beef, the aforementioned Kuma’s, Sushi Toro, and Off-Color Brewing (whose anti-IPA bias is one part of our Chicago home that Rett wishes would have become mobile like us).
We managed to do a decent amount of riding during our two weeks “off”, which helped to both keep our muscles in shape (or really, build them back into shape after doing barely 100 miles of riding across our last 40 days in Mexico!), and battle the caloric impact of all those treats. But I also did quite a bit of driving of Mom & Dad’s loaned VW, where I still felt completely at home despite only a couple brief instances of driving over the last 8 months (and 3 years since any extensive manual-transmisson driving!) Having most of the area’s road network embedded in my subconscious surely helps, and is quite the contrast to my normal state of constant road-research prior to going anywhere into the perpetual-unknown on the bikes.
So these two weeks were an invaluable rest, a place to restore and refuel our minds, bodies, and hearts, before we bring our home back to its mobile form.