Thirty-five years ago, in June, 1983, I traveled to England as part of a 4-H exchange. I no longer remember exactly how I came to sign up for the program, but what’s clear in retrospect is how much that summer shaped my life.
Even without the international component, the trip would have been monumental for me. Then eighteen years old, I had never traveled further east than the plains of Colorado. I’d never flown on a commercial airline, had never taken public transportation, had never encountered humidity.
My journey began at the edge of Washington, DC, staying with the family of friend of my father’s. I roamed with their son and his cousin for a week, marveling incessantly at the greenness and vapor-heavy skies, at marble-crusted buildings, at crowds. I was boggled that people would jog in that heat, as many people did, huffing along National Mall at noon. I then joined a group of about 20 4-H-ers from from around the US at the National 4-H Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, for orientation. On June 20, we donned our matching bright yellow t-shirts, boarded a plane at Dulles Airport, and flew across the Atlantic.
The exchange was originally touted as a six-week stay with a single family, but something had gone awry and the trip ended up being a series of 10-day stays with families in three different counties in England. I fell in love with my first host family, the Clemitsons, in Northumberland. Leaving Heugh Farm was hard, but I managed to enjoy my subsequent farm stays in Lancashire and Derbyshire.
The final phase of the program, however, consisted of a bus tour. Being a tourist with my American cohort was doubly fraught for me: I didn’t like being a associated with a loud pack of teenagers, for starters, but I’d also been living in England for weeks by then, and did not appreciate the demotion to mere sightseer. By the time we arrived in London I was fed up with the group and negotiated with our chaperone to take a train back up to Northumberland for a few days.
At it turns out, I’ve continued to do the same thing for more than three decades: negotiate a way back to northern England.
I first returned a few years later, spending the 1986-87 school year at the University of Lancaster, by way of the University of Colorado’s Junior Year Abroad program. Since Lancaster was an easy two-hour train ride from the Clemitson’s farm, I spent most of my term breaks in Northumberland, content to be “home” while most of my JYA compatriots either flew back to the States or traveled Europe on 30-day rail passes.
Back at CU after that year, my college social group expanded to include a number of Lancaster JYA alums—one of whom I would marry a decade later.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduation, but since I’d always wanted to work with horses, I applied for and landed a job with an Arabian horse breeder. After a year of working ten hours a day, six days a week for the handsome agricultural-worker salary of $1000 per month, I was ready to put my brain back to work. I applied for a scholarship and was able to return to Lancaster, where I pursued a Master’s degree on a 12-month program.
Back in northern England, I was again able to visit my family in Northumberland, although my full-time study commitments didn’t accommodate those leisurely month-long term breaks. I stayed busy with thesis research while on campus, but was also occupied with a social calendar that I don’t expect I’ll ever match again. A few of my fellow graduate students were from the UK, but everyone else came from somewhere else: Sri Lanka, Greece, France, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Spain, Ghana, Belgium, Singapore, Kenya. My old JYA chum Doug even wandered across the campus square one day, on a visit from the Scottish farm he was working at for the summer. Looking back, I marvel at how spoiled I was from the fall of 1989 to the fall of 1990, living near my home away from home while the world came to me.
Two years after I returned to Colorado, Doug and I started dating. We got married six years later, in a ceremony officiated by the director of International Education who had sent us both to Lancaster years before. I settled into life as a confirmed homebody, anchored in the mountainous terrain of Colorado, but our shared history there has impelled Doug and me to visit England periodically—most recently a few weeks ago.
Our destinations on this trip were dictated by the home towns of friends and family. From London we first went to the south coast, visiting friends in Bexhill-on-Sea and then in Weymouth. From there we headed north to Bristol, for a quick visit with one of my host sisters. En route from there to the northern Borderlands, we made a quick stop at Lancaster University, and found the campus virtually unrecognizable from when we lived there almost thirty years ago.
I’d like to say things were more relaxed while we were in Northumberland, but the days were filled with catching up with my English parents; exploring some of the western reaches of the county, where they’ve retired; and visiting my other host sister and her family. We squeezed in a quick trip to Loch Arthur, too: the farm where Doug worked in 1990.
The scatter of people we wanted to see ran up against our compressed schedule, making our visits with everyone too short; the trip was wonderful but exhausting. Back home here Colorado, I’ve been trying to settle back into the rhythm of my day-to-everyday while I wrestle with how to sum up our trip—for myself, for people who ask, and for a post on this blog—but I’ve been fumbling at that latter effort for as long as we were away. True, the trip was a whirlwind, but there’s been something else I’ve had trouble pinning down.
My slow realization has been that I’m feeling out of sync because looking back toward England alters my depth of perception. “Most recent” doesn’t mean a lot; recollection summons glossy reflections, but they float and waver atop a pool of impressions swirling three-and-a-half decades deep.
England, for me, is a four-dimensional presence, demanding an accounting not just of length, width, and height, but of time. There are through-lines of life and love and learning that join there and here, then and now. Inter-positioned, segmented, cross-stacked, and layered, the lines create a geometry that complicates my transits between one place and another. Among other things, although I leave England, it never, fully, leaves me.