The Westering Urge

“I was born under a wandering star.”

“Something lost beyond the ranges/ Lost and waiting for you – go!”*

“‘T’was the same ancient fever in the Isles of the Blest/ our fathers brought with them when they moved west./ It’s the blood of the druids that never can rest:/ The giant will rise with the moon.”**

It’s that season again, when I start getting itchy to be one the move, to go west, to look over the next hill, to wander. It’s a family affliction on the maternal side, apparently, because we keep wandering farther and farther west, creeping across continents and oceans.

Americans tend to baffle a lot of people in places like England and Germany because we move so freely and so often. Something like 80% of Germans, prior to 2010, had lived within the same 30 km radius their entire lives, going back several generations (with allowances for the enormous population shifts of 1944-47). “Itchy feet” are considered exceedingly unusual, and I suspect it is because those prone to wander left a long time ago and ended up in the US, or South America, or Australia. There’s also the fact that within the former German Empire, your social support benefits and citizenship were tied to your place of birth, unless the government approved a relocation and formally granted you new place of residence, so staying put meant having support in old age or if bad things happened. Americans just looked for greener pastures, or went back to where family was.

There’s also something older, going back to the dim past. A certain number of humans seem prone to stray, to wander off more than just necessity would seem to require. We get hints of Greeks who strayed up into the icepack near Greenland just out of curiosity, of people who traveled the known world because they wanted to, of traders who turned up in the oddest of places (Vikings on the Caspian Sea, anyone?). I generally think of the British in the 1700s-1800s who walked all over Asia, sometimes going native, sometimes not, doing all kinds of interesting things in unusual places. or a professor I had who would do things like wander around Burma with a local guide and a Jeep because she thought it would be interesting (it was. She sent me an Indian Army cap badge she found in a market).

Drifting westward seems to have been a common affliction among Indo-Europeans and later peoples. Why? Because it was less populated? Because that’s where the sunset was? Because of legends about coming from the east and going west? Because paradise lay over the mountains, or just off shore, or across the sea? Beats me. People did it, first across Eurasia, then across Europe, then across the Atlantic, and North America. Tolkien catches a bit of the sense with the idea of a lost paradise, the country of the creator that lay to the west. The Celtic Tir na Nog lay in the west and was a land of eternal youth and pleasure. Pilots use the term “Gone West” to describe the dead, and cowboys talk about “Crossing the Great Divide,” which is to the west (at least west of Texas and parts of CO, WY, and MT).

Autumn brings out the itch in me. I find myself looking to the west, wondering what is over the horizon, even though I know. I start spending hours pouring over maps and charts, imagining, dreaming, thinking about going out and away. My walks grow longer and more meandering, and sometimes I feel as if I could just keep going until I reach . . . What? I don’t know, but I’ll know when I get there.

And the feeling passes, and I return to my usual round. But there’s still an itch for “something lost beyond the ranges.”*

*R. Kipling, “The Explorer.”

**Stan Rogers “Giant.”

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2 thoughts on “The Westering Urge

  1. Too bad you never joined the military… They sent me all over the world (but on their schedule, not mine)… Sigh. Agreed on the Eurocentric ‘lack’ of wanderlust. Friend of mine from Spain said they were ‘newcomers’ in their community because they had only been there (in the same house) for 550 years!!!

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