Finding a Sense of Place Through Wandering (John Messick, author and professor)

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John Messick Humans Outside

Sometimes the best way to understand the importance of connecting to your place in the world is through wandering away from it. And when we pair that with spending time in the wild outdoors, we might also learn that things aren’t quite as wild as they seemed from the outside. Maybe what you think of as “wild” others simply consider “home.”

John Messick, author of the new book Compass Lines, is currently grounded in Alaska — but his life hasn’t always looked that way. In this episode he talks about the importance of belonging in relation to the world, how he found that in his travels and how you might be able to find it too. Listen now.

Some of the good stuff:

[2:23] John’s favorite outdoor space
[5:15] How he became someone who likes to go outside
[10:02] The idea of wild
[14:03] How does traveling the world impact that idea
[18:27] How many countries has he visited?
[20:23] What was he looking for during his travels?
[21:21] A diversion to “Gathland”
[27:13] Tip for finding a grounding where you are
[30:31] John’s favorite outdoor space

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Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.

Amy Bushatz: No matter who you are or where you go, heading outside even for a few minutes is always worth it. I’m your host Amy Bushatz, and here at Humans Outside, we’re using the Humans Outside 365 Challenge to build a life around spending time in nature while hearing from fascinating outdoor minded. As a journalist for 19 years, I’ve let curiosity be my guide. After my husband’s injuries from military service, we started looking for a better way to live. That’s why we moved sight unseen to Alaska to see if an outdoor focused life was the answer. Since September, 2017, I’ve personally spent at least 20 consecutive minutes outside every single. No matter what to explore, how nature can change my life. Ready to hear from experts and outdoor lovers who make heading into nature just a part of who they are while we work to do the same? Let’s go.

If you’re someone who loves to travel and are always finding a reason for the next adventure, far from home, you might be surprised by how rewarding staying and exploring the minutiae around you can be. For my part in a place as vast as where I live in Alaska, it feels like all the time in the world and all the days of exploration I could possibly have in my life will never be enough to see and experience everything this land has to offer.

For some people, the good things about staying put are best highlighted by doing the opposite, and there are takeaways we could all use to really appreciate the world in which we. Today’s guest, John Messick, has personally explored the power of global travel before finally planting his feet in Alaska. A teacher, writer and father, he is an assistant professor of writing at Kenai Peninsula College and the author of the new book, Compass Lines, a collection of essays that explore the paths we take toward belonging through the lens of life lived through world travel. In this episode, John will talk about what he learned about the power of place through his travels, the importance of belonging and how you can find that too no matter where your adventures lead you. John, welcome to Humans Outside.

John Messick: Hi. Glad to be here.

Amy Bushatz: Well, I’m so excited to talk to you today about travel. I so enjoyed your collections of essays about this. We start all of our episodes, imagining ourselves in our guest favorite outdoor spaces if we’re just hanging out, chatting somewhere outdoors that you love. So if that was true, where would we be with you today?

John Messick: So if we were talking about the book that I just published, I think probably the most powerful Alaskan space that I write about in there is Bremner Mining District, which is up in the wrangles. Uh, And I’d want to say that is the space that when I really think about some, a powerful wilderness experience, that’s probably the most powerful wilderness experience I have in recent memory.

I think about the way in which as we get older and life events kind of change who we are. That one marks the end of, of this book and it really, it marks my transition from vagabond into fatherhood, as it were. And so it’s a place that I traveled to I was fortunate enough to spend almost seven weeks out there six weeks and some change with my wife while she was four months pregnant with our first child in 2019.

And, We’re mostly in, in alpine ferry land on the far eastern slab of the chuga with peaks all around that you could climb up to and just get views to wherever saw as many bears as we did, people kind of place. So I wanna imagine that as maybe the initial place.

But, and there’s always a but to these things, but it’s remote. It’s hard to get to. It’s inaccessible. And I think that more philosophically, As I think about that as a transition place that I’d like to talk to you from, but really I just kind of want the snow to be gone right now. I want the lakes to open up and as a father of two now I want to get out with my kids into the lake systems. And so down here on the Kenai we have the Swan Lakes and Swanson River Lake systems, which are kind of a little unknown gem down here as part of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. And I cannot wait to get out to those and listen to loon calls and swat mosquitoes with my three-year-old and take my daughter on what will actually be her first overnight canoe trip. So I’m really looking forward to doing that sometime if this ice ever melts,

Amy Bushatz: Well, it won’t be long between when we’re recording this and when people hear this. But things change fast here in Alaska. So maybe it’ll be gone by then. Maybe your, these future dreams will have already come true cuz that’s beautifully how seasons work. And I just put my faith in that because at the time that we’re recording this, it snowed all day yesterday and that’s not okay with me anymore. So.

John Messick: Well, but Alaska doesn’t get springtime, right? So, w e sort of just make, we make that giant leap of faith into high summer right away. So you know, we have that to look forward to.

Amy Bushatz: Yes. And trusting that will happen.

So, John, why don’t you first talk to us about how you became somebody who likes to go outside?

John Messick: I’ve always been someone who likes to go outside. I don’t know. I guess for some people it’s a matter of uh, discovering a key moment. I’m not sure I really have one particular outdoor experience that I can relate to. My dad was really big into outdoor experiences growing up in Wisconsin. He had grown up in Minnesota and so the boundary waters canoe area there stands as kind of a, it’s an iconic place for people from Minnesota to travel to by canoe.

So I grew up in canoes. I grew up on bicycles. I have always loved bicycling and canoeing, I think are probably the two greatest achievements that humans have accomplished. Really, we’ve devolved since the bicycle was invented 125 or so years ago you know, we, we had achieved everything we needed to when we had trains and bicycles, and the car really just screws everything up.

So I would say I’ve kind of always been an outdoor person If that ever became formalized somewhere it would, you know, I was involved in the scouts for a long time though have not had much to do with that as an adult. And I did do a lot of adventures in that. But it’s always been part of me.

I think if there’s a moment when I can really think about how my imagination of what outdoor experience was and how it kind of blew my world up, it, I took a job my, between my junior and senior year of college building trails in the Pacific Northwest. I flew out to Eugene, Oregon. And worked on a trail building crew as a crew, well, first as a, a trainee, and then later as a crew leader, bouncing around in 15 passenger vans through the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho, the Frank Church Wilderness, remote wilderness locations in the Cascades, Washington, Oregon, all over the place. Old growth forests, big, you know, forgotten Idaho peaks some of the last, the the last really contiguous wild areas in the lower 48. Places where there were still grizzly bears, places where there were wolves and places where the trees were still, you know, bigger, as big around as houses, and that really shifted what it felt like wilderness was possible for me to be, you know, I’d grown up, again I talk about the boundary waters. I talked about a lot of Midwestern adventures, but suddenly returning home from my senior year of college, it just felt like those Midwestern wilderness spaces suddenly seemed really small. Suddenly the scope of getting out and seeing new things, it felt like I could go anywhere at that point. And so, that was a huge moment and I sort of found the job randomly. It was a, a mentor I had at a, at the college I was going to in Central Missouri. And he said, you know, I did this a long time ago. You should go out and do it. And I did. And you know, I worked trail and built trail for a few years.

After that in Compass Lines, I talk about fighting fire. And that came out of the trail building work as well. But none of those things were, was, were things I even imagined before kind of taking that, that college summer job. So the shift from wilderness being a place you go to, to escape, to wilderness being a lifestyle, to wilderness, actually not really being wilderness at all, but to just being something you call home. And the conception of wilderness, the realization of how modern of a concept that actually is. That all really started with that, that first summer out west building trails.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah, it’s, you’re making me think about this idea that wilderness is, Well, it’s something that we have a construct around, right? We have defined what that means to the American psyche, but that it can actually be something else or something individualized to each person. That my wilderness and your wilderness don’t have to look the way they do on a postcard. That this can be almost a marrying of nearby nature with this concept of being of wild, right? That in that word, that this is open to interpretation by each person, and it’s one of these beautiful things that nature is great at, right? That as being and fitting whatever it is you’re looking for in it, it has that to offer.

John Messick: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I hesitate to even use the word wilderness anymore, and it feels to me more like a political designation than it does in actual space. There’s, you know, there’s a lot that’s been written about it. I think it’s, William Cronan has a, an essay from the late nineties. The Trouble with Wilderness, I think it’s called that talks about it a lot. But I think for me, in, in Compass Lines, I actually I have a section called Learn the Flowers, and it, it really recounts my first encounter with the north and then tracks my way into Dr. Alan Boraas who was an anthropologist for almost 50 years down on the Kenai Peninsula. And a very dear friend who passed away in 2019. And he always talked about instead of wilderness, it was place. And some of those ideas came out of the realization that wilderness is it, it depends on having places that are not wilderness. I have a moment. when I was on the McKinsey River, I was 24 years old and we ran across a group of moose hunters while we were floating the river.

My friend Wade and I had decided the summer before when we were fighting fire, that floating a river in the north looked great. So we pulled out an atlas, found a big, thick blue line, floated it. We didn’t want the Yukon because that was too popular, right? This was the world I was inhabiting in my head at that point, the sort of bold, young, macho idea, like, I want somewhere more remote than that. And so I thought the McKinsey would be the place and I didn’t know the names of any other rivers.

So we’re floating down and this group came up to us and they were probably 40 miles downstream from their village. And it was probably another, oh, almost a hundred miles to the next village. And they didn’t have enough gas to get home. And I remember there they had an elder among them and he wasn’t really concerned at all.

And you know, he just kind of waved his hand out and said like, we’ll stay here. This is home, was the idea behind that. That this isn’t any more wilderness to the original inhabitants, the folks whose knowledge of this landscape, of any landscape extends back in terms of first occupancy. It, that, that’s not something they, they really think of as, as a wilderness. They think of it as home. It’s just, it is, it’s where you live. It’s where you inhabit. No more wild than a cornfield in Iowa.

And so I try to remember that I still am very white about those things. I still want the untouched, I still think about that idea of untouched landscapes. But Alaska is not an untouched place, not at all. And if anything like we’re not a frontier either. Our definitions of our ourselves and the way we think about the rhetoric of this place as beautiful untouched landscape or eternal frontier, it, it leaves home out of that conversation and I’m new here. Right. I’ll always be new here for as long as I’m here. Most of us will be if we don’t go back multiple generations. And so I think we have a responsibility to think about how that conception of place really works.

Amy Bushatz: Sure. And I wonder if that’s not highlighted by traveling worldwide, like you’ve done. That no matter where you go, it is unknown to you and it is a destination, but it is home and known and used by somebody else, by the people who are there, and that you will only ever be a tourist in those locations. And, there’s maybe an ethos there or an ethic involved with how you treat and how you approach those things as a tourist.

John Messick: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we have this idea, I think particularly in the from a literary perspective, we have this idea that there are travelers and there are tourists. And the traveler is somehow above the tourist because they don’t stay in Sandals Resorts.

And that’s ludicrous, right? They’re, just because they read the books about a place and studied the politics of a place so that they could write about it more effectively, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are suddenly residents of that location. And I really that has been a huge shaper of why I’ve stayed in Alaska in general.

The summer before I came up here, this is more than 10 years ago now, I was in the Middle East. And I bicycled from Istanbul to Damascus. This was just a few months before the Arab Spring and war broke out, and I don’t recommend anyone who’s planning a trip to try that particular route now. But at the time there was a pretty good level of safety for that. And I was much younger and a little bit more. I believed a little more that my own boldness would keep me safe from pretty much anything. I’d been traveling for a long time and I you know, I had encountered story after story of just surreal experiences of kindness. And so I, I had a lot of faith that a trip like that was doable.

And it was, it, I didn’t have a single, I encountered some of the friendliest people ever. But then when the war broke out just a few months after I left, looking back at the pictures I’d taken then and going back through my journal which I’d, you know, I’d been writing about the, this idea of the exotic and how deep it felt for me to walk through Damascus and see 6,000 year old civilization built on top of itself, on top of itself, on top of itself, on top of itself. I mean, you have dozens of different, not just like. nations, but languages and cultures built all on top of each other in the same place for, you know, as long as places have been built.

And I felt this connection and then suddenly I didn’t. Suddenly, you know, the, yes, that is a shared human history, but I was born into a colonizing culture. I was born into a place that won’t understand that kind of length back. My ancestors left their homeland. That’s not traceable for me. We came to someone else’s home and settled here, and so suddenly I had this sort of loss of grounding. What I’d believed I’d experienced in terms of friendliness, was – what was it? I still don’t have an answer to really what that was. And I certainly, I won’t deny that I experienced in incredible kindness and met incredible people and saw beautiful landscapes during that trip.

But, you know, when a war goes through, even if I had, I wasn’t there to witness that violence knowing that it happened on top of a place I’d been, felt like I’d somehow trespassed on somebody else’s reality. And I wonder just how, how far to take that sometimes in terms of: am I, should I not travel at all? Should I accept that I’m a tourist? And if so, how does one become a tourist more responsibly?

I think it’s probably the responsibility of tourists to encounter a place with eyes open, and maybe that’s part of what keeps me in Alaska. The nature of tourism here offers kind of a constant influx of people who ask the usual silly tourist questions and feeling like a constant tourist forces me to always walk through Alaska with my eyes a little bit more open if I want to live here ethically.

Amy Bushatz: How many countries have you visited? How much? How much? Like give people a sense of how much travel you’ve actually done?

John Messick: I think, I don’t know, somewhere in the thirties, some, something like that. I’d have to, it would, I’d have to like, you know, use more than my fingers and toes. I think though, I, in terms of places that I really spent a lot of time in, I lived in South Korea for a year after I graduated college teaching there. So that would be a place where I can really say that I lived, and I don’t know if Antarctica counts as a country, but I did spend a summer season in Antarctica at it’s, you know, it’s such a weird place because nobody owns it. It’s really truly the only place that is untouched by humans mostly. And really there’s a reason for that: we have no business being there. It’s much more akin to the moon. If the far north of Alaska and Prudoe and the North Slope is something we’re calling inhospitable, then this is the north slope on steroids down there. I mean, there’s it’s really pretty powerful to, to spend a season in a place like that.

Amy Bushatz: Hey humans, just a quick break to remind you that if you wanna build your own outdoor habit, the humans Outside 365 Challenge is a great way to get started. Cool and exclusive Challenge swag, including a finisher, metal, and decal is waiting for you. All you need to do is visit Don’t get left out. Go to to learn more now. Okay, back to the show.

So before you’ve settled in Alaska- and tell us how long have you been in Alaska now? How long have you, has this been home?

John Messick: I have almost 14 years, give or take.

Amy Bushatz: Before you came up here and decided you were done globe trotting. What were you looking for when you were doing this? What were you hoping to find? Because this is not just like, want, you know, I think I’ll go to The Bahamas for a vacation. This is a much different thing than that. So what were you looking for?

John Messick: Can I read a section of my, my book I actually I think I will not say it as succinctly as I wrote it and edited it for half a decade uh, in working on this essay. So, it starts with a guy, George Alfred Townsend, who was a journalist during the Civil War. And he, I randomly encountered him when Molly and I were hiking the Appalachian Trail after we finished grad school in Fairbanks, which is where I first lived when I really moved to Alaska and settled here. Fell in love with Molly up there. We headed south for awhile to hike the Appalachian Trail in part that was what we were down there for. And we came across this like huge estate in Maryland, which is a state park now called Gathland. And this was just a wonderful quote from this war journalist, and apparently they paid journalists back then because he had enough money for an estate.

Amy Bushatz: Is Is this the place with, this is the place he’s got like a monument there, it’s like out in the middle of nowhere.

John Messick: Yeah. Yeah. It’s like right next to one of the Washington monuments and stuff. I mean, there’s, it’s not the Washington Monument, but there are apparently several Washington monuments in the Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia kind of cooridor.

Amy Bushatz: And this is like off a highway in middle of, up, up in Maryland. Right. I think I’ve been there by accident.

John Messick: I mean, possibly we hiked in off the trail, so I don’t really know how to get there by road. Probably never will.

Amy Bushatz: Yeah. This is one of those places when you encounter this on the road for, for listeners, this is one of those places that you don’t, you’re probably not going there on purpose. It’s just sort of like you, you’re like, what in the world is this monument to this Civil War reporter doing here? There you go. I’m sorry to cut you off.

John Messick: Yeah. I mean, and there’s, you know, there’s like a house and kind of like a manicured lawn and it’s, you know, the, a little interpretive center. And I had never heard of him before. But he said this, he said, “I took eight years at least, if not 12 out of my life, and invested it in experience saving nothing, but going many a thousand miles that I might learn how to see. For the eye is to the writer, what the hand is to the mechanic.”

And I love that quote. So I went on actually, in trying to kind of articulate this very question in the book, I said “if you’d asked me back then when I was about 22 what I was looking for, I might have told you I wanted to peer underneath the shiny advertisements and the perfect postcards. If I was a few beers into the night, I might have said I was trying to find a place where I felt like I fit in, though I doubt I could have explained what that really meant. But ask me today, in all those months on the backpacker trail studying the Lonely Planet Shoestring Guide like a Bible, did I really learned some deep truth about my place in the world? Mostly I was just another drunk kid on holiday looking for a good story to tell the folks back home.”

I’m not sure I have an actual adequate answer. The older I get and the more I think about why I was doing those things, the less certain I am that I was in it for the adventure and not running away. And I can’t say for certain what it was I was running away from. Cornfields, maybe?

I don’t really love cornfields all that much. So that could be it. But also you know, I think I believed very much in a narrative where as as a white man, going somewhere, going anywhere was possible. I had always had this obsession with travel writing, really loved travel writers.

Even as a kid, I, I, my favorite stories were Jack London. They were the stories of people well, before that. I, you know, like to read Arctic Explorers, Shackleton, and then some of the colonizing folks from the 1600’s. I mean, I still like reading the weird journals of, you know, French Canadian voyagers and stuff. And so I think I really, I really saw the adventure of going somewhere unique, going somewhere strange as something I should do if I really wanted to see the world. I wanted to push boundaries. And I’m at some point. It wasn’t that I was pushing, you know, crazy boundaries. I wasn’t going and climbing Everest.

I did a few things that were a little silly on a bicycle, but people have done far sillier things on bicycles than anything I ever did. People have done far sillier things on unicycles for that matter. And there’s a moment in, I don’t, do you know Werner Hertzog, the filmmaker? He did Grizzly Man, and he’s done a bunch of documentary films. And one of the films he did was on an Antarctic Antarctic Arts grant.

And he documented all of the people at McMurdo Station and some of the different research projects that were down there. And the big question he was asking was, what is it that draws people to a place like Antarctica? What is it that draws people to these kinds of extremes?

And he has this scene with a guy who was trying to set a Guinness World record on every continent. And so, you know, he went somewhere and he bounced on a pogo stick for several days in Asia. And I don’t did summer salts for multiple miles in South America, whatever it was. And so he was going down to Antarctica specifically to set, I don’t remember what the world record was, but to set a world record on an on, on the, the seventh continent.

And the narrative really laid bare how absolutely silly some of these extreme ideas are. I mean, yes, it’s great. On my honeymoon, we were floating the Yukon River for three weeks and there was a, a French Canadian guy who was apparently swimming the river somewhere near us, which is cool. I mean, good on him.

That’s really awesome that you swam the Yukon River. You are the first, probably the only to do that. So you can say that. But, in the end to what purpose to do those things? I have a great respect for the superhuman feats of strength, but I think I have greater respect for the, you know, the little old ladies in rural Alaska who season after seasons still go to fish camp and cut fish for people who stay in their community and do the brave thing of fighting for making a better community, even if the politics are against them, even if the economy is against them. That feels to me far braver than going out and trying to traverse the Brooks Range in a week on foot.

Amy Bushatz: Can you give three or four tips to anyone who’s maybe looking to find that sense of place and that connection, that cultural connection, and that dwelling in a single place to looking for that grounding? How should they go about feeling that connection? What do they need to do to find it?

John Messick: I think there’s an old John Prine song about it. Something like, blow up your tv, move to the country, get a garden, grow a lot of peaches. Something like that.

Amy Bushatz: Peaches sound good.

John Messick: But no you know, I, for me at least having kids has been the most difficult and life-changing thing I’ve ever done. I absolutely love my children, but the scope of what I envision and imagine being able to do has changed so, so much in that regard. My three-year-old doesn’t need to go so far past the end of the driveway to feel the kind of connection to place.

And for me I’m, I’m going stir crazy just a day at home. I want to get out and I wanna hike and I want to drive for an hour to somewhere to hike. And really just a walk through your neighborhood is a good start.

I don’t know. I think about this with bicycling because I love wilderness. I really do. But I, I also think that some of the most powerful traveling that I did was in places where there are people- my dad, my parents live in, very much in the country. And my dad absolutely is obsessed with city hiking. When he, he goes somewhere he doesn’t really have any interest anymore at his age, he’s almost 70, to really get into the wilderness and go explore the wilderness. And I hear a similar sentiment among folks who you read about who have hiked the Appalachian Trail and done the triple crown of thru hiking and are just the prolific walkers. And when you read about these individuals, there’s a great book by uh, Robert Moore called On Trails.

They describe the experience of hiking these long distance trails is the green tunnel and many of the sort of obsessive walkers, people who walk for their life the Forest Gump sort of archetype end up walking on roads. And that’s a very different experience. It’s a different way of envisioning what your community looks like.

Walk down the main street. Palmer or walk from Palmer down to the hospital sometime and then still try and, you know, want to drive around in a lifted pickup truck that’s uh, you know, rolling coal as it were. It, you know, when you hear that noise and you experience that speed from the pace of a person walking on the side of it, it does change your perspective. So you don’t have to get into the wilderness. It might not be the most pleasant thing in the world, but there is a lot of power if you’re willing to open your eyes and be present. It opens your eyes to a lot of things too. I think. It opens your eyes to, to more than just um, you know, this place, it also opens your eyes to the kind of infrastructure and communities that we’re inhabiting.

Amy Bushatz: Sure. John, as a final thing, would you mind walking us out describing one of your favorite outdoor moments? Maybe just something that you think about if , close your eyes and think about somewhere you’d just love to be and something you just wanna hearken back to, where are you and what are you doing?

John Messick: When my son was just learning to talk maybe 18 months old. It was late fall, late summer kind of kind of time. And we would go a couple times a week to the Tsalteshi Trail system, which is right between kenai and Soldotna just off the highway. A beautifully laid out ski trail system and not anything super special.

And for reasons that involved my own hyperactivity and inborn silliness, two words that I had taught him. I was trying to teach him how to say shred the nar-nar. I really wanted him to be a ski bum temporarily. He would run down the trail in, in front of me, just running little toddler fashion through the woods. And I have these cell phone videos of the leaves just starting to change, running on what looks, you know, it’s right off the highway, but it looks, you know, like the wilderness you envision. And it’s very familiar feeling to me just shouting, sick nar-nar sick nar-nar with such joy and abandon. I guess if you’d asked me this before I’d had kids, I would’ve had like a, probably a really intense, very macho moment involving surviving rapids or, you know, careening down a hill on a bicycle outside of Costa Rica.

But that’s the moment that I come back to again and again. I am just outside. I am not necessarily doing something that is so intense that is trying to really prove to myself or to the world that I can do this super hard thing. I’ve done those things, some of them but it’s a moment where I could witness joy, feel it in myself despite the busyness of a day, be somewhere close, be somewhere connected, and just be present in that moment with the sick nar-nar screaming of a little kid.

Amy Bushatz: John, thank you so much for joining us on Humans Outside today. So appreciate your time and work.

John Messick: Thank you. Thank you so much. Uh, And I’m glad you like, I’m glad you liked the book, so I hope some of your listeners will check it out as well. I really appreciate these conversations and hope that some of the writing I’ve done as well can further them.

Amy Bushatz: Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode of Humans Outside. Help me out by leaving a five star rating or review wherever you get your podcasts. It really does help other listeners find the podcast too. Now go get outside. Until next time, we’ll see you out there.

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