Compass Lines: Journeys Toward Home

Image of Compass Lines: Journeys Toward Home
Release Date: 
March 14, 2023
Porphyry Press
Reviewed by: 

Compass Lines is a stunning travelogue and memoir about culture, travel, employment, searching for life’s meaning, and, especially, searching for home and family.”

By the end of the opening chapter of Compass Lines, readers have traveled with John Messick to Turkey, Alaska, Korea, Mongolia, and Southeast Asia. In the coming chapters, readers visit Vietnam, Myanmar, the South Pole, Alaska, Wisconsin, and Arizona. In each locale, Messick chases after something mythical, illuminating, and life-changing. Time after time, Messick learns that his travels lead him away from what he is trying to find.

On one of his adventures, he asks, “How will I ever find a place where it feels like I belong?” His quest for finding a way home is the beautiful arc of Compass Lines, Messick’s powerful debut memoir. Slowly, after countless international and American adventures, Messick learns that he is not after something out in terra incognito, but something within him: a sense of home, community, and family.c vf v

Compass Lines is a stunning travelogue and memoir about culture, travel, employment, searching for life’s meaning, and, especially, searching for home and family. Messick’s writing is always crisp and sharp. His language and details help readers feel as if we are biking with Messick through the Middle East or braving wildfires in Alaska or shoveling snow in the South Pole’s frigid temperatures.

Messick explores these lands with the sharp eyes of a travel writer. He unfolds these lands—whether it be Wisconsin or Cambodia—with details that rise off the page. In Syria, we read how “the air hung heavy with the aroma of black tea and exhaust.” In Arizona, Messick writes about cleaning up the desert of refuse left behind by immigrants: “I waded into a sea of trash. I began picking up Pedialyte bottles by the hundreds, the plastic crumbled and faded.” Even while writing about a garbage dump in the desert, Messick infuses his writing with the essence of the people nearby, with language that is beautiful and heart-wrenching.

Chapter by chapter, Messick writes of his nearly compulsive adventuring: “I grew to love the anonymity of foreign cities, the strangeness of unfamiliar roads, the smell of new foods, the sight of odd landscapes. I saw nomadic living as a moral imperative.” This compulsion to explore the world drives Compass Lines as we see and feel the world through Messick’s observant gaze.

Most powerful, though, is how Messick brings us into his interior journeys. Every venture to some new land forces Messick to reflect on his life. Messick writes, while paddling through Florida’s Everglades, “I hoped that if I could remember how to navigate the maze of tidal swamps, maybe I could navigate the rest of my life. At least that’s what I told myself.” His ruminations return us to our twenties and thirties, to our quest to explore other places as a way to find ourselves.

Time and again, Messick’s interior monologues ring true and powerful. After finishing his Everglades trip with his future wife, Messick writes, “Mostly we were still directionless, still unemployed, and still single.” Travel does not help Messick arrive to where he longs to be: in love, at home, and at peace. He realizes that “the most common reason for travel—wandering as a means of escape—is probably the most foolish.” But he also realizes that traveling can teach us about other people and cultures and about ourselves. He writes, “Only now, years later, do I see the roadways of my journeys for what they were: lessons in learning to accept my weaknesses.”

Chapter by chapter, Messick finds the answers he has been searching for. He realizes that what he needs is not out there, in some foreign land, but is within him. After a lifetime of travel, Messick grasps that he dreams of a life that includes “both distant lands and local garden plots” and he works toward a “balance that has led from the lonely life of a drifter to the joys I share with my wife and children.” He realizes that “grappling must occur in our own communities, in the places that we are fused to by joy and pain.” At home in Alaska, Messick writes, “In the years since arriving here, I find fewer and fewer reasons to leave.” In the end, Messick moves from itinerant traveler and international worker to “husband, father, lover, baby-bouncer, diaper-changer, adventure, writer, and friend.”

Compass Lines descriptively travels us around the world. It beautifully paints a picture of those landscapes and the people Messick met along the way. It is a gorgeous travelogue about one person lost in the world and lost in the heart and one person searching the world and searching the heart until he finds what he needs: home. Compass Lines reminds one of the beauty of language, the beauty of exploring the world, but, especially, the beauty of finding home and family in a place where we can set roots.