Be It Ever So Humble

Even if the abode be foreboding, home is where the heart is.

By Dwight Young

 My local newspaper recently ran an article about new subdivisions that are popping up a hundred miles or more from Washington, D.C., because that's the only place where some homebuyers can afford a house with a yard. Residents of these developments who commute to work in the city spend hours on traffic-choked roads every day, but they're willing to accept this headache in exchange for a nice place to live.

Although it has a 21st-century twist, it's an old story. The quest for a happy nesting place—even if it comes with a significant downside—has been fertile literary ground all the way back to the Book of Exodus, and today's highways are crowded with folks rushing off to British Columbia or Costa Rica in search of a demiparadise they can call home.

Before you join this peripatetic throng, gather your Significant Others around the hearth of your choice—potbellied stove, hot tub, whatever—and read Jake Halpern's recent book, Braving Home. Proving that one man's Hell on Earth is another man's Home Sweet Home, the book introduces us to people who live contentedly in what Halpern blithely calls "extreme locales":

• At the foot of a glacier in Alaska there's a place called Whittier—a wind-whipped "city" in a bunkerlike 14-story building where almost 200 people live like colonists on one of the moons of Jupiter. Some of them don't step outdoors for weeks at a time.

• After a flood practically eradicated the little town of Princeville, N.C., in 1999, residents turned down a FEMA buyout and decided to rebuild their community in the same location—even though they're almost sure to be flooded out again.

• In Hawaii, a guy named Jack is the sole remaining inhabitant of a subdivision surrounded by an active lava flow. On balmy tropical evenings he maintains a solitary vigil on his porch, watching the lava incinerate trees down the street.

• Some proud stay-putters in Grand Isle, La., refuse to flee from the fierce storms that bash the low-lying island with howling gales and towering waves. Their heroine is a long-ago storm rider who, says Halpern, "allegedly had her husband tie her long hair to a tree to keep herself from being washed out to the ocean."

Far from being merely examples of human wackiness in the face of the apocalypse, these vignettes offer thoughtful insight on the meaning of home. Jack, the guy in the lavaside house, sums it up: "It's not about the problems. … The problems could be … drive-bys, wild dogs, pigs, hurricanes, lava, whatever—that doesn't matter. It's the home that matters."

Dictionary definitions aside, home is much more than a building or a piece of ground. It's an emotion, a deep-rooted sense of welcome and permanence and belonging. It's the safe, intensely personal realm where you can permit yourself to throw off everything that isn't fundamentally, essentially you. It's a complex, messy stew of throat-catching slants of light, kitchen smells, and deja vu. If you're lucky and the place has been around for a while, it can connect you—through faint pencil marks on a doorjamb or a scrap of old wallpaper in a closet—with people you never knew.

Some people have a home from childhood; others spend a lifetime looking for it. Once you recognize it, you're bound to it forever—even if it sits in an extreme locale. Even if it disappears.

After the flood devastated Princeville, when displaced townspeople were living in government-issue trailers in a prison parking lot, one woman persuaded the Postal Service to deliver her mail to her former address in town. Every day she made the long trek to gather her letters from the mailbox that was the only thing remaining on the lot where her house had stood. Even without the house, the place was still home.

The next time I'm tempted to complain about my old place—the stairs creak, the back room is always too warm or too cold—I'll remember to be glad that my mailbox still has a house attached to it. And I don't have to drive for hours to get to work. And there's not a lava flow in sight.