Traveling Back in Time

Musings From Colin's World Musings From Colin's World

Most of my travel has been an outward reach, venturing farther and farther from home and the familiar. But recently I had occasion to return to the town I grew up in and left behind decades ago. Returning to a long-abandoned home is a different kind of travel, a different kind of discovery.


The occasion was a high school reunion. The place was my hometown, a Midwestern town barely distinguishable from hundreds of other Midwestern towns to most people, but unique to me because I grew up there.


Now, decades after I left it seems odd and foreign to me. As I travel around I struggle to grasp the fact that this is the place that produced me. This is the soil from which I sprang, the air I breathed, the sights I saw, the culture that formed me.


Physical Memories

I know it isn’t really the same town I grew up in. It seems only remotely familiar. What I see now bears little resemblance to my memories of it. Some of the differences are measurable. Trees that were tiny sticks bravely staking their claim in a new housing development are now large and broad, with long branches forming canopies over the streets. Houses that were brand new are now dignified elders.


But other differences between what I see and what I remember cannot be attributed to anything in the physical landscape. Everything seems compressed, miniaturized compared to my memories. Contours in the land seem to have flattened out. Steep inclines are now barely noticeable. What were large expanses now seem small and compact.


My memories of my hometown are not based only on what I see but on physical experience. I rode my bicycle up those inclines and felt their steepness in the muscles of my thighs. Now passing over them easily in a car they seem like nothing.


The front lawn of my memories was a broad expanse. The distance from the front door to the street seemed substantial when I was only a couple of feet tall. As a child I played and rolled around on contours in the lawn that seemed like hills, but now look almost flat. I pushed a lawnmower over every foot of that lawn on many hot summer days and experienced its expanse intimately.


What stays the same?

After traveling great distances across all the continents of the earth, the distances of my early life seem tiny. My hometown was a tiny crystalline microcosm, the miniature playing field upon which I first practiced the game of life.


There are certainly changes in the landscape. Many buildings that defined the landscape for me are gone, and I realize that they were only a thin veneer over the real landscape. But most of the vast difference between what I am seeing and what I remember comes down to the fact that the hometown of my memories exists only in my memories. That is my own private domain. I share common reference points with my former classmates. But my own experience of it is an inner experience, and it is my very own.


Winds of Change

I know that the river I look upon today is not the same as yesterday. Everything is in flux. Even molecules of my own body are not the same as a few years ago. And yet, something does remain the same, doesn’t it? What is that? That might be the biggest question of all. It may be, as we get older, what we are seeking. Time accelerates. The speed of change is faster and faster. But what endures?


The best clue to what stays the same came from meeting my former classmates. Comparing their faces of today with the yearbook photographs on their nametags showed vividly the passage of time. And yet, in talking to them and hearing their voices it became clear that that they are essentially the same people as they were, just older, perhaps wiser and certainly kinder. Something had indeed stayed constant through all the changes.


Travel Discovery and Rediscovery

As a frequent traveler, visiting my old home town now fits into my inventory of travel experiences. I enjoyed taking it all in and making discoveries the same way I do when I am traveling to a new place. But because of my personal historical references, there was another layer of experience in revisiting my home town.


There are two parts to that. One is that having lived away for a long time, it really is like a brand new place to me. Most of what I remember is gone or changed unrecognizably. It was a challenge to find things I could recognize as familiar. It reminded me that every place is really new every day, and if we don’t experience it as such, we are just failing to see it. Traveling has helped me to appreciate that every day is a chance for new discoveries, even in a familiar place.


Going Further Back

Having had such an enriching experience going home brings me to the next logical step: to explore my ancestral home. When your own lifetime crosses the half century mark, a century no longer seems so long. Your ancestors of a century ago seem not as remote as when you were a child.


Traveling to explore ancestral roots is especially resonant for Americans, because we are a restless, nomadic culture. Except for Native Americans, all of our families are transplanted from overseas. Our roots in this country go back no more than a few hundred years, only a few generations for most.


As you approach the final chapters of your life, it becomes more important to understand your connectedness. You realize that you did not come out of nowhere. You are part of a chain that leads from your ancestors to your descendants.


Family culture, built into us when we are babies, is remarkably durable. Much survives generation to generation, and much of our behavior and perceptions is ruled by culture. Our family culture today certainly has much in common with that of even distant ancestors.


Though I can’t name it, something about traveling around England feels familiar to me. That may be mostly because I am conscious of the fact that my ancestors came from there. But surely some of what feels familiar is because that culture was passed down to me by my ancestors on a new continent.


Tracing Your Roots

A genealogist at a family reunion said, “Genealogy helps you to place yourself in history.” When you study your genealogy, history is no longer just an abstract story in a book. You discover how you fit into it. It’s an endlessly rich vein of discovery, and once you get a taste of it, it tends to draw you in deeper and deeper.


History used to seem like something outside of myself, but as I delve into genealogy I beginning to understand that I had ancestors who lived through all those times, all the dark ages, the migrations, the wars, the whole history of social evolution. And my ancestors passed their experience and knowledge down through family culture. Surely a lot of it survives in me from centuries past. It makes me want to reach into that misty prologue and try to learn more about it.


Whether you travel to places that are new to you, or back to where you began, the landscape you are really exploring is yourself.


I wish you well on your quest.


Your humble reporter,

A. Colin Treadwell


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