One of the most oft-quoted phrases in the English language is “You can’t go home again,” the title of a book by Thomas Wolfe. The protagonist is George Webber, who is basking in the success of a novel about his hometown until he returns home to discover that his family and friends are outraged by the way he has portrayed them to the world. What a lot of people forget about that book is that Webber does in fact eventually go home after initially fleeing his home town and even his country to search for his own identity.
Of course the home he returns to is different because he is different, so I have always seen the phrase as merely a restatement of the aphorism of Heraclitus that “You can't step twice into the same river.” It isn’t that you can’t return your foot to the water, it’s that in the time it takes you to do so, the river has changed, new waters have flowed in.
A torrent of new water has flowed into El Paso since I left in the sixties. It’s an inapt metaphor, of course, because El Paso is in the desert. Indeed, one of its prime challenges is supplying water to the nearly one million people who now live here.
I loved growing up here. The barren rock mountain that looms over the city seemed like the center of existence from which everything else spread out. The Rio Grande snaked along the mountain’s foot, dividing two countries. From the aptly named Scenic Drive, you could see a hundred miles into Mexico. Further west than Denver, slightly south of the Trinity Site, and the largest bilingual border town in the world, El Paso seemed to me a special place. Perhaps all children see their home towns as unique. Perhaps they all are.
I can’t go home to El Paso for the same reason that Heraclitus could not step twice into the same river. Too much that is new has flowed in. Too much that was familiar has flowed away.