The Trip Home, Trip to Ouachita

(written on Wednesday, 11/23/2005 10:33:39 PM)

Whirlwind. Past 24 hours. Past week. It’s Thanksgiving holiday, my first trip home since Easter, and I’ve been going and going. Since my convalescence this past weekend, I’ve been running on some kind of edge. I’ve noticed it. Alertness. Awakeness, even in the lack of sleep. It’s all the preparations for the trip. The getting the car ready, the packing, the attention to making things happen. In the course of 2 days I hacked up a script to log what it reads from a borrowed GPS receiver. The logs from my drives are beautiful. Pages of useful data of just me…driving to Texarkana last night and, today, Ouachita.

Yeah, I went. Since I was in the neighborhood, loosely speaking, I took the hour-long trip up to Arkadelphia to see my alma mater. This December will mark my ten years since I was a student there; December 14, 1995 was my last day of enrollment. And though I’ve been back to OBU two or three times since in 1996 and 1999, this time around had an extra impact, a certain amount of poignance. It’s weird. It’s good to see the places I still sometimes happily, sometimes ashamedly, sometimes frightfully dream about and remember. And it’s creepy to see the changes, to see which buildings are torn down, which are brand new, and which are still around in all their mid-90’s glory. I’ve been away from OBU for long enough that the act of looking at the campus inspired few heavy emotional responses, and the memories that arrived on first trigger were cold, matter-of-fact memories; place names, hidden areas, geographic layout, things no longer there. But the fallout, the memories that return to me after I saw those places, those memories are at once both warm like fire and cold like an Arkadelphia winter, and they’ve sparked tonight’s firestorm of emotions.

It’s a mouthful, and I’m still trying to ruminate and digest today’s trip.

I shot around 2 1/2 rolls of film, just buildings, spaces, surroundings. No people. The fact that the campus was quiet, that school was out the day before the holiday (I had thought they’d be open), made things empty and solitary, but after my 4 summers spent on campus, the experience of the silent emptiness there wasn’t so alien to me. I did drive up there hoping to visit with old staff and faculty still there and to do some business with my school records, which didn’t happen, but just the experience of being back was enough to justify everything.

In some sense it was the Ouachita that I remembered, and in another sense it was like I was a floating intruder surveying a foreign place, an interloper in a forbidden zone checking up on its changed, hidden secrets. If there had been students there today, if there had been faculty and staff, it would have felt like being a welcomed stranger, like how I feel when I’m walking around Renfest on a late Sunday afternoon near sunset: everything is quieting down, everyone is folding up, the parking lot is decompressing, and I’m walking around between the booths where my few Rennie friends do their business. Yeah, just like that.

But today everything was just empty. The only human noise was from the construction crews, the few stragglers walking around campus, the campus security truck tooling around, and the ever-present Arkadelphia autumn breeze knocking around the leaves. I took the occasion to walk down the hillside beneath the student center to the Ouachita River, to the river bottoms where I spent so much of my time. They’d done some work there, made a walking trail, built steps and platforms down the hillside, thinned out a lot of the trees to open up the space to the campus uphill. The pavillion is still there, and so is the picnic table where my first girlfriend and I ground into each other in the heat of early summer. The odor, the smell down there on the river bottoms, the damp soil, the volumes of still water, the smell of river rot…that smell became my friend, my elixir, my aphrodisiac. I smell it and I am at peace. And today I took it in by the lungfulls. It’s still in my soul. THAT is the Ouachita that I miss.

The people I knew there were good people; not to gloss over everything with a rose-colored sheen, but they were my friends. They were the fire that kept me warm, the spark that burned new experiences into my memories. They were there with me…ten years ago. Not today. I think that was part of what is so surreal about today’s visit, and so saddening and angering. We’ve moved on, they’ve moved on; there were no familiar faces there today to share in today’s experience. I think that’s the hardest part.

It’s heavy, these floods, these torrents of memories and emotions that’re filling my head right now. Just looking around and seeing everything has brought them forward after so many years of not being triggered. There are the big picture memories that’ve always been there, but today brought back the tiny memories, the things that’ve been taken for granted, the decorations on someone’s house on the edge of campus, the fact that the ground near the theater is covered not with grass but with clover, the angled plaques mounted on a courtyard…those memories have come back.

The side trip to Lake DeGray, where I loved going, didn’t help much with the flooding. Went to the Highway 7 beach because it was the closest of the places I used to haunt, and it had the expected late-November empty beach hauntedness. The breeze was a wind over the lake, chopping up little waves in my direction as I stood on the point looking over the lake at the waning sunset. The parking lot was empty. The water was low. And everything had a heavy, heavy poetic air. This is the sunset. I cannot go back. No more dawns. The music playing on my laptop’s jukebox affirmed it, hammered it home:

“The paths that I once tred
Have all but gone
Only embers now smoulder
Where bridges once burned
I feel alive and yet I fear
What may happen now
I know,
I can’t return

Can I start again?
Erase this pain
By casting doubts into the waters
Asking judgment of the sea
Though Fortune may guide the fools
I have no wish to be free
Until I am gone.”

-VNV Nation “Distant (Rubicon II)”

In the past week I’ve been ill, I’ve been hyper, I’ve been clicking through the to-do list, I’ve been awake. I even finally and officially met this girl I’ve been exchanging glances with at Mojo’s for the past 3 months. And I’ve been driving, enjoyably and alertly driving. Sightseeing. And now I’m feeling, feeling things I can’t explain without metaphors; I know the words, but I can’t put them together, can’t craft what is necessary to communicate these things. That is my state. I’m still digesting.

Published by Shawn

He's just this guy, you know?