One Man’s Antidote For Salem by John Rude
A cousin of mine lives in Eugene. For the past quarter-century, he has never stopped to visit me here in Salem on his frequent trips up and down I-5. Well, OK-he’s a bit aloof, but I have friends in Portland who travel the other direction, yet they never stop. Is it me?.... I ask. No, they assure me. It’s Salem.
Here we sit, halfway between the Equator and North Pole, the very geographic instantiation of mediocrity. Like the ’90s wave of pointless, plotless sit-coms, we are famous for - nothing. About what, exactly, are we expected to brag? Our numerous prisons? Our gray, grim government mausoleums? Free parking downtown? Our frozen peas? The cars just keep whizzing past.
I understand the reluctance of my friends and relatives to stop in Salem, because whenever I leave, I am reluctant to return. I catch glimpses of sunshine and excitement elsewhere, and ask myself, “Why?” Why did my wife and I come here in the first place? Why did we endure mediocre schools, restaurants and jobs to raise our family here? Why don’t we leave right now, and discover what it is out there we’ve been missing all these years?
These are private thoughts, mind you. One cannot openly denigrate Salem’s pleasant, tree-lined streets or its quaint, quiet little business district without feeling a bit foolish. An unspoken conspiracy binds those of us who haven’t yet found a way to leave. “If you’re so smart,” the accommodationist demands of the complainer, “why haven’t you moved out of here?” Instead of having to utter these words, we long-term inmates just sigh, and wonder who will be the last one to turn out the lights.
Longing to live somewhere else is an emotion which is hardly unique to Salemites. A plausible explanation for the success of the British Empire is that the most miserable, soggy people on the planet simply had to go forth to discover whether Rudyard Kipling’s incandescent stories were possibly based on truth. Buried deep within every leaf-raking, storm-window hanging, snow-shoveling drudge lies the archetypal memory of the British Raj.
Speaking of Rudyard, I remember my first encounter with the “Fuzzy Wuzzies” upon whom the author based his racist poem. I was a newly-minted Peace Corps volunteer (successor to the Raj) in Eritrea, East Africa. The exotic tribe with big hair which so impressed Kipling was the Beni-Amir, nomads of regal bearing who claim ownership, regardless of what the maps say, of both sides of the Sudan-Ethiopia border. Sitting high on the camel’s hump, with sharp objects poking from his dreadlocks, deep scars etched on his cheeks, a razor-sharp four-foot sword dangling conveniently from his saddle, the warrior with his piercing gaze made an indelible impression on this young lad from the Northwest. “We’re not in Salem anymore,” I would have remarked to Toto, had the little mutt been nestled in my arms.
My knees tremble even at the recollection. But somehow I adapted, for Eritrea has become my second home, the empire of my memory and imagination. After Eritrea ended its tragic 30-year war with Ethiopia in 1991, I traveled there once in ‘95, twice last year. I’ve learned to scarf down the food and pick up the lingo. The Fuzzy Wuzzy’s majestic gaze is now my secret weapon whenever I lack inner confidence. You may see me as a middle-aged bloke with midriff spread; but that’s not how I see myself. I walk the rain-splashed streets of Salem with one foot in the dry, clean land of Eritrea.
It may be 10,000 miles away, but with e-mail and videotape I can conjure Eritrea faster than Dorothy can click her heels. A mere 19 hours of jet travel actually takes me there, to see my growing band of friends and to stare again, if I wish, into the eyes of the Beni-Amir. Part business (I lead other travelers who pay my way) and part indulgence (I don’t make a profit) the trips to Eritrea are the best therapy I’ve found for living in Salem.
Tragic, you say? Maybe even a little sick? Perhaps, but how do you spend your boring winter weekends in Salem? If you’re satisfied with soccer or gardening, or repairing the dry-rot in the basement, more power to you. For some in our midst, Salem actually represents their Great Escape from somewhere else. Mexicans come here, and Snowbirds fly to Mexico, both in search of the good life. It doesn’t have to make sense.
The cars keep whizzing past, but I don’t care. My heart has a home.
John Rude is a freelance consultant working with community colleges. He is secretary of Thirst for Learning Foundation, which sends books to Africa, and also leads tours to Eritrea.