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Can You Ever Really Return?

By Daniel Hubbard | June 17, 2012

I was just looking back over the post I wrote almost exactly a year ago. I had taken a twenty mile bike ride with my daughter and written about how the speed we traveled and the nature we saw made me think about how my ancestors would have seen this part of the country as they came to the wilderness to settle. I won’t go through the experience again. You can read it at “The Three-Mile-Per-Hour World.” I was looking at it because Friday we took the first long ride of the year and managed twenty-five miles.

It was a rather long ride for the first of the season and a daughter that is still in middle school. Yet, it was in another way, nothing. It was a bring-a-picnic-lunch-and-be-back-in-time-for-afternoon-watermelon type of journey. Though these trips can remind me of how our ancestors must have seen the world, the hardships along the way are not to be compared. Perhaps even more importantly, journey’s end is different.

How Far?

A boy makes a journey. Three more tracks to his right and the Erie Canal to his left.

There is a question that can be asked, “How far can one go and still return?” There are many ways to look at it. Physical distance can be the important thing. Immigrants and settlers often traveled extreme distances and had no expectation of ever being able to see the places of their childhood again. Maybe they later got the chance, but only because technology changed and made possible what had been unrealistic.

Travel has costs as well. Many had no expectations of ever having the money to make a return journey. When many of them came, the trip was so grueling, that the cost in health might not be something they were willing to risk paying a second time.

Then there is the desire to make that return. Many had no desire to return to a place that would only remind them of poverty or suffering. Many could not legally return to a place from which they had escaped. When I was a child, in the days of the Iron Curtain, our school had a janitor from Poland. I don’t remember him very clearly but everyone knew him and he was always nice to us kids. He went back to Poland to visit his mother. We never saw him again and we never knew why.

Sometimes returning from a journey can be more mental than physical. People are sometimes surprised that I experience culture shock here where I grew up. After twenty years in Europe, or anywhere else for that matter, it isn’t possible to simply return. The place I left no longer exists in some sense even though I am in it in another sense. Even with the telephone, the internet, radio and television, I have returned to a place that I was never in before. Our immigrant ancestors arrived in a new land before there were any of those things to inform them about the place that they had left. As much as they might pine for “the old country,” it was just that, old. To truly return quickly became a matter not just for travel but for time travel.

Physical Return Is Not Everything

The most profound way to think about that question, “How far can one go and still return?” is to wonder when the changes made on the traveler by the journey itself become too great to ever return. How far from home can the mind travel and still be able to make the journey back?

The Corps of Discovery a.k.a The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Few Americans have ever traveled as far mentally as the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They traveled to places that no white American had seen. They encountered culture after culture that was profoundly different from their own. They traveled through territory where they never really knew what to expect. They hoped for an easy portage and instead encountered a towering wall of mountains. Sometimes the experiences are just too intense. Sometimes the changes are too great. Sometimes you cannot go back.

After two years, four months, and ten days all but one of the men of the Corps of Discovery returned physically. Meriwether Lewis spent two years trying to govern the Louisiana Territory that he had explored. He had a difficult time and set out for Washington to try to make things right. Most historians believe that when he was found shot and bleeding at Grinder’s Stand along the Natchez Trace, he was suffering from self-inflicted wounds. He died the following morning. It has been suggested that his epic journey had changed him to the point where he simply could not return, even though he tried.

Few of our ancestors will have experienced any journey so profound as to make it impossible for the mind to return. Nevertheless, some will have been changed to the point that even after their physical return, one can wonder if they truly made it back. I’m reminded of the Civil War veteran who, when his health was failing and he expected to die, spoke of passing away and being transported to some sort of 19th century Valhalla, where, with restored vigor, he and his brothers in arms could relive the life and death struggles of their youth. The campfires would glow again. The smell of powder would fill the air. The scream of the minie balls and the wounded would fill the ears and the roar of the artillery would be felt in the pit of the stomach. He and many of his comrades never really made it back either.

To try to understand genealogy is to try to understand our ancestors’ journey.

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