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There really is no place quite like home

"I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess in Concord."

— Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, Aug. 30, 1856

"It is a great art to saunter."

— Henry David Thoreau

I love to travel far. It never fails to open my eyes to the world in ways I can't seem to do at home. It's a gene my brother and I acquired from our father, who chose to spend most of his working life in Latin America.

Yet many people never leave home and still see it anew day after day as if they're traveling in an exotic location. I've felt that freshness, too, but for several years it has eluded me until just recently. Perhaps it's a function of my diminishing time and energy, of having seen my son and my partner's son settle down with wives in the past two years and having several stepgrandchildren around as a result.

Watching those children looking curiously outward, absorbing everything with rapt fascination, has made me think more of the uniqueness of home.

I experience that realization most when I re-enter the Rogue Valley from the south after having been gone for a week or two. Driving across the Siskiyou Summit, usually late in the day, there is a point where the sweep of the valley rolls out suddenly below and my heart lifts in dazzled surprise. This is where I live, I think, and it's magnificent. How is it that I have to go away to appreciate it?

Familiarity — with its often droll routines — defines most of our lives in any one place, and makes the mind ever restless for something else. It's a particularly human longing that is not unlike an animal's need for better hunting grounds or forage except for the existential urgency it carries with it — an awareness of life's brevity and essential mystery.

But it's a form of laziness, too, a reluctance to concentrate on the present and see the small natural changes that happen around us because we don't need to anymore. It isn't like prehistoric times when we were in a forest full of possible predators and all our senses were alert. Yet the old instincts persist, all the ancestral listening, seeing, hearing, smelling and touching that enabled us to survive.

I've spent countless hours in Ashland's Lithia Park over the years with family members and friends, but mostly alone, exploring its paths, including those away from the central area. I've been there so often I'd stopped taking pictures of it. But on a whim, I took a camera this week on a walk, and was reminded that the lucid dream of traveling is really only a state of mind.

What seems to make a place new is the idea of leaving all obligations behind and experiencing that area without any real attachment to it.

In a sense, travelers are always just passing through. That doesn't hold everywhere we go, of course. Sometimes a place plants seeds in us and we go back there repeatedly. Our relationship to it changes. It becomes a kind of spiritual home with deep roots of its own. We may even move there permanently or live there part time like writer Annie Proulx of "The Shipping News" and "Brokeback Mountain" fame, who spends part of her year in Wyoming.

But why don't the places we call home seem as charged as those we only drift through? After my visit to Lithia Park this week, a walk of only a couple of hours, my impressions were almost as vivid as on a trip to Wyoming's Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks last year.

What had changed? Nothing but a shift in seasons that made something familiar into something vibrant and vivid.

I had seen this seasonal shift in past years, but decided to look at it differently this time around. Instead of looking up at the trees with their yellow, red and orange foliage as I usually do in October, I looked down at their colors reflected in Ashland Creek and at the fallen leaves on the ground or against bark. In doing so I felt some of what had so affected me last year in Wyoming — a feeling of being more actively linked to what I was seeing.

I rarely travel during the latter part of October and early November because I came here in late September 22 years ago just in time to see the full bloom of autumn and I've never wanted to miss it since. But that renewal doesn't have to be limited to the fall or spring when nature seems most changeable.

Henry David Thoreau never tired of tramping the familiar miles around his home with an eye for their fluctuating nuances, often in the winter. Knowing the woods well, he knew there was always some novel wonder to appreciate there. Although he trekked into other parts of New England, his world was largely limited to the area around Concord, Massachusetts. For him, travel was never a matter of geography.

"What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us," he wrote.

He made home fresh every day, so that a two-hour saunter became a journey and that journey became a lifelong adventure. Even when he sat outside his cabin at Walden Pond and went nowhere, he was traveling, if only into an acute stillness of observation.

I can't hope to duplicate that, but it's something to think about and try. Because at the heart of who we are is a place, a homeland where we spend most of our time, and immersing ourselves in it can only take us deeper into the world at large, even if the destination is only to another part of ourselves.

Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or sdieffenbacher@mailtribune.com

A brightly colored autumn leaf rests against the dark bark of the tree it fell from near the tennis courts in Lithia Park.