It’s been said you can never go home again, suggesting that our childhood homes will always seem different upon return, and the powerful bond once felt for that place will have become scattered by the winds of time.
Author Thomas Wolfe even wrote a novel with the title, You Can’t Go Home Again.
I have returned to my home many times over the years to rediscover the subtle magic I knew as a child. That place is the town of Seward, which I have written about often. And although I only spent my first 12 years there, I have always thought of it as home.
When I venture there today as an adult, I like to do what I did as a child. I stare upward at the rugged Kenai mountains that encircle the small town. I listen to the cries of ravens and seagulls along the shore of the bay, breathing deeply to draw in the pungent sea air.
I sometimes visit friends and old-timers who remember when Seward was the only port in Alaska, which was then a territory. They recall that during World War II, U.S. Army soldiers stationed in Seward swelled the population higher than the number that live there today.
I have coffee at what was once a Lutheran church where my mother played the organ. My sister was married there, and I attended kindergarten in the basement. Like many places, it does appear much smaller than I remember. But it has a great name: Resurrect Art Coffee House.
I walk the narrow alleys behind the houses where we lived, looking for a rock, a tree, a building, some artifact from the past. Almost nothing in my neighborhood looks the same, except the house immediately north of ours. Unlike my old home, which has been expanded into a fourplex that covers the entire lot, the small home next to ours is exactly like it was back in the day — preserved in time. The woman who lives there is now about 90.
As I walk I notice houses and other buildings occupy the vacant lots we played in as kids. I look around, wondering where children find spaces to play.
The big cottonwood trees we climbed are no longer there, but in my mind I picture them. I try to visualize the treed lots where we built forts in summer and winter.
I hike up Lowell Canyon where the dam diverts the creek through the mountain. We played there and were probably quite naïve regarding the danger. During her high school years, my sister loved the canyon and often hiked it alone.
Sometimes on the 4th of July when the weather is good, I climb Mount Marathon and watch the annual race from the top. But I don’t take the steep runner’s trail that we did as children. I opt for a more gradual and scenic route known as the “hiker’s trail” that takes me behind or west of the mountain to beautiful alpine meadows and glacial moraine in an idyllic area known as “The Bowl.”
The gray upper face of Mount Marathon shows scars from the foot traffic of thousands of runners over more than a century. But for the most part, it is the same mountain as when I was a child. From high on its flanks, Seward’s orderly rows of streets and buildings appeared miniature and toy-like, reminiscent of a Monopoly board. The various sounds of town, particularly from the fire engines during the 4th of July parade, or the Chamber of Commerce’s public address system, carried to the top of the mountain and beyond.
When I was about 10, climbing Mount Marathon was half a day’s adventure for my friends and I.
We were fortunate to have parents who allowed us such freedom. Patricia Williams, one of Seward’s pioneers who died in 2014 at the age of 104, authored a book titled There’s a Freedom Here: My 100 Years in Alaska, written mainly about her long life in Seward. Indeed, my friends and I experienced that same freedom as children.
Then on some visits, I do what I couldn’t as a child. I drive my car out along Resurrection River to see Exit Glacier, which like most glaciers, is retreating rapidly. There was no road there during the 1940s and 1950s when I lived in Seward. Sometimes I drive east on Nash Road across the bay, where the ship repair facility is located, as well as the maximum security prison. The view from there, as with just about any view in the Seward area, is stunning.
I have several special places tucked away in my memory files. Some are mountain tops, there are a few remote canyons and hidden lakes, several locations are near Eagle River, and some are the small Kenai Peninsula communities of Hope, Moose Pass, and Cooper Landing. But there is no place in Alaska, or the world for that matter, that stirs my emotions like Seward. Every time I go there I become that wide-eyed child of the past, believing that I am in the center of the universe and that anything is possible.
School, a career and life took me away from Seward long ago, but it has always remained a part of who I am.
So, can one ever ‘go home again?’ I think so, especially if in your heart, you never left.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. He lived in Seward from 1946 to 1958.