Writing My Way Home

August 11, 2017 | 6 8 min read

When I was 18 and insufferably over this whole “small-town suburban Midwestern thing,” I said goodbye to the only home I’d ever known—Kansas City—for what I figured would be the rest of my life. To anyone who would listen, I’d made it exceedingly clear that I’d never, ever, live here again, what with its awful friendly people and oppressively low population density; not this (not-quite-yet) big-city kid! It didn’t matter where I went, as long as it wasn’t freakishly equidistant from the coasts, and it didn’t figure in any way into The Wizard of Oz. So long, see you later, goodbye KC!

Twelve years later, I deplaned at Kansas City International following a very long, and frankly terrifying, transatlantic flight. I dragged my 30-year-old self up the jetway and into the waiting arms of my (smugly?) triumphant family. It did not escape my notice, nor theirs, that for the first time in my life, I was in my hometown with no exit strategy to speak of—no return ticket (since I didn’t have anywhere to return to), no secret plot to move to a new continent (tried that once already), no backup plan.

But instead of feeling like a complete failure, which is how I had always imagined moving back would feel, and despite the exhaustion, I was downright giddy. I was here on a mission. I was back for a reason. I had a purpose. KC had called and I had come. Standing in the nearly empty airport (KCI is always somehow nearly empty, microcosmic of Kansas City and Kansas all at once), my mom squeezed the air out of my travel-wracked body and started to cry while a voice, either hers or the one in my head, summed it all up with a surreal finality: “You’re really home,” the voice said. “You’re really home.”

A lot happened in the 12 years between going and coming back. But the most germane events, the ones that pivoted my wayward course back to the heart of the country, occurred almost entirely in the final six months. Specially, in a single moment of entirely uncharacteristic ambition when I decided to walk 500 miles across the French Alps and committed myself to writing a book about it.

To no one’s greater surprise than my own, I actually walked the walk. With no hiking experience whatsoever, I took a million steps from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean. I crossed hundreds of miles of mountains and stepped into the water where it lapped softly against the South of France. Now all I had to do was write about it.

coverDetermined to milk my new status as an author (despite having not yet authored a single thing), I did what I figured all writers do: I set about finding a cheap, suitably romantic, and far-flung place to work. I took my first hopeless stabs at penning what I had taken to calling my “mountain book” in an old house nestled into the hills above Monaco—a very strong stone’s throw from where F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote much of The Great Gatsby. Sitting at a small table and gazing pensively out the window toward the blinding blue waters of the Mediterranean, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, let the warm ocean breeze wash over me, bowed my head to the white light of my laptop screen, and fell asleep for a few hours.

A couple weeks later, in a Vienna café so tobacco-stained I could have scraped some of Stefan Zweig’s DNA off the wall, I thought myself into a headache before putting pen to paper and submitting a single sentence to my notebook (“What is a mountain?”), which I promptly scratched out.

Further down the Danube, Budapest proved too noisy, too fairy-tale pretty, and too hot (or maybe it was too cold? Or too windy? Or not windy enough?) In any case, I didn’t get anything done there, either, unless you count logging 15 miles a day on foot to avoid the kryptonic glow of a blank Word doc (well, nearly blank—I’d added my name and page numbers to the top in an inspired moment back in Vienna).

If walking through the Alps was essentially as straightforward as moving in a straight line from one point to another and following a couple basic rules (don’t leave the path; don’t die), writing a book was turning out to be closer to locating the Marianas Trench using echolocation, and swimming into it without a light. The rules, as far as there were any, refused to reveal themselves.

Finally, in late September I made for Belgrade, a city I’d fallen in love with while passing through earlier that year and the place on which I would bestow the honor and responsibility of inspiring me while I wrote my mountain book. On the four-hour train ride from Budapest that took 11 hours, a girl about my age sat next to me and asked what I was doing in Serbia. “I’m going to write a book,” I said, hoping she wouldn’t see right through me and start laughing. “About Serbia?” “No,” I said. “About a long walk through the French Alps.” Her face made it clear enough that my response made no sense, but she smiled anyway and told me I’d love Belgrade, that it was probably the perfect place to write. Her family were all musicians, she said, and she was a painter. She’d lived in Paris, London, and Budapest, but it was in Belgrade that she felt most inspired—the history, the tragedy, the beauty. Naturally, I took this as a promising sign that I was finally on the right track. So promising, in fact, that I closed my open (still empty) notebook, gave myself the day off, and resolved to properly start the very next day—no matter what. Like, for real this time.

(Financially, all of this was made possible by a few factors. A modest advance from my publisher eased some of the strain of the hike itself—mostly for the purchase of gear. Hiking is a relatively inexpensive way to see France, or any country for that matter, since there’s very little to spend money on. Once I’d finished walking, a generous cousin lent me a room in her family home in the South of France until I figured out where to go next. This was a lucky break. Sadly, I do not have a broader network of cousins in beautiful locations waiting to offer me a place to stay. I dipped into money I’d been squirrelling away for years to get to Austria, Hungary, and Serbia by train. And crucially, years of living in New York City had taught me an invaluable lesson in pinching pennies: pinch them hard, never let them go.)

In Belgrade, I rented a small flat in one of the oldest, loveliest parts of the city for next to nothing. Sticking to a strict schedule (something I thought I’d read on the Internet that Ernest Hemingway did), I managed, in several months, to tease out more than 200 of the most painfully boring, god-awful double-spaced pages that anyone has ever read. Then winter closed in and my apartment started to freeze, forcing me into an ever-shrinking bubble of warmth next to the Tito-era, refrigerator-sized heater.

I’d probably still be there, huddled in the cold, if it had not occurred to me, out of nowhere, really, that I could just go back to Kansas—that you can, in fact, always go back to Kansas. I thought of a New Yorker piece from the late ’80s in which Kansas City-born writer Calvin Trillin admitted that, after decades in Manhattan, he still found himself “talking now and then about going back to Kansas City.” (In a weird bit of coincidence, Trillin’s piece was about his good friend and my great uncle Fats Goldberg, a “pizza barron” who lived in New York for years before finally coming home.) That’s one of the things about Kansas, its ever-open, ever-loving arms.

I could forget all of this and go home, I thought. Write my mountain book a thousand miles in every direction from a single mountain. My heart beat a bit faster. How had I not thought of this before?

I started dreaming of the suburbs of south Kansas City. I saw obsessively gridded streets. I breathed the earthy scent of obsessively trimmed lawns. I tasted Arthur Bryant’s flawless, crusted burnt ends even when I knew I was chewing on oniony lumps of cevapi. For Serbian friends, I described long drives with my traveling salesman dad to small towns off I-35, or up and down grand old Ward Parkway, or trips to Winstead’s—the KC diner—if only for the opportunity to eat mediocre burgers and talk about how good they used to be. Nostalgic for nostalgia! When my attempts at conveying the exaggerated flatness of the plains failed, I asked if anyone had seen The Wizard of Oz.

So I came back. And a funny thing happened as soon as I did: I wrote. For the first time since reaching the sea six months earlier, I found writing, if not quite easy, at least not panic-inducing. I took up residence at the Roasterie Café, a coffee shop less than a minute from the house in which I grew up (now the house in which I’m a grownup) and managed to sit at my computer for hours at a time, stringing sentence after sentence together in some approximation of what might be considered real writing. I wrote many pages that, to use James Salter’s phrase, turned bad overnight, but more that held steady all the way into the next day and then the day after that. They weren’t great, but they weren’t garbage. They were workable and honest and, best of all, sort of rewarding. To be clear, my book has little to do with Kansas or the Midwest (it takes place almost entirely in a small corner of France). But it’s impossible to imagine what it would look like if I had somehow managed to write it anywhere else.

My brother—a painter and fellow recent returnee (from New York)—says that Kansas City is the perfect place to be an artist because there are so few distractions. There’s nothing to tempt you away from your work or nip at your attention like a needy dog. I agree that there’s that, but I like to see it in the positive: What Kansas City lacks in ocean views and crumbling old-world charm, it might make up for with a wide-open emptiness that practically begs to be filled. It’s all potential here.

As usual, I’m late to the party. There’s a humming creativity in Kansas City that I never knew about when I was a kid because I never bothered to look. We’ve got writers, painters, sculptors, art galleries, cheap rents, and live music. We have neighborhoods with buzzy names like the Crossroads and the West Bottoms and Hospital Hill. The novelist Whitney Terrell lives here, as does the poet Cyrus Console. Both teach at local colleges. Patricia Lockwood has roots in the area. Candice Millard writes rip-roaring bestsellers about Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt out of an office not far from where I grew up.

coverStill, to me at least, KC is more than just flatness and nothing else to do and a reasonable cost of living—clichés that describe most Midwestern cities—even if I have trouble putting my finger on exactly what it is. In his classic chuck-it-all-and-travel book Blue Highways, another son of Kansas City, William Least Heat-Moon, makes a giant loop around the U.S. in a van visiting small towns from Texas to Washington to Minnesota only to end up back in Missouri, right where he started. I thought of this not long after I got back and pulled a copy of the book off my shelf to read a line from the end that I’ve always loved: “If the circle had come full turn,” he writes, “I hadn’t. I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.”

So here I am, having returned a slightly different person to a city I never really knew, a city that also happens to be home. And that may be the most crucial part, the thing I’d failed to see the whole time—that the journey was not simply one through the mountains, though that was part of it. It was a long, wandering, looping circle that refused to close until I was back where I had started.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is a writer living in Kansas City. His first book, Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps, published earlier this year and The New York Times kindly called it a "disarmingly engaging memoir by a millennial Kansan." He can be found on twitter at @JonathanArlan.

6 comments:

  1. Loved this! The onion rings and milkshakes are what makes Winstead’s work imo.

    I recall moving back to KC after living in Buenos Aires and calling my friends around 9pm to go grab dinner and a movie and they were like – dude, this is Johnson County, everything is closed or closing right now.

    Also, as you get older, you get closer to your family than friends and appreciate nearness.

  2. Oh,Jonathan, this really resonated with me as it’s almost my story. I was gone for 45 years and just returned this past April. I never wanted to see KCMO again but here I am taking art classes at the art institute. I didn’t climb the Alps but I climbed thru Silicon Valley building my own consulting business and did spend a lot of time in Europe. I also experienced the almost astonishing spareness of MCI especially after SFO international terminal! I may not stay — haven’t decided yet. I think it takes a while to establish the kind of friendships and comfort with the neighborhoods that make you feel that way.

  3. “I thought myself into a headache before putting pen to paper and submitting a single sentence to my notebook (“What is a mountain?”), which I promptly scratched out.”

    Quite amusing! I remember my self-consciously-writerly 30’s that way. The perfect pen, the brand new Moleskine, the quiet cafe featuring a pretty waitress and a view of the fountain… the intricate doodling…

    “dude, this is Johnson County, everything is closed or closing right now.”

    That’s exactly what happened to me when I returned to the US for a surreal hiatus in my otherwise passionately faithful expatriation; I suddenly understood the proper function of Beer-and-Television (in various ratios)…

  4. I have a question. How do you get a publisher to give you money for a book that doesn’t exist? I could never get a publisher to give me money for any of my several books that *do* exist but I guess that’s because I suck?

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