Home and the World
“To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience, It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you.”
- David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster”
In the early summers—those summers I wore sunscreen, went down Slip n’ Slides, traded Pokémon cards, summers I was anywhere from two to five feet tall—my mom, dad, sister and I drove up to Graeagle to stay at the River Pines Resort. At the wheel of his Toyota Highlander, my dad would play Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Marty Robbins. To him: classics, to me: nuisances. I was young and of poor taste. My dad, never without a smile, would let me wear headphones and disengage completely. Since then, my music taste has changed, and I am still trying to make it up to him for all those songs I missed. One thing that has never changed is my dad’s taste in cars; in my lifetime, at least four different black Toyota Highlanders have inhabited our garage. On the way to Graeagle, I’d watch an endless number of uniform tree trunks blur past the window, and sometimes I’d nap when a warm ray of sun hit my eyes right. Being a kid, I was usually bored and agitated on these four-hour-long drives, but I always loved when we got close to our destination. The anticipation, the natural air that expanded my lungs, the herds of cows, and the welcomed leg stretch that came with arrival.
Graeagle is sixty miles from Tahoe and sixty miles from Reno. There’s one gas station, one restaurant, and one grocery shop, which I’m guessing is why it is considered a “census-designated place” rather than a city, or even a town. Eight hundred and thirty-one people live there. When we used to visit it was empty, and quiet, and everyone was old, which meant they were easy to offend, but hard to be heard by.
And right there in Graeagle was the River Pines Resort, which really wasn’t much of a resort. It was a gravel road grid of one-story log cabins. There was an old pool, a bar, a rusted playground, and pine trees, lots of pine trees. We always stayed in Cabin 105, but you wouldn’t notice a difference: all the cabins were exactly the same, in the same uniform layout. The creaky metal screen door led to the creaky wood door which led to the main room: a carpeted kitchen-living room combo. You wouldn’t notice a difference between cabins, but I think I would. Each cabin had only one bedroom and one bathroom, so my sister and I used sleeping bags in the living room. We didn’t mind. Though I would have nightmares that a bat would find a hole in the wood roof, fly in, and take a shit in my eye. Some lady staying at the Feather Pines Resort had that happen to her. I would sleep with my sleeping bag pulled over my head.
It was so much easier, and guiltless, to be a shithead there and then. There wasn’t as much to think about, and nothing existed outside of ourselves. Nothing ever does when you are young. Some summers I’d bring friends from home and we’d slingshot pebbles at moving cars, hop the fence to the hot tub after dark when it was closed, and grab icees from behind the River Pines Resort’s pool bar, and only feel bad when we got caught.
More recent summers—summers of dying to be six feet tall and achieving it, summers of drinking, of football camps, of staying up late and waking up later, the summers of rebellion—my family ventured to more exotic locations.
It’s 2019, and I’ve just finished my sophomore year at USC. I’m with my parents and my sister, Elisabeth, in an Uber headed to SFO. We’re going to Africa—Madagascar, then Uganda, then Rwanda. Places I never thought I’d be interested in, but I don’t have the excuse or the right to pass them up. Before we get there, we have a layover in Paris. After getting through San Francisco security and eating cold turkey sandwiches from a kiosk, we board our Air France airplane for an eleven-hour flight.
First Class. So fucking nice. I love flying, especially when both my seat and the plane are exceptional. No amount of time spent in the air is too long when my legs have enough space, when I can drink champagne, when I have a supply of movies, when I can raise my little barrier that’s next to the aisle and ignore everything else. When you fly, you don’t have to be productive, you don’t have to move, and you don’t have to interact with anyone if you don’t want to. A nice airplane is like a casino: both exist as vacuums outside of time, space, and responsibility. The main differences are that in an airplane, the people look a little happier, you can’t smoke, and there are fewer flashing lights (although there are still some). But just like in casinos, airplane drinks are sometimes free, as they are in first class on this flight. I love this plane because once I get off it, I’m back in the real world. The eleven-hour flight feels like four, due to a movie, two gin and tonics, and several hours of sleep. I’m great at sleeping on planes; they’re overgrown steel cribs that rock you into slumber and hum with white noise.
We arrive in Paris on June first. We have a couple of hours, so we hunker down in the airport lounge, which includes a fridge full of free beer. I indulge in six Heinekens. The cans are relatively small. Elisabeth, a full-on adult as well, as evidenced by her being a high school vice principal, finds my immaturity amusing and familiar. She laughs and snaps a photo of me with my empties. I hold up a “shaka,” because why not. We decide to grab some food, since airplane food is always iffy, and we settle on McDonald’s. Europe, or at least the Paris airport, has not caught on to the American trend of pouring a shit ton of salt on everything edible. The chicken nuggets and French fries do the good name of McDonald’s zero justice. They are missing the American spirit.
We hop on our next plane, Air Austral, for another long flight. Everyone in my family takes our first pill of Malarone, which treats and prevents malaria. Liz is worried about the medication’s side effects, specifically reports of unusual dreams. I get cozy in my seat and drift off anyway. I think I have a dream about my best friend dying, but when I wake up, the details are already too fuzzy to make out.
We land in Madagascar at three a.m. I’m disoriented. It must be the Malarone. The streets are empty and void of light; I have no concept of the world I’ve just entered but it feels less than familiar.
A few hours later it’s eight a.m. and we are preparing for a van ride to see some lemurs. I’m surprisingly ready for the day, most likely because I slept a combined fifteen to eighteen hours on the two flights. I open my suitcase to get dressed and observe that I have forgotten to pack socks, which is usually enough to get to me, but I’m too tired to care. I throw on an Adidas tee and athletic shorts. When I meet up with my family in the hotel lobby, my parents tell me that I look “surprisingly chipper,” which feels like a lot of pressure on me, but I guess I’m happy that they’re happy. My sister informs me that I “look very American.” I’m not sure what to make of that. I think, “I mean, I am American.” At my high school, everyone wore pastel shorts and boat shoes and anything else that screamed money. Why don’t I just wear that? It’s not like people aren’t going to recognize that we are American just because I dress it down a little. To me, my sister’s REI boots and hiking gear just make her look like an American who is pretending not to be American.
We drive through the city of Antananarivo, Tana for short, on the way to the lemurs. The inhabitants’ clothing looks pretty similar to mine, except for a couple of spelling errors. Think “Bucci,” not “Gucci.” I also learn a few things: A French architect named Pool made a bunch of stuff, mainly cathedrals, in Tana. A former queen killed all the Christians, but then a cathedral was built for a little Christian girl that the queen killed, and I guess eventually somehow Christianity won over. I’m missing some details, probably because I don’t care all that much, and probably because I’m preoccupied wondering how my dog is, if my friends have forgotten me, and if the world still turns at home when I’m not there. Anyways, I guess this Pool guy was sort of a big deal, but I can’t tell if I’m supposed to root for him or not, and I’m tired of trying to care.
Our guide also tells us that a huge pastime for men in Tana is rooster fights. We pass two separate rings, each with probably two hundred men surrounding them. Seems like good fun. I don’t see any of the action because there’s no line of sight through the hordes of men. Our guide tells us that locals get so caught up in the fights they bet their cars, their houses, whatever they can. The van bumps along a dirt road for hours. We are far from Tana. My phone is useless because my world, back home, is asleep.
We step off the van and onto the outskirts of “Lemur Island,” as my family calls it. From the get-go, it’s obvious this isn’t the most authentic experience. The “island” is a large patch of grass surrounded by a thin, motionless river, which functions as a moat—the lemurs have no opportunity for escape. We are taken across the river in shaky kayaks, and it takes a whole thirty seconds. Quite the journey. As we step off the kayak, we are greeted by several men who work as handlers. The handlers have tons of fruit in their hands, and lemurs are jumping all over their shoulders. The handlers eagerly beckon us forward and one smiles at me. By looking in his eyes, I can tell that, despite the smile, he thinks that we are perhaps the dumbest people on Earth. Doesn’t matter though: we give him currency, he gives us banana, I give monkey banana, and we are all happy. When my friend the handler does give me the banana, the lemurs instantly hop from his shoulders to mine. The lemurs are of different breeds, most of which I’m too stupid or lazy to remember. Some are brown, some are grey, some are small, some are dog sized. As I said, what matters is that if I give them banana, they jump on my shoulder.
The lemurs, who look like cozy stuffed creatures with their glassy, beady eyes and extraordinarily long limbs, don’t seem to mind their little island. I’m not so sure I can relate. I think I’m a little too picky to be satisfied by endless bananas, and I unfortunately can see the sham around the display of creatures. But maybe the lemurs see it too, and they just don’t care. Or maybe they’re not looking.
Mornings in Graeagle, my family would head to the nearby bakery for bear claws. The second we’d open the door, cinnamon flooded our senses. In my mind’s eye the bakery was always illuminated by this warm, golden glow that is almost a certainly a product of my memory’s affinity for a simpler time. It was a cozy wooden refuge that had a perpetual buzz of life. There was a huge world map on the bakery wall, and a myriad of multi-colored pins dotted almost every continent. Each pin represented a patron and where they were from. There were pins everywhere on the map. I always thought, “Who from Europe is choosing to visit the eight-hundred-and-thirty-one-person, census-designated pinprick of Graeagle?”
Each day in Graeagle came with the promise of wholesomeness. My family loves to hike, myself excluded, but I’d often get dragged along. We’d drive a few miles away from River Pines and do this hike up a mountain that passed by Bear Lake. I’m sure I complained the whole way up. I bet I complained about my legs, how long it was taking, and the fact that I had no cell service. I never understood the appeal of walking somewhere for the sake of walking somewhere, especially when the somewhere you’re walking to is on a steep incline. I don’t remember my specific complaints, thankfully. What I do remember is stepping up onto a rock that overlooked this pristine, blue, sparkling Bear Lake. We’d take turns stepping up there, and we’d bide our time and try to gain the courage to jump off into the water. If anyone was having trouble making it off, we did the chant:
I’d have to be a warrior
A slave I couldn’t be
A soldier and a conqueror
Fighting… HUH!… to be free!
After “free,” the person had to jump. Even in the middle of June, which was when we’d go, the water was freezing. The second I’d submerge, my mind would stop, and when my system restarted, I could feel every appendage tingling. That’s what I remember.
It only took a few minutes to dry off once we got out. There was no better feeling than lying out on a warm slab of rock and letting the heat steam the moisture off. Some years there’d still be snow on top of the mountain, and we’d have snowball fights, like the ones you see in the movies.
On the car ride back, we’d stop at Frostee’s, this little American diner where you ordered through the front window and got your food there too. The sign had this animated, anthropomorphic soft-serve ice cream cone. They had burgers and hot dogs and things like that, but the ice cream was our favorite part.
Liz, nine years my elder, would still let me hang out with her friends, at the resort, Nick and Angelo. We saw Nick and Angelo every summer in Graeagle, and they always made me want to act older, even if I didn’t know how. We’d play horseshoes, or football, or I’d interject my way into their conversations and pretend to know what they were talking about. My favorite activity was when we’d tube down the Feather River. The sun painted our necks red. We’d grab handfuls of dark green moss from the water below and sling them at each other. When we grew tired of the lazy ride, we’d hop out of the river and begin the walk back to our cabins. Tubes over our shoulders, gravel crunching under our feet as the warm air dried our bodies.
We haven’t seen Nick or Angelo in years. The last I heard, Nick was in AA and Angelo was working at Google.
After Lemur Island, we make our way to the lodge where we are staying for the night; it’s too far and too dark to travel back to Tana. The lodge consists of a large main hut, then several surrounding baby huts. We settle in ours and put on some hiking gear. We are going on a night walk to look for lemurs, which sounds much more rewarding than Lemur Island.
We strap up with headlamps, binoculars, and flashlights: the whole thing. It’s much more authentic. My dad gives me a camera to play around with, which makes the whole thing more entertaining. In the hut, I drink a beer, place the empty can on my head, take a picture in the mirror, and post it on my Instagram to show my followers that I’m still alive and having much more fun than they are. Not that they care, but a guy can try.
On the night walk, I snap a photo of a lime tree frog resting on a wet leaf. It’s pretty damn good. The flash makes the little guy glitter in the photo, and he has such large dark eyes, and the blackness of the background contrasts his body so well. A little farther along, I spot through my binoculars a small splotch of fur high up in a tree about fifty feet away. The guide pats me on the back; it’s a rare mouse lemur. I thought it was a rat. We all head back to the hut feeling pretty good about ourselves.
In Uganda, we ride in another van to look for gorillas. We are assigned a guide for the trail, and I feel a lot of excited nervousness in the air; some of it is mine. After ten minutes hiking upward, we find a group of gorillas. They are beautiful, and the young ones are playful and run right up next to me, but I’m not allowed to touch them. I snap more photos. We don’t look the Silverback in the eyes because we shouldn’t, because they take eye contact as a threat and might maul us. It’s hard not to look; the gorillas have such human expressions and eyes, it’s transfixing. Our guide seems more worried about us than the gorilla. To us, the gorilla is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, to him, it’s Tuesday. The more pressing thing is the dumb tourists who might turn their flash on and get themselves killed.
On the van ride back, kids wave and chase us as we pass. We wave back. Our guide tells us that they do this in hopes that we will stop and give them money. The van keeps moving.
I’m sitting at a long dinner table in our lodge in Uganda. The lights are dim, and people circle around me with platters of food. We are being treated like seasoned hunters that have just returned from a long day on safari, or Vikings in a grand hall that just did glorious battle. I talk to a fellow American about his lame tattoos and try to look the other way for conversation. My glass of wine is never empty, never left unattended. I end up with quite the buzz.
Sometimes my life feels like gross, overly gratuitous, uninspired, poorly executed, tasteless, out-of-touch satire. Especially whenever I try to write about it.
In Graeagle, we’d often go to the local pizza place, Alfredo’s—or something like that. It was right next to the train tracks. This place was about as generic as you can imagine: On the sign outside was a depiction of a fat Italian chef, complete with apron, big chef hat, and mustache. All the tables had the universal red-and-white-checkered tablecloths. After we ordered a couple of fat, greasy pizzas, my mom would give Elisabeth and me the change, quarters for the arcade games and pennies for the train tracks outside. I’d blow up virtual heads in virtual foreign lands on the vintage arcade machine, then Elisabeth and I would go outside and line the railways with copper. The train would not yield. Dates became indistinguishable and Lincoln’s head was throttled once again. My sister and I would palm our cheap treasure loyally: still warm, now worth everything and nothing. Every night a train would run down those same tracks, and its deep howl would sink me to sleep in my sleeping bag on the couch, at ease, knowing I was cocooned and safe.
In Rwanda, more kids eagerly chase our van. Liz and I buy some banana beer off the side of the road in whatever their currency is. It tastes like shit, but it’s strong.
Our van arrives at a village where we will be joining another group of Americans for a performance. We are ushered onto a few rows of wooden benches. Other villagers will be watching the performance with us, except they are all sitting on the ground next to us. I am not a dancer whatsoever, and words are failing me, but the performance we witness is upbeat, accompanied by drums and rattle instruments, and involves a lot of twirling and arm linking. I’m impressed by the dance, but I’m more blown away by the middle-aged white man who leans down to take a selfie with one of the unsuspecting villagers sitting on the ground next to us. The man aims the lens, smiles, clicks the button, then retracts his arm, all without saying a word. He smiles at his phone, content with his work. The photographed villager and her friends turn to each other and laugh. I want to laugh with them, to share something, to show that I get it, but I probably don’t, so I don’t.
After the performance, we tourists gift the village a few goats. Another tourist, a woman, gives me her GoPro, and over and over again I film multiple takes of her hugging this one Rwandan woman, whose name she does not know.
The last time my family went to Graeagle was two summers ago. My sister and I walked down Feather River’s coast together kicking rocks. We talked about all the times we had there, how everything had changed. The water in the river was low, too low to raft. The rocks jutted too far up and would scrape my ass if I tried. Alfredo’s was still there, but to be honest, that’s probably the wrong name, and I’m pretty sure it’s culturally insensitive that I keep calling it “Alfredo’s.” The culture and the food may not have been authentic, but the memories were.
I just looked up the name. It’s “Gumba’s.”
My sister joked about how she’s a part of Family A and I’m a part of Family B. I wasn’t sure what she meant until she explained it. When she still lived with us, up until she was seventeen and I was nine, we’d go to church every Sunday, we went camping in the summers, and we went to Graeagle. After she left for college, Family B moved into a bigger house; we started traveling far away, and my mom made new friends with a pack of cutthroat, activist wannabes, art gallery socialites. Family B goes to Africa.
Outside Cabin 105, there’s a large, thick pine tree. We took a family photo in front of it every summer. If you went through the photos, you would be able to watch my curly blonde hair turn straight and brown, my height grow, my teeth come in, my smile change. My mother, now in her 60s, has been coming to Graeagle since she was a child. A few years ago, the top of the pine tree was cut off. I guess it was dying and was too much of a liability to leave standing. We still took photos in front of the trunk after it was beheaded, because in the photos no one could tell the upper half had already rotted away, died, and been cut off.
I remember rocking in a hammock outside Cabin 105 with my mother and looking up at the stars. She enveloped me in her arms. We were listening to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver. I remember bursting in to tears when Denver sang “West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads…,” because he missed his mama. I didn’t know then that he was referring to his home; I thought he was talking about his actual mom. But I think I know now.
Michael Mooring is a 22-year-old from Atherton, CA, who is currently earning a Master’s in Literary Editing and Publishing from the University of Southern California.