I sat in the bright, busy Málaga airport, with my sturdy red carry-on bag at my feet, trying not to cry. It was August of 1975, and I was fifteen years old. I suppose most girls that age would have been homesick after two weeks abroad. I wasn’t. I remember wondering if there was any way I could just sneak away from the others and not have to get on the plane that would carry me home. Maybe I could find Manolo, the sweet slender Spanish boy who had tried to romance me at a disco in Torremolinos. Maybe he would help me find a place to stay, and a job, and I would never have to leave this warm, enchanted place. I’d fallen in love with the idea of Spain before I ever got there. In ninth-grade Spanish class, we’d learned about Spanish customs and Spanish food and Spanish geography, and I’d become obsessed. I loved the musical, sensual language. It sounded exotic and exciting to me, and I was sure the country would be exotic and exciting, too. When I found out about the annual class trip, I begged to go, even though it was usually limited to upperclassmen. My enthusiasm got me in.
Spain was everything I’d hoped it would be. Our happy group ate tapas and paella, saw a bullfight and flamenco, had fun trying out our Spanish in souvenir shops. We toured plazas and museums, magnificent old churches and ancient Moorish mosques. I look back now and wonder why those holy places didn’t make more of an impression on me. But the truth is that I remember more about the bus ride from Madrid to Córdoba than I do about anything else. The heat and the sun and the mountains and the olive trees were more inspiring to me than the grandest cathedrals had been. Having spent my entire life in Northeast Ohio, I’d never seen mountains like those, or a desert. I can remember being puzzled at how the purple-gray peaks to the south never seemed to get any closer, even after hours of driving. The bus rolled past miles and miles of olive trees, rounds of dark gray-green foliage atop twisted trunks, arranged in neat undulating rows over the saffron-yellow hills. While the other students laughed and chattered, I sat quietly at my window seat, yearning, imagining what it would be like to live in a little Spanish town. The sun would bless me, its bright alchemy bleaching my hair to pure gold. The men would watch with admiration and desire as I rode a fine Spanish horse, one with a proudly arched neck and a long rippling tail, over those hills, through those dusty trees, maybe even up into those dry and distant ranges. Now I know that I would never be happy living in such an arid climate, in a perpetually seared landscape, but at fifteen, tasting the parched Andalucían air, marveling at how the earth had raised itself into untamed peaks and crags—well, I just knew that this was where I really belonged.
After I got home, I resumed my unexciting life in boring, ordinary Chardon, Ohio. I rode my stubborn American horse through the familiar woods and fields of Munson Township. He was nothing like the proud-necked, elegant Spanish mount I’d imagined—to tell the truth, he was homely, with a big coarse head and a stiff clumsy gait. I was no beauty, just a bookish kid with a bad complexion and braces. And we didn’t have any mountains or olive groves to disappear into. But it’s strange how much about those Ohio rides I can remember now, looking back: rocking gently to the triplet beat of a carefree canter through meadows waving with bright yellow goldenrod and brilliant red sumac. Apache’s rough mane, a wiry mix of silver, black, and white, bobbing up and down with the movement of his head. The smells—good clean horse sweat, citrus-scented fly repellent, the sweet spice of warm leather. The soft thuds of hoofs in the grass, the buzzes and trills of cicadas and crickets, the squeaks and creaks of the cheap stiff saddle, the whistles and calls from birds in the nearby woods. I knew even then that I loved the riding, but I had no idea that I also adored the familiar landscape I moved through every day. This seemingly unremarkable countryside was settling deeply into my heart without my knowledge.
I fall in love with landscape, with the way trees march over hillsides or desert mountains fold themselves upward, as if in prayer, toward a blistering sky. I’ve even fallen in love with the idea of landscape. Some months after I got back from Spain, I discovered the books of Carlos Castaneda: The Teachings of Don Juan. A Separate Reality. Journey to Ixtlan. Tales of Power. His tales were full of the magic and mystery I craved. I imagined myself living as a shaman in the remote dry sierras, meditating atop mesas, creeping through canyons at night under a luminous moon, with coyotes and sidewinders for companions, communing with cactus and sagebrush and sacred desert flowers. I made a vow to myself that, someday, I’d move out West.
Now that I think about this attraction to landscape, I realize that I’ve always been especially drawn to mountains, though until my trip to Spain I’d known them mostly from books and magazines. I think I read Larry McMurtry’s Moving On for the first time during my freshman year in college, in 1978. The novel’s descriptions of the American West, of Jim and Patsy Carpenter and their wanderings through deserts and over mountain ranges, complete with ranches, rodeos, and real-life cowboys, convinced me that I needed to live somewhere like Montana or Wyoming. I wanted to see the Rockies. I dreamed about mountains, all the time—and they were always snow-capped and always out of reach.
How I envied Patsy, who was slim and beautiful, with a rich husband, no need of a job, and no classes to worry about. Infatuated with the idea of living like a character in McMurtry’s world, just like I’d been obsessed with Spain a few years earlier, I decided to leave Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland after my first year. Case felt sterile. Something in me was starving. I wanted something else, something wild. I wanted the freedom that Patsy had, roaming through the distances of the West. So I applied to the University of Idaho. Why Idaho? I don’t remember, but I bet it was the mountains in their catalog. Mountains that reared gently in the distance around the university town of Moscow, like wise giants. Maybe they could teach me who I was.
But in the end I didn’t go, even though Idaho admitted me. I didn’t have the courage to leave Ohio. For a long time, I felt like a coward, backing away from my dream at the last minute the way I did. But was I? It’s only now that I can think maybe I wasn’t afraid—maybe I subconsciously knew that everything I wanted and needed was right here, if I would only open my eyes and see.
In 1995 I went to Seattle to visit a friend. It was my first trip to the Pacific Northwest, and as soon as I stepped out of Sea-Tac Airport and smelled the mingled essences of ocean and pine, I knew I was home. I belonged there. I was fascinated with everything I saw—the jagged peaks of the Olympics across Puget Sound, the hills dark with evergreens, the imposing white dome of Mount Rainier, even the overcast sky. I gaped at the Space Needle and adored the Pike Place Market. We drove to the Olympic Peninsula, where the misty rain forest worked its delicate green tendrils around my eager heart. I fell in love with the town of Forks years before Twilight made it known to the rest of the world. Even the logging trucks looked beautiful to me. My friend drove us to Mount Rainier and we stayed the night in a rustic little lodge near Paradise, which I felt was aptly named. I have a vivid memory of driving away from Rainier the following night—the mountain an enormous sleeping shadow, a massive silhouette illuminated from behind by the luminous face of an enormous full moon.
I fell hard for the Pacific Northwest, and I wanted to move to Seattle. I came home, reluctantly, and every time I listened to the Hildegard von Bingen chants we’d been playing on our drive through the Olympic rain forest, I wanted to cry. The angelic voices were a sacrament, a celebration, transporting me back to that wild, mysterious place. The ethereal music had been the perfect background for a holy scene—the dripping trees, the fog, the shrouded mountains whose energy was tangible to me long after I left them behind.
I never fell in love with Germany, where my parents were born. I’ve traveled to “the Old Country” twice, to see family, once when I was ten years old, and again when I was twenty-one. My parents grew up in Hessen, a region that offers a rich plenty of thick forests, long, loaf-shaped mountains, and wide, quiet rivers. Its quaint villages of half-timber houses and old stone churches, surrounded by rolling sweeps of carefully tended farmland, are fairy-tale perfect. Why wasn’t I captivated?
You’d think that the native country of my own flesh and blood would have had some sort of claim on me. The feelings of longing and belonging that I felt in Spain and Seattle, why didn’t I feel those in Germany, a place that was more truly mine? I imagine at ten I was too young to pay mindful attention to my surroundings. At twenty-one, however, surely I must have perceived the beauty of the land from which my mother and father came.
Yet, Germany’s dark mountains didn’t inspire me. I never imagined riding a sturdy German warmblood horse up into the dense forests of the Hessian hills. I didn’t dream of living in one of those charming little villages. I knew that the country was beautiful; still, I wasn’t drawn to it. After I got home from my second trip, I wondered about that. It made no sense to me. Something had stopped me from falling in love with Germany, and I wanted to know what it was.
I decided it was Germany’s cruel and complicated history. I told myself that the place made me uncomfortable because of the awful things that had happened there. I remembered a movie we’d watched in seventh-grade history class, about World War II and concentration camps—those skeletal bodies stacked like logs. It sickened me. It still does.
But now, as I’m remembering more about that second trip and the time immediately afterward, I don’t think Germany’s horrible past was the real reason its landscape failed to move me. Looking back, I’m surprised to remember a thing long forgotten. I bought myself a German army coat at a surplus store. Of all the souvenirs to choose—a military trench coat. I loved it. Made of heavy olive-green fabric, buttoned down the front and belted at the waist, it sported a small German flag on one shoulder—black, red, gold—sewn there by one of my aunts. I wore that coat proudly for years.
And, shortly after I got home, I purchased a purebred Doberman puppy. Of all the breeds to choose—a Doberman, a vicious guard dog, a German creation. I even gave him a long German name, “Dortmund Dierk von Iserlohn,” after my uncle Dierk from Dortmund. Why did I do those things? Could my subconscious mind have been trying to tell me something? I wonder. I wonder if it was saying, “You’re not ashamed of Germany. This is about something else.”
Maybe I just wasn’t attracted to a German landscape that was too much like the boring, ordinary, unbeautiful, not-good-enough landscape of home. The weather was the same, the countryside was similar, there was nothing exotic about it, nothing exciting. Sure, the long, low mountains were old and dark and mysterious, but they weren’t foreign enough to capture my heart. As for the language, I’d grown up listening to my parents speak German to each other, so it didn’t sound at all romantic or attractive to me.
It would take me over thirty years to recognize that, for most of my life, I’d been trying to run away from home. I didn’t see it then, but now I think I was ashamed of myself. I was boring, ordinary, unbeautiful, not-good-enough, just like the landscape of Chardon.
When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to leave Chardon. It was dull. Highest point in Geauga County? So what? It was on a hill, not a mountain. Maple sugar capital? Big deal. I didn’t like maple syrup. We didn’t even get a McDonald’s until the mid-seventies. There wasn’t much to do. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the woods and fields around our modest split-level house on Mulberry Road—or those hours I spent riding Apache through them. But I don’t think I ever really saw the beauty of the place, though it’s strange that the older I get, the more details I remember. And the more details I remember, the more profound the joy I feel in them.
I often wondered what in the world made my parents decide to settle in the Cleveland area, of all places, when they came to this country. They could have moved to someplace interesting, like Colorado, or at least someplace with better weather, like California. But no, they picked a humdrum little town with the dubious distinction of being the snowfall capital of Ohio. Chardon had nothing going for it, in my youthful opinion. No mountains, no canyons, no spectacular views. Not even an ocean. Just proximity to shallow Lake Erie, which meant we suffered through blinding lake-effect snowstorms during our long, miserable winters.
I finally moved away from Chardon in 1982, when I got married. I didn’t go far—twenty minutes due north, to the small city of Painesville, where my husband owned a house. Though we divorced years ago, I stayed in town so that I wouldn’t have to uproot our son from his school and his friends. Painesville might as well be another planet, it’s so different from where I grew up—and not in a colorful, seductive way. To me, it’s always been ugly and depressing, with too many people, too much noise, not enough trees, no countryside. My spirit will never be at home in Painesville. If I haven’t made peace with neighbors and traffic and pavement and all that goes with city life in nearly thirty years, something tells me I’m never going to. I’ve long resented living here, but it’s only lately that I’m beginning to understand how my irritation has been a kind of gift. It’s opened my eyes to a beauty I may never have seen otherwise.
Every other week, I drive south from Painesville, through Chardon, to Hiram College, where I attend weekend classes. I’ve been doing this for two years now, and I’ve noticed something—I can have a terrible day at work, and come home in a foul mood, hating the world and everyone and everything in it, but as soon as I drive out of Painesville toward Chardon, the negativity starts to peel off and fly away in layers, bit by bit. The farther south I go, and the more rural the landscape becomes, the lighter I feel, as the gritty detritus of city living is borne away by the gentle country air.
In the winter, on these drives, I have at last been able to enter into the magic and mystery of the Northeast Ohio countryside. Early one morning, as I wound through snow-covered farmland on the slick black ribbon of State Route 44, I saw a soft layer of fog floating a few feet above the white fields, looking to me like the very breath of God, still and holy. Driving home that night under a clear, cold sky, I watched moonlight silvering the snow, and realized that the hills rising dark with spruce and fir and pine around the edges of the frozen pastures were as sacred as any mountains I’d ever seen or imagined.
I finally got to visit the American Southwest last fall, on a trip to Las Vegas with friends. At last, the desert! I just knew I’d fall under its spell. Surely, I thought, there would be holy ground in the purplish mountains that held themselves aloofly around Sin City. I couldn’t wait to get my feet off the crowded sidewalks of the buzzing Strip, and into the dust and sand of the silent desert. I insisted on a trip to Red Rock Canyon, a conservation area west of Vegas. I wanted to feel the hungry energy of the stark, dry landscape, to connect with the spiritual power I’d read about in Castaneda’s books, years earlier. This was the world of Yaqui Indian sorcerers, and I was ready to be seduced.
It didn’t happen. The park did have a sort of terrible, prehistoric beauty to it, with its soaring rock formations glowing ochre in the afternoon sun, its jagged mountains striped with silver, mauve, and gold, its vast tawny expanses of rocky sand studded with gray-green cacti, mesquite, and yucca, reminding me of Spain’s olive trees. The air was as dry and hot as the air of Andalucía had been, the mountains as alluring. But I wasn’t fooled. This time, I knew I would never want to live in such a harsh environment—I need the goldenrod, the sumac, the trees and lakes and rivers of home.
On a warm fall afternoon, I stop in at Lucky’s for lottery tickets. Lucky’s is a little beverage store and “jerky outlet” nestled into a curve of Route 44 south of Chardon. I won’t call it a convenience store, because that would put it in the same category as the city stores like Redi-Go and Speedway and Convenient Food Mart, and Lucky’s is nothing like any of those. Lucky’s is a country store—no sidewalk leads to Lucky’s, the parking lot is gravel, and the closest building to it is the old farmhouse next door. Behind Lucky’s, a long sloping field rises to meet a forested hill. No boom cars rattle Lucky’s windows with pounding bass, no sirens scream of violence. The parking lot isn’t crowded, so you can pull in wherever you want. It’s peaceful.
I step out into that parking lot after making my purchase, look around at the stacks of firewood, the rusty ice machine, the piles of pumpkins for sale, the tree that marks the boundary between Lucky’s and the farm next door. No chain-link fence needed here. The air is faintly sweet with the scent of the beginning of fall, the earthy smell of fallen leaves. I have time, so I relax and stand at ease, watching a pair of brown chickens chase each other around the front yard of the farmhouse. This is what I grew up with. I am me, and this is home. Not the sun-splashed olive groves of Andalucía. Not the damp, mysteriously blurred forests of the Pacific Northwest. Home is the quiet, unassuming countryside of Northeast Ohio, ordinary though it may seem, lacking breathtaking mountains, desert vistas, or ocean views. Standing surrounded by low hills flanked with maple trees just beginning to turn color in the mild September air, my feet scrunching in the gravel of the parking lot of this shabby little country store, listening to the rhythmic cheeping of late-summer crickets, for me, now, the sacred is here, in this knowing: The guru isn’t sitting on some unattainable mountaintop somewhere. I don’t want to be a Spanish princess and I don’t need a Yaqui sorcerer to take me on a spiritual quest through the desert in search of myself. I no longer envy Patsy Carpenter. And though I may never know what God is (much less who), I do know that the breath of the divine is even now fluttering the jade-green leaves of the maple tree in front of me, animating them with dancing tips of coral flame. It isn’t to be found only in the mist of a rain forest or in the fog wrapped around a hidden peak. I am finally awake to the holiness of this landscape, the one that made its own home in my heart back when I was riding Apache through the fields and woods of Munson Township. The guru is right there in the goldenrod, and has been all along.
How lucky I feel, to have roots in this ground, to be exactly who I am, to finally see. I smile to myself as I tuck my lottery tickets into my wallet and get into my car.
Linda L. McConnell is a Northeast Ohio native, born in East Cleveland in 1960 and raised in Chardon. A late bloomer, she graduated from Hiram College in 2012 with a B.A. in Humanities and Fine Arts and a Minor in Writing. Her short story, “The Empowerment,” won first place for short fiction in the 2012 ECHO Student Literary Competition. She currently lives in Painesville, and commutes into Cleveland five days a week to work as a server administrator in the Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute.