Corie Sanford

Mapping the Delta


In 2012, I began teaching sixth-grade special education in New Orleans, Louisiana. My students (most of whom were diagnosed with mild learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD or some combination thereof) had little or no experience with maps (outside of the mapping functions on their phone). Their travel, for the most part, had been limited to time spent away from the city during or immediately after Katrina, at which time they had been 3-6 years old. Because geography and place is so significant in my life, I was constantly hunting for ways to familiarize them with the world. Most of them, however, could not find New Orleans on a map of Louisiana, much less Louisiana on a globe. (Find the boot was our constant refrain – harder than one would think on a world map). Their geography was limited to the small circles of their daily experience, which, for most, went no further than the 2-15 mile bus ride to school. The White House, Africa, China, Oregon, the Gulf of Mexico – all of these existed in a place otherthan this; the relationship established by directions, and between location and landscape, proved a mystery that, even as they began to unravel it, seemed more frivolous to them than epiphanic (as I had hoped). It did not make sense that the Russian steppe and the American prairie are versions of the same thing; in the first place, a prairie does not translate to a photograph, and in the second place, the American west and Russia are equidistant in the mind of a child who has traveled no distances farther than 50 miles. I was confused, then frightened, as I began to understand that my children knew how to get from one place to another within the scope of their daily lives, but most did not know where the river was, where Pontchartrain was, and anything beyond that was about as comprehensible as static. Because their perceptions of self were limited in geographical scope to school, groceries, church, home, it began to make sense to me that the historical scope in which they viewed themselves was also severely restricted. Although we frequently spoke of colleges and careers, when I would ask them, Where do you see yourself in ten years?, they would, often as not, reply, Probably working at the corner store/McDonalds by my house/insert local business here.

I never truly gave up on my geographic mission with my students, but as is true of all missions to educate, I learned much more than I was able to impart. The most remarkable – or thought-provoking – of my own lessons that year was that while my children lacked a basic grasp of world geography, they also had never really been lost. We didn’t have bus transportation to and from sports events that year, so I would get parental permission, pile 4 or 5 6th graders in my car, and head for the Saturday games. While it was true that they sometimes had no idea how to get to or from one place or another, it was also true that they knew where they were all the time. They could always find their way home if needed. Every corner store had a story; there were always porches with someone outside who they knew, usually someone they were related to; and they could tell me reliably the fastest – read: worst-paved – way to get from one of their houses to another. I learned a lot, such as which street was the best for certain Mardi Gras parades, and which corners were dangerous (You better not come out here at night, Ms. Sanford. Just don’t). Every part of the city felt familiar when I was with them, as though I was being given a tour by someone who had spent 50+ years there. In truth I was a privileged eavesdropper on a long-standing oral history of New Orleans.

It may be obvious, but should be restated here for clarity’s sake, that the lack of awareness of global geography/travel/distant landscapes exhibited by my students is very much an issue of class. I am a privileged member of a middle class; a woman with a job in the 21st century. I have the resources to travel great distances with very little impetus. Many of the students I am speaking of longed to travel, to see the world or certain parts of it, and their lack of geographical awareness or experience is something I trust they will someday remedy. They could not, however, actually conceive of a place that is not New Orleans, in which the Saints are not everyone’s favorite team or cold drinks are called by other names (such as “soda” or “pop” or “Coke”). They had never experienced the discomfort or strangeness of being in a place where they did not belong. In fact, frequently, I noticed that even when they were dropped into unique or new circumstances, they expressed very little concern about how they should or could act. All of their lives, they had walked into the same houses and stores and schools where they knew and were known. It didn’t even occur to them that strangers could not or would not understand their behavior, their mannerisms, or their inflection. Everything came down to this, in some way: no matter how many pictures we looked at or people we read about, they remained convinced that everywhere they could travel to was, in one way or another, going to be a version of their home; a colder, hotter, or Spanish-speaking New Orleans. How could they not? As Aleksandar Hemon says, “I gradually became aware that my interiority was inseparable from my exteriority, that the geography of my city was the geography of my soul.”

* * *

I moved to New Orleans in mid-May, during what has turned out to be the hottest summer I’ve lived through. I owned a flip phone with no internet capabilities and didn’t have money to buy maps. My philosophy about getting to know the city was: get lost often. And I did. Piper came to visit me a few days after I arrived, and we wandered through Mid-City and the Quarter and the Marigny and the Bywater, always taking (as I now know) the long way to get where we were going; usually knowing only as much as the address of our destination and the streets we were supposed to take along the way. I would procure these from a Google Maps search before leaving the house and write out quick directions; then a crucial cross street would be closed without warning or the street signs would be missing. My car did/does not have air conditioning. In 90+ weather and nearly 100% humidity, we cruised for hours, Icona Pop blaring, in search of dive bars, unique neighborhoods, parks. We made u-turns and asked locals for recommendations. We found City Park on purpose and the 9th Ward accidentally. Some of the neighborhoods opened up to us: on every block, a corner store with cold beer, every house a burst of color, people on porches hollering Evenin’ at 3 pm. Some of them were places where we did not belong and we wandered anyway, hunting for marks left by the National Guard after Katrina, acutely aware of every slowing vehicle that passed.

There was a daiquiri place I’d been to before; I knew it was on St. Charles. Before I took Piper to the airport, we cruised up and down looking for that corner; there, eventually, it was: small groups of old men loitering and smoking Swisher Sweets: Hey, baby, how you doing, which I’ve since learned is a pretty standard hello and not the boozed up come-on I took it for. We stood a while in the thick smoke and deliberated our choices. Each of the dozen or so spinning machines listed the alcohols on the front: Everclear, Gin, Jose Cuervo, Kahlua – visions of the sugariest hangovers. What made Piper miss her flight that day was not wandering, but a dogged attempt to find just the right place when we had passed four other shops (which I later found were dingier, darker, and served better – read: stronger – drinks) along the way. I had wanted to get it right – to prove that even though I was new, I knew something; that somehow I deserved to be here, and this was the way I had of proving it.

I’ve never found most of those places again. I don’t know their names, and despite knowing the city quite well now, I can’t remember which street anything was on. They weren’t connected to any address. I have a distinct sense of the dive bar with the 4’ x 4’ patio being purple, on a corner, across from a yellow grocery, but who knows. My impressive recall of the appearance of the place might not be accurate at all. It may well be that the colors and the referential locations are a misguided combination of the heat, faulty memory, and sensory overload. Then again, I’ve been searching using a new set of tools – Google Maps, street view – and trusting them to be all-knowing and all-seeing. It’s possible that the only way to find that bar again is to lose my way in the Bywater again. The act of getting lost is much more difficult now that I know where I am, particularly since I have acquired a smart phone with GPS. If street signs are missing, I know that I turn because the phone tells me to (and when it doesn’t, I usually talk back to it in insulting and derogatory language).

It’s possible that I’m throwing a halcyonic haze over the entire week. Like, maybe, we were Sal and Dean, “wandering in a frenzy and a dream” – when really there was nothing more going on than excessive sweating and tall boys. But discovery always implies a kind of madness, doesn’t it? Don Quixote seems to be always lurking just under the skin. I was on the lookout for the New Orleans I’d heard of, imagined – a place where devastation lurked in corners and leaks bulged from levees. I did not find this place, nor shall I: it does not exist. It was a fiction, my own, concocted from widely published stories and images of a city drowned; an amalgamation of Eggers’ Zeitoun, the taste of Covington Strawberry Ale, my friend Nick’s photographs of his neon-interiored shotgun, essays on education reform, the old maps of waterways I’d found at a garage sale, and Huckleberry Finn. The conglomerative effect of such a collection is still with me, however, and I have added more to it: the cacophony of “WHO DAT” in the Superdome, the faroff sound of trombones in a second line, the cold exuberance of Mardi Gras morning, the students lining up in the early light of a December school day. I have not found my way to any of this on a map, but someday I will tell these stories, and my voice will probably shake, and I will point a finger to the dot in the midst of an ever-surging Delta, and I will say, There it is.

* * *

Even while the shape of our continent was still an uncertainty, John Smith wrote, “Geography without History seemeth a carkasse without motion.” Since then, our maps have slowly filled with the things we’ve discovered, given names, and ultimately, implanted. I search for Bayou St. John, my neighborhood, on Google maps and get street names and landmarks, as well as local businesses, Yelp reviews, a list of people who’ve checked in here, and images of strangers paddleboarding on the bayou. When I am wandering, when I see the landscape with a wanderer’s eyes, the geography that emerges is a palimpsest of assumptions and reality. Geography and history are mingled – and then mangled – in the minds of those who visit and revisit. In much the same way that memories are altered by the circumstances in which they are recalled, place is a concept transformed by its history, and then reinvented with every story told, reimagined by every native who calls it home, every stranger who sees it with fresh eyes. Even if you tell the oldest stories – be it voodoo queens or street shootings – you’re sharing ideas, legends, myths.

* * *

Modern technology is exacting with regards to geography. To find a place is to enter digits and numbers and see it pop up on a map; potentially, being lost is not as much about knowing how to get somewhere as it indicates a lack of knowledge about your destination. I have little more to know than where I am going – a code of digits and numbers again – and I am practically there already, the only engagement on my part being the routine act of driving my car and my ability to listen to the directions read aloud to me. What unfolds before the modern driver – or bike rider, or walker – is a network of information without a landscape. When I’m tuned in to the voice that tells me to Turn left in 100 feet on to Esplanade Avenue, I don’t need to notice names on buildings, landmarks, or street signs (present or not). When I’m watching the blue route on my screen, I see a tan backdrop, or a blue one, instead of houses, people, oceans. This backdrop is information in some form, but it has already been processed for me: residential area, public park, business district.

* * *

What effect does this network have on our sense of orientation? Has it begun to affect our self-awareness, our relationship to the landscapes through which we move? When I open an atlas or a paper map, I must go through the effort of locating myself; my ability to get to my destination depends wholly upon my ability to identify where, in fact, I am, and then in which direction I am going. I spent a few weeks wandering in Paris by myself in 2005. My understanding of street maps (such as those found at bus stops) is that when one is facing the map, anything straight ahead of you should be above the “You Are Here” locative dot on the map; anything behind you would be below it. In Paris, however, at least when I was there, the reverse was true: when I faced the map, everything behind me was above my locative dot, everything in front of me was below. Even talking about it makes me feel confused, and I am not a person who is easily confused by direction. The result was that I frequently – almost always, in fact – wandered far in the wrong direction; coming across another city map, I would realize my mistake and retrace my steps. The entire time I was there, I had no clear sense of the city’s layout. By the fourth or fifth day, I still only oriented myself correctly about ½ of the time. My memories of the geography of Paris are thickly layered with this sense of disorientation and confusion, but also with my own heightened awareness of my surroundings, since I found myself retracing steps so often. Many of the corners and storefronts and intersections are vivid in my memory, though they were nothing more than hallmarks indicating that I was arriving at my hostel, or on the correct route to the river.

* * *

My experiences in Paris taught me something else about the ability of maps to change my awareness of myself in space. As I said before, I have a clear sense of orientation most of the time; I come from Colorado, where the mountains line up along the West and the sun rises over plains in the East. When I am finding a place I’ve driven or walked to once or twice before, my sense of direction is physical: I remember my body facing East, then North, I remember the mountains being on my right or left. There is, in motion, the constant awareness of an external and immovable presence. Now that I live in New Orleans, I’ve slowly reoriented myself to a city where roads curve much like a river, where my north is Pontchartrain and my south, east, and west are the Mississippi. These are the same on every map, broader reference points for the 1.2 mile drive southwest from my home to school every morning. Consequently, I exist in a world much bigger than myself, containing much more than is necessary for my commute. When I zoom out further, I find myself in a river delta in which land is slowly, constantly, disappearing. I have traveled a lot, and always have the same astonishing experience after spending some time in a brand new place: no matter how different the culture, or foreign I feel, this relationship to space always catches up to me eventually. I know what my self feels like within the landscape of Al Ain, UAE, and what that feels like on top of a volcanic crater in Kisoro, Uganda. These places become a part of the constant sensation that I am at home in the world, that it is a part of me. In this way, geography becomes my history.

* * *

Our modern mapping devices create a quandary for the self in space. My personal boundaries, as I said before, are large landmarks that outline or define the city in which I live; these are stretched and impacted by the fact that I can visualize myself in other places on the globe. Nevertheless, even my global – or international – sense of self is contained within my own body. Turning on the GPS device connects me to a satellite – or two, or three – that is approximately 12,000 miles from where I am, and still locates me in a fraction of a second. Does this disconnect me from my own landscape, in any way? Does it lessen the importance of my own internal bird’s eye view, which inaccurately but consistently places me in relationship to City Park, home, school, the Mississippi River, before considering the best route to my destination? When I utilize my GPS or, more frequently, my phone’s Google Maps, am I reducing myself to a blue arrow moving from origin to destination, with nothing but tan area in between? We’re worried about being isolated, being out of touch. Humbly, I would like to suggest that the greater challenge may be that we are in touch with too much, that we’re connected to everything, and that our ability to orient ourselves in these vast networks of data is, etymologically, more and more challenging, while physically, it may be possible in the near future not only to find yourself on Google Street View, but to read the text message on the open phone in your hand.

* * *

Since I am no longer tasked with orienting myself, either at the beginning of a journey or at any point along the way, my relationship to my destination becomes a singular and fixed thing. My father used to bemoan different individuals’ vast differences in giving directions – one family friend never using street names, only landmarks like the blue house or (since we were country folk) that field with the oak trees. As a pre-teen, I was proud of my ability to recall street names, landmarks, distances that would guide any newcomer to my landscape safely to me. In the summers we would drive from Oregon to Colorado and back; I would often wake up in the middle of the night on a dark highway to my parents poring over an atlas with a flashlight, double-checking our next turn along the dogeared and highlighted route. These activities still exist for some; but for the vast majority, travel is a determined route from location to destination.

* * *

“The historic task of modernity,” says Gerald Bruns in the introduction to Shklovsky’s Theory of Prose, “starting in the seventeenth century and continuing to this day, has been to develop a theory of rationality adequate to a universe of randomness – and not only a theory but a program of strategic operations capable of entering into the heterogeneity of things and bringing it under control.” The world is vast, but – at least in our maps – it is a fixed thing, satellite images layered with maps layered with directions that take us safely from here to there. Bruns’ argument regarding prose is remarkably apt here. The geographic task of modernity has been discovery, colonization, and mapping. “The world was so recent that many things lacked names,” says Garcia Marquez of pre-colonial Macondo at the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude. As a colonizing force, we have grappled with naming and renaming, with conquest and relinquishment. The unknown has been made known. Neighborhoods and cities that I have never been to are laid out before me with the click of a button. Strangers paid by global imaging companies hike cameras into the wilds of the Southwest, Canada, and Alaska so that I can see them without leaving my couch. I confess to searching these images, sometimes using them as instructional tools, occasionally just browsing on a quiet Thursday night when I don’t want to write lesson plans. I always have, however, a sense of self-betrayal – that I am settling for another person’s vista, taking advantage of someone else’s hard work. I have not stood on the edges of these wildernesses, but I can peer into them through someone else’s eyes – sometimes an actual human being, sometimes a machine orbiting earth at thousands of miles an hour. There is a sense of indecency: a space claimed or exposed that was only meant to be seen by the few eyes intrepid enough to brave the journey themselves.

* * *

There are no more literal “blank spaces on the earth” like the ones Conrad fell in love with as a boy. Unsurprisingly, our modern fantasies and fiction (both good and bad) persist in feeding this need for discovery, uncharted territories. If we do not have the blank space of Africa or Asia to fill, we will create new worlds, or destroy our own to the point where it is no longer recognizable (I’m thinking of Middle Earth, Narnia, and more recently, The Book of Lost Things, The Road, The Maze Runner, Hunger Games, the Divergent books). Along with the uncharted territories, we are losing our potential for true myths; and although we still have a few heroes, we are running out of dragons for them to fight.

* * *

One of the most fascinating legends in recent years is that of Chris McCandless, the controversial figure at the center of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild: “In coming to Alaska, [he] yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—-not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.” How privileged, I thought, when reading this book; one has the means to simply find a place into which they can wander and get lost, how privileged to have so much that you must rid yourself of it in order to “experience” the world. I think now of my students for whom, to some extent, the whole world outside of New Orleans is a kind of blank space. Would McCandless have been jealous of them? While it is precisely their lack of privilege that has so severely restricted their awareness of the world, they have access to a remarkable perspective that he had to travel thousands of miles and essentially lose his identity to acquire. In a surprisingly un-ironic turn of phrase, the world is their oyster – a complete mystery in which anything, absolutely anything, is imaginable. This sounds romantic, but I would like to stress that this is the case in their minds. The world, for my students, is a blank canvas on which they are able to – mentally – paint any images that they like, use any evidence to imagine. In this sense, they are the envy of McCandless, as well as many of our generation who feel some version of his malaise. The problem is that the world is not that way; it has filled with names and rivers and identities and definitions. My students do not know how to be lost in a situation, or how to be lost in the world, in the sense that they are not yet ready to take stock of what something is and respond appropriately. As a result, they are more likely to resemble Don Quixote or even McCandless in both their eagerness to take on the world and their unpreparedness for, or their delusions about, what that means.

* * *

Obviously – or, since you do not know me, perhaps not, but I promise you it’s true – this is the disaster that I want to avoid, that I fear every day. I don’t have the power to endow my students with the kind of awareness that they might need in order to survive. That comes from privilege, from a long history of familiarity with a multitude of places, from being told to pay attention, use the tools at your disposal, read the situation. The controversy surrounding McCandless’s death in the Alaskan wilderness hinges somewhat on his abandonment of all resources; some tout him as a romantic, a hero of authentic non-conformity, others decry him as a senseless – and possibly deranged – wanderer whose death was unnecessary and useless. One thinks here of Keats’s term negative capability: “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” We are irritated with McCandless for precisely this capability, or perhaps I should say, desire – that he would not avail himself of all possible tools to ensure survival. By Keats’s definition, negative capability was “the quality that went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature…” It is the will, however insensible it may seem, to suspend discovering and naming and mapping long enough to simply allow something to be what it is.

* * *

When I walk out of that known space into an unknown, unexplored territory, no matter what I’m carrying, I only have myself. The difference between my relationship to myself in a known and familiar space and my relationship to myself in open water, so to speak, is that my usual backdrop – the sights, sounds, etc. – is no longer present to serve as a foil for my own fragility, weakness, or impermanence. I can deal with this in one of several ways, all of which come down to Keats’s negative capability: I either choose to be in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”, or I reach after ‘fact and reason”. To stay inside this negative capability, I must resist the temptation to orient myself; consciously choosing to stay outside of the edges of the known. I become a wanderer. My self becomes, in some ways, as unfamiliar as the territory I’m in because I cannot get any farther away than my immediate physical reach. I do not know what this new place looks like on a map, from a plane; therefore I cannot mentally zoom out and see myself from a great distance. I’m within my own reach all the time. And it’s often an uncomfortable proximity. So in order to cope, I delve into the void, talking to myself as I would a child, another person, a familiar. You will cross the street to avoid those men, you will barter with that woman for an avocado, you will finish climbing this mountain, and see what’s on the other side. Although the discomfort is certainly the discovery that I am living within the skin of a silly, often weak stranger in a strange place, it almost always leads to the discovery of immense (proportionally to my non-immense self) capabilities that had gone unnoticed before.

Both feelings are warring within me every time I enter a new place. The disorientation and hyperawareness – of both myself and the space I am moving through – have become something that I long for, a reason to travel. I am, I must confess, more nostalgic for this feeling and experience than I am for my own home. Wandering has become a kind of home in and of itself, forcing me to pay attention to my surroundings in a way that I never do when I am somewhere familiar. Every once in a while, I pass the bar that I got a drink in my first night here, and it never ceases to ignite a sense of wonder, and then a sense of loss. How strange everything looked then, I think. How little I knew.

One cannot exist in Keats’s negative capacity forever; at least, one eventually must start creating – if that is their aim – one must settle down, says my grandmother, and begin in some way to form a relationship with the place in which they’ve found themselves. When I moved to New Orleans, I was drawn by an idea of the place. In order to stay, I had to relinquish many of my own smaller ideas, replacing them with relationships – to people, spaces, history. Bruns suggests that “with modernity the task of reason was no longer to interpret the world but rather to overcome it…we must penetrate its incoherent surface and lay bare its deep structures…the task of reason in the world of prose is to bring things under control.” The colonial drive to conquer emerges in the subtle violence of Bruns’ statement: overcome, penetrate, lay bare, control. I am not a native here, and therefore have an immense amount of discomfort with the idea of changing or transforming the historical or geographic narrative of this place to fit me. I experience this discomfort when I find myself moving into a historically black neighborhood in the early stages of gentrification, as a participant in – and thus enactor of – an education reform movement, when I adopt phrasing or customs that, historically speaking, I have no business using. The latter is a kind of inverted, internal colonization, a violence against myself, although not, necessarily, self-betrayal. I love this place, I am glad to adopt inflections and gestures that I would not use anywhere else in the world. In certain ways, I am using these to inflict the geography and history of this place on my own body and mannerisms. My concern with this is that it does not happen naturally, it is not organic; it is a semi-conscious decision on my part to fit in even though I am fully cognizant that I will never be a native. It is, in baldest terms, my ticket to walking down dark streets after 2 a.m., it is the way I excuse my presence in places where I know I am, in some sense, an intruder.

How you doin’?


How you doin, baaaaby?

I tell people this when they visit me, and meet with disbelief. This basic friendliness, the dropped ‘g’, knowing when to say ‘Evening’ instead of ‘Afternoon’ or ‘Night’ – these are the things I’ve learned. At first it was because I was self-conscious. Now, it has become habit; even while running with my headphones on, the standard greeting leaves my lips before I am fully aware of it. I am not from here, I might well say. But I love this place. And this is enough; I am given the nod, the rejoinder: How you doin’.

These habits are hard to break. In Colorado over the summer, I was surprised when no one responded in kind the first few times I issued this greeting. Then I remembered where I was. On lonely dirt roads, out for a jog, I lifted my hand once in salute to passing trucks, women in their gardens, men checking irrigation lines. I was waved on in kind. Get on home, they might as well say. Tell your folks I say hello.

* * *

Modernity is locative, fixative; it is not transformative, because the process of transformation creates something new or unknown, which in turn undermines the pattern of discovering, naming and mapping. The systems and devices we use remember our check-ins, our routes, and suggest that we continue to drive in the same patterns we’ve driven before, drink at the same (or similar!) bars, eat Thai food again on Thursday if we’ve been eating Thai food on Thursdays but just didn’t realize it. To be honest, I can’t tell anymore if I find this invasive or comforting; I lean more towards comforting because I’m fairly certain no one except me is interested in the maps of where I’ve run, shopped, driven, walked, and biked in the past 6 months. We’ve progressed far beyond the original modern quest to conquer the world; everything has been mapped except for the totality of the human being. We’re collecting data on ourselves now, discovering what we like by watching where we go over and over; naming our personal running routes, our music for the morning commute; mapping our habits and fixing them in space and time. If it’s true that every time I encounter myself in a strange space, I am in some way unrecognizable, a stranger, then I have more facets, more selves, than I could hope to discover in a lifetime. The act of mapping myself is, in this sense, comforting; I can keep track of who I was here, how often I went there. It is also deceitful; it allows me to believe that my intimate details compose a geographical space to be plotted, or that I am understood because someone knows what night of the week I usually crave Thai.

I am inflicting geography and history upon myself; I am also scribing a new map – one that accounts for who I am and what I do in simple terms. Is this a way to make myself feel more like a native, less like a wanderer? Do I need to log the running maps and the Sunday afternoon trips to that bar with the pool and the Friday happy hours at Bayou Beer Garden? Or am I doing it because it’s the best way to write myself in to this landscape, and to write the landscape into myself? The trips I take overseas are the ones I talk about, and, simultaneously, forget to take photographs of, never check into Facebook for; these are the blank spaces in my own map. Not because they are meaningless, but because they have not been documented for the consumption of social media (read: everyone I know). My journeys to Uganda, UAE, Europe are largely unrepresented; nevertheless, their meaning to me is deep and relentless. What I have written out for the world to read: how many times I visited the Triple Nickle in Portland, how many people I went dancing with on Frenchmen, every single time I return to City Park. These are the local ventures, a few steps from my porch; this is my Hey, Baby, my Who Dat; proof that I live here, that it means something to me, that I, too, belong.

As the wanderer-hero prototype, Quixote had been on my mind for weeks before I actually began writing this piece; I had always taken him for a comic figure, perhaps a tragic one, but he refuses to be cast in either mold: “I know who I am,” he says in Book 5, “and who I may be if I choose.” Bruns argues that Quixote “is always out of place…wandering in a world that takes him apart piece by piece and spreads him along a plane of random intersections.” Such a dismantling seems automatic, tragic, as if the world were, for a wanderer, a place mechanized to disembowel rather than to regenerate. But Quixote answers for himself. He has made errors of recognition; confused reality in a foreign landscape for the foreign reality of literature. He is questing for many things; at the risk of sounding cliché, the only certainty he has is himself. Who can say with absolute certainty that they know who they may be if they choose? The possibility of intervening threats is denied. The traveler is no ones’ familiar; the traveler must make herself familiar wherever she goes. Perhaps Bruns is wrong; perhaps Quixote adopts and sheds selves to fit the places he is in, leaving them as signs along the way.

A great deal of the difference between traveler and native – or local – is accumulation. The space afforded a local is greater; there are rooms, potentially a house, to fill with belongings, signs of the self, be they daily necessities or tokens of past connections, people, events. The traveler does not have room for this kind of accumulation; everything is an exchange. The hostels I stayed in during my trek across Europe had book exchanges; I carried one book at a time, made notations and underlined, then left it for someone else when I had finished it. What the traveler accumulates – ostensibly – is the experience, the images. “Living [in a place] is different,” DeLillo writes in The Names. “One doesn’t gather up sights in quite the same way. There’s no compiling of sights. I think it’s when people get old they begin to compile. They not only visit pyramids, they try to build a pyramid out of the sights of the world.” I didn’t take photographs very often in the Emirates, in Uganda, in Europe. I stared out of windows in buses and hostels, down darkening streets and across landscapes, trying to freeze each frame and keep it for myself. One does not need to get old to try to compile these monuments; one only needs a strong nostalgic nerve. Nevertheless, among the other senses heightened by travel is the awareness that all is transitory, you cannot take anything with you. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit asks, “Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names…” Her language is similar to Bruns’, but she speaks here of material loss, an experience more wrenching for a local (practiced in accumulation) than the dismantling of the actual self which is the demise Bruns envisions for the wandering Quixote.

Not knowing whether a windmill is itself or a giant is a mistake easily made by one who has read too many books and lost too much sleep; mistakes such as these are made all the time in places where we have no business and do not understand. To be a local is to know windmills for what they are, based on having seen them hundreds of times before. I do not want to idealize Quixote or McCandless; I have no doubts that they were much served in their quests by delusion, and I do not wish to create an argument for delusional wandering. I want to explore my own nostalgia for travel, to find out whether we long to discover unknown spaces or the unknown within ourselves. What is made new when I enter a foreign environment is my own being: I am alive to the fact that, of all the people on this street, I may be the only one seeing it for the first time. There is little difference between a wrong turn and a right one; time is not a constraint – the point is to be. I move through spaces as someone new, tentative, capable, absorbing and reflecting what I see. When I return to my own neighborhood, my own routines, I experience a slow deflation. I can picture moving down these streets more easily and accurately than I can actually drive them. A wrong turn is wasted time, forgetfulness. This is my external knowledge; the question is, do I know myself? Has my exteriority mapped itself on to me so extensively that I no longer recognize the possibilities within it – or worse yet, that I no longer recognize my own possibilities?

There is no right or wrong, although locals usually have the right of way. There’s something powerful about being from, something tenacious and deserving, particularly in a place that seems determined to shed you with every hurricane season. While the traveler wrestles with selves, the local wrestles with the apparent design of geography and history to shake us off. The story is simply different in other places – fires, famines, floods – we know that, in some sense, it takes hanging on to survive. You have to know the landscape, be prepared. I have a go-bag here with a few changes of clothes, cash, an extra cell phone charger, some other valuables that I drop in when hurricane season starts in June and take dutifully back out in October. I have friends with four wheel drive and spare cans of gasoline who have promised to pick me up on their way out of town should disaster strike. And were this to happen, I know that, much like Quixote, versions of myself would be sliced clean off in the aftermath, never to resurface here or anywhere else.

I am old enough now to recognize the feeling of home. It might seem like a sense one would know best as a child, and perhaps this is true; nevertheless, it took me years to recall the moment in my life in which I felt the most at home. It was this: my family was driving across the salt flats in Utah in the middle of an early summer night, probably June. I was no more than eight or nine. I woke up, wrapped in blankets and lying on the floor of our Chevy Suburban between the middle and the back seats. The tires hummed, and I was woken by a square of the moon in my eyes. When I looked out the window, I saw gleaming bluish-white stretched out beyond us, broken only occasionally by lines of rocks or barbed-wire fence. I thought it was a lake for a while, then a desert, then a lake again. We were going 80 mph in the middle of nowhere, and I wanted to stay forever.

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