Go West

by Alyssa Rosenberg


Around the time you read this, I'll be on a plane to Unalaska, AK (it should tell you a lot about the heat in DC this summer that this is the place I've chosen to get out of Dodge to). In between packing, ordering a new sleeping bag, and hoping my insect repellent is going to be strong enough, I re-read "Death of An Innocent," the Jon Krakauer piece that became Into the Wild, and Ned Zeman's "The Man Who Loved Grizzlies." I revisited them mostly because they're very good magazine pieces. I have no particular desire to live off the land for moral or adventuresome reasons (though I am going camping), and certainly no desire to commune with bears (it looks like I'm at greater risk of eagle attack than anything else). But both pieces are also very good looks at what it means to be an outsider in Alaska and to have an outsider's romantic perception of Alaska.

I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to do a piece of big, disorienting travel every year, to a place where I wouldn't know the language, or wouldn't be familiar with the rhythms of everyday life, and to head off by myself, at least, even if I met up and stayed with someone there. In that sense, I understand Christopher McCandless's sense of accomplishment in hitting 100 days in the Denali, even if my achievements are of a vastly smaller scale: navigating Shanghai by the width of streets, finally feeling comfortable enough to ride hands-free on the back of a motor bike in Phnom Penh. Once you're a grown-up, life doesn't just hand you opportunities to discover that you have capabilities greater than you knew. If you don't seek them out, you can peak knowing that you're capable of holding down a job, paying your rent, getting along with your adult families, with additional jolts only coming along when you become a parent, lose a parent, or face death yourself. The things you discover when you travel are smaller, individually, than those large revelations, but I think they're worth learning, secret knowledge you can take back into civilian life.

I think there's something to be said for getting lost in such a way that you have to, but can, find your way out again--but with a clear understanding that those experiences don't stand in for true knowledge. Talking to Chinese academics doesn't mean I understand the full impact of the one child policy. Going around Angkor Wat and surrounding temples with a guide who tells me about how he balances guiding with maintaining his family's rice paddies doesn't mean I get the post-Khmer Rouge rebuilding of the country. And spending a while out in the Aleutians doesn't mean I'll understand the island's Aleuts, Russian Orthodox Christians, fisherman, history of gold rush and attack by the Japanese during World War II. Learning these limitations, I think, are valuable too. Coming home with a sense that your everyday world is smaller than you knew is useful perspective, and a spur to go back out again.

Anyway, thank you all, so much for having me. It's a pleasure and a privilege to spend time here. If you've had fun, you can continue to find me here at The Atlantic, or at my day job at Washingtonian.com, or finally, at my personal blog, where there is a lot of nerdblogging.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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