My precious tent. One pole snapped in an arctic gale, one snapped hiding from hookers in bushes outside Venice, snapped again in a freak storm on the Black Sea, each lovingly splinted with garbage tubing and rubber bands. Patched from fire-ants eating their way through in a Florida carnival, burns from reading by candlelight, snags from jungle prickles – stains and smells from who-knows-where- homemade camo spray job – and the new zipper I sewed on is busted already. I’ve called this tent home longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. I can set it up and tear it down blindfolded in a pitch black rainstorm. One unforgettable morning in the Gobi desert, it flew. But how many more splints and patches can it take? How long before it – like everything else – must be retired?
It was an interesting question my friend posed to me: “What do you have now that you left home with?”
What did I have when I bid a painful farewell to the home I built and loved in Cascadia? My backpack? Nope. Passport, sleeping bag, pad, clothes, jacket? Nope, nope, nope nope nope. The goat tail I swore to myself I would take all the way around the world? Nope, lost it. Nearly everything I own has been worn out, traded in, stolen, broken or simply vanished. What do I have that’s mine, and that links me to a real home?
My hat: Battered, worn out, embarrassingly shoddy. But its flown the tail feather of Cascadian owl, one from train-kill pheasant, flight feather of a Balkan Jackdaw, a seagull’s white wing glowing under stars in the middle of the Atlantic, the stripes of a young Middle-Eastern desert hawk, a Golden Eagle feather fished out of the Tibetan headwaters of the Mekong River, a Southeast Asian fighting cock and the wisdom of the traveling Hoopoe. When people meet me these days, teasing me about the holes in my headgear is among the first topics of conversation. What they can’t see is how much its been through with me, how little else I have, or how badly I want to see it adorning a scarecrow in certain special garden.
Now, on the eve of ripping my heart open to say goodbye to another home, I take stock in what I have… Three things: My beleaguered tent, my tattered hat, and one very small flag…
My journey has been largely about home – losing, finding, returning. I don’t know how to define “home” – that’s beyond what my brain can do – but I do know its not just a place where you live. I’ve lived in 9 U.S. states and 7 countries on 3 continents. Not home. And I also know that in my life I’ve been incredibly blessed (or cursed) to have my heart root deep in two different places. Many people go their whole lives without knowing “home” – and while I might not be able to describe what it is, I know for sure that I’ve had two of them.
So when I left back in 2012, and made the decision not to fly, what I was really trying to do was explore the vast physical, emotional and spiritual space between these two homes. I packed my tent, my hat, a bunch of stuff which is now strewn around the planet, and a small Cambodian flag…
Unlike the tent or the hat, the flag hasn’t got much practical use. It flew off the back of my homemade bike trailer through the Balkan Mountains – my stubborn announcement to the world where I was heading regardless the feasibility. But for the most part, its sat quietly next to my heart alongside my memories of this strange and mysterious land.
I was 22 years old when I first moved to Phnom Penh – a complete random accident which I never planned on – six months later I was living in a remote village without electricity or running water. All together I’ve spent two years of my life living and learning in this little country – a metamorphosis which I would unequivocally point to as the most life-changing experience of my life. My ego will forever think of my life in terms of “before Cambodia” and “after Cambodia.” My life, lifestyle and world outlook were all profoundly shaped beyond words.
But its been hard, too, living a double life with a two-chambered heart. One of my best friends in America once looked at a picture of me on the Mekong and said: “I can’t believe that’s you. You look like a totally different person!” Yes, very observant. Because, in reality, that’s not the same ‘me.’ You don’t know or understand that Walker any more than my friends and family in Cambodia would understand yours. I have two lives, two personalities, and two communities which I care very deeply about. And for years now that truth has caused a lot of pain.
There is no one place I feel complete – no one family where I totally belong. I think that’s why I’m always restless. So I left one home bound for another – with a little flag in my pocket to remind me where I was headed. It took two years – but my feet spanned the distance which my soul has held.
When the time finally came, it was with mixed emotions that I re-entered Cambodia. Its not always an easy place to be. It was a positive joy to introduce my childhood friend Ed to some of my lifelong Khmer family: to give these two worlds a slight glimpse of one-another. And of course it was incredible to be back on my stretch of the Mekong – and by handmade wooden boat, no less!
But the further the river wound into my own memories, the country’s sinuous depth wove its familiar pattern over my chest. Love, panic and pain bled into one another – this is not a place I can just visit. This is a places which reaches inside a grabs me – binds me and drowns me. I’ve cut those cords twice before – moved away – and I know what that cost me and how long it took to recover.
This time I looked around a took stock: I’m exhausted. My brain chemicals are whirled and the circuitry smokey from a two-year barrage of cultures, languages, miles and uncertainties. I’m constantly two steps (little steps) away from nervous breakdown. Cambodia was supposed to be my home-base: my homecoming, my return. But it terrified me. And I can’t summon the strength I need to do it again.
There is a Vedic tradition to wander the world, see its mysteries, and return to meditate upon them. Afterwards, again they into the world and return to meditate. And a third time, but this time the meditation is permanent. I hadn’t come back to Cambodia to visit – because that’s impossible for me. And I hadn’t come to live there, like I thought for two years I was coming to do – because I don’t have the energy for that. I had come back to Cambodia to say goodbye.
Its no real way to live: torn between two worlds. Eventually a person has to plant two feet or fall from both. There have been times when I really thought I would plant them in NE Cambodia, on the banks of the Mekong. But I guess that’s not my card.
So how does one say goodbye and ‘thank you’ to a place which has turned your life upside down? How do you say goodbye to the people you have fiercely loved and been loved by? How do you fold down half your heart and half your soul like a flag and tuck it in your pocket?
I have no idea. It would take a much braver person than myself to answer that question.
Instead, I lied to myself and my family that I might someday return – tucked my tail and fled in the middle of the night.
I’m no longer naive enough to think that I can hold onto physical objects very long. My blue and red flag, like my tent and my hat, will eventually blow away. But there are other things that don’t fade, and for as long as I live Cambodia will be stamped into who I am.