In 1975, my wife and I moved to Fitchburg, Mass., a decaying mill town arrayed along the banks of the Nashua River. Main Street was an unattractive stretch of neglected buildings and empty storefronts. Our house was on a hill. At the bottom of the hill was the river. Some days it ran red—others, blue—depending on the dye being used in the upstream paper mills that day. At the top of the hill was Rollstone Cemetery, a colorless collection of upright gravestones that one of our neighbors referred to as "the marble orchard." One day, as we passed it, I told my wife facetiously that if she were to die unexpectedly, I would have her buried in Rollstone. She bristled. Not no but hell no would she be buried in Fitchburg! Her home was in Utah. I was surprised by her reaction, by the importance she gave to what I considered to be an inconsequential, post-mortem detail. I have since come to regard one's choice of a burial site as the truest indication of one's attachment to a particular place.
"This is the place" is a pronouncement and a sentiment I no longer take for granted. For Brigham Young, the Great Salt Lake Valley was a place of sanctuary, a place no one else wanted. For me, it is the frame of my life, the place of beginning and ending.
That there may be a visceral bond between person and place—a connection called topophilia—seems intuitive. I never felt grounded in Fitchburg, but there is much about New England that has resonance for me. I like the look of Vermont: It presents itself to passersby as a place where the lawns and hedges are trimmed every week. In Massachusetts, I like the politics of Cambridge, the walkable neighborhoods of Boston and the energy of Harvard Square on Friday night in late September. I particularly like the hardwood forests with mountain laurel in the understory. I am fond of the books of Concord's three most-famous residents—Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau. I favor stuff from L.L. Bean. We are kindred spirits, New England and I, but I don't think of it as a final destination.
Most of my life played out not far from "This is the Place" monument. Salt Lake City is a place of firsts for me: first trout caught, first paycheck earned, first golf ball hit, first beer drank, first marijuana smoked, first (and last) car crashed. I was married here. None of those firsts have any significance beyond that of being a first, but the city is the locus of memories. It is a place I know intimately. Returning to Utah after four years soldiering in East Africa, I noticed the sky was a different shade of blue.
The Vietnam-era draft uprooted me. While I was not happy to be dragooned into the army, I was not unhappy to be leaving Utah. I was dismissive of the place I knew better than any other. I considered it benighted. Now, a lifetime wiser, I occasionally drive through my childhood neighborhood. In so doing, Pope Francis asserts, there is a chance to recover something of my "true self." The streets are empty of kids on bicycles; no one is playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. What became of all those kids I grew up with? I realize that "nostalgic" describes my true self. I feel like the prodigal son who has been taken back by a place he once was eager to leave. Utah is not a perfect place, but "the ground is friendly" as Willa Cather put it.
The friendliest ground is the mountains. I find myself imprinted on the Wasatch like a Lorenzian goose. My internal compass swivels on them. Without them as a reference point, I often lost my bearings in Fort Belvoir's woods and found myself knee-deep in a swamp. It seems logical that the character of friendly ground would find its way into the character of its residents as terroir informs the character of wine. However, I have never learned to see beauty in an arid expanse of sagebrush nor have I experienced the desert's "pure, ascetic spirituality" one hears about from Ed Abbey and the like. Were I to map the contours of my "true self," the detail would be trees and mountains, not sagebrush or seashore.
I once speculated my true self might reflect Danish tribal values because all my forbears were Danes. But I have walked the streets in Copenhagen without feeling a magnetic sense of belonging. I have felt more at home in a stand of birches in Massachusetts or in a Utah trout stream. Frankly, I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could report a topophilia experience or a breath-taking encounter with a sacred space. Nostalgia may be as close as I ever get to topophilia.
My wife has decided to donate her body to the University of Utah Medical School. She presses me for my final-disposition instructions. If I were rich, I would opt for what they did with Hunters Thompson's ashes: Mix them into fireworks canisters and blast them into the night sky. What better finale than a starburst? On the other hand, Lee Hays, who sang with Pete Seeger in The Weavers in the 1950s, had his ashes mixed into a compost pile. That seems like the practical option. What is clear, as the days dwindle down, is that I am never going to say the words "this is the place" with conviction until I am being wheeled through the front door of an assisted-living facility.
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