TOPEKA, Kan. - "When I was a little chap I had a passion for maps," said Marlowe as he began his tale in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. "I would look for hours at South America, Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration."
When I read that line it reverberated in my head as if it were my own voice coming back to me. The setting of my childhood dreams was Topeka, Kansas, where I lived a few blocks from Shunganunga Creek. It was a place of great wonder for me where I spent countless hours growing up. During summer vacations I spent many entire days at the creek. During summer it became jungle-like, steaming hot and teaming with wildlife.
At the creek and at my grandfather's farm in Silver Lake, the fantasies of my imagination were interwoven with my real experiences in the outdoor environment as I read books like Tom Sawyer, Tarzan of the Apes or The Adventures of Zorro. In those days imagination was unlimited. It had not yet bumped up against the hard realities of adult life, the necessity of earning a living, of producing money to fund one's projects. I saw no reason why I would not some day travel to all these places I visited in my mind.
When my childhood imagination bumped up against the adult world I realized it was not so easy to traverse those immense distances in real life. When I graduated from high school there was a war and a draft and my generation had to make decisions based on whether you wanted to go to war or college. We were not free to pick up and go traveling. That option was not on the table unless you managed to get a draft deferment or exemption. So my dreams of travel kept getting pushed back. After high school I moved to Lawrence and attended the University of Kansas. Then I became romantically involved and it seemed like I was growing roots. Like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, I saw my dreams of travel postponed again and again until they seemed out of reach.
My exploratory aspirations expressed themselves in ways that were open to me. I hitchhiked to Chicago and New York, took road trips to California, Mexico, Texas. At one point I got a job in a traveling band and it provided me the means for traveling all over the Midwest and Canada for two years. But travel opportunities were hard to come by and it was many years before I would see anything beyond North America. Then in the 1990s, after closing the retail book business that I ran for 15 years, I found my dream job. I became a reporter for the trade press of the travel industry. It's a job that takes me to popular travel destinations around the world to report back to the travel industry the kinds of things travel professionals need to know about those places as part of running their businesses.
As I progressed in my new career, I found myself visiting many of the places I had dreamed of visiting all my life. I saw Russia, China, Italy, Greece, Egypt, France, England. I couldn't believe my good fortune. Then in 1999 I had my first chance to visit Africa. I was invited to go on safari in Kenya. I marveled to myself at how the kid who grew up in Kansas was going to a place so remote and exotic as Kenya.
I joined a group that flew into Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and then traveled out into the wilderness to Amboseli National Park. Arriving at our designated lodge, weary from many hours traveling, I dumped my luggage in the cottage that was provided for me and then stepped out to take in my first real look at Africa. I found myself grappling with a vague sense of incongruity between the idea that I was in Africa, the most exotic, remote place I had ever visited, and a feeling that it was familiar. I puzzled on this and then it came to me.
It was the smells that created the sense of nostalgia, arousing deeply buried memories as only the sense of smell can. As I stood taking in my first view of the high plains of Kenya I realized that the memories evoked by the smells in the air were memories of Kansas. Gradually I sorted out its elements one by one. The grass beneath my feet was a tough, gnarly species, and was identical to the grass in my yard where I grew up in Topeka. We called it Bermuda grass. I had long since forgotten about it and it was the last thing I expected to encounter in Kenya. As I looked out over the plains and saw zebra and buffalo, I realized that I also smelled them, and that their smells were remarkably close to the smells of the horses and cattle on my grandfather's farm in Silver Lake. It was a strange little epiphany, a cosmic joke that I shared with no one as I stood on the plains of Kenya, thinking I was so far from home, and yet feeling so close to the land of my origins, where I spent the first 25 years of my life: Kansas.
The Greek God Hermes, the messenger of the gods was also known as the trickster. I felt as if he had given me a playful smack on the head as I realized what a great affinity the high plains of Kenya had with the plains of Kansas where I grew up. I had traveled to what I felt was the most remote place in my life and found that it felt a lot like home. At that moment I revisited my childhood self, the little boy gazing with wonder at maps of remote places. And I realized that when I played as a boy at Shunganunga Creek and imagined myself to be in Africa, I had been closer than I ever knew.
It's an old story. You travel the world only to find that what you were seeking was right in your own backyard all along. It was strange to have it revealed so strikingly at that moment during my first encounter with Kenya. I've heard that Buddha said one part of the Great Void is much like any other. Or as someone else put it, "No matter where you go, there you are."
Maybe so. But it didn't cure my wanderlust. My work still provides me great opportunities to see the world. In the next two months I'll be making trips to South America, Africa and Australia, just as young Marley and I had imagined. I'll be sending back reports to the Kansas Free Press to share my impressions of those places with my fellow Kansans. It will be travel impressions from the point of view of someone who spent the first 25 years of his life in Kansas, the place where it all began for me, the place that shaped my world view.